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  • Rick Bonetti

Enlightenment and the Righteous Mind

Updated: Nov 26, 2022

"The Enlightenment project swims against currents of human nature - tribalism, authoritarianism, demonization, magical thinking - which demagogues are all too willing to exploit. Many commentators, committed to political, religious, or romantic ideologies, fight a rearguard action against it. The result is a corrosive fatalism and a willingness to wreck the precious institutions of liberal democracy and global cooperation." ~ Steven Pinker

Jordan B. Peterson interviews authors Steven Pinker and Johnathan Haidt in the June 2021 YouTube video above. they discuss enlightenment, the righteous mind, truth, Charles Darwin, group selection, Emile Durkheim, Joseph Heinrich, cooperation, cultural evolution and more.

In his 2018 book Enlightenment Now Steven Pinker argues that there has been a general improvement of the human condition over recent history brought by reason, science and humanism. "People are living longer, healthier, freer, and happier lives." If you are not sure you want to read the 556 page book (including detailed references), you can check out the Washington Post article: A Harvard professor explains why the world is actually becoming a much better place.

In his 2012 book The Righteous Mind Jonathan Haidt explains Moral Foundations Theory - how morality is shaped by emotion and intuition more than by reasoning, and why conservative and progressive political groups and religious groups have different notions of right and wrong.

Haidt's book is organized in three parts around three principles and metaphors:

  1. Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second - The mind is divided, like a ride on an elephant, and the rider's job is to serve the elephant,.

  2. There's more to morality than harm and fairness - The righteous mind is like a tongue with six test receptors.

  3. Morality binds and blinds - Human beings are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee,

Haidt draws together Charles Darwin's theory of group selection and Emile Durkheim 'vision of society, favored by social conservatives, in which the basic social unit is the family, rather than the individual, and in which order, hierarchy and tradition are highly valued." He also says "David Hume got it right" in that morality is part of human nature, like language or taste and "sentiment" (intuition) is the driving force of our moral lives, whereas reasoning is biased and impotent, fit primarily to be a servant of the passions."

While Pinker is sometimes dismissed as a techno-optimist, Haidt helps us understand group cohesion and the deep psychological basis of differences between liberals and conservatives to better communicate our shared concern for the environment and the habitability of our planet for future generations.


Steven Pinker, a Canadian cognitive psychologist and Harvard professor, is author of nine books including:

Jonathan Haidt is a moral psychologist, Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University and author of three books written for general audiences:

Other recommend resources on truth:

  • Our World in Data is "research and data to make progress against the world’s largest problems."

  • HumanProgress is a project of the Cato Institute

  • Gapminder is an independent educational non-profit fighting global misconceptions.

  • Factfulness (2018) by Hans Rosling

  • The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth (2021) by Jonathan Rauch

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