Spoiling a Generation

In 2011, a friend of mine in college asked me if I’d read The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt’s aim was to probe and distill—and “savor”—the moral precepts of antiquity in the light of modern science. The 2006 book was an answer to an overabundance of too-little-appreciated advice. “We might have already encountered the Greatest Idea, the insight that would have transformed us had we savored it, taken it to heart, and worked it into our lives,” Haidt wrote. My friend was happy to encounter it: Haidt helped him through a difficult breakup.

I hadn’t heard of the book, but I had heard of its author. A paper of Haidt’s, “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment,” had been assigned in my moral psychology course, and I was in the middle of writing an essay that argued against its conclusion. Haidt wrote that reason, compared to emotion, typically matters little to what we believe is right or wrong. The idea that feelings like disgust, as opposed to deliberation, tend to play a more powerful role in driving what we deem ethical was, to me, an aspiring philosopher that prized rationality, distasteful. Those were the days …

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