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