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How Science Explains America’s Great Moral Divide

Researcher Jonathan Haidt delves into the psychology of red state/blue state, and offers hope for reconciliation
Jonathan Haidt



Daniel Addison

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.

Cook: We live in a deeply divided time. I wonder what in your book you think offers the most hope for getting past that?
Haidt: Ultimately, the solutions to our polarization and political dysfunction will be legal and institutional changes which reduce the power of extremists in both parties, and which force the parties back to their traditional strategy of competing for the middle, rather than the strategy, used since 2004, of pleasing one’s own base. We need more states to adopt open primaries and non-partisan redistricting, we need to reduce the role of the Senate filibuster, reduce the role of money in elections… a variety of things like that, which my colleagues and I discuss at www.CivilPolitics.org.
But before there will ever be bipartisan public support for such measures, we have to get over the demonizing – the idea that my side is completely right and the other side is evil. We can compromise with opponents, but not with enemies that we think are evil. My highest hope for the book is that people who read it will see that the other side is just as much motivated by moral concerns, and they'll see that those concerns are not necessarily crazy. Each side cares about different threats to our nation which the other side largely fails to see. So far, emails I get from readers tell me that this is working: People don't move to the center after reading the book, but they seem to get less angry at the brother-in-law whose politics they once found repugnant.

Cook: Can you explain what you mean by the "hive," and what promise this holds? 
Haidt: For the last half of the 20th century, the dominant idea in the social sciences was that people are selfish. Economists thought that people were only out to maximize their self-interest, political scientists believed that people voted entirely for their self-interest, and biologists told us that we were driven by selfish genes, which make us generous only when it will help our kin or our reputations. Self interest is of course a very powerful force, yet it leaves out our deep and passionate desires to be part of a group, to lose ourselves in something larger than ourselves. It leaves out so much of the psychology of religion and self-transcendence.
This is why I say that one of the basic principles of moral psychology is that we are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee. Most of our social nature is like that of other primates – we’re mostly out for ourselves. But because our evolution was shaped by a few hundred thousand years of intense group versus group conflict, we are also very groupish. We are descended from groups that had fine-tuned mental mechanisms and cultural rituals for binding themselves together into communities able to work together, suppress free riders, and achieve common ends. When we do these things we are more analogous to bees than to chimps. But for us, it's just temporary. We have brief collective moments, and we can do great things together in those moments, but eventually, self-interest returns.

Cook: And, if I may quote one of your chapter titles, "Why can't we disagree more constructively?"
Haidt: We humans are really good at forming groups to compete, and then dissolving the groups and reforming them along different lines to compete in a different way. Two people might be teammates at work, but competitors on Saturdays in an intramural soccer league, but sing in the same church choir on Sunday. Such shifting teams are normal and healthy. American political parties used to be shifting coalitions of interest groups.
But what's happened in the last 30 years, ever since the Southern conservatives left the Democratic Party and joined the Republicans, is that we now have a perfect sort along a single omni-present axis: liberal versus conservative. The Congress is no longer a check on the executive, as the founders had intended. Rather, a bright line runs through the middle of congress, and through the Supreme Court. The members of each party in all three branches of government are one team, united to fight the other. And the same bright line runs through so many of our institutions, and even neighborhoods.

When the two teams are stable, and when the people on each team really are different from each other, in personality and in values, the lines harden and it’s hard to avoid demonizing the other side. Their beliefs are a threat to everything our side holds dear, so we can't compromise with them. Why even bother listening to them? All they do is lie, to cover up their true motives. This is why my goal in the book is not to get people to agree, it's to get people to stop the demonizing. My hope is that readers will find it easier to disagree more constructively, and therefore easier to negotiate, compromise, and coexist.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.

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