Interview: Jonathan Haidt on Social Conservatives, New Atheists and Civility in Politics

In his new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Religion and Politics, Jonathan Haidt, a social psychology professor at University of Virginia, argues that our intuitions come before our reasoning and our reasoning is usually a post-hoc justification for those intuitions. As a result, humans do a horrible job at understanding those with whom they disagree.

Haidt's research uncovered six moral foundations that are innate to human nature: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity and liberty.

  • Care is sensitivity to the suffering and need of others.
  • Fairness is sensitivity to reciprocal altruism and makes us want to punish cheaters.
  • Loyalty is the need to form and maintain coalitions. It rewards team players and seeks to ostracize those who betray the group.
  • Authority is sensitivity to signs of rank or status, and to when someone is not behaving according to their status.
  • Sanctity initially evolved as a revulsion toward objects that would make us sick, via pathogens or parasites, but also came to include an appreciation for the sacred -- some objects would be designated a special position in society. Sacred objects help bind moral communities together.
  • Liberty is sensitivity to signs of attempted domination or oppression by others.

Liberals, Haidt found, mostly pay attention to just three moral foundations -- care, fairness and liberty. Conservatives, though, especially social conservatives, pay attention to all six. As a result, Haidt argues, liberals have to work harder to understand conservatives than vice versa. Haidt also believes that conservatives have an advantage in elections because they are better equipped to speak to all six moral foundations.

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In a Monday interview with The Christian Post, Haidt spoke more about those topics as well as gay marriage, President Barack Obama, his own atheism and the "New Atheists." Here is an edited transcript of that conversation:

Haidt: I was just looking at []. I see lots of connections. Lots of moral psychology in action.

CP: You wrote that you hope the book will make conversations about morality, religion and politics more common, civil and fun. How do you think you've done?

Haidt: Much of what my book is about is how easily we fall into team versus team conflict. And while teams are often good -- teams help us cooperate and do things together that we can't do alone -- when inter-group conflict rises above a certain level of intensity, it becomes very disruptive. And that's where we are nationally in the battle between left and right.

It's gotten much more polarized in the last 20 years and that's where we are to some extent in the battle between the secular left and the religious right, or more specifically, the New Atheists who raised the volume, or raised the demonization level of the debate. So I'm hoping not to change people's minds about the truth, but to tone down their demonization of the other side.

CP: We've had a good example this past week with the arguments over the gay marriage question. When you see the gay marriage debate taking place, what do you see through the lens of moral psychology?

Haidt: When it emerged in the 1990s, it was very heated, very emotional and, of course, it still is. Here, I'm just reading an editorial on [], "The Battle for Marriage: Imagination, Culture and Politics," by Eric Metaxas, who, I think, is correct in saying there has been an enormous change with shows like "Will and Grace" that made people comfortable with homosexuality and has removed a lot of the emotional impact.

My colleagues and I at, a website where we collect a lot of data, found that feelings of disgust do play a significant role in people's attitudes about homosexuality and gay marriage over and above their political identification. So anything that reduces the disgust is going to reduce the opposition to it. I think that has been happening. I think the historical trend is clearly increasing emotional acceptance and, therefore, increasing political acceptance.

CP: You're saying that gay marriage is becoming more acceptable because of that emotional acceptance that needed to come first?

Haidt: That's right. One of the three principles in my book is that intuitions come first, strategic reasoning comes second. Twenty years ago, most people had some visceral emotion to homosexuality. I have evidence that liberals more so than others will ignore their disgust. Liberals will say, "that's kind of gross, but that doesn't mean it's wrong." Liberals distrust their disgust. Conservatives go with it more often. For example, the somewhat conservative philosopher Leon Kass has a famous phrase, "the wisdom of repugnance." So, feelings of repugnance come first and then they often drive our reasoning. If the repugnance lessens over time then the reasoning will change too.

CP: For most of the book, you want people to better understand why they hold different views on religion and politics and learn to get along better. But chapter 8, "The Conservative Advantage," reads like a strategy paper for the Democratic National Committee on how to get Democrats elected.

Haidt: [laughs] Well, it is true that I first got into this whole line of research because I was a liberal back then and I was shocked at how poorly the Democrats framed moral argument. So it is true that I first started studying political psychology with an eye towards helping the Democrats. But over time, I came to see that many conservative ideas are actually correct from a sociological perspective. It was in writing that chapter that made me finally realize that I was no longer a liberal. I handed that chapter to my wife to proofread, she's my first editor, I said to her, "Jane, I don't think I can call myself a liberal anymore."

It is true that I think Democrats can benefit from reading that chapter because it is about where they are most clueless. But my goal in the chapter isn't to help the Democrats. It's to help people on the left to understand what they're missing because the left fails to understand the right much more than vice versa.

CP: How have Democrats responded to that notion that they need to work harder to understand Republicans than Republicans need to work to understand Democrats?

Haidt: Nobody has contacted me for advice, so all I can say is the reaction I've seen on the Internet. People on the left seem to like the book and say, "Hey, liberals need to read this book so we can do better." And conservatives seem to like it because they say, "See, we're not stupid and crazy after all." Liberals hope to find political salvation through the book, and conservatives seem to find some validation.

CP: You say you're no longer a liberal. Do you call yourself a conservative now?

Haidt: No, I don't. My view is that left and right are like yin and yang. There's a quote I have in chapter 12 from John Stuart Mill, but this is really my credo: "A party of order or stability and a party of progress or reform are both necessary elements for a healthy state of political life."

The big breakthrough for me was, once I stopped disliking conservatives and could actually see what they were right about, they showed me a lot of things that liberals were wrong about. But at the same time, I think there are some things that liberals are right about that conservatives have trouble seeing.

Social reality is so complicated that, once you join one team or the other, you become specialized in detecting certain patterns, but you become blind to other patterns.

CP: You say that if Democrats learned to speak the language of all six moral foundations it would help them win elections. If they were to embrace all six moral foundations, would their policies become more conservative?

Haidt: Yes. I'm not arguing for language work. I'm not saying Democrats need to start speaking this language. I'm saying the left needs to fundamentally rethink what it stands for and recognize that the right is correct about many aspects of the way society works.

So if the Democrats could back off the New Left from the 1960s and 70s, declare a victory on civil rights and women's rights, and then really rethink what they stand for now, I think that will be good for the Democrats and good for the nation. This is why I think, actually, the Democrats have not really sought out my advice, because I'm not offering them language tools for winning. I'm saying you've got to rethink what you stand for and that tends not to be a very popular message.

CP: From the other side, what do Republicans need to learn most from liberals?

Haidt: First, let me distinguish between Republicans and conservatives. As I say in the book, I think conservatives have a more correct view of human nature than do liberals. But, as I also say, I'm praising conservative intellectuals, not the Republican Party. The Republican Party is now going through a moralistic fervor akin to that which gripped the Democrats in the 70s and 80s when they were into identity politics. I think the Republican Party has circled around a few issues, especially taxes, which are in some ways counter to conservative values and bad for the country.

I think Republicans need to take income inequality more seriously. Not because I favor equality of outcomes. I do not. I think the right is correct to stress merit and earned rewards, not handouts and forced equality. But I think what Republicans are blind to is that power corrupts. Especially in a democracy in which money buys access. I think the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are correct that crony capitalism is a huge problem for our country and I think the Republicans are not sensitive enough to that.

CP: You wrote that President Obama did well in the 2008 election because he spoke to a broader range of moral foundations than most Democrats. How is he doing now, ahead of the 2012 election?

Haidt: Well, it's kind of strange that, here is a man that clearly does understand the conservative foundations. He is extremely perceptive, in part from his experiences living in Indonesia and traveling. He understands moral diversity. He understands religion and conservatives. So he was able to speak a broader moral language when he was in campaign mode, but once he got into the White House he seemed focused on "inside-the-beltway" politics and his moral discourse seems to have been more standard, social justice liberal. So I think his appeal to the middle and some portions of the right has weakened. He has not made the case that strongly.

CP: I thought it was interesting that you found that social conservatives in particular have a broader understanding of all six of the moral foundations.

Haidt: The right in America is composed of two very different groups -- [social conservatives and] what we call economic conservatives, which is a crazy name because they are really economic liberals, that is they favor freedom, they're libertarians. The libertarian and the social conservative wings are very different.

It is the social conservatives who have the broadest understanding of morality, I think. I was very influenced by Thomas Sowell's book, A Conflict of Visions, to understand the value and importance of constraint on imperfect creatures such as ourselves. This is a point that liberals just don't grasp. Many liberals are drawn to the John Lennon song, "Imagine," "imagine there are no nations, no religion too, imagine all the people living life in peace." Well, that is just parable sociology.

A wonderful book by James Ault called Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church really opened by eyes to the moral wisdom of social conservatives. The understanding, in particular, that one of the great challenges in modern life is getting men to support women and children, and secular society does a disastrous job of that.

Social conservatives are very focused on strengthening the family and I think they are right to do so. One of the worst blind spots of the left has been its reluctance to say that marriage matters for children. The left has been afraid of alienating African-Americans and feminists and therefore was afraid to say that fathers matter. They really, really do matter. Charles Murray has been one of the voices of reason on this. Sociologists are now beginning to come around to see the importance of marriage and fatherhood.

CP: Do I understand correctly that you've been an atheist most of your life?

Haidt: Yes, basically since my bar mitzvah. I was not an atheist when I read from the Torah, but about year or two later I became an atheist.

CP: Some atheists equate atheism with reason and argue that anyone who is religious is unreasonable, illogical, superstitious, etc. What's your view?

Haidt: While I am an atheist, I think it is an open question what role religion plays in society and whether religious people or atheists think more clearly. These are empirical questions.

I think the New Atheists do a very bad job of reviewing that evidence. Their argument style is polemical. It is that of a lawyer making a case and they make the most negative case possible for religion. In my book, I show that they are simply wrong. They are simply incorrect in many of their statements about religion.

Furthermore, a basic principle of my book is morality binds and blinds. If you are an atheist who treats science as sacred and you call yourself an apostle of science, then you are replicating many of the thinking patterns that you accuse religious people of having, namely, closed-mindedness, blindness to evidence, black and white thinking and attributing the worst motives to your enemies. I think all of these are clearly visible in the writings of the New Atheists.

I am a scientist and an atheist, but I don't treat science as sacred. I think the empirical facts about religion in America are generally quite positive, and I say that in my book. I'm hoping that my book will give secular people an alternative vision of religion than that offered by the New Atheists.

If the New Atheists were correct, there could be no compromise and we would be in a battle to the death between religion and atheism. But I think they're not correct and religion and atheism can coexist quite peacefully in this country.

CP: Is it through your study of moral psychology and evolutionary psychology that you gained a greater appreciation of strongly religious people?

Haidt: Absolutely. I'm a social scientist. I'm an empiricist, meaning I'm interested in what the evidence says, and the evidence, as collected in particular by Robert Putnam [and David Campbell] in his new book American Grace, the evidence is very consistent and very positive.

Had it turned out that religious people were more violent, racist and selfish, then I would agree with the New Atheists that we should try to reduce the role of religion. But, in fact, that is not the case. Religious people are more generous, more public spirited and happier. So I followed the evidence and the evidence said that religion contributes a great deal to people's lives and to our nation.

CP: Our government appears to be dysfunctional at the moment because there is so little common ground on how to deal with the significant challenges that lie ahead, such as the national debt. What are the lessons from your book that can help government function better?

Haidt: We are in very serious trouble. Polarization is not bad in itself, but when it reaches very high levels, we demonize each other, we demonize the other side and compromise becomes impossible. We leave a lot of money on the table, as it were.

Negotiation should be the art of finding win-win solutions, but if the parties are unwilling to compromise then we cannot reach solutions that let each side get what it most values. Our fiscal situation is so dire that the only solutions are to raise revenues and cut spending, but if the parties can't compromise, then we can't take either. We can't reach the kind of grand bargain that we need.

It's crucial to see that our political institutions must be changed to make them more capable of responding, despite the polarization, and to do what is possible to reduce the demonization and polarization. There's some simple changes to the way we run elections, to the way the Senate operates, in particular the excessive use of the filibuster, and to the role of money in campaigns, in particular the disastrous Citizens United [v. FEC (2010)] ruling, which is going to greatly ramp up demonization because all that money is spent on negative advertising.

So we're in big trouble as a nation and I think things are going to get worse before they get better. I have some specific suggestions at, a website I run with some political scientists. We try to make sense of what's going on and what might work to improve it.

CP: Anything else you would like to add?

Haidt: One of the things I would like to emphasize is that the New Atheists do not really speak for science. They are, in my view, a kind of scientific fundamentalist fringe group. There are some of us, a growing number I think, that are following the evidence about the benevolent effects of religion in society.

CP: I appreciate your time.

Haidt: Thanks for giving me the opportunity to address a Christian audience. I'm so locked away in my secular, liberal world and I so rarely get to talk to anyone other than secular liberals in the mainstream media.

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