Jonathan Haidt (pronounced “height”) spent 16 years as a professor at the University of Virginia studying morality, emotions, happiness, awe and virtue. He recently became the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Haidt uses moral psychology to understand America’s extreme partisanship and polarization. His latest book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, is a New York Times best seller. He argues that humans can “respect, and even learn from those whose morality differs from our own,” as a positive leap towards reducing animosity and divisions in society.
Why do you argue we’ll stay polarized as a society until we try to understand the opposing side’s moral point of view?
If you have only your own morality to go on, and that morality is shared by the people around you, you’ll be certain that you are right. Moral claims come to feel as objectively true as the claims of physics and math. It’s really hard to step out of your “moral matrix.” (I use the term “matrix” as in the movie, The Matrix, which is about consensual hallucination.) Moral psychology, anthropology and history can all help people see that their particular morality is just one branch of a large tree with other branches. Knowing that can open the way to understanding and even respecting those who differ from us.
How can one find out about another person’s morality?
You could go live among another group, but I believe it is possible to do it just by reading. I went through about a year where I was obsessed by Roman history. It came about because I was taking a car trip and I looked in the library for books on tape, and they had Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It was like listening to a soap opera. The stories were so fascinating that I just started reading everything I could. This is not equivalent to living in ancient Rome for a year, but a good historian, like a good novelist, can help us see and feel what it would be like to live in a different era, a different moral matrix.
What determines our politics? How do we become liberal, conservative or libertarian?
For most people, their environment plays a larger role than their genes. So for example, if you raise someone in central Wyoming instead of Greenwich Village, that is going to explain a lot more about their adult personality than their heritable temperament. But for people who inherit a temperament that is very high on a trait called “openness to experience,” they are going to find themselves more attracted to liberal ideas. Political ideology turns out to be as heritable as most other personality traits—about a third of the variance among people result from genetics.
Why do people join movements?
Politics is more like religion than it is like shopping, and I think that Democrats have not understood that as well as Republicans. Morality binds and blinds people. Republicans since Reagan have had a clear and emotionally compelling narrative about American history that starts with the founding fathers and individual liberty, the near loss of liberty to the creeping welfare-liberal-nanny state, and the heroic restoration of freedom and capitalism courtesy of the Republican Party. The Democrats have tended to talk too much about specific programs such as Social Security, student loans and Medicare. It’s not clear how these programs connect back to the long arc of American history, or how they tell a story about who we are and where we’re going.
So government intervention to promote racial and gender equality was doomed to create a backlash?
Distrust of centralized power is one of the oldest, most important sensibilities in our history. The idea that the federal government should only be used as a last resort is a very deep, very American idea. But the Southern states had failed spectacularly to address the civil rights problems, so a federal response became necessary. But I think the left drew too strong a lesson from it, that the federal government can and should be used as a first resort to address many other issues, from abortion to gay rights. Once the federal government is seen as an instrument wielded by one side, the other side is going to hate it and distrust it and want to starve it. This, I think, is the backstory to the Tea Party revolt of 2009. It’s a blend of libertarians and social conservatives, but they make common cause in their long-simmering anger at what they see as an overgrown federal government that has too often been used to advance liberal policies like affirmative action and environmental regulations.
As a self-professed liberal, what did you learn to like about conservatism as you researched the book?
The great insight that I’ve gotten from conservatism is the need for constraint, structure and order. Liberals generally resonate to John Lennon’s song “Imagine” (“Imagine there’s no countries / it isn’t hard to do / nothing to kill or die for / and no religion too / Imagine all the people / living life in peace”). But conservatives since Edmund Burke argue that knocking down all the constraints and traditions will get you anarchy, not bliss. It’s no coincidence that having children makes people more conservative. Imposing structure, order and clear consequences has a miraculous effect on the behavior of young children, whereas reasoning with them, yelling at them or threatening them has much less effect. That’s why I say in the book that I think the great blind spot of the left is what I call moral capital. You can’t create a society just by fostering more love, trust and empathy. You’ve got to build morality into the surrounding institutions, laws and norms. And if you understand the other side better, you’ll tone down the demonizing.
How does religion help and hurt American politics?
In the book I argue that religion is a part of our evolutionary heritage. We evolved minds prone to religiosity because religious groups were more effective in competition with other groups. That doesn’t necessarily mean war; it means the ability to create a moral community within which people can trust each other, suppress free-riders and reap the benefits of cooperation. Research by the anthropologist Richard Sosis shows that 19th-century American communes organized along religious lines lasted much longer than communes founded along secular (usually socialist) principles. Only 6 percent of the secular communes lasted 20 years, compared to 39 percent of the religious communes. Religion, like morality, binds people together, but in the process it blinds them to evidence and arguments that contradict their sacred values. I would just add that ideologies work like religions. Communism, capitalism, deconstructionism, egalitarianism, any set of beliefs that is used to bind people together into a team, to fight other teams, is going to lead to blindness, intransigence and polarized beliefs.