Review of The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt
Something I've noticed happening in the past 10 years or so was that ideas that would once have been only present in a lunatic fringe were beginning to prop up in the most mainstream of minds. From about 2005 onwards it began to become almost normal for quite level-headed friends of mine to say that vaccines cause Autism, that 9/11 was an inside job or Donald Trump was an electable presidential candidate.
Jonathan Haidt seems to provide some sort of explanation as to why this may be so - his thesis is that we don't actually make the moral judgements we do by means of reason, but by means of intuition - and we find the moral reasons we need to justify these feelings after the fact. We like to think of ourselves as a rider on a horse, where the rider is our reason, and the horse is our subconscious passions. Haidt says a better analogy is that we are a rider on a large and unwieldy elephant, who we have much less control over than we think we do.
This idea is particularly true in the age of the internet - as Bill Burr said in one of his routines - nowadays most of just believe what we believe, and go to www.I'mright.com to find the facts we need to prove it. This may be why there seems to be so much fracturing of the political discourse in the present day - in previous times when there was only one or two 'newspapers of record' which most people got their news from - the only facts that anyone had to marshall had been filtered through an editorial process which scarcely exists now, when 'proof' and evidence of almost anything can be found at any time from any source.
As well as this, Haidt sees that it is often differing moral systems that leads people to see things in such polar ways. The right is often baffled by the Left's distaste for nationalism and military heroism, while the left is often appalled by low-income Americans consistently voting for Republicans who reduce social programs which would benefit them. Each side routinely accuses the other of ignorance or stupidity for thinking this way - but in Haidt's view, each side is simply failing to understand the moral system of the other. This can sound perilously close to moral relativism - a chapter where Haidt visits a conservative Indian village is a good example - it could seem as if he is trying to offer justification for some old-school beliefs about the supression of women and the spanking of children for example.
Ultimately, though, this is a plea for dialogue between people of differing beliefs, an idea which seems increasingly unfashionable in some sectors - particularly in overheated parts of modern Universities, where illiberal ideas such as 'No-Platforming' seem to have have taken hold.