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Underrated: Jonathan Haidt
December 2018 / January 2019

Jonathan Haidt: Following the evidence regardless of politics (Illustration by Michael Daley)

Jonathan Haidt is hardly a household name on this side of the Atlantic — not yet, anyway. But among those who know his work, he is revered as a social and moral psychologist who follows the evidence, regardless of his own or anybody else’s politics. He is only underrated by those, mainly on the Left, who feel threatened by and hence resist the force of his logic and the wisdom of his insights.

Haidt has set himself three main tasks. He tries to understand the sources of “our natural self-righteousness”, in order to overcome it and teach respect for other points of view. He aims to use science, especially moral psychology, to transcend the culture wars. And he intends to dismantle the culture of “coddling” that he believes is “setting up a generation for failure”. Moreover, his work has only just begun. It’s a racing certainty (if a bad pun) that Haidt will scale even greater heights. He first made headlines six years ago with The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt argued from a coolly scientific, even-handed perspective, demonstrating that our political and religious convictions are deeply rooted in human nature and hence largely impervious to rational analysis. We are ingenious at finding reasons to justify our gut feelings: “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason.”

It wasn’t just his application of new psychological research to our most cherished attitudes that seemed fresh and exciting, however. Haidt showed that whereas the Left tends to discount religious, familial or patriotic convictions, most people in every time and place have been motivated by authority, loyalty and sanctity — including the workers and minorities on whom the Left relies for its main support. Conservatives instinctively sympathise with these “moral tastes”, but liberals focus more narrowly on compassion, social justice and fairness. The Right shares these concerns too but has what he calls “the conservative advantage” of six rather than three moral “taste buds”.

This analysis feeds into Haidt’s broader critique of the liberal world view, for which he coins the acronym “Weird” because it is shared exclusively by Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic people. He wants Weirds to be tolerant of difference and patient with those who are deeply attached to a traditional way of life. Long before Hillary Clinton made her fatal mistake of sneering at “deplorables”, Haidt was warning liberals against self-righteousness.

His new book, The Coddling of the American Mind (Allen Lane, £20) takes his argument much further. Its title alludes to Allan Bloom’s celebrated blast from the past, The Closing of the American Mind, perhaps the most enduring of all the polemics engendered by America’s culture wars. But since Bloom was writing in the late 1980s, the focus of concern has shifted. Today, cultural relativism and amnesia take entirely new forms, as does the suppression of open debate, while the debasement of intellectual life has been hugely accelerated by the reduction of reading to surfing the web. Bloom could not have conceived the impact of online trivia on the young. It is not so much that their minds are closing as that they have never had a chance to open in the first place.
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