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Discussion Questions: Exploring The Righteous Mind

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11 October 2017

Discussion Questions: Exploring Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”

1. In Chapter 1, “Where Does Morality Come From,” Jonathan Haidt discusses the origins of morality, which include social constructions humans have been following for years. Apart from the nature / nurture debate—a psychological breakdown of morals—Haidt also goes over how morals are related to the body (i.e. bodily rituals in Indigenous people). He concludes that morals come from three possible places: they can come from culture, gut feelings or childhood constructions of harm and reward (Haidt). My preconceived notions about morality come from a variety of places, but I think most relate to my upbringing. I was raised in an immigrant household where determination and an education were the most important aspects of life. My parents taught me the value of school and that I would have a good job after graduating. My job is perfect, though unconventional, and everything they have said has been 100% true. I lean toward traditional gender constructions and family configurations, which is a product of my upbringing.

2. In this chapter, Haidt suggests that we could very well be almost entirely moral, with just a rational ‘tail.’ While our morals are guided by sentiments, rationality exists to a large extent to mediate actions (Haidt). Because morality and intuition govern how we relate to others and contribute to the way we operate in the world, reasoning often comes second to morality. I typically make choices from the emotional vantage point; my sympathy and empathy for others drives me to do the right thing. I agree that while humans have a rational faculty—indeed, it sets us apart from everything else—our emotions set us apart from everything else, too.

3. In chapter 3, Haidt uses Glaucon, Plato and others to illustrate how when humans are left by themselves, they will often act selfishly. He says that accountability and reputation are massive factors for moral action, and that ‘not getting caught’ is one of the primary reasons people do immoral things. Indeed, Haidt suggests this type of sneakiness is all but too common for humans (Haidt). Those who fail to acknowledge that most people will commit at least several moral faux pas when not observed are living in a world of dreams. Often, it is not even self-interest that drives a person to litter on the street or a child to steal a candy bar from an unsuspecting sweets vendor; it is simply the recognition that for just one moment, they are liberated. Of course, we are not talking about murder here. Humans have embedded ethical compasses that keep them from heinous acts. Small or petty evils will often be tolerated by this moral compass if no one is present.

4. In chapter 5, Haidt talks about the ethical ideas of autonomy, divinity and community. While the principle of autonomy suggests that everyone is an independent agent with specific needs and wants, community ethics believes that we are also embedded within our relationships and their contexts. The divinity principle is the idea that we are all temporary vessels for a higher power (Haidt). Nel Noddings made an interesting comment on this by presenting her conception of care ethics, a type of ethics opposed to the rational, autonomous systems put forward by Kant and other WEIRDs. Under care ethics, humans are not autonomous nor independent, but their morality is a function of social embeddedness. I believe in the community-centered version of morality because without other people, there is no one to practice morality on; it becomes ineffective and dwindles.

5. Figure 6.2 (Haidt) shows the different types of moral ‘tastes,’ suggesting that people choose their moral tastes depending on personality and preferences. I rely to a large extent on the first two moral tastes—care and protection from harm and fairness / cheating. I rely somewhat on the third one as well (loyalty / betrayal) and almost not at all on the last two (authority and sanctity). Perhaps, the last two are synonymous—at least to me—with self-righteous, smug attitudes. I believe that the first two tastes, care and fairness / cheating, are important because they underlie human relationships. We may follow the rules partly because there is legal pressure to do so, but the basis of that legal pressure emerges from humans’ instinct to protect one another from harm and secure relationships of trust. Alan Watts once said that our institutions should be governed by mutual trust and not by formalities and paperwork; this goes along the same vein.

6. In chapter 8, “The Conservative Advantage,” (Haidt) the author talks about how politicians appeal to the moral tastes for support. For example, while democrats usually appeal to peoples’ sense of fairness, Republicans appeal to loyalty and duty. Our evolutionarily evolved moral intuitions are more centered around ideas of fairness and equity / equality than they are around loyalty. This is evident in the way most Western nations (except for the United States and their fluke POTUS) adopt a liberal, equity-minded politics and morality. My reaction to the idea that a political party could become successful because of its appeal to certain social fixtures is not very strong; I understood this was happening for a long time.

7. I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic high school and elementary school. However, at about grade 8 I shed most of the beliefs because I could not bring myself to understand that someone 2,000 years ago rose from a grave. I am spiritual and consider there is likely a governing force in our universe, but organized religion plays a minimal role in my life (except at family functions and Christmas). Even most of my family members have shed their religious sentiments and uphold them just for the sake of cultural and ethnic tradition. Except in Islamic nations, religion functions very poorly to control the population, as most people have risen above most organized religions’ impositions and supernatural tenets.

8. Reading Haidt’s text was an interesting experience, to say the least. On the one hand, most of what Haidt says I had known from previous research into ethics, psychology and philosophy. I like what he says about political platforms manipulating the public consciousness by appealing to large-scale moral tastes, such as fairness or loyalty. Haidt says humans are self-interested, but that most of us have the capacity to transcend this self-interest. I believe most people are good and trustworthy, and I have seen this evidenced on more occasions than I have seen the opposite (humans being deceitful or belligerent). I will go forward being who I am, trying to help people in the best way I know how, while maintaining a view to my own needs and goals.

Works Cited

Haidt, Jonathan. The righteous mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion. Vintage Books, 2013.