Jonathan Haidt Is a Good Thing

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I believe I've mentioned--I hope I've mentioned--how much I liked Jonathan Haidt's The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. I don't always agree with him but I think his work is fascinating. Haidt's a social psychologist, liberal by inclination but sufficiently respectful of conservatives to offend his colleagues and the left more generally. (One of his findings is that his colleagues are a subset of the left.) Odd that such an outlook should appeal to me, but there you are.

Anyway, I'm very much looking forward to his new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, and in in the meantime there's a profile to read in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, which I recommend: Jonathan Haidt Decodes the Tribal Psychology of Politics. (HT A&L.) This piece allayed any doubts I might have had about his working method.

His previous book, The Happiness Hypothesis, trekked through centuries of philosophy and science in a quest for the secret to well-being. (Bottom line: relationships. Also helpful for Haidt: naps. He snoozes each afternoon on a futon in his office.)

I'm a great believer in naps, myself.

How much of moral thinking is innate? Haidt sees morality as a "social construction" that varies by time and place. We all live in a "web of shared meanings and values" that become our moral matrix, he writes, and these matrices form what Haidt, quoting the science-fiction writer William Gibson, likens to "a consensual hallucination." But all humans graft their moralities on psychological systems that evolved to serve various needs, like caring for families and punishing cheaters. Building on ideas from the anthropologist Richard Shweder, Haidt and his colleagues synthesize anthropology, evolutionary theory, and psychology to propose six innate moral foundations: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.

...[T]he six moral foundations are central to how Haidt explains politics. The moral mind, to him, resembles an audio equalizer with a series of slider switches that represent different parts of the moral spectrum. All political movements base appeals on different settings of the foundations--and the culture wars arise from what they choose to emphasize. Liberals jack up care, followed by fairness and liberty. They rarely value loyalty and authority. Conservatives dial up all six.

If you read the profile be sure to read the sidebar--A Political Defector--as well. One of Haidt's critics, fellow psychologist John Jost, mentions the damage Haidt is doing to their field--and draws an interesting parallel.

Another [criticism] is that [Haidt's] argument might arm those who are "eager to dismiss our findings," as John T. Jost, a psychologist at New York University, expresses it. "We've seen this with climate-change issues," he tells The Chronicle. "If you can just accuse the scientist of ideological bias, then you can ignore the research findings."

Jost adds that the personal beliefs of social scientists are "scientifically irrelevant" because of safeguards against bias that are built into the research system. "Any research program that is driven more by ideological ax-grinding than valid insight is doomed to obscurity," he wrote in response to Haidt's talk, "because it will not stand up to empirical replication and its flaws will be obvious to scientific peers--all of whom have been exposed to conservative perspectives even if they do not hold them."

One young psychology professor feels that Haidt painted an accurate portrait. It's a measure of the sensitivity of this topic that the professor, a conservative who contacted Haidt to express her gratitude for the talk, declined to let The Chronicle publish her name.

Ponder that. And Jost took the words out of my mouth. "We've seen this with climate change". Haven't we though. Deny the charge of groupthink until we're blue in the face, because to see a particle of merit in the accusation will call our important findings into question. Clear? The charge of groupthink is outrageous...and let's not hear a whisper of dissent about it.

As for "Any research program that is driven more by ideological ax-grinding than valid insight is doomed to obscurity", I'd say yes, maybe, eventually--but in the social sciences it might take a while. Social psychology can look out for itself. I'd say Haidt's a good thing.

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