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Monday, April 22, 2013

Book Review: The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt



The book The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt moves into the psychology of political parties and political persuasion. People naturally accuse the other parties of not thinking clearly and following logic. Each views the other as duped! Yet in his work, he points out that since there are strong logical arguments that follow most parties, these rational choices are based on their intuition. The logic seems to follow as people find justification for their choices. This makes changing one’s ideological views very difficult for many people. 

Jonathan Haidt, University of Virginia social psychologist, believes that people first have intuition and then rational choice. That rational choice is based upon people’s intuition and subject to it. He does not discuss those who can find multiple paths to rationality, understand the various arguments, and find validity in each of these arguments to think critically about ideology. It would require a level of stepping outside oneself without the bias we all hold onto so dearly.

This stands to reason for many people that fall within the middle curve of human perception. It would seem that biological and social self-interest would dictate our behaviors. Yet each of these parties were started by great men who thought outside of conventional standards. Whether we agree with their logic or not it would seem that those who started the philosophies were pioneers who helped people view the world in different ways.  However, as a social psychologist looking at the middle of the bell curve Dr. Glaucon would be correct in his social based analysis of human nature. 

The book appears to be more of a personal self-quest for truth that makes it fun to read. Dr. Glaucon is a supporter of liberalism and searches for knowledge and understanding within his work. From the book, we can also see a leaning to libertarianism as the authors other justifiable approach to politics. It would seem that the author likes the concepts of personal choice and ideologically finds value in the left liberals and the right libertarians. This choice comes from the belief that the rights of individuals supersede governmental needs. Fewer restrictions are better in his perspective.

The book uses ethnography, evolutionary theory and experimental psychology to understand human nature. For the vast majority of people they quickly come to conclusions when asked ethical questions and then move onto justifying their answers using poor logic. It is a rare exception for someone to spend significant time thinking, weighing, and balancing all the possible options and choices. We as a species are subject to quick heuristics and intuitive responses without much scientific or thought to these questions.

He provides explanations of basic value systems that seem to make up the two largest political parties. Republicans focus on faith, patriotism, valor, chastity, law and order while Democrats focus more on caring and fighting oppression. Each is seen as having valid arguments based in the early life experiences provided by family, friends, and social networks. Most people grow up assuming their particular ideologies are correct unless they are forced to question them. This may be one of the reasons why it is difficult to change the way people believe using only logical arguments without a deeper level of appeal.

According to the book, people are becoming more polarized with less of the population in the middle and more people moving to the extremes on either ideological side. Such shifts are considered tribal and group pushes for social network adherence.  At the very lowest level of our personality are a number of factors that include threat sensitivity, novelty seeking, extroversion, and conscientiousness. These traits stay consistent throughout our lifetimes and influences the type of political leanings a person adopts. The traits lead us in particular directions that can be difficult to adjust or change unless the environment provides alternative methods of fulfilling these personality traits in new ways. When the environment encourages us to accept and propagate certain values as truths, many of us will do so without question.

The book is separated into three categories that includes Intuition, a wider understanding of morality, and the blindness of ideology. Each section has approximately four chapters that provide justification for each of the author's beliefs and theoretical points. The book will moves through ideology, beehive mentality, subjective nature of morality, and better ways of disagreeing with each other. It provides for a thorough understanding of human nature within a work of this size.

The book was interesting to me in understanding how people can become ideological staunch in their particular positions and beliefs. This rationality is argued in many ways with each being somewhat more logical than others based upon the depth of their personal analysis. The author himself seems to be leaning toward his own ideological beliefs rooted in his upbringing, education, and environment that becomes apparent in his choice of words. Psychologists may be more liberalism or libertarianism  due to the inherent push and focus on individual development. 

This development should be based in the development of the individual within the social context and needs of society. To me, it would seem that basic value systems proposed by religion, despite those religious ideologies, have a positive ethical benefit for society. Human psychological development is also based in part in religious and philosophical development of the individual. Each is a potential methodology of viewing human nature. Furthermore, law and ethics also has a benefit in encouraging certain behaviors that limit the ability of individuals to damage society or for society to damage individuals unfairly. Most people may agree that religion encourages positive values but people may choose to distort those messages for personal gain.

 Critical thinking requires first to understand the appeal of particular ideological stances before adopting them or countering their premises. Without this critical analysis, we are only accepting what others desire us to believe without evaluating the merits of the claims for ourselves. We must think for ourselves and accept those beliefs for ourselves if we are to own them. To persuade others requires appealing first to their emotions and then to their logic through understanding how they view the world. No matter what our ideological leanings we must ask the question “Is it possible to even have a society if people are stealing, cheating, injuring, failing to work together, being dishonest, having disrespect, or not showing a level of societal loyalty?” If there are no basic values that apply to all members of society then society may someday cease to exist as a collective whole. Yet those values should not purposely castrate individuals who desire to be part of society but have different experiences and perceptions as this would be counterproductive by nature and limit the potential of a nation by segregating people into staunch ideological understandings that damage the potential to grow and work together. First we must understand before we can change. Few things in life are as concrete as we believe them to be. 

As Abraham Lincoln stated in his famous Gettysburg Address, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." Where we see ourselves divided can we also see ourselves together? Does our American culture rest in basic values that apply to all individuals despite our ideological leanings?

Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind-Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. NY: Vintage Books. ISBN: 978-0-307-45577-2

Blog Ranking: 4.6/5
Pages: Approximately 450
Price: $13

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