Haidt: Conservatives Understand Human Nature Better Than Liberals

This is an excerpt from the interview of Jonathan Haidt by Bill Moyers.   Farther below is the entire transcript of the interview of Haidt by Stephen Colbert. In both interviews Haidt said that conservatives understand human nature better than do liberals.  Emphasis added.

JONATHAN HAIDT: When I began this work, I was very much a liberal. And over time, in doing the research for my book and in reading a lot of conservative writing, I’ve come to believe that conservative intellectuals actually are more in touch with human nature. They have a more accurate view of human nature.

We need structure. We need families. We need groups. It’s okay to have memberships and rivalries. All that stuff is okay, unless it crosses the threshold into Manichaeism. So I think that it would be very difficult to run a good society without resting much on loyalty, authority and sanctity. I think you need to use those.

BILL MOYERS: But it seems to me that liberals, progressives are more in touch with the nature of the social order. I had an anthropology teacher at the University of Texas who had spent five years amongst the Apaches in West Texas for his graduate work.

And he used both their example and the example through ages of saying, through the long history of human beings, we have accomplished more by cooperation, than we have by competition. And it seems to me that’s the truth that progressives or liberals or whomever you want to call them see that conservatives don’t.

JONATHAN HAIDT: But cooperation and competition are opposite sides of the same coin. And we’ve gotten this far because we cooperate to compete. So you can say that liberals are more accurate or in touch with how the system works. But I would say they’re more in touch with some aspects of how systems go awry and oppress some people, ignore other people. Liberals see some aspects of where the social system breaks down. And conservatives see others. You have to have consequences following bad behavior. That is as basic an aspect of system design as any. And that’s one where conservatives see it much more clearly than liberals.

This is a transcript of the interview of Haidt by Stephen Colbert.

COLBERT: Welcome back everybody. Thank you so much. My guest tonight has written a new book: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion. It’s the perfect passive aggressive to give that idiot across from you at Thanksgiving. Please welcome Jonathan Haidt.
Thanks so much. Mr. Haidt, thanks so much for coming on.

HAIDT: My pleasure. Thank you.

COLBERT: Allright, alright. Let’s get right down to the heat of the meat. You’re a professor of social psychology at the University of Virginia?


COLBERT: Allright, pretty impressive. You got a new book here called The Righteous Mind, as I said, Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion. Well, politics and religion are are are places where we find our certainty. Those are, ah, in religion you have your faith. You know your faith is the correct one. In politics… (audience laughter).. you do. In politics you pick your side and you fight it out until election day. And then you fight it our forever after that. Why should we not be divided in this way?

HAIDT: Well, what the book is about is where morality comes from and what it does to us. It’s kind of amazing that we can actually cooperate with people who aren’t our kin. And the way we do it is because we form these teams, these tribes, these hives, and then we sort of circle around sacred objects and we sort of lose sight of the truth. We’re total focused on just being part of the team and fighting the other side.

COLBERT: You say that we make snap judgements about the other side, ok, that’s called….

HAIDT: Intuition.

COLBERT: The gut. It’s called the gut. OK. I make gut judgements about people, then later I figure out a mental justification for that gut judgement. You say that people do that all the time.

HAIDT: mm hmm (nodding)

COLBERT: So what what are we saying about each other left and right?

HAIDT: Um, well, we use our reasoning just to basically figure out the worst possible story we can tell about the other side. And since now we can all watch cable new shows where we just, conservatives can just watch conservatives and liberals can just watch liberals, so we tell the most toxic nasty stories that we can. And, uh, it might work great for getting the team together but it’s pretty bad for the nation.

COLBERT: But don’t we tell the truth as we know it?

HAIDT: mm hmm (nodding)

COLBERT: Because I’ve got my truth…

HAIDT: mm hmm (nodding)

COLBERT: …and then I insist that it be your truth. Because if it wasn’t, you know, if I wasn’t doing that how true could it be to me? Because inherent in my belief is not just that I’m right. Almost more importantly is that you are wrong.

HAIDT: mm hmm (nodding)

COLBERT: And if I allow for a moment that you could possibly be right I’m totally wrong.

HAIDT: mm hmm (nodding) That’s right. So if you’ve seen the movie The Matrix. The Matrix…

COLBERT: Of course. Of course.

HAIDT: The Matrix is a consensual hallucination. And, ah, people have to get together, they create this moral order in which they all live, and they get this absolute certainty, and yeah, if they let in other people who violate the matrix yeah it’s going to all dissolve around them.

COLBERT: Are you saying that you know Kung Fu?

HAIDT: (Laughing). Well social psychology is pretty powerful, yes.
(audience laughter and applause.)

COLBERT: Why do you want to, why as a social psychologist do you want to study the behavior of politics and religion?

HAIDT: Um, I don’t study the politicians themselves but I do study why people vote one way or another. Why they believe things that seem to be contradictory. Um, ah, that’s…

COLBERT: What do you mean contradictory?

HAIDT: Um, whenever one side comes out and says something people on the other side say “Oh yeah? Well, you know, if they say this, they say they want to cut taxes here, but then why do they want to raise taxes there? Um, we’re all very good at that because basically we evolved to be lawyers. We’re all really good at just arguing a case, and if we have to contradict ourselves so bit it.

COLBERT: We all evolved to be lawyers?

HAIDT: mm hmm (nodding)

COLBERT: So if we evolved to hate ourselves?

HAIDT: (laughing, nodding)

COLBERT: So do you propose a solution here or are you merely identifying a disease?

HAIDT: Well I’m identifying a disease but in a sense it’s the normal human condition. But..

COLBERT: So wait, a wait. If it’s normal, is it worse now than it’s ever been? Because we’ve always been fighting, apparently.

HAIDT: That’s right. Politics is always hard ball. Politics is always rough. But nowadays its gone from hardball to a knife fight.

COLBERT: Has this ever this bad?

HAIDT: Yes. Late nineteenth century there was a thing called the Civil War. We did not get along very well then. I’m not sure what our excuse is now.

COLBERT: Right right right right, yeah. That was a tough, that was a tough time in congress.

HAIDT: (laughing, nodding)

COLBERT: But here’s, here’s my problem. And this is why I made a snap judgement not to trust you. And I think I understand why. I’ve now come up with a mental reason why I didn’t. Is because I think that I have, I have a moral compass, all right? And I aa, you know, my pole star is my beliefs, and you’re asking me to question my moral compass when passing judgement on other people.

HAIDT: What I’m asking is for you to just recalibrate it every now and then.

COLBERT: Well that’s not in my belief system. (audience laughter) Are you a liberal or conservative?

HAIDT: I was a liberal my whole life until I started writing the book. And then while trying to explain conservatives to my fellow liberals, I’m a professor, ah, while trying to explain conservatives I realized actually conservatives see a lot of things that liberals can’t see. They actually have a very good understanding of human nature. Now this is not to say that the Republicans are right. Actually the Republicans are the cause of the problem in Washington, but if you step back I actually think that conservatives have a more accurate view of human nature than do liberals.

COLBERT: So if, if you, if you were a liberal, and now you can sort of see a point of the conservative side, um, I’m here to tell you that’s a liberal idea.

HAIDT: (laughing, nodding)

COLBERT: Well, Jonathan Haidt thank you so much for joining me. The book is The Righteous Mind, we’ll be right back.



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