The demonization that mars our politics is a failure of moral imagination
Jonathan Haidt is hardly a road-rage kind of guy, but he does get irritated by self-righteous bumper stickers. The soft-spoken psychologist is acutely annoyed by certain smug slogans that adorn the cars of fellow liberals: “Support our troops—bring them home” and “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”
“No conservative reads those bumper stickers and thinks, ‘Hmm . . . so liberals are patriotic!’” he says, in a sarcastic tone of voice that jarringly contrasts with his usual subdued sincerity. “We liberals are universalists and humanists; it’s not part of our morality to highly value nations. So to claim dissent is patriotic—or that we’re supporting the troops, when in fact we’re opposing the war—is disingenuous.
“It just pisses people off.”
The University of Virginia scholar views such slogans as clumsy attempts to insist we all share the same values. In his view, these catch phrases are not only insincere, they’re also fundamentally wrong. Liberals and conservatives, he insists, inhabit different moral universes. There is some overlap in belief systems, but huge differences in emphasis.
In a creative attempt to move beyond red-state/blue-state clichés, Haidt has developed a framework that codifies humankind’s multiplicity of moralities. This model, which endeavors to explain behavior based on five basic moral impulses, is simultaneously startling in its stark depiction of our differences and reassuring in that it brings welcome clarity to an arena where murkiness of motivation often breeds contention.
He views the demonization that has marred American political debate in recent decades as a massive failure of moral imagination. We assume everyone’s ethical compass points in the same direction and label those whose views don’t align with our sense of right and wrong as either misguided or evil. In fact, he argues, there are multiple due norths.
“I think of liberals as colorblind,” he says in a hushed tone that conveys the quiet intensity of a low-key crusader. “We have finely tuned sensors for harm and injustice but are blind to other moral dimensions. Look at the way the word ‘wall’ is used in liberal discourse. It’s almost always related to the idea that we have to knock them down.
“Well, if we knock down all the walls, we’re sitting out in the rain and cold! We need some structure.”
Last September, in a widely circulated Internet essay titled “What Makes People Vote Republican?” Haidt chastised Democrats who believe blue-collar workers have been duped into voting against their economic interests. In fact, he asserted convincingly, traditionalists are driven to the GOP by moral impulses liberals don’t share (which is fine) or understand (which is not).
An unapologetic liberal atheist, Haidt has a remarkable ability to describe opposing viewpoints without condescension or distortion. He forcefully expresses his own political opinions but understands how they are informed by his underlying moral orientation. In an era where deadlocked debates so often end with a dismissive “You just don’t get it,” he gets it.
Four years ago, he recalls, “I wanted to help the Democrats press the right buttons because the Republicans were out-messaging them. I no longer want to be a part of that effort.
“What I want to do now is help both sides understand the other, so that policies can be made based on something more than misguided fear of what the other side is up to.”
Haidt’s journey into ethical self-awareness began during his senior year of high school in Westchester County, New York. “I had an existential crisis straight out of Woody Allen,” he recalls. “If there’s no God, how can there be a meaning to life? And if there’s no meaning, why should I do my homework? So I decided to become a philosophy major and find out the meaning of life.”
Once he began his studies at Yale, however, he found philosophy “generally boring, dry, and irrelevant.” So he gradually gravitated to the field of psychology, ultimately earning his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania. There he met several influential teachers, including scholar Paul Rozin, an expert on the psychology of food and the emotion of disgust. Fascinated by Rozin’s research, Haidt wrote his dissertation on moral judgment of disgusting but harmless actions—a study that helped point the way to his later findings.
As part of that early research, Haidt and a colleague posed a series of provocative questions to people in both Brazil and the United States. One of the most revealing was: How would you react if a family ate the body of its pet dog, which had been accidentally run over that morning?
“There were differences between nations, but the biggest differences were across social classes within each nation,” Haidt recalls. “Students at a private school [the University of Pennsylvania] thought it was just as gross, but it wasn’t harming anyone; their attitude was rationalist and harm-based. But when you moved down in social class or into Brazil, morality is based not on just harm. It’s also about loyalty and family and authority and respect and purity. That was an important early finding.”
Haidt accepted a position at the University of Virginia, where he focused on challenging the established wisdom in moral psychology. His colleagues were using data from middle-class American college students to draw sweeping conclusions about human nature. Dennis Proffitt, chairman of the University of Virginia psychology department, remembers him arguing “with some passion” that they needed to widen their scope.
“Jon recognizes that diversity is not just the politically correct thing to do, it’s also the intelligent thing to do,” Proffitt explains. “Seeing things from multiple perspectives gives you a much better view of the whole.”
In January 2005, shortly after President George W. Bush won re-election, Haidt was invited by a group of Democrats in Charlottesville, Virginia, to give a talk on morality and politics. There, for the first time, he explained to a group of liberals his conception of the moral world of cultural conservatives.
“They were very open to what I was saying. I discovered there was a real hunger among liberals to figure out what the hell was going on,” he says.
Haidt’s framework of political morality can be traced back to a dispute between two important thinkers: cultural anthropologist Richard Shweder and legendary Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg. In his 1981 book The Philosophy of Moral Development, Kohlberg essentially argued that other moral systems are mere stepping-stones on a path that will eventually lead the entire world to embrace Western humanist values. Reviewing the book for the journal Contemporary Psychology, Shweder disagreed, asserting that a range of ethical systems have always coexisted and most likely always will.
Haidt found Shweder’s ideas persuasive but incomplete. Agreeing with political scientist James Q. Wilson, he concluded that any full view of the origins of human morality would have to take into account not only culture (as analyzed by anthropologists) but also evolution. He reasoned it was highly unlikely humans would care so much about morality unless moral instincts and emotions had become a part of human nature. He began to suspect that morality evolved not just to help individuals as they competed and cooperated with other individuals, but also to help groups as they competed and cooperated with other groups.
“Morality is not just about how we treat each other, as most liberals think,” Haidt argues. “It is also about binding groups together and supporting essential institutions.”
With all that in mind, Haidt identified five foundational moral impulses:
Harm/care: It is wrong to hurt people; it is good to relieve suffering.
Fairness/reciprocity: Justice and fairness are good; people have certain rights that need to be upheld in social interactions.
In-group loyalty: People should be true to their group and be wary of threats from the outside. Allegiance, loyalty, and patriotism are virtues; betrayal is bad.
Authority/respect: People should respect social hierarchy; social order is necessary for human life.
Purity/sanctity: The body and certain aspects of life are sacred. Cleanliness and health, as well as their derivatives of chastity and piety, are all good. Pollution, contamination, and the associated character traits of lust and greed are all bad.
Haidt’s research reveals that liberals feel strongly about the first two dimensions—preventing harm and ensuring fairness—but often feel little, or even feel negatively about the other three. Conservatives, on the other hand, are drawn to loyalty, authority, and purity, which liberals tend to think of as backward or outdated. People on the right acknowledge the importance of harm prevention and fairness but not with quite the same energy or passion as those on the left.
Of the five moral realms, the one that causes the most friction between cosmopolitan liberals and traditionalist conservatives is purity/sanctity. To a 21st-century secular liberal, the concept barely registers. Haidt notes it was part of the Western vocabulary as recently as the Victorian era but lost its force in the early 20th century when modern rules of proper hygiene were codified. With the physical properties of contamination understood, the moral symbolism of impurity no longer carried much weight.
The impulse remains lodged in our psyches, however, turning up in both obvious and surprising ways. You can hear strong echoes of it when the pope rails against materialism, insisting we have been put on earth to serve a loftier purpose than shopping until we drop. It can also be found in the nondenominational spiritual belief that we all contain within us a piece of the divine. (Although it’s sometimes used in a tongue-in-cheek way in our society, the phrase “my body is a temple” reflects the purity/sanctity impulse.)
“The question is: Do you see the world as simply matter?” Haidt asks. “If so, people can do whatever they want, as long as they don’t hurt other people. Or do you see more dimensions to life? Do you want to live in a higher, nobler way than simply the pursuit of pleasure? That often requires not acting on your impulses, making sacrifices for others. It implies a reverence—which is a nonrational feeling—toward human life.”
Haidt’s data suggests purity/sanctity is the moral foundation that best predicts an individual’s attitude toward abortion. It also helps explain opposition to gay marriage. “If you think society is made up of individuals, and each individual has the right to do what he or she wants if they aren’t hurting anybody, it’s unfathomable why anyone would oppose gay marriage,” he says. “Liberals assume opponents must be homophobic.
“I know feelings of disgust do play into it. When you’re disgusted by something, you tend to come up with reasons why it’s wrong. But cultural conservatives, with their strong emphasis on social order, don’t see marriage primarily as an expression of one individual’s desire for another. They see the family as the foundation of society, and they fear that foundation is dissolving.”
Haidt doesn’t want religious fundamentalists dictating public policy to ensure it lines up with their specific moral code. Even if you perceive purity as a major-league issue, it doesn’t have to be on steroids. But he argues it is important that liberals recognize the strength that impulse retains with cultural conservatives and respect it rather than dismissing it as primitive.
“I see liberalism and conservatism as opposing principles that work well when in balance,” he says, noting that authority needs to be both upheld (as conservatives insist) and challenged (as liberals maintain). “It’s a basic design principle: You get better responsiveness if you have two systems pushing against each other. As individuals, we are very bad at finding the flaws in our own arguments. We all have a distorted perception of reality.”
Spend some time reading Haidt’s work, and chances are you’ll begin to view day-to-day political arguments through a less polarized lens. Should the Guantánamo Bay prison be closed? Of course, say liberals, whose harm/fairness receptors are acute. Not so fast, argue conservatives, whose finely attuned sense of in-group loyalty points to a proactive attitude toward outside threats.
Why any given individual grows up to become a conservative or a liberal is unclear. Haidt, like most contemporary social scientists, points to a combination of genes and environment—not one’s family of origin so much as the neighborhood and society whose values you absorbed. (Current research suggests that peers may actually have a stronger impact than parents in this regard.)
In his quest to “help people overcome morally motivated misunderstandings,” Haidt has set up a couple of websites, CivilPolitics.org and YourMorals.org. At the latter, you can take a quiz (starting on p. 41) that will locate you on his moral map. For fun, you can also answer the questions the way you think your political opposite would respond.
“Liberals tend to have a very optimistic view of human nature,” Haidt says. “They tend to be uncomfortable about punishment—of their own children, of criminals, anyone. I do believe that if liberals ran the whole world, it would fall apart. But if conservatives ran the whole world, it would be so restrictive and uncreative that it would be rather unpleasant, too.”
The concept of authority resonates so weakly in liberals that “it makes it difficult for liberal organizations to function,” Haidt says. On the other hand, he notes, the Republicans’ tendency to blindly follow their leader proved disastrous over the past eight years.
“Look how horribly the GOP had to screw up to alienate many conservatives,” muses Dallas Morning News columnist and Beliefnet blogger Rod Dreher, an Orthodox Christian, unorthodox conservative, and Haidt fan. “In the end, the GOP, the conservative movement, and the nation would have been better served had we on the right not been so yellow-dog loyal. But as Haidt shows, it’s in our nature.”
Haidt has astute advice for policy advocates, whether they’re addressing the U.S. Congress or the U.N. General Assembly: Frame your argument to appeal to as many points as possible on the moral spectrum. He believes President Obama did just that in his inaugural address, which utilized “a broad array of virtue words, including ‘courage,’ ‘loyalty,’ and ‘patriotism,’ to reach out and reassure conservatives.”
Haidt notes that the environmental movement was started by liberals, who were presumably driven by the harm/care impulse. Conservative evangelical Christians are increasingly taking up the cause, though, propelled by the urge to respect authority. “They’re driven by the idea that God gave man dominion over the earth, and keeping the planet healthy is our sacred responsibility,” he says. “If we simply rape, pillage, destroy, and consume, we’re abusing the power given to us by God.
“The climate crisis and the economic crisis are interesting, because neither has a human enemy. These are not crises that turn us against an out-group, so they’re not really designed to bring us together, but they can be used for that. I hope and think we are ready, demographically and historically, for a less polarized era.”
That will require peeling off some bumper stickers. Contrary to the assertion adhered onto Volvos, dissent and patriotism are very different impulses. Haidt persuasively argues that both are essential to a healthy democracy, and the interplay between them—when kept within respectful bounds—is a source of
vitality and strength. “Morality,” he insists, “is a team sport.”
Excerpted from Miller-McCune (May-June 2009), a solutions-minded magazine published by the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. Winner of the 2009 Utne Independent Press Award for science and technology coverage. www.miller-mccune.com