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An important book which will teach you about yourself
on 1 April 2012
I think this is a very important book, which politicians (among others) will be advised to read, and which will teach you something about yourself.
The author, a social and cultural psychologist, declares himself to be a straight-down-the-line liberal (in the American sense) atheist, but seems to have changed his mind in the course of writing the book, or at least in the course of researching for it. The book is in three parts, each with its own conclusion. Part I is headed "Intuitions Come First, Strategic Reasoning Second", and demonstrates how, rather than using evidence and reasoning to reach a conclusion about what our opinions ought to be, we almost invariably start with our instinctive conclusion and then search around for arguments to fit that conclusion, ignoring counter-arguments. This is why debates, whether about politics, religion, or anything else, so often degenerate to shouting matches.
Part II is called "There's More to Morality than Harm and Fairness", and this is where the author seems to have undergone a personal conversion from his straight-down-the-line liberalism. He identifies five strands of morality, and finds that liberals (again, in the American sense) tend to concentrate on just one or two strands, such as fighting oppression, while conservatives embrace all five, including respect for authority which is low in the liberal priority list. He concludes that the Democratic Party (which he supports) needs to learn important lessons from this research. If I can emphasise one key point: everybody claims to agree with "fairness", but they mean different things by it. The Left tends to mean equality, the Right to mean getting what you deserve. I cringe every time I hear a politician call for "fairness", without defining what they mean.
Part III is called "Morality Binds and Blinds". Groups within society, such as churches, are strengthened by the shared ethical values of their members, but those shared values can often blind them to the merits of different values shared by members of other groups.
The author concludes that the best kind of society is not a centrally-directed one, and certainly not a highly individualistic one with little real trust between its members, but one which consists of groups (churches, political parties, etc.) within which members trust each other, while understanding the different emphases of other groups.
I hope I have summarised Haidt's views correctly, and he gives many interesting examples to support his views. It would be interesting to hear any challenges to his views, based on objective research rather than instinctive prejudice. As I say, an important book which people should take seriously.