Friday, February 10, 2012

Jonathan Haidt: Morality and Demonization

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt was on Moyers & Company this week, talking about his forthcoming book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. It's an attempt to document the cultural divide in America, connecting it to the differences in moral psychology between people on the right and left.

Haidt explains when politics began to shift from two parties that each had conservative and liberal wings to our current bifurcation: The 1960s, in large part because of the civil rights movement and changes in laws that made it possible for black people to vote. As LBJ said to Bill Moyers (who was his press secretary at the time), "I think we've just turned the South over to the Republican Party for the rest of my life, and yours." That, combined with generational change to the Baby Boom and increasing class stratification in where we live, has led to our current divisions.

Haidt, a professor at the University of Virginia, said he started out as a liberal, but that in studying the issue he has become a moderate, finding value in many conservative perspectives. He emphasizes six primary moral concerns, and finds that liberals and conservatives consistently rate differently on them, based on surveys and analysis of writings:
  • Care, compassion
  • Liberty
  • Fairness
  • Loyalty
  • Authority
  • Sanctity
Still frame of bar graph showing liberals with high bars for Care, Liberty and Fairness, conservatives with moderately high bars for all six moral areas
Liberals are at the top of the chart for care, and also score pretty high on liberty and fairness. They come out very low on the last three, however. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to score at about the same fairly high level on all six.

What a liberal and a conservative mean by the terms can differ. For instance, conservatives think of fairness in terms of self-sufficiency and free riders. Everyone needs to contribute, and no one should get anything for "free." Moyers played the clip from that 2011 Republican debate where Ron Paul was asked if a hypothetical 30-year-old man who had decided not to get insurance, but now faces a grave illness, should be left to die. You know, the one where a couple of audience members responded with a loud "Yes!" Haidt compared it to the Aesop's Fable about the grasshopper and the ant; conservatives believe it is only right, only karma, for the grasshopper to die. A liberal would call all of that unfair.

Haidt's discussion of Grover Norquist's no-new-taxes pledge as an example of sanctity run amok was particularly interesting. 

What Haidt is most down on is Manichean thinking, the tendency to take groupness to the extreme of thinking those outside the group are evil.

Haidt had a lot to say about humans' inherent lack of rationality, in keeping with recent work in psychology. His book includes this beaut: "Anyone who values truth should stop worshiping reason." Moyers asked him about that:
BILL MOYERS: So 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 [self-]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.
The interview ends with Haidt proposing two areas that we all could work on to improve the situation, citing other social changes like attitudes about sexual harassment or smoking to show that it is possible for things to change. The two areas are:
  • For all of us to call each other on it when we demonize other groups. (Demonize the demonizers, I guess.)
  • "Until we develop a massive groundswell of public revulsion at the fact that our Congress is bought and paid for… So perhaps there's some norms that we could develop that will put some pressure on Congress to clean up its act."
His message to Democrats was clear: Republicans are better at making their point of view into a coherent narrative. "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."

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