Haidt defines social and political topics

Richard Harris

By A Contributor

This is an important book to help us understand the divisive political and social climate in the country today. Several writers have tackled this topic in recent years but Haidt’s analysis is the most thorough, most research-based and most convincing I have read. Currently a professor of ethical leadership at New York University, Jonathan Haidt is a highly respected social and developmental psychologist who for many years has studied the psychology of moral beliefs.

To his credit, Haidt is upfront initially in saying he has long been a Northeastern political liberal but through his studies has learned that conservatives also have some important insights. His treatment is fair and balanced, by no means a Republican-bashing piece. I hope people of all political persuasions will take time to carefully consider his arguments.

Initially puzzled, as many of us were, why so many people vote in ways clearly against their own economic interests; for example, poor people voting for a party stubbornly refusing to increase taxes on billionaires. Haidt argues that people at heart vote in ways consistent with their moral values.

As many psychologists have pointed out in recent years, in everyday human thought intuition comes first and careful strategic thinking second. Our first reaction to an ad, politician or someone we meet at a party is an emotion-driven first impression, not a reasoned considered evaluation. The author distinctive contribution to this claim is the argument that a big part of these first reactions come from our moral foundations.

Haidt identifies five basic moral foundations that are important to people’s personal values. First, care and protection from harm involves showing compassion and kindness to others, especially those smaller, weaker or in distress. Second, fairness involves cooperating with others and acting with justice and responsibility in relationships with others. Third, loyalty involves cohesive cooperation and group pride and identity, even to the point of self-sacrifice. Fourth, authority involves respecting and deferring to our superiors and acting responsibly within social hierarchies.

Finally, sanctity involves avoiding contamination and maintaining purity. We all bring these five moral foundations to bear when we respond to others, particularly in domains we care deeply about, such as politics and religion.

Although all five foundations are part of most everyone’s moral system, some of them are more important than others for different kinds of people. The first two foundations, care and fairness, are the predominant moral values for political and theological liberals, within many societies.

However, conservatives hold to all five axes, with loyalty, authority and sanctity increasing in importance the more conservative one is. Haidt presents behavioral and survey data from numerous societies worldwide to support these arguments. For example, liberals see support for gay marriage as helping a persecuted group achieve justice, while conservatives see that as threatening to traditional religious sanctity and social and gender hierarchies.

Not surprisingly, the full picture is more complex and Haidt does not shy away from exploring those complexities. Sometimes liberals and conservatives interpret the same moral foundations differently.

This is most striking for the second foundation of fairness. One of the two central moral pillars for liberals, it is also important for conservatives but in a different way. While liberals see fairness as compelling us to care more and share more with those who have less, conservatives see fairness as making sure everyone has a chance to succeed and to keep the fruits of their labors.

This can help us explain the stubborn divide over tax policy in the current contentious political debate.  Liberals see a few people having way more than they need or perhaps even deserve, while many scrape by on much less, and they want to help the less fortunate.

On the other hand, conservatives see proposals to disproportionately tax the rich as unfairly taking from those who have worked hard and should be allowed to keep the fruits of their labors. Thus both positions make sense and are highly moral, just not using the moral foundations in the same way.

It is impossible to do justice to Haidt’s arguments in a short review. In fact he lays out his core arguments in the first half of the book and one could get the essence of his thinking by just reading that far.

However, the richness of his arguments and the compelling research support from many societies makes an impressive package.

Clearly Haidt would like us to get along better. Although he does not offer as much to specifically help in this regard, the understanding of how our moral foundations drive our attitudes is a very important first step in helping us understand each other. This is an important book for both liberals and conservatives to read and ponder.

Richard Harris is a Manhattan resident.

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