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Mares: The Righteous Mind

09/28/12 7:55AM By Bill Mares
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(Host) The current political climate of widespread moralizing about one's own positions - and the demonizing of one's opponents - sent writer, former state legislator and commentator Bill Mares to a new book for some explanations.

(Mares) Why do liberals think that conservatives are moralizing, selfish hypocrites? And why do conservatives think liberals care only for society’s unfortunates and want to “spread our wealth, but not our work ethic?”

I’ve just read an insightful book which may not solve the partisan bitterness so common in these times of high political polarization, but which helps me to understand some of the moral and psychological sources of that gridlock. The book is called The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by religion and politics. The author is Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist who teaches at the University of Virginia.

Using the disciplines of anthropology, biology, sociology and psychology, Haidt first explores the origins and practices of human morality.

In our moral evolution, intuition came first and remains first. Reasoning is a distant second. In fact, reasoning has developed not as an independent path to search for a disembodied truth - but to buttress intuition. In a nifty metaphor, Haidt likens intuition to an elephant and reason to its rider. At best, the rider can get the elephant to lean one way or the other - but not to change its direction sharply.

Every day we make dozens of instant moral judgments, which seem like self-evident truths and are hard to dislodge.

Haidt says that to pose a struggle between secular and religious views is wrongly limiting. There’s more to morality than harm and fairness. Instead, Haidt says that everyone draws upon a variety of moral foundations. They include, with their opposites: Care/harm; fairness/cheating; loyalty/betrayal; authority/subversion; and sanctity/degradation.

According to Haidt, liberals tend to focus on the foundations of caring and fairness and largely dismiss the others. Conservatives respond to all – yet give less homage to caring and fairness than do liberals.

A sixth foundation, that all share, has to do with the needs and the beliefs of the group, both negative and positive. We may disparage the “tribalism” of the Middle East or Africa, but we have our own here.

In another neat phrasing, Haidt argues that religion both binds and blinds. He says, “It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.”

His final chapter was the only disappointment because he did not have a neat answer. As deeply intuitive creatures, we have great difficulty connecting with those who have different moral matrices. The chapter title had the plaintive ring of Rodney King: “Can’t we all disagree more constructively?”
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