Don't discount the importance of emotion when reaching across the ideological divide.

Author:Kavanagh, Shayne
Position:The Bookshelf - The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion - Book review

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Jonathan Haidit

Knopf Doubleday

Publishing Group

2012, 448 pages, $28.95

Why are people so divided by politics? Jonathan Haidt addresses this question in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by bringing to bear hundreds of years of moral philosophical tradition and modern psychological research. He provides at least part of the answer through a field of study called "moral psychology"


In the first part of the book, Haidt examines the underpinnings of our moral psychology. Thousands of years of Western philosophical tradition have elevated reason and logic to the point that we sometimes lose sight of the limits of rationality and discount the role that emotions play in decision making. In fact, not only do emotions have an important role in our thinking about moral issues, they have a dominant role.

Haidt suggests the metaphor of an elephant and a rider, where emotions are the elephant and the rider is reason. The elephant has an outsized say in the direction we are going to go in. The rider can influence the elephant, but the rider is not in charge. In fact, Haidt goes a step further and demonstrates, though psychological experiments, our rationality is often employed to invent post hoc justifications for our emotionally driven moral preferences (i.e., rationalizations). Haidt suggest that internalizing the metaphor of the rider and elephant can help us be more patient in our discussions of politics with other people because we then understand that the arguments they articulate in favor of their positions are often not the products of authentic, deep, rational thinking, but are really expressions of their emotional response to an issue. Of course, this conclusion applies to everyone, suggesting that we should all exercise more humility regarding the veracity of our political beliefs.

It isn't that there's no hope for communication between people of opposing political views; it's just that the common approach of winning your "opponent" over with superior reasoning will likely be ineffective. Haidt use the metaphor of a dog wagging its tail. A dog wags its tail to communicate that it is happy. In this metaphor, our rational articulations are simply a communication (a wagging tail) of our intuitive, emotional beliefs (the dog itself). Just as you can't make a dog happy by forcibly wagging its tail, you can't change someone's mind by logically refuting their arguments.

Instead, you need to be able to see things from the other person's viewpoint, deeply and intuitively. This allows you to engage in a friendly, civil conversation where you can provide your reasons for your beliefs. When the other party does not feel that they are under attack or engaged in a win-or-lose debate, they no longer need to devote their rational faculties to justifying their own beliefs. This atmosphere of empathy provides the opportunity for your reasoning to shape their intuitions (and vice versa--you may change your own intuitions in response to their reasons). In short, Haidt says, "empathy is the antidote to righteousness" --although not necessarily one that is easy to employ.


With the critical...

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