I recently had the chance to hear Jonathan Haidt, author of the new best-selling book (#6 on the NYTimes Bestseller list) The Righteous Mind, speak about his work. Jonathan is the author of The Happiness Hypothesis, he gave a great TED talk in 2008 on moral psychology and a few weeks ago he gave another great TED talk on transcendence.
It’s hard to imagine better timing for the publication of The Righteous Mind. As chronicled in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review, a significant part of the book focuses on why the political left and the political right in the United States don’t understand each other. Given the unprecedented divides in U.S. politics today and the run-up to the presidential elections, The Righteous Mind is a sort of Rosetta Stone for deciphering everything from the Tea Party to the environmental movement to Occupy Wall Street.
Two of the underpinnings of Jonathan’s work – also explored by other authors – have already changed the way I understand the world. The first is that reason follows intuition. This means that we make decisions and form opinions with our intuitive minds, and then use our power to reason to support our intuitive decisions. In Jonathan’s words, the intuitive (or emotional) dog wags the rational tail. This is why we find it so incomprehensible that people with different moral outlooks don’t “just respond to the facts.” We think that people look at facts to make decisions, when in fact they make decisions and then look for facts that support those decisions.
(and “people” isn’t everyone else, it’s you too. That’s the really important part.)
The second big insight for me is around the notion of sacredness. Jonathan argues that to begin to really understand people, you have to understand what is sacred to them. The left and the right in the U.S. (on social issues) hold very different things sacred, and if you, in Jonathan’s words, “follow the sacredness” you’ll have a whole new window into how people process information and form their opinions. So, as Jonathan described it, the right in the U.S. holds moral order, marriage and faith sacred; the left currently consider the environment and issues around race and social justice sacred. In both cases, Jonathan argued that sacredness creates “motivated ignorance.” In Jonathan’s words, “when sacredness conflicts with truth, truth gets thrown under the bus.”
This helps explain to an exasperated liberal why conservatives “just don’t get it” about global warming just as it explains to an exasperated conservative why liberals “just don’t get” having religiously-affiliated hospitals institutions pay for contraceptives for their members is morally abhorrent.
Needless to say, I’m better at seeing one side of this exasperation than the other. And that’s exactly the point. A lot of my blogging and my work begins with a deep belief in and respect for others and the power of empathy. I’d also like to think of myself as an open-minded person. But Jonathan’s work forces me to ask myself whether I create the space to really understand and appreciate what is sacred to other people whose morality differs fundamentally from my own.
It helps me understand why people won’t look at the same convincing, powerful facts that I will and just change their opinions.
It helps us all understand why we all have so much trouble understanding one another, why this country is so divided and why it seems to be getting worse, not better.
Jonathan’s request of us all in this 2008 TED talk is that we embrace moral humility, that we step out of the “moral matrix” that limits us to seeing and respecting people who share our morality and our values. It is a challenging notion, and an important one, one that turns my world upside-down…in a good way.