President Obama was elected nearly two years ago promising to transcend partisanship and the culture wars. President Bush made the same pledge eight years earlier. But as the mid-term elections draw near, political debate in this country seems as acrimonious and polarized as ever.
What explains these enduring partisan divides? Are they simply a product of American political culture? Or might they be traced to something deeper—something that’s fundamental to human nature?
Jonathan Haidt has some provocative answers to these questions. Haidt is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and a leader in the field of positive psychology, renowned for his work on the psychological basis of morality and on positive emotions such as gratitude and elevation. He’s also the author of the critically acclaimed book The Happiness Hypothesis, which examines human happiness through the prism of 10 great ideas from ancient wisdom.
His next book focuses on the psychological foundations of our moral and political views, exploring how recent discoveries in moral psychology might help us get past the culture wars and create more civil forms of politics.
As part of our “Greater Good Podcast” series, Haidt recently spoke with host Michael Bergeisen about why liberals and conservatives don’t understand each other, and how psychological research can promote more constructive political dialogue.
Michael Bergeisen: A lot of us like to assume that our moral and political views come from rational, reasoned thought and deliberation, but your work suggests it’s not so simple. Where do you conclude that our morals come from?
Jonathan Haidt: My early research looked at how people make moral judgments, and I gave participants examples of all kinds of stories about people who do things that are harmless but disturbing or disgusting—for instance, a family that eats its pet dog after the dog has been run over by a car, or a woman who uses the American flag to clean her bathroom because she has no other rags.
I found over and over again that people had strong gut feelings, and that most people went with those gut feelings, although well-educated secular liberals often overrode them. They would say, “Well, this feels creepy, but I guess nobody’s harmed, so I guess it’s okay. But I still wouldn’t do it.” They would try to condemn it, but they were reluctant to condemn it morally.
Since then, I’ve been examining the various emotional, intuitive foundations of morality. For many years, I pitted emotions against reasoning. I originally assumed that there was a dual process model, where both contribute to morality, and if you change the settings you can get one to win over the other.
I never succeeded in finding that. I always found that emotions won. Reasoning basically was driven by emotions, and people are really good at finding reasons to support whatever they feel.
MB: Okay, you’ve written about five different psychological foundations for our moral and political beliefs that you believe are innate and universal. Can you describe those foundations briefly?
JH: Sure. The first is care and harm. We’re all mammals, we all have attachments systems—even young children recoil and feel pain when they see someone else hurt.
The second is reciprocity. We’re all very good at playing tit-for-tat, at forming alliances, at exchanging things, and you can’t find a human culture that doesn’t go in quite heavily for reciprocity and reciprocal relationships.
If you look at liberal morality and if you look at philosophy since the Enlightenment, it tends to limit itself to those two issues. That’s been sort of the limit of the Western imagination, at least amongst the secular liberals.
But what I found from working in India and working with psychological anthropologist Richard Shweder is that there are other ways of talking about morality. Shweder called them “three ethics of moral discourse.” So the third foundation is in-group loyalty. People have a strong sense of being on a team, and of betrayal for anybody who double crosses the team.
The fourth foundation is authority and respect. We’re a hierarchical species like most other primates, and we think that people should live up to the obligations of their station.
And the last one is purity and sanctity. There’s a widespread idea that the body is a temple, and that when people treat the body as a playground, especially in matters of sexuality and drug use, many other people are disgusted, creeped out, or even outraged.
So you might think about it like kinds of taste buds. And what we’ve found is liberal morality really hyper-develops two of the taste buds, but liberals then don’t pick up a lot of the other flavors that activate conservative tongues, to push the metaphor.
MB: So what you’re saying is that the last three foundations that you mentioned tend to predominate in conservatives?
JH: It’s not that they predominate. Because everybody—left, right, or center—cares a hell of a lot about harm and suffering and violence. And everybody cares a hell of a lot about fairness. So it’s not that the other three—the more tribal one, in-group authority, and purity—it’s not that they predominate. But relatively speaking, what we find is that conservatives care a lot about all five, and liberals care overwhelmingly about just the first two.
MB: Now I understand that you have a website where readers can take a survey to see how they score on these foundations?
JH: Yes, you can find out your own scores on these foundations if you go to www.yourmorals.org. We have about 40 or 50 questionnaires, but you’ll see the featured studies include the moral foundations questionnaire.
Now I would like to point out that we talk about these five foundations and everybody gets a score on them, but the foundations are really just supposed to be foundations, they’re not the actual building themselves. People don’t live in a world with just these five things. Morality is constructed, and we can’t construct a morality for ourselves any more than we can construct a language for ourselves. We construct a set of meanings that is based on these five foundations, but morality can still vary quite a lot, from decade to decade, country to country.
MB: Following up on that point, I want to raise the U.S. Constitution. I mean, if the Founding Fathers had taken the survey, how would they score on these five foundations? And does considering the Constitution in these moral psychological terms give us any insight into what we might call the psychological foundation of our American political culture?
JH: Yes, yes. That’s a great question and I’m glad you asked it, because it points out a flaw in the original version of my moral foundations theory. My listing of five foundations that I gave you came out of our review of evolutionary psychology and anthropology; it wasn’t intended to be a complete list of everything that people cared about.
And there wasn’t much in evolutionary psych on liberty and autonomy. So when I would talk about my theories, some people, particularly conservatives, would say, “Well, where’s liberty? Where’s freedom? Where’s autonomy?” I’d say, “Well, I think it’s probably derived from a sense of reciprocity. We develop a notion of rights as we engage in exchange with each other.” But I wasn’t very satisfied with that answer, especially as the culture war has shifted from being the religious right versus the secular left to being the economic right—the Tea Party movement—the economic right versus the economic left.
It’s become really clear that we have to think about liberty and autonomy as something separate, as an additional foundation. And I found plenty of justification for that in writing on evolution—animals don’t like to be caged, they don’t like to be trapped. So in the last few months, we’ve been collecting data on different kinds of fairness and liberty. And what we find is that everybody—left, right, and center—endorses what we can call “lifestyle liberty.”
There’s John Stuart Mill’s famous liberty principle: Everyone has a right to do what they want as long as they don’t infringe on the equal liberty of other people that do as they want. Everybody favors that, liberals favor it a bit more. When we look at economic liberty—basically the right to be left alone to manage your affairs, to spend your money, to earn your living—there we find a big political difference, where liberals don’t seem to have much respect for private property and economic liberty.
So if we were to look at the Founding Fathers, we would find them very, very high on what’s called “negative liberty”—that is, the right to be left alone, don’t tread on me—and that is something that conservatives and libertarians are much higher on than liberals.
Now we’re adding a “liberty” foundation, and we’re also going to change fairness. We had focused on fairness as equality, and liberals were scoring higher. But now we’re finding that there are several kinds of fairness, and the main kind of fairness really has to be seen as equity. That is, is what you are getting out proportional to what you put in?
This is really what started the Tea Party. The Tea Party was started by a rant by CNBC reporter Rick Santelli, who was outraged and said, “Should I have to pay for my neighbor’s mortgages? If he’s a loser who made a mistake and overbought, why should I have to pay for it?” The idea that people should somehow get what they deserve, that is a very deep conservative—and I would really say human—intuition, but it’s especially strong in conservatives, whereas liberals actually don’t care that much about it. They’re much more interested in fairness as equality, especially equality of outcome. That plus the difference on liberty—that’s really what the current culture war boils down to.
MB: And I gather liberals and conservatives would have very different results on compassion?
JH: Yes, although not quite as different as you’d expect. What we find is that liberals always score higher than conservatives on compassion. For example, on one of our surveys we ask people to make tradeoffs: How much money would it take to get you to do something? One of the question is, “How much would it take to get you to kick a dog in the head hard?” That’s an awful thing to think about, but would you do it for one hundred thousand dollars? How about a million? Most people have a price, though it’s awful to think about.
What we find is that liberals do have a higher price than conservatives. But now that we’ve started looking at our data in terms of libertarians, we find is that, yes, liberals are the most compassionate, conservatives follow behind, and it’s really the libertarians who are the odd men out. Libertarians basically look like liberals on most measures, except that they are very low on compassion. Libertarians just don’t seem to feel the suffering of others nearly as much.
MB: Do you think that having a better understanding of these deeply rooted differences in moral psychology can actually help foster a less partisan political culture?
JH: Yes, I do. I found it enlightening to spend some time in India. Traditional Indian culture is very similar in many ways to the moral culture of the Religious Right. When I came home, I found myself suddenly much more able to understand conservative Republican morality. I’m a liberal myself, although doing this work has brought me much more to the center than I used to be. And I find that when I address liberal audiences, many people, especially graduate students and younger people, come up to me and say, “Wow, I always just thought that conservatives thought these things because they were stupid racist bastards. Now I kinda see what they’re after.”
So I think that the very nature of morality is to bind us together in teams to compete with other teams. Morality by its very nature blinds us to the motives of others. It makes us attribute the motives of our enemies to selfishness and greed and evil. But if you have an alternate story, then that’s a first step toward I’ll even say developing compassion for them.
MB: Along the same lines, you’ve written about how liberals can take into account the psychological foundations of conservatives to present arguments that might be more persuasive to conservatives and moderates. How do you feel liberals have been doing in that regard in the last year or so on issues like health care reform and global warming and financial reform—all the hot button issues?
JH: Not very well. Political psychology studies generally show that liberals are higher on cognitive flexibility and openness; conservatives are a little bit more cognitively rigid. So it ought to be the case that liberals can take conservatives’ perspectives quite well, and conservatives would have a harder time getting out of their own minds. That’s what you’d expect.
But my group has said to conservatives, “Here, please fill out our surveys pretending that you’re a liberal.” For liberals, we say, “Now please fill out our survey pretending you’re a conservative.” And we look to see who’s more accurate. What we find is that conservatives are more accurate—that is conservatives understand all five, now six, foundations. They can pretend that they’re a liberal and have all the equipment they need, but if you ask a liberal to pretend he’s a conservative, he can’t do it because he simply doesn’t get the in-group authority and purity stuff. When you ask them to answer those questions, they sort of know what a conservative would say, and then they just attribute it to being just cruel and hateful. So we’ve found that liberals actually have a hard time getting into conservatives’ heads more so than vice versa.
MB: You made a comment earlier, and it’s one you’ve said elsewhere, that the human mind is designed by evolution to unite us into teams, to divide us against other teams, and in the process, to blind us to the truth. That would suggest that we as humans are not very well-equipped to deal with issues like global warming that require each team—each country or region—to sacrifice for the collective good of all the teams. Do you have any thoughts about that?
JH: Absolutely. That’s right. The big evolutionary idea that I think is going to transform our thinking in the social sciences in the next 10 years is group selection. What this means is that we actually have all kinds of mental equipment for suppressing self-interest, for working for the common good, but only when we are basically at war with another team. We can be unselfish, we can be cooperative, but that is activated by intergroup conflict.
If we are attacked by space aliens, I think we humans will unite pretty well. But until then, it’s just very, very difficult for us to solve any sort of dilemma that requires people to sacrifice for the greater good—unless it’s the greater good of their team versus another’s.
So it’s really a shame that global warming has become so politicized. We are capable of solving some things, like taking lead out of gasoline. There are some regulatory changes that have been made that weren’t so politicized. But once it becomes politicized, it’s very difficult to achieve global cooperation.