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Jonathan Haidt Explains Our Contentious Culture

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Jonathan Haidt Explains Our Contentious Culture

Jonathan Haidt. (Screengrab: Moyers & Co.)

Jonathan Haidt Explains Our Contentious Culture from on Vimeo.


BILL MOYERS: Welcome. People I meet on the left, on the right and in the middle agree on one thing: our country is in a mess, and our politics are not making it better. The problems seem insurmountable, three times last year congress came close to shutting down the government. In August, we almost defaulted on our more than $14 trillion debt, which could skyrocket even further if the Bush tax cuts are continued and spending is untouched at year’s end.

But as the ship of state is sinking, the crew is at each other’s throats, too busy fighting to plug the holes and pump out the water. And everything’s been made rotten by the toxic rancor and demonizing that have shredded civil discourse and devastated our ability to govern ourselves. Just look at the ugliness of the election campaign. So we’re left with paralysis, dysfunction, and a whole lot of rage.

On that cheery note, listen to this fellow. I first saw him on the website, that stands for “Technology, Entertainment, Design.” It’s the non-profit that brings together some of our most creative and provocative thinkers.

JONATHAN HAIDT: Suppose that two American friends are traveling together in Italy. They go to see Michelangelo’s David. And when they finally come face to face with the statue, they both freeze dead in their tracks. The first guy, we’ll call him Adam, is transfixed by the beauty of the perfect human form. The second guy, we’ll call him Bill, is transfixed by embarrassment of staring at the thing there in the center. So here’s my question for you: which one of these two guys was more likely to have voted for George Bush? Which for Al Gore? I don’t need a show of hands because we all have the same political stereotypes, we all know that it’s Bill. And in this case the stereotype corresponds to a reality. It really is a fact that liberals are much higher than conservatives on a major personality trait called “openness to experience.” People who are high on openness to experience just crave novelty, variety, diversity, new ideas, travel. People low on it like things that are familiar, that are safe and dependable.

If you know about this trait you can understand a lot of puzzles about human behavior. You can understand why artists are so different from accountants, you can actually predict what kinds of books they like to read, what kinds of places they like to travel to and what kinds of foods they like to eat. Once you understand this trait you can understand why anybody would eat at Applebee’s, but not anybody that you know.

BILL MOYERS: Jonathan Haidt has taken the core of that speech which you can see at our website, and turned it into an important and timely book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, to be published in March. His ideas are controversial but they make you think. Haidt says, for example, that liberals misunderstand conservatives more than the other way around, and that while conservatives see self-sufficiency as a profound moral value for individuals, liberals are more focused on a public code of care and equity.

Jonathan Haidt has made his reputation as a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, where he and his colleagues explore reason and intuition, why people disagree so passionately and how the moral mind works. They post their research on the website


JONATHAN HAIDT: Thank you, Bill.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean righteous mind?

JONATHAN HAIDT: Anytime we're interacting with someone, we're judging them, we're sharing expectations, we think they didn't live up to those expectations.

So, in analyzing any social situation you have to understand moral psychology. Our moral sense really evolved to bind groups together into teams that can cooperate in order to compete with other teams.

So, some situations will sort of ramp up that tribal us-versus-them mentality. Nothing gets us together like a foreign attack. And we've seen that, 9/11, and Pearl Harbor. And, conversely, when there are moral divisions within the group, and no external attack, the tribalism can ramp up, and reach really pathological proportions. And that's where we are now.

BILL MOYERS: So, but, it's sort of a tradition to divide into teams. The Giants versus the Patriots. Or the Republicans versus the Democrats. Us versus them, is almost something un-American to suggest that there's something wrong with that?

JONATHAN HAIDT: No. Groupishness is generally actually good. A lot of research in social psychology shows that when you divide people into teams, to compete, they love their in-group members a lot more. And the hostility toward out-group members is usually minimal. So sports competitions— and I'm at a big football school, UVA. You know-

BILL MOYERS: University of Virginia-

JONATHAN HAIDT: University of Virginia. And you know, the other team comes, there's, you know, some pseudo aggression in the stands. You know, hostile motions. But, you know, that night, there aren't bar fights, when everybody's drinking together downtown.

That's the way, sort of, healthy, normal, groupish tribalism works. But, the tribalism evolved, ultimately, for war. And when it reaches a certain intensity, that's when, sort of, the switches flip, the other side is evil, they're not just our opponents, they're evil. And once you think they're evil, then the ends justify the means. And you can break laws, and you can do anything, because it's in the service of fighting evil.

BILL MOYERS: When I saw the title of your book, The Righteous Mind,” I thought, “Well, that's interesting.” Because you point out that the derivative, the root of the word righteous is an old English world that does mean just, upright and virtuous. Then it gets picked up and used in Hebrew to translate the word describing people who act in accordance with God's wishes, and it becomes an attribute of God, and of God's judgment on people. So the righteous mind becomes a harsh judge.

JONATHAN HAIDT: That's right. I chose that title in part because we all think, you know, morality is a good thing, justice, ethics. And I wanted to get across the sense that, let's just look with open eyes at human nature. And right, morality is part of our nature. And morality is, makes us do things that we think are good, but it also makes us do things that we often think are bad. It's all part of our groupish, tribal, judgmental, hyper-judgmental, hypocritical nature. We are all born to be hypocrites. That's part of the design.

BILL MOYERS: Born to be hypocrites.

JONATHAN HAIDT: Born to be hypocrites. That's right.


JONATHAN HAIDT: Our minds evolved not just to help us find the truth about how things work. If you're navigating through a landscape, sure, you need to know, you know, where the dangers are, where the opportunities are. But in the social world, our minds are not designed to figure out who really did what to whom. They are finely tuned navigational machines to work through a complicated social network, in which you've got to maintain your alliances, and your reputation.

And as Machiavelli told us long ago, it matters far more what people think of you than what the reality is. And we are experts at manipulating our self-presentation. So, we're so good at it, that we actually believe the nonsense that we say to other people.

BILL MOYERS: So, take the subtitle. Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Why are they? And what does the righteous mind have to do with it?

JONATHAN HAIDT: Politics has always been about coalitions and teams fighting each other. But those teams, those teams were never evenly divided on morality. Now, well, basically it all started, as you well know, on the day Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. You tell me what he said on that day. I think I heard you say this once.

BILL MOYERS: He actually said to me that evening, “I think we've just turned the South over to the Republican Party for the rest of my life, and yours.”

JONATHAN HAIDT: Yeah. And he was prescient, that's exactly what happened. So there was this anomaly for the 20th Century that both parties were coalitions of different regions, and interest groups. But there were liberal Republicans, there were conservative Democrats. So the two teams, they had, they were people whose moralities could meet up. Even though they were playing on different teams.

And once Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, and the South, which had been Democrat, because Lincoln had been a Republican, so once they all moved over to the Republican party, and then the moderate Republicans began to lose office in the '80s, and '90s, and the last ones going just recently, for the first time we have an ideologically pure division of the parties.

And now, this groupish tribalism, which is usually not so destructive, we can usually, you know, when you leave the playing field, you can still meet up, and be friends. But now that it truly is a moral division, now the other side is evil. And there's nobody, there aren't really pairs of people who can match up, and say, well, come on. We all agree on this, let's work together.

BILL MOYERS: You remind me that when we set out to try to pass the Civil Rights Act of '64, and the Voting Rights Act of '65, LBJ commissioned us to go spend much of our time with the moderate Republicans in the House, and in the Senate. Because he said, “When push comes to shove, and when the roll is called, we're going to need them to pass this bill.” And at one point, in the signing of one of those bills, he turned and handed the pen to Everett Dirksen, the senior Republican from Illinois and the leader of the Republican minority in the Senate and he was the one who, in the critical moments, brought a number of moderate Republicans to vote for the Civil Rights bill. You’re saying that was a deciding moment, a defining moment?

JONATHAN HAIDT: So there are three major historical facts, or changes, that have gotten us into the mess that we're in. So the first is the realignment of the South into the Republican column, which allowed both parties now to be pure. So that now there are basically no liberal Republicans matching up with conservative Democrats. So, the parties are totally separated. The second thing that happened was the replacement of the Greatest Generation by the Baby Boomers.

BILL MOYERS: The Greatest Generation fought World War II. Came home. Built the country, ran the economy. People's politics, and, created this consensual government your talking—

JONATHAN HAIDT: Exactly. These are people who joined groups, had a sense of civic responsibility, participated in the democratic process. And so these people, as they moved through. I mean, they could disagree. Politics has always been contentious. But at the end of the day, they felt they were part of the same country, and in the Senate and the House, they were part of the same institution. They're replaced by the Baby Boomers. And what's their foundational experience?

It's not responding together to a foreign threat. It's fighting each other over whether this country is doing evil, or good. So you get the good/evil dichotomy about America, and about each other happening in the '60s, and '70s, when these people grow up, assume political office. Now, you got Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich. It's a lot harder for them to agree than it was for Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan.

BILL MOYERS: So we get through the culture wars. Fights over abortion, prayer in schools. And that conflict becomes very polarizing.


BILL MOYERS: And that's because of the Baby Boomers, and-

JONATHAN HAIDT: Well, the Baby Boomers, I think, are more prone to Manichaean thinking.

BILL MOYERS: Manichaean thinking. Good and evil.

JONATHAN HAIDT: That's right. Manichaeus was a, I think, third century Persian prophet, who preached that the world is a battleground between the forces of light, and the forces of darkness. And everybody has to take a side. And some people have sided with good, and of course, we all believe that we've sided with good. But that means that the other people have sided with evil.

And when it gets so that your opponents are not just people you disagree with, but when it gets to the mental state in which I am fighting for good, and you are fighting for evil, it's very difficult to compromise. Compromise becomes a dirty word.

BILL MOYERS: Let me play you an exchange between House Speaker John Boehner and Lesley Stahl on “60 Minutes.” Take a look at this.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: We have to govern, that’s what we were elected to do.

LESLEY STAHL: But governing means compromising.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: It means working together.

LESLEY STAHL: It also means compromising.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: It means finding common ground.

LESLEY STAHL: Ok, is that compromising?

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: Let me be clear I am not going to compromise on my principles, nor am I going to compromise the will of the American people.

LESLEY STAHL: You’re saying “I want common ground but I’m not going to compromise.” I don’t understand that, I really don’t.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: When you say the word compromise, a lot of Americans look up and go, ‘oh, oh, they’re going to sell me out.’ And so finding common ground, I think, makes more sense.

LESLEY STAHL: I reminded him that his goal had been to get all the Bush tax cuts made permanent. So you did compromise.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: We found common ground.

LESLEY STAHL: Why won’t you say— you’re afraid of the word!


BILL MOYERS: He could barely say the word compromise.

JONATHAN HAIDT: That's right, that’s right. Because once you've crossed over from normal political disagreement into Manichaean good versus evil, to compromise, I mean, we say, you know, his ethics were compromised, you don't compromise with evil. Now, I think it's especially an issue for Republicans because they are better at doing, sort of, tribal team based loyalties. The data we have at shows that conservatives score much higher on this foundation of loyalty, groupishness. And the Republican, I mean, which job would you rather have in Congress? The Republican whip or the Democratic whip? You know?


JONATHAN HAIDT: The Republicans can hang together better. And part of it is, they're better at drawing bright lines and saying, ‘I will not go over this line.’

BILL MOYERS: But governing is all about brokering compromise.

JONATHAN HAIDT: Yes, absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: You cannot in a pluralistic, multicultural society with all the different beliefs, have a mantra that unites us all. You've got to broker compromise.

JONATHAN HAIDT: Well, it depends what perspective you're taking. If you're looking at the good of the nation, you're absolutely right. But for competition within the nation, taking this hard lined position is working out pretty well for them. So, sure. You can have a hard line against compromise. And especially if the other side can't get as tough, can't threaten to break legs, you end up winning.

And I think Democrats are a little weaker here. And certainly Obama took a lot of flack for that, in his negotiation strategy with the Republicans, as far as I can see, he's never really presented a credible threat. So, they've been better off walking away from the table.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, but the country suffers, doesn't it, when-

JONATHAN HAIDT: Yes. Absolutely-

BILL MOYERS: Boehner and the Republicans think it's immoral to compromise, and Obama thinks it's immoral not to compromise?

JONATHAN HAIDT: Well, that's true. I would say Obama could've done a much better job with his negotiating strategy.


JONATHAN HAIDT: Obama is such a great orator and wowed so many of us in the campaign. But then, once he was elected, you know, he's been focusing on the terrific, terrible problems that he's had to deal with. But I think he has not made the moral case that would back up the arguments from the politicians in Washington.

I think the Democrats need to be developing a credible argument about fairness, capitalism, American history. They need to be developing this master narrative so that when they then have an argument on a particular issue, it'll resonate with people. And they're not doing that. But the Republicans have.

BILL MOYERS: So the Greatest Generation disappears. The Boomers come along. The Civil Rights fight divides the country. And the third one?

JONATHAN HAIDT: The third is that America has gone from being a nation with localities that were diverse by class, in particular, let's say. You had rich people, and poor people living together.

It's become, in the post-war world, gradually a nation of lifestyle enclaves, where people chose to self-segregate. If people are concentrating just with people who are like them, then they're not exposed to the ideas from the other side, from people that they can actually like and respect. If you get all your ideas about the other side from the internet, where there's no human connection, it's just so easy, and automatic to reject it, and demonize it. So once we've sorted ourselves into homogeneous moral communities, it becomes a lot harder to work together.

BILL MOYERS: This gets us to the, what you talk about in the book, consensual hallucinations.


BILL MOYERS: What's that?

JONATHAN HAIDT: So I assume many viewers have seen the movie “The Matrix” and, or, one of those movies. And, it's a conceit in the science fiction book that the matrix is a consensual hallucination generated by computers and that we all live in it.


JONATHAN HAIDT: And I think this is a brilliant social psych metaphor. Back when we all encountered people of the other party, you couldn't have a consensual hallucination that wasn't interrupted by other people.

But once we can all live in these lifestyle enclaves, we only watch certain TV shows, we only go to certain websites, we only meet people like us, the matrix gets so closed in that each side here lives in a separate moral universe with its own facts, its own experts. And there's no way to get into the other matrix, to just throw, you can't just throw arguments or scientific studies at them and say, ‘Here conservatives, deal with this finding.’

It's not going to do anything. And conversely, they throw it back at you. We all feel as though we're living in reality. But them, they're caught up in this matrix. They're in la-la land. But we're all in la-la land. If you are part of a partisan community, if you're part of any community that has come together to pursue moral ends, you are in a moral matrix.

BILL MOYERS: My side is right, your side is wrong. Just ipso facto, right?

JONATHAN HAIDT: That’s right.

BILL MOYERS: Let me get some clarity on one of your basic foundations here. Your research in the book, you and your associates, organizes morality into six moral foundations or concerns. Sketch them briefly and tell me how liberals and conservatives differ on each of them.

JONATHAN HAIDT: Sure. So, if you imagine each of our righteous minds as being, like an audio equalizer with six slider switches, and the first one is care, compassion, those sorts of issues, liberals have it turned up to 11. And we have this on a lot of different surveys. Liberals really feel. When they see an animal being mistreated, they're more likely to feel something than conservatives, and especially than libertarians, who are very, very low on this one.

JONATHAN HAIDT: The next two, liberty and fairness, when liberty and fairness conflict with care, are you going to punish someone, or are you going to be compassionate? Liberals are more likely to go with care.

JONATHAN HAIDT: In other words, care trumps liberty and fairness, even though everybody cares about all three of those. The next three, loyalty, authority and sanctity, what we find, across many questionnaires, many surveys and analyses of texts and sermons, all sorts of things, is that liberals don't talk a lot about loyalty, you know, group loyalty. They don't talk a lot about authority and the importance of order and authority, maintaining order. They don't talk a lot about sanctity. Conservatives on the other hand, what we find is that, they value all of these more or less equally.

And I think this is part of the reason why conservatives have done a much better job of connecting with American morality and convincing people that they are the party of moral values.

BILL MOYERS: Let’s get down to some brass tacks, or brass knuckles as one might want to say. There's so much anger and incivility in our politics today. And the twain do not seem able to meet.

JONATHAN HAIDT: That's right.

BILL MOYERS: You have a lot of photographs of both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street that get at how moral psychology divides us, just-

JONATHAN HAIDT: That's right.

BILL MOYERS: Walk me through some of these.

JONATHAN HAIDT: The first step that we all need to take is to understand that the other side is not crazy. They're not holding their position just because they've been bribed or because they're racist or whatever evil motives you want to attribute.

JONATHAN HAIDT: So what I'm hoping my book will do is kind of give people almost a decoding manual so they can look at anything from the other side and instead of saying, ‘See, this shows how evil they are,’ you say, ‘Oh, okay, I see why they're saying that.’ All right, so, let's take, ‘Stop punishing success, stop rewarding failure.’

BILL MOYERS: I remember seeing that at one of the early Tea Party rallies.

JONATHAN HAIDT: So that's one version of fairness. Fairness adds proportionality.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

JONATHAN HAIDT: Well, if people work hard, they should succeed. If people don't work hard, they should fail. And if anyone bails them out, that is evil. You should not bail people out who have failed, especially if it's because of lack of hard work, something like that. So as the right sees it, government is evil because it keeps punishing success, with redistributive policies, okay, take from the successful and give to the unsuccessful.

And it keeps rewarding failure by giving out welfare and other payments to people who aren't working. So what I've found is that fairness is at the heart of both Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. But because the words have different meanings and they relate to additional moral foundations, that's why they're really, very, very different moral views.

There was a lot of empathy and caring at Occupy Wall Street. So this sign, “I can't hurt another without hurting myself.” This is part of the ethos on the left, this is why you get a lot of Buddhists and sort of the Christian left.

It's a lot of emphasis on care and compassion. When they talk about fairness, it's in particular, fairness, that will benefit the weak and the poor. So, here's a sign, “Marching for the meek and weary, hungry and homeless.” “Tax the wealthy, fair and square,” as though because they're hungry and homeless people, it's fair to take from them and give to them. Now, I think there are really good arguments for why we need to increase tax rates on the top. But simply saying, ‘Some have and some have not, therefore it's fair,’ that's not a moral argument for most Americans.

BILL MOYERS: And what's the conservative moral position on this?

JONATHAN HAIDT: The conservative moral position is the Protestant work ethic. It's karma.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean by that?

JONATHAN HAIDT: So karma, karma's a Sanskrit word, for, literally for work, or fruit. That is, if you do some work, you should get the fruit of it. If I help you, I will eventually get the fruit of it. Even if you don't help me, something will happen. It's just a law of the universe. So, Hindus traditionally believed it's, that the universe will balance itself, right itself. It's like gravity. If I am lazy, good-for-nothing lying scoundrel, the universe will right that and I will suffer. But then along comes liberal do-gooders and the federal government to bail them out.

So I think the conservative view, for social conservatives this is, is that basically liberals are trying to revoke the law of karma. Almost as though, imagine somebody trying to revoke the law of gravity, and everything's going to float away into chaos.

BILL MOYERS: All right, let's go back to Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party.

JONATHAN HAIDT: Flags are everywhere. American flags are everywhere at the Tea Party. And you never see them defaced, modified, touching the ground. At Occupy Wall Street, however, the majority of them had been modified.

So here's one showing America as a nation taken over by corporations and war. Here's another one, “Occupy Wall Street, the 99 percent is you.” Now, what this shows, I think, is that at Occupy Wall Street, certainly ‘The flag is not sacred, I think America is not sacred.’ The left tends to be wary of nation states. And this is, I think, a nice example of how sacralization blinds you.

And on the right, where they do sacralize America, they can't think about the nuances about how America is not always right, American foreign policy did contribute to 9/11, but you can't say that because people on the right will see that as sacrilege. So they're blind. Whereas people on the left have a more nuanced view.

So, you know, everything's a Rorschach test. As long as there's any ambiguity, one side will see the things that damn it, the other side will see the things that praise it.

BILL MOYERS: But isn't there reality below that Rorschach test? If Occupy Wall Street is saying, ‘Inequality is growing, the American dream, upward mobility is disappearing. Fifty million people in poverty,’ something's wrong with our democratic and capitalist system-

JONATHAN HAIDT: And I think something is wrong with our Democratic and capitalist system. And this is where I think the left has really fallen down in articulating what's wrong. The right has been extremely effective and has funded think tanks that have made the case very powerfully for what's good about capitalism.

And they're right. I mean, without capitalism, without free markets, we would not have the massive wealth that supports you and me and everyone else who doesn't physically make stuff. But since you need the push and pull, you need the give and take. You need the yin and yang. You need a good argument against that view. And I think it needs to be an argument about how capitalism, yes, it is good. But it only works under certain conditions.

There's a wonderful new book out called The Gardens of Democracy by Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer. And they say, ‘Democracy is like a garden. And the capitalist system is like a garden. You can't just say, 'Free market, grow as you like.' You have- it takes some tending.'

And even as Adam Smith knew, only external regulation can prevent externalities, prevent monopolies. You got to have a clear argument about what capitalism is, why it's good, and how to make it better. And, as I see it, the left hasn't done that.

BILL MOYERS: Does your research suggest it's preferable to have a greater moral range?

JONATHAN HAIDT: When I began this work, I was very much a liberal. And over time, in doing the research for my book and in reading a lot of conservative writing, I've come to believe that conservative intellectuals actually are more in touch with human nature. They have a more accurate view of human nature.

We need structure. We need families. We need groups. It's okay to have memberships and rivalries. All that stuff is okay, unless it crosses the threshold into Manichaeism. So I think that it would be very difficult to run a good society without resting much on loyalty, authority and sanctity. I think you need to use those.

BILL MOYERS: But it seems to me that liberals, progressives are more in touch with the nature of the social order. I had an anthropology teacher at the University of Texas who had spent five years amongst the Apaches in West Texas for his graduate work.

And he used both their example and the example through ages of saying, through the long history of human beings, we have accomplished more by cooperation, than we have by competition. And it seems to me that's the truth that progressives or liberals or whomever you want to call them see that conservatives don't.

JONATHAN HAIDT: But cooperation and competition are opposite sides of the same coin. And we've gotten this far because we cooperate to compete. So you can say that liberals are more accurate or in touch with how the system works. But I would say they're more in touch with some aspects of how systems go awry and oppress some people, ignore other people. Liberals see some aspects of where the social system breaks down. And conservatives see others. You have to have consequences following bad behavior. That is as basic an aspect of system design as any. And that's one where conservatives see it much more clearly than liberals.

I think I'm a centrist, in terms of liberal conservative. And I feel like I'm sort of, I sort of, like, stepped out of the game. And now that the game has gotten so deadly, I'm hoping that, in the coming year, I can be the guy saying, ‘Come on, people, just, here, understand the other side so you stop demonizing, and now you can argue more productively.’

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, well, how do we do that when, in fact, there's a great advantage to one side or the other side to demonize the enemy? And here, you know, you bring us right to Newt Gingrich and his career.

BILL MOYERS: In 1990, Newt Gingrich was chairman of something called GOPAC, which was a conservative political action committee. And he issued a memo to the members, the conservative members of that organization about words that conservatives should use to describe themselves and words they should use to describe Democrats and liberals.

Abuse of power, betray, bizarre, corrupt, criminal rights, cheat, devour, disgrace, greed, steal, sick, traitors, radical, red tape, unionized, waste, welfare. Quote, “The words and phrases are powerful. Read them. Memorize as many as possible. And remember that like any tool, these words will not help if they are not used.” Those words were used, as you know, quite successfully.

JONATHAN HAIDT: That's right. So two things to say about Gingrich. One is that he's a screaming hypocrite. But as I said, we're all hypocrites. That's part of the design. The other is that he's a very good moral psychologist. And as I've said, the Democrats are generally not.

JONATHAN HAIDT: So he had words there that touch all six of the foundations, you know, from abuse of power to sick and corrupt for the sanctity stuff. So while I'm non-partisan, my big issue is demonizing.

BILL MOYERS: And yet you also acknowledge that demonizing the other can be rewarded politically.

JONATHAN HAIDT: That's right. It can because that makes you stronger in the contest within the group. Within the nation your side can beat the other side if you demonize, but it makes the nation weaker.

JONATHAN HAIDT: Most of our politics is driven by the people at the extremes, the people who have these dispositions fairly strongly, get passionate, get engaged, give money, blog, argue. Those people rarely cross over. So, but most Americans are not that politically engaged, and they're the ones that decide the elections.

So, since most people aren't extreme either way in their basic disposition, they're up for grabs. And, whichever party can connect with their moral values. And this is where I think again, the Democrats have not fully understood moral psychology. I listen to them in election after election, especially 2000, 2004, saying, ‘We've got this policy for you. We're going to give you more support,’ as though politics is shopping.

As though, ‘Come, you know, buy from us. We've got a better deal for you.’ The Democrats, I find, have not been as good at understanding that politics is really religion. Politics is about sacredness. Politics is about offering a vision that will bind the nation together to pursue greatness. And Republicans since Ronald Reagan have been really good at that.

BILL MOYERS: At the same time, it can blind you.

BILL MOYERS: It can bind you—


BILL MOYERS: -into a tribe, but it can blind the whole tribe.

JONATHAN HAIDT: Absolutely. That's what we're stuck with. That's the nature of moral psychology. You got it.

BILL MOYERS: There's a chapter called “Vote For Me, Here's Why.” Let me run down a series of points you make in that chapter, and get your short take on what you want us to take away from that. Quote, “We're all intuitive politicians.”

JONATHAN HAIDT: That's right. So a politician is always asking the question, ‘How am I doing?’ As Mayor Koch used to say. That's what we always want to know. And so when we interact with people we're intuitively we're like politicians, out to get their vote. Out to make them like us, make them be impressed by us. Who knows if they could be useful to us in the future.

So we say one thing to one person, one thing to another. We change our views, our attitudes. Oh, did you like that movie? Oh, I hated it because I know that he hated it, oh yes, I loved it, because I know that she liked it. We do this all the time. And we don't even know we're doing it.

So many people think, ‘Oh, you know, I dance to, I move to my own drum. I, you know, I'm independent. I'm a maverick.’ People think that about themselves. But research shows that even people who think that about themselves are just as influenced by what other people think of them. Basically we are clueless and hypocritical about ourselves. We're actually moderately accurate in our predictions of other people. Our blindness is about ourselves.

BILL MOYERS: Quote, “We are obsessed with polls.”

JONATHAN HAIDT: Once again, what we really want to know is what others think of us. The research shows that when you give people the opportunity to cheat, in a way where they can get away with it, because there's no reputational consequence, most people cheat.

Other research shows that philosophers, and moral philosophers are no better than anyone else. So we all think that we're going to behave, we're going to have this inner moral compass. But really what we're most concerned with is what's this going to do to my poll numbers.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah. I remember, you quote somebody's research in here, that they looked into how often books on ethics were taken out of the library, and not returned. And it was a very high ratio. And often by moral philosophers, or teachers of ethics. Right.

JONATHAN HAIDT: Eric Schwitzgebel, a philosopher, looked at how often books had not been returned, from lots of libraries. And, right, the ethics books were more likely to have been not returned than other philosophy books. My guess is that moral philosophers are extremely expert in coming up with justifications for whatever they want to do.

BILL MOYERS: This one hit me personally. Quote, “Our in-house press secretary automatically justifies everything.”

JONATHAN HAIDT: That's right. When someone accuses you of something, you can't help it. Instantly, your mind is off and running, drafting the press release to explain how, while it might look like I was hypocritical, but actually, so, we just, this is the way we think automatically. And again, it's part of this sort of Machiavellian psychology.

BILL MOYERS: Quote, “We lie, cheat, and justify so well that we honestly believe we're honest.”

JONATHAN HAIDT: Everybody believes they're above average in honesty. But in fact, again, the studies show that when you give people a chance to cheat, literally the majority take advantage of it.

They'll fudge a number here, or they'll go over-time. They'll change an answer on a test, if, say, they get paid more money for getting more correct answers, for example. And the amazing thing is they're able to justify it. They're… they walk out of there thinking that they didn't cheat and lie.

BILL MOYERS: Quote, “Reasoning and Google can take you wherever you want to go.”

JONATHAN HAIDT: Something we need to talk about here is what's called the confirmation bias. That is, you might think that our reasoning is designed to find the truth. And if you want to find the truth, you should look on both sides of a proposition. But in fact what happens is, when someone gives you a proposition, our minds, we send them out, we sent them out to do research for us.

But it's research, like, as a lawyer does, or as a press secretary would do, it’s like, ‘Find me one piece of evidence that will support this claim that I want to make.’ And if I can find one piece of evidence, I'm done. I can stop thinking. Well, that's the way we've been for millions of years. And, well, hundreds of thousands of years.

And suddenly Google comes along. You don't have to do any research. You just type it in. You know, “I think Obama, was Obama born in Kenya?” Just type it in. You'll find hits. You know, “Is global warming a hoax?” Type it, you'll find hits. So Google can basically solve your needs for confirmation, 24 hours a day.

BILL MOYERS: Quote, “We can believe almost anything that supports our team.”

JONATHAN HAIDT: That's right. So it's bad enough when we're cheating and dissembling and manipulating things for our own benefit, but when we're doing it for our team it somehow is even more honorable, and easier to do. And this brings us right back to the culture war. People can believe any kind of crazy nonsense they want.

If you hated George Bush, when he was President, and somebody would give you an argument. I mean, you, it just seems automatically compelling. And you don't have to think very hard, conversely, now, about Barack Obama. So, all these things I'm saying. These biases of reasoning, that are so obvious at the personal level, when you ramp them up to the group level they get even more severe.

BILL MOYERS: This one took me aback, because it flies right in the face of my predisposition. “Anyone who values truth should stop worshiping reason.”

JONATHAN HAIDT: The idea of sacredness, the idea of sacralizing something. What I see as an academic, and as a philosophy major as an undergrad, is there are a lot of people in the academic world that sac- they think, oh, you know, no sacred cows. We shouldn't sacralize anything.

But they sacralize reason itself, as though reason is this noble attribute, reason is our highest nature. And if we could just reason, we will solve our problems. All right, that sounds good on paper. But given all the stuff I just told you about what psychologists have discovered about reason, reasoning is not good at finding the truth. Conscious verbal reasoning is really good at confirming.

We're really good lawyers. So what this means is that if you sacralize reason itself, you are first of all wrong about it. And as I say in the book, follow the sacredness. Wherever people sacralize something, there you will find ignorance, blindness to the truth, and resistance to evidence.

BILL MOYERS: So what does, what did the Hebrew prophet mean when he said, “Come now, and let us reason together.” Are you saying we can't get at the truth that way?

JONATHAN HAIDT: No. That actually is very wise. Because what I'm saying here is that individual reasoning is post-hoc, and justificatory. Individual reasoning is not reliable because of the confirmation bias. The only cure for the confirmation bias is other people.

So, if you bring people together who disagree, and they have a sense of friendship, family, having something in common, having an institution to preserve, they can challenge each other's reason. And this is the way the scientific world is supposed to work.

And this is the way it does work in almost every part of it. You know, I've got my theory, and I'm really good at justifying it. But fortunately there's peer review, and there's lots of people are really good at undercutting it. And saying, “Well, what about this phenomenon? You didn't account for that.”

And we worked together even if we don't want to, we end up being forced to work together, challenging each other's confirmation biases, and truth emerges. And this is a place where actually I think the Christians have it right, because they're always talking about how flawed we are. They're encouraging us to be more modest.

And from my reading, these apostles of reason nowadays, they're anything but modest. And they think that individuals can reason well. Wisdom comes out of a group of people well-constituted who have some faith or trust in each other. That's what our political institutions used to do, but they don't do anymore.

BILL MOYERS: You're helping me to understand this fundamental dichotomy in American political life, the- a country that mythologizes the rugged individual.


BILL MOYERS: But a country that's now governed by dogmatic group politics, right?

JONATHAN HAIDT: So this gets us right into sacredness, one of the dictums of the book is “follow the sacredness.” It, once you see the basic dynamic of human life is individuals competing with individuals, but when necessary, coming together so that the group can compete with the group. So it's perfectly consistent for the right to worship rugged individualism at the individual level and to see government and especially government safety nets and nanny states as deeply immoral because it undercuts rugged individualism.

But at the same time, for them to be tribal and to come together around a pledge on taxes. Now, Grover Norquist was brilliant in exploiting the psychology of sacredness in making them sign this pledge. Even if many of them knew in their heart it was the wrong thing to do, we're so concerned about our poll numbers, we're so concerned about what people think of us, any candidate that said, “No, I'm not going to sign,” you can bet Norquist was going to hold his feet to the fire.

And now they're stuck. And you get that crazy scene in that Republican debate, “If you could work out a deal, $10 of spending cuts for every one dollar of tax increases, would you take it?”

BRET BAIER: Say you had a deal, a real spending cuts deal, 10 to one as Byron said. Spending cuts to tax increases. Speaker you’re already shaking your head. But who on this stage would walk away from that deal? Can you raise your hand if you feel so strongly about not raising taxes you’d walk away on the 10 to one deal?

JONATHAN HAIDT: It's straight out of all the conformity experiments in social psychology. It’s— you don't want to look, you don't want to be the one who stands up and is different. It's a lot of conformity pressure. A little further out, it's not just that you're afraid of being different, it's that you know what's waiting for you if you didn't get your hand up. And that is Grover Norquist and everybody else saying, “He's going to raise my taxes, he's going to raise my taxes.”

BILL MOYERS: And you will be ejected from the group.

JONATHAN HAIDT: That's right.

BILL MOYERS: You're not longer in the tribe.

JONATHAN HAIDT: That's right.

BILL MOYERS: Out to the wilderness, right-

JONATHAN HAIDT: That's right. Now, we can go even further back, and this is what I think people on the left have trouble understanding, is the rejection of taxes, this dogmatic attitude about taxes, it's not just, ‘Oh, I want to keep my money, give me money, I'm greedy,’ it's that the federal, they've seen the federal government, and this begins in the '30s with Roosevelt, they've seen the federal government doing things that they think are evil. That is, the government got into the business of bailing people out when they make mistakes. Now, usually people need help not because they made a mistake. There are important reasons to have a safety net. But welfare policies, and it got even more so in the '60s, the government began doing things that supported people who were slackers or free-riders.

So as entitlement programs grow, as they begin to do things that are really antithetical to conservative ideas about fairness and responsibility, now government, it's not hard to see government as evil. And the only way to stop it is to starve the beast.

BILL MOYERS: What's the Democratic liberal left equivalent of the tax pledge, no new taxes, the group think on one issue that, if you violate it gets you thrown out of the tribe?

JONATHAN HAIDT: Right, well, it's touchy to talk about, but basically I think the new left, the commitment that was made in the '60s, was toward victim groups. So it was civil rights, women's rights, gay rights. Now these were all incredibly important battles that had to be fought. And again, follow the sacredness. If you sacralize these groups, it makes you, it binds you together to fight for them.

So the sacralization had to happen, the sacralization of victim groups had to happen to bring the left together to fight what was a truly altruistic and heroic battle. And they won, and things are now better in this country because of that. But, follow the sacredness. Once you've sacralized something, you become blind to evidence.

So evidence about, let's say, how welfare was working, or any other social policy that many of these social policies would backfire. But you can't see it because you've sacralized a group. Anything that seems to be helping that group, anything our group says is going to help them, you go with. So both sides are blind to evidence around their sacred commitments.

BILL MOYERS: I want to go to a very important moment in an early Republican debate that seems to me to go to the heart of what you're writing about in terms of moral psychology and how the conservatives see it. This was a question to Ron Paul. Let's play it.

WOLF BLITZER: Let me ask you this hypothetical question. A healthy 30-year-old young man has a good job, makes a good living, but decides, you know what? I'm not going to spend $200 or $300 a month for health insurance because I'm healthy, I don't need it. But, you know, something terrible happens, all of a sudden he needs it. Who's going to pay for, if he goes into a coma, for example? Who pays for that?

RON PAUL: Well, in a society that you accept welfarism and socialism, he expects the government to take care of him.

WOLF BLITZER: Well, what do you want?

RON PAUL: But what he should do is whatever he wants to do, and assume responsibility for himself. My advice to him would have a major medical policy, but not be forced—

WOLF BLITZER: But he doesn't have that. He doesn't have it, and he needs intensive care for six months. Who pays?

RON PAUL: That's what freedom is all about, taking your own risks. This whole idea that you have to prepare and take care of everybody—

WOLF BLITZER: But Congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die?


JONATHAN HAIDT: This is a perfect example of what the culture war has turned into. It's a battle over ideas about fairness versus compassion. So the reason that that video went viral is because of the applause at the end.

So I got sent this video by a lot of people because, oh, my God, these Republicans are so heartless. They're so evil and cruel and terrible. But it's exactly Aesop's ant and the grasshopper. The grasshopper fiddles away all the summer while the ants are working and working and working, preparing for the winter. The grasshopper says, “Oh, you're being silly, working so hard.” And then winter comes. The grasshopper comes, knocks on the ants' door and he's starving to death, he's freezing. He says, “Take me in. Feed me.” And as some liberals see it, the point of the ant and the grasshopper and that the ants are supposed to feed the grasshopper. But that's not what Aesop meant.

And that's not what most Americans think it means. So what they're applauding for there and what they're saying, “Yeah, let him die,” the reason they're saying that is because they want a world in which karma functions. This guy made a choice. He made a choice to be a free rider. He made a choice to not buy health insurance. And if karma works as it should, no one will pay for it and he will die. Now, if you care, if you value the care foundation, that is extremely cold. But if you value fairness as proportionality, that's what has to happen.

BILL MOYERS: What did Aesop mean?

JONATHAN HAIDT: Aesop meant, that you better take care of yourself because if you don't, if you're lazy and you expect others to take care of you, you deserve to die. You deserve to be left out in the cold. And that's why welfare has always been so contentious because, on the left, they think it's doing good bringing money to their sacralized victim groups. But on the right, it's doing bad because it's encouraging dependence. It's discouraging hard work. It's rotting away the Protestant work ethic. And it's encouraging irresponsibility. Welfare's always been an incredibly contentious.

BILL MOYERS: It has been but liberals and progressives are right, are they not, when they say government has been a big force in the development of this country, all the way from infrastructure, canals, and railroads and airports and all of that to the social contract, which prevents elderly people from falling into a life of despair at the end of their years.

JONATHAN HAIDT: That's right. That's all true. And if the Democrats could make a good, clear case of what the proper role of government is, I think they'd be successful because that's absolutely right. The problem is that government, whoever has the reins of government uses it for moralistic purposes.

They use it to further their sacred ends. And they use it to channel money and programs and largesse to their favorite groups. So people on the right don't trust government to do what's right with their tax dollars. And the left, again, needs to come up with a clear story about what is the proper role of government and what is not. And they need to regain the trust.

BILL MOYERS: But it means that we can never get together to try to resolve it when one party says ‘we won’t compromise’ and the other party says ‘you are evil.’

JONATHAN HAIDT: That's right. That's right. So, we're in a lot of trouble. I don't see an easy way out here. There are some electoral reforms that would make things better. But the problem is that all electoral reforms will tend to favor one side over the other, which means it's very difficult to get them enacted.

BILL MOYERS: Well, you're also asking the very people benefiting from the present status quo system to change what is to their benefit.

JONATHAN HAIDT: That's right.

BILL MOYERS: To keep it going.

JONATHAN HAIDT: That's right. So, I mean, my only thoughts about how we can make the kind of end run about this, is we need to develop norms of certain things that are beyond the pale, certain things that are bad. And so, for example, just as we developed our discourse about, say, sexual harassment, you know, when movies and TV shows from the '60s, it was common. It was laughed at.

But, you know, in just a few decades we've come a long way and recognized certain kinds of behaviors are unacceptable. We've changed our attitudes about smoking in public. We've done all sorts of things like that. We've moralized things. I'd like to propose that we moralize two things.

One is demonization. When you have people saying, you can disagree as much as you want, but when you start saying, “They're only saying that because they're, you know, they're a racist or they're in bed with this company,” or, and even though sometimes that might be true. But we are so prone to dismiss other people and demonize their motives that we’re usually going to be wrong about that. So if we could begin to see this in each other and even challenge each other and say, “Hey, you're demonizing.” Like, just, you know, disagree with them but stop attributing bad motives to the other side. So if ten years from now people sort of recognize that and could call each other out on in, that would at least be some progress.

The other one is corruption. Until we develop a massive groundswell of public revulsion at the fact that our Congress is bought and paid for, not entirely of course. Many of them are decent people. I don't want to demonize. I'm sorry. But the nature of the institution is such that they've got to raise tons of money. And then they're responsive to those interests. So perhaps there's some norms that we could develop that will put some pressure on Congress to clean up its act.

BILL MOYERS: Jonathan Haidt, thank you very much for sharing your ideas with us.

JONATHAN HAIDT: Oh, my pleasure, Bill. This has been great fun.

To read other articles and watch other videos by Moyers & Co., click here.

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