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.


  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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  9. frankenduf says:

    do you believe that we are hard wired with a sense of justice, and if so, does this disprove moral relativism? (that justice is a cultural artifact)?

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  10. George says:

    Dr. Haidt has said that conservatives understand human nature better than liberals. From my personal observations this makes a lot of sense but I have to wonder: why? Why do liberals have such a poor understanding of human nature? Is it because they can’t hear their elephant? Or is their elephant mute? Do they not realize the elephant exists?

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  11. Alan T. says:

    Many books attempt to explain how and why people form their political beliefs. As in the parable of the blind men and the elephant, different authors reach different conclusions.

    Why should I read your book first? Perhaps because it is based on five principles, rather than one, and because it is validated by cross-cultural comparisons? What other author should I read?

    Here are a few of the other books I am aware of on the subject of political beliefs. My brief characterizations can’t possibly do justice to the nuanced arguments in these books.

    Conservatives are narrow-minded and fastidious; liberals are open-minded and messy.
    Chris Mooney, “The Republican Brain”

    Conservatives are authoritarian; liberals aren’t.
    Mark J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler, “Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics”

    Conservatives come from strict-father families; liberals come from nurturant-parent families.
    George Lakoff, “The Political Mind” and “Don’t Think of an Elephant”

    Political opinions are based on emotion, not reasoning. Republican politicians know this and appeal to emotion. Too often, Democratic politicians appeal to reason.
    Drew Westen, “The Political Brain”

    Blue-collar workers, who used to be liberal for economic reasons, have become increasingly conservative because conservative politicians have increasingly emphasized social issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
    Thomas Frank, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?”

    P.S.: FYI, Rodney King’s words that you quote were set to music by Fred Small. See http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B004V7GUAM/ref=dm_mu_dp_trk10.

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  12. Noah says:

    A thesis of the book is that there are at least six mental “modules” that go into moral and political decisions. Another is that humans are not so much innately selfish or altruistic as they are innately groupish. I have an unclear sense that there should be close linkage between your analysis of human groupishness in politics and religion and Rene Girard’s analysis of the role that mimetic desire and the scapegoating mechanism played in starting up and shaping politics and religion. Girard’s ideas seem like a generalization and refinement of groupishness, better able to explain certain results like the Robbers Cave experiments, and pointing out potential instabilities in groupishness. The two ways out of increasing social division that he finds are essentially social upheaval or pacifism – neither an attractive option.

    Do you suppose that urges to groupishness and groupthink are separate from the mental modules you discussed, implicit in them, or perhaps another module? Does your work suggest any feasible routes to disagreeing more constructively that don’t depend on having common enemies, real or imagined?

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    • Namedropper? Who? Moi? says:

      If I look about me, I have accrued the detritus of mimetic desire over the years. (The Freakonomic tie-in is that these goods were Good.) You could say that some were directed by group pressure, but I would counter that they were most all because I was fascinated by another’s desires and mimicked them, and made their desires my own (Girard). But to be aware of the source of these accumulations does not cause me any regret. They were desires that I felt fully at the time, now only souvenirs. Did I adopt the expressed (moral) viewpoints of these individuals also? Yes, I suppose I did to a large extent.

      There is a yin/yang continuum, the middle ground of which, like Friedlaender-Mynona’s Creative indifference (Schöpferische Indifferenz), is nudged slowly off center by the needs and desires we experience and encounter in our quotidian existence and helps to form our beliefs and rationalizations. And what superstitions, you may ask, did I learn on my mother’s knee that I still fall back upon, however unjustifiably irrational they seem on reflection? There are many.

      Admittedly, to say that there is a “moral world” is a fiction (Vaihinger), and any system of morality is a construct, but the question I would ask is what drives some to adopt an absolute versus a relative or situational morality? Is it “groupishness”? Is it the Takeo Doi kind of need for security of cohesion, consensus, and belongingness (amae)? Or is it a personal Tillichian lack of “courage to be”?

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      • The Tao of Politics says:

        While you may not believe in a Hegelian or Nietzschean slave/master morality built on ressentiment, is there not a natural dichotomous progression in the viewpoints of each generation:

        why not?/why?
        the world is simple/the world is complex
        new possibilities/traditional values
        you can do anything/you cannot do just one thing
        goals and equal outcomes/level starts and opportunities

        Just as the year starts in light green springtime and moves through to dark brown autumn, is there not a natural transitional tendency to move from one side of the political continuum to the other side, as in your own life story?

        Is not the way to overcome such conflicting points of view to rise above them to a higher logical type and, as in the Robbers Cave experiments, introduce integrative activities to bring the sides together, as happens in times of natural catastrophe, where people put aside their differences for the common good?

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  13. Greg Ransom says:

    You seem to assume — falsely — that all conservatives are religion believers.

    A huge number of them are not — including many of the most famous and influential.

    Does this cause problems for your theoretical schemata or the explanatory machinery you derive from it.

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    • James says:

      Indeed, I think it could be argued that the link between conservatism and religion is almost entirely a product of the Republican Party’s decision to sell its soul to the fundamentalist Christians, back in the Reagan era.

      It certainly seems that in the ’60s and ’70s, a lot of what might be called liberalism (civil rights etc) was driven by churches.

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  14. keith says:

    Human morality comes in two types – hierarchic and autistic. Hierarchic morality is regulated by oxytocin, it’s basically a rationalisation of in- and out-groups. You can see it in any apes. Protecting our DNA is everything. Autistic morality is wider, it’s what Jesus used, it doesn’t use groups but it is also ultimately about protecting and multiplying our DNA – just with a broader definition of family.

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  15. vimspot says:

    Does your research suggest that we should simply accept the differences between liberals or conservatives or does it suggest new methods of influencing the other side?

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  16. Christopher K. says:

    A few weeks ago after giving a talk at Binghamton University, you mentioned how Democrats don’t understand why middle class folks still vote Republican even though Democratic policies offer them a “better deal” (lower taxes, education, health care, etc.). You went on to say Republicans, on the other hand, “get it;” people vote based on who they imagine themselves being someday, rather than their current socio-economic condition. So the lower middle class white male who’s just been laid off from his unionized manufacturing job will end up voting Republican because he sees himself better off in the future, wants to live in the sort of society envisioned by Republicans. Recently, however, there’s been a lot of talk on upward mobility declining in America. It’s certainly a controversial issue, but regardless of it’s veracity, do you think Americans may be changing their outlook on how or where they envision themselves economically in the future? If so how might this affect how Americans vote, if at all?

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

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  17. JCB says:

    “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” is usually attributed to late, great Daniel Moynihan . Do brains process what they have stored as “facts” (whether it’s the roundness of the earth or the divinity of Jesus) differently than what they have stored as “opinions” (one could also have mere “opinions” about the roundness of the earth or the divinity of Jesus)? If such things can be empirically measured, are facts and opinions entirely different observable categories or is there a full continuum between them? Is there an effective way to challenge people who just *know*, for example, that one group is particularly good or bad and make them people who merely *suspect* that one group is particularly good or bad? Often, it feels like, especially on hot button issues like the abortion but even at times during more reputedly rational discussion on things like the budget or foreign policy, both sides are arguing not just with their own opinions but rather with their own facts.

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  18. Vincent Gardiner says:

    You describe the “statistically impossible” imbalance in academia in favor of liberalism and against conservatives, which would be recognized as an appalling lack of diversity if there were a similar skew in race or gender. What examples can you give where the search for truth has been harmed by this bias? Should we therefore take academic research in social fields with a pinch of salt?

    Could genuine recognition of this bias partly explain the antagonism towards science and academia expressed by some conservatives?

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  19. JCB says:

    From the reviews I gather that there are six tastes, three of which you argue American liberals lack (loyalty, authority, and sanctity). Of course, many American Marxists were notable for their (foolishly) unwavering loyalty and respect for authority, say during the Stalinist era (of course, it wasn’t necessarily loyalty to the American state or respect for state authority). In South America, the left has been greatly influenced by Liberation Theology, thereby adding sanctity into political debates. I know your book discusses the WEIRD bias, but are these deficiencies consistent in comparative perspective, or are they a path-dependent, historical accident of Euramerica?

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  20. Travis says:

    It seems to me that humans seem prone to do two things. Gravitate to a “radical” or “extreme” viewpoint, and classify all deviating viewpoints as radical and extreme.

    This seems to be at the core of why we are so divided as a country. We can talk about centrism all we want, but in the end “centrists” are just as vehement in declaring eveyrthing outside of their viewpoint as extreme.

    It seems to me the problem isn’t just that people take one side or the other, it’s that we’re so averse to compromise because we classify everything outside our world view as an extreme position. Can there be any hope for compromise, on a national level or even just in congress, if that’s the case?

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  21. Chris says:

    Origins of morality… And stuff.
    Do you think morality evolved throughout human/cultural evolution? So the moral climate of, say, 500 years ago was correct for Human life then because it helped life progress in its environment, just as our morality suits our environment today (As environment, I mean cultural, past experiences, physical pressures, resource pressures, intellectual growth and learning etc.. All political pressures within our Human model of hierarchy and leadership).
    Relativity looking back, we see morals then as archaic and in most cases wrong. But in time, suiting Human environmental change, morals evolved to todays standards. Will morals keep on evolving as Human life needs it for survival and could under the right circumstances morals regress backwards? Or become less altruistic? E.g If the World under goes a change for the worse for Human progression, say, resource/food shortage. People might change perspective on what they would not do to survive. But could that change be called regression if thats ultimately surviving the Human race? I’m not talking about ultimate ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’, as they themselves, like morality, have evolved and are quite relative to the time we live in. ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ fall into the Religion side of things, which to me is just one of many clarifying tools ridding questions arising from moral ‘gray areas’ and using this specific tool depends on your belief system.
    My question is this, ultimately is morality just a survival tool that changes and is never really wrong or right for the people experiencing it in that place and time? Only being wrong from the outside looking in, like looking back in history? And is morality only changed by learning from “Wrong doings/mistakes”? Because how do you improve on what you do correctly? So is morality is long tainted and is not as pure as people then think….

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  22. P. Alan says:

    The other day, while I was mowing our very tall grass, my son locked our chihuahua in the house so that I wouldn’t run her over by mistake. He also locked our two larger dogs in the house because he didn’t think it would be fair to confine just one dog. I thought that confining the larger dogs failed to maximize the collective well-being of all the dogs.

    Similarly, in politics, we often must choose between policies that satisfy our moral standards and policies that maximize our collective well-being. I haven’t read your book yet, but I gather that you find that our political beliefs are determined primarily by our moral standards. Do you think it would be desirable for us to give more consideration to our well-being when we form our political opinions? If so, how might we achieve this?

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  23. Clark W says:

    On the topic of Section 12) Can’t We All Disagree More Constructively?

    Why is it that both “sides” of the religion/atheism debate have what appears to be a systemic insistence on talking past each other, each one constructing a straw man of the other, beating that into submission, and then smugly declaring victory?

    As an example, atheists often assault “organized religion” and then focus their arguments on the faults of the medieval Catholic church, instead of examining any of the hundreds of modern religions that don’t suffer from the same problems. Or religious folk will speak of the evils of atheism and point to the Soviet Union and its institutionalized persecution against religion.

    Is this simply the age-old fallacy of attacking the straw man? Is it the innate bias toward ignoring disconfirming evidence? Is it because we are insecure in our own positions, so we employ a best-defense-is-a-good-offence strategy of distracting from our own weaknesses? Is there something else driving our seemingly complete inability to embrace any sort of nuance in these conversations?

    This principle feels like it applies equally to other extreme debates such as conservative/liberal, pro/anti-abortion, etc.

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  24. Paul says:

    First off, I really liked the book, and have recommended it to some of my friends- especially the highly partisan ones. Your book helped me see why, for example, I tend to prefer conversation with liberals and libertarians over that with conservatives (even though I don’t really identify with any of them), as I seem to share the harm/care moral foundation and a focus on individual liberty over the other moral dimensions you mention.

    My question is this- Even though I’m a religious person and was raised in a generally conservative environment, I have a hard time relating to a lot of their moral ideas. For example, I don’t feel a need to join a party or have a political group to be loyal to, I don’t get particularly excited by patriotic symbols or ceremonies, and I tend to be uncomfortable with group or hive experiences. Yet, these are most of the people I associate with regularly at church and with family. Your book helped me understand where they’re coming from a little better, but I still feel like it’s this purely intellectual understanding. You mentioned your time in India as expanding your understanding of sacredness; what would you recommend for someone trying to really understand those with whom they don’t share moral foundations (at least in the political arena), especially when I already have so much experience interacting with them?

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    • Paul says:

      (To clarify “group or hive experiences,” I’m thinking of things like big patriotic 4th of July events or parades, which a lot of people I know love.)

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  25. Scott H says:

    We hear daily some variant of “we’ve never been so divisive/dysfunctional/partisan/etc.” Do you find that we are more divided than 20 years ago? 50 years ago? 200 years ago? Beyond? Casual observation finds that there was some pretty nasty rhetoric in th 1700’s and 1800’s. And, Jim Crow laws went well into 1960’s.

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  26. Erin says:

    First of all, I love the book. It gave me lots to talk about as I was interviewing for PhD programs this spring!

    1. Do you think that businesses are consciously harnessing our “groupish” nature to develop brand loyalty? Is it possible to do so? Is it ethical? The dialogue surrounding competing brands in high-involvement areas (Canon v. Nikon, iOS v. Android, etc.) seems to take on a tone similar to that seen in politics or team sports. Once someone allows a company/brand/product to occupy that space in their life and the makeup of their identity the costs associated with switching are much greater.

    2. You’ve commented before on the rising association of sacred moral values with food. Do you think that this phenomenon is due to a need to satisfy a requirement that something exemplify the sacred and the pure in our lives at a time when what society considers sacred is not as universally agreed upon as it may have been in the past?

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  27. Andy says:

    I’d be interested to know how well can you predict a person’s degree of liberalism/conservatism based on his/her moral value scores? Have you run regressions to assess how much of the societal variance in partisanship can be explained by variance in your six moral factors? The book seems to focus on the finding that liberals and conservatives differ (on average) in the relative weight given to each of the moral factors, but in the absence of the regressions above (or at least univariate correlations), it seems difficult to assess whether these moral values are a significant part of the explanation as to why people differ in their political liberalism/conservativism?

    Also, how does the predictive value of your six moral values compare to other factors which are known to correlate with political conservatism/liberalism e.g. “openness to new experience”, “conscientiousness” etc. Assuming you have run multiple regressions, how does the predictive value of your moral factors change when you control for potentially confounding variables.

    By the way, I really enjoyed the book. Thanks taking the time to answer reader questions.

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  28. Andy says:

    To what degree can your moral factors explain/predict the variance in political ideology among countries? For instance, why the US is so much more conservative than other developed countries?

    Political scientists have often offered structural explanations for these cross-country differences in ideology; for instance, one potential explanation for the apparently anomolous economic conservativism of the US is that states/countries with large minority populations tend to be economically conservative [1] (as measured by degree of support for the welfare state) perhaps because people are generally more willing to help those who are similar to themselves (so the US is conservative and homogeneous nordic countries are liberal, etc). This type of explanation seems to suggest that people who might be predisposed to similar moral values could end up with drastically different political ideologies based on their political contexts; so I’m curious to know how the predictive power of your moral factors compares to structural variables like homogeneity or economic inequality (or also whether the moral factors might just be mediating variables for deeper structural factors)?


    [1] http://www.wcfia.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/423__0332-Alesina11.pdf

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  29. Andy says:

    To what degree can your six moral factors be derived directly from factor analysis (similar to IQ or the big five personality factors)? For instance, if I were to run a factor analysis on a large battery of tests aimed at a comprehensive assessment of moral values, would your six foundations likely correspond to the largest factors? Or was a substantial amount of subjective judgement involved in selecting those particular factors? I was surprised to read in your book (if I’m remembering correctly) that you didn’t include “freedom” as a factor until libertarians complained that your model didn’t fit their views accurately; did your initial tests simply not include any questions regarding freedom or were there too few libertarians in your initial sample (or some other explanation)?

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  30. Andy says:

    One more question :) Can you tell that I really enjoyed this book.

    How do you explain the observation (from the chap 12 bar graphs) that libertarians don’t give any more weight to fairness (apparently defined as “proportionality”) than liberals do, given that libertarians appear to give substantially more weight to “just deserts” (i.e. proportionality)? Or were the chap 12 plots created before your definition of fairness was shifted towards “proportionality” vs other forms of fairness (though that is discussed earlier in the book)?

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  31. Vincent says:

    You say you used to be a liberal but are now a centrist. Why the change?

    Did your political views change? Did you get fed up of the deep-seated irrationality of the liberal movement (an experience I had while reading your excellent book)? Do you want to move away from unhelpful labels? Or some other reason?

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  32. PaulD says:

    James, you are what is called a Libertarian — morally liberal, fiscally conservative.

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  33. Gary says:

    What is the interplay of reason and emotion when people make decisions that are based on moral understandings? In other words, what is the typical process people use to arrive at a conclusion they deem to be moral?

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  34. Anowscara says:

    I’m curious to know the author’s opinion on how we can tackle the challenges not only within America but around the world, including but not limited to Al Qaeda, dictatorships, and consistent human rights violators.

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  35. Steve says:

    You claim that liberals can learn from conservatives because they can basically “taste” more flavors of morality. But isn’t it just as likely that conservatives’ extra senses are just noise and they can learn from liberals by learning to turn them off (to filter out the noise)? More generally, you do descriptive research on how people think about moral questions but in your popular writing this underlying belief that says “if we figure out how people think about moral choices we can make better moral choices.” But what is the evidence that people evolved to be good at moral reasoning? How does it contribute to fitness?

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