UMD Reads The Righteous Mind

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

The Righteous Mind and the Liberally Educated Mind

Dave Prentiss here. We are drawing to the close of our discussion about The Righteous Mind so I wanted to go back to the beginning of the book to remind us of where we started and see just where Haidt has taken us.

Haidt says that we all begin life with a “righteous mind” and that in order to understand what this means his book will take us “on a tour of human nature and history from the perspective of moral psychology.” By the end of this tour, Haidt hopes to have given us “a new way to think about two of the most important, vexing, and divisive topics in human life: politics and religion.”

Haidt’s stated intention for his book is a perfect example of what is called liberal education. At UMD, the idea of liberal education is at the foundation of what we want you to experience over the next four years. The origin of the word “liberal” in Latin is libertas, which means liberty or freedom. The idea of liberal education is therefore rooted in the belief that it is the kind of education that is necessary for a person who lives in freedom. We could say that liberal education is “freedom education” – the type of education one needs to exercise one’s personal and political freedom well.

What kind of education is that? Freedom in both the personal and political arenas requires making decisions for oneself, instead of other people making decisions for you. To make decisions about your personal life well, and to make good political decisions in your role as a citizen, activist, public official or political leader, you need to have knowledge about yourself, about others, and about what is good for human beings both individually and as a community. Therefore, you could say that the essence of liberal education is the study of human nature and what is good for human beings.

Of course, people disagree quite a bit about human nature and what is good for human beings. But this is exactly where the beauty and glory, not to mention the usefulness, of liberal education comes in. There is a tradition or type of liberal education that sees itself as engaging in a great dialogue or debate about what human nature is and what is good for human beings. The role of teachers in this version of liberal education is to introduce students relentlessly and rigorously to what thinkers, novelists, poets, scientists, and artists have said about such matters and to train students to use that knowledge to think logically and thoroughly for themselves about such things.

Since I teach political science, let me offer some evidence to consider about the role that liberal education can play in our political life. Alexander Hamilton stated that for political leaders “the most useful of all sciences [is] the science of human nature.“ James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51, “What is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” After being re-elected in the raucous presidential campaign of 1864, Abraham Lincoln said “The strife of the election is but human nature practically applied to the facts of the case.  What has occurred in this case, must ever recur in similar cases.  Human nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak, and as strong; as silly and as wise; as bad and good. Let us, therefore, study the incidents of this, as philosophy to learn wisdom from, and none of them as wrongs to be revenged.”

In addition to being a powerful tool to help guide us through life, liberal education gives us experience in the beauty and wonder of being human and the world we live in. We owe Jonathan Haidt a debt of gratitude for sharing his insights on how we might choose to live our lives and helping us experience some of this beauty and wonder. He has introduced us to one of the many paths each of you will have the opportunity to explore over the next four years in a journey from having a righteous mind to a liberally educated mind.


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181 thoughts on “The Righteous Mind and the Liberally Educated Mind

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  1. I completely agree with this. Just because having sexual intercourse with a chicken appears unusual to you, me or the next person, it doesn’t make it morally wrong. What is perceived to us as strange, disrespectful and shameful can be seen as a good thing and isn’t frowned upon in other cultures.

    • Jonathan on said:

      I agree with you Cindy, just because an action is perceived as strange or disrespectful to someone, that doesn’t quite mean it’s going to be looked at by someone else the same way.

    • Tommy Duong on said:

      I disagree on what you wrote. I mean you are open to talk how you feel but I just disagree. There are things that you should know that is right or wrong. It’s not right having sexual intercourse with a chicken. How would your parents feel about it? They raised you trying to teach you what’s right or wrong. If you believe in God and Jesus that would have a effect on your opinion.

  2. Winona Glascock on said:

    This book sort of travels from childhood in which we, generally speaking, are instilled with the ideas of right and wrong. It brings us through adolescence where we learn to question everything and uses our culture, or the rational part of our minds to shape our views on moral decisions which lead us into our opinions of religions and puts us into our voter mindsets. It does a great job of showing where our morals truly originate from.

  3. Kosaro Kamara on said:

    I also agree with Kyle. Since we are all born encrypted with our own moral value systems, what someone may consider to be wrong may not be thought of as wrong to another person. If the man chooses to have sex with the chicken and no one is there to witness the act and judge him for it, then to him it won’t be wrong, but to the eye witness, like myself, will feel sick to their stomach and accuse him of being mentally disturbed. Him being in the confines of his home removes the social pressures and judgements of the act making it okay in his eyes.

  4. Winona Glascock on said:

    the examples and scenarios start, also, alike from childhood and become more and more complicated and bring our minds into situations that are very uncomfortable to think about.The moral situations whether dealing with lessons and ideas we were given as children, or things we’ve found to be wrong on our own, from money to incest, it really causes us to reflect on whether something is truly wrong and whether or not we would do it. Honestly, I’ve surprised myself with some of my own answers.

  5. What I liked most about the book so far is how he not only explains how morality is tied to the two most influential forces in our social lives, but also what it is to even affect it. The fact that he explains what morality is frees us from explaining what it is to put our efforts towards applying the various explained aspects towards things that matter, in a sense. I’ve learned things about my own morality that I didn’t even realize, and kept telling myself that I won’t be fooled by his tricks he does during interviews, but I keep finding myself fooled again and again. But that I know I’m wrong about a lot of aspects of myself and the way society perceives morality lets me be free in assuming everyone is wrong about something, and that lets me teach and learn.

  6. Ike Chidoro on said:

    I agree with you. When Mr. Prentiss says “liberal education is the study of human nature and what is good for human beings.” Without the freedom in education there would be no point of learning because a puzzle is not complete without all of its pieces. If we only knew that the Holocaust had happened and didn’t know its cause or why, there would be no point of learning about it.

  7. kevin francois on said:

    i think its morally wrong because the way i was raised, the environment that i was in never allowed me to think about it and say having sex with dead chicken was right nor will it ever be right in my eyes. I can almost say its animal cruelty. we can also put a way like this… having sex with a dead human being, i do not think none of you can actually think this through and say yes i can think of myself having sex with a dead person. In this whole country or even the whole world, i believe you would find people that will do it but it doesn’t make sense to society. The reason i said society is because we got to work together as a team or as a nation, make everything equal to live a better world. that makes perfect sense to me, i don’t know about you!

  8. Laetitia Dorsinville on said:

    I do agree with the idea behind liberal education, but one of my questions is how are you able to discover and understand where you come from without taking in all of the ideals and morals of your culture?, how do you find that balance to find yourself, develop your own morals, and not offend or dishonor your culture at the same time?

    • daveprentiss on said:

      Hi Laetitia – you’ve identified a fundamental and difficult issue about liberal education. Plato grapples with this problem in The Apology of Socrates and in the passage on the myth of the cave in The Republic. Plato felt there was a profound tension between philosophy (i.e., liberal education, free inquiry) and politics (i.e., culture and morals). He believed that philosophy had to be respectful of social norms while still pursuing the truth without limitation. It can be a very challenging balancing act.

  9. Carl Spooner on said:

    Entering this new chapter of my life and being presented with the opportunity to obtain this “Liberal education” is both exciting and intimidating. The freedom to finally make my own decisions and shape my own future is a whole new experience, and one that I think every child looks forward to while growing up. However, it comes with the realization that because I’m making my own choices, I’ll also be facing my own consequences, without the safety net that being “just a kid” provides.

  10. Patrick Pacheco on said:

    I am happy I read this book it made me excited about taking both philosophy and psychology this year. It has prepared me for learning these subjects in a more in depth detailed and informative way. Although this book clearly isn’t pro religion I did find some points that supported or rather justified religious practice. I come from a religious background and I found the section titled “why atheists won’t sell thier souls” interesting, particularly the study haidt conducted when he offered students to sign a paper selling their souls in return for the sum of two dollars. Haidt stated that only 23% of the students asked were willing to sign the paper, to me this made me feel that the majority of people must beleive in a Godly figure or have some kind of spiritual beleif then, if not they wouldn’t have cared about selling their souls. I find it amusing that even though there seems to be many people who would deter religious practices I believe the majority would respond the same way as the students from the study. I find it odd that Haidt didn’t elaborate more on this topic it would have been nice if he did.

    • daveprentiss on said:

      Hi Patrick – I think one of Haidt’s strengths is that he recognizes that the humanities (e.g., philosophy) and the social sciences (e.g., psychology) have a lot to offer each other. Keep looking for those connections and explore how a combined approach may take you more deeply into an issue.

  11. Ebuka Chibueze on said:

    To me a truly liberal education requires a great deal of honesty and introspection. From my experiences people are naturally very biased when it comes to sensitive issues. While we are quick to find faults with people we disagree, we often have difficulty questioning our own ideas or opinions. One cannot have a free education if he or she does not consider their own biases. I also believe in order to be more open minded one needs to take an ample amount of time to understand ideas we are not comfortable with.

    • daveprentiss on said:

      Excellent point, Ebuka. I think one’s temperament and personal qualities are just as important to intellectual achievement as one’s breadth of knowledge and analytical ability. For many people, limitations in the former area present a major obstacle to real understanding, no matter how “smart” they are supposed to be.

  12. Matthew Lloyd on said:

    Where the family eats the dead dog shows something which might be frowned upon in our ethic morals, yet while this is true it’s not wrong morally because the author who took us on the journey gave the example how it was there dog , so they had all the rights for it. Another thing that I believe that the author brought up was that them eating the dog wasn’t morally wrong because the dog did already die and then the family didn’t hurt anyone which in no right makes this okay, but doesn’t mean it’s morally wrong.

    • Jonathan on said:

      I 100% agree with you Matthew, the author shows the reader how even though something may seem morally wrong, that doesn’t mean that everyone views that the same way as most would.

    • Ting Hung Lin on said:

      But in this case wouldn’t cannibalizing deceased humans the same thing?

  13. For the most part I agree with the people who have posted here recently. I think that although it might seem morally wrong to us like Cindy said. But other people around the world and in different cultures might believe that it is okay to do those kinds of things with an animal. It all just depends on how and where you grew up for the most part. The way that you get raised and who you get raised by can one hundred percent change who you are as a person. Matthew said how things that the author mentioned might be frowned upon but that doesn’t make them actually wrong, only to people that see it that way. I think it is all really about how you look at it and if you want to have an open mind about things or not.

  14. I also agree that it isn’t morally wrong. Although in our culture this is definitely not acceptable, to others it isn’t, and who are we to tell them how to live and how their culture should act.

  15. Lezan Hodge on said:

    I agree that having sexual intercourse with the chicken before cooking it is morally wrong. Although no one may know it is happening, it would be looked at as being wrong if they had seen it. Its the same as if the man had raped a girl and no one had saw it would still be morally wrong.

  16. Samantha Kent on said:

    I agree that different cultures have different morals. Something that seems wrong or strange to us could be completely normal in another culture. Therefore, where and how you are raised can have an affect on what you think is morally acceptable or unacceptable.

  17. Fabio Sousa on said:

    Just because something is perceived to us as strange, doesn’t make it morally wrong. Although, much like the people who were interviewed about the chicken and the dog, I found myself looking for a reason to why it was wrong.

  18. alex sarkis on said:

    I also think it is morally wrong because I was brought up in an environment where such inhumane things are frowned upon. This relates to one of Haidts quotes which states that ” the righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors… morality is like a cuisine: it’s a cultural construction, influenced by accidents of environment and history” (133)

    • Jimmy Kendall on said:

      I agree with this statement because the metaphor about the six taste receptors basically means everyone sees something differently morally just like everyone likes different tastes on their taste buds.

  19. Jamey Wright on said:

    I agree with the statement, what may be immoral to some people may be perfectly normal to others. It all depends on what culture the people are from and what morals they are brought up with. This concept is where friction and disputes start to stir up between people.

  20. Ally Heap on said:

    I mostly agree with everyone’s above comments. I believe that where one was raised has a lot to do with what their outlook on life is. Just as Scott said one can’t really judge another on their beliefs because we do not know what their culture is or what they were brought up to believe.

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