Penn State

John E. Marsh - Associate Professor of English, Penn State University Park

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

Author: Jonathan Haidt

Book Description:

Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind explains much about human nature and the origins of our deep political divisions in the United States. For me, though, Haidt’s greatest contribution is the brake he puts on our rush toward moral righteousness, or the belief that any one of us is morally superior to another. We are all moral, Haidt insists. Republicans do not cut the budget for food stamps because they hate poor people, but because they believe people should reap what they sow and because they believe in the sanctity of property, principles which food stamps (and the taxes taken to pay for them) violate coming and going. You can disagree, of course, but you cannot believe that they act, strictly speaking, immorally, as someone in love with his own moral commitments might be tempted to believe.

As a citizen, I find this enormously helpful. As a scholar, though, and as someone who studies the past, I find it even more helpful. You will never understand the past, or the present, by only asking what people were against or what you imagine them to have been against. Rather, you have to ask what they were for and acknowledge the legitimacy (for them if not for you) of what they were for. In short, everyone has their reasons. Acknowledging this diversity of commitments makes the past (and the present) enormously more complicated, but without it you are living in a storybook world of good and evil that never, in fact, existed.


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