Peter Wehner on Jonathan Haidt

Righteous MindSome of you are familiar with Haidt‘s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. He argues that ethical judgments “arise not from reason but from gut feelings.” Over at The Atlantic, Peter Wehner has an extended piece based on an interview with Haidt.

Here is a taste:

In 1992, Haidt received his Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he encountered several professors who had interesting things to say about morality that, he said, “set me up to think about a much broader moral domain.” But it was the years immediately following Haidt’s time at the University of Pennsylvania that were transformational. He spent two years at the University of Chicago working with Richard Shweder, an anthropologist, who was his postdoctoral research adviser. Shweder has a motto: If someone asserts it, try denying it and see if that makes sense. If someone denies it, try asserting it and see if that makes sense. “It’s a great way to overcome confirmation bias and to try on new ideas,” Haidt told me. “Richard Shweder in particular just blew my mind wide open.” The experience “really changed me and prepared me to step out of my prior politics, my prior moralism, my prior self-righteousness.”

While he was at Chicago, Haidt received a fellowship to study morality in India. In September 1993 he traveled to Bhubaneswar, in the Indian state of Odisha, where, among other things, he learned the power of rituals and of a commitment to religious purity as a way to knit communities together. While in India, Haidt “really tried to understand a culture very different from my own, and in the process, for the first time, I was able to look at evangelical and conservative Christianity not as a force hostile to me as an atheist, a cosmopolitan, and a Jew, but as a moral community striving for certain virtues—and I could understand those virtues and I could respect those virtues. It was that combination that really drained me of my anger and hostility and, I think, helped me to just listen to people and try to map out what [they are] aiming for. What are the virtues they’re trying to instill? What is the vision of the good that they are pursuing? Without that period, I don’t think I ever could have written The Righteous Mind or been of much use in studying a culture war.”

And this:

In preparation for teaching a graduate seminar in the spring of 2005 on political psychology, Haidt read an introductory essay by the historian Jerry Muller in a book Muller edited, Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought From David Hume to the Present. All of a sudden, a whole new world opened up. Haidt discovered that conservatives had some important insights to offer on human nature, the value of institutions, and the importance of moral capital. He felt conservatism offered an important counterbalance to the excesses of progressivism. He also came to appreciate the pedigree of conservatism, from the writings of people like Edmund Burke in the 18th century to Thomas Sowell in the 20th. (Haidt told me he considers himself to be a centrist, engaging with views from multiple sides in order to understand issues. But he’s a centrist who only ever votes for Democrats, because he thinks the Republican Party has been in a state of moral and philosophical decline for many years.

Haidt laments the state of contemporary American politics, believing that on both the right and the left we’re seeing populism that responds to real problems but in illiberal ways. “On the right,” he said, “the populism there is really explicitly xenophobic and often explicitly racist … I think we see strands of populism on the right that are authoritarian, that I would say are incompatible with a tolerant, pluralistic, open democracy.”

Read the entire piece here.