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The Righteous Mind
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Listen in 18 min.
Learn the key ideas of the book by Jonathan Haidt

The Righteous Mind

Why we have different opinions on important issues

In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt explains that we do not hold different beliefs on these matters simply because we are either good or bad human beings, but because our minds were created to reason according to common concepts of justice. Human beings are deeply intuitive creatures, and our strategic reasoning relies on instinctive thought processes. This is why it is often difficult, though not impossible, to truly bond with people who live by ideologies that differ from our own, and why we sometimes become ‘trapped’ in a sterile interpretation of morality.

The Righteous Mind
Read in 14 min.
Listen in 18 min.

People grow into their rationality, just like caterpillars become butterflies

The first step in understanding the human mind is to recognise that the concept of morality varies greatly, depending on a person’s situation and standing, even within the same society. Then, we have to discover where all these various definitions of morality derive from; how do children, for instance, distinguish right from wrong? There are two obvious answers to this question: nature, or nurture. The first camp, the nativists, believe that the answer to the question is nature, and that moral knowledge is native to the human mind; empiricists, on the other hand, believe in nurture, and that moral knowledge comes from our education.

The basis of psychological rationalism is that people grow into their rationality just as caterpillars grow into butterflies. Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget argued that children approach morality just in the same way as they understand concepts such as the conservation of volume: they figure it out for themselves as they get older, but only when their minds are cognitively ready; in other words, it is not innate, but learnt over time.

Many decades later, American psychologist Elliot Turiel’s research and studies showed that, contrary to Piaget’s assumption, children do not treat all rules equally. Although children are unable to express themselves like moral philosophers, they nevertheless sort through social information in a highly evolved way, in order to understand what is right and what is wrong, and above all, the reason why it is right or wrong.

When approaching morality from an anthropological perspective, we see that there is no real distinction between morality and social convention, especially in children, so we might say that distinction is a cultural artefact, a necessary side effect of the individual response to major social issues. At the end of the day, however, morality can be both innate and learnt: people are born just, but they have to learn what, exactly, they should be just about.


The key ideas of "The Righteous Mind"

People grow into their rationality, just like caterpillars become butterflies
Plato said that all mankind’s evils were the result of desires not mastered by reason
We cannot force a dog to wag its tail, just like we cannot change anyone’s opinion simply by rejecting their arguments
Without the ability to feel and manage emotions, rationality can be lethal
Everyone is responsible for their own actions, but also for their own emotions
Not everyone with the same taste receptors likes the same foods, and the same is true for moral judgement
Do human beings work together for purely selfish reasons, or out of a genuine desire to achieve common good?
Does religion make people good or bad? Or does it simply lock them up in a moral cage?
Moral communities are fragile entities, which are difficult to build but easy to destroy
Take-home message
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