Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist and leadership ethics professor at the NYU Stern School of Business. He conducts research investigating moral intuitions and the role they play in politics and society. His latest work, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, is a New York Times Bestseller.
The Politic: In your book, you argue that appealing to different moral intuitions may lead to success for a candidate. How does this theory play out in the current presidential election? Do you think that the candidates appeal to all of people’s moral intuitions?
No, this election is very different. From 1992 through 2007 the cultural war was over authority, loyalty, and sanctity. It was issues like abortion, prayer in school, flag burning, corporal punishment — it was all the social conservative issues. But in 2009, the social conservatives had to temper their agenda to form an alliance — a stronger alliance — with the libertarians. Since the financial crisis, those social issues have been really in the background; it’s been mostly economic issues, which are still moral issues. But now it’s an argument over different understandings of fairness and liberty.
The Politic: Do you think President Obama is successfully appealing to people’s moral intuitions?
In general, yes, I think Obama is much more skillful than either Kerry or Gore, and he’s been very careful to avoid the standard liberal appeal. The standard liberal appeal is: we need to raise taxes on the rich because the poor are suffering and there’s so much inequality.
Those would be the two main buttons than most people on the Left would want to push. But President Obama, I think, knows that that’s not going to work, and he rarely mentions equality. He really is trying to justify his policies in terms of proportionality — this is the conservative understanding of fairness. If you look at his “You didn’t build that!” speech, it’s an argument for higher taxes on the rich because they received benefits and now they need to pay for them. So, Obama, I think, has been trying to avoid left-wing moral framing and be more of a centrist who tries to appeal to conservatives.
The Politic: Do you think there’s a way he could appeal to people’s moral intuitions more successfully?
The one thing that he has never pushed on and should have is the shared sacrifice button. He talks about how we’re all in this together — “I am my brother’s keeper” — then he never says, “And therefore we all have to sacrifice, we all have to pull together.” What he says is, “We’re all in this together and therefore the rich have to pay more in taxes.” He inherited a gigantic financial crisis and a gigantic deficit, and the Republicans are right that entitlement spending has been out of control since the 1960s, so I think the thing to do is — well, I can’t comment on specific political strategy — but, from a moral perspective, maybe the argument [should be] that we’re in big trouble, that we’ve all got to give, that there are going to have to be some cuts to benefits, that there are going to have to be increases in taxes. The benefit cuts are going to fall more on the poor, the tax increases are going to fall more on the rich — in the long run we have to do both in order to save our country. This is what the Simpson-Bowles commission said; this is what any nonpartisan observer knows. But Obama has never called for shared sacrifices; he’s always said he will protect the bottom 98 percent.
The Politic: How has your understanding of moral psychology influenced your political views?
Studying politics and studying the moral matrix of liberals and the moral matrix of conservatives has made the moral matrix of liberals dissolve around me. I’m now not on any team; I’m not in either party; I’m not in either camp. 50 percent of any matrix is BS, is imaginary stuff that blinds you to real threats and problems and opportunities. So studying moral psychology has made me sort of fall off the liberal bus and now I see both sides as being right about some very important issues. That’s not to say that the Republican Party is just as sane or insane as the Democratic Party. Right now the
Republican Party is much more insane. But compare the Republicans now to the Democrats in the ‘70s. The Democrats in the ‘70s were morally insane and they pulled back from that; this is the Republicans’ period to go insane.
The Politic: Do you think that “debiasing” efforts could be useful in politics in order to reduce partisanship?
No, there is no evidence that debiasing works. You cannot debias individuals. What you can do is set up political institutions to minimize the effects of those biases. And that’s something that the Framers had intended — they intended a series of checks and balances among the different branches and within the different branches. Unfortunately, now we have one giant line that runs through all of our institutions, and it’s the Left-Right line, so the liberals in congress are allied with the liberals in the Supreme Court are allied with a liberal president—that’s one team. There’s no check or balance there anymore.
The Politic: Do you have any practical suggestions for a way to help alleviate the effects of cognitive biases in political discussion?
Yes. The main fixes are going to have to be institutional. I have a website at civilpolitics.org where we discuss some of these. There are about ten to fifteen different fixes that will reduce the benefits of extreme partisanship to the players. Political actors are very savvy; they make do with what works, and over the last 20 years as the public has gotten more polarized, as the center has shrunk, there are more and more benefits to appealing to the base. There are a number of fixes we can do that will make that less beneficial, that will make instability and hyper-partisanship less profitable. There’s a group, nolabels.org, that has very good suggestions, and there’s a wonderful book called The Parties Versus the People by Mickey Edwards. Those are two sources of very good ideas. Also, there are things that individuals can do. I hope that everyone in America will read my book and then be nicer to their brother-in-law at Thanksgiving who holds opposite political views.
The Politic: You speak in the book about how some people have more of an individualist nature and some people are more group-oriented, and that perhaps this is an East-West divide. First, do you think that one of those two possibilities is more in line with human nature; and second, do you think it can be changed — if someone was brought up in an individualist society can they shift to see themselves as part of a group?
The normal or default way of being is more group-ish. But human nature is very flexible, and WEIRD culture has arisen over the last 200 years (that is, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic). So, if we American secular individualists can do this, then it is within the scope of human nature. But it is not the default. There are sensitive periods to human development, and if a person is raised in a more group-ish or collectivist setting through their mid-twenties,
I think it would be hard to change. But certainly, with a child — you see this with Asian Americans — those who are raised in Asia are very, very different from those who grow up entirely in the United States. So there are sensitive periods, certainly, and human nature has quite a range of potential. I’m not saying that individualism is a bad thing— it just makes it harder to get people to come together or cooperate sometimes.
Daniel First is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. Yuval Ben-David is a freshman in Silliman College.