Arts book review

The bee and the chimp in you and me

A thought-provoking book about morality and the mind

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Cover of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind.
Courtesy of Vintage Books


The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

By Jonathan Haidt

Vintage Books

February 2013

Have you ever felt like other people must be crazy — or at least be hypocrites — to hold certain views that you consider profoundly immoral? Some people defend the Iraq War to this day, while others opposed it from day one. Some people want to ban abortion, while others want to ban guns. “What is wrong with these people? What are they thinking?” you may ask in despair.

If you relate to this, then do I have a book for you: The Righteous Mind. It is a wicked tome about how people think in moral terms. It is not a prescriptive book that pretends to teach you to be a moral person based on some philosophical or religious considerations. Instead, it is a descriptive book that seeks to describe how and why our brain deals with questions of morality from the perspective of evolutionary psychology. The author, Jonathan Haidt, hopes this understanding will help you decipher what “they,” the guys on the other side of the issue, are thinking; and to help them understand what you are thinking, so as to foster more constructive dialogue in this highly polarized nation and world.

The book has three main messages. The first is that your moral opinions are not really yours; you are just advocating for them. When it comes to morality one should not think of oneself as an independent mind, a sort of Rodin’s thinker, weighing the arguments for and against a position on an important issue, and then taking a reasoned stance that you are ready to defend. Instead, Haidt argues, your morality is largely determined by a part of your brain of which you are not conscious, and that then passes its moral positions to your rational mind with the command to find a rationale to support the predetermined stance. Haidt makes use of a metaphor, of a press secretary riding an elephant, where your conscious mind is the press secretary trying frantically to find logical arguments that will justify the actions taken by the elephant, which are not under her control.

The second message of the book is that the human brain has evolved to identify and react to morality of six types, or foundations, which he labels using paired opposites: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression. The author uses the metaphor of six moral flavors that can be recognized by our ‘moral taste buds’, just like our physical tongue can recognize five basic tastes: sweetness, sourness, etc. He also argues that some people may be genetically predisposed to having a higher sensitivity to some of these types of morality than others. Democrats may give more weight to the care and fairness foundations, whereas Republicans may give more weight to the loyalty, authority and sanctity foundation, and Libertarians may give more weight to the liberty foundation.

The third and final major message of the book is that, even though our DNA is 98 percent like that of a chimp, our moral mind is only 80 percent like that of a chimp, with a healthy 20 percent being more like a bee. Our tendency to collaborate is definitely not chimp-like (“you will never see two chimps carrying a log”), and under special circumstances a part of our moral circuitry that Haidt calls the “hive switch” turns on, and we put our group above our self, and become capable of sublime selfless sacrifices for the group’s well-being. Think of the thousands of young men and women volunteering to serve in their countries’ armies during World War II, and after 9/11. Think of them running towards the enemy lines, on the beaches at Normandy staring death in the face, or running towards the burning Twin Towers, or the place of the explosion at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, in order to lend a hand. In times of danger to the hive, the chimp in us takes the back seat and the bee is in control.

I read this book months ago and left it to marinade my brain. It had some mind-blowing passages, and others that were downright boring. The book is a bit rough around some edges, and could have used a better editor, but packs enough punch to keep you coming back for more. Yes, at some points, the author comes across as repetitive and unable to help himself from cramming too much of his beloved subject into the mind of the defenseless reader. Yet, all things considered, it is a very good book, in that it is a sort of slow-release worldview softener. To steal a term from film criticism, this is a “parking lot” book: one that doesn’t necessarily seem extraordinary when you read it, but then gets you thinking for days, weeks or — in my case — months after reading it. I have found myself recommending it to my wife and friends whenever they seem exasperated by other people’s moral positions that seem hypocritical or incomprehensible. And I recommend it to you now. Feel free to skip the boring pages! At the end, its core messages will likely stay with you and make your life easier for a long time to come.