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Why We’re Groupish: Jonathan Haidt on Why We Take Sides

What is morality and where does it come from?

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt studies the five moral values that form the basis of our political choices, whether we’re left, right or center. In this eye-opening book–and talk below–he pinpoints through a fascinating blend of moral psychology and the deep insights of eastern philosophy the moral values that liberals and conservatives tend to honor most.

“The worst idea of psychology is that we begin with a blank slate.”

In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion his starting point is moral intuition—the nearly instantaneous perceptions we all have about other people and the things they do. These intuitions feel like self-evident truths, making us righteously certain that those who see things differently are wrong. Haidt shows us how these intuitions differ across cultures, including the cultures of the political left and right. He blends his own research findings with those of anthropologists, historians, and other psychologists to draw a map of the moral domain, and he explains why conservatives can navigate that map more skillfully than can liberals. Rather than arguing that we are innately altruistic, he makes a more subtle claim—that we are fundamentally groupish. It is our groupishness, he explains, that leads to our greatest joys, our religious divisions, and our political affiliations. In a stunning final chapter on ideology and civility, Haidt shows what each side is right about, and why we need the insights of liberals, conservatives, and libertarians to flourish as a nation.

The moral matrix is the way we’ve been conditioned both through evolution and culture to take sides, to be for or against things–and we all think we’re right. Our “righteous minds” were designed to: unite us into teams, divide us against other teams, and blind us to the truth. Among other things, this is why we have such a passion for sports.

“Sports is to war as pornography is to sex.”

If you just listen to Haidt it might be hard to catch everything. He speaks fast and has a lot of potent things to say. One might wonder if this how the inspiration bursts hit him too as he writes. At least when read you can move at our own pace. Regardless, he’s unusual in the way he’s both funny, really smart and informed, and somehow unoffensive in the way he presents data, mainly because he’s describing the way our minds work based on scientific data and not merely taking sides. It’s not just any data, though.

“I’m here today to give a choice. You can either take the blue pill and stick to your comforting delusions, or take the red pill and learn some moral psychology step out of the moral matrix.”

The Zen Master Sent-Ts’an says,

“If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between ‘for’ and ‘against’ is the mind’s worst disease.”

Haidt asks, Do you accept this? Do you believe the best way is to never be for or against anything? What he suggests instead is that by stepping out and understanding, getting out of self-righteousness and assuming a greater degree of moral humility, we can remain involved in the struggle of good and evil, right and wrong. We want to have both: a passionate commitment to the truth but also a depth of humility and insight into how we can persuade others to join what we believe are ends toward a higher and better world.

Stepping out of the “moral matrix” helps us to understand ourselves better–to recognize that everyone believes they’re right–and to persuade through other means. The book is an inspiring mix of history and anthropology (ala Pinker and Flynn), sociology and psychology (ala Singer and Gladwell) that manages to swerve into politics without taking sides–or at least with having a compassionate assessment for why certain groups believe and behave the way they do.

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