Jonathan Haidt & Robert Wright: crazy delicious

By Razib Khan | March 31, 2012 5:21 pm

Last night I listened to a very long discussion between Robert Wright, author of The Moral Animal, and Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. If you have been reading my weblog for years there may not be much new, but if you haven’t, then you’ll encounter a lot of novel information, in particular from Jonathan Haidt. I was intrigued by Haidt’s references to evolutionary and anthropology, and I immediately noticed on Twitter that of the 17 people he follows, two are John Hawks and Paul Bloom. John is a friend, and Paul Bloom has been highly influential in my own thinking about cognitive psychology (see Descarte’s Baby). Additionally, many of the other “shout outs” which Haidt makes are familiar to me as well (e.g., Scott Atran, the neo-functionalism of David Sloan Wilson, etc.).

In lieu of a conventional blog post here a list of comments, reacting mostly to Haidt’s various assertions.

– The biggest “bombshell” that Haidt drops is his empirical finding that when people of a given political ideology, going from very liberal to very conservative, are asked to model the opinions of other people when it comes to their “moral foundations”, only one group mischaracterizes the others. That group consists of those who are “very liberal”. Haidt reports that very liberal respondents tend to incorrectly predict the rationales given by conservatives for their positions, whereas moderates and conservatives characterize the rationales given by liberals accurately. Why?

Haidt’s explanation is that liberals tend to emphasize only a subset of moral foundations, while non-liberals emphasize a more diverse palette. By analogy then it is difficult for someone who can not taste “sweetness” to understand why anyone would crave sugary foods. In contrast, non-liberals can appreciate some of the flavors which liberals appreciate, and so can properly identify that the liberal position consists in large part of amplifying the importance of those dimensions, to the neglect of others.

This is a finding which will require a great deal of digestion. Though I identify for various reasons on the political Right, my own “moral foundations” tend toward liberalism. My shift away from this position as a conscious choice had to do with rational reflection on the nature of human flourishing more generally. So I find Haidt’s argument appealing and plausible, insofar as I still tend to have difficultly in a deep reflexive sense understanding many of the impulses of a more standard issue human.

One prediction here is that in your personal life you might observe that while liberals mischaracterize conservatives, conservatives caricature liberals. Caricatures might be misleading, but they consist more of exaggerating salient tendencies beyond normality, rather than constructing new features. Another aspect of this result which bears rumination is that liberals in particular are ill-served by living in a cultural “bubble,” because they lack an intuitive grasp on the moral cognition of non-liberals. This might explain the constant liberal gripe that people “vote against their interests,” as liberals define “interests” in a manner which does not conform to the full range of values which other groups hold (or, liberals view those values as fundamentally irrelevant or illegitimate).

As a younger person I spent most of my time around religious conservatives. Today almost all of my time is spent around secular liberals. As a right-wing atheist I’m not subject to a “bubble” of like-minded people (I am not a libertarian). As an observation after the fact I would suggest that religious conservatives had a tendency of reducing liberals to pure hedonic calculators. This is a caricature, and does not capture the fullness of the liberal moral imagination. But, it does grasp upon the reality that the liberal disposition emphasizes hedonic needs (i.e., material conditions) to a greater degree than non-liberal dispositions (i.e., spiritual conditions).

– I’m not sure about the particular utility of Haidt’s moral foundations. I believe they capture some element of reality, but like a lot of social science conceptual frameworks they strike me as always subject to post hoc “fine-tuning,” to the point where you have to question their usefulness. For example, there are plenty of liberals of environmentalist bent who are quite post-materialist. These are the same set who would oppose genetically modified foods, and “playing God.” Who are these people in this framework? Note how Haidt gets a little confused about libertarians. I think he handles them appropriately, but there are limitations to the model he is pushing forward (though it is probably an advancement over some of the stuff that George Lakoff was selling about 10 years ago; Lakoff in fact struck me as one of those very liberal people who didn’t understand non-liberal cognition except through his own presuppositions).

– Haidt is familiar with a lot of evolutionary and anthropological literature. The main problem I have here is that his arguments seem inordinately to rest upon tendentious areas of contemporary science. He accepts the existence of multi-level selection in humans, and recent adaptive acceleration in humans during the Holocene. I’m probably moderately skeptical of the former and moderately convinced of the latter, but the point is that there is still debate going on about these topics. The more disputed areas his argument necessarily rests upon, the more likely it’s likely to collapse because the probability of Haidt picking “winners” in all these case is not high (in part because he’s not a specialist in those domains).

– He also references the issue of “missing heritability” (though not by name) and the fact that quantitative traits have not been well served by modern genomics. I think he’s spot on here, but he does overreach on occasion.  For example, statistical geneticists are getting a sense of the genes which are responsible for north vs. south European height differences. He also reports some older literature on dopamine receptor genes. This goes to show that always relying on the latest science can be problematic, insofar as you rapidly become outdated if you don’t keep a hawk’s eye on the literature. It seems he’d have been better served relying on a few moderately old paradigms, limiting his downside risk, and also setting as background parameters tried & true models.

– Then Haidt touches upon the fact that many Left-liberals are generally are hostile to research which conflicts with thir normative presuppositions. Here I have somewhat mixed feelings. For example, he points out that many cultural Left-liberals have been wary of critiquing the rising rates of illegitimacy for fear of offending groups which they label as victims (e.g., single mothers, blacks, etc.). These trends have had negative social effects, and there’s a robust social science on this. Children of “broken homes” have more difficult life outcomes. But the problem here is that these studies almost never correct for family genetic correlations. By this, I mean that if a person is a child abuser, and their parents’ were child abusers, the presupposition is often that the individual modeled child abuse from their parents. This neglects the reality that these individuals share genetic correlations, and there may be biological dispositions toward high aggression and low empathy being transmitted across the generations. In fact the behavior genetic literature which Haidt references finds that there is often only a minimal parental environmental influence on long term life outcomes.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t care about the illegitimacy rate? No. Rather, instead of focusing on individual variation and outcomes, we need to focus on the effect of changes on the broader social environment because of the importance of norm of reaction. By this, I mean that genetics is good at predicting variation in the context of a given background environment. To paraphrase Hillary Clinton, “it takes a village.” The impact of illegitimacy may be less upon a given individual, and more upon broader social dynamics, such as anomie, which percolate back to the individual. By analogy, consider someone who has a disposition toward alcoholism. If they were raised in Provo, Utah, the disposition would remain. Their odds of becoming alcoholic would be far higher than someone who did not have the genetic disposition. But their chance of becoming an alcoholic may also be far lower than someone without the disposition who was raised in Denmark! Why? Because the social norms differ so greatly. In fact, Provo’s social norms may be more powerful than the norms of the family the individual was raised in.

The reason I want to focus on the collective is that Jonathan Haidt is pointing out liberal concern about ostracism and exclusion of groups and individuals, but the key is to move the scale of social action and reform the collective whole. I believe this would obviate Left-liberal discomfort about picking on victim groups (to be clear, I think this sort of position would be mildly disingenuous, but if the only way to get everyone on board is a little shading of the details to make them more comfortable that would seem prudent; see theistic evolutionism for another example!). Left-liberals seem wary of overdue emphasis on individual responsibility, but more willing to ascribe individual outcomes to broader social phenomena out of the individual’s control. If illegitimacy was framed in such a fashion, concerns over the dynamic might gain some Left-liberal support. If the key is to transcend material causes, it might be possible as is made clear when it comes to environmentalism (yes, I understand many environmental arguments are materialist, but many clearly are not)

Staying on taboos, near the end of the diavlog Wright and Haidt have a long discussion about moral sensibilities and race. Haidt reprises his comment in Edge (I can’t find it in Edge’s ghetto website) that different populations may have different moral sensibilities due to recent human evolution. Imagine if conformity was a quantitative trait, and you select upon that trait, shifting the trait distribution. It’s not too hard to imagine different selection regimes resulting in different distributions. Haidt argues that because of liberal concern for racism such questions can never be addressed on prima facie grounds; in other words, liberals ignore science when it does not suit their sensibilities. Wright is skeptical, and clearly he is holding to the older evolutionary psychological model which implies that cognitive competencies are fixed and universal. Haidt does not elucidate well in my opinion that he’s talking about quantitative traits, and the theoretical paradigm is as simple here as animal breeding. Finally, because Haidt brought up race Wright has a difficult time comprehending that Haidt is not talking about race as (East) Asian, white and black, but as subpopulations differentiated by ecology and history.

In general I think Haidt is correct about the issue at hand. Haidt must know this from personal experience. But I think the important point here is that from what I can tell many Left-liberals have long ago moved on from rejecting bio-behavioral differences between populations as a possibility, to being highly skeptical of such differences between the sexes in practice if not in principle. While the former is relatively tendentious, the latter is far less so in scholarly circles. There are important evolutionary and behavioral ecological rationales for why there should be behavioral dimorphism between the sexes. In the general public of course, as well as disciplines inflected by behavioral ecology or evolutionary psychology, sex differences in behavior are not much to get concerned about. And in principle most people with objections to the current research findings for whatever reason also can accept the possibility of such a program in the abstract. But the reality is operationally a particular set of cultural guardians in Left-liberal social sets apply gale force skepticism to any bio-behavioral explanation in a highly aggressive manner, so the whole domain remains relatively fallow. Who wants to generate hypotheses and report results if such acts will result in critique of motives and moral character? I doubt that anyone would have anticipated this 20 years ago, as this seems so 1970s, but that’s my own assessment (to get a sense of what I’m talking about, I believe Amanda Marcotte would in principle accept that scientists could study sex differences without being sexist, but I doubt many scholars would survive her audit).

The one caveat that I would put on all these taboos and shibboleths is that what people are will to say, or more accurately not say, in public is very different from what they may entertain in private as at a minimum as a thought experiment or hypothesis. I can attest to this because many of the bright lines that Jonathan Haidt outlines are rather easy to transgress if one’s interlocutor is sufficiently versed in the biological science. I’m speaking from personal experience. People need to know your motives are pure, and, they need to not be stupid and ignorant (the latter is a problem). Once those preconditions are met then it is not impossible to work through difficult topics, whatever they may be.

– Finally there’s the point about human flourishing, and Haidt’s contention that conservative political and social philosophy has a lot of insight in fostering human happiness. I agree with Haidt broadly on this. That’s why I’m a conservative. But a key point I want to inject here is that I personally am not the type of person who flourishes in a conservative society. I’m too individualistic, egotistic, and lacking in the depth of moral sentiments which are the human norm (I am a natural libertarian). This is why another important insight is that societies need internal structure and genuine diversity of niche, so that people with different lifestyles can flourish. There does need to be a Castro district in San Francisco, but there also needs to be conservative small towns which are relatively homogeneous in population and values.

Many liberals and atheists will object to Haidt’s contention that conservatives and religious people are happier. There’s a lot of ways you could approach this issue to argue with it, but I think it is important not to deny its truth to a first approximation. The result does seem robust and replicated. Note that when I report that social liberals are smarter than social conservatives many social conservatives automatically assume that I’m a social liberal, while I.Q. skeptical social liberals become temporarily enamored of psychometrics. The results I report are first approximations, and there are details which need to be fleshed out. Skepticism is warranted, but it needs to be measured. One must be careful not to modulate one’s skepticism because of normative preferences; skepticism must be cherished and doled out evenly to get a better sense of reality. In the end I think the biggest point I would like to make is that measuring happiness is probably overrated; ironically, I think in Haidt’s framework that’s a conservative position!

Note: Just a shout out to regular readers, if your comment on this post is stupid I might delete it without warning. But I won’t ban you as I normally would upon deletion.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolutionary Psychology
MORE ABOUT: Jonathan Haidt

Comments (13)

  1. duende

    I have thought for years the one of the major problems that so many Americans on all levels of society have when trying to understand the Middle East, Afghanistan, or anywhere outside of the Anglophonic West is that being a member of a clan, tribe, or religion is a very positive and sustaining force in the lives of millions around the world. Where individualistic Americans see repression, lack of social mobility and equal rights many people experience affiliation, purpose and a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves. Individualistic Americans, liberal, libertarian or otherwise commonly only recognize such social positives when the roles are very consciously chosen. The idea of teen parenthood, for example, although it was once universal is considered Very Bad by such people because teens lack the maturity and experience to make such a major decision. Ignoring the fact that millions around the world find happiness in it. Or devoutly practicing the religion of their parents without questioning it. I know you’d be unhappy with such a state of affairs but many people live quite contentedly that way.

    I have deep regard for the individual and am devoted to protecting the rights and freedoms of all. But in real life I see many people for whom trying to build a life and identity around one lone ego is very difficult if not impossible. The freedom of the individual to create for himself any life or meaning he wants can be a crippling burden and too often the singular focus on oneself turns into obsession over one’s flaws and eventually depression, alienation.

    I have read you on and off for a while and although not surprising this was a fun update and summary.

  2. Clark

    I enjoyed the podcast when I listened to it a few days ago. However it did seem to me Haidt was pushing things a bit and did some hand waving at some key points. It also wasn’t quite clear what he saw as significant. I (along with Wright) was pretty confused on what he saw evolved the last 5000 years. By the end he’d backed off a bit suggesting only some marginal impacts. (I think this was more just confusion due to terminology as I don’t think he was changing what he said)

    The one problem I have is that what counts as conservative honestly seems to change a lot. Given the moving targets that are conservativism and liberalism I’m a bit skeptical tying them to things too much. I am sympathetic towards most of the broad points he makes but that’s because they tend to be things I already was sympathetic to. I’m a bit dubious of the arguments he marshals for them. That said your point about the distinction between caricatures and mischaracterizations is a good one.

  3. It is worthwhile to note Haidt works in a very liberal subsection of psychology at UVA in Charlottesville, which Ron Bailey (among what is likely other conservative people who have lived there) has called, “The Peoples Republic of Charlottesville.” (I also lived there for three years and about an hour outside for 14.5.) I share your view of the utility of his described moral foundations but that seems secondary to the insights of which group can’t, to a degree, describe the other’s imaginary.
    Regarding what you can and can’t say in public, without immediate righteous refereeing by peers, I’ve found the biological foundations of behavior to be far less hazardous to my social health than, say, Ron Bailey’s favorite topic of climate science. Its easier to say a recently reported mugging was due to an inherently aggressive and amoral person raised in a reinforcing environment than saying that Al Gore might actually be searching for ManBearPig.

  4. #1, there are three kinds. sheep, wolves, and sheep-dogs.

  5. Be careful with your terminology. You slip from conclusions about those identifying themselves as “very liberal” to discussing self-identified liberals in general. What constitutes “very liberal”? It’s a subjective label for one. I submit that few liberals actually consider themselves “very liberal”, even if, by objective measures, they are significantly to the left of the mean. If that’s the case, those self-identifying as very liberal are probably even further left than others may think. I’m thinking socialists, anarchists, or close to that. Don’t paint us left-of-center liberals with the same brush as the fringe left, please.

  6. Don’t paint us left-of-center liberals with the same brush as the fringe left, please.

    i’m 99% sure that haidt means liberals, not radical left. but stop typing, and look up the paper. i spent a lot of time writing. do me a favor, shut up, and actually contribute something value-added to the discussion. fuck terminology for a moment.

  7. Matt

    Hope this isn’t too tangential, but I find it hard to find the Moral Foundations Theory persuasive. They just seem like these sort of arbitrary things.

    I mean, if you asked Liberals whether it would be better to live a life including some elements of anti-authoritarianism, openness to new ideas and intellectualism, even if it was more harmful and difficult and involved more suffering, it seems to me that they would say yes. If you asked them whether it was worth it for artists to suffer for their art, it would seem to me they’d say yes. If you asked them whether a diverse society was worth some suffering for, it would seem to me they’d say yes.

    I don’t get the impression that the Moral Foundations Theory tests this. It just seems to find that, yes, they have relatively higher placings on these harm and fairness foundations and less on these other.

    But my impression is that Liberal thought tends to place diversity and anti-authoritarianism and breaking traditions and being an open person as moral concerns in and of themselves, even if they don’t really lead to less suffering or more fairness, and that these are moral concerns Conservatives may just not have as much as. For the most part, yeah, they see these as compatible with harm and fairness ideas, but for the most part Conservatives see no incompatability between loyalty and purity and respect and harm and fairness.

    I think the trait theory where Conservatives have higher Conscientiousness and so are less concerned about harm to me and harm to thee, relative to other things (I think because Conscientiousness is the trait that governs “how much can I defer my and also others’ pleasure or relief from suffering to achieve some ends”), while Liberals have more Openness and get more stimulation out of and have more interest in new things and social changes (mainly sensations but also ideas) is maybe a more useful framework for understanding them.

  8. robert landbeck

    The presumption that our species is either moral or righteous is one of it’s greatest illusions, however it may appear within any particular cultural construct. No doubt there is some potential but that potential, as is the case among all other species is fixed within limits and humanities ability and failure to evolve beyond that glass ceiling of aspiration can be measured in the blood of history.

  9. Larry, San Francisco

    This is a great post a lot of very interesting ideas. One point that I think is important is the value of group norms i.e. ” it takes a village'”. Around 30 years ago I lived in Chicago (not too far from Obama’s house) and I had many black friends/acquaintances both from the neighborhood, work and school. The ones I knew from university all did fine becoming doctors, lawyers and businessmen which is not too surprising since they all came from upper middle class households. Many of the locals I knew though, would on occasion, engage in extremely self-destructive acts that would sabotage their prospects. The saddest example was my friend and co-worker Liz (not her real name) who was from the west side of Chicago from a lower middle class family. She had one child when she was 16 (she was 22 when I met her) but was very smart (although she only had a high school degree). I advised her to move to Hyde Park, put her kid (who seemed to be a bright lad) in the UC lab school (one of the directors of the school was a partner in our firm) and then to try to get an associate’s degree so she could become an office manager somewhere. She did not listen to me and instead flew to Jamaica for a vacation on a stolen company credit card which immediately ended her career. I still don’t know why she did that but I can’t help but think that if she had been into an upper middle class family with better values she would have been very successful.

  10. van Rooinek

    Haidt reports that very liberal respondents tend to incorrectly predict the rationales given by conservatives for their positions

    One word: “RACIST!”

  11. AndrewV

    Razib said:

    “People need to know your motives are pure, and, they need to not be stupid and ignorant (the latter is a problem). Once those preconditions are met then it is not impossible to work through difficult topics, whatever they may be”.

    The issue I have with this statement is that in my experience, and here I commit an obvious sin myself, is not so much that that people have to be convinced of the purity of your motive, but the chance that the person is incapable of discussing it in a meaningful way in the first place.

    I am arguing, that it is not just the “stupid and ignorant” that you have to be wary of, but also the “superficially educated”.

    A 13 year old who can quote Chaucer, and will passionately denounce a modern translation of the Miller’s Tale as lacking poetry and nuance (and I was that child), is nontheless incapable of the appreciation of the work that only a mature sensibility can bring.

    Eventually I achieved a “first” in English Literature. In reality, my score was based on my ability to impersonate an erudite appreciation, when the fact of the matter was that I had only a superficial understanding of the material at best.

    You may be well advised to take that under consideration when selecting who you debate with.

  12. John Emerson

    On the foundations part, I find it to be a useful way of approaching large cultural differences between peoples and historical eras. Loyalty, authority, and sanctity are remarkably more important in most other societies than they are in ours, and in the US more important with conservatives than with liberals. (But not all conservatives, many of whom just disagree about fairness and liberty compared to harm.

    One thing that I haven’t seen discussed is that the foundations, if real, are just natural facts, and don’t prove anything. For example, when the state eliminates feud, vendetaa, duelling, and honor killing, that may be a good thing, but I’m sure that all of those once-almost-universal behaviors have solid foundations in the inherited brain. Foundational values include the “old Adam” that must be suppressed.

    Haidt has added a foundation (Liberty) and renamed several. Looks a bit fishy to me, as if he were trying to dress them up for US consumption.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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