The Science of Right and Wrong?

A book review of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

We’ve all had the experience.  I clearly explain why my view is the right one.  And then my friend, who is normally an intelligent, reasonable person, completely misunderstands me.  Or worse, they understand, and they still stubbornly disagree!  Why are disagreements about right and wrong so hard to discuss constructively?  It doesn’t matter whether it is political.  It doesn’t matter whether it is religious.  If we disagree about the right thing to do, it is very hard to negotiate.  And politics and religion only make it worse!

So Jonathan Haidt is very ambitious.  The aim of The Righteous Mind is to “make conversations about morality, politics, and religion more common, more civil, and more fun, even in mixed company.” (p.xiii)  As a psychologist, Haidt takes his readers on a tour of moral psychology to attempt to facilitate this.

In the first part, Haidt argues that generally speaking, we human beings do not have very good insight into our own moral process.  Specifically, we think we are more objective about right and wrong, than we actually are.  This helps to explain “why it seems like everyone (else) is a hypocrite” and how to “better persuade people who seem unresponsive to reason” (p.xv).

In the second part, Haidt who is himself a secular westerner, argues that Secular Western moralities are limited to only a subset of the natural human sense of right and wrong.  He argues that humanity perceives morality in relation to the six dimensions of Harm, Fairness, Liberty, Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity.  But Secular Western moralities tend to focus on Harm and Fairness. In the book I thought Haidt seemed unclear what to do with this.  On one hand, the questions of what is actually right and wrong, or whether right and wrong exist, and what that means, cannot be answered by science.  And Haidt seems to understand this, refraining from embracing the naturalistic fallacy that the way things are naturally are the way things should be.  And on the other hand, he seems quite disturbed by how unnatural his own morality is.  In his TED talk on the moral mind he suggests that some sort of balance between the various natural moral concerns of humanity is adaptive for humanity.  Though he may be suggesting this as a corrective to the general tendency of TED audiences, which he also talks about.

In the third part, Haidt argues that human beings are more socially driven than we individualistic modern people tend to assume.  And what’s more, that is necessary and adaptive for human flourishing.  On this basis, Haidt seeks to explain the broad trends of politics and religion in America, and how people can function better in our unavoidable humanness.  Even more than in the previous part, there is a question hanging over this section.  Why should we agree with Haidt on the right way forward, now that we understand how we have evolved to have a range of ideas about the right way forward?

This is a great book.  Many people living in the modern western world will, like me, resonate with Haidt’s desire for greater inclusion, more constructive negotiation, and deeper analysis of issues.  And if we agree on that, it won’t matter that Haidt doesn’t give a reason why you should.  If you would like to grow in being part of that, you could read the book, listen to the talk at (retrieved 2/10/2017), or we would love to share with you how knowing Jesus helps us grow in loving our neighbours as ourselves (eg. Luke 10:25-37).

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