The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

Righteous MindThe Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion is an interesting take on how humans make moral decisions. The book’s thesis has two main points. Firstly, humans make moral decisions via instinct and then use reason to rationalize their decision after the fact, which the author amusingly illustrates using the metaphor of a rider (reason) carried along on the back of an elephant (instinct). Secondly, humans evaluate moral behavior using six different foundations (care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation) rather than judging behavior solely on whether it causes harm to anyone or anything. Haidt argues that the weight a person assigns to each of the foundations is closely correlated with that person’s political affiliation. This argument goes a long way toward explaining how two people from opposite sides of the political spectrum can each leave a debate legitimately convinced that they occupy the moral high ground and that the other person is morally depraved.

The book is a descriptive rather than a prescriptive study, so don’t expect any judgements on what ethical behavior actually consists of. However, it is a pleasure to read and very clearly written. Haidt concludes each chapter with a scrupulous summary highlighting his main points so that the material is easy to understand even if you have no background in ethics, philosophy, or sociology.

Availability: SMCM Library, COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Michelle Milne, Assistant Professor of Physics
Rating: Highly Recommended.

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