The thing that saddens me when I read books on moral psychology is that it makes it clear that we as a species have come to a good understanding about how it is we think, yet that understanding doesn't filter down to the individual level. Like Michael Shermer's The Believing Brain, or Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson's Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), this book has within it much that could help keep in check the more extravagant of cognitive pitfalls, yet how does it make that tricky journey from the psychology journals and out into the public? This book, as good as any other on the topic I have read, has me hoping it will be able to make a little headway.
Since I'm not a psychologist, I can't comment on the quality of the research, except to say that I found the presentation of the ideas was clear and very illustrative. Haidt's writing style is very accessible, and whether or not you agree with him by the end, anyone who carefully listens should at least appreciate where he was coming from. By the end, there's perhaps a means to appreciate where other people are coming from.
One major problem was that in his efforts to give a descriptive moral psychology, he ignored the prescriptive aspect. The question of whether or not people see morality a particular way doesn't make that way warranted. Of course Jonathan Haidt knows this, but neglects to mention this until near the end of the penultimate chapter, and even then does little more than shrug at the prospect. That's fair enough as he's not a moral philosopher, but for several chapters preceding that brief mention he focused on trying to understand morality from a neurological perspective - even going so far as to ridicule those current prescriptive theories as being inadequate and possibly the result of Aspergers' syndrome. As the reader this was quite jarring, as he was seeming to make the same mistake Sam Harris did in The Moral Landscape by descending into neurobabble.
For example, much is made of Western Educated Industrial Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) phenomenon of moral psychology where the educated products of enlightenment thinking see the role of moral thought in a very different way from all other societies (and even the poor in their own society). While he makes an interesting case for why moral psychology as a discipline has misfired by focusing on the WEIRD, be doesn't address the inverse case - why some of us are WEIRD? After all, being weird is the anomaly.
If you keep in mind that his account of morality is descriptive rather than normative, then the book reads much better. It's a good account of how to think about how other people think on moral issues, and that is a vital part of having an understanding of where other people are coming from. For that, the book is good. And as far as the presentation goes, Haidt's willingness to describe the diagrams was useful, and him breaking out in song was an unexpected joy.
If you've read some of Michael Shermer's other books, mainly How People Believe, then a lot of this book will seem like familiar territory. It even has the same hypothetical thought experiment for patternicity (it's a good thought experiment, so it's well worth repeating). Likewise, if you've read other works on the psychology of belief, again there's familiar territory covered. There's nothing quite revolutionary or revelatory highlighted, just a solid case told in a very enticing way.
It's in its personal approach that I feel the book is successful. While treading dangerously close to the anecdotal, the whole narrative is rife with examples highlighting the theory in action; akin to the approach in the sublime Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me). And by subjecting his own beliefs to the model, it was a nice way of putting his own biases under the spotlight. The result is that the theory put forward is memorable and applicable in real-world cases. The chapter on political beliefs, for example, should serve as a sobering reminder of just how arbitrary much of the political discourse truly is. And the account of Francis Collins will hopefully serve to remind us in the sceptical community that the difference between believer and non-believer has nothing to do with stupidity.
In terms of narration, it was generally good though there are a few moments where Shermer seems to get tongue-twisted and the flow breaks, and a few words are mispronounced. But aside from that, I have no complaints.
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