Author of The Happiness Hypothesis Jonathan Haidt explores how and why you bond or don’t bond with people of similar or dissimilar beliefs.
After 20 years of researching the topic, Jonathan Haidt, a professor of ethical leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, asks: Why do people have such strong feelings about right and wrong, and how can you have more thoughtful interactions with individuals whose outlooks differ from your own? In this well-structured though dense text, Haidt tackles these and other thorny issues about moral righteousness and the conflicts it engenders.
Haidt’s exploration shows how moral psychology can explain divisions among individuals and groups. He offers practical tools to improve communication as well as concepts to help readers understand moral, political and religious differences.
Possibly due to today’s divisive climate, reviewers found much to admire in this groundbreaking investigation of how to communicate with The Other. The New York Times Book Review said that Haidt “challenges conventional thinking about morality, politics and religion in a way that speaks to conservatives and liberals alike – a landmark contribution to humanity’s understanding of itself.” The Guardian said, “[Haidt’s] core point is simple and well-made: Our morality, much of it wired into brains from birth, at the same time binds us together and blinds us to different configurations of morality.”
Haidt cites religion, politics and morality as forces splitting humanity.
We’re born to be righteous, but we have to learn what, exactly, people like us should be righteous about.Jonathan Haidt
“Righteous” comes from old Norse and old English expressions whose meanings include the concepts of justice and morality. “Self-righteous,” Haidt explains, indicates someone convinced of his or her morality – especially in contrast with the beliefs of others.
Morality, Haidt teaches, can be both innate and learned. He posits moral reasoning as a social process dependent on the culture of your upbringing. Individualistic Western societies, he suggests, hew to narrow moral boundaries.
People make snap judgments, Haidt says, and justify them later with logical arguments. Reason helps individuals find rationales for their gut intuitions but not necessarily for the truth.
Haidt notes that people from “Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic” (WEIRD) cultures regard aspects of the world as distinct objects rather than as parts of groups, institutions and relationships; this means that WEIRD and non-WEIRD people hold widely varying moral concerns.
The main way that we change our minds on moral issues is by interacting with other people.Jonathan Haidt
In the United States, Haidt writes, liberals prioritize the rights of the vulnerable, such as racial minorities or children, and they want the government to protect the weak. Conservatives view liberty more as an escape from government interference.
Haidt casts religions as practices and beliefs fueled by people caring about something greater than themselves and uniting to pursue goals they couldn’t achieve alone. Politics is structured similarly: When people view a ritual, law or other constraint as sacred, Haidt reveals, that brings them together and prompts them to behave rationally. But, he cautions, sacredness can make group members less aware of the arbitrary nature of their beliefs and practices.
Chimpanzee / Bee
Haidt presents chimpanzee cognition expert Michael Tomasello’s research, which regards chimps as among the smartest animals on Earth but, unlike humans, lacking in collaboration skills. Even when they seem to cooperate, Haidt notes, each chimp pursues whatever best serves its selfish needs. Haidt depicts human nature as both selfish and capable of group-minded pursuits.
Haidt warns that human “groupishness” can blind people to the logic of other moral foundations, which may prompt competition among groups. But, he reports, when humans tap into their “hivish nature,” they work – as bees do – to improve group conditions.
Haidt explains that organizations seeking to tap into employees’ hivish nature to spur cooperation must create a strong sense of shared identity and purpose. However, he insists, pitting one person against another for scarce resources degrades morale, trust and the hivish nature.
Haidt defines ideology as a collection of beliefs that address a society’s proper functioning and how to achieve it. He asserts that people’s genetic predispositions lead them to embrace certain ideologies. Those disposed toward diversity and novelty, for example, may tend to be liberal. A political moral matrix, the author argues, impedes your ability to interact with people from differing moral matrixes.
Progress happens when theories are tested, supported and corrected by empirical evidence, especially when a theory proves to be useful.Jonathan Haidt
Haidt urges you to have a friendly conversation with someone with whom you differ. You may, he hopes, gain a fresh perspective.
Consider this akin to a more intellectual and academic, but less conversational, Malcolm Gladwell book. Haidt, as Gladwell does, employs multiple sources and examples from science, sociology, history and genetics to ground a wide-ranging but one-pointed exploration. Haidt’s brilliance at times can interfere with his readability, but his insights are quite original – often more original than what you might expect from Gladwell – and his ability to draw nonlinear conclusions across disciplines proves illuminating and even inspirational.
For all his knowledge, Haidt is no cynic. He seeks to grant readers an understanding of the processes that produce animosity among those with differing belief systems, so that readers might work to reduce that hostility. The last several years of US politics might have left you skeptical about that aim, but Haidt strives to righteously convince you otherwise.
The most illuminating reads for gaining further insights into Haidt’s thinking are more Haidt: The Happiness Hypothesis, All Minus One and The Coddling of the American Mind.