I have received many emails from readers which exemplify or reject one or more of the six moral foundations. I recently received the text below, which is the most forceful rejection of the Authority foundation that I have ever read. I post it here, with the author’s permission, and without comment, as an example of an anti-authority ethos. I have edited it only to preserve the author’s anonymity.
Dear Mr. Haidt:
I am currently reading your book, The Righteous Mind, and this is my response to what I have read so far.
I am living proof that conservatives’ and liberals’ values are worlds apart.
In your anecdote [on p. 142] about the Jordanian taxi driver who planned to return to Jordan to rear his child because he never wanted to hear the child tell him to fuck himself, you said that few American kids would actually say something so “awful” to their parents, even though they might communicate the sentiment obliquely. I don’t think it would be “awful” for them to do so at all. I think that any adolescent who does not on occasion tell his parents to fuck themselves (whether explicitly or obliquely) is in need of assertiveness training. I have been chatting with a man who grew up in the Bible Belt. He said that his father had still whipped him when he was in his late teens. I said, “Why did you let him?” He said, “What else was I supposed to do?” I said, “Tell him to fuck off.” He said that he would never have thought of of doing that. I found his attitude incomprehensible. I don’t believe that the Ten Commandments were delivered to Moses on tablets of stone, and I never cease to wonder what made the ancient Jews believe that God wanted them to “honor” their fathers and mothers. If I were trying to make up a precept that made no sense, I would be hard pressed to think of a better one. Although I was good to my mother in her declining years, I would have hit the ceiling if anyone had ever suggested that I was obliged to do anything for her.
When I was a child, and someone said to me, “Respect your elders,” I always asked, “Why?” The question was not rhetorical. By what logic does youth owe deference to age? The reverse is true. Older people ought to be able to bear discomfort and inconvenience better than kids or teenagers. While I usually offer my seat on a train or subway to a child or teenager, I would not dream of offering it to an older person. I once offered my seat to a toddler. His mother took it, and I demanded that she give it back. I let her know what a pig I thought she was, too. In my view, a mother who would sit and let her child stand deserves to be spat upon. On one occasion, when I gave up my seat to a kid, I scolded a nun for not giving him hers. “What kind of miserable excuse for a religious are you,” I asked, “that you wouldn’t give your seat to this boy? Aren’t you supposed to be the servant of all?” (She said nothing. What could she have said?)
Authority in the classroom? Teachers are hired help. They are in no way entitled to deference. We give them authority to maintain order. Doing so is a service to students, because no one can learn if order is not maintained. Teachers, however, have no right to exercise authority for any other purpose. In the 1960s, when I was an undergraduate, a professor whose class I frequently cut said to me, “Mr. ____, I expect you to be in class.” I said, “Mr. Smith, you forget who’s working for whom.” I left his classroom and did not return until the final exam. He gave me a D for the course, but I valued my self-respect much more than my grade. (It was, of course, unethical for him to have graded me on the basis of anything other than my mastery of the course content; but I did not choose to do battle.)
For over a decade I have been teaching a class (part-time) to graduate students in library and information science. I am appalled by the deference that some of them accord me. A few refuse to call me by my first name, even though I call them by theirs. They say things like, “Do you mind if I miss class next week?” and “Do you mind if I turn this assignment in late?” I always say, “First, I don’t mind; and second, I don’t know why you would care whether I minded or didn’t. You pay me.” What is the origin of the idea that a teacher is an authority figure?
In 1960, when I was a teenager,, I was listening to JFK’s inaugural address and heard him say, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” I became so enraged that I ran out of the house into a snowstorm and walked around for an hour, trying to cool myself off. For years thereafter I felt a visceral hatred for Kennedy. “Why should I give a damn about what I can do for my country?” I thought to myself. “Governments exist for the benefit of their constituents.” I always snicker when I hear someone use the expression “Our country.” (I prefer to say, “This country”). I live in the United States for the same reasons that I live in [my state]– because I was born here, I’m used to living here, I have friends nearby, and–so far–I have not had any compelling reason to leave. (Rick Santorum’s election to the presidency might constitute such a reason.) I have no emotional attachment to the United States as a political entity. I think such an attachment would be irrational. By strictly rational criteria Canada would be a better country in which to live.
If I were to send copies of this message to some of my conservative relatives, however, our relationship would be damaged severely. So I won’t. We shall go on simply agreeing not to discuss politics. Therein lies the problem that you define, but a realistic solution eludes me. How can I give respectful attention to positions based on values that I find abhorrent?
Arnold Kling has a fabulous essay in The American today. Kling, a libertarian economist, read The Righteous Mind closely and has understood it perfectly. He accepts the idea that our tribal minds make it hard for us to reason well, and then he tries to figure out what we can do to improve matters. Here is a brief summary of the essay, in Kling’s own words:
What I take away from Haidt is the hypothesis that our capacity to think about moral and social problems evolved from an ability to rationalize our actions. Thus, our capacity to rationalize our moral and political beliefs is much greater than we realize; conversely, our capacity for detached reasoning about moral and political issues is much less than we realize. The fact that we rationalize more readily than we reason helps to sustain political polarization.
Political polarization is unfortunate for at least two reasons. First, there are some issues, notably the unsustainable fiscal path of the budget of the United States going forward, which require compromise.
Second, the environment for political discourse is very unpleasant. Rather than try to engage in constructive argument, partisans make the most uncharitable interpretations possible of what their opponents intend.
In the remainder of this essay, I propose some techniques to check this tendency toward extreme partisanship. I think that adoption of these would improve the atmosphere for political debate.
The first is to take opposing points of view at face value, rather than attempt to analyze them away reductively. A second proposal is to police your own side, meaning that one should attempt, contrary to instinct, to examine more critically the views of one’s allies than the views of one’s opponents. The third proposal is to “scramble the teams” by creating situations in which people of differing political views must work together to achieve a goal requiring cooperative effort.
I agree with Kling’s three proposals. I think one can accept my thesis that one’s opponents arguments are generally post-hoc rationalizations, while still accepting that these rationalizations offer moral arguments that your own side should try to understand. As for policing one’s own side: I think this would help each side in the long run, by helping it to make better arguments that might appeal to non-partisans. It’s very hard to do, especially in the thick of battle. But any team that allows terrible arguments to go unchallenged routinely discredits itself in the eyes of outsiders. Scrambling the teams is the best idea of all. At CivilPolitics.org, we believe that strengthening interpersonal relationships is among the best ways to open minds and improve political civility.
Thank you Mr. Kling!Read More
In ch. 12 of The Righteous Mind I argue that left and right are like Yin and Yang — both see different threats, push in different directions, and protect different things that matter, and that are at risk of getting trampled by the other side.
There’s an extraordinarily good and civil debate going on about my claim in the reviews of my book at Amazon.com.
It starts with a review by a conservative reader, The Independent Whig, who loves the book but argues that conservatism is already balanced — among all 6 foundations — so they don’t need liberals to provide more balance. (See Independent Whig’s full blog here.)
Two other readers–James Wagner (liberal) and SanPete (center-left?)–then go on to discuss and debate the question. This is one of the most thoughtful, respectful, and helpful discussions I’ve seen about political psychology anywhere on the internet. I’ll just post my responses to the discussion below, but please do see the discussion to see how the arguments develop.
[Response from Haidt]:
This is among the best, most constructive and civil discussions of politics I’ve ever seen on the internet. In briefest form, my responses to the discussion are:
1)Yin/Yang: I do mean it exactly as SanPete puts it, and I got the idea from the yin/yang nature of the openness dimension. It’s the idea expressed in the Mill quote in ch. 12: “A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.” Independent-Whig is right that conservatism is, in theory, more balanced. And this is why Jesse Graham and I have found that liberals have more difficulty understanding conservatives than vice versa. But in practice, no side can be so balanced that it is able to push both ways and get the balance right. As long as there is partisan conflict, each side is going to circle the wagons and push against the other side. And that is generally good: it’s like a cybernetic control system where you need a force pushing both ways. If all you ever have is Buckley’s conservatives standing athawart history yelling “stop,” then conservatives don’t end up making the changes that are needed to respond to changing circumstances, and to address the needs of the powerless, who generally to get shut out and shut down unless someone is looking out for them.
2) On why I focus my message mostly on liberals: SanPete got it exactly right: “this book is largely based on Haidt’s own experience and reflections, and since he was a liberal reacting against his own mistakes, and the mistakes he see in his profession dominated by liberals, that’s the primary perspective of the book.” This is exactly right. This is what I’ve been thinking and arguing for years. I hardly ever get the chance to meet or talk to conservatives.
3) On what liberals should do: I agree with James Wagner that liberals can “change their spots.” I think it’s hard for any particular individual to do so. But I do hope that American liberals, as a tribe, will do so. Indeed, the reason I seem so hard on liberals is that I think they changed their spots in the 1960s and 1970s in a bad way – the turn to the “New Left” led the left away from the morality of most Americans and into some positions that I think are hard to justify, morally. If we think of liberalism as a tradition stretching back to the 18th century, then I am a liberal. I want liberals to change their spots BACK to a configuration more in harmony with their grand tradition. I am confident that this will happen as the baby boomers age out of the population. I think that libertarians and conservatives all have a piece of the grand liberal tradition, and the left needs to read writers from these groups to re-discover many great ideas that they lost touch with in the 1960s.
4) On whether there is some best or correct balance: No. When nations or tribes face constant threats of attack, the liberal configuration would lead a group to get wiped out pretty quickly, so in those environments, more “binding” moralities are more adaptive. But in times of peace and prosperity, I do think human flourishing is best served by a shift in the liberal direction – thinning out the reliance on the binding foundations. I see societies as being like ecosystems, constantly in flux. There’s no obvious best setting, and we argue, as a society, over what our morals should be in each era. This is good and healthy – no one side can simply think about it and get the answer right, because each side is so limited by its confirmation biases. It can become unhealthy when we begin to demonize each other. My highest hope for the book is that it will facilitate healthier, less demonizing debates, such as this one.
Thank you!Read More
Here’s a short essay I wrote for CNN on how I went from being an angry young atheist to being a psychologist who thinks that religion was a crucial part of our biological and cultural evolution for morality.
CNN also shows this short video interview with me, done at TED 2012, on tribalism in our political lives: