At first view, one could say this book belongs primarily in a second year class of Social Ethics for Seminarians. The book is deep and profound. However, although Haidt is a true academic and develops a strong argument for his social ethical theory, he writes not only analytically but with anecdote and story to make this not only important but interesting for clergy and lay people as well. In other words, it is a highly readable book.
Haidt seems to be the next generation of ethicists following in the footsteps of some of “the greats”: Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr, James Gustafson, John Bennett, Joseph Fletcher, and Gibson Winter. In particular Haidt is the next step from Winter’s book, “Elements for a Social Ethic: The Role of Social Science in Public Policy.” And what fun; Haidt is Jewish, an atheist, cultural anthropologist, and philosopher.
Why is this book important? Haidt introduces structure and provides frames for how we make ethical decisions (or not). His main argument is that the primary root for our sense of righteousness, the basis for moral decision making, comes from intuition, not reason. Reasonable arguments are developed after our gut/heart/intuition responds to a moral question. He maintains from that hypothesis that we take three ethical positions: 1. Ethic of autonomy where we believe people first and foremost are autonomous individuals with wants, needs, and preferences which lead to “individualistic societies”. 2. Ethic of community where, outside of Western secular society, people are first and foremost members of large entities such as families, teams armies, teams, and nations where duty, hierarchy, respect, reputation, and patriotism are important. 3. Ethic of Divinity, where humans are temporal vessels within which a divine soul is planted. Thus, there are six foundations of intuitive coupled with reasonable responses to an ethical issue (let’s say immigration, gender issues, abortion, race, etc). 1. Care/harm addressing suffering and need. 2. Fairness — no exploitation, collaboration. 3. Loyalty — coalitions — our group. 4. Authority — rank and status. 5. Sanctify — holy rules. 6. Freedom. What Haidt provides for us is a conceptual framework to observe, look at, get a perspective on how we make decisions. He is hard on liberals for only viewing ethics through the ethic of autonomy and the prisms of care/harm and fairness only. His book is rich with analysis of Democrat and Republican party use or non-use of his ethical typologies, quite humorous indeed. This book is not about particular ethical and justice issues. Haidt is just providing a framework on how to think about having a righteous mind, and thus having intelligent conversations with people who don’t think like us.
In conclusion, this book is strongly recommended for all those who are doing preaching, teaching, pastoral, and outreach work. For example, one piece of Haidt’s advice, “If you want to change someone’s mind about a moral or political issue talk to the person’s intuition (gut/heart) first, then provide a morally reasoned argument.”
—The Rev. Paul Buckwalter
The Rev. Paul Buckwalter writes reviews of books you can find in the Renouf/Nelson Library.