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On Being

There’s a superb podcast of an interview of Jonathan Haidt by Krista Tippett at the web site of On Being, with Krista Tippet. I highly recommend it.

Listen here, or read the transcript here.

A few ideas came to mind as I listened.

1) Haidt says “Diversity is generally divisive and it has to be managed.” (Diversity is discussed starting at about 35:50 of the Podcast.)

This is a concise statement of one of the core wisdoms of the founders. It’s a recurring theme of The Federalist Papers. The management of diversity is one of the objectives of the Constitution. It’s one of the reasons the Founders separated the power of government into three branches and set them against one another. (Another reason is to prevent the consolidation and concentration of government power, which is the enemy of liberty).

It’s also, I’d argue, a core wisdom of conservatism, and a natural result of the balance or tradeoff between the individualizing and binding foundations.

2) One of the greatest products of Haidt’s life’s work is a concise, elegant answer to the questioner who asked for working definitions of liberal and conservative (at about 38:20 of the Podcast). I’m flabbergasted that he didn’t offer it to her.

Liberalism is the “personality type – [the] way of moving through the world” that rests on care, fairness, and liberty, but mostly just care.

Conservatism is the way of being that rests on all the foundations in equal balance.

Practically everything else about liberalism and conservatism follows from these definitions. They are eye opening. No, mind opening. For anyone who understands them the mystery of where the other side is coming from is solved. Describing liberalism and conservatism in terms of “openness,” reactions to change, fusion restaurants, etc., as Haidt does is a tired cliché, a stereotype, which sheds little if any new light and instead plays straight into the liberal narrative about liberalism and conservatism; Namely, that liberalism is “enlightened” (another word for “open,” and a euphemism for “progressive”) and by contrast conservatism is dogmatic, closed minded, backward, unimaginative.

3) The answer to the question “What do we do about these echo chambers? What does your science teach you?” is similarly at his fingertips. He eventually does get to it, for which I am thrilled. (the subject of echo chambers starts at about 40:47) I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, but I’d love to hear him expand it to something more like this:

The answer is that we “tune up” our children to the virtues and ethics of ALL the foundations in the early years of their public education, and then later on when they’re ready for abstract thought they’ll also be ready to address the foundations and the three principles explicitly in their schoolwork. In other words, apply the approach Haidt used in his book to the arc of our childrens’ educational careers.

Venues like On Being offer perfect opportunities to offer these suggestions, and to plant the seed of the idea of 3) in the elephants of all who attend, and to tip the first dominoes on the path toward answering “Yes” to “Can we all get along?” It’s not a pipe dream. It can be done.

4) Judging by many of the questions he is asked during the Q&A portions of his talks, including at On Being where the authority of Lincoln vs. Hitler was brought up (starting at about 29:44 of the Podcast), it seems that liberals struggle with finding possible good in the binding foundations. It seems they can’t get their heads out of the ingrained paradigm that authority/loyalty/sanctity = forms of oppression = bad.

In his book Haidt describes the moral foundations in terms of the adaptive challenges and opportunities they are likely responses to.

Might it not help to remind such people of the “opportunities” part of the challenges and opportunities that created the binding foundations? The positive psychology behind them? The virtues and ethics that result from them? Social capital? The increased effectiveness a group can have when commonality, binding, is stressed and diversity is diminished? The parochialism? Haidt does a better than usual job of this at On Being, but it sure would be nice if this emphasis were a regular part of his standard talk.

And might it not also help to open their minds if he were to suggest that care is not always an unalloyed good? That too much of a good thing can be a bad thing? (e.g., pathological altruism). This too seems to be something liberals have a tough time fathoming, if it comes to mind at all.

Moral foundations are tools, and just as with hammers or screwdrivers, they can all be used to help and to harm. This concept seems to be a challenge to liberals, who tend to be blind to the possible harm of the individualizing foundations and to the possible good of the binding ones. As does the concept of the trade-offs, the balance, between individualizing and binding that are not only necessary but in fact unavoidable, given human nature. These cognitive challenges seem to follow from the fact that the liberal moral universe starts and ends with individualizing.

Haidt’s work shows that conservatives do not suffer from converse cognitive challenges. Conservatives generally don’t have the equivalent problem of fathoming the individualizing foundations or their benefits. After all, those foundations are half of conservatism. Conservatives are aware of the things liberalism gets right. But unlike liberalism, conservatism sees other things as well. If you listen closely enough to conservatism’s response to the liberal moral universe you’ll hear something along the lines of “Yes, care, empathy, compassion are all important, fair enough, but it’s not that simple, there’s more to it than that.”

I had the pleasure of attending a talk Haidt gave at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics. In reference to the image of three people of different heights standing on boxes (or not) looking over a fence (or not), a liberal stood up and asked with a straight face something to the effect of, “But can’t we say, objectively, that the liberal version of that image is right (or measurably better)?” Haidt’s typical answer to such questions is usually some form of “no you can’t say that” because, as he said at On Being, “both sides are right.”

To their credit it seems that many liberals who ask these sorts of questions are grasping to answer “Can I believe it?” in the positive. It is my observation, my sense, my reading of the vibe in the room, that Haidt’s answer is unsatisfying. The questioners remain as perplexed after his answer as they were before they asked the question. One can almost see on their faces the unspoken question, “But…..why?” They need more help in overcoming the cognitive challenge than Haidt is giving them.

I suggest that his audiences would become more un-perplexed if, rather than leaving them hanging with “both sides are right” he also answered their implicit follow-on question of “Why?” If he gave some examples that reinforced the positive psychology, the opportunities, that the binding foundations were designed by evolution to take advantage of, if he told them why there’s more to it than just binding, where “it” is morality, ALL of it, by his definition, and the role the binding foundations play in it, then there’d be far more “Aha, I get it” moments on the part of the questioners. And isn’t that what he’s really after?

Yes, he does sometimes mention the value and importance of social capital, and that the individualizing foundations alone are insufficient for creating and sustaining human society. But he don’t always, and often when he does it’s almost in passing, or as half of his claim that “both sides are right,” or as descriptors of conservatism but little beyond that.

But aren’t these findings about human nature and about the necessary ingredients of human society every bit as descriptive of the positive psychology of human nature and of the anthropology of human society, and therefore every bit as relevant and important to the advancement of our understanding of the human condition and of our efforts to improve our circumstances, as the three principles and the six foundations are to understanding the factions of liberalism and conservatism that exist within that society? And therefore shouldn’t his findings about human nature and human society be emphasized just as much as his findings about liberalism and conservatism?

This is partly why I’ve said that Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory potentially explains far more than even Haidt suggests. It explains not just liberalism and conservatism, but the ingredients and workings of human nature and human society itself.

To this all-foundation brain these ideas seem practically self evident lessons of his work and of other empirical evidence, and thus a source of frustration that he seldom speaks them and instead stops at just explaining liberalism and conservatism.


2 thoughts on “On Being

  1. I’m sorry about the mystery. Maybe one day that will change. But for the time being my feeling is that prudence requires a “wall of separation,” so to speak, between my avocation of this blog and my real-life vocation.

    I am flattered by your idea about the panel. Thank you very much. It sounds fun…and scary. Fun because in the interactions I’ve had with Dr. Haidt he has been kind, generous, patient, and welcoming; scary because I’ve never been part of a panel discussion in public.

    That said, if the opportunity were to arise I’d probably take it and discover along with everyone else whether I sink or swim.

    You’ve opened my mind to the possibility, so thanks again.


    Posted by The Independent Whig | June 19, 2014, 3:16 pm
  2. Your identity is a mystery, but have you ever considered being on a platform with Jon? The conversation would be between two people who have a broad understanding of moral foundations, but one person whose sensibilities are conservative and the other liberal. You should ask him what he thinks.


    Posted by Susan Quinn | June 19, 2014, 2:00 pm

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I Support Viewpoint Diversity


A politically diverse group of social scientists, natural scientists, humanists, and other scholars who want to improve our academic disciplines and universities. We share a concern about a growing problem: the loss or lack of “viewpoint diversity.” When nearly everyone in a field shares the same political orientation, certain ideas become orthodoxy, dissent is discouraged, and errors can go unchallenged.

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