The Most Important Book I’ve Read This Year

Tthe most important book I've read so far has been written by a secular Jewish social psychologist named Jonathan Haidt

“Countless reviews have appeared online, most of them glowingly positive, so I don’t want to rehash any of that here. But because I think his book is so helpful, I do want to draw attention to the three main points Haidt makes about the way we make moral decisions, and the three controlling metaphors he uses, before reflecting a bit on why they are so significant in our current cultural situation.”

 

Back in January, prompted by a challenge from Tim Challies, I set myself the target of reading one hundred books by the end of the year. I’ve currently read seventy, most of which have been Christian and/or theological, and some of them have been absolutely superb (regular readers will know which ones, and I’ll probably post the highlights at the end of the year). But the most important book I’ve read so far has been written by a secular Jewish social psychologist named Jonathan Haidt. I have rarely read a book that illuminates and reframes so many different areas as his The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Countless reviews have appeared online, most of them glowingly positive, so I don’t want to rehash any of that here. But because I think his book is so helpful, I do want to draw attention to the three main points Haidt makes about the way we make moral decisions, and the three controlling metaphors he uses, before reflecting a bit on why they are so significant in our current cultural situation.

The Rider and the Elephant: intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. Haidt pictures the relationship between reasoning and intuition like that between a rider and an elephant: though it looks like the rider (reason) is in charge, and though the rider can do some important things (learn new skills, explain what the elephant is doing, change the elephant’s direction with a lot of effort), the chief mover is actually the elephant (intuition). People don’t reason their way to which things are right and wrong; they sense emotionally and intuitively that they are right or wrong, and then use their reason to explain why. In that sense, to switch metaphors, moral and ethical decisionmaking is more like a politician looking for votes than a philosopher looking for truth. (The transcript of a liberal-minded Western person trying to explain why incest is wrong, and gradually coming to the realisation that she doesn’t know why it is wrong but knows it is anyway, is fascinating on this point.)

A Tongue With Six Moral Taste-Buds: there is more to morality than harm and fairness. Human beings, Haidt argues, use six different foundations for moral reasoning – the six “taste-buds” of the righteous mind – but some of us use more of them than others. For WEIRD people (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic), like most readers of his book and this blog, the most obvious bases for morality are (1) care vs harm, and (2) fairness vs cheating, to the point that many WEIRD people will not be able to fathom why anyone would regard something as wrong if it wasn’t (1) clearly harmful to someone or (2) demonstrably unfair. Yet Haidt’s studies in psychology, especially in the non-WEIRD world, presented him with a range of other foundations: (3) loyalty vs betrayal, (4) authority vs subversion, (5) sanctity vs degradation, and (6) liberty vs oppression. The profusion of case studies here, again, is fascinating, and indicates that even within the US and the UK, where foundations (3), (4) and (5) seem not to exist at all, there are certain extreme scenarios (consensual cannibalism is one particularly gruesome example) that indicate they still do.

The Hive Switch: morality binds and blinds. In Haidt’s provocative metaphor, we are 90% chimpanzee and 10% bee. That is, we spend most of our lives operating like chimpanzees – selfish individuals who are trying to maximise our own chances for survival, comfort, progeny and security – but in certain situations, a “hive switch” gets flipped, and we become like bees, working together in startlingly groupish, selfless and apparently irrational ways, and prioritising the benefit of the group over our own. Triggers for the hive switch include team sport, national tragedy (Princess Diana, 9/11), dance (he uses the example of raves), and of course religion; and those religions that make the largest demands on their adherents tend also, perhaps counterintuitively, to be the most successful.

All very interesting. But so what? Well I’ve taught through The Righteous Mind on two separate training courses since March, and I think there are a number of ways in which Haidt’s insights can, and should, shape our preaching and our leadership. For example:

1) Speak to the elephant as well as (if not more than) the rider. This is an important idea in both evangelistic and pastoral contexts, but particularly applies to preaching and apologetics: if the people you’re speaking to have their intuitions and emotions against you, then it is almost impossible to win over their minds. (In many ways this is the same point as Pascal makes in the Pensees: you have to “make good men wish it were true” before you “show that it is.” But it comes complete with a really nice metaphor.) This, in practice, probably involves a combination of acknowledging emotional objections, telling stories, using humour, finding early points of agreement, and so on.

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