UMD Reads The Righteous Mind

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

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?


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161 thoughts on “Politics, Murder and Self-Knowledge

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  1. In today’s era we as humans have learned to adapt and move on. But in my perspective from growing up in different states and learning to adapt in the different communities I have learned that no one has similar opinions. what I am trying to focus on from what I had said earlier was human bias. It is one of the biggest problems in the U.S. today and everyone knows it but no one really knows who to face the situation and contain it. So for now people have to take it and learn to move on.

    • Myles Kincaid on said:

      It is true, that there are no two people who have the exact same opinion on every subject. This is what makes the human race so remarkable, and individualistic thinking is something that we never want to fully take away. The real question is what are we to make of the differences? Do we hold it against them for not believing in the same thing as ourselves or do we let them continue to believe in something we view as wrong/incorrect?

  2. Cyrus B on said:

    I believe that people disagree with each other passionately about issues because they need to defend their realities and themselves. Their beliefs are a part of who they are and shape their perceived world. To compromise that is to compromise who you are. Not many people are willing to back off on their views because it is equal to undermining their identity. We are also resistant to disagreeing respectfully because there is no perceived benefit to letting up on what we believe to be right. Also, respectful disagreement can do no more than stall progress at times. The passage about the bi-partisan narratives that have been constructed, and the study about how well each party understands each other really made me think about these issues.

  3. Marshall Conklin on said:

    I think you need to read this book before examining the question, “Who are you?” So many things are pointed out about our human nature that I wouldn’t have ever figured out had I not been enlightened. And I think that’s applicable to most any situation or conflict that hasn’t yet caused a human any harm. Where our stubbornness comes into play is when we get defensive, and our interest in success goes down because we’d rather not look bad or weak especially in front of a lot of people. Unfortunately we live in a time that’s very stressful for government to please a large majority of our communities because of issues that are all relevant, have caused harm, and have strong supporting groups. Haidt told an important lesson in his book which is to talk to the elephant first because if you can control emotions you can be productive.

  4. Emily Crandell on said:

    I believe to obtain one’s real self-knowledge, we must be faced with difficult decisions in order to truly figure out who we are as people. Whether it is a small or a large issue, the choices we make shape us to be the people we are. Also, other people’s decisions affect us and how we perceive them as people. As our lives progress, our opinions of others change based on our actions as well as theirs. I presume that it is so problematic to agree on things regarding politics because we all have such specific values and opinions that we’ve created using our personal life experiences. We are such confident beings, so we assume that our beliefs are the ones that are correct. Every election is considered a competition rather than a logical way to choose our new government officials.

  5. Rebecca Rice on said:

    As to how well I know myself and those that disagree with me, I’m still working on it. I feel there is still a whole lot I need to learn about myself, and most definitely the people who disagree with me. In order to learn more about both, I will most likely have to do more in life; try new things, meet new people, and have a stronger general knowledge of the world around me. By experience more in life, I believe that I’ll be able to learn more about who I am, who I disagree with, and why we disagree with one another. By getting that basic foundation down, we can come a step closer to being more agreeable with one another, and hopefully, even get along. Each day can bring about a new learning opportunity that can provide a better understanding of myself and others. A day like this presented itself earlier this summer with my family. We got into what started as a simple comment, that turned to a discussion, and then to a heated argument about religion. We are a family of seven, and almost all of us come from a different beliefs of religion. From all sides, everyone stubbornly stood by their opinion and refused to listen to others reasoning for their opinions, which only lead to the person trying to make their opinion understood try even harder to be understood. After we finally put an end to it, everyone was upset and offended. If everyone at that time was more willing to listen, and if they had a better understanding of the others in that discussion, then things probably would not have gotten as heated as they did.

  6. Christina Palmer on said:

    I believe that it is just human nature that causes us to become defensive when someone does not agree with us. We want to prove why we are correct (or think we are correct) in our beliefs in hopes that the other person will see that they were wrong. We cannot agree on things because we have all lived different lives. We experience different things, have different levels of education, and are from different cultures. All of these factors cause us to think differently and in my opinion it would be strange if we all thought the same way. There has to be some sort of opposition in the world in order for change to come about.

  7. Corey Patterson on said:

    I believe that every person is different and shares different experiences and thats what makes people either agree or disagree with eachother. It’s not that humans are hypocritical, we just grow learn and adapt, and this can change people’s opinions. Finding real self knowledge or finding yourself and where you stand takes time.

  8. Tenzin Sonam on said:

    I believe it is hard for people to agree with each other because there are so many different opinions. As Haidt said your first response is to defend yourself, rather than put yourself in the shoes of the person you are arguing with. I have changed my political views many times in the past couple years because there are so many different ways to look at certain issues. Empathizing with someone can help you win an argument but can also even change your own views.

  9. Mitchell Kearney on said:

    I agree with a lot of these comments, most people don’t know who they truly are because we are constantly changing. Now I don’t mean that we are different people entirely but we are different versions of ourselves. Our experiences are what shape us and as we adapt to what we have gone through we change ever so slightly so other people know who we are still but we keep ourselves guessing.

  10. Tyler Carvalho on said:

    I totally agree with everyone here. We are humans are subject to change with time. Mitch K. has the right idea with his different versions of ourselves statement.

  11. Jarrod Stokes on said:

    I believe that the majority of our morals/political beliefs come from past experiences so our morals become more fine tuned as we age. People can become easily offended when someone “attacks” there political/moral beliefs because they are essentially questioning their own personal experiences. And our morals are embedded so deep into ourselves that it is difficult to be persuaded otherwise.

  12. Myles Kincaid on said:

    One quote I came across, I found applicable to not only our present time, but even more so with past civilizations. Jonathan Haidt realized this after reading a book on the Philippine tribe, Ilongot, and how it can be applied almost universally. The actions of the tight knit group emphasized to Haidt “…that morality often involves tension within the group linked to competition between groups.” From a broad viewpoint, the competition between separate societies could, possibly generate itself from our basic survival instincts. Having a close, trusted group provides security and convenience on a daily basis. To protect and grow upon these benefits, the society aims to destroy any possible threats, including other civilizations. This leads to a self-entitled morality, much like the Ilongot tribe Haidt spoke of. Soon, people may begin to show an increasing physical and malicious attitude towards outsiders. This is to prove their dedication toward their own clique and their willingness to protect it. The Mongolian and Roman Empires had no hesitation when burning whole civilizations to the ground during their expansion. In more recent times, the same characteristics are what made the holocaust so momentous within the German nation. If these traits are ingrained as deep into our psychology as I see them, worldwide peace seems more plausible by becoming a single nation instead of making people accept other nations as they already are.

  13. Jamey Wright on said:

    I agree with everyone’s statement. People are naturally defensive when criticized or critiqued. What I learned from this book is to take that criticism and branch it out and mold ideas together. Working with people and forming ideas together is what makes big things happen.

  14. The reason why we are conflicted with obtaining real self knowledge is because as humans it is our natural instincts to be curious about things and judge things. We cannot truly get to know our own selves because we are busy trying to figure out everyone else.

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