Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Righteous Mind

Book Review : The Righteous Mind
Author : Jonathan Haidt
My Rating : 5 out of 5 stars

The complete title of the book is “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”.

Before I present the review of this phenomenal book, let me tell you about my moral beliefs, and ask you to pass a judgement on me.

Even before I came to US, when I was living in India, I remember getting a bit uncomfortable while watching a scene from an American movie that showed the American flag design - stars and stripes - being used on bikinis. Why would they do that, I wondered. I wouldn’t show such disrespect to any country’s flag, let alone my own country’s flag.

What did you think when you read the previous paragraph ? Leaving aside the funny responses like, “Dude, just enjoy the scene”, did you understand the reason for my discomfort ? That certain symbols should be treated as sacred. Now do you agree with me ? Or do you think I need to loosen up, accept that fashion is a freedom of expression, and most likely no disrespect was intended anyways.

Now take a step back, and answer a deeper question. How did you decide whether I was right or wrong in feeling that way ? Did you go through a long chain of reasoning weighing pros and cons of both sides of the argument ? Or did you just instinctively know if I was being right or wrong ? Think about that for a second. Do you see that people from different generations, from different countries, from different cultures would have different opinions about my discomfort ?

OK, you might now ask, so what’s the point ? Different people think differently, what’s the big deal ? Well, that’s true, but WHY do different people think differently ? That’s the real question.

That’s what this fascinating book is all about. How do people decide what’s right and what’s wrong ? And why do people disagree so vehemently about these decisions, especially when it comes to politics and God ? Why is it so subjective ? Or the people who disagree with “you” are being emotional or just not smart enough ?

I will only present a very short and superficial summary here, because I want you to read the book, which I have no problem proclaiming as one of the most illuminating books in recent times.

In the first part of the book, author Jonathan Haidt argues that, intuitions come first, moral reasoning comes next. He presents a lot of empirical evidence in support of this argument that we first decide what’s right or wrong, and then build up an elaborate case to support that decision. Note that he says, intuition, not emotion. After presenting the eternal debate over nature vs nurture, and reason vs feelings, he carefully separates intuitions from emotions.

In the second part, he shows that these intuitions are result of our evolution. Evolution which is based on not just competition between individuals but also between groups. This has created automatic responses in us, and they are multidimensional. He then explains each of this dimension, how it came to be and what role it plays in our decision making. This is why people disagree, because they have evolved with different intuitions. Such intuitions are further shaped by culture and our own life experiences.

In the third part, he shows how we use this intuition based morality, to bind with other people who think like us, and collectively become blind to those who disagree with us. Hence the disagreements are so strong. As you can expect, religion often does that. But, as the author shows, so does liberalism.

This is a very complex subject, and there is no shortage of all sorts of strong opinions. I am sure, not all the readers will be be equally convinced. That’s just the nature of the things. In such matters, even when it’s likely that we won’t agree with everything the author presents, I think a competent argument always enriches our thinking, and makes it worth reading.

As for me, in keeping with the spirit of the book, I should say that I was naturally predisposed to like it. Reading the first part was an “aha” moment - intuitively everything just made sense. Of course, we decide first, and argue later. We see it happening every day. When the second part of the book argues that Evolution has shaped both our bodies and minds, it’s hard to not agree with it. The last part of the book, was a formal confirmation of what I always speculated to be true. I am not religious at all, but I think the atheists make a mistake when they try to argue against God. Because the real benefit of religion in our history, according to me, was to bring together people, build communities and compete as a group. These benefits came so at a great cost, no doubt. As the author says, morality binds, and blinds. This has always been my view, so it was easy for me to agree with the author.

There is an important point to keep in mind here. The author, Jonathan Haidt, is a professor of psychology. He is interested in finding out what is, not what it ought to be. His arguments are not philosophical. They are mostly empirical. He builds his case on his own research, as well as many others, giving proper credit. He is absolutely not trying to find what is the “correct” morality. Do not make the mistake of evaluating this book based on what the author’s own viewpoints are on many contentious topics. This book is about how we decide, not what we should decide. The author makes it clear, and I too cannot stress it enough.

I absolutely highly recommend this book, and I am adding it to my “Must Read” recommendation. In this day and age of extreme and divisive politics, the timing couldn’t be better. Even otherwise, a book that makes great progress in explaining to us what we are and how we came to be this way, is always worth reading.

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