Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, by Jonathan Haidt

Dr. Haidt's book is a delight.  The bulk of it is spent introducing and elaborating upon the notion that people have a duality, which he refers to as the elephant and its rider.   The elephant was "shaped by natural selection to trigger quick and reliable action, and it includes parts of the brain that make us feel pleasure and pain ... and that trigger survival-related motivations."  The rider is the controlled system, which Dr. Haidt positions as more of an advisor. And so he quotes Hume: "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them."

This isn't a philosophy text, so Dr. Haidt provides clear references of scientific experiment to support his points.  All very interesting, but I got some unanticipated insights from the book as well.

I hadn't a very clear perspective on the value of a fixed moral guideline (as typically provided by religions) compared to an ethical humanist's approach to behavior.  Let me quote Dr. Haidt from the conclusion to this section of his book - and when you read this, consider that he self identifies as a liberal and an atheist:
"I believe that we have indeed lost something important - a richly textured common ethos with widely shared virtues and values. Just watch movies from the 1930s and 1940s and you'll see people moving around in a dense web of moral fibers: Characters are concerned about their honor, their reputation, and the appearance of propriety. Children are frequently disciplined by adults other than their parents. The good guys always win, and crime never pays. It may sound stuffy and constraining to us now, but that's the point: Some constraint is good for us; absolute freedom is not."
Then, quoting from sociologist James Hunter 's book The Death of Character:
"Before the Industrial Revolution, Americans honored the virtues of 'producers' - hard work, self-restraint, sacrifice for the future, and sacrifice for the common good. But during the twentieth century, as people became wealthier and the producer society turned gradually into the mass consumption society, and alternative vision of the self arose - a vision centered on the idea of individual preferences and personal fulfillment. The intrinsically moral term 'character' fell out of favor and was replaced by the amoral term 'personality.'"
 If the book concluded after these two big themes - explaining the elephant and rider metaphor and its implications, and discussing the broader context of human behavior - I'd have been delighted.  He continued, however, to discuss divinity, virtue, and the meaning of life.  Which fits the title, but I didn't find these sections quite as engaging.  Still I heartily recommend the book.

The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom

No comments: