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.


This question is going to sound biased - but it seems to me that the right wing has a problem with racism and homophobia that it is unwilling to confront, (did it surprise anyone when the trayvon martin case came into the news, that the right chose the side of the "white guy"?) and if you say the conservatives understand human nature better, how come they are so stubborn when it comes to issues like homosexuality, or race, or even women's rights?


"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.


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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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.


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?


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?


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?



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?


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?


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?


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)?


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?

Alan T.

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.



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?


Namedropper? Who? Moi?

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”?


The Tao of Politics

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?


Greg Ransom

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.


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.


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.


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?

Christopher K.

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?

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"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.


Vincent Gardiner

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?


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?


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?