The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Sep 26, 2012

"Haidt is one of the smartest and most creative psychologists alive, and his newest book, "The Righteous Mind," is a tour de force--a brave, brilliant and eloquent exploration of the most important issues of our time. It will challenge the way you think about liberals and conservatives, atheism and religion, good and evil."--Paul Bloom, Yale University.


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to thank you for joining us for a discussion which I believe might shed some light on the contentious nature of the political debates now taking place.

For some time now, our speaker, Jonathan Haidt, has been attracting a great deal of attention. Not only has his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, spent weeks on the bestseller list, but in the run-up to the presidential election his explanation for the toxicity of the current discourse may help us to move beyond the political vitriol that we have been listening to—or, at the very least, understand the psychological reasons why.

As one of the founders and preeminent researchers in the field of moral psychology, Jonathan is changing the way we look at ethics and moral behavior. Most recently, he has used his research to help us understand America's ideological and hyper-partisanship.

In The Righteous Mind, he addresses the psychological reasons why politics are so divided, especially right now, and why it is difficult for us to get along. He asks the big question, which is: Why do smart people seeing the same world have such a different viewpoint on so many basic issues? He tells us that it is emotions that determine our judgment, while reasoning is created later to justify these thoughts. And yet, while our intuition might feel like self-evident truths, often making us do things that we think of as good, it can also make us do that which we often think of as bad.

Even so, and with the campaign rhetoric heating up, I know that you must be wondering whether it is possible for liberals and conservatives to get past their differences and engage in meaningful conversation. Can they listen to each other and name-call less? Can an understanding of the arguments put forward in The Righteous Mind, with its plea for tolerance, actually help political partisans understand and respect each other?

While the answer is unknown, at the very least it is a welcome attempt to combat polarization and provide a new way of thinking about the important issues in our lives, to value our differences, and learn to disagree more constructively.

To begin the journey, please join me in giving a warm welcome to Jonathan Haidt, who will give us the tools to understand how our moral minds work, where our morality comes from, and a more acute awareness about human nature.


JONATHAN HAIDT: Thanks very much, Joanne. That was the most perfect 90-second summary of the book, leading into the perfect teaser—I could practically hear you saying, "Stay tuned." That was an excellent lead-in. Thank you. That's basically exactly what I am trying to do. That's what my book is about.

It is a real pleasure to be here at the Carnegie Council because I am a social psychologist and I think about two-way interactions, then scaling that up to groups, and in the last couple years I have really been stretching to think about national politics, which is really the domain of political scientists. It is hard. A lot of times when you move up from one level to another, the things that you learned about the lower level don't generalize. There are all sorts of problems when you cross levels.

Here at the Carnegie Council, you are mostly interested in national affairs, and many of the things that work for nations do not work when you scale them up to a global level. The dynamics are just very different. We'll talk about that a little bit in my talk and in the questions afterwards.

It's a real pleasure to be invited here to talk to you and to give a shot at scaling some things up, or showing what are some of the obstacles to scaling up, and then let's talk about it. Some of you here in the audience have a lot of foreign policy experience, so I'm looking forward to seeing what you think about this.

If there was an asteroid headed for the Earth, and of course there are many asteroids headed toward the Earth—one of them is going to hit us eventually, that we are sure of; we just don't know if it is going to be in 50 years or 5,000—but if there was a giant asteroid headed toward the Earth and the news came out—in fact, often these days when I give a public talk on my book, I start off by saying, "Did you hear the news? At 4 o'clock they announced that the Near-Earth Observation at Arizona State . . . " I do try to fake them out and do some emotions—and I can see some people are checking their phones, like "Is this for real?"

I try to get the audience in the mindset of what would happen if there was an asteroid that was going to basically wipe out, not all life on Earth—because we can dig underground, we'll be able to last out the nuclear winter, the darkening—but, other than a few thousand people, we are all going to die.

"But there is a chance if we all come together on this. Scientists say that for $30 trillion we could build a fleet of new technology rockets, heavy lift rockets, bring nuclear warheads out near the orbit of Jupiter, and deflect it."

I go through this as a public policy challenge: "Do you think we could do it? The U.S. share will be $10 trillion. Would we raise taxes and cut spending to do this? How many of you would favor that?"

"Oh yes, I'd favor that. Oh yes, I'm in favor of this."

I point out that this is a very, very easy public policy problem. It's hugely difficult from a technical perspective, but it recruits its own moral psychology.

If we are all in the same boat, if it is a common threat, suddenly we humans are really, really good at cooperating. We are really good at being all in the same boat. So from a public policy perspective, this recruits the psychology to solve it.

Then I say, "Now, in fact I was just joking about that asteroid. But there really are four other asteroids headed toward the Earth—and by 'really' I mean metaphorically." So I go through these other common threats that we really do all face.

I always start off with global warming, because my audiences are almost all liberal, or they are almost always 80 to 95 percent liberal. So I start off with the asteroid that the liberals see.

Actually, the reason I came to this is because I had this remarkable week last March where I spoke at the TED [Technology, Entertainment, and Design] conference, and at the TED conference Jim Hansen gave a talk on global warming. If you thought it was scary just from everything you know, it's worse.

So here is a quote from him: "The important point is that we will have started a process that is out of humanity's control. Ice sheets would continue to disintegrate for centuries. There would be no stable shoreline. The economic consequences are almost unthinkable—hundreds of New Orleans-like devastations around the world."

And he says that, while most of the models predict a one meter rise in sea levels by the end of the century, he thinks that they don't incorporate all the proper feedback loops. He thinks it is going to be five meters, which will be just absolutely disastrous.

So here's this incredible threat. Of course, the left is coming together around how stupid the right is: "Why do they deny science? The asteroid is coming and they're not helping, they are hurting." This certainly ramps up the hostility. I mean, as you can imagine, if you are on a sinking ship and half of the crew members are punching holes in the hull, you are going to be kind of mad at them.

So I come back from the TED conference. Then I go to a dinner party in Washington. A friend of mine is well connected with various conservative intellectuals. They hosted a dinner party for me. I met some of the people who write for National Review.

To preview for that, Yuval Levin, a really interesting young conservative policy wonk intellectual, had written this amazing article on the welfare state, called "Beyond the Welfare State." If you want to read something really interesting from a center-right perspective, it's a really provocative essay. It really helps you understand why it is that the right hates the welfare state. It's not just because they hate poor people or they hate black people; that's really not what it is.

Here's a quote from Levin's article:

All over the developed world, nations are coming to terms with the fact that the social democratic welfare state is turning out to be untenable. The reason is partly institutional. The administrative state is dismally inefficient and unresponsive. The reason is also partly cultural and moral. The attempt to rescue the citizen from the burdens of responsibility has undermined the family, self-reliance, and self-government. But in practice it is above all fiscal. The welfare state has turned out to be unaffordable, dependent upon dubious economics, and dependent upon the demographic model of a bygone era.

Now, the right has been screaming about this since Roosevelt, and especially since Johnson, since the Great Society programs, and now we know they were right along.

In fact, there was an article in The New Yorker when Medicare was implemented. The economists had to make up all kinds of numbers to get it through Congress, and they faked the numbers, because nobody really knew, but they knew it was going to be a lot more expensive than they said, because, had they given the actual cost estimates, there is no way Congress would have approved it.

But—and here's the amazing part to me—they actually said at the time among themselves, "It's true that everyone is going to get out a lot more than they put in. But that's sustainable as long as the population is always growing. And as long as we are getting richer and richer and richer, that is sustainable."

Now, mathematically they are right. But what's the name for that? There is a name for that way of thinking. What is that that they created? A Ponzi scheme. Medicare is and always was a Ponzi scheme. Now it is going to absolutely bankrupt us.

In this essay, Levin has a graph showing what's the national debt as a percentage as the GDP. The graph goes like this: after the Revolutionary War, our debt was really high, obviously; then we work it off, we work it off; and then during the Civil War it goes really high; then we work it off; World War I, just a blip; and then World War II is really like here [indicating upwards]; then we work it off and we work it off; then it begins to go back up. Vietnam, the Iraq War—it's not really those; it's actually Medicare primarily. Now it is up right around where it was at World War II. We are as indebted as we were at World War II. Now, that might seem stunning.

But what's really stunning is that then, if you project out 50 years, it goes like this [indicating upwards].

When you get in the mindset of this graph, you see it's not—yes, I strongly believe we need to raise taxes on the rich, we need to undo the Bush tax cuts. But that is just a drop in the bucket. It is fiscally, structurally, a meteorite is coming toward us. It is going to destroy us. Anyway, you get the idea.

The reason I use these two illustrations is because there are these two asteroids coming to destroy us.

One side is saying, "Look, there it is. The scientists are telling us. What's wrong with you people? There it is. And the right doesn't do anything."

The right is saying, "Look, an asteroid is coming to destroy us. The debt is up. We're going to be totally bankrupt."

The left doesn't see it. It says, "Uh, uh. No, you guys are just cold-hearted. You just want to throw grandma off the train." The Democrats demagogue about Medicare.

So both sides are blind to the threats they don't want to see and really vigilant about the threats they do. And that's our situation.

So both of these asteroids recruit a moral psychology that makes the problem insoluble, because these can only be solved by compromise and working together, and we are not able to do that on either of those issues.

For a group such as this, which is interested in world issues, world threats, as a psychologist, I think this is the fundamental problem. Many of the problems that you think about here have technical solutions, but they are not politically doable, and often even more so in this country. Why is that? That is what I hope my book will help you understand.

I tried to make the book simple, in the sense of there's a lot of complicated material from a lot of disciplines. But I am an intuitionist, that's the perspective I take in the book, which means that we don't really believe things until they make intuitive sense. So I worked very hard to make the book intuitively simple, intuitively graspable.

One thing that I did on that score is to break it down into just three principles, three simple principles. If you understand these three principles, then you understand moral psychology. I will just go through them and give some examples and then we can talk about how to apply them.

My first principle is that intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.

There is a long idea in Western philosophy that the mind is divided. This is one of the great truths. My previous book was called The Happiness Hypothesis. It's about 10 great ideas that you find around the world.

The idea that the mind is divided into parts which sometimes conflict, every civilization has noticed that.

In the West, the way the parts have traditionally been put together—and you see this in Plato most clearly—is that the soul is divided into parts, like a charioteer (reason) trying to control the two horses of the passions (the noble passions and the baser passions).

If a man studies philosophy and can strengthen the charioteer, can strengthen reason, he can get a grip on these horses. You need the horses to pull the chariot, but they are kind of dumb and the charioteer has to provide all the guidance. If a man can strengthen his mind, study philosophy, control those horses, then after he dies he will escape the bondage of reincarnation in this degraded world and will go back with the bonds whence the soul came. If he fails to control his passions, he will be reborn as a woman. [Laughter]

That's the way the Greeks thought about passion and reason. That is the dominant view in philosophy.

But there are occasionally counter-voices. David Hume is my favorite philosopher. He was a counter-voice to this worship of rationalism. One of his most famous quotes from A Treatise on Human Nature is: "Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions and can pretend to no other office than to serve and obey them." So Hume said that the passions, the sentiments, these things come first and they drive reasoning forward. Reason is a servant; we send reason out to find evidence for the conclusion we want, bring it back, and then we are done.

As a psychologist, I have come to believe that Hume got it exactly right and Plato got it exactly wrong.

I will read a short section from the book which I hope makes this clear. This is a section from Chapter 4, titled "Reasoning (and Google) Can Take You Wherever You Want to Go":

When my son, Max, was three years old, I discovered that he's allergic to "must." When I would tell him that he "must" get dressed so that we can go to school (and he loved to go to school)—when I said,"You must get dressed," he'd say, "I don't want to," and he'd whine, he'd be difficult.

The word must is a little verbal handcuff. If you tell someone they "must" do something, they want to pull free. The word "can" is so much nicer. "Can you get dressed, so that we can go to school?"

To be certain that these two words really had these opposite effects, one day I tried a little experiment. After dinner one night, I said, in a very even voice, "Max, you must eat ice cream now."

He said, "But I don't want to!"

Then, right away, I said, "Max, you can have ice cream if you want."

"I want some!"

Okay, so it works with a three-year-old. I've had friends say they tried it with a five-year-old—they're too smart. But with a three-year-old it works.

The difference between can and must is the key to understanding all the weird things people believe, all the weird, terrible ways we use reasoning.

I get this idea from the psychologist Tom Gilovich at Cornell, who studies the mechanisms of strange belief. He studied why do people believe in UFOs and quack medical treatments, although they try so hard to eradicate them. His simple formulation is that when we want to believe something we ask ourselves, "Can I believe it—do I have permission to believe it?" What that means is we use our reasoning to go out and search for evidence.

Suppose I want to believe that Obama was born in a foreign country. I'm a Republican, I don't like Obama, I want to believe that there is a conspiracy going on. Can I believe it? All I need to do is type it into Google and I'll get millions of pages providing the evidence and preparing me for the rebuttals: "Oh yeah, sure, they show his birth certificate on the Internet. But a doctor in Indonesia has testified"—I'm making this up, but it's there. I guarantee you somewhere you will find stuff like that.

So the Internet is a great enabler of "can I believe." You can believe anything. Just Google it and you will find evidence.

Conversely, if you don't want to believe it, you say, "Must I believe it?" Then you search for an escape hatch, a key to open the handcuffs.

"Must I believe that the entitlement state is going to bankrupt us?" Well, you will find some economists who say "No. According to my projections, if we raise taxes on the rich . . . "

So, as long as there is ambiguity, we are able to find the can or the must, we are able to find the evidence that will get us to where we want to go.

Psychologists have file cabinets full of findings on what we call motivated reasoning. That's the phenomenon, motivated reasoning, basically what Hume said.

So for example, when subjects in an experiment are told that an intelligence test gave them a low score and then they are given a bunch of articles—"If you want to read more about I.Q. tests, here are some articles"—what do they choose to read? They read the articles whose headlines declare that I.Q. tests are not legitimate, they are not predictive, they are biased. Whereas the other half of subjects, who were told, "You got a really high score," they read the ones showing I.Q. tests predict everything about your life. So we search for evidence to support whatever we want to believe.

In another study, subjects are brought into the lab, psychology students who are learning about methodological design, and they are given some articles to read and asked to comment on the methodology, is the methodology sound.

For example, one article purports to show a link between caffeine consumption and breast cancer. Who do you think finds all kinds of flaws in this study? Coffee drinkers. All coffee drinkers? That's right. Female coffee drinkers think the sample size was too small, the control condition wasn't done right. But everybody else has no problem with it. Because if you want to flaws, you look really hard, you'll find them, you'll find something—"Sample size of just 10,000 women? That's not enough."

So if people can see what they want to see and believe what they want to believe, is it any wonder that scientific studies fail to persuade the general public?

There is no such thing as a study you must believe. It is always possible to question the methods, find an alternative interpretation of the data, or, if all else fails, just question the honesty or ideology of the researcher: "You know he's a liberal," let's say, so that's all you need to know—"I mean he's clearly in cahoots."

And now that we all have access to search engines on our cell phones, we can call up a team of supportive scientists for almost any conclusion 24 hours a day.

Whatever you want to believe about the causes of global warming or whether a fetus can feel pain, just Google your belief. You will find partisan websites summarizing—and sometimes distorting—relevant scientific studies. Science is a smorgasbord and Google can take you to the dish that's right for you.

That is my overview of how the mind works in terms of reasoning. Hume was right, reasoning is a servant of the passions.

For anybody interested in political persuasion, in changing public discourse, I think these findings have enormous implications.

What I see is so many groups working on messaging. Everybody seems to have read George Lakoff's books where he writes about framing. That's all good stuff. Lakoff is a brilliant psychologist. He was very influential in my thinking.

But I think that gives too much attention to the message vehicle. I think if we can get the message vehicle right and craft it and then poll test it, the words and this framing—"Let's frame global warming as a threat to the nation and bring in loyalty and patriotism."

So they craft the message vehicle and they send it up into message space. It is going out, it's going to buzz around on the airwaves, it's going to go into people's ears because they hear it, and then it is going to fit into their neural structure, it's going to turn like a lock and key—"Oh my god, I get it! Global warming is a threat."

But that ignores whether they are in a "must I believe it" or "can I believe it" mindset. If you're in a "must I believe it" mindset, the message vehicle, no matter how carefully crafted, is not going to turn that key. Persuasion happens when you shift people over from a "must I believe it" mindset to a "can I believe it" mindset. At that point, you don't have to work so hard on your message vehicle, because if they want to believe it, then all they're doing is they are just looking for permission to believe it.

I think this has a lot of implications for any effort to address global sorts of issues. Global sorts of issues are almost always the province of the left, and I'll tell you why in the next section. A great number of global issues, certainly the contentious ones, are basically part of the liberal agenda, which automatically recruits opposition from conservatives.

I can't say that that's what happens in Europe; I don't know. But here in this country I think that is generally the case.

And there are some things, like AIDS, where of course it is still an issue of the left, but there are some examples—like George Bush was pretty good on AIDS [Editor's note: See PEPFAR], I hear. So there is hope here.

But still, you see the left/right split on almost all global issues. So I think it is important to think, not so much about the message vehicle, but about the overall campaign, the overall dynamics.

What do people think about the people pushing this? Do they trust that side?

I think it's possible for one side to really acknowledge the concerns of the other, to actually, not just frame, but actually change what they are trying to do to acknowledge often legitimate concerns of the other side. It's a long-term campaign to gain trust. And then, if you can get them out of the "must I believe it" mindset, then persuasion is much, much easier.

That's all I say about the first truth. Remember, intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.

Okay, here's the second principle: There's more to morality than harm and fairness.

I've said that it's all about intuitions. Well, what are the intuitions? This is especially drawing from a wonderful anthropologist, Richard Shweder, who I worked with when I spent some time in India.

We believe that there are many moral taste buds, as it were. We don't just have one taste bud on our tongue that tells us good versus bad. We have sweet, sour, salt, bitter, and MSG—those are the five taste buds. [Laughter] We have a receptor for proteins in meat, and MSG trips it; MSG works because it trips that receptor. So we have taste buds.

But we don't all like the same food. So cuisines develop in different countries. They have a history. So this is not a story about "Oh, morality is innate, it's biological." No.

There are some things that are innate and biological, and then, over the course of time and historical events and cultural evolution and individual childhood events, we come to an adult morality, which tends to be similar to the people around us, but is often very different from the people, not just in other countries, but even in the U.S. right now by class, and increasingly by left versus right. We are increasingly polarizing into discrete moral communities with different moral cuisines, as it were.

The vocabulary that I want to give you is these six moral taste buds. There are more than six, but I think these are the six most important.

What we find is that liberals, especially, hyper-value care, that is, issues of care—compassion, suffering, animal cruelty, starving children. Nobody likes to see that stuff, but liberals are more affected by that, and they will therefore base policy on that—"Oh my God, we've got to help these people. They are poor. We've got to give them money."

Now, that often backfires, and a lot of liberal policies backfire. So conservatives hate bleeding-heart liberals who screw everything up and often make things worse with their compassionate policies. And there is some truth to that; sometimes that is true.

So liberals tend to focus on that foundation, that's the most important one; and conservatives less—they have it, but they don't build on it quite as much.

The second two also everybody has, but now it's not just a quantitative difference. They really mean something different on the left and right.

Everybody cares about fairness. That's what the current election is about, it's all about fairness nowadays.

But for liberals this tends to mean quality, including a quality of outcome—if there is massive inequality, ipso facto there is unfairness.

Whereas conservatives don't care about equality of outcome. They do care about equality of opportunity, at least they say so, but I think conservatives care less about that than liberals do. But what they are really focused on is equity or proportionality. That I believe is really the deeper meaning of fairness.

Our species has evolved to be able to solve cooperative problems by being hyper-vigilant about cheaters. If you have ever lived in a group house, if you have ever shared a kitchen with people (not a spouse, where you had clear division of labor) in college or something, the refrigerator tends to be the source of the end of relationships. We're really sensitive to cheaters. People are taking out more than they're putting in.

Have you heard any major politician talking that way recently? That's exactly what the 47 percent comment is about, the moochers versus the takers. The Republicans are really focused on fairness as proportionality: "Are you getting out more than you're putting in? If so you're a moocher, you're a bad person."

So everybody cares about fairness but the left and right mean different things.

Liberty? All Americans care about liberty, but they see different threats.

Liberals traditionally saw government as the threat—king and clergy, that's the history of liberalism, rebelling against those abusive powers. In the 19th century, corporations become ever more powerful. The liberals split into what sometimes is called the left liberals, who dislike industry and capitalism; and the right liberals, or classical liberals, who are big fans of free markets, free enterprise, and they see government as the threat. That is where we are today. It has gotten even much more so in the last few years.

So everyone values liberty but they see different threats to liberty.

That's what the current culture war is about—fairness and liberty. It's so interesting to me, because I spent the early part of my career—at least I got into political psychology in 2004, and back then it was the older culture war. Remember that one, about abortion and birth control and flag burning? It made, obviously, a brief reappearance in January and February with Rick Santorum. But that is the older culture war.

That is over issues of loyalty, authority, and sanctity, where social conservatives want a strong, firm, binding moral community, strong fathers, strong teachers, policemen. They want authority to control people's selfish impulses.

If those are the taste buds of the moral mind, you can see then how you can create different cuisines on those. Why do the left and right—it's as though they taste the same food and one says "Ummm, yummy," and the other says "Ooh, yucky."

Now, the lesson I want to draw out here is that liberals tend to have, I believe, a narrower moral domain. That tends to anger conservatives, because of course we all want more—"I've got more, I've got more taste buds than you." But I think liberals do build, and by their own admission often—you read philosophers who try to find a single principle for morality. It's often compassion or harm, utilitarianism, or sometimes it's rights, justice. But conservatives value more foundations, we find.

The one I want to really call your attention to is that liberalism has always been allied with universalism. Liberalism has always flourished in the cities. It's cosmopolitan. It distrusts boundaries. It distrusts groups.

There is a survey, called "All Humanity Is My Ingroup". You've got all kinds of questions, like: "On a scale of 1 to 7, how much would you say that you care when bad things happen to people in your community? How much do you care when bad things to people in your country? How much do you care when bad things happen to people anywhere in the world?" Those are three. There are nine questions like this, with this format. "How much would you say you follow events relating to you?" or "How much does it bother you when—" So you assess where is people's caring is oriented.

The graph that you see in your handout [download PDF at bottom of transcript] tells what I think is a stunning, and I think kind of embarrassing, story for the left.

Let's start with the right-hand side of the graph. People who register at our site, YourMorals.Org, and say that they are very conservative put country first, they really care about their country, and they put the world last—that is, they are parochial. Now, they put community a little below country—the perfect parochialism would be community first, then nation, then world. But patriotism is often stronger than localism.

Over and over again, we find that conservatives are parochial. Now, on the left that is an insult. But what it literally means is just that you are more focused on local things than you are on things far away. That's a rather sensible way to be.

Now, I could imagine being nonparochial and valuing all equally. That you might think is the liberal ideal. "Why should I give money to American poor people when poor people in Africa are so much poorer?" —that would be the Peter Singer line. From a utilitarian point of view, that is quite sensible. Why should you discriminate?

What we see on the left, though, is that people are saying, not that they value all equally, that they actually care more about what happens in the world than about what happens in their community or their country. They put the world first and their country second.

This of course was the great fear on the right when Obama said "I am a citizen of the world."

"I don't want a citizen of the world to be my president. I want the cheerleader in chief. I want somebody to put America first." That's the way most Americans feel. You might not agree, but that's the way most Americans feel.

I just want to make the point that the left is much more universalist and is often stymied, flummoxed, puzzled, by the right's parochialism, which they dismiss as narrow-minded, backward-looking, racism or nationalism, one step removed from Nazism. I think this leads to a lot of misunderstandings.

The next time you hear the John Lennon song "Imagine," think about it: "Imagine there's no countries/It isn't hard to do/Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion too/Imagine all the people living life in peace"

I don't know. Is that actually the Carnegie Council's motto? Is that on their masthead? I don't know. [Laughter]

I think it's an untenable vision. I'm actually a big fan of nation-states because I don't think the John Lennon vision—it's a dream, but I would hate to see it implemented. That could work fine, but I don't think it would work. I think nation-states are essential, and I don't think you can scale up to the whole planet. We'll get to that in the discussion.

The last principle—so remember, there's more to morality that harm and fairness. What more there is, are these additional foundations.

Last part, Morality binds and blinds.

People often have the sense that the world is going to hell, and there are some indicators that it has turned down. But as a social psychologist studying morality, I walk around the world in awe. I walk around New York in awe. People are so amazingly cooperative. People are so amazingly nice.

And yeah, we've got all these partisan problems, polarization is going through the roof. How many people have been killed because of it? Very, very few, if any. So even when we have these really heartfelt, passionate hatreds, we don't get violent anymore. The trajectory of humankind is amazingly positive.

When I was a kid, you ended every second or third grade essay with "and maybe this will end world poverty." Well, guess what? World poverty has ended—I mean it's not close now, but we are on the trajectory to end world poverty. And basically it's capitalism that is doing it. When you open up markets and you let people compete, that makes them work harder, they generate wealth.

If I had PowerPoint I'd show you a graph: rising wealth from the year 0 to the year 1500, you can't detect any slope, it's $400 per capita all around the world; in 1500 Europe begins to go up because they discover the New World, trade, all that stuff; and then you get to the 19th century and it goes like this up to 1950 [indicating upwards]; then it goes like this [indicating an even steeper slope upwards]. That's what happened in the West.

India and China are just 40, 50 years behind. They are going to do that. If we do this graph again in 30 years, India and China are going to be right up there.

So this is fantastic. The trajectory of the world looks extremely, extremely good.

Now, the way that we do this, the reason why we are like this, is because we have this amazing evolutionary history that allowed us to form teams that can cooperate in order to compete.

We are tribal, and that is our curse—you couldn't have genocide and war without tribalism. But it is also our secret and our blessing—there would be no civilization if we weren't tribal.

The point of this section of the book, "Morality Binds and Blinds," is that the way we do it, or one of the techniques, is we have the psychology of sacredness. We can worship a rock or a tree or an ancestor, and then we circle around it, usually literally circle around it. It just feels like the right thing to do.

You'll see this in fraternity initiations. You'll see it at Burning Man. It's almost a Jungian archetype. You worship something, you circle around it. As you circle, you now trust each other and you can function as a unit.

Political movements do this metaphorically. They don't literally circle around the Bible and the flag on the right, but metaphorically they circle the Bible and the flag, and that helps them work as a team.

Liberals tend to circle around Martin Luther King. You can have negative models—they circle around racism and racists as if they're sort of anti-sacred, like the devil.

But if you circle around something it's like you all are bowing down to it. When you do this together in common, there are all kinds of mechanisms that involve synchrony even. So if you bow in common towards Mecca, you can work together, then you trust each other more.

Once you see this operating, once you see groups circling around their sacred values, what you also see is them going blind to anything that contradicts those values.

So if you sacredize nature and the planet, you will go blind to the fact that actually nuclear energy is probably a really good thing to have if you care about global warming. But sometimes the greens, because they demonize nuclear power, say, "No, we can't have that." So Sweden and Germany are getting rid of their nuclear power, that sort of thing.

A little dictum that I give: Follow the sacredness and around it you will find a ring of motivated ignorance. If you know what a group holds sacred, you will know where they are blind to reason.

Let's find out in this room what's the politics here. Your choices are liberal/left, conservative/right, and libertarian.

Raise your hand in this room if you'd say you're liberal or on the left. Raise your hand high. [Show of hands]

Raise your hand if you'd say you are conservative or on the right. [Show of hands] Good. That's more than I usually get to talk to. In the academic world it's very rare. [Laughter]

Raise your hand if you'd say that you are libertarian. [Show of hands]

The conclusion that I have come to in the book, at the end of the book, is that left and right are like yin and yang. They see different threats, they are experts in different values, they have different strengths; and if you let one side run everything, they are going to address the concerns that they care about and they are going to ignore the others. It's going to be disaster. You actually need them both pushing against each other.

I would like to close with one quote from the end of the book:

Morality binds and blinds. This is not just something that happens to people on the other side. We all get sucked into tribal moral communities. We circle around sacred values and then share post hoc arguments about why we are so right and they are so wrong. We think the other side is blind to truth, reason, science, and common sense. But in fact everyone goes blind when talking about their sacred objects. Morality binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.

Thank you.

JOANNE MYERS: Going back to your argument about "can" and "must," I can say this and I must say it—you were terrific.


QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.

Jon, it struck me that there is at least one issue I can think of that kind of confounds your graph, and that issue is offshoring. Now, if you are a liberal and you really care about the world, you want people who are willing to work for less in India in steel mills—and I have seen and met some of these people—you want them to have those jobs because they are as deserving of them as anyone in the United States. If you are a conservative, you want those jobs inside the United States and kept for your country. Except that what we see in terms of the political spectrum is that people are exactly in reverse on this subject.

So I wonder how we can work our way through that one.

JONATHAN HAIDT: Actual political issues tend to engage multiple taste buds.

Ron Berenbeim is my colleague at the Stern School, the business school, and it is the only place I have ever been in the academic world where people actually think that capitalism is, generally speaking, a good thing. [Laughter]

That's the way you look at it if you are in a business school: Capitalism is good. If people's option is $1 a day on a farm and $2 a day in a factory, of course it's wonderful that they can get $2 a day in a factory. But in the rest of the left that's exploitation, it's evil, it's a sweatshop.

Also, electoral politics is not pure ideas and ideology—it's coalition. Organized labor is a major part of the Democratic coalition, and of course labor is not universalist. Contrary to whatever Marx might have thought, labor is very, very parochial.

So the way things play out—and immigration is another one—and part of the confusion is that the right is a coalition of social conservatives who are parochial and free marketers who, psychologically speaking, are much more like liberals.

But the libertarians and free marketers are united with the Christian conservatives, not because they are like each other—they are nothing like each other—but they all hate the welfare state. So they are forced into an electoral coalition to fight the Democrats.

So yes, you will find contradictory arguments on the two sides on the issue.

QUESTION: Thank you. William Verdone.

Sir, I'm having fun with your title, and I substituted some words in it. I said "The Righteous Mind: Why Bad People are United by Politics and Religion."


QUESTIONER: The right and the left disappear with the following axiom: Politicians divide us but terrorists unite us. How do you handle the radical righteousness?

JONATHAN HAIDT: You're right, it can work both ways. You could say "bad people are divided."

There is a longstanding debate in the intellectual world as to whether human nature is fundamentally good and it's just modernity and property and money that make us selfish; or whether we are fundamentally greedy, selfish bastards who only are suppressed and made law-biding by the threat of force—that's more the Freudian view.

I think neither one is correct. I think what we are is fundamentally obsessed with our reputations. So we behave well to the extent that it redounds well upon us.

From my perspective, this is a miraculous breakthrough in evolutionary history. I think we are moral creatures, where "moral" doesn't mean we are loving altruists. If you are a John Lennon-type liberal, you are going to be disappointed a lot, and you'll think "Oh, why are people so greedy and selfish?"

But again, from my perspective, compared to all the other species on Earth, we are amazing, we are just incredibly good.

I'd say you could spin it that way, but I prefer to put it as the miracle is that we are so good and cooperative.

Now, as for the terrorists unite us, that certainly can happen. But it depends how it's managed. Obviously, in America terrorists united us for a few weeks, maybe a few months. But then—I try to be nonpartisan, but obviously we know George Bush on September 12th used September 11th to start pressing for his war in Iraq. So terrorism ended up dividing us, and still divides us to some extent, in this country.

QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.

I was struck by your metaphor of everyone going around in a circle and bowing down, especially Muslims. Now, that's very nice from a distance—all Muslims are alike. But what is really going on in the Middle East is that the Sunnis hate the Shiites, and the Sufis, who are more reasonable, are kept to the side, and there are Alawis. So there are many different groups and interpretations within the Muslim world.


QUESTIONER: For us to generalize about all Muslims and one group because they are all bowing down to Meccas is not quite accurate.

JONATHAN HAIDT: You're right.

QUESTIONER: So how do you deal with this?

JONATHAN HAIDT: This brings up what I think is the most powerful idea to come out of moral psychology and evolutionary thinking, which is what's called multilevel selection. The process that led to us is evolution, is always individual versus individual; selfish gene, genes build individuals, individuals compete; if I am more fit than you, I have more offspring. So this makes individuals selfish.

But in human evolution we took a turn around a half-million years ago. We became these cultural creatures able to make weapons, able to hunt cooperatively, able to form larger groups. Once we started doing that, we could compete with other groups.

So we became very good at managing both the competition among individuals with the cooperation necessary to compete with another group. So you've got small groups of a few dozen competing with each other, developing the mindset of tribalism.

And then some groups innovate about having a kind of subordinate structure of all these groups—"We're all members of the tribe of the cave bear," or whatever, and we compete with this other super-aggregation. So we are very good at having nested groups, almost like Russian dolls.

There is a wonderful Arab proverb: "Me against my brother, me and my brother against our cousin, me and my brother and cousin against a stranger." It is an Arab proverb, and it is nowhere more accurate than in the Middle East, as you point out.

So I am not saying that if there is a super-identity then you will have cooperation among 700 million or a billion people. I'm saying, depending on the level of competition, you are going to get cooperation at the level just below that.

So when America suddenly found itself attacked by a foreign enemy, suddenly the squabbling in the wake of the 2000 election was minimized, while the competition—it wasn't a country, it was a terrorist network—but that competition then became more salient.

So you have to always be looking at international affairs especially as multiple levels of hierarchy and you have to ask "Where are the forces of competition?" That will show you where you get extreme cooperation one level down.

QUESTION: Anthony Faillace, Carnegie Trustee.

It's an extremely interesting discussion. If I were a public official—a congressman, a senator, president—how do I use this knowledge to create a more collaborative solution, because I'm assuming that in understanding these taste receptors the ultimate objective would be to appeal to the receptors of the other side in a way that would create a more collaborative solution? So what are the keys to that?

JONATHAN HAIDT: If you look at it from the multilevel selection point of view, you look at where is the competition and you will find cooperation one level down.

So I'll go with you on your assumption that you are a politician. What is the competition? Is it America versus China, or is it your party versus the other party?

In America nowadays, the competition among parties dwarfs any other kind of competition. So if you really were a politician, you would say, as I have heard some people say to me, "How can we weaponize this? How can we use this stuff to beat the other side?" I haven't heard anybody say, "How can we actually use this to help America solve problems or help the world solve problems?" That's the first part.

The second part is suppose we could tone down the polarization so that there were brief windows in which parties could actually work together and actually care about solving larger problems? A big if, but it might happen again sometime in the next 10 or 20 years. How could you do it?

Well, my general approach—I don't know how to solve these global problems, but what I can advise on is what are the psychological buttons that you can push.

One of the most important, one of the most powerful, is the common sacrifice button, the "we're all in this together" button. Obama tries to push it. He is often saying things like that—"We rise or fall as a nation." He tries to push that stuff.

But I am so upset that there have been two major, major crises, two major, major events, where our leaders could have pushed this button, called for common sacrifice, and they both failed to do it.

So 9/11, George Bush should have said, "Okay, this is a global problem. We are going to be the major target. We need to make sacrifice. We need to all pull together. It's going to be expensive. We are going to have to raise taxes, get our house in order, devote more resources." We could have done this as a nation to prepare for this long twilight struggle. He tried to invoke some of the Cold War metaphors. But he didn't. He said, "Go shopping, support the economy." He did not ask people to make sacrifices. But they would have had he asked.

Then we have this global financial collapse. As I see it, Bush did not get our house in order—in fact, our house was getting in order and then he took it out of order just as the tsunami of the baby boomer retirement was coming. So I blame Bush for a lot of this.

But Obama comes in. Now, he has the golden opportunity to say, "Boy, things were bad fiscally and our house was not in order before the collapse, and now they're so much worse. There is no easy way out of this. Everybody is going to have to give. We are going to have to raise taxes and cut spending in the long run."

What did he say instead? "I will protect the middle class, I will protect the elderly." In other words, "I will put 90 percent of the budget off limits—and we are going to do this by raising taxes on the rich." That's a really bad way to push the common struggle button.

It's like "Oh my god, we've got this terrible problem, we're faced with this big threat. Nobody sacrifice anything. You guys pay more." That doesn't push any button. What does that push? That pushes the resentment button, that pushes the unfairness button.

So I think our political leaders are singularly maladroit at activating a common moral psychology.

Winston Churchill said, "I promise you nothing but blood, sweat, toil, and tears"—that's powerful stuff. "I will protect the middle class and the elderly"—that's not powerful stuff.

QUESTION: George Paik.

I want to come back to the human nature question. I'm just formulating the question. But if reason is a slave to the passions, where do the passions come from? As an amateur, the various sources I have read sort of leave that open. If it's open, then we do still have at least the illusion of choice in which ones we back or where they come from.

JONATHAN HAIDT: What do you mean by it's open?

QUESTIONER: Where do the passions come from?


QUESTIONER: Is it predetermined? And, even so, we still have an illusion of choice, that we can say, "I want this, I want that, I want the other thing."

I think, if I may as an amateur, of Maslow. He has a hierarchy of what he calls lower needs, but the peaking experience, the drive, is undefined, if I am correct. We have a choice.

So if there is a choice, how would we choose? Does that possibly leave another role for rationality as we have come to recognize where we come from?

JONATHAN HAIDT: A good question.

I should have explained the three metaphors here. The metaphor for part one is that the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider's job is to serve the elephant, the rider is not the master. That is my alternative metaphor to Plato with his charioteer.

The rider is all the conscious reasoning processes. When you say "we have the feeling of choice, the feeling of being in control," that's all the rider.

What actually governs our behavior is mostly the elephant. It's the automatic processes where our brains are very similar to those of chimpanzees and every other animal—they're bigger—and evolution crafted this basic structure, and then fairly recently, within the last half-million years, we got language. So the ability to think and hold ideas in mind while thinking about something else, this is very new stuff.

Our brains did not get rewired to put that stuff in control. That stuff evolved as a servant. The people who could do that better had an advantage over people who couldn't. It's not because that stuff was in control; it's because they were more effective socially, better at persuading people.

So it certainly feels like we have a choice, but we have a lot less choice than we believe. Many social psychologists and neuroscientists argue about there is no such thing as free will. It's a complicated philosophical problem.

I would say we certainly feel like we have a choice. To the extent that our actions flow from motives that we endorse as our own, I think it's okay to say we have free will, but not quite in the sense that you say it.

Raise your hand if you have ever made a New Year's resolution. Raise your hand. [Show of hands]

Raise your hand if you made the same resolution more than two years of your life. [Show of hands]

Why didn't you just do it? If you wanted to change, why didn't you just change?

You may also notice the dynamics of your arguments with your spouse. You might resolve to behave a certain way the next time you're in an argument, but once you are angry you do the same thing you have always done and it causes the same kind of fight that you have always had.

So when the passions are engaged reasoning becomes a servant to the passions.

There are moments of calm reflection in which the rider can make choices. What I like to say, because many people accuse me of being an irrationalist in saying that the rider is powerless or is an illusion—the way I see it is in the individual mind at a moment of choice, the rider is very weak. But when you put people together in the right way and we give each other reasons in the right way, then rationality emerges from a group, even if each individual element is irrational. Just as a neuron is kind of dumb, a neuron is very mechanical, but if you put neurons together in the right way you get a brain, and brains are actually very flexible.

It's a longwinded way of saying if we get our groups and institutions constituted correctly so they can cancel out each other's motivated reasoning, you can get good thinking out of the assemblage. I'm told juries generally work pretty well. That's the idea of having a jury, they work pretty well.

So there is hope. There is hope if we can engineer institutions to cancel out our individual flaws and create better thinking than individuals are capable of.

QUESTION: My name is Johannes Morsink and I teach two subjects, international law and human rights. For one semester I am, according to your first principle, the rider who runs the show of calculations in international law—reciprocity and the whole thing. Then we have a break and the next semester I teach human rights and I push intuitions and human sentiment—torture is wrong and all that stuff. I would like to put them together in some structural fashion. Which comes first, and how and when?

JONATHAN HAIDT: I would suggest you simply assign this wonderful new book, called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided in Politics and Religion, have them all read that, and then they will see. [Laughter]

QUESTIONER: I am now reading it for the class.


Our minds are doing a thousand things at any one time. One or two of them are the rider. The others are all the elephant.

The elephant comes first in our evolution, it comes first in our personal development—two-year-olds are all elephant, no rider—and it comes first in the moment of any behavior decision. So the elephant, in a sense, has priority in all ways.

You have to pay homage to it. You can't just say, "We need to silence it and let riders run everything." Philosophers have long wanted that, but I don't think that is doable.

If you want an answer, I would say the elephant comes first and the rider is a servant. But it's not a servant like a slave. I think it is too strong to say slave. It's a servant like you would hire a consultant, and you can listen to your consultants, and if you set things up right you might even have policies that require—so there are ways to make them work together.

But without the passions, without the disgust at torture, without the horror at genocide, there would be no international treaties to stop this. It's not in other people's self-interest. They are doing it out of moral conviction.

I think that's a beautiful thing about our species—that's why I don't say "why bad people are divided"—why good people who kind of care what happens overseas, but it's not that important to them, but they care a little bit, and we can take advantage of that little bit of concern.

QUESTION: Rachel Cooper. I'm at the Asia Society.

I am very interested. Here we are in a season of debates, and this whole idea of "must I" or "can I," thinking about what is actually possible—we have been doing a program that looks at contrasting debate systems, because I think through time, whether it's Talmudic debate, Shariah, or Ijtihad, ideas around Tibetan Buddhist debate, Confucian debate—you know, this struggle to see the intuitive side and yet to say it is possible to make a difference. So I'm just thinking about it with the debates coming up here, but contextualizing it in a more global way.

What are some of the possibilities for actually having people perhaps get to the "can I believe this" moment and really think through, on both sides, really on both sides?

JONATHAN HAIDT: This is a great question to end on, because this is one of the areas where we actually can make a difference as individuals.

Most of the problems that we face are going to need structural solutions, institutional reforms. But there are a lot of things we can do as individuals.

I am asked often to get involved in—there are all these web-based projects to try to get people together, to share reasons. The web would work so well—"Here, you list your reasons, and I'll respond to them, and we'll both agree." I never want to get involved with any of those because, to the extent that you are simply bringing riders together to debate riders, you are not going to make any progress.

A conclusion I came to from my last book, The Happiness Hypothesis, which I thought was going to be 10 unrelated truths, it turns out that relationships is the guiding theme. That's the most important single thing you can keep your eye on, is relationships. In terms of persuasion, it's not giving good reasons; it's relationships.

So there are various groups—there is a group called Living Room Conversations, there's a group in Florida called To the Village Square. What these groups try to do is they try to get people together and create relationships.

Living Room Conversations, for example, if you get a liberal and a conservative who are friends—there are still some pairings like that—and then they invite some of their friends into one of their homes and they share food, they eat together, this activates all the buttons to make us agreeable. Once you have those relationships, relationships open hearts, and open hearts open minds.

So now you actually could have an exchange of ideas, where somebody could leave the evening saying, "Oh, now I see why they hate the welfare state. I thought they were just stupid, greedy racists who didn't want to give money to black people. But now I see that actually there's a moral argument."

If you have the relationships first, then you can actually have that kind of opening.

Now, presidential debates are not actual debates. They are show competitions that do serve a purpose—we do get to see how they think on their feet, things like that. I wish that we had more of a long format so they couldn't use sound bites, that they had to really think on their feet much more.

I don't expect these things to lead to any persuasion in terms of what they say. But they do serve an important function, for us to see these men in action, how do they think, and do I like them or trust them. I'm not a big fan of debate in the absence of relationships. This is why I never respond to blog posts. Those are just a complete waste of time.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you for a most inspirational morning. It really was fantastic.

You may also like

Still from Origin. Credit: Neon/IMDB

JUL 15, 2024 Article

Ethics on Film: Discussion of "Origin"

This review explores global issues around race and oppression in Ava DuVernay's "Origin," based on Isabel Wilkerson's book "Caste." How can we start this discussion?

JUL 9, 2024 Article

The Rise of Preemptive Bans on Human Microchip Implants

As the impact and influence of chip implants increases in the U.S., it's time to raise ethical and legal questions about this technology.

JUL 2, 2024 Podcast

Cybernetics, Digital Surveillance, & the Role of Unions in Tech Governance, with Elisabet Haugsbø

Senior Fellow Anja Kaspersen speaks with Elisabet Haugsbø, president of tech union Tekna, about her engineering journey, resiliency in the AI era, and much more.

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation