Friday, November 20, 2009

Friday TED Talk: Jonathan Haidt on the Moral Roots of Social Conflict

Jonathan Haidt is a psychologist who studies the moral underpinnings of the ongoing debate between (social/political) liberals and conservatives. In this talk he identifies five moral values which form the basis of our social and political choices, whether we are left, right, or center. He then demonstrates the surprising correlations among those values which define the preferences of liberals versus those of conservatives. (After you watch the talk, I will show you how you can participate in his research by taking a survey of your own place on the spectrum.)

Haidt's hope is that by understanding how our moral roots evolved, and why they evolved as they did, we can learn to be more civil in our discourse, and understanding of the passions that drive us all. As he sums up, "our Righteous Minds were 'designed' to (a) unite us into teams; (b) divide us against other teams; and (c) blind us to the truth." I find what he has to say especially fascinating in light of the "Manhattan Declaration" being introduced today.

You may take Jonathan Haidt's quizzes (there are quite a few) to determine your own moral spectrum at this link. (You will need to register, but that will then allow the site to retain your scores to compare when you revisit to take more quizzes, or to compare with family and friends. Privacy is guaranteed.) He also has a site called "Civil Politics", where he urges us to practice what he preaches; and you may read here an interview in which he applies his ideas to the current healthcare debate. There is more about him here, with links to the books he has written, as well as to his pages at the University of Virginia, where you will find a concise summary of the ideas he espouses in the talk shown above. You may download the talk from this page.


  1. Professor Haight: "Why did humans evolve to have morals -- and why did we all evolve to have such different morals, to the point that our moral differences may make us deadly enemies?"

    I'm sorry, but I will have to disagree with Professor Haight from the get-go. I disagree firmly with his premise that humans "evolved" to have morals. I did not read where he's a proponent of neo-darwinian macro-evolution or whether he's a proponent of evolutionary psychology, or whether he's a Christian or an atheist.

    But I believe in the doctrine of Original Sin. Plus I don't believe in Evolution.

    So I account for the moral roots of social conflict in the Doctrine of Original Sin from Scripture. Plus I account for the origins of mankind by God's Creation and not by evolution as Professor Haidt does.

  2. I understand what you are saying, TU&D. At the same time, I take it that you would not claim that the prehistoric Lucy had the same moral code as Thomas Aquinas. I think that Prof. Haidt speaks of morals "evolving" in a non-Darwinian time frame -- not millions of years, but only a few thousand, as culture developed and "evolved", too.

    What I take away from his talk that is useful are the correlations he points out between liberals being high on the "protection from harm" scale, while being much lower than conservatives on the "purity" scale. I think that dynamic is what gives rise to a lot of the tension between the two poles today.

  3. I've seen discussions about liberal vs conservative morality as 'protection from harm' vs 'purity' elsewhere. What I found interesting about Prof Haight was his demonstration that components of liberal 'morality' have some of the elements attributed to the right - 'purity' in terms of Vegan diets and such is an obvious example, his (albeit quite limited) acknowledgment of the necessity of the conservative viewpoints - and his desire to get people to ratchet down the emotions in political/moral disagreements.

    I wonder how many conservatives would argue that respecting order and maintaining 'purity codes' is not necessarily a 'bonum in se', but really protection from harm in the long term, a way of avoiding a lot of bad and potentially irreversible consequences that aren't evident when doing a short term fairness and harm-avoidance moral calculus. For example, it takes a while for the effects of such things as the 70s divorce boom, encouraged by the reigning psychology of the day and popularized by the media (think of the sitcom 'One Day at a Time'), to become evident - the current generation of 20-30 somethings are paying a big price for this.

  4. Thank you so much for posting this!
    I agree with Steve. At least for myself, my concern with "purity codes" is based on my perception of the longterm consequences I have observed in my lifetime. (And then I have extrapolated from this a concern that in most cases of changing morality, we don't know what the long term consequences will be.)

    With regard to contemporary liberal food morality, it usually is based on the projected long term harm, either to one's own body or to the environment.

  5. Comments on some of the philosophical inconsistencies in Haidt's talk at: