Exposing The Righteous Mind: An Interview With Jonathan Haidt

“So my view is that liberals and conservatives are like yin and yang. They both see different kinds of threats and problems, they both work to correct different problems, and they’re both right.” ~ Jonathan Haidt

I sometimes pretend to be a psychologist—but Jonathan Haidt is the real deal. A Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, a current Visiting Professor at the NYU-Stern School of Business, and a popular TED Talk speaker, Haidt isn’t afraid to tackle big ideas. His first book, The Happiness Hypothesis, brilliantly explored the question of human happiness. His newest book, The Righteous Mind, explores the foundations of morality, which Haidt believes is the key to understanding humanity. I recently had the opportunity to interview Haidt, where we discussed his new book and several of its provocative arguments. Do conservatives really understand moral psychology better than liberals? Are humans really like bumblebees? Is parochialism sometimes a good thing? Does religion really make people happier?

(Feel free to listen to the audio, or read the interview below.)


DAVID MCMILLAN: Jon, thank you so much for speaking with me today.

JONATHAN HAIDT: My pleasure, David.

MCMILLAN: Congratulations on the book. It just came out and I can say it’s terrific. Briefly, can you summarize the main argument of The Righteous Mind and what motivated you to write thee book?

HAIDT: Sure. So the book is organized around three basic principles of moral psychology. I’ve been studying moral psychology since I started graduate school in 1987. And back then, everybody was looking at moral reasoning. And everybody thought: well, morality is something we do when we think about right and wrong. And it just didn’t really click with me. It seemed too cerebral, it was missing the emotions. So I started looking at the moral emotions and the ways that they drive reasoning. And that led me in my early work to formulate the first principle, which is: intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. So yeah, we engage in moral reasoning all day long, and I’d ask your listeners and readers to watch themselves do it in the future. When you get in any sort of conflict, what does your mind do? Man, it just becomes a lawyer, it just spins out arguments why you are right and the other side is wrong. So that’s my early research.

Then once I started looking at moral intuition rather than reasoning, I realized: well, I’ve got to be a lot more specific about what these intuitions are. So with Craig Joseph, a colleague from the University of Chicago, we tried to identify what are the best candidates for being the innate foundations of morality. Morality is obviously a social construction; it varies by culture. Morality is obviously innate; it exists in some form all over the world. So we identified six candidates for being those foundations. I’ll just list them briefly: issues of care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

So with my colleagues at YourMorals.org, a group of really talented people who came together with me to study this stuff empirically, we created a website, put up a lot of surveys, collected a lot of data. And we found that liberals mostly endorse this care foundation—also fairness and liberty, but especially care. Whereas conservatives endorse all six. So a lot of the culture war comes down to: are loyalty, authority and sanctity really foundations of morality, or are they just atavistic, ancient psychological systems for tribalism and racism?

MCMILLAN: You come up with a great metaphor for talking about this. You say that our righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors. And that liberals generally only play to three of those, whereas conservatives play to all six.

HAIDT: Exactly. And the reason I got into this originally was, back in 2004, I was a partisan liberal—like almost all academics—and I hated George Bush. And John Kerry just did such a bad job of connecting with Americans’ moral sentiments. The Democrats tend to say, “Hey, look! Our program will help you more! Our program will give you this!” And that’s not what politics is really about. So I actually began my research to try to understand what Democrats were missing. And really, I wanted to help the Democrats beat the Republicans. But as I started studying the two sides, I came to see that conservatives are right about some really important ideas.

And so to get back to the metaphor that I use. We’ve got five different kinds of taste buds on our tongue. And cuisines are cultural constructions. Cuisines differ all around the world. But they all have to please the basic human tongue. We’ve all got basically the same tongues in our mouths. So what I found is that conservatives, at least in this country, cook up a meal that appeals to all the taste receptors. Whereas liberals are constantly saying, “Look, we’ve got a program that will help people who are suffering.” OK, that’s nice, but politics is about a lot more than that.

MCMILLAN: It looks like we’ve hit the first two principles [of moral psychology] pretty quickly. First, that the intuitions come first, strategic reasoning comes second. And then that there’s more to morality than harm and fairness. I’d like to start to talk about the third principle, which you say is: morality binds and blinds. Could you go a little bit into that, and also explain why you say that human beings are 90% chimpanzee and 10% bee?

HAIDT: Sure… The idea is, there are three basic principles [of moral psychology], and for each principle there’s a metaphor. This third principle, that morality binds and blinds, the metaphor here is that human beings are 90% chimp and 10% bee. This is the principle I’m most excited about, because this is the one that I think very few people have really heard about.

There’s been a commitment in the social sciences for the last fifty years to what’s called methodological individualism. We’ve been studying people as individuals who pursue their own individual interest. And so, for those who’ve read Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene—I read it in college, it’s a fabulous book, beautifully written—he persuades you. And he’s right that genes are selfish, and that genes make plants and animals that are selfish. And selfish creatures can sometimes be nice towards our kin or when we’re in reciprocal relationships, but that’s about it. And that just doesn’t fit with what we see about morality. Morality—the view that I came to from studying it for about twenty, almost twenty-five years now—is that morality in most parts of the world is really about binding people together into a community where people can trust each other, trade, work together, and especially band together when they’re under attack. Cohesive groups outcompete non-cohesive groups. It’s the most basic principle of military history. It’s not the size of the army, it’s how tight, how cohesive it is.

So in the book, I go through the long history and debate over group-selection, over whether human beings were shaped just in terms of what traits help us beat out our neighbors, or were we shaped by what traits helped our groups beat out other groups. And once you see us as being tribal creatures—which is not hard to do—once you see that tribalism is really an adaptation for binding groups together, a lot of other puzzles about human nature just dissolve.

For example, sports and fraternities. When men band together in fraternities, they always have initiation rites. And these initiation rites usually involve pain and disgust and humiliation. And it’s very similar to initiation rites all over the world in traditional societies. So there’s something weird in the human mind that makes people, and especially men, able to bind themselves together really, really tightly in order to compete violently. And you look at the rituals around sports and sporting teams. There’s just all this weird stuff about how groupish and tribal we are. And once you see that, then religion is the next obvious step.

MCMILLAN: This is a great segue into that. In the book, you take direct aim at the so-called New Atheists: Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. And it’s clear you don’t think that religion is a parasite or a delusion. In fact, you actually think it’s a solution to one of the biggest problems human beings face. Could you talk about that?

HAIDT: Sure. So if we go back to the first principle—intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second—what that means is that if you like something, arguments that support it are going to pop into your head effortlessly. And if you hate something, arguments against it are going to pop into your head effortlessly. Now in science, we generally think it’s not a good idea to study something you hate. If you hate gerbils, you probably shouldn’t be studying gerbils. It would just be kind of weird. And if you hate religion, you probably shouldn’t be studying religion. You’re just not going to be able to get an objective view of it. I don’t know about Dennett as much, but certainly in the writings of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins – I mean, they really hate religion. Hitchens too. But Hitchens is a journalist, I have no beef with Hitchens, he’s not claiming to be a scientist. But especially for Harris and Dawkins, their books are basically the books of lawyers. They are not looking at both sides. They’re committed to an idea that religions are sets of memes—that is, just sets of ideas that got into our heads long ago that exploit our brains, just like a virus exploits the machinery of a cell or a body. And so they reach the conclusion… I mean, come on, just look at the titles. The God Delusion. Breaking the Spell…

MCMILLAN: The End of Faith.

HAIDT: The End of Faith. So I think that just factually, descriptively, in terms of what religion is and how it works, they just got the story wrong. They focus on belief in gods. Now, belief in gods is important—it wouldn’t be religion if there wasn’t some supernatural entity. But the view that I took… There’s another line of scholarship that goes back to Emile Durkheim, the sociologist. And this was especially developed in a very important book by David Sloan Wilson called Darwin’s Cathedral. And we all take very seriously the idea—which Darwin actually had—that groups that could bind themselves together tightly could outperform other groups, and that religion is an adaptation for doing that. That’s basically what Durkheim said. If you put Durkheim and Darwin together, that’s what you get.

So I think that’s factually correct. It doesn’t mean that there’s a god—I’m an atheist myself. It doesn’t mean that religions are good for society. Now, religion in America—according to the political scientist Robert Putnam—generates a huge amount of social capital. In America, religions are pretty benign. But if they evolved to bind groups together to compete, then they could be pretty nasty for outsiders. I’m not saying that religion is uniformly good. What I am saying is that it’s an adaptation, we evolved to be religious, and this explains why we’re happier when we’re religious. The happiest people in America are Orthodox Jews and Evangelical Christians. The least happy group in America is secular liberals.

MCMILLAN: Wow. That’s quite a finding. Do you think then that human beings need religion, or simply a vehicle for satisfying our “hivish” impulse? Is there something that doesn’t require a belief in supernatural gods that could nonetheless satisfy this groupish impulse that we all seem to have?

HAIDT: Yes. We don’t need religion per se, we don’t need gods per se. But it’s very hard to find a substitute. Many people have tried over the years. The French revolutionaries, when they overthrew the king and the church, actually created for a couple years the official cult of reason—the Church of Reason. They actually put images of the God of Reason in the churches and cathedrals in France. It was a very unsatisfying religion. Nobody went. It doesn’t work. Alain de Botton now has a new book and a TED Talk out suggesting that we can take the good stuff from religion and leave out the gods. And there’s some truth to that. But you’re not going to get all the way there.

There’s some scholarship I cite in the book, an anthropologist by the name of Richard Sosis. He studied communes in the nineteenth century. These were groups of people that left the corruptions of the city and tried to create their own moral community off in the countryside. He studied about a hundred religious communes, Christians communes. And he studied about a hundred more left-wing communes, usually socialist. And what he found was that the socialist communes basically broke apart within a few years. The religious communes lasted three or four times longer. And the magic ingredient turns out to be rules that require self-sacrifice. Cutting off all your hair, wearing strange clothing, worshipping in certain ways, getting up early in the morning—all these things that are irrational and uncomfortable. But when people do them—and this is where I get evolutionary—it’s like there’s a switch in our head that says: “If I’m worshipping with other people and doing rituals with other people, I can trust them.” And that is the greatest challenge we humans have ever faced. Because any other species on the planet, if it cooperates at all, it’s just with first-degree relatives, with children or siblings. We’re the only creature that can cooperate immensely with people who aren’t even related to us. I mean, look—I’ve never met you, but yet here you and I are able to talk, we’re able to do something together, we’re able to make something. And humans are just always doing this. We’re just really good at cooperating. So that’s my view of religion.

MCMILLAN: This is actually a great segue into what I think is one of the more provocative statements you make in the book, in regards to what you call “parochial altruism.” On page 189, you write: “Might the world be a better place if we could greatly increase the care people get within their existing groups and nations, while slightly decreasing the care they get from strangers in other groups and nations?” This seems to go against the liberal notion of extending our sympathies beyond our borders, beyond our parochial concerns. And it seems you’re arguing for, if I can coin a phrase, compassionate parochialism.

HAIDT: That’s great. I love it.

MCMILLAN: Talk a little bit about that.

HAIDT: Ultimately, what is right and wrong? What should we do? My own view, at least about public policy, is utilitarian. I think we should pass laws and have institutions that end up creating the best outcomes for people overall. And on the left, utilitarianism tends to say: “Well, we should have institutions that help everybody in the world.” Well, that sounds nice, but there’s this odd and difficult empirical fact, which is that people are really, really good at extending themselves and helping those that are close to them, and really, really bad at doing it for people far away. So one response is: “Can’t we just train everybody to overcome this terrible parochialism? It’s so close to racism. People should love everybody equally.” Well, that sounds nice, but that ain’t ever gonna happen until we do genetic engineering on newborns.

I think that Adam Smith and Edmund Burke and some other eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers we’re basically right. Today they’re sometimes considered conservatives, but they were part of the Enlightenment. These were Enlightenment thinkers who were thinking about the optimum ways to design a society. And both Smith and [David] Hume—I think I have quotes from both of them in the book—they both talk about the fact that when you get people to engage with their local group, they really give a lot. And so if you’re really utilitarian, you should set the world up so that people’s care is devoted to the things they actually can care about and help.

And this fits beautifully with this other empirical finding. It was summarized in a book by Arthur Brooks called Who Really Cares?, which is that when you look at who gives to charity, liberals support government programs to help the poor far more [than conservatives], but they don’t give very much to charity. Conservatives, and especially religious conservatives, give many times more. Now, a lot of that goes to their church. But even there, a lot of that is used to do good beyond the church. But even when you look at non-church-related giving, religious people simply give more. They are locked into moral communities that are always talking about helping others—and they do it.

So as far as I’m concerned, it’s an empirical question. And if it turns out that universalism ends up making people really generous, then great, I’ll be a universalist. But in terms of where we are in our present state of knowledge, parochialism seems to pull out a lot more care.

MCMILLAN: So what’s one thing that liberals could learn from conservatives, and conservatives could learn from liberals?

HAIDT: I believe the lesson that liberals most need to learn is that moral order is a miracle, it is hard to achieve, and it is precious. And since the Enlightenment, since the eighteenth century, I think liberals have been too quick to knock down institutions, to want change, and to try to tinker and maximize—and when you do that, you often end up with anomie, or normlessness. People should read about the French Revolution. Growing up as a liberal, I always thought the French Revolution was this wonderful thing. It was an absolute nightmare. Of course, the king was a nightmare too. But the French Revolution shows the excesses of liberalism. And it ended with genocide, it ended with mass slaughter in Paris with the guillotine. It was an abomination, because they destroyed all their moral capital and they had chaos. And that excess is actually the founding event of modern conservatism. It’s people like Edmund Burke, who said we need to preserve institutions even if we don’t always understand them. We have to proceed carefully. So that’s the main lesson that I think conservatives can teach liberals. You’re got to be careful here.

Liberals are wise to many things that conservatives miss. Many institutions ossify, they are no longer relevant, they create unnecessary victims. Marriage is a good example. I think the institution of marriage is the best way ever found to get men to actually care for children. It’s easy to get women to care for children, that’s automatic. But it’s really hard to get men to invest in children. And if you bind them into families and you sacralize marriage and you make it sound like it’s a big deal, you get more care. You get more structure, you get more moral order.

Alright, I’m sorry, I’m going back to the conservative defense.

The point where liberals are right is that sometimes these institutions have victims where there’s no good reason to hurt these people. Like gay people. There’s just no reason to not let gay people marry. Now, the left has been afraid to praise marriage in part because gay people couldn’t marry, and because some ethnic communities have low rates of marriage, so the left has been afraid to say that marriage is good. But it is really good. But the left can see that it excludes people.

And then you especially see [the wisdom of liberals] with issues of justice. Justice in this country is so unfair and erratic. And especially to the poor. There’s a racial angle to it. I think that’s getting somewhat better, certainly much better than it was up until the ‘60s and ‘70s. But increasingly, the poor just don’t get justice. The rich get to buy whatever outcomes they want to some extent. So there are massive injustices, and liberals are really sensitive to that, and they work to change it.

I just came back from the TED Conference. By far the best talk was a talk by Brian Stevenson. People should go to Ted.com and look up Stevenson. We were all on our feet applauding as loudly as we could. It was just thrilling to hear about the horrible injustices that still happen, especially in the South, and what Stevenson and his group are doing.

So my view is that liberals and conservatives are like yin and yang. They both see different kinds of threats and problems, they both work to correct different problems, and they’re both right.

MCMILLAN: Two final questions: What’s the most important thing you hope people take away from the book? And how has writing the book impacted your own righteous mind?

HAIDT: The main thing I hope people will take away is an attitude towards moral difference that sees it as interesting rather than threatening. The natural tendency of our righteous, tribal minds is to say: “Well, I’m in my tribe, and we’re right and we’re obviously right. And the people who disagree with us are wrong and obviously wrong. So wrong that the only way they could believe what they believe is if they’re truly evil or motivated by greed, or racism, or the devil, or whatever.” Because we don’t understand each other, we tend to demonize. And when you demonize the other side, then you cannot compromise.

Republicans and Democrats during the post-war years—the 1950s, 1960s—didn’t demonize each other as much. There were the McCarthy trials, there were some extremists, absolutely. But the demonization, the lack of friendships across party, that really arose in the 1990s, and our politics has suffered as a result. So what I’m hoping is that when people read the book, they’ll have the experience that my students have in my moral psychology class. Which is: OK, it didn’t change my politics, it didn’t move me to the center, but now I see that the people on the other side have some interesting ideas. And I don’t hate them, I actually want to learn more. So that’s the main thing I hope people will take from my book.

MCMILLAN: And how has it changed you? How has it changed your worldview?

HAIDT: Well, when I started writing the book in 2008, I still considered myself to be a liberal. But after doing my best to play anthropologist, and to get inside the minds of liberals and conservatives—and libertarians, we shouldn’t leave out libertarians, they’re a fascinating group, they’re not liberal, they’re not conservative, in the American sense. So after really trying to get inside everyone’s mind, and really trying to make the case for them, so that others could understand them—I bought it. I remember especially when I handed in Chapter 8 of my book to my wife, who reads everything that I write first, and I said: “Jane, I can’t say that I’m a liberal anymore. I think both sides are right.”

So I’m now a centrist. I have some real problems with the Republican Party, especially since Bush and the current establishment. But in terms of liberal/conservative, I think you need both. And I can’t say that liberals have a better plan for society than do conservatives.

MCMILLAN: Jon: great book. Thank you so much for speaking with me today.

HAIDT: My pleasure, David.Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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