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.”