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Jonathan Haidt Explores The Moral Roots That Divide Us

OPB | June 4, 2013 7 a.m.

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Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt

Social psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt, whose work explores the foundations of morality and how it varies in and among cultures, argues that we have a rare capacity to form groups larger than our families, such as faiths and political parties, but that this drive to create groups leads to its own kind of moral blindness.

As he explains, “Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.”

Haidt’s latest book is called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. On a recent visit to Think Out Loud, Haidt weighed in on some of the moral issues facing American politics, as well as issues specific to Oregon, including the fluoridation debate and logging, and talked about how perceptions of morality shape these hard-fought and divisive issues.

Interview Highlights

On a nation divided by morals:

“After the 2004 election and the increasingly bitter culture war, I started studying ‘left’ and ‘right’ in this country as being like two separate nations, each with its own set of facts, its own American history, its own values. And it worked really well to see it almost as two separate countries. And what I found in my research with my colleagues at yourmorals.org is that people who call themselves liberal tend to base their moral appeals on two moral foundations, primarily: that is ‘care and compassion’ and ‘sympathy,’ those sorts of issues, and then also ‘fairness’ and ‘justice,’ but especially fairness as equality … Social conservatives, they have different views about fairness, but the main difference is that they care about group loyalty, respect for authority, and a sense of sanctity or personal purity.”

On how groups define purity:

“There’s a very widespread idea around the world that the body is a temple, and that there are certain things people do which are degrading, even if they choose to do it. This is the way that people have traditionally thought about homosexuality; this is the way people used to think about masturbation. I collect sex manuals from the 19th century and it’s fascinating. Just turn to the masturbation section and you can see everything about their moral world just by how it is that they condemn masturbation. So we’ve shed a lot of that in the last hundred years, but the right — the social conservatives tend to use that more, the left tends to use purity thinking about food and the environment.

On Portland’s fluoride debate:

“What stands out to me in the debate is it’s the global warming debate in which both sides say they’ve got science on their side and that the other side is denying science, and what’s especially fascinating to me is I’ve spent 10 years studying the left-right divide and it’s so predictable which moral foundations are on which side. This one scrambles it. This one it’s not clear which side the left is on and which side the right is on. It looks like the left is on both sides. I suppose in Portland, that makes sense.”

On the effect of moral discord on democracy:

Democracy involves lots of coalitions that compete against each other one day and then cooperate the next for some larger aim. Obviously during World War II and the Cold War, our politicians were able to both compete viciously, but then come together. What’s happened since the ‘90s is Washington has changed fundamentally — the whole country has changed a little bit to get more polarized, but Washington has changed a lot and there are many, many reasons for it, but one that I would really point to is Newt Gingrich’s reforms in 1995 when he became speaker of the house … Once Gingrich got the majority, he changed the rules so that there would be less fraternizing so his Republicans wouldn’t come to Washington and get soft. He changed the calendar so that all business was done mid-week and he encouraged incoming congressmen to live at home in their district. The effect of that was they didn’t meet people on the other side … Politicians are incredibly socially skilled creatures and if you expect them to make laws and compromise without knowing each other, without getting to use those social skills, the whole thing breaks down.

Listen to Think Out Loud’s full conversation with Jonathan Haidt and see some of Haidt’s past lectures and interviews on his website, including this TedTalk and his appearance on The Colbert Report.

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