Everything Looks Like a Nail

I just finished (about ten minutes ago) Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind. Everything looks like a nail now, because I have a bunch of new mental “hammers” to play with. I cannot recommend this book enough. Go, read it, I’ll wait.

I think the concepts here will likely influence several future proper essay posts, but I want to just dump an unsorted list of points on which this book has fundamentally changed my mind, added a whole new tool to my mental toolkit, or just articulated something that I’d never really been able to explain before.

  1. Moral relativism. Although I don’t think I’ve ever formally articulated it on this blog before, I used to philosophically identify as a moral relativist. At a certain abstract level this is still true; Hume’s Guillotine remains as sharp as ever. That said, relativism as commonly elaborated includes a particular claim which this book has changed my mind on. Specifically, I now believe that there are universal moral values, shared of necessity not just by all human beings, but potentially by all living beings with sufficient intelligence that have survived a few rounds of evolution.
  2. Group selection in evolution. Group selection is fairly widely rejected by evolutionary biologists, and so the popular view now (and one I used to hold) is that it just doesn’t happen. Haidt cites a number of more recent studies to argue that it is still conceptually useful, though in a much restricted sense from the original version that books like The Selfish Gene worked to demolish. (Interestingly, Dawkins et al. reject even this restricted version, but I don’t understand why; the rebuttal language gets very technical.)
  3. To any reader of some of my past writing, it should be clear that I am sometimes torn between a fairly liberal mindset and some conservative intuitions. Haidt neatly unpacks where those come from in terms of axiological values, and why. While I profess to value truth and beauty, the reality of my psyche is more complicated. (Interestingly in hindsight, I hit the nail on the head in an off-hand addendum to this Other Opinions link. I wish I’d recognized the power of that dichotomy sooner.)
  4. Speaking of unpacking moral intuitions, Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory is a fantastically useful mental model for me to systematize a bunch more of human behaviour. I’m still exploring the implications, and making adjustments to my understanding.
  5. I have a very old, dear friend with whom I have had an on-again-off-again philosophical/political debate for several years now. While we’ve been respectful and have managed to resolve some of our differences, there has also always been a fairly substantial nugget of remaining disagreement. I believe I now have a far better and more charitable understanding of that friend’s positions and moral intuitions.
  6. I also believe I have a far better understanding of recent changes in political polarization. While I’ve always understood the basic nature of polarization (people are tribal, and reasoned debate gives way before team-membership-signalling), I’d never had a great explanation for why polarization has increased so much in the last couple of decades. The best I could do was make vague gestures at “the internet”. Haidt gives a much better explanation.

In summary: fantastic book, and I still have a bunch of it left to process.

6 thoughts on “Everything Looks Like a Nail

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