The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

Several years ago I was having a conversation with one of my college students. We were having a lively discussion on gun control. At that time the shooting at Virginia Tech had only taken place a little over a year ago, so the conversation of guns and a college campus was still rather fresh. My student was taking a very libertarian view on gun control; he believed the absolute safest plan was no gun control. He specified that the more guns on campus the safer we would be. Always up for a good discussion, I asked him more questions about his views. I wanted him to carefully present his argument so that we can look at the issue openly. I then asked him if he had seen a certain movie that addressed gun control. His response was eye-opening:

“I will never watch that movie.” Upon my request for more information he added, “I will never watch that movie because I disagree with everything that filmmaker stands for.”

“Have you seen any of his movies?” I asked.

“Nope, and I don’t plan to” he snapped.

That is when I realized there is not one single argument I could make that would ever move him. I could spend all afternoon citing sources, creating hypothetical situations, and asking him questions until he starts running in circles but his mind was made up and there was no changing that.

I think about that conversation a lot. I have always had a “chicken or egg” debate with myself. Which came first: his views or the arguments he uses? Though logical, it seems rather silly to think that we all sit down and think of the arguments first only to make up our minds second. In all honesty we make up our mind first and then go looking for the arguments.

This is why I picked up the book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. Once I opened this book, it was extremely difficult to put down. This is easily one of the best books I have read in a while.

Like any book on morality, Haidt has to spend some time getting us all up to speed on terms and prevalent philosophies. He does not try to insult the reader – which is a pleasant change from some authors. Haidt walks you through the origins of morality and how they control us more than we control them. I really enjoyed his ongoing metaphor of the elephant and the rider; it was a nice visual to work with throughout the book.

Each chapter leads to more questions which fortunately leads to new chapters. The book is split into three sections which could have been easily split into three separate books.

As a word of notice, Haidt does come off a bit demeaning towards religious perspectives. I am not sure how intentional this was, however I definitely can understand why someone researching morality would be a bit repulse by religious men and women who can be very inhospitable in an intellectual study on morality. I am a Christian and I am not offending by his words.