This is a book about wisdom and its opposite.
• Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt
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I am a big fan of Jonathan Haidt. We did a series of reflections on his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion back in July, 2017. The Righteous Mind is one of the most important books I’ve read on how people think and reason morally, and why we tend to live in different “moral matrices” such as the political “left” and “right” in America.
Haidt (along with Richard Beck) have convinced me that when we take a stand for “truth” or “morality,” we are primarily revealing deep, fundamental visceral and emotional feelings and then using rational arguments to justify our “righteous” position. Furthermore, those who are on the more “liberal” end of the spectrum react intuitively to different things than those on the “conservative” end. Finally, this intuitive moral reasoning has social aspects which bind us together into tribe or teams and blind us to those who reason from different instinctive roots. As Haidt writes elsewhere, “Part of what we do when we make moral judgments is express allegiance to a team. But that can interfere with our ability to think critically. Acknowledging that the other side’s viewpoint has any merit is risky—your teammates may see you as a traitor.”
I found Haidt’s analysis enormously helpful in this polarized age in which we live. It helped me more fully understand where people are coming from when they express their values, and it is hoped that will continue to help me as I engage in conversation both with those who agree and disagree with me.
Jonathan Haidt has partnered with Greg Lukianoff to produce another book. This one is called The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.
This book is about ideas, particularly a few bad ideas, that are being widely disseminated throughout our culture. These bad ideas, according to the authors, appeal to our basic instincts in ways that cause us to develop bad mental habits and unhealthy social behaviors.
Greg is a First Amendment attorney who advocates for academic freedom and freedom of speech on campus as the head of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Much of the impetus for this book grew out of changes he witnessed on campus cultures across the U.S. Jon’s work on “consensual moral matrices” — the “echo chambers” we often find ourselves in where we only hear and act in ways that reinforce our group’s perspective and lead us to act in ways that can be unintelligible to outsiders — shows how some of these bad ideas have grown in influence.
Here is their overview of three such ideas:
This is a book about three Great Untruths that seem to have spread widely in recent years:
- The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
- The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.
- The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.
While many propositions are untrue, in order to be classified as a Great Untruth, an idea must meet three criteria:
- It contradicts ancient wisdom (ideas found widely in the wisdom literatures of many cultures).
- It contradicts modern psychological research on well-being.
- It harms the individuals and communities who embrace it.
• The Coddling of the American Mind (p. 4)
Before the book came an article in The Atlantic that raised a lot of discussion and controversy. Critics of Lukianoff and Haidt accused them of being “grumpy old men” who were simply engaging in the perennial bashing of the younger generation by their elders. But they are careful to going beyond a surface critique of “political correctness,” instead identifying how a culture of “protective vindictiveness” has seriously limited speech on campuses and led to truly pathological thinking and behavior.
I encourage you to follow the link and read the article in The Atlantic as a way of entering into today’s discussion. Next time we’ll start discussing the “bad ideas” or “untruths” the authors say are infiltrating our lives and making us less prepared to live mature lives of wisdom.