[ExI] Jonathan Haidt
pjmanney at gmail.com
Sat Apr 18 16:06:26 UTC 2009
Sometimes, you need to get a larger perspective to see that context is
everything. Maybe Haidt's book should be require reading before
anyone is allowed to post again.
By: Tom Jacobs
Jonathan Haidt is hardly a road-rage kind of guy, but he does get
irritated by self-righteous bumper stickers. The soft-spoken
psychologist is acutely annoyed by certain smug slogans that adorn the
cars of fellow liberals: "Support our troops: Bring them home" and
"Dissent is the highest form of patriotism."
"No conservative reads those bumper stickers and thinks, 'Hmm - so
liberals are patriotic!'" he says, in a sarcastic tone of voice that
jarringly contrasts with his usual subdued sincerity. "We liberals are
universalists and humanists; it's not part of our morality to highly
value nations. So to claim dissent is patriotic - or that we're
supporting the troops, when in fact we're opposing the war - is
"It just pisses people off."
The University of Virginia scholar views such slogans as clumsy
attempts to insist we all share the same values. In his view, these
catch phrases are not only insincere - they're also fundamentally
wrong. Liberals and conservatives, he insists, inhabit different moral
universes. There is some overlap in belief systems, but huge
differences in emphasis.
In a creative attempt to move beyond red-state/blue-state clichés,
Haidt has created a framework that codifies mankind's multiplicity of
moralities. His outline is simultaneously startling and reassuring -
startling in its stark depiction of our differences, and reassuring in
that it brings welcome clarity to an arena where murkiness of
motivation often breeds contention.
He views the demonization that has marred American political debate in
recent decades as a massive failure in moral imagination. We assume
everyone's ethical compass points in the same direction and label
those whose views don't align with our sense of right and wrong as
either misguided or evil. In fact, he argues, there are multiple due
"I think of liberals as colorblind," he says in a hushed tone that
conveys the quiet intensity of a low-key crusader. "We have finely
tuned sensors for harm and injustice but are blind to other moral
dimensions. Look at the way the word 'wall' is used in liberal
discourse. It's almost always related to the idea that we have to
knock them down.
"Well, if we knock down all the walls, we're sitting out in the rain
and cold! We need some structure."
Haidt is best known as the author of The Happiness Hypothesis, a
lively look at recent research into the sources of lasting
contentment. But his central focus - and the subject of his next book,
scheduled to be published in fall 2010 - is the intersection of
psychology and morality. His research examines the wellsprings of
ethical beliefs and why they differ across classes and cultures.
Last September, in a widely circulated Internet essay titled Why
People Vote Republican, Haidt chastised Democrats who believe
blue-collar workers have been duped into voting against their economic
interests. In fact, he asserted forcefully, traditionalists are driven
to the GOP by moral impulses liberals don't share (which is fine) or
understand (which is not).
To some, this dynamic is deeply depressing. "The educated moral
relativism worldview is fundamentally incompatible with the way 50
percent of America thinks, and stereotypes about out-of-touch elitist
coastal Democrats are basically correct," sighed the snarky Web site
Gawker.com as it summarized his studies.
But others - including many fellow liberal academics - have greeted
Haidt's ideas as liberating.
"Jonathan is a thoughtful and somewhat flamboyant theorist," says Dan
McAdams, a Northwestern University research psychologist and
award-winning author. "We don't have that many of those in academic
psychology. I really appreciate his lively mind."
"Psychology, as a field, has lots and lots of data, but we don't have
very many good new ideas," agrees Dennis Proffitt, chairman of the
University of Virginia psychology department. "They are rare in our
field, but Jon is full of good new ideas."
An unapologetic liberal atheist, Haidt has a remarkable ability to
describe opposing viewpoints without condescension or distortion. He
forcefully expresses his own political opinions but understands how
they are informed by his underlying moral orientation. In an era where
deadlocked debates so often end with a dismissive "you just don't get
it," he gets it.
Four years ago, he recalls, "I wanted to help Democrats press the
right buttons because the Republicans were out-messaging them.
"I no longer want to be a part of that effort. What I want to do now
is help both sides understand the other, so that policies can be made
based on something more than misguided fear of what the other side is
Haidt's journey into ethical self-awareness began during his senior
year of high school in Westchester County, N.Y. "I had an existential
crisis straight out of Woody Allen," he recalls. "If there's no God,
how can there be a meaning to life? And if there's no meaning, why
should I do my homework? So I decided to become a philosophy major and
find out the meaning of life."
Once he began his studies at Yale, however, he found philosophy
"generally boring, dry and irrelevant." So he gradually gravitated to
the field of psychology, ultimately earning his doctorate at the
University of Pennsylvania. There he met several influential teachers,
including anthropologist Alan Fiske and Paul Rozin, an expert on the
psychology of food and the emotion of disgust. Fascinated by Rozin's
research, Haidt wrote his dissertation on moral judgment of disgusting
but harmless actions - a study that helped point the way to his later
As part of that early research, Haidt and a colleague, Brazilian
psychologist Silvia Koller, posed a series of provocative questions to
people in both Brazil and the U.S. One of the most revealing was: How
would you react if a family accidentally ran over its own dog, then
cooked it and ate it for dinner?
"There were differences between nations, but the biggest differences
were within social classes within each nation," Haidt recalls.
"Students at a private school in Philadelphia thought it was a little
gross, but it wasn't harming anyone; their attitude was rationalist
and harm-based. But when you moved down in social class or into
Brazil, morality is based not on just harm. It's also about loyalty
and family and authority and respect and purity. That was an important
On the strength of that paper, Haidt went to work for Richard Shweder,
a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago who arranged
for his postdoc fellow to spend three months in India. Haidt refers to
his time in Bhubaneshwar - an ancient city full of Hindu temples that
retains a traditional form of morality with rigid cast and gender
roles - as transformative.
"I found there is not really a way to say 'thank you' or 'you're
welcome' (in the local language)," he recalls. "There are ways of
acknowledging appreciation, but saying 'thank you' and 'you're
welcome' didn't make any emotional sense to them. Your stomach doesn't
say 'thank you' to your esophagus for passing the food to it! What I
finally came to understand was to stop acting as if everybody was
equal. Rather, each person had a job to do, and that made the social
system run smoothly."
Gradually getting past his reflexive Western attitudes, he realized
that "the Confucian/Hindu traditional value structure is very good for
maintaining order and continuity and stability, which is very
important in the absence of good central governance. But if the goal
is creativity, scientific insight and artistic achievement, these
traditional societies pretty well squelch it. Modern liberalism, with
its support for self-expression, is much more effective. I really saw
After returning to the U.S., Haidt accepted a position at the
University of Virginia, where he immediately began challenging his
fellow researchers. They were using data from upper-middle-class
American college students to draw sweeping conclusions about human
nature. Proffitt remembers him arguing "with some passion" that they
needed to widen their scope.
"Jon recognizes that diversity is not just the politically correct
thing to do - it's also the intelligent thing to do," he says. "Seeing
things from multiple perspectives gives you a much better view of the
In January 2005 - shortly after President Bush won re-election, to the
shock and dismay of the left - Haidt was invited by a group of
Democrats in Charlottesville, Va., to give a talk on morality and
politics. There, for the first time, he explained to a group of
liberals his conception of the moral world of cultural conservatives.
"They were very open to what I was saying," he says. "I discovered
there was a real hunger among liberals to figure out what the hell was
Haidt's framework of political morality can be traced back to a
dispute between two important thinkers: Shweder, who would go on to
become his mentor, and legendary Harvard psychologist Lawrence
Kohlberg. In his 1981 volume The Philosophy of Moral Development,
Kohlberg essentially argued that other moral systems are mere
stepping-stones on a path that will eventually lead the entire world
to embrace Western humanist values. Reviewing the book for the journal
Contemporary Psychology, Shweder politely but effectively tore that
Citing his extensive research on traditional Indian culture, Shweder
pointed out the inconsistencies and lack of convincing evidence behind
Kohlberg's arguments. Agreeing with philosopher Isaiah Berlin, Shweder
asserted - and continues to assert - that a range of ethical systems
have always coexisted and most likely always will. In a 1997 paper
co-written with three colleagues, he broke down primal moral impulses
into a "big three": autonomy, community and divinity.
Haidt found Shweder's ideas persuasive but incomplete. Agreeing with
evolutionary theorist James Q. Wilson, he concluded that any full view
of the origins of human morality would have to take into account not
only culture (as analyzed by anthropologists) but also evolution. He
reasoned it was highly unlikely humans would live by moral rules
unless they played a role in improving the species' survivability -
perhaps by allowing us to live together peacefully in larger and
"Morality is not just about how we treat each other, as most liberals
think," he argues. "It is also about binding groups together and
supporting essential institutions."
With all that in mind, Haidt identified five foundational moral
impulses. As succinctly defined by Northwestern University's McAdams,
* Harm/care. It is wrong to hurt people; it is good to relieve suffering.
* Fairness/reciprocity. Justice and fairness are good; people have
certain rights that need to be upheld in social interactions.
* In-group loyalty. People should be true to their group and be wary
of threats from the outside. Allegiance, loyalty and patriotism are
virtues; betrayal is bad.
* Authority/respect. People should respect social hierarchy; social
order is necessary for
* Purity/sanctity. The body and certain aspects of life are sacred.
Cleanliness and health, as well as their derivatives of chastity and
piety, are all good. Pollution, contamination and the associated
character traits of lust and greed are all bad.
Haidt's research reveals that liberals feel strongly about the first
two dimensions - preventing harm and ensuring fairness - but only
grudgingly acknowledge the other three. Conservatives, on the other
hand, are drawn to loyalty, authority and purity, which liberals tend
to think of as backward or outdated. People on the right acknowledge
the importance of harm prevention and fairness but not with the same
energy or passion as those on the left.
Libertarian essayist Will Wilkinson of the Cato Institute - one of
many self-reflective political thinkers who are intrigued by Haidt's
hypothesis - puts it this way: "While the five foundations are
universal, cultures build upon each to varying degrees. Imagine five
adjustable slides on a stereo equalizer that can be turned up or down
to produce different balances of sound. An equalizer preset like 'Show
Tunes' will turn down the bass and 'Hip Hop' will turn it up, but
neither turns it off.
"Similarly, societies modulate the dimension of moral emotions
differently, creating a distinctive cultural profile of moral feeling,
judgment and justification. If you're a sharia devotee ready to stone
adulterers and slaughter infidels, you have purity and in-group pushed
up to 11. PETA members, who vibrate to the pain of other species, have
turned in-group way down and harm way up."
McAdams was first exposed to these ideas about three years ago, when
he heard Haidt speak at a conference. Around that same time, he was
analyzing information he had compiled from interviews with 150 highly
religious middle-aged Americans - men and women from across the
political spectrum who had described in detail the ways they find
meaning in their lives. Realizing this was an excellent test case for
Haidt's theories, McAdams started comparing the comments of
self-described liberals and conservatives.
Sure enough, "Conservatives spoke in moving terms about respecting
authority and order," he found. "Liberals invested just as much
emotion in describing their commitment to justice and equality.
Liberals feel authority is a minor-league moral issue; for us, the
major leaguers are harm and fairness."
It's hard to play ball when you can't agree who deserves to be a big leaguer.
Of Haidt's five moral realms, the one that causes the most friction
between cosmopolitan liberals and traditionalist conservatives is
purity/sanctity. To a 21st-century secular liberal, the concept barely
registers. Haidt notes it was part of the Western vocabulary as
recently as the Victorian era but lost its force in the early 20th
century when modern rules of proper hygiene were codified. With the
physical properties of contamination understood, the moral symbolism
of impurity no longer carried much weight.
But the impulse remains lodged in our psyches, turning up in both
obvious and surprising ways. You can hear strong echoes of it when the
pope rails against materialism, insisting we have been put on Earth to
serve a loftier purpose than shopping until we drop. It can also be
found in the nondenominational spiritual belief that we all contain
within us a piece of the divine. (Although it's usually used in a
tongue-in-cheek way in our society, the phrase "my body is a temple"
is reflective of the purity/sanctity impulse.)
"The question is: Do you see the world as simply matter?" Haidt asks.
"If so, people can do whatever they want, as long as they don't hurt
other people. Or do you see more dimensions to life? Do you want to
live in a higher, nobler way than simply the pursuit of pleasure? That
often requires not acting on your impulses, making sacrifices for
others. It implies a reverence - which is a nonrational feeling -
towards human life."
Consider two letters to the editor in a recent issue of the Ventura
(Calif.) Breeze. The weekly newspaper has been chronicling a
controversy about a 19th-century cemetery that gradually fell into
disrepair and, since the early 1960s, has been used as a dog park.
Some descendents of the people buried there are demanding that it be
restored as a proper burial place.
"Why is there even a debate?" wrote one angry resident. He referred to
the park as "this holy ground" and admonished city officials: "Your
values and judgment need some serious realignment." But a second
reader looked at the controversy from a more practical perspective,
noting that public funds are limited in these tough economic times.
Besides, he added, "the park is full of life now, and I'm sorry if
this sounds harsh, but life is for the living."
Both arguments are rooted in firm moral beliefs. It's just that for
the first correspondent, purity/sanctity is paramount, while for the
second it's of minimal importance.
Not surprisingly, Haidt's data suggests purity/sanctity is the moral
foundation that best predicts an individual's attitude toward
abortion. It also helps explain opposition to gay marriage. "If you
think society is made up of individuals, and each individual has the
right to do what he or she wants if they aren't hurting anybody, it's
unfathomable why anyone would oppose gay marriage," he says. "Liberals
assume opponents must be homophobic.
"I know feelings of disgust do play into it. When you're disgusted by
something, you tend to come up with reasons why it's wrong. But
cultural conservatives, with their strong emphasis on social order,
don't see marriage primarily as an expression of one individual's
desire for another. They see the family as the foundation of society,
and they fear that foundation is dissolving."
Haidt doesn't want religious fundamentalists dictating public policy
to ensure it lines up with their specific moral code. Even if you
perceive purity as a major-league issue, it doesn't have to be on
steroids. But he argues it is important that liberals recognize the
strength that impulse retains with cultural conservatives and respect
it rather than dismissing it as primitive.
"I see liberalism and conservatism as opposing principles that work
well when in balance," he says, noting that authority needs to be both
upheld (as conservatives insist) and challenged (as liberals
maintain). "It's a basic design principle: You get better
responsiveness if you have two systems pushing against each other. As
individuals, we are very bad at finding the flaws in our own
arguments. We all have a distorted perception of reality."
Spend some time reading Haidt, and chances are you'll begin to view
day-to-day political arguments through a less-polarized lens. Should
the Guantanamo Bay prison be closed? Of course, say liberals, whose
harm/fairness receptors are acute. Not so fast, argue conservatives,
whose finely attuned sense of in-group loyalty points to a proactive
attitude toward outside threats.
Why any given individual grows up to become a conservative or a
liberal is unclear. Haidt, like most contemporary social scientists,
points to a combination of genes and environment - not one's family of
origin so much as the neighborhood and society whose values you
absorbed. (Current research suggests that peers may actually have a
stronger impact than parents in this regard.)
In his quest to "help people overcome morally motivated
misunderstandings," Haidt has set up a couple of Web sites,
www.civilpolitics.org and www.yourmorals.org. At the latter, you can
take a quiz that will locate you on his moral map. For fun, you can
also answer the questions you think the way your political opposite
would respond. Haidt had both liberals and conservatives do just that
in the laboratory, and the results are sobering for those on the left:
Conservatives understood them a lot better than they understood
"Liberals tend to have a very optimistic view of human nature," he
says. "They tend to be uncomfortable about punishment - of their own
children, of criminals, anyone. I do believe that if liberals ran the
whole world, it would fall apart. But if conservatives ran the whole
world, it would be so restrictive and uncreative that it would be
rather unpleasant, too."
The concept of authority resonates so weakly in liberals that "it
makes it difficult for liberal organizations to function," Haidt says.
(Will Rogers was right on target when he proclaimed, "I don't belong
to an organized political party. I'm a Democrat.") On the other hand,
he notes, the Republicans' tendency to blindly follow their leader
proved disastrous over the past eight years.
"Look how horribly the GOP had to screw up to alienate many
conservatives," muses Dallas Morning News columnist and BeliefNet
blogger Rod Dreher, an Orthodox Christian, unorthodox conservative and
Haidt fan. "In the end, the GOP, the conservative movement and the
nation would have been better served had we on the right not been so
yellow-dog loyal. But as Haidt shows, it's in our nature."
Like Wilkinson, Dreher doesn't fit cleanly into the left-right
spectrum; he reports that taking Haidt's test (showing he scored high
on certain liberal values but also on some conservative ones) helped
him understand why. He's appreciative of that insight and admiring of
the way the psychologist is able to set aside the inherent prejudice
we all share in favor of our own moral outlook. "It's hard for any of
us to get outside our own heads and perform acts of empathy with
people we don't much like," he notes.
In higher education, as in so many other fields, the best way to
negotiate a pay raise is to get a competing offer. Not infrequently,
an academic will entertain an offer from an institution he or she
isn't really interested in joining, specifically so he can get a
salary offer, take it back to his current employer and demand it be
Haidt found himself in just that situation a few years back. But as he
explained to Proffitt, his department chair, he was uncomfortable with
the notion of lying to gain leverage.
"He told me, 'I know that if I was offered the position, I could get a
big raise here. But I study ethics! I can't do that! That would be
wrong!' He felt he wouldn't be playing fair with the people from the
other university, who were putting out money and effort to recruit
"That game is played by a lot of people, but Jon would not," Proffitt
says. "He elected not to do that on purely ethical grounds. That
decision cost him at least $30,000 a year."
But was he guided by the harm/care instinct? Or fairness/reciprocity?
Or did the conservative value of in-group loyalty, which tends to lie
dormant in liberals such as Haidt, emerge under these unusual
circumstances and convince him to be true to his school?
The most likely answer is "all of the above." The point is Haidt
realized the wrongness of that behavior in his gut and acted on
In making such decisions, he is setting a rigorous moral example for
his son, Max, who turns 3 in July. Haidt would be pleased if, by the
time Max gets to secondary school, the study of ethics is part of the
curriculum. "If I had my way, moral psychology would be a mandatory
part of high-school civics classes, and civics classes would be a
mandatory part of all Americans' education," he says. "Understanding
there are multiple perspectives on the good society, all of which are
morally motivated, would go a long way toward helping us interact in a
Shweder cheers him on in that crusade. "I think this is terribly
important," he says. "People are not going to converge on their
judgments of what's good or bad, or right and wrong. Diversity is
inherent in our species. And in a globalized world, we're going to be
bumping into each other a lot."
Whether they're addressing the U.S. Congress or U.N. General Assembly,
Haidt has astute advice for policy advocates: Frame your argument to
appeal to as many points as possible on the moral spectrum. He
believes President Obama did just that in his inaugural address, which
utilized "a broad array of virtue words, including 'courage,'
'loyalty,' 'patriotism' and 'duty,' to reach out and reassure
Haidt notes that the environmental movement was started by liberals,
who were presumably driven by the harm/care impulse. But conservative
Evangelical Christians are increasingly taking up the cause, propelled
by the urge to respect authority. "They're driven by the idea that God
gave man dominion over the Earth, and keeping the planet healthy is
our sacred responsibility," he notes. "If we simply rape, pillage,
destroy and consume, we're abusing the power given to us by God.
"The climate crisis and the economic crisis are interesting, because
neither has a human enemy. These are not crises that turn us against
an out-group, so they're not really designed to bring us together, but
they can be used for that. I hope and think we are ready,
demographically and historically, for a less polarized era."
But that will require peeling off some bumper stickers. Contrary to
the assertion adhered onto Volvos, dissent and patriotism are very
different impulses. But Haidt persuasively argues that both are
essential to a healthy democracy, and the interplay between them -
when kept within respectful bounds - is a source of vitality and
strength. "Morality," he insists, "is a team sport."
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