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Introduction/Overview

The primary picture for the conscious mind's self-justificating system is that of a elephant with a rider. The elephant leans in one direction or the other but the rider doesn't have much of any control which way the elephant leans. Yet, the rider always has a justification for rationally why the elephant leaned one way or the other.

In practice, this means that our mind will continuously find ways to justify the righteousness or morality of our actions and views in a way to present a rational reason for why we leaned one way or another on a specific issue or action. The elephant decides in our mind very quickly and the rational explanation for our moral decision can often be left struggling for words.

This book transformed how I view myself, my own self-confidence in my rationality, and others. Understanding the moral psychology model outlined in the Righteous Mind, it's easier to understand how people can take actions that are hurtful or irrational yet have little remorse if their rider has come up with a satisfactory explanation for why they did or think what they did.

In one study among different groups of high school, undergraduate, and graduate students, the authors found that when given a task to write pros and cons of an argument, the only different education provided was that the subject could write a longer list of arguments for their position. No amount of education gave the subject the ability to bring up with the same intellectual vigor and verbosity arguments against the position they held.

My wife pointed out that in one of my own notes from before I read this book, Pros/Cons of Home Ownership, I generated 4 arguments for, but 16 arguments against (which is the position I hold). This note ends up being another piece of evidence to affirm the study's findings.

Even for myself, I catch myself now realizing that certain things I do or say can be hurtful even if my gut reaction is that I was justified or "righteous" in doing it.

It also helped me become more self-conscious of times when I feel very, very strongly a desire to do something and yet rationally I can now better recognize that that strong urging may not be a rational decision at all but just my emotions or gut leading me in one way or another.

Throughout the book, the author does a reasonable job at focusing on the psychology of moral decisions across cultures mostly ignoring religion. He does finish the book asserting his own opinion as fact that no single morality is correct or is supreme over all others, a rather unprovable exclusive truth claim.

I still believe in an absolute morality though have a better understanding for the differences between moral views in different cultures and religions and that they often are felt as moral issues, not simply cultural practices, and that they can sometimes, even more so than Western secular educated morality, better address the 5-6 moral "tastes" that we have and respond to.