The first thing Jonathan Haidt did, upon my walking into his office at NYU, was to offer me a choice of three cans of soda: Diet Coke, seltzer, and Fresca. I chose the Fresca. “Ah, Fresca,” he said, “far and away the most refreshing diet drink.” There’s something about Fresca that reminds me of Haidt. He’s a deep thinker, a social psychologist who studies how people think and feel about morality, but as a self-identified “intuitionist” his ideas about human nature come like cool splashes of water. They’re bracingly commonsense, almost citrusy.
A few months ago Haidt put out a book on moral political psychology called the The Righteous Mind. In it, he asserts that we “feel” morality. Reason doesn’t run the show, he argues, it acts as an agent for our gut, our intuitions. The metaphor Haidt uses is that of a rider on an elephant: If you’re on an elephant, you have some ability to steer, but if the beast gets spooked and decides to go right, it’s going to go right; if it decides to go left, it’s going to go left. It’s an elephant and you’re a fraction of its size and you’re not going to stop it, so you might as well go with the flow. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Evolutionarily speaking, the flow often works in an effort to bring out the best in us: to help us organize, suppress selfishness, innovate, survive, and thrive. But it can also lead to political partisanship. Certain groups of people, the theory goes, lean harder towards certain “moral foundations” as a result of born-in traits and social upbringing. And in order to truly understand how the other side thinks, you first need to know how it feels. You need to become an elephant whisperer.
Haidt handed me my Fresca. I cracked it open and took a seat, and we chatted for a while about his research and what it might be able to tell us about the shit show that is modern American politics.
VICE: Rodney King died recently, God rest his soul. You begin your book by citing his call to civility: “Can we all get along?” But some people seemed to bristle at the argument you present in it, the idea that the gut rules the mind. What’s behind that?
Jonathan Haidt: There are a number of morally charged fault lines out there. There’s the left/right fault line, there’s the religious/secular fault line, and there’s the rationalist/intuitionist fault line. I’m trying to help people cross those lines, but my book has something in it to offend everyone. For people who think that their moral positions are carefully reasoned, to then be told that they in fact flow from gut feelings, that can be threatening. Also, some people are committed to helping others reason better. They’re actively trying to change the way people think. I think you can do this, but I think that indirect methods are more powerful.
Right, you can’t just pound people over the head with facts. But you touched on it for a second there: You don’t think your findings preclude the possibility of functional political dialogue.
This is one of the main misunderstandings of my work. People think, “Well, if it’s gut feelings, and those come from evolution, then how can anyone ever change their mind?” As if evolution built into us our attitudes about nuclear power and the deficit. But if you look at my model of moral judgment, it’s mostly composed of reasoning links. Reasoning is designed to be given to other people. We do change minds, but we change them more by triggering other intuitions than by forcing a logical reappraisal.
You were on The Colbert Report. He’s someone who’s always talking about “the gut.”
What I find interesting about him is that while he clearly leans left, he also seems to have a bit of right in him. It’s like he understand the right’s intuitions better than most liberals. Is it possible to have conflicting moral elephants?
Certainly. Our moral judgments are often constructed on the fly, and we’re very capable of having conflicting views about any particular issue. I mean, abortion is a wonderful example. It’s like a Necker cube. You might be very concerned about a woman’s right to control her own body, but then you look at one of those high definition ultrasound images and you begin to feel that something is wrong here. What I’ve found is that people who are from one particular moral background and have changed to another are in a sense bi-lingual. When I talk to liberals who were raised in conservative households, as many were, they typically understand what I’m saying very easily. They recognize all the conservative appeals to loyalty and authority. It’s one thing to understand it, it’s another thing to endorse it.