Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt

The University of Virginia professor discusses his text The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion and expands upon his Moral Foundations theory across political party lines.

Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist at the University of Virginia and a visiting professor of business ethics at the NYU-Stern School of Business. His research examines morality and emotion and how they vary across cultures. He's also a leading researcher in the field of positive psychology—the scientific study of human flourishing—and the co-developer of Moral Foundations theory. Haidt has written more than 80 academic articles and two books:  The Happiness Hypothesis and, his latest, The Righteous Mind, which examines why U.S. political leaders can’t work together.


Tavis: Jonathan Haidt is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and a contributor to the Campaign Stops blog for “The New York Times.” He’s also a noted author whose latest is “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.” He joins us tonight from New York. Professor Haidt, good to have you on the program. Thanks for your time, sir.

Professor Jonathan Haidt: Oh, my pleasure. Nice to be here, Tavis.

Tavis: I want to jump right into this text because there are six moral themes that you wrestle with in the book, around which there is this great divide in the country with regard to the way we think and the way we process.

Let me just jump into them one at a time, and then I think that will give us a good entre into the text. First among these six moral themes, care and harm. So how do we differ politically on our thinking about the issues of care and harm?

Haidt: Well, everybody has some feelings of compassion. Everybody is nice to their dogs and their children. But what we find – I have a website, a collaboration, at

What we find there is that when we give questions about compassion or caring or how much does it bother you to see animals suffering or a poor person or just anybody harmed, we find that people who describe themselves as being liberal say that they care more than people on the right. Everybody cares, but it’s more of a central liberal virtue.

Tavis: The second moral theme in the text is fairness.

Haidt: Yup, that’s where most of the action is these days. Ever since the Tea Party everybody cares about fairness. Everybody, every party, everywhere in the world. But the left tends to blend it with care and compassion, and they tend to think that fairness is helping those who are low down, those who are poor, whereas on the right they’re just really focused on fairness as proportionality.

Which means are people getting out in proportion to what they put in? Because if you’ve taken out more, you’re a cheater, and that’s what so much of our discourse is about poverty, about taxes.

That’s what the Tea Party is really mostly about, is their almost obsessive focus, I would say, on government and fairness.

Tavis: Then there’s liberty.

Haidt: Once again, everybody’s in favor of liberty, but left and right mean something a little bit different by it. Liberals have always stood for – well, they’re supposed to stand for standing up for the little guy against the powers of king and clergy, if you go back to the 18th century.

But in the 19th century they kind of turned and started saying it’s not government which is the problem, it’s actually industry. So then they looked to government for the solution.

So liberals tend to be much more concerned about business and corporations as the oppressors. They look to government as the solution. On the right it’s the opposite. They see business as good, as what generates wealth in society, and they see government as the oppressor, which makes it hard for especially small businesspeople.

Tavis: Let’s talk now then about loyalty.

Haidt: So now we start getting into the three themes that are much more pronounced on the right than on the left. So group loyalty – well, if you’re on the left and you kind of sacralize especially issues of victimization, you’re very concerned about racism, you get very concerned about groupishness, that sort of tribal loyalty.

You want to erase boundaries between groups, whereas on the right they see it as very natural and normal that people should be loyal to their families, their teams, their companies, their nations.

So conservatives tend to endorse virtues related to group loyalty much more than do liberals.

Tavis: The second of those three big ones that you referenced a moment ago following loyalty is authority.

Haidt: Mm-hmm. If you see a bumper sticker on a car that says “Question Authority,” you know that they’re not on the right. Authority is an automatic virtue on the right and they have a point that you have to have institutions and authorities that keep order in society.

On the left, people are very wary; again, about those authorities being oppressors, they’re more egalitarian. So the left tends to be more reflexively anti-authority, and this played out in a lot of the older culture war, the one going from the ’60s through the ’90s, where should teachers be able to spank, should parents be able to spank, all that stuff. Those were culture war issues around authority.

Tavis: The last of these three and the last of the six is sanctity.

Haidt: That’s right. On the religious right and religious people in general have the feeling that the world is not just material, the world is not just there for us to do what we want with. That our bodies, things have an immaterial essence, a spiritual essence that God is in all of us.

On the left, there tends to be more of a – the left nowadays is very secular, so biomedical issues, cloning, euthanasia, all those issues, they’re non-issues on the left, because it’s just do whatever most reduces suffering.

But on the right there’s more a feeling that you shouldn’t mess with certain things, there are certain lines we shouldn’t cross.

Tavis: So this book, now that we’ve laid out these six moral themes, the book really is about – “The Righteous Mind,” the name of the text, is really about these psychological origins of these divisions.

So again, now we’ve laid out what the themes are. Tell me more about these psychological origins of these divisions that we have.

Haidt: Sure. So my early research – I’m a social psychologist, and my early research was on how people make moral judgments. When I entered the field in 1987, everybody was looking at moral reasoning – how do kids reason about a moral dilemma? Should a guy steal a drug to save his wife’s life?

But I was seeing that people are going by gut feelings. People are reacting really quickly to whatever they hear, and then they’re making up all kinds of stories afterwards. But the stories they tell are not the causes of their judgment.

So that got me looking into moral intuition, and I’ve been studying moral intuition for about 25 years now. I work with an anthropologist named Richard Shweder, who developed ideas that led me to say those six foundations we talked about before.

So I started looking at how cultures vary, how nations vary in their moralities. I worked in India and Brazil. Then in 2000 and then 2004, when the Democrats lost those elections, the elections that many people thought they should have won, I started realizing, you know what? Left and right in this country are like different nations.

That’s when I started measuring what people say on surveys, looking at their behavior, and finding that there’s this very clear left-right difference. The left tends to focus on care primarily, backed up by concerns about fairness and liberty, whereas the right has a much more even set of concerns across all six of those moral foundations.

Tavis: So if Barack Obama is right, that there are no red states or blue states, there are only the United States of America, if we’re all raised in this same country under this same flag, and we all seem to care about certain things – say, for example, the issue of poverty that you raised earlier – how is it then that we end up seeing the way forward on these issues so dramatically different?

Haidt: Well, it would be nice to believe that there’s no red states and blue states, but there quite obviously are. Even in the same state – take New York, where I live now. You’ve got some very liberal parts. I live in Greenwich Village; I’m at NYU this year. But most of the state is more rural and more conservative.

So we’re not really one nation. We have some things in common, but we have created these kind of moral communities. The metaphor that I use is, for viewers who have seen the movie “The Matrix,” the matrix is a consensual hallucination.

Left and right in this country have become these closed worlds, sort of like gated moral communities, which are like “The Matrix.” So either you’re raised with a lot of respect for authority and patriotism, love of the Founding Fathers, or you’re raised with a sense that there is racism out there, there is oppression, and the good fight, the good life, is one that fights for the rights of the oppressed. I think we’re not really raised in one moral community.

Tavis: When you argue in the text essentially that Republicans are voting their moral self-interests when they go to the polls, why is that true of Republicans and not Democrats? Aren’t we all, to some extent, voting our own moral self-interest?

Haidt: I think there’s a lot of misconception about what voting is really about. There’s a kind of a naïve view that people are selfish and they vote for what gets them the most money or most stuff. Democrats have, for a long time, since Reagan, been very concerned.

Well, why is the White working class especially, why are they voting against us when we’re going to give them more programs? So there’s a long line of thinking what’s the matter with Kansas, but if you talk to these people, if you talk to the people who you’d think their material interests would be on the left, they don’t want to live in the kind of country that the left is promoting.

They resonate much more to the Republican Party, and I think the reason is because the right makes its appeals grounded on all six foundations. There’s a feeling of a strong nation, strong families, respect for authority, tradition, God, all those things.

Now, is a conservative person voting against their self-interest if they prefer that nation to a nation that’s just focused on social justice, on helping the poor? There’s a lot to be said on both sides, but nobody’s really voting for their self-interests.

People are voting for the kind of country they want to live in, and there are different views about what kind of country we should have.

Tavis: We’re talking around the edges; now let me go right at it. Help me understand, then, the psychology behind the thinking of, say, the Tea Party.

Haidt: Sure. So I’ve argued that the key idea for the Tea Party is really the idea of karma. The Tea Party, of course, is a mixture of libertarian and social conservative people. It’s a diverse movement. I wouldn’t want to characterize it too precisely.

But as I see it, the central theme that they’re concerned about is the Hindu notion of karma – that is, karma’s this Indian idea that there’s a kind of a law of the universe that – a kind of a moral law – that if you do something bad, something bad is going to happen to you, and if you do something good, something good will happen to you.

This is sort of like the Protestant work ethic – if you work hard, you’re going to succeed. If the government comes along and pushed by liberal elites, is the story, if the government comes along and starts saying, “You know what? You failed. Maybe you were lazy. Don’t worry – we’re going to give you a welfare check. We’re going to bail you out. We’re going to pay. Don’t worry, you can be irresponsible. We’ll help you.”

That is in a way repealing the law of karma. So I think the Tea Partiers, their moral anger – I don’t think it’s a selfish movement, I think it’s a moralistic movement, a moral movement, a reaction to what they see as the growth of the welfare state, which undermines the love karma.

So I think the Tea Party is really mostly concerned about fairness. They don’t hate all government programs. They’re fine with Social Security. They don’t like government programs that they think give to the unworthy.

Now, where I think the right is incorrect is that they endorse this notion of karma, but the Hindu notion of karma was invented precisely to explain why people are born into poverty through no fault of their own.

So if you’re using this notion that oh, well, people get what they deserve, if you use that to justify why people get sick and why people are dying in the gutter in India in the past, well, then you’re wrong.

There’s a lot of bad luck in the world. So the Tea Partiers are right to want the love karma to operate into the future, but if you use it now to say, “Well, if there are poor people, it must be because they did something wrong.”

Sometimes that’s true, but as you’ve been saying in your book tour, and reading the accounts in your book with Cornel West, usually that’s not true. There’s all kinds of bad luck in the world, and I think the right doesn’t take that into account.

Tavis: Yeah. I’ve not even scratched the surface on what is a very dense text about why good people are divided by politics and religion, but let me offer this, Professor Haidt, as the exit question. I can do this for hours; I’m so fascinated by your work.

The assumption is made here, given the subtitle, that we’re talking about good people here, and I’m not trying to demean or cast aspersion, but our politics are ugly. They are nasty. They are divisive, they are racist.

Haidt: That’s right.

Tavis: So I’m all for good people disagreeing. I think we can disagree without being disagreeable. I don’t think we have to – I don’t have a monopoly on the truth. But I wondered to what extent you think that the politics have been polluted by, quite frankly, some who are elected officials and others who are on the outside influencing the body politic. But I’m not certain that they’re all good people. I think that some people have some issues.

Haidt: Mm-hmm, and I think that’s right. So my point in the book is that we are all moral creatures. We all act to make the world a better place, we have ideals, we want things to be a certain way, and it’s not all selfish. That’s a good thing. It’s a miracle that we can actually get along with people who are not our kin, not our family.

So my argument is that people are driven by moral motives and the great enlightenment for me has been as a – I was a liberal for all my life – but learning about conservatism and realizing oh my God, they actually – as a social scientist I have to say they are wise to certain truths.

So I have a lot of respect for conservatives, especially conservatism going back to Edmund Burke. There’s a lot of wisdom on both sides, and morality binds and blinds.

Once you’re on a team, you sort of circle around your sacred objects. You can see certain things they can’t; they can see certain things you can’t. So you’ve got to look on both sides to find the wisdom.

Now, to your question is everybody out there sincere, no, absolutely not. Political parties are, what’s the word? Gangs. Political parties are interested in victory and they will do anything to achieve victory.

I try to be fair, I try to say both sides do dirty tricks, and they do. But I do think that the Republicans, and there was a recent article by Norm Ornstein, the Republicans have moved further to the right, they have been more obstructionist, especially in their use of the veto in the Senate. They’ve been more destructive. I’ve got to tell you, the last week has really shaken my ability to look on both sides in that Eric Cantor recently made some comments saying, “Well, I think 45 percent of Americans don’t pay any income tax, and maybe we should have them pay some tax, just so everybody has skin in the game.”

This, for me, is really the last straw. My suggestion for political analysis is look at what a group holds sacred, and around it you’ll find them circling. So you’ve got to find out what do they hold sacred.

On the right, okay, they hold taxes and blocking taxes, taxes are bad, taxes are evil, we can’t tax, can’t ever raise taxes on anyone. You can’t even close tax loopholes.

All right, they’re in a kind of an obsessive circle around hating taxes. So then they propose raising taxes only on the poor? They’re not going to raise capital gains taxes? They’re not going to raise taxes on millionaires who got an unfunded tax cut from George Bush?

So my view is while I have a great deal of respect for conservatism, I do not have a lot of respect for the Republican party, and I think they’re showing themselves to be not a party that’s fighting for freedom against government, but a party that’s fighting for tax cuts for the rich.

Tavis: You said a lot that I find myself in agreement with, but I particularly love – and you’ve pressed me on this, and I’ll think more about it – about the notion that morality does both bind and blind, and I appreciate you sharing that.

Haidt: That’s its function.

Tavis: Along with a wonderful text. It’s called “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion,” by Professor Jonathan Haidt. Professor, congrats on a wonderful text. Good to have you on the program. Thanks for your time.

Haidt: Thanks so much, Tavis.

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Last modified: May 8, 2012 at 3:05 pm