Wednesday, December 11, 2013

My Amazon Review of Jonathan Haidt's, "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion"

As I write this there are 422 reviews posted on Amazon. Why another? It is because Jonathan Haidt has written a very important book. Using insights from psychology and evolutionary biology offers us some very clear-eyed thinking into the process of making moral judgements. For me Haidt clarified the way I actually think in a very organized manner and he explains, at least to me, why I have so many political differences with my liberal friends.

Haidt builds on the works of David Hume and Emile Durkheim among others along with the works of modern evolutionary biologists to argue that moral judgments are built on intuition and emotion as opposed to reason. In fact the smarter the person the better the person is in making after the fact rationalizations of their hard-wired emotional judgement according Haidt we all have our inner lawyer or press agent.

According to Haidt we have six primary moral matrices: care/harm, liberty/oppression,fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal,authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation. Libertarians largely make moral judgement on the basis of liberty/oppression and liberals uses the first three with special emphasis on care/harm. On the other hand classical conservatives and social conservatives utilize all six. To them institutions really matter. Haidt analogizes this type of thinking to taste buds. Do we have only one in our mouth, three or perhaps six.

He also notes that liberals and conservatives are both for "fairness." However liberals view fairness as equality of result while conservatives view fairness as reward for effort or as the the Bible suggests the right to enjoy the fruits of your labor. That is why smart liberals who promote increasing the minimum wage argue that rewards the work efforts of hard working people at the bottom of the wage scale rather than arguing they should be paid more because wage differentials are too wide.

On a personal note Haidt recounts his own evolution from being a card carrying secular liberal to being somewhat of a conservative. Note he will not fess up to being a Republican. His journey is similar to what I encountered in the late 1970s to the mid-1980s.

Finally I thought so much of this book that I bought copies for my three children as holiday presents!

The Amazon URL is:


  1. In my view Haidt is still leans solidly left, although not as much as when he started his research.

    I'm a huge fan of Haidt's scientific work. I think his three principles of social psychology, the moral foundations he's identified so far, and his findings regarding how ideologies/moralities differ in the degree to which they priorities the foundations, is potentially paradigm changing stuff.

    He is open minded, and as a scientist he is very disciplined about following the evidence wherever it leads.

    But I think the metaphors through which he tries to convey his findings reveal the true liberal underneath.

    Liberal and Conservative as Yin and Yang, a concept he introduces in the twelfth and final chapter of the book is true enough as far as it goes. But it's only one small piece of the very large, complex, puzzle that is the righteous mind. It is a huge oversimplification of the previous eleven chapters.

    And that one piece is not completely accurate. The simple fact that different points of view have insights that others might not does not mean that all points of view are equally insightful. Indeed, his own data shows that conservatives understand liberals and human nature than liberals understand conservatives or human nature. Haidt's findings show this. The data is in the book. He has stated it publicly on multiple occasions (see the Bill Moyers interview of him, for example)

    Further, Yin/Yang seems to be straight out of the liberal matrix of moral relativism, in which moralities aren't better or worse, just different, in a John Lennon "Imagine there's no countries," or a Rodney King "Can we all get along?" sort of way.

    The corollary of Yin/Yang is his "Asteroids Club," the motto of which is "I'll help you deflect your asteroid if you'll help me deflect mine." Where "asteroid" is a metaphor for some of the biggest, most important, issues each side sees. e.g., on the left, income inequality, and on the right, dependence on government.

    Another example of Haidt's liberalism is the metaphor of moral foundations as taste buds, and it corollary, moralities as cuisines. These reduce morality to little more than personal preference, as if to say, liberals like Mexican food, conservatives like Chinese, "Can we all get along?".

    People don't think with taste buds, but they do think with moral foundations. Moral foundations structure the cognitive space of the intuitive elephant and the rational rider/press secretary.

    Haidt says "moral thinking is for social doing." Moral foundations are the tools in the toolkit of moral thinking.

    If moral foundations really are products of evolution as Haidt suggests, and I agree that they are, then they probably exist in us because they helped our ancestors to survive in the social world. Moral foundations are social threat detectors. They help us to perceive possible dangers in the social world.

    We see the world through the lens of moral foundations. Moral foundations are the cognitive tools with which we analyze and interpret what we see. Moral foundations are the building blocks of the rational arguments we use to describe what we see, and why it's important. They define our "vision" in every sense of the word. This is the story of the first eleven chapters of the book. His finding that conservatives "get it" better than liberals do, I think, follows from the relative numbers of foundations each employs.

    When it comes to communicating Haidt's findings, I believe that Yin/Yang, Asteroids, Taste Buds, and Cuisines, all sacrifice completeness and accuracy in favor of parsimony and liberal ideology.

    1. I am honored to receive such an erudite and lengthy comment to my scribling. I agree with you that Haidt is still wedded to his liberal ideology, but he appears to be in a trial separation on the way to a divorce. Remember he still as to contend with the party line of the academic establishment.

  2. Thank you for your kind comment.

    Haidt confronted the academic establishment head-on in a presentation he made at the 2011 meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. He certainly has the guts to speak truth to power. He now advocates for affirmative action for conservatives in his professional field.

    It earned him a write-up in the New York Times:

    There’s a dedicated page on his web site with links to all of the responsible criticism he received and his responses to it: