The Most Important Book I’ve Read This Year image

The Most Important Book I’ve Read This Year

Back in January, prompted by a challenge from Tim Challies, I set myself the target of reading one hundred books by the end of the year. I've currently read seventy, most of which have been Christian and/or theological, and some of them have been absolutely superb (regular readers will know which ones, and I'll probably post the highlights at the end of the year). But the most important book I've read so far has been written by a secular Jewish social psychologist named Jonathan Haidt. I have rarely read a book that illuminates and reframes so many different areas as his The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Countless reviews have appeared online, most of them glowingly positive, so I don’t want to rehash any of that here. But because I think his book is so helpful, I do want to draw attention to the three main points Haidt makes about the way we make moral decisions, and the three controlling metaphors he uses, before reflecting a bit on why they are so significant in our current cultural situation.

The Rider and the Elephant: intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. Haidt pictures the relationship between reasoning and intuition like that between a rider and an elephant: though it looks like the rider (reason) is in charge, and though the rider can do some important things (learn new skills, explain what the elephant is doing, change the elephant’s direction with a lot of effort), the chief mover is actually the elephant (intuition). People don’t reason their way to which things are right and wrong; they sense emotionally and intuitively that they are right or wrong, and then use their reason to explain why. In that sense, to switch metaphors, moral and ethical decisionmaking is more like a politician looking for votes than a philosopher looking for truth. (The transcript of a liberal-minded Western person trying to explain why incest is wrong, and gradually coming to the realisation that she doesn’t know why it is wrong but knows it is anyway, is fascinating on this point.)

A Tongue With Six Moral Taste-Buds: there is more to morality than harm and fairness. Human beings, Haidt argues, use six different foundations for moral reasoning - the six “taste-buds” of the righteous mind - but some of us use more of them than others. For WEIRD people (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic), like most readers of his book and this blog, the most obvious bases for morality are (1) care vs harm, and (2) fairness vs cheating, to the point that many WEIRD people will not be able to fathom why anyone would regard something as wrong if it wasn’t (1) clearly harmful to someone or (2) demonstrably unfair. Yet Haidt’s studies in psychology, especially in the non-WEIRD world, presented him with a range of other foundations: (3) loyalty vs betrayal, (4) authority vs subversion, (5) sanctity vs degradation, and (6) liberty vs oppression. The profusion of case studies here, again, is fascinating, and indicates that even within the US and the UK, where foundations (3), (4) and (5) seem not to exist at all, there are certain extreme scenarios (consensual cannibalism is one particularly gruesome example) that indicate they still do.

The Hive Switch: morality binds and blinds. In Haidt’s provocative metaphor, we are 90% chimpanzee and 10% bee. That is, we spend most of our lives operating like chimpanzees - selfish individuals who are trying to maximise our own chances for survival, comfort, progeny and security - but in certain situations, a “hive switch” gets flipped, and we become like bees, working together in startlingly groupish, selfless and apparently irrational ways, and prioritising the benefit of the group over our own. Triggers for the hive switch include team sport, national tragedy (Princess Diana, 9/11), dance (he uses the example of raves), and of course religion; and those religions that make the largest demands on their adherents tend also, perhaps counterintuitively, to be the most successful.

All very interesting. But so what? Well I’ve taught through The Righteous Mind on two separate training courses since March, and I think there are a number of ways in which Haidt’s insights can, and should, shape our preaching and our leadership. For example:

1) Speak to the elephant as well as (if not more than) the rider. This is an important idea in both evangelistic and pastoral contexts, but particularly applies to preaching and apologetics: if the people you’re speaking to have their intuitions and emotions against you, then it is almost impossible to win over their minds. (In many ways this is the same point as Pascal makes in the Pensees: you have to “make good men wish it were true” before you “show that it is.” But it comes complete with a really nice metaphor.) This, in practice, probably involves a combination of acknowledging emotional objections, telling stories, using humour, finding early points of agreement, and so on.

2) Understand that disagreement may result from different moral foundations. We can be inclined to assume, like the person who speaks English to French people but simply louder and slower, that disagreement comes when people share moral foundations but disagree on whether a particular thing contravenes them, so the best strategy is just to lay out your reasons as clearly as possible. Haidt’s argument suggests that the moral foundation that grounds your conviction may barely even exist for the other person, so you need to think things through more carefully. It occurs to me that, in the abstract at least, one of the most important changes wrought by the sexual revolution is the profound weakening of three of these six moral foundations, to the extent that many WEIRD people no longer know how to use them. (Gay sex harms nobody, goes the argument, so it can’t be wrong; your appeals to authority, loyalty and sanctity, as vital as they are for you, do not have any purchase in the other person’s moral framework.) This doesn’t mean proving that all our moral imperatives are somehow about harm, because that would concede that WEIRD morality is all there is. But it probably does mean laying out these frameworks, and explaining where they come from, rather than assuming them.

3) Go beyond telling people what the Bible says is right or wrong; explain why it is right or wrong. It is difficult to communicate a central biblical theme like holiness in a world without temples, or the supreme authority of Scripture in a world in which authority is not seen as a foundation for morality (and, indeed, is often seen as a foundation for immorality). Christian congregations in the US and the UK, let alone the towns and cities all around them, simply do not use some of the moral foundations necessary for understanding the Bible, and may even assume that their own foundations must be shared by the Bible. (Gay sex is wrong, they reason, so it must harm somebody. Now, who might that be? Children? Me? Society as a whole? To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.) So we need to explain the basis on which the Bible declares something to be true, good or beautiful, using categories like Haidt’s (among others), not just the fact that it does.

4) Continue to call people to lives of sacrifice and commitment. At one level, you don’t need a moral psychologist to tell you that: it’s right there in the Gospels. But there is certainly a temptation, and I imagine many of us feel it, to dial down the requirements in a generation that looks like it has too many choices and not enough sticking power. Don’t. Not just because it’s unbiblical (though that too), but because it doesn’t actually work; it sounds like it would make people more likely to participate, because fewer demands are placed on them, but ultimately it actually makes people less likely to participate, because fewer demands are placed on them (in Haidt’s terms, it doesn’t flip the hive switch). Religions that thrive, historically speaking, have been the “expensive” ones (a point that is also made in another great book I read this year, Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity). And don’t be fooled into thinking that lower commitment to the church, in time and money, will increase people’s activism outside it. As Haidt explains, “Common sense would tell you that the more time and money people give to their religious groups, the less they have left over for everything else. But common sense turns out to be wrong. Putnam and Campbell found that the more frequently people attend religious services, the more generous and charitable they become across the board.”

5) Learn to disagree well. Understanding the moral foundations people use, and how they use them, is of enormous importance both in representing their arguments fairly and in critiquing them thoughtfully. One of the most interesting asides in Haidt’s book is the reference he makes to the ability (or not) people have to articulate what their opponents actually believe; it turns out moderates are reasonably good at explaining what those they disagree with believe, conservatives are less good—and worse at it the more conservative they are—and the worst are liberals, who are worse at it the more liberal they are. (Just after reading Haidt I read an op-ed by Polly Toynbee in which she explained how the right hates the poor, which made his point fairly emphatically.) No matter where we are politically, or even theologically, understanding why good people might disagree with us about something important, even if it is something we feel passionately about (marriage, abortion, war, etc), is immensely important in disagreeing with them well, let alone persuading them. It’s what Tim Keller often says: describe your opponent’s view in such a way that they would say, “that’s better than I could put it.” If you can’t do that yet, don’t critique it.

I’m sure there are other points of application that will emerge, but this has been a long enough article already, and to be honest, you should really get the book. But even if you don’t, think about these things.

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