The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt | Book Review

Title: The Righteous Mind

Author: Jonathan Haidt

Category: Nonfiction, Psychology, Morality

Rating: 3/5 

10-word summary: Morality relies on our intuitions and it goes beyond fairness.

About The Righteous Mind

The Righteous Mind is a book about morality. It discusses a theory of moral foundations, the idea that morality is based on our intuitions, religion and politics and more. The topic of the book is very promising, but I found it quite disappointing, to be honest.

It’s quite hard to review this book because I have mixed feelings about it and because I found it somewhat confusing. There are some interesting ideas that are worth learning about and this may make it worth reading. But there are also ideas and parts that I would leave out or present more briefly, parts that I question and doubt and parts that are absent from the book even though they should be included.

I was very excited about reading this book, but now that I have read it, I feel quite disappointed with it. I will share a few of my thoughts to help you decide if you want to read it or not.

What I like about The Righteous Mind

1. It made me think about morality in a different way

The book made me realize that our moralities are usually based on our intuitions. I used to believe that our morality depends on our thoughts and through thinking and learning, we can improve our moral guidelines. The author believes that we rarely change our morality because of what we learn and think about on our own and that morality is not something that we consciously analyze. I found this insight very useful. He also presents a theory of moral foundation which I believe can help us better understand our morality.

2. The book has some interesting insights about human nature, religion and politics

Haidt shares some interesting ideas about where our morality comes from, our selfish vs our groupish tendencies, the community aspect of religion, the differences between liberals and conservatives in terms of morality and more. These ideas helped me understand some aspects a little bit better.

What I don’t like about The Righteous Mind

1. I am skeptical and unconvinced of many ideas in the book, including the Moral Foundations Theory

There are many ideas that I find questionable and unconvincing throughout the book. I am puzzled and skeptical of the way Haidt talks about rationality, religion and the differences between the two political parties. I have to say that I am not skeptical of everything that he says, but that there are ideas that raise questions throughout the book, particularly about certain topics.

The Moral Foundations Theory, which is a central part of the book, is interesting and it does add some nuance to the topic of morality. However, I am not so convinced about this theory as Haidt is. And if I believe the theory is questionable, then a big part of the book becomes questionable for me too. And when you are unconvinced or skeptical of the accuracy of the main idea of a book, it gets a bit harder to enjoy the entire book.

2. Haidt seems too convinced of his theories and his interpretations

Haidt often seems biased and too certain of his own theories, his own interpretations and the validity of his arguments. I think this can be noticed in several places throughout the book, but it becomes even more obvious when he discusses religion and New Atheism. He seems very convinced and not convincing enough when he discusses his own theory of Moral Foundations, his interpretation of the morality of liberals and conservatives, his views on religion, group selection and more.

3. He gives little to no advice on how to decide what is moral/immoral, how to make moral progress and how to have better conversations on the topics that divide us

This was honestly very disappointing to me. I actually expected this book to share more about how to become more moral (as individuals and a society), how to decide what is moral or not and how to connect and communicate better with those that have different views and different moralities. His last chapter was titled “Can’t We All Disagree More Constructively?” and yet he only shared some basic advice in 1-2 pages.

I would be tempted to say that morality is a very complex topic and it is hard to find ways to decide what is moral or not and to work out our different views. That is true – it’s a challenge. But isn’t this what a book on morality should do? And if you don’t buy into Haidt’s theory of Moral Foundations then you aren’t left with much at the end of the book. It’s useful to think that different groups or different people based their morality on different foundations, but ultimately we need to ask: how are we supposed to choose what foundations to value more than others? Or how are we supposed to come up with moral rules and social norms for our society?

4. There is a lot that was included in the book that I would leave out or compress and a lot that was not included in the book even though it should have been

There are parts in the book that seem interesting, but unnecessary (to me) or unnecessarily long. Sometimes the book seems like an autobiography or like a textbook and it discusses some topics more than I would like.

Then there are the things I would have loved to read about, but I couldn’t because these where nowhere to be found. I already mentioned that I expected to read about how we should decide what is moral, how to become more moral and how to have better conversations about important and challenging topics.

I would have also loved to read about the morality aspect applied to any important topic such as wars, abortion, veganism, pornography, freedom of expression, money and capitalism and so much more! I love thinking about the different aspects that we need to consider when trying to determine if something is moral or not and why. Again, nothing of the sort was discusses in a book – much to my surprise and disappointment.

Lessons from The Righteous Mind

We use our intuition to determine if something is moral or not. After we “determine” this, we use our reason to make up an explanation for our intuition.

According to Haidt, our brains are like an elephant and a rider. The elephant represents our emotions, our intuitions and our automatic thoughts. And since the elephant is bigger and stronger, it is in control. The rider that sits on top of the elephant represents our rationality. The rider is the one that can think in a more intentional, controlled way, but it cannot control the elephant. So generally the elephant decides where they go (what they think, feel and do) and the rider has to find reasons and make excuses for the elephant.

Should You Read The Righteous Mind?

Maybe…It’s quite hard to say, to be honest. There are some ideas I really liked about the book. But there is a lot I can point to that makes me question the book.

If you want to learn more about our moral intuitions and to think about morality from a certain perspective (that may or may not be accurate), then read this book. It is interesting and it does have some insights that can help you better understand your own intuitions and human nature.

But know that the book doesn’t include many aspects that you may want to read about (that I have already mentioned). And some ideas should not be trusted as easily as Haidt would like us to think.

If you want to learn about morality in general, about how to decide what is moral, how to become more moral and how to have conversations with people who see the world differently, this book is not what you’re looking for.

Would I recommend this book? It’s hard to say. On one hand, I really did like some ideas. On the other hand, there is a lot that disappointed me. I know that my assessment of the book and my experience may be very different from your own experience. I also know that I did not like some parts of the book because Haidt’s ideas did create some cognitive dissonance. But I also think that this is not the only reason why I am unhappy with the book. In the end, it’s up to you to decide if you want to read it. And if you do, I’d like to hear your thoughts about it!

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