Jonathan Haidt Knows Why We Fight

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

Who is Jon Haidt?

A nice Jewish boy from central casting, he grew up in Scarsdale, N.Y. His father was a corporate lawyer. “When the economy opened out in the ’50s and ’60s and Jews could go everywhere, he was part of that generation. He and all his buddies from Brooklyn did very well.”

His family was liberal in the FDR tradition. At Yale he studied philosophy and, in standard liberal fashion, “emerged pretty convinced that I was right about everything.” It took a while for him to discover the limits of that stance. “I wouldn’t say I was mugged by reality. I would say I was gradually introduced to it academically,” he says today.

In India, where he performed field studies early in his professional career, he encountered a society in some ways patriarchal, sexist and illiberal. Yet it worked and the people were lovely. In Brazil, he paid attention to the experiences of street children and discovered the “most dangerous person in the world is mom’s boyfriend. When women have a succession of men coming through, their daughters will get raped,” he says. “The right is right to be sounding the alarm about the decline of marriage, and the left is wrong to say, ‘Oh, any kind of family is OK.’ It’s not OK.”

At age 41, he decided to try to understand what conservatives think. The quest was part of his effort to apply his understanding of moral psychology to politics. He especially sings the praises of Thomas Sowell’s “Conflict of Visions,” which he calls “an incredible book, a brilliant portrayal” of the argument between conservatives and liberals about the nature of man. “Again, as a moral psychologist, I had to say the constrained vision [of human nature] is correct.”

That is, our moral instincts are tribal, adaptive, intuitive and shaped by evolution to strengthen “us” against “them.” He notes that, in the 1970s, the left tended to be categorically hostile to evolutionary explanations of human behavior. Yet Mr. Haidt, the liberal and self-professed atheist, says he now finds the conservative vision speaks more insightfully to our evolved nature in ways that it would be self-defeating to discount.

“This is what I’m trying to argue for, and this is what I feel I’ve discovered from reading a lot of the sociology,” he continues. “You need loyalty, authority and sanctity” — values that liberals are often suspicious of — “to run a decent society.”


In his book, for instance, is passing reference to Western Europe’s creation of the world’s “first atheistic societies,” also “the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have very few).”

What does he actually mean? He means Islam: “Demographic curves are very hard to bend,” he says. “Unless something changes in Europe in the next century, it will eventually be a Muslim continent. Let me say it diplomatically: Most religions are tribal to some degree. Islam, in its holy books, seems more so. Christianity has undergone a reformation and gotten some distance from its holy books to allow many different lives to flourish in Christian societies, and this has not happened in Islam.”

Mr. Haidt is similarly tentative in spelling out his thoughts on global warming. The threat is real, he suspects, and perhaps serious. “But the left is now embracing this as their sacred issue, which guarantees that there will be frequent exaggerations and minor — I don’t want to call it fudging of data — but there will be frequent mini-scandals. Because it’s a moral crusade, the left is going to have difficulty thinking clearly about what to do.”


  1. Faze says:

    So who’s to say that liberal global warming activism isn’t the beginnings of a new religious sensibility that will develop its own forms of sanctity, loyalty and authority? Seems to be well on its way. It is not the content of these attributes that matters so much as that the society has and observes them. From a functionalist standpoint, it shouldn’t matter if a society worships Allah or Gaia, as long as there are rituals, beliefs and codes that a majority acknowledge and approve.

  2. Jon says:

    Faze: “So who’s to say that liberal global warming activism isn’t the beginnings of a new religious sensibility that will develop its own forms of sanctity, loyalty and authority?”

    Let’s say global warming is real and dangerous and based on the laws of physics. Whether you call doing something about it “religious” or whatever, what does it matter, if it’s real and dangerous?

  3. Irene Mauri says:

    I live in a country in which society developed its own forms of sanctity , loyalty and authority based on Marxist ideology and it lasted for 50 years. Now my country does not exist, my people / who believed the most in communism / is almost exterminated, my language is outlawed , my people*s history is written by those who believe in Allah / and never bought communist crap for real / . I forgot to say , once / before communism / we were Christians ready to die for cross. Now we are atheists , ruled by Muslim elite.

  4. Anomaly UK says:

    Jon – that’s a really good question, but a very hard one that I don’t know the answer to.

    The equivalent question for me is, since I have concluded that absolute hereditary rule is the best form of government, where do I stand with respect to Christian Monarchy?

    My current position is to associate my proposals with the trappings of traditional monarchy, while eschewing explicit divine-right arguments. I’m far from certain this is the best route though — am I encumbering my arguments with a self-contradiction, in the shape of archaic principles dependent on a religious justification which I deny? Would it be better to clearly base my political argument on a purely rational foundation, without comic-opera distractions? Or, alternatively, to go the whole hog and explicitly claim for my preferred regime a divine sanction in which I don’t genuinely believe?

    I take the compromise path because the problem I am addressing, of good government, is fundamentally a collective action problem, and the power of ritual and tradition is intrinsically part of my proposed solution, and not merely a means of reaching it. For you, if you believe in catastrophic anthropogenic global warming, the fundamental problem is physical, and the collective action problem, though daunting, is an obstacle to the physical solution, not the fundamental problem itself.

    I would imagine that would tend to discourage you from promoting a mystical or ritual aspect of your cause, particularly given that climate prediction is a hard enough scientific problem without confusing the issues with religious considerations.

    On the other hand, perhaps you are one of those that sees the fundamental problem being the tragedy of the commons — the need for collective action to preserve the environment in general, with CAGW as just one particular concrete instance. You could even believe that cloud feedbacks might be negative, but that that would only mean some other form of self-destruction lies in wait for us. If so, you and I are effectively in the same boat. (Indeed, others have already argued that democracy is incompatible with environmental sustainability). You might advocate a pseudo-religious form for the same reason I do, as a tool for generally more effective collective action. Note that my ideal political development would, as it happens, put my country into the hands of an outspoken and committed environmentalist.

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