Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? Bring Your Questions for Righteous Mind Author Jonathan Haidt

“Morality, by its very nature, makes it hard to study morality,” writes the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. “It binds people together into teams that seek victory, not truth. It closes hearts and minds to opponents even as it makes cooperation and decency possible within groups.”

His new book is called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion and it is absorbing on so many levels. (It addresses some of the same ideas in a Freakonomics Radio episode called “The Truth Is Out There … Isn’t It?”) Here’s a Times review; here’s one from the Guardian.

I’m pleased to say that Haidt has agreed to take questions on his topic from Freakonomics readers, so ask away in the comments section and as always, we’ll post his answers in short order. To get you started, here’s the table of contents from The Righteous Mind:

Part One:  Intuitions Come First, Strategic Reasoning Second
 1)  Where Does Morality Come From?
 2)  The Intuitive Dog and Its Rational Tail
 3)  Elephants Rule
 4)  Vote for Me (Here’s Why) 

Part Two: There’s More to Morality than Harm and Fairness
 5)  Beyond WEIRD Morality
 6)  Taste Buds of the Righteous Mind
 7)  The Moral Foundations of Politics
 8)  The Conservative Advantage

Part Three: Morality Binds and Blinds
 9)  Why Are We So Groupish?
 10)  The Hive Switch
 11)  Religion Is a Team Sport
 12)  Can’t We All Disagree More Constructively?

This post is no longer accepting comments. The answers to the Q&A can be found here.


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  1. Fariaz says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • KnowPD says:

      “Problem” is a value-judgement. You can be aware of tendencies to favor your own group yet not believe that tendency is unjust. Lacking more information, the human tendency is to favor their own group. Some on the Right think it’s less unjust than others to act on that intuition over the more “centrist” moral norm to act to overcome it.

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    • J1 says:

      Did it surprise anyone when the Trayvon Martin case came into the news, that the left chose the side of the “black guy”? Why are liberals so stubborn when it comes to issues like homosexuality, or race, or even women’s rights?

      If liberals are so concerned about gay and women’s rights, why do they oppose measures that might improve the lot of women and homosexuals in places where women are property and the gay rights debate is over the proper method of executing homosexuals? Why do they drive around with bumper stickers on their cars tellling me to “coexist” with such cultures?

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      • Fariaz says:

        The trayvon case came up to show that the justice system is not working where an unarmed teen died, and the guy who shot him was roaming the streets as a free man. Most people looked at it as simple injustice, and b/c the teen was black it brought up old sentiments. But it was the right that went out of its way to make the kid a troubled teen.

        You’re trying to change the debate by taking it to other countries (lets not forget that the right – atleast the libertarians) are also against intervening in other countries affairs.

        But to bring it back to the US. Who is trying to pass a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage? Was against the repeal of don’t ask don’t tell? booed a gay soldier during the debate? and recently took credit for the resignation of a gay staff member? And which side recently passed a law in arizona that determined the life of a fetus begins on the first day of the mother’s last menstrual period?

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      • David Stigant says:

        >> If liberals are so concerned about gay and women’s rights, why do they oppose measures that might improve the lot of women and homosexuals in places where women are property and the gay rights debate is over the proper method of executing homosexuals? Why do they drive around with bumper stickers on their cars tellling me to “coexist” with such cultures?

        Conservatives are not exactly chomping at the bit to "fix" those other countries. Liberals at least want to do what we can to improve people's lives at home. The "coexist" bumper stickers are a call to ALL sides to put aside our differences and treat each other as human beings. That's completely consistent with the rest of the Liberal position on gay and women's rights. It requires a belief in other people's inherent goodness and that everybody can peacefully and constructively contribute to society regardless of which god they happen to worship.

        A large number of conservatives seem to think that the "other" side (be that the Islamists or the Gays or the Women or the Blacks or the Atheists or the …) will oppress the White Protestant Male once they get a little power since the WPM has been oppressing them for the last 1000 years. Therefore, we better not give them an inch.

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    • James says:

      Maybe the problem here is a too-narrow definition of the wings. To use the Martin case as an example, there are a number on the “right” who think Martin had a perfect right to walk around unmolested, while Zimmerman was nothing but a wannabe cop.

      Then there are those of us who somehow manage to have a foot firmly planted on both wings. For instance, I’ve no problem at all with gay marriage, which should make me a flaming liberal except that I think taxes are way too high, and the rich don’t need to be taxed at a much higher rate, which makes me perfect Tea Party material, except that I’m not the least little bit Christian…

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      • Eric M. Jones. says:

        “….Conservatives are not exactly chomping at the bit…”

        Let’s get this right. That’s “CHAMPING at the bit.” No horse chomps at the bit, they have no teeth there.

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      • David Stigant says:

        >> Let’s get this right. That’s “CHAMPING at the bit.”

        Huh. I could care less.

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    • Scott Hutchinson says:

      Labels do not work, everyone has their own definition and the true definition is constantly changing. Even tho I haven’t read the book, I’ll venture that has a great deal to do with what the book is about. You are seeking either victory or vindication for your side, or vilification of the opposing side here. Who is “they”?

      I belong to no party or “wing” and I think for myself. When I think it’s the best choice for society, I choose the solution that some may label being on the side of the “right” and sometimes I choose what some may label a “leftist” position when I think that’s correct.

      No issue is simple and common sense is just that, common. Common sense is what told us the earth was flat, that the sun revolves around the earth, and that a heavier object would fall to earth faster when dropped at the same time as a lighter object. Critical thinking is required in every case.

      I am not being judgmental or scornful against you here, most people take what the media says as the truth and don’t think that much about it and apparently that’s what you have done with this issue. The two party system has us polarized and arguing toward victory, not toward the truth.

      I haven’t read a great deal about the Martin case but I understand there may have been racism or racial profiling involved by the shooter. I hate that if it’s true. Even though I still like to believe that great strides were made in electing a black president, and while it still could be true that society is for the most part post-racial, racism still exists.

      I, and other gun rights advocates would still support gun rights not because we approve of racial profiling, but because we believe in the right of a person to defend and protect himself.

      You said that right wingers chose the “side” of the “white guy” as if there are only two sides. I’m not aware of anyone publicly defending racial profiling or the killing of an innocent person, no matter what color, are you? Any group who chooses the side of the white guy because he’s white are racists, not right wingers.

      The debate is not about racism or racial profiling, we know that’s wrong, and that it can’t be controlled by laws, only gradually affected over time, so it’s not a choice of white or black. It’s about gun control laws and whether we should allow the Trayvon Martin case to affect the rights of all individuals to protect themselves. The guy who made the mistake should go to jail if it’s determined he shot an innocent person, but somebody being attacked should not be forced by law to run away, for too long, before shooting to protect themselves.

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      • Vincent Gardiner says:

        I think it’s pretty clear that you haven’t read the book. You couldn’t be more wrong, I think, about Haidt’s approach. Try the book. You would probably like it.

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      • Scotty Vegas says:

        You admit you read nothing of the book (and it appears you didn’t even read the linked Times or Guardian reviews) and yet you follow with nearly 500 words on what you think Haidt wrote.

        I sometimes wish there was a place reserved in Hades for those who willfully practice this kind of misbehavior.

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  2. Mark says:

    In you interview with Bill Moyers you say that you were liberal and a democrat before you started your research, but had become a centrist (I assume as a consequence of your research). But don’t most of us think we are in the “reasonable center” and that it’s others who are extreme? Did any of your political positions change as a result of your research, or was it more that your approach to politics changed?

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    • Enter your name... says:

      I believe that most of us are correct to describe ourselves as being “in the reasonable center”, since most of us are within a standard deviation or so of the center on any given point.

      I know some lefties who revel in their radical stances. I’m not sure that extreme right-wingers do the same; deploring the awfulness of the other folks, rather than congratulating themselves on being right, might be a more likely attitude.

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    • Quin says:

      Do most of us think we’re at the reasonable center?

      Yes, the NYTimes editorial page editor said in the Freakonomics podcast about media bias that he found it laughable that the NYTimes was a biased newspaper, and so did former op-ed columnist Frank Rich (http://www.freakonomics.com/2012/02/24/frank-rich-on-media-bias).

      There are quantitative measures of centrism, like the Political Quotient discussed in that same podcast or like a Nolan Chart, Pournelle Chart, etc. A lot of these measures — the way they move from people to numbers — themselves are subject to bias (how the questions are framed, what is considered and not considered in the analysis, etc.), so they’re not as helpful as I hoped they would be.

      If, as the joke goes, a conservative is anyone to your right and a liberal is anyone to your left, it is not at all surprising that Rich, who was one of the leftiest of the NYT opinionators, sees that paper as not liberal. But his views are not remotely near the center of one of these graphs, and I can only see his evaluation as a prime example of what might be called “cosmopolitan provincialism.”

      The public editor of the NYT, however, says that the paper is “of course” a liberal paper: “These are the social issues: gay rights, gun control, abortion and environmental regulation, among others. And if you think The Times plays it down the middle on any of them, you’ve been reading the paper with your eyes closed.

      “But if you’re examining the paper’s coverage of these subjects from a perspective that is neither urban nor Northeastern nor culturally seen-it-all; if you are among the groups The Times treats as strange objects to be examined on a laboratory slide (devout Catholics, gun owners, Orthodox Jews, Texans); if your value system wouldn’t wear well on a composite New York Times journalist, then a walk through this paper can make you feel you’re traveling in a strange and forbidding world.

      “On a topic that has produced one of the defining debates of our time [gay marriage], Times editors have failed to provide the three-dimensional perspective balanced journalism requires. This has not occurred because of management fiat, but because getting outside one’s own value system takes a great deal of self-questioning. Six years ago, the ownership of this sophisticated New York institution decided to make it a truly national paper. Today, only 50 percent of The Times’s readership resides in metropolitan New York, but the paper’s heart, mind and habits remain embedded here. You can take the paper out of the city, but without an effort to take the city and all its attendant provocations, experiments and attitudes out of the paper, readers with a different worldview will find The Times an alien beast.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/25/opinion/the-public-editor-is-the-new-york-times-a-liberal-newspaper.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm)

      All this is not, of course, to say that the NYT (or HuffPo or whatever) is biased and FoxNews (or WSJ or whatever) is not. The point is that neither of them is “fair and balanced” or neutral. Yet with discernment, prudence, and wisdom, together the left and right media can provide a more “three-dimensional perspective [that] balanced journalism requires.”

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    • Andrea Taylor says:

      I saw the interview on Colbert, and he said he felt that conservatives understood human nature better. The interview ended at that point, and I wished he’d had the chance to go into that more.

      I generally consider myself liberalish, but I do find that sometimes I run into people whose “liberal” proposals are completely unworkable from a human nature standpoint. Not understanding incentives and things like free rider and tragedy of the commons type issues.

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  3. JeremeG says:

    What’s preventing a “morality of reasonableness” from arising? It seems to me that what is moral or immoral (and thus generating an emotional response) depends a lot on one’s perspective. Therefore, the broadest perspective should get an answer that is the most “right” or “moral.” Applying natural selection to these hives we form, why isn’t there more of a development of people whose sense of morals comes from reason – which entails both an adherence to established truth AND openness to debate the validity of that truth?

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  4. Fariaz says:

    Reading the NY Times review, the reviewer seems to think in the book you’re saying, conservative thought is more natural “What’s natural is giving to your church, helping your P.T.A. and rallying together as Americans against a foreign threat.”. If this is the case then how come the country is so evenly divided. Why isn’t conservative thought an overwhelming majority?

    Also, not sure if this relates to my first, but how come more diverse cities like NYC tend to be liberal?

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  5. Quin says:

    To me, it seems that morality boils down to whether reality is ultimately personal or impersonal.

    Trying not to give too much exposition, it seems that ultimate impersonality cannot require loyalty or impose obligation and does not care if one works to bend its “rules” (e.g., gravity — not a perfect analogy). In this case, all morality is socially constructed, and there is no genuine, transcendent wrongness in eating either a green bean, a pig, or a baby. The universe does not care one way or the other. If reality is ultimately personal, however, then this person can command loyalty and impose obligation and *may* care about whether one eats a green bean, a pig, or a baby.

    As an example, my television doesn’t care if my kids watch it all day every day and it can impose no obligation on them not to do so. On the other hand, I do care about their viewing habits, and I can and do impose my will on them in this regard. I do this because I have responsibility for them and authority over them, and I care about their “telos” — e.g., whether they flourish as human beings.

    Likewise, if a person is the ultimate reality and if he (for lack of a better pronoun) has authority and cares about our flourishing toward some end, then may he set binding standards for us, perhaps even building them into our nature and disciplining us for violating them? I think the answer is yes, which means objective (not socially constructed or utilitarian) morality would exist if all these conditions were met (a big “if”).

    Whether the ultimate nature of reality is personal or impersonal, however, is a metaphysical question and cannot finally be decided by an empirical method. It would seem that you take reality to be impersonal. Why? How do you dialog sensibly with those who take reality to be ultimately personal?

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  6. NZ says:

    Which “team” do you think is made up of people likely to read your book? Do you worry that the big messages will just get used for ammo in some cultural war between intellectuals, and if so, how would you plan to circumvent it?

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  7. Markson says:

    I have a chicken or egg question. Are the various forms of cognitive bias the source of morality, or is it the other way around?

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  8. Quin says:

    Stanley Fish recently wrote: “It is at bottom a question of original authority: with what conviction — basic orthodoxy — about where truth and illumination are to be found do you begin? Once that question is answered satisfactorily for you (by revelation, education or conversion), you cannot test the answer by bringing it before the bar of some independent arbiter, for your answer now *is* the arbiter (and measure) of everything that comes before you. Your answer delivers the world to you and delivers with it mechanisms for distinguishing good evidence from bad or beside-the-point evidence and good reasons from reasons that just don’t cut it.” (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/26/citing-chapter-and-verse-which-scripture-is-the-right-one/)

    Do you agree, and how does this apply to your discussion of morality?

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