The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion – Jonathan Haidt

righteous mind jonathan haidt book cover

What is the basis of morality and how does it influence our worldview?

In “The Righteous Mind”, professor and researcher Jonathan Haidt takes on the tall task of explaining how morality works, it’s possible origins, and how it directs us as individuals and cultures. He shows how humans are inherently moral creatures, but what typically divides us is how we view and interpret morality. This isn’t a fluff, pop-science book, it is a refreshingly honest look at the complex issues we face, done in a way that is far different than the heavy partisan takes out there.

Okay, with that intro bit out of the way, I feel like I need to say that you should just get this book and read it. I’m going to talk about some of the themes, but it won’t do a good enough job of capturing the nuance, important connections, and reasoning that this book excels at. And by nuance, I don’t mean in a “I’m afraid to talk about the issue directly so I’ll fill this space with complex and/or pedantic arguments detached from reality” type of nuance. I mean a focus on important subtleties regarding personality, cultural worldview, and definitions of morality. The author does a great job of breaking down some incredibly complex issues in an incremental way and provides the research to back up his reasoning.

Topics

Intuition comes before reasoning – The rider and elephant analogy helps to show how we like to think of ourselves as rational human beings who follow logic and principles, but we don’t work that way.

Morality isn’t just about harm and fairness – Professor Haidt shares his personal stories about how he came to see the importance of stepping outside of his moral matrix so that he could understand other moral foundations.

Moral Foundations Theory – “There are (at least) six psychological systems that comprise the universal foundations of the world’s many moral matrices. Here’s a handy summary from the wiki page on MFT:

  • Care: cherishing and protecting others; opposite of harm
  • Fairness or proportionality: rendering justice according to shared rules; opposite of cheating
  • Loyalty or ingroup: standing with your group, family, nation; opposite of betrayal
  • Authority or respect: submitting to tradition and legitimate authority; opposite of subversion
  • Sanctity or purity: abhorrence for disgusting things, foods, actions; opposite of degradation
  • Liberty: opposite of oppression

Morality binds and blinds – Humans are both selfish and groupish by nature. The mental imagery the author uses is that we are 90% chimpanzee and 10% bee. He also suggests how religion played a crucial role in human evolutionary history, enabling us to “transcend self-interest and become simply part of a whole.”

The reasoning behind our political and religious differences – Morality binds us together and we easily fall into groupish behavior and righteousness. This binding process blinds us from our weak spots and can cause us to be unable to understand how anyone could possibly see things differently.

Recommendation

I can’t recommend this book enough. It covers a lot of ground (research, psychology, history) without turning into an abstract/detached textbook. The author does a great job of mixing in personal stories to help illustrate points and admits to his own blind spots/weaknesses. It’s very refreshing to read a book that addresses such hot topics in an evenhanded way. Time will tell if moral foundations theory holds up, but it definitely goes a long way in helping to understand how good, well-intentioned people can view and experience the world so differently.

Quotes

I’m going to add some of the most interesting quotes from the book here, but please know that there’s a much deeper context here. So I really recommend reading the book to be able to grasp the big picture and context of each quote.

“We are deeply intuitive creatures whose gut feeling drive our strategic reasoning. This makes it difficult – but not impossible – to connect with those who live in other matrices, which are often built on different configurations of the available moral foundations.”

“We may spend most of our waking hours advancing our own interests, but we all have the capacity to transcend self-interest and become simply part of a whole. It’s not just a capacity; it’s the portal to many of life’s most cherished experiences.”

“Morality binds and blinds. This is not just something that happens to people on the other side. We all get sucked into tribal moral communities. We circle around sacred values and then share post hoc arguments about why we are so right and they are so wrong. We think the other side is blind to truth, reason, science, and common sense, but in fact everyone goes blind when talking about their sacred objects.”

“Anyone who tells you that all societies, in all eras, should be using one particular moral matrix, resting on one particular configuration of moral foundations, is a fundamentalist of one sort or another.”

“We evolved to live, trade, and trust within shared moral matrices. When societies lose their grip on individuals, allowing all to do as they please, the result is often a decrease in happiness and an increase in suicide, as Durkheim showed more than a hundred years ago.”

“Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.”

“If you think about religion as a set of beliefs about supernatural agents, you’re bound to misunderstand it…religious practices have been binding our ancestors into groups for tens of thousands of years.”

“The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor. Everyone loves a good story: every culture bathes its children in stories. Among the most important stories we know are stories about ourselves…Life narratives are saturated with morality.”

“When asked to account for the development of their own religious faith and moral beliefs, conservatives underscored deep feelings about respect for authority, allegiance to one’s group, and purity of the self, whereas liberals emphasized their deep feelings regarding human suffering and social fairness.”

“The various moralities found on the political left tend to rest most strongly on the Care/harm and Liberty/oppression foundations. These two foundations support ideals of social justice, which emphasize compassion for the poor and a struggle for political equality among the subgroups that comprise society.”

“If you are trying to change an organization or a society and you do not consider the effects of your changes on moral capital, you’re asking for trouble. This, I believe, is the fundamental blind spot of the left. It explains why liberal reforms so often backfire, and why communistic revolutions usually end up in despotism…Conversely, while conservatives do a better job of preserving moral capital, they often fail to notice certain classes of victims, fail to limit the predation of certain powerful interests, and fail to see the need to change or update institutions as times change.”

Learn more about the book and author here. Here’s a link to the Wiki page for the book. Lastly, here’s that link again to learn more about Moral Foundations Theory.

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The War On Normal People – Andrew Yang

andrew yang war book cover

Guest post today from Aaron Eischeid

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Source: Public Library

Why I Picked It

The author, Andrew Yang, is currently seeking the nomination to be the democratic presidential candidate, and his distinguishing policy position is to implement a form of Universal Basic Income (UBI). I have been previously interested in UBI as a potential solution for poverty and subsequently many of poverty’s second and third order effects like addiction, abuse, depression, obesity etc. I am very glad that discussion around UBI is happening on a national stage, and wanted to learn more about Yang, and his plans specifically.

Idealistically speaking, I think UBI or a national dividend (same idea different marketing term) may be a rather good way to balance out some of the inherent injustices and inequalities of the system we are currently in. Ultimately UBI is a wealth redistribution scheme, but it stands out in that while other social welfare programs or wealth redistribution schemes tend to be heavy on bureaucracy, one of the appeals of UBI is how simple it is and how much existing bureaucracy it could stand to eliminate over time.

Not An Economics Textbook

This book obviously isn’t meant to be an academic work. Most of his intended audience would probably lose interest if it were. It is a book written by a presidential candidate, after all. In interviews, Yang has referred to UBI (or his particular nomenclature for it – the Freedom Dividend) as “capitalism that doesn’t start at zero” or “trickle up economics”. The latter phrase resonates with me much more than the former, but economics experts may cringe at both. I don’t know.

His writing and speaking style reflects that Yang is a venture capitalist / entrepreneur type more than an intellectual. As such he approaches the idea of UBI in a different way than I have tended to think about it. Where I tend to start from “seems like kind of the right thing to do”, and see the numerous pragmatics as icing; he seems to start from practical necessity – stemming from the rise of automation and the subsequent loss in jobs – and his cherry on top is the idealistic concept that “we’re all really shareholders in the wealthiest nation on the planet” (this is me sort of paraphrasing – not a direct quote).

He is not alone. Many people from the CEO or entrepreneurship side of the economy see the coming wave of job loss, and have latched onto the concept of UBI as good potential solution for the problems that will inevitably arise if the current mentality around jobs doesn’t shift significantly. Or similar business minded folk point out there is a solid case to be made that the socio-economic benefit of UBI is just a good deal. UBI isn’t cheap, but they argue it is an incredible bang for the buck in its potential to move the needle on costly budget items like crime, health care, education, and so on.

Themes and Concepts Covered

They Took Our Jobs!

they-terk-err-jerbs

Most of the first two thirds of the book outlines the problem in the US economy related to jobs.

First, a couple chapters are spent trying to convince us that a coming wave of automation and subsequent job loss is immanent. I tend to think some of the hype around AI is more fiction than science, but whether we have fully automated fleets of semi trucks or just mostly assisted driving, I do think Yang is almost certainly correct that there are about to be a whole lot less of certain kinds of work in the not so distant future, and as a society we aren’t really well prepared for that shift.

He does a nice job outlining that this isn’t only a problem for truck drivers and fast food cashiers, but really for anyone with repetitive task types of jobs. This can involve relatively non-specialized skills like call center employees. It can also impact highly trained professions like x-ray technicians, stock traders, and even surgeons.

A good chunk of pages are spent explaining the ‘normal people’ – the median income and education levels, the types of jobs, and the suburban environment etc. Nothing to surprising for anyone whose paid attention to these sorts of things before. Here he also discusses how unemployment statistics are largely misleading – and GDP is a poor measure of economic health. Agreed!

How many and what types of jobs were already lost in various periods is covered at length; though his focus falls on the period from 2000 to 2014 where millions of manufacturing jobs (ie. normal people jobs) simply disappeared. Then he discusses the dramatic impacts that has had on communities – from crime, to depression, to marriage rates, to the numbers of people going on social security disability, to the opioid epidemic, to the ways that it likely impacted political voting trends. All quite interesting, if somewhat depressing stuff.

Just Teach Them To Program Then

His discussion of how job retraining or education aren’t realistic solutions to the problem are a bit interspersed, and disjointed, but he makes some good points and seems to have a similar picture of the college bubble as I have. Personally, being a more self motivated learner I find it hard to grasp why the statistics on the efficacy of retraining are so dismal, but so it is. Still, even granting that retaining workers were effective there stands the problem of what you would train them all to do. Bureaucratic institutions setup to determine this are bound to be behind the curve at best, whereas just re-adjusting the employment market via UBI has a potential to be much more dynamic.

Interestingly he has some background in education / tutoring and holds the view that teaching is one of the things that doesn’t scale via automation well. While I might disagree with him on the potential for online courses, I am very much with him that job retraining is a non-solution to automation generally.

One of the things in particular that has intrigued me personally about the idea of UBI is the ways I might re-arrange my own employment. I have always thought I would enjoy teaching in some fashion, but could never justify doing it based on the pay and other factors. UBI paired with non-employer sponsored medical insurance – another one of Yang’s major policies is medicare for all – enables restructuring employment such that being a part time teacher might actually be practical!

The Critical Policy Solution: UBI a.k.a. Freedom Dividend

For as much as the book revolves around the idea of a UBI it spends only a couple chapters articulating the policy, how it would be paid for, and addressing a few popular criticisms of it. I suppose this could be because it is a very simple idea. Just give people money. The major new source of funding Yang proposes to help pay for it is a VAT tax. Again, a relatively proven and well understood system, outside the US at least, and it does have some potential to get at some portions of the economy that are paying less than their fair share currently. Finally, the most popular criticisms are mostly based in ignorance about the idea or economics, so they are not difficult to address.

I still have lots of questions on the details and the nuance. Learning more about those was one of my hopes in reading this. As I have already mentioned the broader intended audience would probably have been put off by that sort of stuff, so though I can’t fault Yang for not getting into all that, I also can’t help but feel a bit disappointed in this regard.

Auxiliary Ideas

At this point Medicare for all or some similar single payer system is a no-brainer to me, but he doesn’t waste words as he spends a chapter on it because he brings up points in favor of the idea that many democrats may tend to overlook. I suspect his angle would tend to appeal to the more republican or libertarian minded too – such as how health care isn’t a typical free market, and the ways employer tied health benefits negatively effect the job market. UBI by itself isn’t sufficient to realize the liberation of the labor market. It needs to occur in tandem with some sort of universal healthcare.

He does have a few ideas to potentially help promote more holistic health care since just changing who pays the bills doesn’t fix all the shortcomings of the current medical system in the US. Ideas ranged from paying doctors a fixed salary vs per patient, to psych consultations to go with doctors appointments. Fine ideas, but they feel a little more borrowed than internalized, and it isn’t clear how much of that would translate into policy, or how, but at least he’s thinking innovatively in this area I guess.

One idea he covers briefly, that was mostly new to me, is that of a social currency that would be a separate parallel currency. Basically a scaled up version of time banking. I really like the concept! It feels like it has a lot of wide ranging potential. That said, Thus far I’m unconvinced this would need to be a federal program at all. Communities are already doing time banking. More probably could and should. Why getting the federal government involved is necessary or helpful is unclear other than it might speed it along.

So…

The book concludes with a bit of a “rah rah! we can do this!”, but with no specific call to action. There is a general summoning to “commit” and “sacrifice” for some of these ideas and policies he has presented because the problem is looming and with some of the solutions he has outlined presumably hope is not in vain. Maybe an implied “vote for me”, though there is no indication he had decided to run for office at the time of writing.

That all left me a bit wanting, but again it is a book by an entrepreneur and presidential hopeful, so I suppose that’s the kind of thing you’re going to get. I came away feeling like Yang on the whole has some good ideas and feels like a forthright and decent guy. A candidate worthy of voting for, especially if you accept his premise, that the problems of coming automation are legit, and that UBI is a good solution to them. But, while this book is an decent intro to the idea of UBI, it will do little to convince you that it is good policy if you care about the details.

Recommendation

Reading any of the books by presidential candidates is a rather good way to understand their policy positions; bound to be better than the soundbites on the mainstream news or via televised debates! However, there are so many candidates, many of whom have published a book. Policy-wise many of the candidates are actually quite similar. Others are fairly mainstream/establishment, thus you probably wouldn’t learn much beyond some nuance of their positions or personalities from reading their books, so I can’t recommend that as a general approach.

Yang, in making UBI the foundational policy of his campaign, is distinct in the field of current candidates. I personally have had good experience reading books of the more outlier candidates. Ron Paul is an example that comes to mind from a couple of election cycles ago. Agree or disagree with their positions, the ones that don’t fit so neatly into red or blue camps tend to have very interesting ideas or perspectives at the least. So, if you are going to be thinking and discussing politics this time around The War On Normal People is a decent place to start.

1984 – George Orwell

george orwell 1984 novel

A dystopian novel about a future where Big Brother is always watching

Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949 by the author George Orwell, is possibly the definitive dystopian novel. It is a classic, iconic work of literature and many of the words and phrases that Orwell created in this book have become part of our language. If a government or organization is referred to as Orwellian, it means that the thing is sinister, deceptive, manipulative, authoritarian, and/or totalitarian. 1984 is often compared to Brave New World, which was published 17 years earlier.

Themes

Government Surveillance – “Big Brother is Watching” posters are everywhere, but it isn’t just a show for intimidation, it’s a fact for those in the Party. The issues and concerns about privacy and government intrusion are even more pressing in our day with the controversial NSA surveillance of citizens.

Authoritarianism – Orwell takes what he’s learned about dictatorships and authoritarian governments, from the fascism of Nazi Germany to the communism of Soviet Russia, and imagines what those could become in the future with the benefit of advanced technology. He shows how authoritarian and totalitarian governments are strikingly similar, even though they may technically come from opposite ideological sides of the political spectrum. The goal is still the same – power and control.

Social Class Hierarchy – The population in the novel is divided into 3 categories and it is explained later in the novel how this structure has been fairly consistent throughout human history since the agricultural revolution. Class struggles are discussed and implied throughout the book.
1. The Inner Party: the elite, comprising a very small percentage of the population
2. The Outer Party: a larger group that encompasses the rest of the official political party members, but still small compared to the overall population (approx 10-15%)
3. The Proletariat: the rest of the population (approx 85%), largely uneducated and often ignored by the Party. Usually referred to as “proles.”

Newspeak – A language created by the Party with the purpose of simplifying and condensing the English language in such a way as to promote their ideology and control. The media is tightly controlled by the party and is filled with propaganda. The Party works around the clock at editing and rewriting history, employing newspeak terms like “doublethink” to distort reality and maintain control over the population.

Recommendation

In many ways, I prefer this book over Brave New World. While BNW is more of a satire or parody, 1984 is much more detailed and developed in its plot and characters. 1984 is darker and haunting (even creepy). Orwell is a first-class writer and I think if you enjoy dystopian novels, you’ll really appreciate this book. This is an important book to read, both for enlightenment and as a cautionary tale of how power corrupts people and governments.

You can find the book on Amazon here. Here’s a link to the Wiki page for this book.

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era – James McPherson

illustrated battle cry of freedom book

The best book about the American Civil War

If you’re ready to take the plunge and get the fullest account of the events leading up to, during, and after the Civil War, then this is the best book there is. James McPherson won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1988 with “Battle Cry of Freedom” and it has been updated with illustrations in subsequent editions since then. What were the causes of the war? Who were the leading figures? What were things like in politics at that time? If you’ve ever wondered on these things and felt that history class in high school skipped over some parts, you’ll find the answers here.

Think that’s a little heavy on the acclaim? Here’s a quote from one reviewer:

It is the best one-volume treatment of its subject I have ever come across. It may actually be the best ever published. It is comprehensive yet succinct, scholarly without being pedantic, eloquent but unrhetorical. It is compellingly readable. I was swept away, feeling as if I had never heard the saga before. It is most welcome.

Hugh Brogan, NYTimes review – https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/98/12/06/specials/mcpherson-freedom.html

Topics Covered

Notable people – Quotes, sections from journals, and in-depth information on all the main political and military figures, as well as detailed background info on people who are often overlooked. Lincoln, Generals Grant, Sherman, and McClellan on the Union side and Generals Lee, Jackson, and Forrest on the Confederacy all have center stage at various times.

Important events leading up to the war – How the Mexican American war brought about events to come. The passage of the Fugitive Slave law and other polarizing legislation on the topics of slavery and “freedoms.” The creation of the new Republican party. Threats of secession in the face of legislation that would limit slavery. Reluctant abolitionists and conflicted slaveholders, it’s all in there.

Major battles – Fort Sumter, Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Atlanta are all covered, as well as the lesser known but very important battles that shaped the outcome of the war.

Slavery – Yes, the war was about slavery. Multiple quotes from Confederate leaders clearly show that they viewed slavery as the pillar of their culture and their God-given right. White supremacy in all its ugliness is revealed time and time again in the horrific treatment of African slaves and attempts to expand slavery and even to restart the Atlantic slave trade. The Union leaders don’t get a free pass though, as they are often guilty of horrible abuses as well. It’s an ugly time in our history that we tend to gloss over.

Recommendation

I know the size of this book will turn some people away. Even the edited, abridged version has over 700 pages! But please, please, don’t let that be a deal breaker. This doesn’t read like a textbook, though it is incredibly informative. This is a remarkable book and the author has done a fantastic job in making the subject come alive. If you like history books, you’ll really enjoy this. Trust me on this one.

Here’s a link to the illustrated version on Amazon.