The End of Righteousness

OK, the title of this book review is admittedly ambitious, but now that the election has finished, perhaps we can all sheath our knives for a week or so–and stop screaming long enough to breathe.

Or better yet, to read a good book.

To nurse that campaign hangover, I recommend moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt‘s new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. I read this over the summer, and I think it should be required reading for anyone running for office. And it’s the perfect antidote for any residual post-electoral rage.

Haidt begins with a simple, yet quite genius premise. He looked around at his countrymen, divided by a vicious culture war, and discovered more commonalities than differences. For all our diversity, American culture is quite homogenous. (No surprise: “Melting pots” are designed to synthesize many ingredients into a unified whole, not keep them separated.)

We have common experiences, languages, and yes, values. No matter what the campaign ads say, is there anyone on either side that doesn’t want the economy to improve, for their family to be safe from attack, to have excellent health care and receive a good education?

There are philosophical differences on how to achieve these goals, true, but when it comes down to it, all any sane person wants is to be happy, to provide for their loved ones and live a good life.

So why all the vitriol? How can a society with such common goals claw at each others’ eyes with such entitlement? How can we so easily demonize and dismiss someone who disagrees with us?

Well, it’s complicated, to be sure. But Haidt sifts through scientific research, anthropological findings and the evolution of intellectual thought to divine some underlying truths. One of the biggest is the notion that intuition guides our beliefs more than reason. This is why logical arguments are often ineffectual against deep-rooted beliefs–why discussions become debates, and debates devolve into bumper-sticker slogan shouting.

“…don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.”

In other words, it is not evidence that shapes our worldview. We are naturally and subconsciously drawn to evidence that confirms are worldview. We intuit our morality first and support it with arguments later. That’s why it’s so easy to become entrenched in our beliefs and intolerant of opposing viewpoints.

The Righteous Mind does skew toward the academic, and can be challenging at times. But hey, nobody said bipartisanship was easy! Once you’ve grasped the science and moral theory, you’ll have a better grasp of Haidt’s conclusion.

And this is where the author truly shines.

“Part III: Morality Binds and Blinds” synthesizes all that came before and presents an insightful view of human beliefs and behaviors. How would conservatives fare without liberals? Liberals without conservatives? Haidt makes a compelling case that each would fail without the other. This book is worth it for this section alone.

Here, Haidt summons the great utilitarian thinker John Stuart Mill and his take on both sides of the aisle. “A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.”

Perhaps after reading this book, we’ll treat one another with a little more respect and a little less righteousness.

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