UMD Reads The Righteous Mind

A blog for and about the 2013 UMD First Year Book Project

Back to the Beginning: Critical Reading of Part One

I’d like to return for a moment to the beginning of Haidt’s book and his central focus on how we might all get along better and more importantly, why we believe the way we do. Much of what I’ve written about here on the blog so far has been aimed on asking you about your own personal experience with Haidt’s ideas. Now that I’m writing my last official post, I’d like to ask you about your experience as a reader.


As a fairly critical reader myself (I hope), one of the strengths I see in his book is how he uses the philosophy of others to interweave concepts and effectively bring a multiplicity of ideas into conversation with one another. This idea of a “conversation” is one of the primary facets of strong inquiry, argument and reasoning. Let’s chart how he does this just for a moment in Part One. He begins with the question: “Where Does Morality Come From” and the first theorist he addresses (after setting up his context and mentioning a few canonical thinkers) is to introduce Piaget and his model of cognitive development. Piaget looked at what kids do innately in their development to chart what might be considered “nature” and what might be considered “nurture” in the learning process of humans. Without summarizing it all (you’ve read the book of course), what we take from Piaget here might be that moral development is in fact, innate (6-7). Hmmm…, really?

But then Haidt brings in Kohlberg, who as he mentions “extended” Piaget’s ideas, finding more nuance in the stages of our human development, asserting that some things happen naturally but then we reach a stage where we begin “manipulating rules and social conventions” (8). We begin to nurture our moral foundations and to test them. So perhaps it is both?  Not only did Kohlberg add to the conversation around moral development but also Haidt asserts that he provided a justification for a liberal morality, one where experience and “figuring it out for yourself” might be valued over authority and structured, rule-based learning.


And then he brings in Turiel who proved that in fact, children definitely do recognize social conventions as a part of morality, back to social authority again. For example, how do you behave if you’ve been told something is wrong? It might not even matter if it’s actually moral or not. This shows that authority figures have a lot to do with how we reason morally in fact, so do our peers and social groups. However, the biggest principle Turiel worked with was, no matter how arbitrary the rule, children still seem to recognize that doing harm to others is not a good way to go (12).


And then he brings in Fiske and Schweder…Oh boy. They showed us that morality is variant from culture to culture—what does “no harm” in one country might not be so in another. Even worse, the research was further limited by the fact that most of the studies that had been done by Piaget and others were with privileged, educated children in the Western world (12-16). Uh-oh.


It is at this point that Haidt offers his own voice into the conversation, showing us where he departs as a researcher into his own field of inquiry. He’s laid the foundation of ideas and now he can extend them by describing his own experience and where he takes the ideas of others and makes his own contribution to the field of knowledge. He sums it all up by saying “We’re born to be righteous, but we have to learn what, exactly, people like us should be righteous about” (31).


So, finally, what do you think of Haidt’s organizational strategy in this chapter? In the rest of the book? What about the metaphors? Do you agree with my summary? Did I miss any key points? Did you find him using his set of strategies consistently throughout the book and how do you feel about the conclusions he is drawing for us? Do you think he is missing something? Do you think he is making any false assumptions? Do you think he is successful? I can’t wait to get your own best “critical reads” on Haidt’s style and content!



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78 thoughts on “Back to the Beginning: Critical Reading of Part One

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  1. I believe that Haidt’s writing strategy of starting off with a metaphor, and introducing all of them in the prologue, was a very smart move from a literary point of view. It made understanding his points much easier and thus, as a reader, I was hooked in. I also agree with your summary, as most above seemed to as well.

    • Allison Scott on said:

      I agree completely. It wasn’t the orthodox method in starting a non-fiction text, which actually kept my attention locked in the reading. Most scientific works are filled with unnecessary and complicated language, but the simple metaphors throughout the book made it understandable and allowed readers to gain more than they would have by just mindlessly voicing each word in their head.

  2. Manuel Amado on said:

    What is the understanding on Paiget’s theory on god’s creation of the head and body?

  3. McKayla Costa on said:

    When I first bought the book and read the title I thought to myself, “I’m never going to be able to read this!” I’m not much of a reader and a slow one at that, but once I actually picked it up to find out what it was really about I found it hard to put down. The Righteous Mind helped me to view the world and the people surrounding me in ways that I never have before. Not only did it open my eyes to the way that other people think, but it helped me to understand the way I think of other people. In part one of the book, “The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant”, I realized how quickly I am to judge people that are different than myself. The rider and elephant metaphor can be used every time I meet someone and every time I’m in a new situation. I feel like reading this book was a great way to start my college career because I know that on my first day of classes my “elephant” will be leaning quite a few times; but I’m now more open to having a completely different mindset when it happens.

  4. Ryan McDonough on said:

    I thought Haidt made some very interesting metaphors and gave examples that really helped guide me and understand his thoughts. Right at the opening of Chapter 1 he immediately jumps into getting you into his mindset. He shares metaphors that may get you to question the morals that you have had all your life. The metaphor regarding the sexual intercourse with the chicken was quite graphic and unpleasant to think about, however i believe this metaphor helped me understand exactly where he was coming from more than anything else. This metaphor made me question my morals thoroughly for weeks. The thoughts of what is right from wrong pondered in my head and it helped me see morals in a whole other point of view. That even if I would never think about imitating this metaphor, it made me question whether something so harmless to the world and people around you could be morally wrong. Could something that you find enjoyment out of and doesn’t harm a soul be morally wrong? I guess it depends on the person and they’re upbringing which is exactly what the author discusses. I believe his metaphors were well received and that this chapter made me challenge my thoughts and ideas way more than I had expected starting the book.

  5. Ashley Penney on said:

    I personally love how Haidt approached the reader. He suggested a different way of looking at controversial issues that were more thought provoking than offensive. The way he wrote was like he was having a conversation and he wanted the reader to form their own opinion in a way they may not think to do. I found myself thinking deeply about many of the topics breached in the book, and I was amazed at how I was able to think objectively about topics that I was emotional about under normal circumstances, without becoming so upset I had to put the book down. This approach actually encouraged me to keep reading.

  6. Brittney Rodriguez on said:

    I appreciated how Haidt started off the book by explaining some of the important theorists and their views about morality. I also liked how he ended with his thoughts that way we had a bit of background information to compare it to. Throughout the entire book one of my favorite parts was how he set up each chapter with a main idea that is then broken down into different parts and ends with a small summary. Your summary was spot on, all it gave was the basic main ideas of each theorist. I believe that Haidt was successful with answering the question of “Where Does Morality Come From?” because he gave us key information on many theorists’ views and intertwined it with his own experiences and findings. The end result was a cohesive, yet dense, answer to the question.

  7. I really like the way Haidt organized each part of the book. I believed each part prepared for the next. I liked that at the end of the three parts he has a summary that is weaved into simpler thoughts. He meshed his ideas well with one another. I thought this strategy was very useful.

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