NEW YORK — In 2004, Jonathan Haidt had an experience that changed his intellectual life.
The influential moral and social psychologist — at the time an atheist and a liberal — was at the Strand, a used-book shop in New York, when the brown spine of a book called “Conservatism” caught his eye. Edited by historian Jerry Z. Muller, it was an anthology of readings from David Hume to Philip Rieff.
Three pages into the book, Mr. Haidt was floored — that is, sitting on the ground of the bookstore — paging through “all these gems of insight on the relationship between human flourishing and society,” the spirited 48-year-old academic recalled over tea and chocolate in his office at New York University’s Stern School of Business.
Its passages from Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek and Winston Churchill confirmed Mr. Haidt’s empirical research about the limits of rationalism, human nature’s flaws, the necessity of social institutions and the value of the sacred. That confirmation was surprising to the man who, frustrated by the presidential election defeat of John F. Kerry in 2004, entered the field of political psychology to “help liberals win.”
Before stumbling across the Muller anthology, the popular former University of Virginia psychology professor thought of conservatism as a “Frankenstein monster,” he says — an ugly mishmash of Christian fundamentalism, racism and authoritarianism.
But then, covering his copy of “Conservatism” with dense marginalia, he was forced to reconsider: “Might conservatives have a better formula for how to create a healthy, happy society?”
This question appears in his new book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” which takes readers on a tour of human moral and social history. In the book, Mr. Haidt — now a centrist — argues that conservatives, liberals and libertarians each have fundamentally wise insights to contribute to our national conversation about the type of society in which we should live.
And to contribute to our academies.
Mr. Haidt has repeatedly criticized his field, psychology, for including too few conservatives in its ranks. When the topic of academic discrimination against conservatives comes up, he pulls from his filing cabinet a new study by Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers which finds that: “In decisions ranging from paper reviews to hiring, many social and personality psychologists admit that they would discriminate against openly conservative colleagues. The more liberal respondents are, the more willing they are to discriminate.”
Political ideology is an extension of morality — and morality, as Mr. Haidt is fond of saying in his new book, binds and blinds.
Mr. Haidt came to study psychology by seeking to answer the question that has perplexed and inspired humanity from the beginning: What is the meaning of life?
When he graduated from Scarsdale High School in New York State in 1981, he thought there was very little meaning to be found. His senior yearbook quotation stands out, amid the sunny words about optimism and friendship chosen by his classmates, for its gloomy irony: “Whosoever shall not fall by the sword or by famine, shall fall by pestilence so why bother shaving?”
“It was a very Woody Allen depression,” he says, citing the source of that quote and describing his emotional state his senior year. After reading Samuel Beckett’s absurdist comedy “Waiting For Godot,” Mr. Haidt, already an atheist, became fixated on the meaninglessness and absurdity of life. He dwelled on thoughts of suicide in the abstract even though his own life was, by many accounts, almost perfect — he would soon attend Yale as an undergraduate, he had a fabulous girlfriend, and he was captain of the track team.
“Like the author of Ecclesiastes,” as he wrote in his breakout book “The Happiness Hypothesis” (2006), “I thought that ‘all is vanity and a chasing after wind.’ ” He eventually came to a happier conclusion: “If this really is all there is, why not embrace it, rather than throw it away?”
At Yale, Mr. Haidt majored in philosophy to find some answers. Discovering that academic philosophy had abandoned the big questions of human nature, morality, and the good life, Mr. Haidt turned to psychology — and found his calling. In 1987, he enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania’s doctoral program in psychology, where he went on an intellectual journey that led him to study morality across cultures.
“The left and right in this country,” Mr. Haidt says in reference to his new book, “are two separate cultures.”
After finishing his dissertation at Penn — provocatively titled “Moral judgment, affect, and culture, or, is it wrong to eat your dog?” — Mr. Haidt went on to the University of Chicago. There, he spent two years studying with the leading thinker in cultural psychology, Richard Shweder, “the teacher that most affected me,” Mr. Haidt says.
Based on research he had done in the temple town of Bhubaneswar, India, Mr. Shweder developed a theory about why the idea of the individual differs so much across cultures. In the West, the individual is considered an autonomous entity. In the East, the individual is considered a member of some larger community, like a family or a tribe. These different perspectives lead to differences in moral thinking. Specifically, there are three “ethics” that arise out of the varying conceptions of the self: the ethics of autonomy, community, and divinity.
Fascinated, Mr. Haidt packed his bags for Bhubaneswar to study the ethic of divinity a little more closely. If stumbling upon conservatism at the Strand was Mr. Haidt’s second intellectual turning point, India was his first. “It was a life-changing and ideology-changing experience,” he says.
He set off for India with a “liberal political mindset,” he explains. “I hated Ronald Reagan. I had never met any conservatives at that point.”
Suddenly, the “unquestioning liberal” found himself “immersed in a sex-segregated, hierarchically stratified, devoutly religious society,” as he writes in “The Righteous Mind.”
Overcoming his initial culture shock, Mr. Haidt began to appreciate the guiding moral principles of that culture, which ordered society around family, tradition, and the sacred. He even approached a Hindu monk about meditating in an Ashram. (“I’m an awe junkie,” he confides. “I crave experiences of awe.”)
The India trip partly inspired “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom,” which examines from the perspective of modern psychology some of the major concepts of happiness in the history of religious and philosophical thought.
In the book, Mr. Haidt develops his metaphor of the self as a rider (reason) on a sometimes unruly elephant (intuition). Though the elephant is stronger and more powerful than the rider, the two must work together for the self to thrive. Similarly, though “the West values rights and self-actualization while the East values the spiritual side of human existence and family,” human flourishing — and a well-ordered society — needs both.
Mr. Haidt found he was able to apply what he learned in India about sanctity to the culture wars back home in the United States.
“When an artist submerges a crucifix in a jar of his own urine, or smears elephant dung on an image of the Virgin Mary, do these works belong in an art museum?” he asks in “The Righteous Mind.” “Imagine that a conservative artist had created these works using images of Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela instead of Jesus and Mary.”
Mr. Haidt’s experience in India had broadened his moral universe. There, he learned that there was more to morality than harm and fairness. Moonlighting as an anthropologist studying comparative morality from cultures around the world, Mr. Haidt discovered what that “more” was. Six themes recur, in varying degrees, across most societies: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity.
He developed his Moral Foundations Theory in 2002, but it wasn’t until the Kerry defeat that he began to apply it to politics.
He polled over 130,000 conservatives and liberals on moral issues and found that while conservatives rely on all six foundations equally in making moral judgments, liberals favor care, liberty, and fairness, and were often indifferent to concerns of sanctity, loyalty, and authority. Libertarians, relying primarily on the liberty foundation, had the smallest moral domain of all, which probably explains a great deal - certainly Ayn Rand.
And how would he classify his own moral sense in terms of his theory?
“I have trouble making moral judgments now,” Mr. Haidt says. “I’m empathetic to both sides.”