Haidt’s best and worst ideas

The Agree / Disagree Option: “Haidt’s best and worst ideas”

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The book is :
The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom

By Jonathan Haidt

TOPIC – The Agree / Disagree Option: “Haidt’s best and worst ideas”

What, in your view, are the most important ideas within the book? Where, in your view, does Haidt go wrong?

For this topic, what I will be looking for is a clear explanation of at least two (and no more than three), significant ideas from the text that you think are especially important. Your task is to:
(1) Explain these ideas so clearly that someone from outside of our course could understand them
(2) Give some sense of the evidence or reasoning that supports these ideas
(3) Explain why you think these specific points are especially important.

This differs from the first topic in so far as the reasons why an idea is important might not have to do with your life in particular. Perhaps they help to explain things that we observe around us in society as a whole. Perhaps they suggest things that we might do as a society in order to increase everyone’s happiness (maybe by changing some of our laws, or what happens in our early educational system, or our criminal and legal systems). For example, someone might argue that Haidt’s comments on meditation are important, and that it would be a good idea on the basis of what Haidt says to include basic training in meditational techniques within the schools. I’d rather not see this particular example since I’ve already discussed it in class and it’s been an active discussion topic on blackboard, but hopefully it gives you the idea of what it might mean to discuss the usefulness of an idea for society, rather than just for you as an individual.

The other way in which this topic differs from the first topic is in the opportunity to disagree with Haidt (or me) on something that he (or I) have presented. This might be an idea that you think is not very well supported by the evidence or reasoning that Haidt provides. It could also be something that you think is of central importance to human happiness, but which doesn’t appear in the book or lectures. It could even be something upon which you agree with Haidt, but where you think he did a poor job of proving the point. As always, be sure to explain the idea clearly first, before explaining why you think it is wrong, incomplete, or poorly supported by the evidence that he provides.

The challenge here is for you to be as clear and precise as you can be about where you think Haidt goes wrong, rather than simply stating that you disagree with him. If you happen to know of evidence that he does not discuss, you could bring it in here, but you don’t need to do any outside research.

If the point you wish to make is that there is an important idea absent from the text, your challenge will be to explain why it is so important to the pursuit of human happiness, and to suggest how it might fit in with the ideas that are in the book.

You do not absolutely need to do this, but something that would be especially impressive would be to “fix” an idea that you think Haidt got wrong. If you think, for instance, that he misunderstood something that is important about the nature of love (in chapter six), or about spirituality (9), or growth (7), can you suggest a way to rephrase his ideas to take your corrections into account?


Think of “an idea” as equivalent to one item on an agenda, or a sub-heading in Haidt’s text. For instance, “Naïve Realism” is a concept of about the right scope: it is rich enough that you could easily take a page or two to write about it, but it is not too broad. In contrast, “Thinking Makes it So” is much too broad –Haidt spent an entire chapter on that! If you do want to discuss a potentially large topic, be sure to limit it in some way. What I don’t want is too much superficial summary.

You are free to incorporate more than the minimum number of topics, but be cautious about including too many ideas. Since you need to explain the ideas and concepts clearly, it would be a bad idea in such a short paper to include more than four big ideas. Doing so would almost certainly lead to producing a simple “wish list” of points, each with merely one or two sentence explanations.

I would rather not have to “rule out of bounds” any particular ideas. However, it will reflect poorly on your degree of effort if all of the ideas you choose to discuss are from the first two chapters of the book, or were all topics for which I have provided extensive notes. In contrast, it will be impressive if you discuss a concept from the book that did not form part of the lectures.

Evaluation Criteria:

Your essay will be evaluated for:
(1) accuracy (2) clarity (3) effort (4) judgment (5) creativity

1) The meaning of “accuracy” is obvious here. If you explain that the “cortical lottery” is a gambling event held annually in Nevada, that’s a serious problem!

2) By “clarity,” I mean: “could someone who was not in our class read this paper and understand the ideas it describes, what evidence supports them, and why the author thinks they matter?” Notice that while there are no marks specifically set aside for grammar, “clarity” is the second most important standard in the assessment of your paper. You don’t need to be a graceful and poetic writer to do well here, but you do need to make sure that your meaning is obvious, and that your reader doesn’t ever get lost. If you know that writing is not your strong suit (in English, or just in general), be sure to finish your paper early enough that you can work on it with someone who can help you with the style and clarity.

3) In this context, all I mean by “effort” is that your paper shows evidence of having read the book and thought about its content, rather than relying exclusively on the lecture notes. It would be disappointing to read a paper that simply repeated the exact examples used in the textbook or the lectures. It would also be disappointing to read a paper that focussed entirely on ideas from chapters one and two, or worse –focussed only ideas described in the midterm feedback notes! In contrast, addressing an idea from the textbook that we didn’t discuss in class would be impressive, as would be discussing an idea from the lectures that was not summarized in the lecture notes.

4) “Judgment” is the hardest criterion to define. While there are dozens of ideas in the book that I could readily accept as “especially important,” there are many others that are fascinating, but fairly trivial. For instance, if you said that one of the most important ideas in the book was that vampire bats can detect free-loaders and exclude them from the community, that would show a significant lack of judgment –it’s just not that important! On the other hand, if you thought that the signature strengths assessment in chapter five was important, that would seem reasonable (depending on what you said about why it matters of course), whether or not I would personally put it in my “top three ideas” list.

5) By “creativity” in this context, I have in mind both the style of your paper (is it professional and yet still interesting to read?), and also the way in which you explain your points. Also under this heading, if you notice some unexpected connections between ideas presented in separate parts of the text or the lectures, and can use that as a way to order the presentation of your ideas, that’s creative.

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