Haidt's Righteous Mind

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Jonathan (The Happiness Hypothesis) Haidt has announced his next book: The Righteous Mind, due sometime late next year (h/t: 3 Quarks Daily). Judging by Haidt's proposal to his publisher, The Righteous Mind will be a must-read:

This book will be a friendly slap in the face to liberals and atheists, delivered by a liberal atheist who desperately wants his peers to wise up, drop their self-righteousness, and understand the moralities of conservatives and of religious groups. The central idea of the book is simple but its implications are far-reaching:

Liberals and atheists generally do not understand the breadth of human morality. They think morality is about decreasing harm and increasing justice and autonomy. But for most of the world, morality is primarily about binding people into cohesive communities with strong institutions and collective goals.

Here is the basic structure of the book:

The first third of the book will be a tutorial on moral psychology. [...] In the middle third of the book I'll draw together political psychology and political theory to explain why there are conservatives and liberals in the first place. [...] In the last chapters of the book I'll offer readers tools they can use to transcend righteousness and work more effectively with others.

This part sounds particularly intriguing:

I'll also include a chapter on religion, taking direct aim at the "New Atheists" such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Dan Dennett. The rationalist mindset that is pervasive among New Atheist writers (all of whom are liberal white males with 2-foundation moralities) makes them prone to thinking that religions are sets of beliefs, most of which are demonstrably wrong (and therefore worthy of ridicule). Instead, I'll offer a characterization of religions as sets of practices that bind people together into cooperative communities that are generally good for their members, and that can be beneficial to societies (because they civilize and socialize their members) or harmful (when attacked, or when hijacked by demagogues).

Although I can see the validity in describing religions by their communal practices, it is their doctrines (or "sets of beliefs," if you prefer) that are religions' tool for differentiating between members and outsiders--and also for determining which infants are baptized and which are dashed against the stones (Psalm 137).

Haidt asks later "Why are conservative and religious people happier and more generous than liberal and secular people?" but neither of those claims is quite true. In fact, Wikipedia's look at religion and happiness notes the following:

The individual level of happiness and religiosity correlations show up when measuring within the United States, a predominantly religious country where people without religion are outsiders. According to a 2007 paper by Liesbeth Snoep in the Journal of Happiness Studies, there is no significant correlation between religiosity and individual happiness in the Netherlands and Denmark, countries that have lower rates of religion than the United States so that being without religion is not unusual. According to the Gallup World Poll survey conducted between 2005 and 2009 Denmark is the happiest country in the world, and the Netherlands rank fourth.

I would suspect that belonging to many demographic groups (Christian, heterosexual, able-bodied, etc.) is related to happiness to the extent that those groups also comprise the majority of their society. One could make a reasonable assumption that life is easier for those whose life situations are most readily acceptable in their society, leading to increased individual happiness. I'll quote here from a previous post on cross-cultural studies to point out how poorly religion does on measures of societal happiness:

In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies...

As far as the "more generous" claim, it is also less straightforward than Haidt's statement might make it seem. Boston Globe's Christopher Shea suggested, after reviewing the 2006 book Who Really Cares? that ignited the "stingy liberal" stereotype, that we look closely at the numbers before believing the conclusion. Evolutionary psychologist Nigel Barber looked at the issue here and here, noting that older people have more disposable income and more time to volunteer. He points out that "when age is statistically controlled, there is no difference between religious and nonreligious people in the value of their gifts to secular charities."

Disagreements aside, Haidt is an interesting thinker--and I look forward to the release of The Righteous Mind.

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on October 25, 2010 11:14 PM.

they think so small, they use small words... was the previous entry in this blog.

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