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Summer Reading, Reviewed

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In the all-too-likely event that you skipped your summer reading, dear reader, I’ll relieve your suspense now: you did not miss any transformational experiences. That being said, you’ll find a pleasant few hours’ reading. Both the recommended community book (The Town that Food Saved) and the Diversity and Inclusion read (The Righteous Mind) cover topics that are a bit more controversial and interesting, despite flawed executions.

 

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion

In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt presents an unusual thesis: morality stems from intuition rather than reason. This, he argues, explains why cannibalism, treason, and incest are all so reviled.

Haidt’s model likens morality to taste, and he extends this metaphor to present five “flavors” of morality that encompass more activities than the traditional helpful/harmful binary. Initially Haidt presents valid arguments for expanding morality in this way, including an example of a man who agreed to be eaten. The man who ate him caused no harm and was, in fact, fulfilling his supposed victim’s desires. However, most of us will still deem the action disgusting and wrong.

Haidt argues that we regardless find this wrong becauses cannibalism violates the sanctity of the human body. Up until page 60, I was beginning to be convinced. But here Haidt reveals his underhanded technique. He claims that he has been using his own psychological techniques while writing the book, and says that, if not already convinced, then “no amount of evidence” would do bring the reader around to his argument.

The Righteous Mind is not a reasoned consideration of morality beyond simple ethics, but rather a polemic against rationality engineered to convince its readers. Haidt may or may not be correct, but he does not allow the reader a fair chance to evaluate the facts. He simply rams his points home in rapid succession while presenting opposing views as easily dismissed strawmen. In one particularly bewildering passage, Haidt argues that the views of philosophers Bentham and Kant are invalid because – this is true – he accuses them of being autistic.

Perhaps Haidt has convincing counterarguments to my objections, but his focus on indoctrination rather than exploration prevents him from presenting a compelling case. I cannot be convinced by a book that presents such a small sliver of the knowledge necessary to judge so complex a topic as moral psychology.

 

The Town that Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food

Ben Hewitt’s The Town that Food Saved is by and large a more agreeable read than The Righteous Mind, exploring the explosion of local agriculture in Vermont over the last few years and searching for clues about a similar national movement.

Hewitt chronicles the recent development of Hardwick, a small working-class town in rural Vermont, into an economy fueled by small, organic farms selling expensive crops locally and abroad. The book argues that, since industrial agriculture relies entirely on fossil fuels, factory farming will collapse and leave only small farms.

This contention is particularly worth considering. While Hewitt acknowledges it as key to his argument, he spends little time discussing industrial agriculture or indeed whether its failure is truly inevitable. He assures the reader: “I assume we are of a like mind” about agribusiness by using the soundbite that it takes eleven calories of oil to produce one calorie of food. There is little doubt that most of Hewitt’s readers do agree with him implicitly, but many will not. A few objections quickly become obvious. One could raise the eleven-calorie objection to any industry, and returning to Stone Age production systems is less practical than creating renewable energy.

Where the book excels, however, is its presentation of the human side of the localist agricultural renaissance. Hewitt describes well the enthusiastic so-called agripreneurs profiled in magazine stories about Vermont farming: aging hippies who gaze with suspicion upon capitalist start-up farms and the remaining residents of newly-prosperous Hardwick.

If the rest of the world followed the presented model in the future, entire sectors of the economy would depend on $20-per-pound cheese and artisanal bread sold to affluent consumers in nearby metropolises. Everyone else will grow gardens and small fields to create, ideally, a network of tiny farms stretching across the globe to provide environmentally low-impact produce for everyone.

This dream seems more inspired by a wish that farmers worked with a sheer love of growing than by a level-headed analysis of the best way to feed 7.5 billion people. Hewitt’s goal is an idealistic one and, as he illustrates so fervently, would be a beautiful one – were it feasible.

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