‘The Righteous Mind’: Why Liberals and Conservatives Can’t Get Along

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Although ongoing budget negotiations, gun policy debates and any number of other topics reveal the polarization between U.S. Democrats and Republicans, a Pew study last year confirmed that partisanship has risen sharply. In the face of that trend, is it possible for Democrats and Republicans to get along? Wharton professor Philip Tetlock recently spoke with Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, to explore this question. Haidt breaks down why it is so hard for liberals and conservatives to understand one another, and what can be done to change that.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Philip Tetlock: We are here to talk with Dr. Jonathan Haidt from New York University about his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. It’s great to have you here, Jon.

Jonathan Haidt: Thank you, Phil. It’s great to be here at Wharton.

Tetlock: One of the big questions your book wrestles with is: Why is it so hard for liberals and conservatives to understand each other? Why is it?

Haidt: The very nature of morality — the big thing that it does that isn’t sufficiently appreciated — is that it binds us into groups that can do things in the world. In the animal kingdom, the only time you get cooperation is pretty much kinship. You get pairs of individuals occasionally. But elsewhere in the animal kingdom, it’s just family. Human beings have this incredible capacity to come together in groups and do big things. When you look back at the early history of cooperation, you always find temples, gods, religion — people circling around sacred objects that bind them together. But at the same time, it blinds them; they can’t think for themselves, or they become partisan, and they become members of the group.

Each country has its own particular battle. Liberals and conservatives are bound around different sacred principles, and they absolutely cannot understand each other. They are forbidden from understanding each other, lest they be kicked out of their tribe.

Tetlock: You published the book last year. Has anything happened to change your mind?

Haidt: Since publishing the book, not really. The book has gotten a good reception — right, left, center, libertarian — except on the far left. Some people on the far left hate it, and the new atheists hate it. But those are groups that I criticize in the book, so that’s not surprising. I changed my mind a lot while writing the book. When I started writing the book, I still considered myself to be a partisan liberal. I began shifting over from just studying morality across cultures to studying morality across political cultures, as though they were different nations. I started that after the 2004 John Kerry loss to George W. Bush, and I wanted to just grab Kerry and the Democrats by the lapels and say, “Don’t you know how to make a moral argument? Why do you keep appealing to self-interest and saying, ‘My policy will do more for you.’ Can’t you make a moral argument?”

I got into the political psychology business originally to help the Democrats. Along the way, in really trying to get inside the head of people from different moralities, I came to see that each side sees certain truths, insights and threats that they are right about.

Tetlock: You have been on an ideological journey of your own. Is it possible for people to change their minds?

Haidt: Yes. All you have to do is study morality for 25 years and try to write a book in which you state the other side’s case sympathetically. It should be possible.

Tetlock: I ask the question about the possibility of changing your mind because you do embrace in the book a fairly strong version of the moral intuitionist theory of how people work through puzzles of this sort. Could you say a few words about what moral intuitionism is and its implications for our capacity to change?

Haidt: That’s right. A dominant thread in the history of philosophy is irrationalism, the idea that we are, or at least could be, reasoning creatures. If we can cultivate our reason, then we will rise above the fog of emotions, see the truth. We can talk to each other, and we will find truth. My book is a sustained argument on that. I side very much with David Hume, the 18th-century Scottish philosopher who said that reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions. What I believe the empirical evidence from psychology shows is that our reasoning tends to be post-hoc. Our reasoning about moral issues tends to be something we do after we already know which way we want to go, and we send our reasoning out like a press secretary. The president sends the press secretary out to say, “Justify this position.” He doesn’t say, “Go look at the notes about how we came to this position and explain that to the people.” He says, “Justify this position using whatever arguments you think would be most persuasive.” That’s the way our reasoning is. This is why we are so good at giving each other reasons, but then the other person doesn’t change their mind and we think, “Well, they must not be sincere. This is a great argument. Why aren’t you changing your mind?”

The trick to changing people’s minds is to first get them leaning your way. First make them see a conclusion, feel it. Think about Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It is a kind of argument, but it’s an argument couched in metaphors and soaring rhetoric. It opens your heart first, and then the metaphors can get in, and then you see the logic of it. I believe quite a lot in the importance of reason for persuasion — [only] it has to be reason that follows intuition, not excludes it.

Tetlock: If you were president of the United States right now, what would you do to encourage more civil dialogue between liberals and conservatives that the current President is not doing?

Haidt The number-one top priority for this country is political reform, to get our politic institutions working better. Everyone agrees that Congress has gotten much, much more polarized since the 1980s. There are a lot of reasons for that. The people have gotten a little more polarized. There is plenty that we could do as citizens, but the real problem is the dynamics of one institution in particular: the U.S. Congress. There’s a group called NoLabels.org which has a great set of solutions. We all know that we need campaign finance reform, and we need electoral reform. These things are going to take 10 or 20 years if we ever get them at all. They have some simple fixes, the most important of which is to change the legislative calendar back to the way it was before Newt Gingrich, with Washington in session for five days a week and then off for one week a month. When Newt Gingrich came in, he told the incoming freshmen, “Don’t move to Washington.” Prior to then, they all lived in Washington. They served on committees together on school boards, or their wives or spouses did. They knew each other. They knew each other’s kids. They had personal relationships.

Now think about it: What do politicians excel at? They are warm, incredibly socially skilled people. That’s how they got into this business. They are able to make deals with each other. That’s their great skill. You take an institution that has trouble as it is, that has all these divided powers as it is, and then you say, “Let’s separate the two sides, so they no longer know each other. No friendships. They don’t ride on the same little buses or little train cars underneath the Capitol anymore. There are separate cars for each. Let’s end all personal relationships, and now have them work out difficult issues.” It can’t be done. That’s where we are.

There are a lot of simple fixes to Congress that would go a long way toward getting it to work better. If Congress wasn’t so polarized, that would dampen down the messages through all the polarized media that we all have to hate each other and that the other side is going to destroy the country.

Tetlock: Jon, at the end of chapter four of your book, you write that no one has ever invented a business ethics class that has demonstrably changed the behavior of the students after the classroom experience. Now, at NYU Stern, you have begun teaching business ethics. Why?

Haidt: Well, because they asked me to, and I couldn’t say no. And because I made it sound hopeless in the book. I stand by that: A single standalone course meeting twice a week for a semester can’t put ethics into people’s heads so that when they go out into the work world and they are faced with requirements or pressures to do something — falsify something, hide some information from a customer — they are going to remember their ethics class and say, “Oh, but this is wrong.” There’s no evidence that that can happen. The evidence in social psychology about the power of simple situational pressures is so overwhelming that I don’t think an ethics class can really do that much.

What I’m hoping we can do at Stern is make the class just a part of a two-year process in which we are socializing them into professionalism. What does it mean to be a business professional? When students first show up at Stern, like students all over the country at every school, there’s a period of openness where everyone is trying to figure out how they should be — what’s cool, what’s the right way to be successful here? We teach our ethics class in the middle of the second year. It’s way too late. They already know how to be a Stern student. What we’re trying to do is get a lot more of the content into the very first week, move the intensive class into other parts of the first year and then get some of the content in every single class where we’ll discuss norms of professionalism.

Even more important than that, because I think that we’re so limited in our ability to behave ethically in the face of situational pressures, I want to teach our students how to do ethical systems design, how to take all the flaws and weirdnesses of human nature and work with them to design organizations and startup companies where people are always concerned about their reputation. People are concerned about reputation even more than money in most cases. How can we set things up so that people will, in a sense, guard their reputation by doing the right thing? That’s the most important single principle.

Tetlock: Do these liberal/conservative differences that are so pronounced in the political sphere manifest themselves in the domain of business ethics? Are there some aspects of ethics that are trans-ideological and other aspects that polarize people just as political issues do?

Haidt: Yes. Some of the core issues are things like fiduciary duty. You have an obligation to people who are hiring you to do a job, to fulfill a contract, to put their interests first. I don’t see any partisan difference there. Other issues, like corporate social responsibility, are clearly partisan issues. One of the hottest topics in business ethics is how can we get companies to honor or maximize the triple bottom line — not just the financial bottom line, but also social benefit and ecological benefit. Obviously, this is going to appeal to students on the left and not on the right.

I don’t know of issues that would appeal more to students on the right. Conservatives tend to focus more on personal responsibility. Liberals tend to focus more on victims and the poor. But the core of the course seems to be non-ideological.

Tetlock: So the Friedmanite libertarians, for example, tend to view any deviation from fiduciary responsibility to shareholders as a form of de facto theft. That’s a strong position. Have you come across that position?

Haidt: Yes. I read the article where Milton Friedman lays that out. It’s a very persuasive case. If we truly had efficient markets in which there were no externalities, in which there was no despoiling of public goods, in which there was perfect information and people weren’t allowed to deceive and cheat, then I think the Friedman argument would work. I believe Friedman is very aware of that and wasn’t saying, “Oh, just maximize shareholder, value no matter what the situation.”

If we had such good markets where companies couldn’t be foisting costs onto unsuspecting victims, then there would be a lot to be said for it. But we don’t have such a system. Government regulation is necessary to achieve much of that. That’s what things are so polarized about. What’s the role of government? Do you have a maximal view in which government has to restrain the corporations? Or do you have a minimal view in which government is the problem, and the more we can shrink it down the freer business will be to create value?

Tetlock: You don’t see very many companies overtly endorsing the Friedmanite position. Virtually all companies I’ve come across seem to endorse some form of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Has that been your experience also?

Haidt: Sure, but most people are in favor of motherhood and apple pie. They have to say something. There’s no cost to saying it. I would want to know how much they put in the way of resources toward backing that up. I would be surprised if it was uniformly the case or overwhelmingly the case that companies are sincerely committed to CSR.

Tetlock: Let’s circle back to the press secretary metaphor that you used earlier when describing moral intuitionism. Are you able to distinguish what fraction of the embrace of corporate social responsibility is purely press secretary posturing as opposed to genuine internalization of a moral priority?

Haidt: I don’t know how to do that. The main thought I’ve had so far, in my one year at the Stern School of Business, is that whatever you want to say about business, it varies a lot by sector. Companies like Nike or Starbucks or Google, which greatly prize their reputation with consumers and have a tremendous cache because of that reputation, are really susceptible to boycotts and public criticism. They care about their reputations. Especially when their feet are held to the fire, they really do make a sincere commitment to corporate social responsibility.

Companies that don’t face consumers — from reading Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the big agribusiness companies, for example — I would be very surprised if they took corporate social responsibility seriously. There is not much economic incentive for them to do it.

Tetlock: Cycling back again to the press secretary metaphor, which is really an intriguing one, you have the President of the United States and you have his press secretary, and the press secretary is there to explain and defend what the President does. He’s not a policy maker, per se. He’s a secondary justification function. That’s quite explicit. But yet you are optimistic about attitude change within a moral intuitionist framework. It would be as though the press secretary were telling the President what to do as opposed to the President telling the press secretary what to do.

Haidt: If you look at it as an individual, we are all so flawed, and we are all so bad at reasoning when our interests or our moral values are at stake. We are not going to get better at reasoning and change just by helping individuals to reason better. When you put us together into networks, systems, companies, juries and legislative bodies, we can correct each other’s flawed thinking. The big problem is the confirmation bias. We are all so good at confirming what we want to believe. If there are other people out there to disconfirm it and we have no relationship with them, we just hate them and disagree with them. But if they are members of our company, if they are friends, if they are fellow scientists, [it is different]. This is why it is so important to have ideological diversity in the sciences, because if everybody shares certain assumptions and there is nobody there to question them, then you get bad reasoning.

I’m a big fan of thinking about institutions as ways to put people together in ways that correct for, or cancel out, our flaws. We see plenty of moral change over time. It’s not because of logic. If you look at, for example, civil rights or interracial marriage, these were disgusting to many people in America 50 years ago. But over time, the attitudes change. It’s not because of arguments; it’s because you get used to it.

There is a lot of research now on gay marriage: Why are attitudes about gay marriage changing so fast? It’s not because people suddenly understood the arguments that were made back in the ’80s. It’s because people saw Will & Grace. It’s because in the 1980s, most gay people were in the closet. But since 5% of all people are gay and now they are mostly out of the closet, suddenly everybody knows seven gay people, and a lot of people have a gay person in their family.

When you get used to something, it loses its shock value, it loses disgust value and now you are just much more open. Moral progress is possible. If you take an intuitionist view about how you have to get the intuitions right first, you have to speak to the elephant, as it were, not the rider. Get the elephant going the right direction, then the rider will come along. That’s what’s happening on gay marriage.

Tetlock: You might have a problem with mixing metaphors here. You have elephant and rider; we have president and press secretary. I’m fixated on president and press secretary at the moment. The press secretary might come back to the President and say, “I can’t sell this anymore. The reputational cost to you, Mr. President, is just too great. You’re going to have to change.” That would be one feedback mechanism.

Haidt: Exactly.

Tetlock: Or the press secretary might quit.

Haidt: That’s right. That happens. When Hume said reason is the slave of the passions, that’s too strong a metaphor. A slave doesn’t talk back to its master. That is why I like press secretary or lawyer. A lawyer does his client’s bidding, but he can say, “Excuse me, Sir, I will do this if you insist, but this is a losing case, and you will look bad. It is my fiduciary duty to advise you.” There are feedback mechanisms like that. Again, we’re seeing that on gay marriage and other issues. In certain social circles, people would feel ridiculous arguing for things that they could easily have argued for ten years ago.

Tetlock: Your book has been widely read and widely praised. What is the best critique you have seen of your position?

Haidt: One critique is that I’m pretty critical of liberals and I’m not critical enough of conservatives. I think that’s true. When I wrote the book, because I had been thinking so much about what liberals don’t see about conservatives, that’s what I specialized in. I really tried to help liberals. The only people I meet are liberals, and the people that mostly read these books are liberals, so I was kind of addressing liberals. I should have said some of the things where I think conservatives are wrong.

One of the main ones is that while liberals are too quick to try to take apart the law of Karma, conservatives act as though the law of Karma is actually true. That is, people who are suffering now are suffering because of something they did in the past. That is sometimes true. Liberals want to stop bad behavior from leading to bad consequences. That’s a bad thing to do. Society decays when you don’t have swift punishment. Liberals have a complete ban on blaming the victim, which means they can’t figure out a lot of social facts. But conservatives are a little too quick to blame victims and to not see how disadvantage can accumulate and lead to a downward spiral. I do wish I had been more evenhanded in my criticism and praise of both sides. I do praise both sides.

Tetlock: The concept of deservingness plays a pivotal role here in producing ideological divergence. You’re suggesting that conservatives believe too much in the concept of deservingness and liberals not enough?

Haidt: No, deservingness going forward is a great idea. A lot of people realize this — as I did — when they become a parent. Of course, I will never spank my child, but you want to be loving and gentle, and you discover that you get a bratty kid. What my wife and I found very quickly was when we used the one-two-three magic method — when he’s misbehaving you say, “That’s one; that’s two; that’s three; time out” — boy, do you get behavior change. It’s automatic. Quick, rapid punishment doesn’t have to be severe.

A lot of our liberal friends are trying to reason with the kids. They don’t want to impose power. They don’t want to punish. They say, “Was that a wise choice or a non-wise choice?” Over and over again conservatives stand up for equity. That is, if you do something bad, you should be punished. If you do something good, you should be rewarded. In fact, I show some signs in the book and in my talks from the Tea Party: “Stop punishing success. Stop rewarding failure.” That’s about as direct a plea for the law of Karma as you could have.

Liberals, in contrast, have a sign, “Tax the wealth, fair and square; how can they let us go hungry?” See? If there are people who are hungry, well of course, the rich should pay more taxes; we need to be equal. Liberals value equality. If you push for equality, that often requires you to violate equity. We see that in affirmative action and we see that in Title 9, which mandates almost equal outcomes in sports, so that all of our schools are desperate to try to get women into sports and they are trying to push men out. They don’t have enough money to pay for the men. We don’t have equal access to sports in a lot of our schools because Title 9 is an effort to get equality of outcomes. Conservatives are livid about that and liberals think, “Oh, well. Why isn’t there equality of outcome? It must still be sexism.”

Tetlock: You are able to weave together these conflicting strands of argument in a very sophisticated, integratively complex way. But most people don’t think that way, right?

Haidt: If you are a partisan, you cannot think that way. The press secretary tends not to say, “Well, on the one hand, the Republicans are right about this. But the Democrats are right about that.” If he does that, he’s fired. If you’re partisan, you cannot think in an integrative way. Your research shows that the further you are out to the extremes, the lower integrative complexity tends to go on most issues.

Most Americans are not that extreme. Most Americans will put themselves on one side or the other, but they are not that extreme. Our political life is dominated by more extreme elements bolstered by the media, which has a business model that also does not cater to integrative complexity. We’re bathed in arguments from people who are not integratively complex. It takes some doing, some seeking, some effort to find ideas on the other side. When you do, that to me has been the great enlightenment. I’m very familiar with liberal ideas. I’ve been reading them my whole life. When I started reading conservative ideas about social order, about the value of tradition, about how easy it is to lose social order, they really struck me as a revelation. Same with libertarian ideas.

For example, this is such a simple formulation I heard the other day. A libertarian philosopher, David Schmidtz, said a free market society is a giant game in which you win by making other people better off. That was such a simple and clear description of the way libertarians see the free market and how free markets really do encourage us all to create something that other people want and will pay money for, and then we are all better off because of it.

Tetlock: Insofar as you believe the country would be better off, we would be better off both as individuals and as a society if more people could think in these more integratively complex ways. What specific things can be done, educationally and politically, to induce that? As we conclude, it would be useful to work through the most specific suggestions you have for how we can get out of this quicksand we seem to be in.

Haidt: Let’s break it up. Let’s look at what can we do as individuals and in education. There’s a line from one Shakespeare play, “First, kill all the lawyers.” That’s not what I’m recommending. It is: First, kill all the math classes beyond algebra. Stop wasting so much of our students’ time learning math. It’s not useful, it’s not helpful. Teach them more civics. In those civics classes, teach them history of liberalism, conservatism. Teach them ideological history. Get them prepared to treat these long intellectual traditions with respect.

Second, teach them statistics. Cut the calculus. Sure, if students want to take it, fine. But everybody should learn statistics. That actually helps you understand the data that’s coming in from the social sciences and other places. Even in high school, we can do a lot more to prepare our students for citizenship, not for 19th-century notions of an exercised brain that can do math and Greek.

In our universities, it would be nice if we could have more open and honest debate and be a little less sensitive about people claiming hurt feelings. Our universities should be places of debate and discussion. Our culture is so litigious and has fostered the idea that everybody has a right to not have their feelings hurt. This is a bad thing. This means we never get to talk with people who differ from us. We run away from such discussions. There’s a lot we could do to help our thinking.

But we need to all become more integratively complex to get better outcomes. Our political institutions could put together simple-minded thinkers in ways that get integratively complex outcomes as long as they don’t demonize. That is the key. I’m not out to change people’s minds and move everybody to the center. I’m out to make people stop demonizing the other side, to say, “I disagree with you. You and I disagree about the right way to help the poor” — or whatever the issue is — “but I see that your side is sensitive to certain threats that my side doesn’t see very well.” I would urge viewers to go to AsteroidsClub.org, the website I started. That helps people see that each side perceives asteroids coming toward the earth about which the other side just has its head in the sand and it won’t even acknowledge. There is a lot that we can do to stop demonizing and come to at least respect our intellectual differences.

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