The Well-Meaning Bad Ideas Spoiling a Generation


Image credit: Nautilus
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt on politics, morality, and the coddling of the American mind.

By Brian Gallagher | NAUTILUS

In 2011, a friend of mine in college asked me if I’d read The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt’s aim was to probe and distill—and “savor”—the moral precepts of antiquity in the light of modern science. The 2006 book was an answer to an overabundance of too-little-appreciated advice. “We might have already encountered the Greatest Idea, the insight that would have transformed us had we savored it, taken it to heart, and worked it into our lives,” Haidt wrote. My friend was happy to encounter it: Haidt helped him through a difficult breakup.

I hadn’t heard of the book, but I had heard of its author. A paper of Haidt’s, “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment,” had been assigned in my moral psychology course, and I was in the middle of writing an essay that argued against its conclusion. Haidt wrote that reason, compared to emotion, typically matters little to what we believe is right or wrong. The idea that feelings like disgust, as opposed to deliberation, tend to play a more powerful role in driving what we deem ethical was, to me, an aspiring philosopher that prized rationality, distasteful. Those were the days …

I believe that if you really want to make a difference in the world, you need to commit to really studying the world.

Haidt, meanwhile, was about to put out his next book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. In recent a conversation with Nautilus, at his office in the NYU Stern School of Business, Haidt said he began writing the book after George W. Bush won the United States presidential election. He was determined to help the Democrats win. “Liberalism seemed so obviously ethical,” he wrote. His research led him to an awakening. “Once I actually started reading the best conservative writing, going back to Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott in the 20th century, and Thomas Sowell more recently, and then libertarians,” he said, “I realized, Wow, you actually need to expose yourself to critics, to people who start from a different position.” The result was his “moral foundations” theory—roughly, there’s more to morality than the liberal emphasis on harm and fairness—which led Haidt to identify with no political tribe. He now defines himself as a centrist.

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