90 Second Book Review: The Righteous Mind

I need to pick up the pace on getting these quick reviews done, with the goal of getting them hammered out pretty much as soon as I finish the book.  I finished this one a week ago and have already picked up and read into a couple of other books.  As a result, this review may not be as sharp (if any of them are ever sharp) since new ideas have started to take the place in my short term memory.  Nonetheless, I wanted to get this review out since I did thoroughly enjoy The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt.

Haidt reveals his motivations for writing the book become clear about midway through: as a self described liberal (in the modern, not classical sense) he was trying to help liberal politicians appeal to a broader audience in order to fare better in popular elections.  He felt that the characterization than conservatives simply triggered fear mechanisms in their constituents was far too simplistic an explanation which caused the left to miss something important.  He set about to answer this question through a combination of moral reasoning, psychology and group level selection as an evolutionary mechanism.  The result is an interesting view into how the human mind actually works, presented in three basic premises.

His first premise is that “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second”.  The analogy he uses to explain this premise is the elephant and the rider, where the rider is our rational consciousness and the elephant is our intuitions and emotions.  Haidt’s idea is that the elephant is in charge most of the time.  The rider can have influence now and again, but usually the elephant starts to head in a direction and then the rider just has to hold on and try to warn everyone who might be in the elephant’s path.  He argues that most people waste time when trying to influence others by talking to the rider, when they should be talking to the elephant.

His second premise is that “There’s more to morality than harm and fairness”.  This is where the book got really interesting.  The analogy he uses here is that of taste buds.  Just as humans have a distinct set of taste buds for sweet vs salty, etc they also have a distinct set of moral receptors that are sensitive to various moral questions.  Examples of these include the care vs. harm receptor or the fairness vs. cheating receptor.  He outlines a total of six different morality receptors, and even discusses a reformulation of one of his original receptors as he accumulated more data.  In researching this premise he found an answer to his original question.  What he found was that self described liberals are highly sensitive to three of the six moral receptors, where as self described conservatives are equally receptive to all six.

Moral psychology can help to explain why the Democratic Party has had so much trouble since 1980.  Republicans understand the social intuitionist model better than do Democrats.  Republicans speak more directly to the elephant.  They also have better grasp of the Moral Foundations theory; they trigger every single taste receptor.

His final premise is that “Morality Binds and Blinds”.  There are more fascinating ideas here as well.  The analogy he uses here is that the human mind is 90% money and 10% bee.  He admits to resorting to a somewhat controversial theory to support this idea, namely that of group selection in evolution.  This theory states that the principles of Darwinian evolution can also be applied to groups of individuals as well.  He gives a good example of this principle in action in discussing an experiment conducted on egg laying hens.  When highly productive individual hens were selectively bred to produce the next generation, overall egg production in the flock went down.  It turns out that highly productive hens have some characteristics that make them poor neighbors in a coop.  However, when the most productive coops (i.e the group) was selected as the basis for breeding the next generation, overall production did increase.  After defending the group selection theory, Haidt goes on to show how adaptations arising from group selection have driven us to bind together as a group as well as cause us to hold other groups at a distance.

The most interesting application of this idea are his ponderings on Religion as an outgrowth of this “hiveishness”.  The “Religion is a Team Sport” chapter is worth the price of the book in my opinion.  In this chapter Haidt lays waste to the popular atheist theories about religion (brain parasite model…not actual parasites, but rather conceptual) and suggests an adaptive evolutionary based model that isn’t dependent on supernatural concepts that demand acceptance without proof: groups with religion outcompete groups without.  The explanation of the origin of all religions as overactive agency detection (that being an evolutionary adaptive trait) was also fascinating.

We humans have an extraordinary ability to care about things beyond ourselves, to circle around those things with other people, and in the process to bind ourselves, to circle around those things with other people, and in the process to bind ourselves into teams that can pursue larger projects.  That’s what religion is all about.  And with a few adjustments, it’s what politics is about too.

Overall I have to say I really enjoyed this book.  Haidt’s writing is clear.  He explains his ideas, uses analogies, presents data to support his claims, admits where he has blind spots and biases and summarizes succinctly.  If you have ever wondered why your perfect line of logic has failed to persuade someone, you might want to give it a read.

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