The Psychology of Self-Righteousness
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.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Jonathan Haidt: It’s as though these giant electromagnets got turned on in the ’60s, and they’ve been cranking up ever since, and anything that has the vaguest left-right charge gets pulled to one side. Everything gets purified. Psychologically, what we find empirically is that people who identify as conservative tend to like order and predictability, whereas people who identify as liberal, they like variety and diversity. I have one study where we have dots moving around on a screen. Conservatives like the images where the dots are moving around more in lockstep with each other. Liberals like it when it’s all chaotic and random.
Krista Tippett, host: The surprising psychology behind morality — this is at the heart of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s research. “When it comes to moral judgments,” he says, “we think we are scientists discovering the truth, but actually we are lawyers arguing for positions we arrived at by other means.” In his acclaimed book, The Righteous Mind, he examined the conundrum behind good people divided by religion and politics. Jonathan Haidt explains “liberal” and “conservative” not narrowly or necessarily as political affiliations, but as personality types, ways of moving through the world. And his own self-described “conservative-hating, religion-hating, secular-liberal instincts” have been challenged by his own studies.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Jonathan Haidt is professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. I interviewed him in 2014 at the invitation of a group called Encounter. It is interested in Jonathan Haidt’s research as it navigates an iconically entrenched, bitterly divisive moral conflict of our age, the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. We gathered before an intimate group at the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan.
Ms. Tippett: It’s exciting to be talking about an important subject in an important place in a room surrounded by books. And actually, where I’d like to start is just with you, just a little bit about your background. And I’m curious, specifically, whether you would find traces or roots of not just your interest in morality, but in a sense, your passion for morality, in the religious or spiritual background of your childhood.
Mr. Haidt: Well, my religious and spiritual background is sort of stereotypical for my generation — born in 1963 to parents who were first generation. All four of my grandparents were born in Russia and Poland, came to New York, worked in the garment industry, loved Roosevelt, union organizers. My parents moved, raised me in Scarsdale, New York. I was very assimilated — I have a strong sense of being Jewish as my culture, but not as, really, as a religion. As a kid who always loved science, and when I first read the bible in college, the Old Testament, I was horrified when I read the whole thing. And so I went through the phase that many young scientific types go through. I’m the sort of person who would have been a New Atheist if I hadn’t taken a very different turn in my own research.
Ms. Tippett: So you studied philosophy in college, is that right? And then it seems to me that you made a move, a shift that our culture is actually making, which is that great questions, or this great inquiry about the human condition, which once was reserved for philosophers and theologians, has now moved onto frontiers where we are learning to understand our minds, and in understanding our minds, understanding ourselves in a whole new way.
Mr. Haidt: That’s right. That’s what most excites me, is, I think we’re all interested in our origins. Everybody’s interested in origin stories: Where do we come from? Why are we this way? And when I first read, actually, Richard Dawkins, when I first read The Selfish Gene, and I began to learn about evolution, I felt, “Oh my God, it all makes so much sense. This is why we are the way we are.”
And I remember when I was in London — in Westminster Abbey, I guess it was, wherever Darwin is buried, and in England, they have the graves right there in the church, and people walk over them. And I was like, “No! don’t walk on Darwin’s grave!” So I felt like — I felt as though studying the social sciences and evolution, I feel like we are really beginning to reconstruct our ancestor and origin story, and it’s very, very exciting. And I find it gives me a lot of compassion for us as a species, because a lot of people love to shake their heads and say, “Oh, my God, things are so terrible, and we’re such monsters.” But I have very, very low expectations. My standard is, we’re animals. We’re like chimpanzees that actually figured out how to get along amazingly well and not hurt each other, not hit each other. I mean it’s amazing how peaceful we are, actually.
Ms. Tippett: I mean I just think — just what you just said, I feel like we are — we’re coming to a place where we can have a vocabulary of considering ourselves as a species, which is kind of a new evolutionary phase. And having said that, that you started thinking about these things seriously with Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, the field you are part of — which is new, which has developed in your lifetime, in our lifetime — is positive psychology, the study of human flourishing, which it takes off into new directions from there.
Mr. Haidt: That’s right. So that would be, I guess — part of the story is, psychology has tended to be a very negative field, in that it’s especially focused on problems.
Ms. Tippett: Pathologies and neurosis.
Mr. Haidt: Pathologies, violence, drug addiction, racism, all those sorts of things. Those are, of course, extremely important to study. We’ve made a lot of progress on them. But in the 1990s, Martin Seligman, a psychologist at Penn, said, when he was president of the American Psychological Association, “Well, what about the positive side of life? Most people are doing pretty well. And when they go to the bookstore, all they have on offer are books by Deepak Chopra. So we should be having psychologists doing research on the positive side of life.” And I started doing research because I study morality and how it’s based on the emotions, so I’d been studying the emotions of disgust and anger and shame, and then I started to think, “Well, what’s the opposite of disgust?” And I started — what do you feel when you see somebody do something beautiful or uplifting? And it felt to me as though there’s such an emotion, but there wasn’t a word for it, at least not in the psychological language — I mean you can say “uplifted” or “touched” or “moved.”
And I came across a wonderful passage in Thomas Jefferson. I’d just arrived at the University of Virginia, and he is the — he’s everywhere. I felt like I worked for the man. It was wonderful. But he describes why it’s so important to read good fiction: because of the effect that beautiful deeds, beautifully explained, can have on you. He said, “Does it not elevate his sentiments, does it not dilate the breast and elevate the sentiment” — a sort of a feeling of opening — “as much as any example in real history can furnish?” And he talked about how it makes us more open, and then new things are possible.
Ms. Tippett: It seems like he almost had an intuition of what’s being learned in social psychology now, or that he had a wisdom.
Mr. Haidt: Jefferson was a fantastic — Jefferson and Ben Franklin. We had a few founders who were great psychologists.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. So let’s just talk about your basic premises. So one of them, we kind of have had this illusion that we were primarily rational creatures. And your first premise would be that moral judgment is based mostly on intuitions, rather than conscious reasoning. I mean here is the one way you said this: “When it comes to moral judgments, we think we are scientists discovering the truth, but actually we are lawyers arguing for positions we arrived at by other means.”
Mr. Haidt: Exactly. And if you don’t believe that about yourself, just note how true it is of everybody else.
And then think, they think that of you.
Ms. Tippett: So a second premise is that there’s more to morality than harm and fairness. So explain what that means.
Mr. Haidt: So in psychology, pretty much everybody who studies morality is politically liberal.
Ms. Tippett: Really? Is that really true?
Mr. Haidt: Yeah. Yeah. I have found one social psychologist who’s a conservative. He’s a friend of mine. I’ve not found another. And that’s a whole separate discussion about the terrible things that happen — I mean we’re talking about polarization here — what happens when the academy itself becomes polarized, so that all the liberals are in the academy, all the conservatives are in think tanks in Washington.
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Mr. Haidt: So it really interferes with our ability to think and to study.
Ms. Tippett: But it makes for great cable television.
Mr. Haidt: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.
Ms. Tippett: It produces the talking heads.
Mr. Haidt: Yeah, that’s right, and no progress.
So the field — so when I entered the field in 1987, it was dominated by people who were pretty far left. And so morality was basically defined as altruism. And it was especially altruism towards poor victims. So ideally, helping poor kids in Africa, that is the best thing you could possibly do. So all the research was about compassion and about fairness and justice, and that’s it. And when I took a course in cultural psychology from a wonderful anthropologist named Alan Fiske, and we read all these books about these ethnographies of morality in other cultures — and people care a lot about food and food taboos and menstruating women and the body and all these things that I had read 15 years before in the Old Testament. And I realized: Oh, my God, almost every culture on earth has this very broad conception of morality, in which it’s not just about “Am I hurting you and treating you fairly?”
Ms. Tippett: Right, a whole array of things that are — that come under that category of “moral.”
Mr. Haidt: Exactly; issues of purity and authority and group loyalty. And the interesting puzzle, which is now being solved, is, how did the West get so weird? And by “weird” — I’m not using that as an insult. WEIRD stands for “western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic.” When ever you have a society that has those five attributes, the moral domain shrinks down, individualism rises up, people get more analytical — there’s a massive set of changes that happen. And everybody in this room, I daresay, is, to some extent, WEIRD.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] OK. A third premise is that morality “binds and blinds.”
Mr. Haidt: This is the one I’m most excited about. This is the one that I feel unlocks so many of our hardest problems, particularly the ones we’re here to talk about tonight. So if you go with me that morality is part of human nature, that it is something that evolved in us as our primate ancestors became cultural creatures that lived in larger groups, then these groups competed with each other, and the groups that were able to hang together and cooperate are the ones that succeeded and became our ancestors. So if you are with me that morality, just like the love of our children or the sense of humor or language, or all these things about us — if you’re with me on that, then you begin to see morality not just as “Am I nice to you?” You begin to see morality as this amazing ability that binds groups together in groups that are larger than kinship.
Probably none of you here are siblings, but you’re all — you all, we all have common concerns. You form organizations. We’re all members of dozens of organizations. We cooperate so brilliantly, and that’s because we have this moral psychology that binds us together. It’s most effective when we have a sacred value, something that we all worship or circle around. So it’s clearest in religions, where the sacred value is literally God or the Torah or whatever, but you’ll see it in any political group too. So on the left, nowadays, just in the last year or two, it’s become overwhelmingly marriage equality and rising income inequality. On the right, it’s long been “the family” and “America.”
Ms. Tippett: Those are the things we define as moral issues, the primary moral issues.
Mr. Haidt: That’s right. But keep your eye on the sacred values. That really helps you understand. And we’ll come back to that here, I’m sure.
[music: “Fences” by Kaki King]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Moral foundations theory, which he helped create, suggests that human beings are born with moral “receptors.” Just as our taste buds organically incline us to like and dislike certain tastes and textures, our minds come equipped to feel pleasure or displeasure at patterns in the social world. But Jonathan Haidt does describe five primary moral foundations that are held across individuals and cultures. People who are liberal and conservative, he says, value two of these in common, compassion and fairness. But conservatives simultaneously juggle three other moral values — of loyalty, authority, and sanctity.
[music: “Fences” by Kaki King]
Ms. Tippett: So I mean clearly, there’s political life resonance, but talk about that. Talk about how you look at the collapse of, I think, civility, and inability to solve problems and to speak across difference, in terms of the science that you’re doing. One thing that you’ve talked about is the importance of disagreeing constructively. I don’t know, do you know — well, you say very interesting things, also, about how it is harder for liberals to understand conservatives, or that liberals need to try harder to understand conservatives than conservatives would have to try to understand liberals. And I think that’s probably a provocative statement, possibly, in this room.
Mr. Haidt: OK, maybe I’d better unpack that, yeah.
Ms. Tippett: So what do you mean by that? I mean what do you know that informs that statement?
Mr. Haidt: OK, so very brief background, so one of my main areas of research — my colleagues and I call it moral foundations theory — is about these different — almost like taste buds of the moral sense. So everybody values compassion and fairness, whether you’re liberal or conservative — everybody. But then there are these three others: loyalty versus betrayal, authority versus subversion, and sanctity versus degradation. And what we find is that conservatives give relatively high marks to all five of those. They value all of those, whereas liberals reject those last three — “That’s, like, the foundations of racism and exclusiveness.” And “No,” they — “group loyalty? That’s terrible.” In other words, liberals build their moral matrix, their moral world, on these two foundations, primarily.
And in one study that I did with my former graduate student, Jesse Graham, we asked liberals and conservatives to fill out our main surveys, pretending to be the other, and also as themselves, for different people. What we found is that conservatives and moderates were very accurate at filling it out as though they were liberals. But liberals were not accurate filling it out as though they were conservatives, because they just couldn’t get their mind into the idea that authority is somehow related to morality; they think it’s just oppression. So that’s one reason why there’s a difficulty, an asymmetric difficulty.
The other reason is that the media tends to be liberal, as the academic world is, and Hollywood. So you cannot grow up in this country without being exposed to lots and lots of liberal ideas. But it wasn’t until I was about 40 that I happened to pull a book off a shelf that said “conservatism” on it, that I was ever exposed to conservative ideas. And I’m well educated. And I had never encountered conservative ideas. So, there’s a real asymmetry in access to the other side’s ideas.
Ms. Tippett: And you very much value the way conservatives — and I think this would be conservatives politically or religiously, conservative people and minds among us — in an important and necessary way remind us of the — what did you say? — the binding foundations of society. That’s important to you that liberals remember.
Mr. Haidt: That’s right. That was really the eye-opener for me. I was always very liberal growing up. I really hated Ronald Reagan, and my first political memory is having a poster of Richard Nixon, and my friends and I completely defaced it, and we thought it was so funny, because we hated him, in our seven-year-old minds. But in doing this research and coming to see that liberals and conservatives each have a piece of the puzzle — each are really perceptive about certain moral values, about the needs of what it takes to have a humane society, and if you let liberals run everything, they tend to burn up social capital, but conservatives tend to focus more on building up social structures that actually do allow us to flourish in some ways. You do need order. You do need some restrictions. You do need some boundaries.
Ms. Tippett: So in some ways, what you are learning could be experienced to be reductionist, right? I mean, it suggests that much of what we think we know and do, and the control we think that we have, and the rationality behind our behavior, is illusory. But I also very much hear you saying that this knowledge itself is a form of power, that we can know this and use that knowledge.
Mr. Haidt: Yes, that’s right. I love reductionism, in that you look at how — “Oh, my God, these things we do, you can explain them by biology and evolution” — that’s reductionism. But I always pair it with emergentism. We form these complex webs, and out of them emerge social institutions. Out of them emerges historical trends. So we are not prisoners of our genes or of our childhoods. The choices we make now will change what happens to us tomorrow. So I certainly want to pair that, the reductionism and the emergentism.
And at every point in history — every point in history is a crossroads. And we can point to people in recent history who blew it, who made bad decisions that made it even tougher for us now. But it’s never hopeless. So I do think that if we can all get a better grasp of this moral psychology, we can turn it to our advantage.
Ms. Tippett: And you are not a religious person, but you, as a social psychologist, very much value, see a value in religion.
Mr. Haidt: Absolutely.
Ms. Tippett: In society.
Mr. Haidt: Yeah, and that makes me — not unique, there are other social scientists who do — but it makes me in the minority. And I was very — I used to be very hostile to religion. And then, in doing this research on moral psychology and coming to see conservative perspectives, and then looking at the social science evidence on the effects of religion, well, it’s pretty clear. I mean it’s a little mixed, there are some mixed findings. But the lit reviews generally find that religion in the United States — and it may not be true in other countries, but in the United States, where we have a competitive marketplace and religions compete for adherence — they’re really nice and warm and open, and they create moral communities that encourage people to not just focus on themselves.
And so a wonderful book, American Grace, by Putnam and Campbell, is the ultimate authority on this. What they find is that it doesn’t matter what religion you are, and it doesn’t matter what you believe: If you are part of a religious community, then on average, you’re a better citizen. You give more to charity. Religion does bring out the good in people. Now, secular people can be perfectly good too, but on average, they give less, and they give less of their time. So I’d like to think that I simply, as a secular atheist scientist, followed the evidence, and it showed me that I was wrong in thinking that religion was evil.
Ms. Tippett: And you also point out that when you talk about intuition, that our behavior is not primarily consciously driven. And that’s the same thing that Buddha said, and it’s the same thing that St. Paul said, and Moses and Ovid and all of these people. So it’s absolutely true that our traditions are repositories of moral thinking and moral grappling and have brought those things across time. It’s also true, and we certainly have this specter in the 21st century, that religious energies are at the center of a lot of the, well, morally justified violence, moral anguish. So how would you explain the fact that — this seeming contradiction that religion — that religions are carriers of morality and also that that those very same energies become most destructive?
Mr. Haidt: Well, if you think that morality is being nice and kind to people, well, then, yeah, boy, it sure looks like a paradox. But if you go with me that morality is these many things, and a lot of it is, “Are you a good group member, or are you pursuing your own interests?” — and those group interests often are about intergroup conflict — so if you think about religion as functioning to bind groups together, well then, it’s no paradox. A lot of that is nasty stuff.
Ms. Tippett: I mean here’s something from your writing that — it’s a very striking statement. “The myth of pure evil” — and again, our religions are a place we talk about good and evil — “the myth of pure evil is the ultimate self-serving bias, the ultimate form of naïve realism.” That’s a pretty strong statement.
Mr. Haidt: One thing that you find in most of the great wisdom traditions is the idea that reality as we see it is an illusion. It’s a veil, it blinds us, and enlightenment is taking down the veil, seeing things as they are, transcending dualities. And that, I think, is really crucial for thinking about civility, because that’s what happened to me in writing this book and in doing this research, is, I was a self-righteous, conservative-hating, religion-hating, secular liberal. And in doing this research over many years, and in forcing myself to watch FOX News as an anthropologist who just — “I’ve got to understand this stuff” — over time I realized, “Well, they’re not crazy. These ideas make sense. They see things I didn’t see.”
The feeling of losing my anger was thrilling. It was really freeing. When you get people to actually understand each other, and they let down their guard, and they learn something new, and they see humanity in someone that they disliked or hated or demonized before, that’s really thrilling. And that, I think, is one of the most important emotional tools we have to foster civility. Because once you get it started, it’s kind of addictive.
[music: “Making Amends” by Andy McNeill]
Ms. Tippett: You can listen again and share this conversation with Jonathan Haidt through our website, onbeing.org.
Coming up, where the rubber meets the road. We apply Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory to diverse reactions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[music: “Making Amends” by Andy McNeill]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. He is a leading thinker in the emerging field of positive psychology, especially the psychology behind morality. His research has helped illuminate how much of what we perceive as our defining moral values are unconsciously reflexive. He says we have inborn moral receptors, just as we have physical taste buds. His science, he believes, is usable knowledge towards individual and social change.
I interviewed Jonathan Haidt at the invitation of a group called Encounter, which attempts to calm an iconically entrenched, bitterly divisive moral conflict of our age, the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.
Ms. Tippett: I think that when you talk about something like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, if you talk about the very emotional turmoil within the Jewish community, within the American Jewish community, just start there, where you’re dealing with a conflict, a crisis that goes back generations, spirals of violence, and where there’s this huge component of fear that is built into it — and among the other things we’re learning about our brains, it is that when we are fearful, it’s very hard to rise to — let’s just say, to make use of this kind of scientific knowledge that we’re getting about ourselves as social beings. That’s kind of where the rubber meets the road, which is too mild a—
Mr. Haidt: Yeah, so let’s start working on it. So I’m an Ivory Tower academic. I’ve only facilitated one meeting in my whole life of trying to get people together across the aisle.
Ms. Tippett: I’m glad you told us that. [laughs]
Mr. Haidt: But I will speculate, based on that — but from what I’ve learned, what I’ve seen, here are a few pointers. One is, if you accept what I was saying earlier about how our reasoning is driven by our intuitions, our gut feelings, our emotions, that’s just why you cannot reason somebody to — once there’s a conflict, you can’t use reason to change their mind. So don’t even try the direct route, which is, “Let’s just discuss it.”
Once you accept that, then you say, well, OK, what does change reasoning? And now relationships become absolutely crucial. This is why it’s so hard to influence people just by putting a message up into message space. And this is what all the — people who are always interested in the political messaging and crafting the message vehicle, they always come to me for advice on this issue, that issue. And I say: Stop focusing on the message vehicle. Think a lot more about the messenger, because if you have somebody who you wouldn’t expect to say something, or if you have an alliance of people — so think a lot more about the total situation. And you’re not going to change people’s mind just with reason alone, so bring in interesting people who would be what sometimes are called “unexpected validators,” for one thing.
Ms. Tippett: What do you mean, “unexpected validators”?
Mr. Haidt: For example, a lot of people talk to me about, say, global warming. And they’re always trying to craft the message: “Well, how can we use the message to appeal to their other — these conservative foundations and make those conservatives change their mind?” So I say things like, “Well, start by finding a military general who will talk about how this is gonna be a threat to America’s ability to project force around the world.” But the even more important principle is, build up the relationships between the people that you want to do the talking, because we engage in reasoning not to figure out the truth but for social purposes, to show our team that we’re good team players. So bring people together in a debate, people are actually not communicating with each other, they’re actually communicating with their other audiences.
Ms. Tippett: They’re just defining themselves, over against.
Mr. Haidt: Right. That’s right. But if you do the long, slow work of getting people to have something of a human relationship — and especially, sharing food is a very visceral, primal thing. Once you’ve eaten, shared food with a person, there’s a deep psychological system that means “We are like family.”
Ms. Tippett: You use some really helpful metaphors and analogies. You talk about the moral matrix. Give us that.
Mr. Haidt: OK, so yeah, that comes straight out of the movie The Matrix. The matrix is a consensual hallucination. And that’s kind of cool, and the internet and all that stuff, but it was just the perfect metaphor for the moral world that we live in. It defines what’s true and what’s not true. It is a closed epistemic world. What I mean by that is, it has within it everything it needs to prove itself, and it has within it defenses against any possible argument that could be thrown at it. It’s impossible to see the defects in your own moral matrix.
Ms. Tippett: So it becomes impossible to think beyond.
Mr. Haidt: Exactly, exactly. And that’s why foreign travel is so good, getting disoriented is so good, reading literature can be so good. So there are ways of it getting out of your moral matrix, but it’s hard, especially in the context of any sort of intergroup conflict. Then we’re just locked into it, and our goal is: Defend the matrix, defeat theirs.
Ms. Tippett: I think a question that gets raised in this country, and I imagine that it might be on people’s minds in this room right now, is that the people who most would benefit from those relationships or from stepping outside or seeing beyond their matrix, are precisely the ones who are not going to go on the trips to the West Bank, or whatever the other examples would be.
Now, I think that we in this culture — we tend to actually focus on the extreme poles and think that they are the ones who have to be convinced, and we always center the debates around them, and maybe that’s what we do wrong. Do we need those extremists?
Mr. Haidt: No, you don’t.
Ms. Tippett: Or do we start without them, and that’s fine?
Mr. Haidt: Yeah, so first, let me be clear that while each side can’t see the flaws in its own matrix, there is a symmetry here, and left and right are similar in some ways. But one of the clearest differences between left and right, psychologically, is that the left is generally universalist, almost to a fault, and the right is parochial, often to a fault. And what I mean by parochial isn’t just “narrow-minded and dumb.” What I mean is — so we have a survey at yourmorals.org where we ask, “How much do you care about or think about or value people in your community, people in your country, people in the world at large?” And OK, so conservatives value people in their nation and in their community much more than people in the world at large. And you might say, OK, well, that’s parochial. But what do liberals do? Liberals on our survey actually say they value people in the world at large more than people in their own country, more than people in their community. So liberals are so universalist, they often don’t really pay much attention to their own groups. As my mother said about my grandfather, who was a labor organizer, “He loved humanity so much that he didn’t really have much time to care for his family.”
Ms. Tippett: All right. So let’s open this up and see what’s on your minds.
Mr. Haidt: OK.
Audience Member 1: Jon, on this notion of your five factors that go into morality — and I believe it was fairness and compassion as being pretty much accepted across the spectrum as being moral values, and then you added others, like sacredness or purity or authority — I think of authority and respecting authority as more amoral. If the authority is Abraham Lincoln, I see that as moral. If the authority is Hitler or Stalin, I don’t. And so I’m sort of stuck with this notion of maybe a broader understanding of morality. If there is one position that is more right than another, how can we be open to respecting authority if our sense is that that authority is wrong?
Mr. Haidt: OK, so a way to think about this is — so I’m trying to be descriptive here. What is the morality that people around the world care about? And I was trying to step out of my own secular liberal morality. And if you think about the virtues as these excellences that we try to encourage in our children to prepare them for social interaction, and liberals and conservatives cultivate very different excellences. When I got to the University of Virginia, there were a number — a lot of the students were from southwest Virginia, and they would call me “sir,” and it was hard for them to call me by first name. And they — in seminar classes, it was clear they had concepts of backtalk, which, growing up Jewish American, there’s no such thing as backtalk. If your uncle says something stupid, you say — you don’t say it was stupid, but you say, “I totally disagree. That’s ridiculous.”
But many people think that a world in which children can say “shut up” to their parents or, at least, can take it or leave it or sue them or whatever they want — a lot of conservatives are horrified at the chaos, disorder, and disrespect in more liberal families.
There often is a need for some sort of order, especially if a group is gonna try to accomplish something. If a group’s gonna — so keep in mind, conservative virtues are effective at keeping the group together and making it effective. Liberal values are more effective at getting justice within the group. So I think that’s the key here.
Ms. Tippett: But I think the question is that sometimes order is Abraham Lincoln, and sometimes it’s Hitler. And are you saying, maybe again in the grand scheme of things, that in the context of the human enterprise, the human experiment, that value which carries a lot of good is sometimes going to result in a Hitler?
Mr. Haidt: Oh, I’m not saying people should be respectful of all authorities, nor am I saying that conservatives think people should respect all authorities. Let’s see. Where to go with this? I mean I think one thing that I noticed really on display in sort of extreme cases was Occupy Wall Street. So Occupy Wall Street was a very far left movement. And they were so far left that they were opposed to all forms of authority. Everybody was equal. And I went down there a few times, and I watched them think about things. And what I saw so turned me off.
I was very sympathetic to the movement at first. But they’re so egalitarian that they wouldn’t — couldn’t have any leaders. Everybody had a right to speak, equal to everyone else. At one point, there was a motion. They were trying to figure out what they stood for. And they, for months they couldn’t say what they stood for, and they were trying to draft a memo, and on one line was, “And we reject violence.” And somebody said, “Well, but there are some among us who don’t reject violence, and we don’t want to exclude them. We’re so inclusive. We want to include everybody.” And so that was one thing, was, the extreme egalitarianism and inclusiveness rendered them, I thought, unfit for modern American political life. So complete rejection of authority leads to chaos, it leads to ineffectiveness, and it ultimately leads to the group disappearing.
[music: “Twinkle” by Victor Malloy]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, on his emerging science behind the psychology of morality. We spoke in a public event at the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan.
[music: “Twinkle” by Victor Malloy]
Mr. Haidt: I know this is the question period, but there’s a quote here, which is just so relevant, I hope I can read it. It’s from an article by Yossi Klein Halevi on Pesach Jews versus Purim Jews. He talks about there’s these two threads, these two strands among Jews — actually, this is more in Israel, but it’s here too. So he — I just love this, and it fits so well with Righteous Mind. He says, “Jewish history speaks to our generation in the voice of two Biblical commands to remember. The first voice commands us to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and the message of that command is: Don’t be brutal. The second voice commands us to remember how the tribe of Amalek attacked us without provocation while we were wandering in the desert, and the message of that command is: Don’t be naïve.” “‘Passover Jews’ are motivated by empathy with the oppressed.” That’s this care and compassion foundation. “‘Purim Jews’ are motivated by alertness to threat.” That’s these group-binding virtues, where you have to have, if you’re going to be attacked from outside. “Both are essential.” So anything you can do to convey the sense that, yeah, both sides are right, both sides are wise to certain threats, conveying that both sides are right and linking them to both — both are Jews. So these are, I think, some of the steps that can at least create this greater sense of community and necessary purpose.
Ms. Tippett: There’s some place you talked about some work you’ve done with some of your students that — what did you say? That diversity was like cholesterol? That we need the good kind and the bad kind; we need all — we need difference. And it’s OK for all these — [laughs] I want to find it. You know what — you say it. It’s interesting.
Mr. Haidt: OK, so I grew up — I started at Yale in 1981, just as diversity was becoming a major, major watchword of the left. And my entire academic career, it’s all been about diversity: diversity this, diversity that. And what’s really meant by that is racial diversity, and then, secondarily, gender diversity. And claims are made for diversity, that it has all these benefits for thinking, it does all these great things. But at the same time, what I’ve observed in my academic career is, when I started school in the ’80s, there were a few conservatives on the faculty, and now there are almost none. So we’ve reached the state that George Will described. He said there’s a certain kind of liberal that wants diversity in everything except thought. And so we do need certain kinds of diversity, but the key to remember is that diversity by its very nature is divisive, and so what’s the function of your group? If your group needs cohesion, you don’t want diversity. If your group needs good, clear thinking, and you want people to challenge your prejudices, then you need it. So in the academic world, we need that kind of diversity, and we don’t have it. That was part of my point.
Ms. Tippett: How does that help you analyze what might be done?
Mr. Haidt: Yeah, so diversity is generally divisive, and it has to be managed. There is some interesting research showing that when you celebrate diversity and point it out, you split people, but if you drown it in a sea of commonality, then it’s not a problem. So anything you can do to emphasize how similar we all are, how much we have in common, is good. Anything you can do that celebrates — “Look at how different we are. Look at how diverse we are” — that tends to make it harder to have any group cohesion and trust.
Ms. Tippett: Except if you — drowning things in commonality can also — making everything superficial. Right?
Mr. Haidt: Well, what do you want? Do you want authenticity, or do you want peace and harmony?
Ms. Tippett: I don’t want to have to choose between the two.
Mr. Haidt: I think you might.
Ms. Tippett: But you cannot drown, you know…
Mr. Haidt: No, when there are policy differences as big as what to do about the Palestinian issue, you can’t…
Ms. Tippett: Right, you can’t drown that in commonality.
Mr. Haidt: That’s right. But what I’m saying is, start by addressing that. Start by building the sense of our community, how much we have in common, how there’ve always been these two sides. And Jews have to do both. Start by building all of that, and then you can address the harder policy issues.
Rabbi Marion Lev-Cohen: OK. Can I see a show of hands? Questions?
Audience Member 2: So I actually just wanted to request your working definition of “conservative” and “liberal,” because I feel like I’ve been a little bit working backwards trying to figure out, by how you characterize them, what you basically mean when you say, for example, that conservatives are discriminated against in the academy. Like, what is the definition of conservative and liberal?
Mr. Haidt: So at least in the American context, it’s become very easy, in that it’s now an identity. Fifty, 70 years ago, the Republican party had — there were liberal Republicans, there were conservative Democrats. So back then, political scientists said, “Well, Americans don’t know what these terms mean. Americans are hopeless, these terms are meaningless.” But since the two parties have gotten sorted — once Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, the South left the Democratic party, joined the Republican, everything got purified — it’s as though these giant electromagnets got turned on in the ’60s, and they’ve been cranking up ever since, and anything that has the vaguest left-right charge gets pulled to one side. Everything gets purified. So in the American context, it can mean something as simple as, you identify as liberal or conservative.
Psychologically, what we find empirically is that people who identify as conservative tend to like order and predictability. They are not attracted to change for the sake of change, whereas people who identify as liberal, they like variety and diversity. I have one study where we have dots moving around on a screen. Conservatives like the images where the dots are moving around more in lockstep with each other.
Liberals like it when it’s all chaotic and random. Liberals keep their rooms messier than conservatives. So these are deep, psychological differences. We eat different food. We eat at different restaurants. And this is part of the problem now, is that it’s become not just an ideological difference, it’s a real lifestyle difference.
Ms. Tippett: So I think that gets at part of the confusion, that it’s probably the simplest thing to associate “conservative” with Republican, and “liberal” with Democrat.
Mr. Haidt: In this country, now.
Ms. Tippett: In this country now, but you’re really talking as a social psychologist about “conservative” and “liberal” as two ways of being human.
Mr. Haidt: That’s right, these are psychological traits. That’s right. There are dimensions. So openness to experience is the main psychological trait that has been found to correlate with the left-right dimension. And so I would guess — I know nothing about the situation in Israel, but I would guess, when you go out to dinner in Jerusalem with people on the left versus the right, there will be a lot more sort of fusion restaurants and variety and diversity when you go out with people on the left than with people on the right.
Ms. Tippett: And that has something — it has to do with a lot of things, but it’s also related to this echo chamber problem, that it’s like what we’re hearing, and we’re never hearing the whole story or being able to internalize the whole story.
So that’s why you’re here tonight.
What do we do about these echo chambers? What does your science teach you?
Mr. Haidt: Oh, boy, what do we do about the echo chambers? That’s really hard. I mean it’s especially hard in this country, where the First Amendment means that government can’t…
Ms. Tippett: We’re all talking to people who are like us. And we’re living in neighborhoods, as you said, with people who are like us.
Mr. Haidt: Yeah, we’ve got a lot of sociology working against us here. Part of becoming more modern and wealthy and individualistic is that we make our life choices based on what we like, what appeals to us. So you don’t just stay where you were born, the way people used to more often. I mean there’s always been a lot of movement among humans, but nowadays, I mean when you look at people shopping for college or jobs: “Well, you know, Seattle has a lot of bookstores. I like that.” And my grad student, Matt Motyl, has done research looking at millions of people: When they move, do they, on average, move to a place that’s more conducive to their politics, or less? The answer is: more, on both sides.
So we’ve started to move into what — a phrase that — the sociologist Robert Bellah called “lifestyle enclaves.” We pick things based on these things like bookstores versus churches and gun ranges, but they end up just getting — we’re more and more purified. So that’s a real problem. So the echo chamber, because of our residential patterns and because of technology, the echo chamber gets more and more closed off.
Ms. Tippett: And just modernity as a whole. That’s so interesting.
Mr. Haidt: Well, it’s freedom. The more you are free and have the resources and have a society based on markets and businesses that will cater to what you want, and those are generally good things — well, if people choose where to live and who to associate with, they get ever more segregated.
Ms. Tippett: So progress leads to incivility.
Mr. Haidt: Of a sort, but again, progress leads to peacefulness, non-violence — but to us being shut off from each other, yes.
Ms. Tippett: And so you also speak of virtues, which is, I find, a word that’s very magnetic to modern people and to younger people. And so I like to talk about civility grounding virtues, as opposed to ground rules.
Mr. Haidt: Yeah, I like that.
Ms. Tippett: Right? And I wonder how you — if you think that even that kind of language — I mean you talk about Ben Franklin’s United Party for Virtue, so this has a history with us too — if that might be something — something that can help.
Mr. Haidt: Yeah, I think so. I think we went through — in America, at least, we went through a period in the ’60s and ’70s when the education establishment became extremely liberal, and part of that is a flirtation with relativism and a resistance — it’s horrible to think of adults telling kids what’s right and wrong. What a terrible thing. That’s oppression. And so we created these sort of value-free spaces, which conveys a value, which is that there’s no right or wrong. Everyone decides for themselves. Everyone’s opinion is equal. You should say your opinion. And then you get a lot of incivility.
What I would like to see is a revamped civics curriculum where we teach, very explicitly, the long tradition of left-right. We teach what each side is — you can’t say “right about,” that’s my language, but you teach what each side is concerned about, very much like the line here. Both are essential. One without the other creates an unbalanced American civic order. You need a party of progress or reform and a party of stability and order. That’s a paraphrase from John Stuart Mill. So I think that we could teach — in our civics classes, we could teach that the other side actually has a piece of the puzzle; both sides do. We need each other, more of a yin-yang idea. So I think there are indirect ways that we can foster these virtues in young people, which might lead to more practice.
Ms. Tippett: Right, so I mean I think we have to talk about virtues like virtues of hospitality, which also actually don’t even require you to like someone.
Mr. Haidt: Exactly. That’s right. So I think “virtue” sometimes gets a bad name, especially on the left, because it’s so associated with the Christian virtues and Christianity. But I think if we go back to an older Greek notion, where the virtues are excellences, arêtes. The arête, or excellence of a person is — well, there are many: to be hospitable, to be kind, to be honorable and honest. There are many virtues of a person. So I do think that virtue ethics is the only philosophical theory that matches human nature. I’d like to see us return to talking about virtues and teaching kids virtues. I think it would be helpful.
Ms. Tippett: OK. And do you have children?
Mr. Haidt: Yes.
Ms. Tippett: So I wonder — I’d be curious about how you take this science, what you learn through your science about being human, and how you — how it flows into your daily life, but also, in particular, what do you think you talk to your children about, do with your children, that you might not do if you weren’t practicing this profession?
Mr. Haidt: Yeah. I think — so it’s been much, much easier to do discipline, now that I’ve read about conservatives.
Because the temptation — my children are four and seven now, and when they were younger —because the liberal — my wife — I mean even though I’m a centrist, I’m a moderate, but by personality, I’m straight left. I’m a liberal personality. It’s allowed me to talk about, say, for example, being disrespectful. If I was still liberal, I would not have used that as part of raising my children. But now the concept — it’s not a big concept in our family, but at least I can talk about being respectful and disrespectful in ways — I mean about, like, adults. Like, “That’s not the right way to talk to adults.” Of course, liberals can do that, but I’m just saying there’s a certain conservative vocabulary about order, structure, and respect that’s easier for me now.
Ms. Tippett: Anything else that you would like to say, in the context of this conversation, that feels important in the sweep of your work?
Mr. Haidt: Let’s see. One of the first steps to solving these problems is to acknowledge your own limitations. Studying moral psychology has made me somewhat more humble. It’s made me realize that that my mind is gonna jump to conclusions, and they’re often wrong, and I can’t see that at first.
What’s been found about the way to make an effective apology, and this is just a good way to create any sort of change, is, start by saying what you’re wrong about. And so in any sort of politically charged encounter, don’t start off by making your case about what you’re right about. Start off by saying, my side has gotten some things wrong. We were wrong about this, historically, you guys were right about that. Or start off praising the other side. Start off in that way. Humility — your opponents could use it against you, but humility, acknowledging fault or praising something on the other side — I mean this is straight out of Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People. But start off in that way, and then by the power of reciprocity, they’re more inclined to match you.
And what you want to avoid at all costs is the normal human interaction of — we’re combatants throwing arguments at each other for consumption, not by the other person, but by the onlookers. You want to avoid that dynamic. And so the power of apologies and acknowledgements and all the other stuff you need to do to prepare the ground for a conversation, that’s, I guess, what I’d most want to leave this group with, given that so many of you are engaged in trying to have these difficult conversations where the odds are against you, but it’s not impossible.
[music: “Broken Monitors” by Bernhard Fleischmann]
Ms. Tippett: Jonathan Haidt has written this: “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.”
Jonathan Haidt is a professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He’s the author of The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.
[music: “Broken Monitors” by Bernhard Fleischmann]
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[music: “Transmission 94 (Parts 1&2)” by Bonobo]
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