Book by Jonathan Haidt
Review by Mike Kennamer
Director of Workforce Development
Northeast Alabama Community College

Linus van Pelt said, "There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.” In this book, Jonathan Haidt (pronounced height) didn’t heed the advice of Charlie Brown’s best friend. While he didn’t talk about the Great Pumpkin, he did challenge his readers to discuss their views on religion and politics, even when they are in stark contrast with one other. 

Through a series of anecdotes, Haidt demonstrates how we, as humans, equate rightness with that with which we agree. This concept of self-righteousness means that we view right and wrong from a limited view—our own—and hold righteousness in contrast with the beliefs and actions of others. These anecdotes are sometimes entertaining, often thought provoking, and always instructive as we consider that which we believe. Haidt challenges the concept of conventional thinking, and compares it, as did Mencius and Hume, to preferences in what we like to eat. 

This book takes the reader on a journey of discovery regarding how humans think and how our preconceived notions of right and wrong shape our views. In the first anecdote in the book, he tells the story in which a family’s dog was killed by a car in front of their house. They had heard that dog meat is delicious and, without anyone seeing them do so, they cut up the dog’s body, cooked it, and ate it for dinner. Haidt asked the reader to decide whether the people in the story did anything morally wrong. While most of us would find this distasteful, most would be hard pressed to describe it as morally wrong. Scenarios become more and more complex and thought provoking, prompting the reader to consider the situation beyond his own limited realm of beliefs. 

Why would an academic advisor want to read this book? Even those of us who live in the most homogenous communities will work with students who are socially, economically, politically and religiously different from us. This book will help the advisor to understand and respect alternative views by examining the source of his or her own views. 

While I may not agree with all of Haidt’s views I believe that his research and life’s work are instructive to anyone who works with people. By his own admission, he perhaps tried to cram “too many sights into the tour.” But he does, after all, share his journey from graduate school to his work as a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, and to his current role as a social psychologist at the Stern School of Business at New York University where he helps economists and other social scientists to apply moral psychology to bring more efficiency and ethics to businesses, non-profits, and governments. 

The book is well written, organized in a logical manner, easy to read, and written in first person, so you feel that Haidt is sharing his experience in a conversational manner. I recommend it for anyone who is willing to examine the source of their views while considering the beliefs of others. 

If this book helps us to have a more civil discourse on politics and religion as the author suggests and I believe it will, perhaps Dr. Haidt could help Linus begin a discourse on The Great Pumpkin. I would read that book also. 

The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion (2013). Book by Jonathan Haidt. Review by Mike Kennamer. New York: Random House. 528 pp., $16.00, (paperback), ISBN # 978-0-307-45577-2
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