Jonathan Haidt is concerned, like many Americans, with the way our country has become divided and increasingly unable to work together to solve looming threats. Yet, unlike most Americans, he is a psychologist and specialist on the origins of morality. A few years ago, he began to wonder what he might do, and the result is a book, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.” In it, Haidt examines the roots of our morality, and how they play out on the stage of history. What he offers is not a solution to the red-state-blue-state problem but a different way to think about it — and a modicum of hope. Haidt answered questions from Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.
Cook: Why did you write this book?
Haidt: I got interested in the American culture war back in 2004, and it’s one of the only growth stocks I’ve ever invested in. I began graduate school in the late 1980s, and my goal was to understand how morality varied across cultures and nations. I did some research comparing moral judgment in India and the USA. But as the culture war between left and right was heating up, and as the two parties were completing their 30 year process of segregating into a pure liberal party and a pure conservative party, I began to see left and right in this country as being like different cultures. The Righteous Mind is a report of what I've found. Or rather, the middle part of the book is on politics. But I wanted to put it all into the broader context of what morality is, where it comes from, and how it binds us into teams that then make us unable to think for ourselves.
Cook: I am interested to know what you made of the two political conventions, from the perspective of the book?
Haidt: I was mostly struck by how much the culture war has shifted to economic issues. These days it’s fought out over the three moral foundations that everyone values: Care/harm, Fairness/cheating, and Liberty/oppression. The Democrats say that government must care for people, and that government programs are necessary to make America fair – to level the playing field, and give people the basic necessities that they need to enjoy liberty, especially education and health care. George W. Bush once called himself a "compassionate conservative," but Republicans in the Tea Party era don't talk much about compassion. For them, government is the cause of massive unfairness – taking money from taxpayers (the "makers" and "job creators") and giving it to slackers and freeloaders (Romney's "47 percent"). Government is seen as the principle threat to liberty. The private sector is much more trusted.
This is a huge shift from the period between 1992 and 2004, when the culture war was fought out mostly between social conservatives, particularly the religious right, and the secular left. It was fought out primarily over the three moral foundations that we call the "binding" foundations, because they bind people together into tight moral communities: Loyalty/betrayal (for example, issues of patriotism and flag protection), Authority/subversion (for example, respect for parents, and whether parents and teachers can spank children), and Sanctity/degradation (which includes most bioethical issues pitting the sanctity of life against a more harm-based or utilitarian ethos). This older culture war re-emerged briefly with Rick Santorum's turn in the spotlight, but then it faded away. The Republican Party in particular has changed, and the moral arguments made in this Republican convention were very different.
Cook: Do you think there are lessons in this book that could help the two political parties, or politicians, be more effective?
Haidt: Yes. Once you start thinking about what each side holds sacred and you know the moral foundations that underpin their policy positions, you can do a better job of targeting your moral appeals. And most importantly, you can do a better job of avoiding land mines. For example, it was foolish of the Obama administration to insist that religious schools, hospitals, and other institutions must pay for birth control for all employees. This was extremism in defense of one of their sacralized issues – women's rights—and it led them to pass a rule that would have forced many Christians to violate some of their sacred values. But it's not as if those institutions were stopping women from using birth control. The issue was just whether religious institutions should pay for birth control in health insurance policies. It's like forcing synagogues to buy pork lunches for their non-jewish employees. It triggered outrage, and fed into the long-simmering idea that the Democrats are conducting a "war on religion."
Conversely, the various Republican bills forcing women who want abortions to get a medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasound—same thing in reverse. In defense of their sacred value (right to life, protect every fetus), they legislated that doctors would have to harm and degrade their own patients. This triggered outrage and fed into the long-simmering idea that the Republicans are conducting a "war on women." So I think my book will help both sides avoid committing "sacrilege" by stepping on sacred values so often, and I think it could help them think more clearly about how to reach the other side.