Jonathan Haidt + Melvin Konner
Capitalism and Moral Evolution: A Civil Provocation
Jonathan Haidt is the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He is the author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.
Melvin Konner is the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Anthropology and of Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology at Emory University. His books include The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit and The Evolution of Childhood.
June 2, 2016
MS. KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: It was supposed to be a discussion of culture and conscience with two social scientists. Biological anthropologist Melvin Konner has studied the evolution of childhood; social psychologist Jonathan Haidt gained prominence with his work on why good people are divided by politics and religion. Now he’s studying the relationship between capitalism and human conscience. The liberal view of capitalism as essentially exploitative may remain alive and well, he says, but the ironic truth of history is that capitalism, while championed by conservatives, actually generates liberal values as it takes root in societies. Our conversation preceded this cultural-political season, but offers provocative perspective on it.
DR. JONATHAN HAIDT: I’m not optimistic about the American government, but I am very optimistic about America’s future, because I think people our age who grew up expecting that the point of civic engagement is to be active, so we can make the government fix civil rights or something, we’ve got to make the government do something. And young people have grown up never seeing the government do anything except turn the lights off now and then. And so they’re not going to be — their activism is not going to be to get the government to do things. It’s going to be to invent some app, some way of solving problems separately. And that’s going to work. So I’m actually very optimistic about the future, just not the congress.
DR. MELVIN KONNER: But, the idea that we’re more polarized than we’ve ever been, I think, is not true. If you read about the election of 1800, you see, by far, the nastiest presidential election this country has ever …
DR. HAIDT: Right. But since the Civil War.
DR. HAIDT: We are more polarized than we’ve been since the Civil War.
DR. KONNER: [laughs] I thought the Civil War was a pretty serious episode of polarization.
DR. HAIDT: Yeah, that’s why I start my counting after the Civil War. [laughs]
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
Jonathan Haidt teaches ethical leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Melvin Konner teaches in the departments of anthropology and neuroscience and behavioral biology at Emory University. We were gathered by the Center for Humans and Nature for its “Questions for a Resilient Future” series.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m so happy to be back at the American Museum of Natural History, and to be here with Humans in Nature, the Center for Biodiversity. This question of the connection between culture and conscience is fascinating, and we are only going to kind of skim the surface tonight. But I hope we will skim the surface in a way that will be intriguing and leave all of us with lots to ponder. And I think that a thread that runs through both of your writing on this subject is that, like our understanding of the world, like the lifespan of a species or a human being, like culture, conscience, too, has an evolutionary quality to it, an evolutionary trajectory.
Mel, you’ve said, “Human nature, like the body, has evolved slowly over time.” So, I’d like to start by way of also getting a definition of terms, and a sense of the evolution in your own understanding of this, to just spend a little time on the origins of your sense of the meaning of conscience, where you started out in your earliest life. So Jon, your parents were Jewish, second-generation American, union organizers.
DR. HAIDT: My grandparents were union organizers, yes.
MS. TIPPETT: Your grandparents were union organizers. So they were on that exploitative capitalism narrative. [laughs]
DR. HAIDT: That’s right. They were fighting the fight that needed to be fought back then.
MS. TIPPETT: So how would you start to talk about how you, in your earliest life, internalized the meaning of conscience? What are its raw materials and sources?
DR. HAIDT: Gosh. Making it personal here. I have to now reflect — well, actually there’s interesting developmental research that we’re socialized in a sense more by our peers and those around us than we are directly by our parents. Our parents set up the conditions for our lives. And my parents gave me and my sisters very, very good conditions. And beyond that, I think I’m very much a product of upper-middle-class, Jewish-New-York-suburbs America. I then went to Yale, where I very much fit in with the very left-wing, social-activist kind of view. So I think I’m very much a product — my morals, my values, are very much a product of my time.
I will say that what I’ve learned in starting to do this research on capitalism and studying the World Values Survey is that I used to think that culture mostly should be thought of as a set of ideas that previous generations created, a network of meanings that comes down to us. And what I now see is that while that is true, so much of what we are actually emerges from the conditions of our childhood. And the fact that I grew up in such different conditions from my parents means that whatever messages they wanted to give me wouldn’t necessarily fit.
MS. TIPPETT: Oh, interesting.
DR. HAIDT: So, I think actually our local environments in a way have more to do than our parents do.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. Which is discouraging for all of us who are parents.
DR. HAIDT: Well, just pick a good environment.
MS. TIPPETT: Except we don’t …
DR. HAIDT: And then it gets you off the hook.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Exactly. We worry we’re not doing a good enough job, so that may not matter so much. So, Mel, you were raised in a — your parents were Orthodox Jewish.
DR. KONNER: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: They were also both deaf.
DR. KONNER: Correct.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. I wonder how you — again, this question, how did you — if you think about that, how did you internalize — how did you start out in terms of what conscience was?
DR. KONNER: I came from a lower-middle-class family, and my mother’s parents, who were not deaf, and who were very religious, and lived with us during my early childhood, until I was eight or so. My grandfather was responsible for putting me in the stream of religious training, and so I stayed. I was in the synagogue pretty much every day from age eight until 16 or so. And I was imbued with the idea that there are negative impulses in our nature that have to be controlled by reference to scripture, basically, to some sort of revealed text or some sort of model. And these stories have motivated billions of people, and continue to do that. So I think things are now changing faster, culture is now changing faster than it ever has before. And the real — but the real question, I think, is if you don’t have the example of Christ or Buddha, if you don’t have scripture, if you don’t have karma and a future life, why be good? Why not just be selfish? And we all know that it’s perfectly compatible with atheism to be a really good person. And as the world becomes more secular and rational, we have to hope that there will be an orderly transition to a good world without a codebook.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. So I think what we’re going to talk about for the next hour is how that orderly — what are the ingredients of that orderly transition? And one thing that’s interesting to me in your writing is, you talk about that religious world of your childhood and also these other religious worlds, as you describe — certainly the Southern Baptist religious world of mine – that we have evil tendencies and we have good tendencies, but the good ones need commandments to flourish. You’ve also looked at the evolution of how culture instills conscience in children. And it was also true of Puritan ancestors, that you had to — well, you said, you had to — that without fear, there was no conscience. That these things had to be drilled in and there …
DR. KONNER: “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”
MS. TIPPETT: What, I’m sorry?
DR. KONNER: “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”
DR. KONNER: Which turns out to not really be true.
MS. TIPPETT: Turns out to not be — but it kind of makes you wonder — it’s interesting, you talk about, Freud comes along, Piaget comes along. There are ways in which we start to study children differently, ask different questions. To me, there’s a question of, do we change? And we start to see that young human beings instinctively understand that there’s a point to rules, that there’s something called “playing fair” that makes sense.
And then we get to the point where we are now in the early 21st century, and someone like you can say it this way, that empathy is in us from the beginning, as a potential, right? Not necessarily in everyone. “A kind of emotional-brain resonance enhanced by mirror neurons,” which is a whole other way of looking at ourselves. I’m fascinated by the evolution of our way of grappling with this.
DR. KONNER: Well, I think it’s been a positive evolution in most ways.
MS. TIPPETT: Say some more.
DR. KONNER: It’s astounding how steady the progress has been in reducing infant mortality, reducing child mortality. At least a couple of our four kids have trouble to take an optimistic view of the future or the recent past, which is, as my wife, Ann, points out, I was exactly in that place when I was their age. [laughs] But, I do think that we have a really hard job to do in the next 50 to 100 years. As I say, anthropologists take the long view. I take the long view, so I’m optimistic.
But there are going to be ten billion people before the end of this century. The population of Africa alone is going to quadruple in size by current projections. That is the poorest part of the world.To me, it’s not guaranteed that the trajectory will be relentlessly up. Because it’s not the hungry mouths, but it’s about the overall aspirations that those people have. It’s about the people in villages in Africa and India who are today looking at one TV set in their village showing our lifestyle. How do we, as a species, make this transition if we’re convinced that we can’t support ten billion people in a lifestyle like ours? And we’re also convinced that there are going to be ten billion people.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Which, Jon, I think actually leads in an interesting way to the direction your thinking has been taking, this idea that culture creates conscience, that capitalism — I don’t mean that culture changes conscience — that capitalism, which is the economic milieu. I thought your phrase that the 20th century was a great referendum on, is there an alternative economic system? Of course, there are so many — there’s biodiversity of capitalism, right?
DR. HAIDT: Mm-hmm.
MS. TIPPETT: But this is what we have. But your analysis that there are different stages of capitalism. Would you say a little bit about that? Because I think it gets at Mel’s question of — it kind of shakes up the scenario if we think that capitalism itself, as it grows, as we have more people who are living in these societies, also begins to change, and change us differently.
DR. HAIDT: Right. So, when I was in college, I first read Richard Dawkins’ book, The Selfish Gene. And like many people, it just blew my mind. And Darwin’s ideas are so simple. From a few principles, you can explain all the diversity of life on earth, and that was a really transformative experience for me. And then when I started reading about the history of capitalism, I had the same experience. I just happened to buy a set of lectures from The Teaching Company by an intellectual historian named Jerry Muller. I highly recommend it, M-U-L-L-E-R. He has a book on the history of capitalism, but he has a set of lectures there on the history of capitalism.
And in listening to them, I had the same experience that I had reading Richard Dawkins. I was about 48 years old at the time. I’m well educated. And I knew nothing about the system that explains why everything is here, including this microphone, this glass, our clothing, us, the transportation — everything. And so capitalism is as powerful and important as Darwinian evolution. And in fact, it’s very much the same thing. When you have variation and competition and selection, you get this incredible energy, you get this incredible adaptability. So I guess what I’m saying is that I wish everybody in high school — here’s what I wish we could do.
Let’s cancel two years of math for all of our high school students, everything beyond basic algebra, you don’t need, even if you’re a scientist you don’t need it. So, cancel most of the math, and put in statistics, basic economics, and I think introductory psychology. But, anyway, the point is everybody should learn about capitalism and evolution by the time they’re 18. And at present we don’t. And that means we have stupid discussions about policy.
MS. TIPPETT: And here’s just a very simplistic sentence, but a sentence of yours: “As people become richer and safer, their values change.”
DR. HAIDT: Yep.
MS. TIPPETT: And there’s kind of an ironic thing that happens that Marx did not foresee, that the beneficiaries of capitalist wealth, younger people, begin to demand more socially and environmentally responsible behavior from each other and from their governments.
DR. HAIDT: That’s right. This is what we see in all of these rapidly emerging nations. The generation that — and you see this all over, you see it all over Asia, especially. The simple way to put it is that almost everybody in Asia has grandparents that grew up at times of either famine, war, disease. They could not count on a long future. The transition is particularly clear in Korea, which went from poverty and Japanese oppression to the Korean War.
And that generation of Koreans, including my wife’s family — they have these incredible virtues about family and saving and hard work. And they don’t really care that much about human rights, and gender rights, and all these other sorts of things. But their kids, who were not raised with kind of privation and fear, their kids begin to care about all these things. And you see it all over Asia. The young generation begins to care more about animal rights, human rights, gay rights, women’s rights. So here’s the irony: the left generally hates capitalism, but capitalism changes everybody’s values to be more leftist.
[music: “For the Next Time” by Portland Cello Quartet]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today I’m at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, in a public conversation about culture, conscience, and capitalism, with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and biological anthropologist Melvin Konner.
MS. TIPPETT: I was thinking as I was reading to prepare for this about this ad on television right now, and I can’t remember what it’s trying to sell. I think it’s a computer. And it has these beautiful pictures of young children, and how they will be able to be who they want to be, or we want them to be, if you buy this product, whatever it is.
DR. HAIDT: Emancipative values. Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: And it says something like, “She will clean the oceans.” Right? Have you all seen that one? I thought, aren’t we clever as a species that we mess up the oceans and then we raise children to clean them up?
DR. HAIDT: That’s exactly it.
MS. TIPPETT: But it’s exactly what you’re saying. That’s what we do.
DR. HAIDT: That’s right. And so there’s a thing called the Kuznets curve. I don’t know it well enough to explain it, but the general point — I shouldn’t have mentioned it. But the general point is that there are certain things that might happen …
DR. KONNER: That’s because you studied math.
DR. HAIDT: Yeah, if only I’d — [laughs] But there are certain processes where we might, with increasing development, pollute more and more. And that certainly has happened. But then we begin to care about it, and we develop technologies so that now what’s happening is for each additional unit of growth, we’re polluting less and less and less. Of course, the total pollution is still going up, but that’s going to start turning soon. And especially — and this is to build on what Mel was saying — the population is going to be turning. So all over Asia, East Asia, Europe, even Latin America, India’s still above two, but it’s dropping.
So outside of Sub-Saharan Africa, birthrates are below two. And the total population will begin dropping in a few decades. So the 22nd century is going to be one that’s vastly depopulated, except in Africa. So it’s two very different planets. And the story in Africa, I don’t know what’s going to happen. And eventually I expect these changes will happen.
DR. KONNER: Or, I think we see what’s happening. Africa is moving to Europe.
DR. HAIDT: Right.
DR. KONNER: And that’s going to have to continue. And that may not be such a bad thing. I take your point about capitalism being similar to Darwinian evolution in certain ways, but you want it to be similar to the last lines of The Origin of Species: “Beautiful forms, most wonderful, are being evolved.” And you don’t want it to be like Darwin’s letter to Joseph Hooker about “the wasteful blundering, low, and horribly cruel works of nature.”
DR. HAIDT: But both can be true at the same time.
DR. KONNER: It has been at times like that bad kind of Darwinian evolution. And it might be again, if our conscience, collective conscience, doesn’t respond to the demands of the short-term future.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, and I feel like there are some echoes in this way you see our present and our future. With the complexity even of that rabbinical tradition you grew up in that we are at one and the same time capable of helping and harming. Even the refugee crisis that you’re talking about — I think I’ve never been so moved as when I heard Angela Merkel say to her fellow Germans, “This will change us and we have to do it so that it changes us for the better.” But, as you’re saying, it may in fact work out that way, but with some very hard, harsh decades in between.
DR. KONNER: So how do we how do we make those decades less harsh? The good news is we are, the last couple of generations, the first people on the planet to have a conscience about the whole planet, to have a conscience about all non-living things, to have a sense of humanity as one thing. And I’m going to bet that every person in this room has that sense, even though there are plenty of people in the world who don’t have that kind of conscience yet.
DR. HAIDT: But their children will.
DR. KONNER: But their children do, or will, or at least might. Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: And I think that’s so important, also, to name that, to point that out, because everybody in this room takes it for granted.
DR. KONNER: Right. And you can’t really watch the news for very long and take it for granted, even though the trends that Jon pointed out, and that Pinker has pointed out are real. Even including World War I and World War II, the 20th century was still the least violent century per capita…
DR. HAIDT: In history.
DR. KONNER: …in human history up until then. We don’t want to see those kinds of things happen again. And I think we can’t really take anything for granted.
DR. HAIDT: I think there’s a bit of perspective problem here on human nature. It’s often said that conservatives have more of a dark view of human nature as being sinful. Liberals are said to have a more positive view of human nature, sort of the John Lennon idea that if we could just get rid of government and religion that we’d all be nice.
Yet at the same time, liberals are so committed to a narrative of oppression and exploitation that they can’t take good news, they can’t accept good news. So, for various reasons, the left and the right are negative in different ways. Now, my view, having immersed myself in human evolution — and I don’t know, Mel, if you have the same experience — is I — Mel, we both dig into, how do we get civilization? What were hunter-gatherers like, and how did we get here?
And my view is we’re this little, tribal species that was basically just sort of beating each other up, and competing with each other in all these ways, and somehow or other, we’ve risen so vastly far above our design specifications. I look around at us and I say, go humanity. We are fantastic. Yeah, there’s ISIS, there’s a lot of bad stuff, but you people who think that things are bad, you are expecting way too much.
MS. TIPPETT: But I think, Jon, when you use the language like “conscience,” and we assume that it’s a good, or that there’s progress, we’re …
DR. HAIDT: There’s restraint on our behavior that allows us to live with each other. Sure, it’s good.
MS. TIPPETT: But but a lot of what your work is about how liberals and conservatives, for example — as orientations, not as voting blocs — find each other’s value systems to be inexplicable at best.
DR. HAIDT: Oh, yeah. That’s part of our tribal nature.
MS. TIPPETT: And possibly offensive at worst.
DR. HAIDT: Absolutely, yes.
MS. TIPPETT: So even as we progress, if we assume that we are progressing, there’s that dilemma.
DR. HAIDT: That’s right. So this is a really interesting thing about democracy. So, in America, we worship it, and a lot of my research is on sacred values, and there’s certain things — we worship democracy. Now, the founding fathers did not worship democracy. In fact, they thought it was a really bad system. They thought that the masses can’t be trusted, so they gave us a republic.
Well democracy has a lot of problems. When you sort of workshop fine details of policy in TV ads to try to make voters angry at the other side, that’s a really bad way to do policy. And what I saw in many Asian countries, I was surprised to learn that they’re experiencing the same polarization that we are. So in Korea, in Japan, in Taiwan, a few other countries — not China because they don’t have parties at all — but in many other young democracies, the next generation is — they’re all at each other’s throats. It’s over different issues in different countries, but polarization is a big problem for democracies. So our political institutions were developed various decades or centuries ago, and as human nature is changing, as things are changing, often they’re not up to the task.
So I’m not optimistic about the American government, but I am very optimistic about America’s future, because I think the people our age who grew up expecting that the point of civic engagement is to be active, so we can make the government fix civil rights or something, we’ve got to make the government do something. And young people have grown up never seeing the government do anything except turn the lights off now and then. And so their activism is not going to be to get the government to do things. It’s going to be to invent some app, some way of solving problems separately. And that’s going to work. So I’m actually very optimistic about the future, just not the congress.
DR. KONNER: But the idea that we’re more polarized than we’ve ever been, I think, is not true. If you read about the election of 1800, you see, by far, the nastiest presidential election that this country has ever …
DR. HAIDT: Right. But since the Civil War. We are more polarized than we’ve been since the Civil War.
DR. KONNER: [laughs] Well, the Civil War was a pretty serious episode of polarization.
DR. HAIDT: Yeah, that’s why I start my counting after the Civil War.
DR. KONNER: I guess I worry about complacency. I don’t think that the founding generation expected things to go smoothly.
MS. TIPPETT: No. Or that it went smoothly with them.
DR. KONNER: Or that it went smoothly with them. Because they built in a complex understanding of human nature.
DR. KONNER: Exactly.
MS. TIPPETT: That that evil inclination is there, and that you needed to …
DR. KONNER: The Constitution is a monograph out of a research lab on human nature. It’s a bunch of people — mostly men, but some with very smart wives who contributed a lot, like Abigail Adams. And really taking a dark view of human nature and human potential, and seeing what had happened in Europe and wanting to construct an apparatus that really was a great achievement of social science — they had a conscience and they wanted the country to have it, but they also knew that in fact, what were then Whigs and Tories represented a permanent kind of division in human life between people who like things to progress faster and people who don’t. And that hasn’t changed. We call it terrible polarization, but it’s — I agree with Jon on this that sometimes people seem, to me, to be expecting too much.
[music: “Crumpets” by Miaou]
MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share this conversation with Melvin Konner and Jonathan Haidt through our website, onbeing.org.
I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
On Being is supported in part by Penguin Press, the publishers of Krista Tippett’s New York Times bestselling book Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living — a grounded and fiercely hopeful vision of humanity for this century; of personal growth, renewed public life, and human spiritual evolution. Becoming Wise is available now, wherever books are sold.
[music: “Crumpets” by Miaou]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today, with a civil conversation on culture, conscience, and capitalism. The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has been arguing that capitalism, while championed by conservatives, actually generates liberal values as it takes root in societies. And this became the focus of my public conversation with him and the biological anthropologist Melvin Konner.
MS. TIPPETT: Mel, you said one way you’ve honored the caution you have and the realism you have — you say, “the definition of humanity — the people we are decent to — has widened.” Which may sound modest, but it’s incredibly significant.
DR. KONNER: It’s great. It’s really great.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. And even — you point out that we even inhabit the non-human world differently.
DR. KONNER: Right. So we’ve seen — basically in my lifetime, I’ve seen people in the United States, as a group, go from believing that nature was so powerful and so vast that — God gave it to us. We exploit it, we use it, and we’re going to keep doing that forever — to something like the opposite. It’s delicate. We have a new conscience with respect to the non-human world, or the world that’s not human. And the idea, the concept that the planet is vulnerable, that’s a very new idea, and it’s a new type of conscientiousness. And it’s something to celebrate, I think.
MS. TIPPETT: I wonder how the two of you think about how globalization — is it a pressure on us to change morally? It is true now to a degree that I believe it’s never been true, that our well-being in fact is linked to the well-being of strangers.
DR. HAIDT: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: Not just across the city, but across the globe. That cooperation has become a matter of survival, whether we can really see that in every moment and every day. Do you imagine that this is changing this — our conscience, whatever that is?
DR. HAIDT: Well, I think there’s a line — is it, let’s see, is it Adam Smith or is it David Hume? — about how if a man reads a newspaper and he sees about an earthquake in China, and a million souls lost, he’ll say, “Oh how terrible. How sad.” And he’ll turn the page and he’s on with the rest of his day. But if he were to discover that his little pinky were to be cut off the next day, he could not possibly sleep. Well, we’re much more linked now than we used to be.
Our care is still going to be much more parochial, but the fact that it extends out at all is quite miraculous. By far the worst problems of capitalism occur in the supply chain. By far the people who get squeezed and crushed and exploited are the people at the far ends of the global supply chain. So it’s the garment workers in Bangladesh who are forced, who are ordered, to go back in to work in a building that has visible cracks in it. They’re ordered to go back in it or they’re fired. And then the building collapses the next day.
If you want to hate capitalism, this is the thing to hate. But here’s what I find, again, so exciting, is these things happen, these are part of capitalism, but it’s not that everybody just says, “Oh, well, just let them happen.” When that happens, people get very upset. And then smart people start thinking, “Well, how can we solve this?”
DR. KONNER: I agree. I see that, too. But, Jon, when your grandparents were union organizing, the garment workers were a few blocks from here. And now they’re on the other side of the world, and we read about them, but we’ve exported a lot of things, a lot of oppression that we used to have around the corner. And now it’s over there, and we are aware of it, but we can live with it. And when we talk about the conversion to the service economy, of course, one of the reasons we and Europeans have been able to convert to service economies, and we’ve exported the manufacturing and the agriculture elsewhere. Not so much the United States, but Europe and Japan. And maybe we can make the transition to an incredibly high-tech, robotic economy, and all the comfortable lives of service professions. But I don’t see that as necessarily a linear process.
DR. HAIDT: But I think we should stay on the question of globalization and sweatshops and supply chain a little bit longer. I’m teaching a business ethics class at Stern right now, and last week we read an essay from 1997. The title of it was “In Praise of Cheap Labor.” And it was a very well-known economist who was arguing that no matter how bad sweatshops look, people choose to work in them because it’s much better than the alternative out in the countryside.
And, yes, it looks terrible to us, but they are actually lifting themselves up. The name of this economist is Paul Krugman. And most economists understand this logic that people are choosing to work there. Now, often, they don’t have any other choice. I’m not saying that makes it automatically OK. What I’m saying is globalization, like so much else in the world, is ugly if you look at it step-by-step, or if you look at people’s motives. But, yet, what I see happening as a social psychologist is we have all this moral software in our heads that make us judge people by their intentions.
And these Western brands that go into these places, they just want the cheapest labor they can get. They don’t care about those people. And that’s true. So if you want to judge capitalism by the intentions of the people, well, you’ll say, “Oh, well this is really ugly. I want socialism.”
I was on a panel with the Dalai Lama once. And I asked him, if the Chinese left Tibet and you came in, what government would you put in? And he said, “Me? No secret, I’m a Marxist, but not a Leninist, a different kind of Marxist.” He said, “Communism is the only system that cares about the poor.” And so, again, if your judgment is do you care about the poor, you might want communism. But if you actually want people to not starve to death and be thrown into gulags, you should probably go with globalization and capitalism.
DR. KONNER: I agree that the real question is, how high is the floor under the poor? It’s not, how rich is the richest person? And that’s the challenge for our conscience. Jon showed graphs that show that, in the United States, the objective material of the well-being of the poor has increased slightly, while the …
DR. HAIDT: Forty percent in 30 years is a lot.
DR. KONNER: OK. So, what do you make of the psychological data on well-being that shows that it’s as much or more determined by your perceived place on the ladder than it is on your absolute material wealth?
DR. HAIDT: Yeah.
DR. KONNER: And, in fact, that countries where inequality is greater are countries where well-being is lower.
DR. HAIDT: Mm-hmm.
DR. KONNER: Regardless of where the bottom is.
DR. HAIDT: So, it was widely reported in the ‘90s and into the 2000s that money only buys happiness when you’re poor — going from poor to middle class, you get happier. But once you reach $70,000 — this was a figure from Dan Kahneman and others — once you reach about $70,000, or the middle- to maybe upper-middle-class status in America, further money doesn’t make you happier. But it turns out that was never really true.
Because while it’s true that the thing curves, you can be ten or 20 or 30 standard deviations above the mean. You can keep rising. More importantly, the data when people say how happy they are, like how much they experience positive emotions versus negative emotions, that does level off around $70,000 a year. But when you ask people overall, think about your life as a whole. How well is your life going compared to the best possible life for yourself or the worst possible life for yourself?
That, it turns out, goes up and up and up and it keeps going up and up and up. In other words, the press, especially, because they tend not to be rich, they love these findings that, once you …
MS. TIPPETT: Well, there’s a real generalization. [laughs]
DR. HAIDT: My point is just that money actually does buy happiness, just with declining marginal returns.
DR. KONNER: But wait a second. My point was not about that. My point was about the negative correlation between equality and well-being.
DR. HAIDT: Yes, that’s right.
DR. KONNER: So, you can have objectively improving situations for the poor…
DR. HAIDT: The happiest nations are small Scandinavian countries. Yes.
DR. KONNER: But if inequality is widening, you can have a decrease in well-being. Is that — would you say that that’s still true?
DR. HAIDT: But, also, inequality stats are so complicated and so politicized. And what — it’s all correlational. And so, this book by Piketty and Wilson, whatever it was — there are all kinds of correlational studies that will show as inequality goes up, obesity, everything goes up. But these are really politicized. And when you listen to conservative analysts, they tell a very compelling story that is more complicated.
What we can say for sure is that small homogeneous countries, the Scandinavian countries, which are the happiest countries, they have a lot of things going for them in terms of the way they’re able to care for people. There is a tradeoff between dynamism and decency, and countries that treat their people really decently are happier. That’s true.
MS. TIPPETT: And the larger point there, or a larger point is, when you talk about that $70,000 threshold — I just have to say, I get so weary of the way, in the United States, we measure everything in terms of economic well-being, because you can measure it, because you can pull out the numbers.
DR. HAIDT: Quantify, yes.
MS. TIPPETT: And we all know that that doesn’t actually define us. And that there’s something going on above $70,000, it’s other things.
DR. HAIDT: It’s $140,000 in New York, by the way.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s $140,000 in New York. [laughs] $2 million doesn’t make you happier than $70,000 because…
DR. HAIDT: No, I just said it does.
MS. TIPPETT: …there’s some kind of — it does?
DR. HAIDT: It does. Yeah, it does.
MS. TIPPETT: OK, well, I just don’t know if I believe that, because I don’t know how we define these things, right? What a definition of happiness or well-being is is very complex. And we all know — what you said about the Scandinavian countries, the sense of well-being is also about care.
DR. HAIDT: Social capital. Yeah. And trust.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes. It’s about community …
DR. HAIDT: That’s it. A good governance, low corruption, and they have that there. We don’t have that here.
MS. TIPPETT: In addition to not worrying about survival or whether you’ll be able to afford to put your children through college.
DR. HAIDT: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: I did want to talk about the language of — the idea of the human spirit, which I think is implicit in a discussion about conscience, although with a potentially very different imagination about what that means than either of you was raised with. Mel, you’ve said that one thing that drew you to anthropology, is that it was a way of looking extensively at the human spirit. What do you mean when — fill that with what those connotations are.
DR. KONNER: Fair enough. At a certain point, I stopped being a dualist. When I was 17, or — and that means I stopped thinking that there was something that explained the human spirit that was not in the brain, in the genes, in the hormones. There’s something to human beings that’s more than the sum of all those neuronal firings, and to human society that’s more than just material interactions and commerce. And that’s something that I think we have to preserve. That’s why I use the term “human spirit” in spite of not being a dualist.
MS. TIPPETT: Jon, I feel like some implication of something expansive called the “human spirit” is also — when you write, “To live virtuously as individuals and societies, we must understand how our minds are built. We must find ways to overcome our natural self-righteousness. We must respect and even learn from those whose morality differs from our own. We need the guidance of both ancient wisdom and modern science to get the balance right.” How would you talk about what that “more” is than than the amount of money we make, than the scientific substance of ourselves that we can describe?
DR. HAIDT: Right. So I decided to major in philosophy to try to understand the meaning of life. And it turns out that philosophy, especially back then, had pretty much nothing to say about the meaning of life. It was just about logic and it was, analytic philosophy is not what you want to do. But I found a lot — I really much more enjoyed literature and psychology. And I felt that I learned a lot about human nature and what makes us happy and satisfied in psychology.
And my first book was called The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. And I thought it would just be a collection of ten chapters on ten different ideas, like, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” True or false? Mostly true. That’s why you shouldn’t coddle your children. But by the end of the book, I realized that actually they were — all the chapters were actually tied together by the theme of relatedness, that people need to be related. We evolved, I believe, as an ultra-social species living intensely social lives. And in the enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, we got much more privacy. We lived much more separated. We have so much autonomy. And we miss something. There’s a lack, there’s a feeling of emptiness. It’s almost as though we’re bees, we evolved to become bees in the hive, and then we say, hey, break open the hive. We don’t need the hive. Go off, do what you want.
Happiness comes from between. It comes from getting the right kind of relationship between yourself and others, yourself and your work — and that’s broadly defined, just some sort of productive activity — and yourself and something larger than yourself. To really flourish, you need to feel that you are part of something big, or something that will leave a mark, that will do something.
And I hear this from my students constantly. Everybody’s looking for how can they leave a mark? Help somebody? Be part of something bigger? And so, given our evolutionary history, and the weird modern way we’re living, we can still have fantastically satisfying lives. We just have to work at it harder than people might have a few generations ago.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being — in a public conversation about culture and conscience with biological anthropologist Melvin Konner and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt.
I think I just have one final kind of line of inquiry. So, Mel, you said something I found very wise. You said this line: “The moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, but we have to keep doing the bending.” Is one way to think about the meaning of conscience that which urges us and compels us to do so, and how we keep each other accountable?
DR. KONNER: Yes, totally. And I believe in the invisible hand of the market as a mainly positive force. But not without guidelines to prevent the even creative destruction from destroying too many people too fast, and hurting people too much. So, yes, the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, but only because of good people bending it, and being impatient about how long it’s taking, and wanting it to happen faster.
DR. HAIDT: And I guess I’d disagree with that by saying that, given the trends we saw in the World Values data, and the ways that generations change as they get peace and security growing up, I would say the arc of history, or the arc of the universe, bends towards justice, and it will do that regardless of what we do. It’s true that we can push it a little faster, and sometimes we do.
MS. TIPPETT: Really?
DR. HAIDT: I think we take too much credit for it. Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. So you really think that no matter — that it’s not a matter of will or decision, but that there is this trajectory?
DR. HAIDT: Well, slavery was going to disappear. There’s no way that — without the Civil War, slavery would have disappeared, but it would have taken longer. And that would have been horrible to have slavery longer. But what I’m saying is we often take too much credit.
DR. KONNER: I’m going to posit that Adam Smith helped bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.
DR. HAIDT: By formalizing capitalism and helping it grow, yes.
DR. KONNER: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: Even evolutionary biologists will say that evolution is not necessarily good. There is such a thing as decay. And there is such a thing as encouraging pro-social behavior, and so that evolution takes a good turn. Evolution doesn’t just lead us from one high point to the next. It has all these wild cards in it.
DR. HAIDT: No, in general, I think evolutionary theorists would not say there’s a direction or a trend, or that evolution is good or bad. But what we’re talking about here is just specifically the evolution of conscience. And human cooperation. That does seem to have a kind of a one-way arc.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. For the piece you wrote for the Humans and Nature website, you talked about the vast change of this moment, which is unsettling for us as creatures, right? Physiologically. And you said it leads us to want to talk to each other about what it means. And I liked this language you used about the ethics of it all. Phrasing these as questions of ethical inquiry. “What should we celebrate? What should we lament and resist?” How would you start to answer those questions about what we should celebrate, and what we should lament and resist?
DR. HAIDT: Well, I think that since our lives and our societies are in constant change, and none of us can see the whole picture at any one time. So Christian Conservatives have a certain perspective from which they can point out to us what we lose when everything becomes just an option that you pick as you’re customizing whatever it is you’re buying. And we can now do this with our mates, with various apps, you can choose exactly what you want and only see the screens for those people.
So libertarians can point out to us what we lose when we give government ever more power. So I guess what I’m saying is with constant change and our incredibly limited self-righteous and biased minds, we need multiple perspectives on what’s happening to us. We need to listen to each other. Our biggest problem as a nation now is that the left-right divide is getting ever more hostile. Surveys show that the way people think — the other side is getting more and more hostile since the ‘90s. And this is what’s preventing us from functioning as a nation. We need to be working on this problem of political divisiveness. We need more political diversity. And we need to understand each other. And that’s why I’m concerned about people who just say, “I’m bending the arc of justice, and you conservatives, you’re all racist. And I hate you.”
MS. TIPPETT: But you believe that whether you write another book about this or we resolve it somehow, that will develop into greater cooperation?
DR. HAIDT: Oh, you mean whether my life makes any difference in what’s going to happen to us?
MS. TIPPETT: Oh, no. I think you’ve — no, I think you said that you really feel that that is happening. That human history always moves towards cooperation. I guess it does get to the point of, is there any reason for us to be sitting here tonight, or should we just go home and read Swedish murder mysteries?
DR. HAIDT: No, I think we need to understand what’s happening to us. We especially need to understand our limitations in understanding what’s happening to us. People are very confident about why capitalism is so terrible, or why it’s so wonderful. And I think we all need to be more epistemologically humble. We need to recognize that, again, the world is changing, we’re changing, and we’re so biased and partisan and tribal, that however certain we are about our political convictions, we’re wrong about a lot of them.
MS. TIPPETT: Mel, I think I might ask you that question, too, but I want you to start with what we should lament and resist, and then go to what we should celebrate. And you get the last word.
DR. KONNER: So, my kids will never forgive me if they listen to this and don’t mention that there are unpredictable nonlinearities in the future of our species, which can result from things we don’t understand about the natural world, about climate change, and there could be really terrible consequences in terms of a reversal of the long-term trend toward lower levels of violence, rather than a simple linear improvement.
I think we should celebrate how far we’ve come, what we’ve accomplished in increasing prosperity. And I think we should celebrate a sense of hope about what will happen on the other side of this bottleneck that we have to get through, because of the increasing size of the human population. And much more so because of the increasing aspirations, which the planet may not be able to sustain until that time when the human population starts to decline. Anthropologists take the long view. I’m very optimistic about the year 2200. I’m not so optimistic about the year 2050, or 2075.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. So thank you, Jonathan Haidt. Thank you, Melvin Konner. We all leave here a little bit more epistemologically humble. Thank you all for coming.
[music: “Lost in Thought” by Jon Hopkins]
Jonathan Haidt is the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. His books include The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, and, forthcoming in 2017, Three Stories about Capitalism: The Moral Psychology of Economic Life.
Melvin Konner is the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Anthropology and of Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology at Emory University. His books include The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit and The Evolution of Childhood.
On Being is:
STAFF:Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Annie Parsons, Marie Sambilay, Aseel Zahran, Tess Montgomery, Bethanie Kloecker, and Selena Carlson.
MS. TIPPETT: Special thanks this week to Brooke Hecht, Kate Cummings, and Anja Claus at the Center for Humans and Nature, and the staff of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Our gratitude as always to Argot Studios’ Paul Ruest for engineering our conversation.
[music: “Everything” by City of the Sun]
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