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Conservatives Live in a Different Moral Universe—And Here's Why It Matters

Liberals and conservatives have highly different moral priorities. And we have to understand them if we want to accomplish anything.

| Mon Apr. 27, 2009 3:38 PM EDT

This story first appeared on Alternet.

Jonathan Haidt is hardly a road-rage kind of guy, but he does get irritated by self-righteous bumper stickers. The soft-spoken psychologist is acutely annoyed by certain smug slogans that adorn the cars of fellow liberals: "Support our troops: Bring them home" and "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism."

"No conservative reads those bumper stickers and thinks, 'Hmm—so liberals are patriotic!'" he says, in a sarcastic tone of voice that jarringly contrasts with his usual subdued sincerity. "We liberals are universalists and humanists; it's not part of our morality to highly value nations. So to claim dissent is patriotic—or that we're supporting the troops, when in fact we're opposing the war—is disingenuous.

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"It just pisses people off."

The University of Virginia scholar views such slogans as clumsy attempts to insist we all share the same values. In his view, these catch phrases are not only insincere—they're also fundamentally wrong. Liberals and conservatives, he insists, inhabit different moral universes. There is some overlap in belief systems, but huge differences in emphasis.

In a creative attempt to move beyond red-state/blue-state clichés, Haidt has created a framework that codifies mankind's multiplicity of moralities. His outline is simultaneously startling and reassuring—startling in its stark depiction of our differences, and reassuring in that it brings welcome clarity to an arena where murkiness of motivation often breeds contention.

He views the demonization that has marred American political debate in recent decades as a massive failure in moral imagination. We assume everyone's ethical compass points in the same direction and label those whose views don't align with our sense of right and wrong as either misguided or evil. In fact, he argues, there are multiple due norths.

"I think of liberals as colorblind," he says in a hushed tone that conveys the quiet intensity of a low-key crusader. "We have finely tuned sensors for harm and injustice but are blind to other moral dimensions. Look at the way the word 'wall' is used in liberal discourse. It's almost always related to the idea that we have to knock them down.

"Well, if we knock down all the walls, we're sitting out in the rain and cold! We need some structure."

Haidt is best known as the author of The Happiness Hypothesis, a lively look at recent research into the sources of lasting contentment. But his central focus—and the subject of his next book, scheduled to be published in fall 2010—is the intersection of psychology and morality. His research examines the wellsprings of ethical beliefs and why they differ across classes and cultures.

Last September, in a widely circulated Internet essay titled Why People Vote Republican, Haidt chastised Democrats who believe blue-collar workers have been duped into voting against their economic interests. In fact, he asserted forcefully, traditionalists are driven to the GOP by moral impulses liberals don't share (which is fine) or understand (which is not).

To some, this dynamic is deeply depressing. "The educated moral relativism worldview is fundamentally incompatible with the way 50 percent of America thinks, and stereotypes about out-of-touch elitist coastal Democrats are basically correct," sighed the snarky Web site Gawker.com as it summarized his studies.

But others—including many fellow liberal academics— have greeted Haidt's ideas as liberating.

"Jonathan is a thoughtful and somewhat flamboyant theorist," says Dan McAdams, a Northwestern University research psychologist and award-winning author. "We don't have that many of those in academic psychology. I really appreciate his lively mind."

"Psychology, as a field, has lots and lots of data, but we don't have very many good new ideas," agrees Dennis Proffitt, chairman of the University of Virginia psychology department. "They are rare in our field, but Jon is full of good new ideas."

An unapologetic liberal atheist, Haidt has a remarkable ability to describe opposing viewpoints without condescension or distortion. He forcefully expresses his own political opinions but understands how they are informed by his underlying moral orientation. In an era where deadlocked debates so often end with a dismissive "you just don't get it," he gets it.

Four years ago, he recalls, "I wanted to help Democrats press the right buttons because the Republicans were out-messaging them.

"I no longer want to be a part of that effort. What I want to do now is help both sides understand the other, so that policies can be made based on something more than misguided fear of what the other side is up to."

Haidt's journey into ethical self-awareness began during his senior year of high school in Westchester County, N.Y. "I had an existential crisis straight out of Woody Allen," he recalls. "If there's no God, how can there be a meaning to life? And if there's no meaning, why should I do my homework? So I decided to become a philosophy major and find out the meaning of life."

Once he began his studies at Yale, however, he found philosophy "generally boring, dry and irrelevant." So he gradually gravitated to the field of psychology, ultimately earning his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania. There he met several influential teachers, including anthropologist Alan Fiske and Paul Rozin, an expert on the psychology of food and the emotion of disgust. Fascinated by Rozin's research, Haidt wrote his dissertation on moral judgment of disgusting but harmless actions - a study that helped point the way to his later findings.

As part of that early research, Haidt and a colleague, Brazilian psychologist Silvia Koller, posed a series of provocative questions to people in both Brazil and the U.S. One of the most revealing was: How would you react if a family ate the body of its pet dog, which had been accidentally run over that morning?

"There were differences between nations, but the biggest differences were across social classes within each nation," Haidt recalls. "Students at a private school in Philadelphia thought it was just as gross, but it wasn't harming anyone; their attitude was rationalist and harm-based. But when you moved down in social class or into Brazil, morality is based not on just harm. It's also about loyalty and family and authority and respect and purity. That was an important early finding."

On the strength of that paper, Haidt went to work for Richard Shweder, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago who arranged for his postdoc fellow to spend three months in India. Haidt refers to his time in Bhubaneshwar—an ancient city full of Hindu temples that retains a traditional form of morality with rigid cast and gender roles—as transformative.

"I found there is not really a way to say 'thank you' or 'you're welcome' (in the local language)," he recalls. "There are ways of acknowledging appreciation, but saying 'thank you' and 'you're welcome' didn't make any emotional sense to them. Your stomach doesn't say 'thank you' to your esophagus for passing the food to it! What I finally came to understand was to stop acting as if everybody was equal. Rather, each person had a job to do, and that made the social system run smoothly."

Gradually getting past his reflexive Western attitudes, he realized that "the Confucian/Hindu traditional value structure is very good for maintaining order and continuity and stability, which is very important in the absence of good central governance. But if the goal is creativity, scientific insight and artistic achievement, these traditional societies pretty well squelch it. Modern liberalism, with its support for self-expression, is much more effective. I really saw the yin-yang."

After returning to the U.S., Haidt accepted a position at the University of Virginia, where he continued to challenge the established wisdom in moral psychology. His colleagues were using data from middle-class American college students to draw sweeping conclusions about human nature. Proffitt remembers him arguing "with some passion" that they needed to widen their scope.

"Jon recognizes that diversity is not just the politically correct thing to do - it's also the intelligent thing to do," he says. "Seeing things from multiple perspectives gives you a much better view of the whole."

In January 2005—shortly after President Bush won re-election, to the shock and dismay of the left—Haidt was invited by a group of Democrats in Charlottesville, Va., to give a talk on morality and politics. There, for the first time, he explained to a group of liberals his conception of the moral world of cultural conservatives.

"They were very open to what I was saying," he says. "I discovered there was a real hunger among liberals to figure out what the hell was going on.

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