As Haidt explains, when we are faced with higher-level questions involving morals, values, and first principles, “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” In other words, we immediately make up our minds about matters of right or wrong based on our gut feelings, and only later do we invent logical arguments to justify our positions (or to try to convince others).
Haidt demonstrates that “the mind is divided, like a rider [logic] on an elephant [intuition], and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.” Moreover, he claims the elephant of emotions is “99 percent of the mental process,” and that’s why politicians who appeal to logic have so little success at changing the minds of the electorate. Indeed, Haidt doubts that more than a few people ever change their minds on the basis of logical reasoning about a moral or value-laden issue. Thus, because libertarians are hardwired to be “freedom loving,” liberals to be “caring,” and conservatives to value “loyalty, authority and sanctity,” how you and I respond to the arguments in the books reviewed above is preordained!
This conclusion is counter to everything we want to believe: We want to think of ourselves as rational beings. It is downright discouraging for those in the education industry whose entire endeavor is predicated on inculcating students with the skills of — and love of — reasoning. Yet Haidt cites study after study to support his skillfully crafted and engagingly written analysis and, in the end, I found it hard to deny the point he is making. I hate to admit it, but I can’t recall witnessing many people changing their minds on value-laden issues on the basis of logical reasoning. Nonetheless, I believe his analysis would have been more forceful had he drawn distinctions between what I believe are three separate levels of values: personal values, such as honesty, loyalty, and integrity; organizational values, such as service, quality, and innovation; and societal values, such as liberty, equality, and community. If, as I suspect, those are different orders of goods, isn’t there an analytical danger in treating them as fungible?
Indeed, because I so resisted Haidt’s unwelcome conclusions, I found myself arguing with him on every page. Doesn’t he draw too neat a distinction between liberals and conservatives? (Isn’t there a full ideological spectrum from left to right?) Doesn’t he come perilously close to advocating moral relativism? (Aren’t there some things, like racial and religious intolerance, that always are wrong?) But therein lies the book’s great strength: It engages, challenges, and ultimately informs the reader as the author effortlessly presents a concise overview of the most significant recent controversies concerning human nature.
I learned a lot reading this book. It helped me understand how I responded to the other books reviewed above and, thus, helped me appreciate why it is going to be so difficult to bridge the ideological divide in order to resolve the crisis of capitalism. That’s why I believe it is the best book of the year in this category. For my money, it is the best social science book since Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (Random House, 2007). It is so good, in fact, that I am almost able to overlook the fact that Haidt’s method contradicts his own thesis: He successfully changed my mind based on his reasoning, and not on an appeal to my emotions!
- James O’Toole is the Daniels Distinguished Professor of Business Ethics at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business and a contributing editor to strategy+business.