Jonathan Haidt’s elephant has to endure Arnie’s quips!

In my encounters with self defined rationalists on the internet, I have noticed that some reach first for irony as a weapon, and don’t bother much with the reason that they prize so highly. It’s as if they seek to model their behaviour on that of contemporary movie action heroes, – but having delivered the killer line they then neglect to follow it up with the killer blow!
In the latest edition of new Humanist magazine there is a hostile review of Jonathan Haidts new book, the Righteous Mind( sub-title- Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion) which adopts exactly this tactic.It mocks the author’s admiration and love for colleagues and friends and totally mis-represents the central metaphor at the heart of his exploration.Haidt sees the conscious, rational mind, as like a mahout, the emotional, subconscious element, as like an elephant- a formidable independent creature, with an intelligence of its own. The reviewer renders this as a rider astride a rogue elephant crashing through the forest!

Haidt is a moral psychologist and explores the way our moral attitudes are shaped by triggers we are hardly aware of- For example that standing near to a hand sanitizer, when answering a questionaire, makes you more ‘right wing’; if you move away your liberalism is liable to return because you are further from the symbol of purity.

The essential reason, I think, that Haidt’s book got such a bad review was that he is an old Humanist and not one of the up to date variety. The clue is in the frontispiece, where he quotes, that seminal old humanist, Baruch Spinoza.

I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, not to hate them, but to understand them.

Haidt seeks to understand why people think what they do about religion and politics, and other moral issues rather ,than as is so often the case in the current conflictual landscape, just embrace post hoc justifications for why the other guy is wicked or stupid. He has great fun too with such things as the weirdness of much fashionable opinion. It is Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic, and is not necessarily that representative of humanity as a whole. I will ignore the negative review and keep on reading!

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