Politics, Murder and Self-Knowledge
My name is Dave Prentiss and I teach in the political science department. At the end of this post I am going to ask you some questions about how Haidt’s book might relate to you personally. But first, I want to lay a little groundwork about the book and politics in general with the aim of helping us think as clearly and precisely as possible about some important issues Haidt raises.
One way to think about politics is that it is the attempt of people to live together without killing each other. Even though this formulation is a bit melodramatic, I think it is helpful to think about politics this way because (1) it is at least partially true, and (2) it illustrates some important aspects about politics that people really care about. One of those important aspects is this: what makes it so difficult for people to get along with each other – why do we disagree so much and why do we feel so strongly about some of these disagreements, sometimes even to the point of resorting to violence?
Let’s look at some of the ways Haidt’s book helps us think about this issue. Haidt begins the book by claiming that all of us, by evolutionary design, are “self-righteous hypocrites” (p. 23). He talks about a study that showed that conservatives understand liberals more accurately than liberals understand conservatives (p. 334). He also claims that conservatives understand the moral needs of society better than liberals do (pp. 337-42). I thought this was especially interesting because Haidt tells us that he is basically a liberal (p. 126). Finally, Haidt provides an account of how our personality and opinions develop that he claims helps us understand all of the above (pp. 321-28).
All these comments by Haidt remind me of some stuff I learned in a college philosophy course a long time ago: Plato said that the unexamined life is not worth living and the inscription over the entrance of the temple at Delphi (where Socrates was proclaimed the wisest man in Athens) was “Know Thyself.”
So, please take a minute to think about how well you know yourself and how well you understand people who disagree with you. What are the obstacles we all face in obtaining real self-knowledge? Try to be as honest as you can about this – think about specific instances in your life when a question of your own self-knowledge or understanding of someone else became an issue. And then put these considerations into the context of politics: why is it so difficult for people to agree on things, or at least to disagree with each other respectfully and in a way that contributes to a healthy, democratic dialogue?
While you’re meditating on all of this, are there any specific passages or basic points from Haidt’s book that help you think more clearly and precisely about these things?