REVIEW: Jonathan Haidt grabs onto the twin time-bombs of American punditry, politics and religion, and does so from an amazingly optimistic point-of-view. He combines his sunny disposition with a bit of psychology and a ton of research. Unfortunately, there are too many GOP-inspired missteps in an otherwise interesting book.

'The Righteous Mind' by Jonathan HaidtYou have to admire Jonathan Haidt for having the guts to take on some big challenges in The Righteous Mind: “I’m going to make the case that morality is the extraordinary human capacity that made civilization possible.” Fair enough, but right away that brings us to two bugaboos of Western civilization:

“Politics and religion are both expressions of our underlying moral psychology, and an understanding of that psychology can help to bring people together,” he writes. Or drive people apart, one might reply. But Haidt keeps on rolling: “My goal in this book is to drain some of the heat, anger, and divisiveness out of these topics and replace them with awe, wonder, and curiosity.” Ohhh-kayyyyyyy…

While I have not even begun to reach my standard level of skepticism, he’s not done being overly optimistic: “My hope is that this book will make conversations about morality, politics, and religion more common, more civil, and more fun, even in mixed company. My hope is that it will help us to get along.”

Too many tall orders, as it turns out. But hats off in salute to Haidt for attempting all this, despite the subtitle, “Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion,” which might better substitute “Conflicted” for “Divided.”

Style of Smile

Haidt is upbeat. Too much so, for my taste, but I’ve been exorcizing republicans and other assorted jerks from my life during the past couple of years, slowly realizing that misanthropy is not a bad way to go. Taking the opposite approach, Haidt seems to welcome the challenge of talking to dumb and dumber in a vain hope that he can help decent people find some sort of “common ground” with the GOP. Unfortunately, there are precious few items of commonality between conservatives and respectable human beings. Consider the list: Carbon-based life forms. And, um, well, there are probably some other things if we think about it long enough.

Still, Haidt writes as if the goodness of his inner child will shine forth like a nimbus and everyone will make friends with him and his copious notes, data, and research (the book has about 300 pages of text and 100 pages of references). He writes that he believes “that human nature is not just intrinsically moral, it’s also intrinsically moralistic, critical, and judgmental.” I’ll go with critical and judgmental.

Readers will find a large number of intriguing situations, discussion points, and conundrums in the book. Many are interesting for progressives but will be dismissed out-of-hand by conservatives, whose attitude of “Why bother to think about morality with God on our side?” is counter-productive for a book that attempts to demonstrate righteousness. At least everything is presented in a palatable way – I felt that Haidt was grinning to himself as he composed every one of his parables and puzzles.

Your Inner Attorney

There are several “aha” moments in the book, such as in the discussion of how intuition takes precedence over reason in human beings, and – more importantly – how we use our reasoning ability to justify our emotional choices. Your mind, according to Haidt, is like a rider on an elephant, with the elephant moving according to automatic reflexes. The elephant moves and the rider will then justify the route with as much logic as possible (and sometimes the ill illogic of a tea bagger).

Why do we have this weird mental architecture? As hominid brains tripled in size over the last 5 million years, developing language and a vastly improved ability to reason, why did we evolve an inner lawyer, rather than an inner judge or scientist? Wouldn’t it have been most adaptive for our ancestors to figure out the truth, the real truth about who did what and why, rather than using all that brainpower just to find evidence in support of what they wanted to believe?

Why, indeed. I guess so that there can be plenty of work for people like Joseph Goebbels, Edward Bernays, Karl Rove, and Roger Ailes. But then that also assures plenty of work for Jon Stewart, Rachel Maddow, and Jennifer Granholm as they try to correct the lies, distortions, errors, prevarications, and propaganda.

Mind that Matters

“One of the greatest truths in psychology is that the mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict” he writes. It is a sign of intellect to be able to recognize two opposing viewpoints at the same time. You have probably noticed that the loud-mouthed dimwits who bloviate on and on with statements like “the Bible says” or “the big spender democrats” or some other foolishness are never able to acknowledge more than one single solitary point. No. Doubt. Whatsoever.

Haidt notes that this is not just a RWNJ problem but a human problem: “We make our first judgments rapidly, and we are dreadful at seeking out evidence that might disconfirm those initial judgments.” It is a battle in our brains with emotions sending in all the ammunition and reinforcements. “Plato believed that reason could and should be the master; Jefferson believed that the two processes were equal partners (head and heart) ruling a divided empire; Hume believed that reason was (and was only fit to be) the servant of the passions.” Haidt comes down firmly on Hume’s side.

Haidt relates a study by social psychologist Robert Zajonc in which people were asked “to rate arbitrary things such as Japanese pictograms, words in a made-up language, and geometric shapes.”

It may seem odd to ask people to rate how much they like foreign words and meaningless squiggles, but people can do it because almost everything we look at triggers a tiny flash of affect. More important, Zajonc was able to make people like any word or image more just by showing it to them several times. The brain tags familiar things as good things. Zajonc called this the “mere exposure effect,” and it is a basic principle of advertising.

In general, I agree (and my thirty years of work in advertising, marketing, and public relations comes into play here) but let’s also admit that repeated association of a word like “republican” with their vile actions will not be appealing to reasonable or righteous people. The more exposure to the GOP, the more likely you will experience the gag reflex.

Buzzzzz! Wrong!

There are places in the book where Haidt’s too-sunny outlook does not serve him well. He writes that “We’re really good at holding others accountable for their actions, and we’re really skilled at navigating through a world in which others hold us accountable for our own.” But this is shown to be off-kilter every day since the media and the body politic fail to hold the GOP accountable for policies that attack seniors, veterans, women, students, minorities, the LGBT community, and often the entire middle class. One political party is given a free pass to pursue a strange form of neo-Fascism without much being said about it. It’s a horrible example of a lack of accountability.

Haidt writes that conservatives “believe that people need external structure or constraints in order to behave well, cooperate, and thrive.” Well. All right, setting aside the obvious point about the Grand Obstructionist Party (which kinda-sorta shows how laughable is that word “cooperate”), conservatives consistently push to remove regulations that protect our food, air, water, drugs, healthcare, and more. Try to thrive in a world where everything is run by people with the morality of Exxon, BP, Enron, Countrywide Funding, Halliburton, the RNC, etc.

Wrong Again

He also writes about “moral capital” helping to control selfishness, which would be nifty, you know, considering the actions of greed and rapaciousness of corporation after corporation. (How about some fracking in your neighborhood, anyone?)

A few sentences later, he writes that “many nations are failures as moral communities, particularly corrupt nations where dictators and elites run the country for their own benefit.” Yes. “Elites.” Billionaires and corporate leaders must read a sentence like that and chortle as they drool over their desire to fiscally rape everyone in the United States.

At several points, he actually uses the oxymoron “conservative intellectuals,” so you know there is a bit of confusion in the author’s mind. Wait, it gets worse: he even attempts to delineate something called “The Social Conservative Moral Matrix,” which is about as real as the rabbit in “Harvey.” And while anyone can describe conservative morals by saying ‘there’s no there there,’ Haidt comes to the astonishing conclusion that conservatives seek to “preserve the institutions and traditions that sustain a moral community.” When you get through laughing, you might want to find Haidt on the internet so you can send him about four tons of examples of conservative perfidy against every segment of society except the rich and powerful. Moral community, my ass.

Still Wrong

You might not believe it unless you see it for yourself, but Haidt writes this: “Conservatives — particularly religious conservatives — are more likely to view the body as a temple, housing a soul within…” To which every decent person in world would simply reply “Vaginal probe.”

On the same page, Haidt writes that “Devout Christians are often lampooned by secular liberals as uptight, pleasure-fearing prudes.” What should normal people do instead, shoot them? Lampooning seems like a good response. If you’ve ever tried reasoning with them you’d know that they are neurotic, frigid prigs. Excuse me, I meant uptight, pleasure-fearing prudes.

And talk about wrong, consider these sentences:

Everyone cares about fairness, but there are two major kinds. On the left, fairness often implies equality, but on the right it means proportionality — people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes.

All right, let’s break that down. “Everyone cares about fairness.” Um, have you taken even a peek at the republican agenda? Or their attempts at voter suppression? Or their anti-healthcare votes? Or their obstructionism in Congress? Or their attempts to control women’s bodies? Or their attempts to defund any program that provides services to the general population? Or, well, this list could continue for pages. Obviously, a large portion of “everyone” cares not a whit about fairness.

“On the left, fairness often implies equality.” Often, perhaps, but what progressives (and American citizens, as opposed to corporations) really want is a fair shot. As for what the “right” wants in addition to the litany above, one only has to recall “people are corporations” to give the lie to any view that links them with fairness. Or logic, for that matter.

Perfect Description

There are some passages that display the GOP with clarity, as when Haidt points out that “for nonscientists, there is no such thing as a study you must believe. It’s always possible to question the methods, find an alternative interpretation of the data, or, if all else fails, question the honesty or ideology of the researchers.”

Whatever you want to believe about the causes of global warming or whether a fetus can feel pain, just Google your belief. You’ll find partisan websites summarizing and sometimes distorting relevant scientific studies. Science is a smorgasbord, and Google will guide you to the study that’s right for you.

Worth It

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot that is worthy about the book. The chapter entitled “Can’t We All Disagree More Constructively?” contains an excellent look at how some people are born progressive and others born twisted. The chapter called “Religion is a Team Sport,” with its comparison of religiosity and football games, is fascinating. And his overall good-natured attempt to have us all get along is rather charming despite the muddle-headed way he seeks compromise:

It [liberalism] tends to overreach, change too many things too quickly, and reduce the stock of moral capital inadvertently. Conversely, while conservatives do a better job of preserving moral capital, they often fail to notice certain classes of victims, fail to limit the predations of certain powerful interests, and fail to see the need to change or update institutions as times change.

Fortunately, he does recognize a thing or two about the real world: “I think liberals are right that a major function of government is to stand up for the public interest against corporations and their tendency to distort markets and impose externalities on others, particularly on those least able to stand up for themselves in court.” It took him to page 298 to do it but at least he came through for humanity.

But wait, there’s more: “When conservatives say that markets offer better solutions than do regulations, let them step forward and explain their plan to eliminate the dangerous and unfair externalities generated by many markets.” Good point, although very namby-pamby in the way it is worded, don’t you think?

The book can make you think, and that’s wonderful. It’s just that anyone with an ounce of human decency will laugh or cry about all the areas where the prose placates and pampers the traitors who have taken over the republican party, presumably because Haidt and his publisher oh-so-desperately want to sell books to conservatives as well as to the thoughtful half of the public.

Book Summary
“The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion”
by Jonathan Haidt.
Pantheon Books, Hardbound, 448 pages, ISBN: 978-0-307-37790-6, $28.95.

Article is Copr. © 2012 by John Scott G and originally published on No payment or other consideration of any kind was made to the reviewer by the book author, publisher or any other agency.