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. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. 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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  6. 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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  7. 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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  8. 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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