Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Jonathan Haidt

Here's a fascinating article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (h/t AL Daily) about Jonathan Haidt, the psychologist who has come up several times in this blog's project. Haidt spends several days talking to Occupy Wall St protestors.

To Haidt, the evolution of morality can help make sense of modern political tribes like this one. And in that evolution, the big question is this: How did people come together to build cooperative societies beyond kinship?

Morality is the glue, he answers. Humans are 90-percent chimp, but also 10-percent bee—evolved to bind together for the good of the hive. A big part of Haidt's moral narrative is faith. He lays out the case that religion is an evolutionary adaptation for binding people into groups and enabling those units to better compete against other groups. 

He got interested in the topic, he says, partly because he was a highly partisan Democrat who could not understand why Kerry had not connected with voters. 

What he found changed his view. He tries to help Democrats understand much of the country has different moral intuitions

That's a mild critique, but Haidt gets tougher in memoranda he has sent to liberal politicians and think tanks. He writes that politics, like religion, binds people together "to pursue moral ideals and defend sacred values." The value that liberals revere is defending the oppressed. But their devotion to victims blinds them to other concerns. They alienate with "a thin and tolerant morality that gives most Americans vertigo." And they often commit "sacrilege," making it easy for opponents "to mobilize moralistic outrage." For example, they trounce authority by backing abortion without parental consent.

He hasn't had much success.

So far Haidt hasn't had much luck interesting political types in his ideas. He reached out to Democratic politicians in his home state of Virginia, like Mark Warner and Tom Perriello, as well as to the Center for American Progress, a liberal research group tightly wired to the White House. But folks in Washington strike Haidt as too fixated on dodging daily bullets to think about the long-term future of liberalism. The few political people who gave him any time seemed more interested in tapping behavioral science for fund raising, or simply too busy to engage with his ideas.

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