Notes on The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

A thread for thoughts and questions about this book. (Note: The posts may not correspond chronologically with the book.)

Here’s a brief description of the book. Haidt has three ideas to explain why people have great difficulty agreeing upon political and religious matters. First, most people are influenced by intuition and emotions, more than reason, when it comes to choosing political and religious positions. Haidt uses the metaphor of a rider (reason) sitting on an elephant (intuition). For the most part the elephant is in control. Second, for Westerners morality involves reducing harm, and that which does not harm someone is morally acceptable. Haidt argues that there are actually five other moral domains, and conservatives tend to use all six, while liberals tend to think in one or two. This can create a barrier and source of misunderstanding between the two groups. Finally, religion has the power to cohesion in a group, but it also can impair judgment and reasoning. (I’m not sure about the last point, because I haven’t completed that section of the book.) With this knowledge I believe Haidt’s goal is to help people from different political and religious backgrounds to better understand and communicate with one another.

One thought on “Notes on The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

  1. A New Thought on Why the Older Generation Can’t Pass on Their Wisdom to Younger Generation

    I once daydreamed about writing a letter to my twenty-year old self about the things I’ve learned since, thinking that if I could get that information I’d be better off. However, I don’t think think this would work–my younger self just wouldn’t heed the advice. Why? I never had a clear explanation for this, but I had a strong gut feeling that a impenetrable wall preventing the transfer of this knowledge existed. A passage from the book may explain the reason.

    In the passage Haidt describes a classic experiment by the Piaget, the famous cognitive psychologist. In the experiment, Piaget pours the same amount of water in two identical glasses, and asks a child if the each glass has the same amount of water. The child says yes. Now, Piaget pours one of contents into a taller narrower glass, and asks the child if the amount of each water is the same. Children younger than seven years old say the taller, narrower glass has more water.

    They don’t understand that the total volume of water is conserved when it moves from glass to glass. He also found that it’s pointless for adults to explain the conservation of volume to kids. The kids won’t get it until they reach an age when their minds are ready for it. And when they’re ready, they’ll figure it out for themselves just by playing with cups of water.

    In other words, the understanding of the conservation of water wasn’t innate, and it wasn’t learned from adults. Kids figure it out for themselves, but only when their minds are ready and they are given the right experiences. (Bold added)

    Could it be that they’re minds (or souls?) of twenty-somethings just aren’t ready for certain type of knowledge, and they also haven’t had the necessary experience? The fact that they can’t understand the wisdom of elders because they lack experience is banal, but the fact that cognitively twenty-somethings may not be at the right developmental stage seems more novel. (It’s possible that developmental psychologists like Erikson has posited this post-childhood stages of development–I ca no longer recall.)

    One other thought that came to mind: Suppose the lack of experience is the main missing ingredient. For example, suppose you gave a lot of experiences relating to the conservation of volume, experiences in different contexts. Could understanding this principle occur at a earlier time? (I would guess Piaget or others after him already tried this.)


    Here are possible analogues of conservation of volume for twenty-somethings:

    1. Understanding the real limits one’s knowledge and abilities–namely that the limits are more significant that twenty-somethings realize. Understanding this should naturally lead to humility; to more nuanced versus simplistic understanding.
    2. Our hopes and dreams may not be as satisfying and important as twenty-somethings realize.

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