Jonathan Haidt: The moral roots of liberals and conservatives ›

View link › August 11, 2017

This is a very important video to me. Jonathan Haidt is a moral psychologist and I’ve re-watched his 2008 TED Talk1 a few times every election cycle. It helps me understand the current political environment.

In the talk Mr. Haidt presents a 5-point framework for how we make moral judgements:

  1. Harm/care
  2. Fairness/reciprocity
  3. Ingroup/loyalty
  4. Authority/respect
  5. Purity/sanctity

The irony is that this same moral value framework is shared by both liberals and conservatives, just with differing interpretations of what those values mean. Two sides of the same coin. My favorite example he cites is “Purity”; conservatives tend to focus on sexual purity (e.g., what you do with your body) and liberals tend to focus on organic, non-GMO, unprocessed whole foods (e.g., what you put in your body).

Being a citizen of Austin, TX I can experience this cultural shift in moral compass by driving 15 minutes in either direction.

Reading Mike Davidson’s Very Short Book Reviews (an experiment to read the top 5 Conservative and Top 5 Liberal books), he mentions The Righteous Mind, the book version of this talk by Jonathan Haidt. I picked it up immediately and have been enjoying it. You very quickly see examples of how we make moral judgements regardless of validity. We quite literally backfill justifications for our judgements. The desire to be righteous (that is “being right” about everything) is innate in all of us and when we’re wrong… we just make up reasons.

I guess this explains developer arguments about code and why Twitter is such a shitty place.

I have a pastor friend who grew up in Texas and was assigned to a church in Illinois. Around the time of Obama’s first election, I asked him how things were going and he responded with something interesting, “In the South, being Christian means you’re conservative. In the North, being Christian means you’re liberal and advocate for labor movements and the rights of the underprivileged.”2

Maybe it’s because my friend wears a priest collar, but this rang true to me.

It’s weird to learn that “Morality”, the foundation upon which we judge others and make major life decisions, is somewhat relative. Haidt’s moral framework helps me understand opinions that seem a universe away from my own. We build our communities (“bubbles”) on likemindedness and the same instincts that bind us together also polarize us apart.

  1. DISCLAIMER: I know TED Talks have a stigma. IMO, TED was a very different and conference in 2006-2008 before the 2012 TEDx local expansion which I feel diluted the brand and is excellently parodized here

  2. He was speaking specifically about his community, I’m sure things have probably changed with the rise of nondenominational evangelicalism