My wife frequently challenges me to be a better person by making observations about my conduct or by supplying me with a book I need to read. Recently, she bought me a copy of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt that seeks to explain our attitudes toward morality and where they might have originated. I strongly recommend the book, probably because it reinforces many of the things I believed before I read it.
Haidt argues that research shows we are born with certain moral proclivities that are subject to change through experience. We aren’t exactly hardwired but are pre-programmed to favor some things over others. Infants, for example, are predisposed to choose “attractive” images and tend to react negatively toward representations of cruelty. As we progress, we look for information to reinforce our beliefs and look for ways to discredit ideas that challenge them. Education, rather than making us more objective, actually makes us more adept at proving to ourselves and others that we are right. Much of the research methodology is fascinating, and the implications of the various findings are thought-provoking.
The author described himself as a liberal atheist prior to his research but has evolved to develop a greater appreciation for the beliefs of others as a result of what he has learned. Reading the book is unlikely to make anyone change their basic worldview; it may, however, help improve understanding of people who see the world differently. In a world where the middle ground seems to have been steadily shrinking over the past few decades, insights that promote common ground are a valuable resource.
Haidt believes that conservatives and liberals have much in common, particularly regarding issues of caring and fairness. The differences seem to be that liberals are more passionate about a smaller number of what the author calls moral foundations, while conservatives have a broader base. Neither end of the political spectrum is endowed with inherent virtue.
I think the most important conclusion of the book is that our success as a society is largely based on our ability to work together and understand one another. Haidt points out that despite their intelligence, you will never see two chimps carrying a log together. Primates may have some ability to work together in specific circumstances, but they are generally unable to work cooperatively toward a common goal. The author describes humans as 90 percent chimps and 10 percent bees. We have, in other words, the ability to become something greater than our individual selves by forming groups. Whether the group is a family, a workplace, a community, or a nation, the most successful are those that do the best job of putting their differences aside (or using them most effectively) to accomplish a desired end. Haidt wisely observes, however, that morality both binds and blinds. Adolf Hitler formed a very successful group in Nazi Germany that most of us would describe as highly immoral.
Our challenge as feeling, thinking people is to increase our understanding of those around us in the effort to make the world a better place for those who will follow us. The strength of the prescription that will get us there will probably not be the thoughts of a single individual, but the conclusions of a broad spectrum of people who have made a commitment to understand one another.