Russ Roberts

Jonathan Haidt on the Righteous Mind

EconTalk Episode with Jonathan Haidt
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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Jonathan Haidt of New York University and author of The Righteous Mind talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about his book, the nature of human nature, and how our brain affects our morality and politics. Haidt argues that reason often serves our emotions rather than the mind being in charge. We can be less interested in the truth and more interested in finding facts and stories that fit preconceived narratives and ideology. We are genetically predisposed to work with each other rather than being purely self-interested and our genes influence our morality and ideology as well. Haidt tries to understand why people come to different visions of morality and politics and how we might understand each other despite those differences.

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0:33Intro. [Recording date: January 7, 2014.] Russ: I have to say at the beginning that The Righteous Mind is one of the most interesting books I've read in the last 10 years. I do worry that my assessment is biased. It deals with a host of issues that come up regularly here on EconTalk, in particular the limits of reason, as well as issues that I'm grappling with as I work on a book on Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments. So my rave review may not apply very well for those of you listening out there. But it might. So let's get into it. Jonathan, earlier in your book you ask how children come to know right from wrong. Where does morality come from? What's your answer? Guest: My answer is that we are products of evolution, like everything else, and we have certain stuff built into us that helps us navigate the social world. That's the first part of the story. But nothing is hard-wired. Evolution in people is quite flexible. And the second part of the story is culture shapes us to develop certain capacities more than others. So, when I was first in grad school, the general answer was: 'oh, kids figure it out for themselves'--is what Lawrence Kohlberg said, or anthropologists said. Or, 'Kids internalize if from the grown-ups in their culture.' But I really went a third way, which is kind of a modified nativist view, starts with what's innate and then you look at how it develops within a cultural context. Russ: So, explain what you mean by nativist and what you mean by innate. Guest: So, in the social sciences one of the big controversial areas, really for a couple hundred years, is: Is human nature innate? Is there human nature, even? Steve Pinker wrote a book called The Blank Slate, arguing against the prevailing notion. It's most common on the political Left that there is no human nature; that people are flexible, malleable. We can raise kids to turn out however we want. That's the extreme view of what is sometimes called the 'empiricist' position, which is everything is a product of experience. At the other extreme is the extreme nativist view, which is to say that our behavior, our personality, all that is as innate as our eye color and our hair color. After all, everything is heritable. That's the big debate in the social sciences. And I've come down fairly firmly on the nativist side, as long as you grant that culture and flexibility is part of our evolutionary endowment. Russ: And you say often--you have a number of different metaphors, but I like a point you say: 'We are predisposed but not predestined', in various ways. But you have other ways of talking about it. Guest: That's right. The best definition of 'innate' that I've ever found that I think just cuts through all the confusion is from my colleague here at NYU [New York University], Gary Marcus, who says that 'innate' just means structured in advance of experience but then experience can revise it. If you look at the way kids come out all over the world they tend to kind of know that if someone hits you, you hit him back. You don't have to teach that. Now, you can try to teach them to love their neighbor and to turn the other cheek, and maybe you'll have a little bit of success. But we are structured in advance of experience to think in terms of reciprocity. If someone is nice to me, I'll be nice to him. If someone does something mean to me, I'll do something mean to her. So that's what I mean by structured in advance of experience but still flexible afterwards.
4:30Russ: Now, you say we are born to be righteous, and you also claim that children, not only are they prone to hit back but they are prone to be favorable toward kind people and kind even physical objects--in puppet shows and other representations--and not sympathetic, not empathetic with cruel, suggesting that harm as a moral principle, an opposition to harming others is deeply embedded in us. Talk a little bit about how that could possibly be known. And I'm a little bit skeptical about it. I'm sympathetic to the idea, but I'm skeptical about the findings. Guest: Okay. My general approach is called 'moral foundations theory', the idea that there are multiple foundations. Just as we have multiple taste buds on our tongue. We don't just have one taste receptor that guides us to delicious food. We have taste receptors that guide us to fruit and other receptors that guide us to meat--sweet and sour on the one hand, and umami or glutamate and salt on the other. And in the same way, in our social lives, we have to figure out: Who should I cooperate with? Who should I trust? Who should I marry? Who should I partner with? And so we've got all these moral taste buds, you might say. And one of the most basic is: Who is nice, and first is, who is cruel? People vary a lot on this. So I was working on this theory over the last 8 or 10 years, and while I was doing that, there was this amazing work coming out of Yale, coming out of Paul Bloom and Karen Wynn, their lab, their developmental lab at Yale where they study children. And what they found is that when you take kids as young as 3 or 4 months and you show them a puppet show with these wooden puppets they made in which one of the puppets is struggling to get up a hill and the other puppet either seems to come out behind it and help push it up to the top, or, you take the same puppet that starts from the top and he comes down and he smashes into him from above and blocks him and pushes him down. So even 3-month-olds seem to detect this is a story about helping or about hindering. And then after they see that story, you put the two puppets on a tray and you look at which one they look at, or, when they are a little older, which one they reach for. And what you find is that as young as 3 months, and very clear by 6 months, the kids like the puppet that was helping, and they don't like the puppet that was hindering. There are a lot of results like this that show that kids are picking up what's sweet. They like what's sweet; they don't like what's sour or bitter. They are picking up what's nice, sort of morally sweet, you might say. Russ: Do you remember what--again, I'm a little skeptical of that kind of finding. Part of the reason I'm skeptical is it's so cool. A 3-month-old is hard-wired to be kind. So one question I'd ask, and maybe you don't know this stuff off the top of your head; I apologize if you don't: but, how statistically different, not significant, but what's the magnitude of the difference? Is it 80% of the time the kids pick up the nice puppet? Or is it 53% of the time? Versus the mean puppet. Guest: Yeah. I don't have those numbers handy but I'm pretty sure it's in between. So, these studies tend to not use large sample sizes. Your question is very germane when you have large sample sizes. Sometimes you can have, you know, 52% of Republicans but only 48% of Democrats do something, in a sample of 10,000 people; and that's statistically significant but it's so small that we don't really care about it. These studies are a little harder to do--they tend to just use like 15 or 20 subjects per cell. And my recollection is that they are pretty robust. So, it's not like 80%, I mean, when you are dealing with little kids there is a lot of noise in the data. But it's also not just a tiny effect. Lots of labs get these effects. They are now getting them for something even about group loyalty, in-group/out-group. But I'm puzzled by your skepticism. Why would you be skeptical? Why would you think that kids are born blank slates, unable to distinguish between someone in their environment who is nice and warm and gentle between someone who is cruel and tyrannical and violent? Russ: Well, for starters--I have no problem with the idea that we may be hard-wired to be that way. Part of me, as I suspect many listeners would say, would like to believe that. When I think about that actual experiment I worry about: what did 'reach for' mean? I worry about--does a 3-month old really know what it means for a puppet to go up a hill? Does it really understand? There's a lot of things I'm just not so sure about. Guest: I was going to say: These findings build on some of the coolest findings in developmental psychology done in the 1980s by Renee Baillargeon, who showed that kids have an intuitive understanding of physics. So, she's the one who developed this method where you show people, like, a car which seems to move through a solid block, or in other cases the car is moving on a track behind the solid block. And she found that kids as young as three months, they stare longer at what looks like magic. It's like, oh my God, if the blank slate is true, this doesn't make sense, because how could they have learned that? But if knowledge of physics is innate then it makes perfect sense. Now think how crazy it is to be surprised that knowledge of physics is innate. In horses, horses are born; they stand up on the first day, and they move. They don't run into trees. A horse's brain is able to see, well, there's a tree; I can't go through it. Why can't a baby's brain be born to understand that objects are solid, and objects can't pass through other solid objects? The brain is very, very structured in advance of experience. Russ: I'm open to that idea; and as I said, I'm more than open; I like the idea of it to some extent. But I just think we should be a little bit skeptical of experimental results in general. Guest: That is true. Russ: And we'll come back to that. Guest: There are reasons to be skeptical of experimental results. We have to be more skeptical of them than we have been. I agree with that. Russ: So, we'll come back to that.
10:32Russ: You mention--a key idea of your book in passing--I want you to talk about it some detail, which is that we have moral receptors that are varied in the same way we have taste receptors. And that's just a metaphor. So, to make that real and vigorous you have to talk about it in more detail. But to get us into that, I want you to talk about 'WEIRD.' Now, WEIRD is an acronym used for Western Educated Industrial Rich Democratic folk, folk who live in, say, America. And I don't know who made the acronym, but the acronym points out that we are actually somewhat distinctive. WEIRD folk, like you and me--what's weird about us in terms of the scope of our morality? What is the range of moral sensitivities that you've discovered, in your research and that of others? Guest: Sure. So, I began my research looking into what I called harmless taboo violations. When I was a grad student, I was trying to understand morality across cultures. And I read the Old Testament, I read the Koran, I read a lot of religious texts. I read a lot of anthropology; I read a lot of accounts of non-Western societies. And what struck me is that most of them care a great deal about purity and pollution. They have all kinds of elaborate rules for how to treat women who are menstruating and what to do with corpses, and so much stuff about the body--which we think is just hygiene. This isn't morality--this is hygiene. But we, it turns out, are the exceptions. Most cultures moralize the body; they think food has all kinds of moral properties and moral essences. Of course, sex is often heavily moralized; we do that, too. But my point is that it's like morality is very thick in most parts of the world; and then for us, it's really thin. For us, we went through this historical process in the Enlightenment and both before and after of rising individualism, rising individual liberty. You can't tell me to not do something unless you can show that I'm hurting you. Or in some [?] of standing to say that I'm causing some harm to someone. But in most of the world morality is thicker: It regulates all kinds of stuff. So anyway, so I'm doing that work in the 1990s and early 2000s, and at the same time this team at the U. of British Columbia led by Joe Henrich, they were summarizing all the results they could find, including my research, on how it is that people from WEIRD cultures--Westerners like us--are different. And even in visual perception. That's what's so cool. It's even in visual perception, the general perception is, we WEIRDos see a world full of individual objects, and most people see a world of things that are more connected. One nice example is if you show people a picture of fish swimming, we WEIRDos focus on the lead fish; we think he's leading. People from East Asia, they actually see and remember more about all the fish. And they actually notice the background. Americans can't remember the background, because they didn't notice; they were just looking at the lead fish. So, our minds work differently. We're more individualistic. And that leads to us thinking in very different ways and behaving in different ways. Russ: So talk about the 6 types or morality that you feel cover the spectrum, given that you feel it's a wider spectrum outside the United States and the West. Guest: Yeah. So, starting with the 3 that we all have, that everybody has and that we Americans have--so we've already talked about issues of care vs. harm. You find that everywhere. Then there are issues of fairness vs. cheating. Now you will never find a human society that doesn't care a lot about reciprocity, trading favors, vendettas, feuds, gratitude, exchange. So this also is a basic foundation of human sociality[?] and of human morality everywhere. Now what we found is that Liberals focus more on equality--by 'liberal' I just mean Left. And Conservatives, the Right, focus more on proportionality. But they all think that they care about fairness. Third foundation is liberty vs. oppression. We are primates. We evolved in hierarchical primate groups. We can do hierarchy. But we really resent a bullying alpha male. And you see this, boy, do you see this in the Tea Party, where the bullying alpha male is the government. And it harkens back to the American Revolution and liberty, liberty, liberty. You see on the Left, too, where the bully is the corporations and the rich, and we need the government to protect us. So, there it's the same psychology, only a different villain. So those are the 3 that are easy, that are at the heart of the American cultural war now. Now we can move on to the 3 that are less common the political Left. Now, you still find them on the Right, and you find them in almost all traditional societies. But those three are: authority vs. subversion--so the idea that people in power or it's especially clear within the family: there are positions where someone is deserving of respect. Just the word 'backtalk,' where in my sort of liberal Jewish family there was no such thing as backtalk. Of course you talked back to anybody who tells you to do something and you disagree. Russ: You wouldn't have a special term for it, in other words. Guest: Yeah. That's right. But when I began teaching at the U. of Virginia, or actually when I lived in an African-American neighborhood in Philadelphia, and the kids would use words like 'backtalk,' and the rural kids in Virginia would say that: 'You know, you don't talk back to grown-ups.' So that's the fourth foundation, authority. The fifth is loyalty vs. betrayal. And here you find this, especially in working class families, the idea that blood is thicker than water, that you owe things to people because you are members of the group. And then the last one is sanctity vs. degradation. And this is, for example, the idea that the body is a temple. On the Left there is more--actually, I have bumper stickers in my book: 'Your body may be a temple, but mine's a playground.' The idea that things are sacred, that we shouldn't take advantage of them even if we would enjoy it and there's no harm. And you see this especially in the Evangelical Christianity; it's all over the Koran, the Old Testament. The idea of sacredness and sanctity and holiness and purity. And these issues, you always find, if you look at the older cultural war, battles like over drug use, abortion, euthanasia--any of these life-and-death issues. They are not really just about harm versus choice. They are almost always about some lingering notion of sanctity, zones where we should not transgress. Russ: Now you said--I don't want listeners to get confused. You said the first three of those are Western, and the last three are more associated with traditional cultures. Guest: Well, the first three are universal. Russ: But the last three do exist in lots of places in America. And in general you associate them with Conservative politics. Guest: Yes. That's correct. But since the people doing the scholarship are almost always secular Liberals, they tend not to see that as part of the moral domain. If you look at the moral philosophy literature, it's almost as though there's a prize for whoever can identify a single foundation of morality. So, the philosophy literature, which grows overwhelmingly out of sort of Liberal or Leftist thinking--leaving aside the Catholic tradition, that is--it's either, you've got the Utilitarians who say morality is all about harm; that's all it is; everything is reducible to harm. Or, you've got the Kanteans and Deontologists, who say, No, no, it's all about rights and fairness and justice. So, yes, you do find all of the moral foundations in the United States, but they are rather thin on the secular Left, those last three. Russ: And I should mention that you are a member--you would probably classify yourself as a member of the secular Left, correct? Guest: Um, well, not exactly. I'm certainly secular. And I was Liberal all my life. And I've really hated George W. Bush--I thought he really was just destroying the country, the [?] policies. And as long as he was President I had to consider myself a Liberal. But in writing the book I really tried to understand everybody from the inside, and I really tried to read a lot-- Russ: It's a very risky strategy. Guest: Well, I guess in terms of where it led me, yeah. I realized I couldn't call myself a Liberal any more. I'm not a Conservative. My views [?] are as a social psychologist who studies morality. I've come to believe the research, which is that everybody is an expert on certain aspects of the moral domain, and that causes them to go blind to what the other side is saying. And I realized--you know, I think Liberals are right about a lot of important issues and rising inequality and some sort of things we ought to do to get a capitalist system to function humanely. They are right on a lot of important issues. But in doing the research, I came to see that, wow, Conservatives, if your criterion is how to run a healthy society that actually leads to flourishing and well-being, actually Conservatives and libertarians are right on a lot of things, too. So now I consider myself a centrist who finds a lot of wisdom on all sides but not much in the current Republican Party.
20:00Russ: We're going to come back to that maybe toward the end. I raised the issue about your personal views, which usually are irrelevant in our conversations, but in this one I think they are-- Guest: They are relevant. Russ: They are somewhat important. But it raised an interesting issue just as a sidenote, which is, I find as I've tried to become more tolerant, as I get older--I don't know if I've been successful--but we talk a lot on this program about how we have to be aware of our own tendencies to self-deceive; we have to be humble. It's a very Hayekian viewpoint, that we don't understand everything; there are limits to reason. One of the possible outcomes of that is that you lose faith in your principles, because you start to realize, you know, the other guy, he's well-intentioned as well as I am. And I don't have a monopoly on truth. Guest: Yes, that is true. Russ: So, reflect on that. Guest: That is true, you lose faith in your principles. That's absolutely true. I spent the 1980s being really angry at Reagan; I spent the 1990s exalting in Clinton and being angry at his enemies. I just think, be a sort of average level of anger. Maybe [?] Russ: Partisan. Guest: As you get older--as a partisan, yeah, that's right. But as you get older, as your testosterone levels drop, generally in the life course one gets less angry with age. So I can't tell what it is. But I have found myself not getting angry that much. I despair at the gridlock and the ridiculousness of our political system. But it is true that I am less confident of my principles and therefore I have less-principled anger. Russ: Less self-righteousness. Guest: That's right. Now, I think if I was an activist, if I were a legislator, well, there are a lot of reasons why you might want that passion. But I'm a scientist. My job is to figure out what's right, and so I'm willing to make that tradeoff of having fewer passionate principles driving me; and actually I feel like I can see more than I was able to 5 years ago. Russ: Does that make you a relativist? I'm sure you get that charge sometimes. Guest: Yeah. I do, especially from the Right. It's a little bit complicated [?]-- Russ: By the way, that's usually used as a pejorative term. It could be viewed as a compliment but it does have a pejorative sense to it. Guest: That's right. So, I certainly am not a moral realist in that I don't think that there is some objective truth outside humanity. 'Earth is the third planet from the sun'--that's what's called a non-anthropocentric truth. If aliens come here from another galaxy they will discover that earth is the third planet from the sun. But 'men and women should have equal political rights'--well, is that an objective truth? I think that's a truth today but I'm not willing to say that our ancestors 5 and 10 and 50,000 years ago were wrong when there was always a gender division in which men handled the politics and women would handle the home life. So I don't think that there are eternal moral truths that are true regardless of how we live. If that makes me a relativist, then I'm a relativist. Actually, here you go: I think of myself as an emergentist. I think that moral truths are actually like truths of the market? Is gold more valuable than silver? Well, you know, if aliens come from another planet, they might not think so. But given the way we live and the way we trade, the value of gold emerges, just as gender equality has emerged. And it is really true. There is a moral truth now that women should have equal political rights. So there you go. I'm an emergentist, just like you. Russ: I'll accept-- Guest: Isn't it Hayekian? Russ: It is, but I'm more absolutist than you are in the following way. Guest: Okay, how so? Russ: I think people misunderstand spontaneous order in [?] in the following way. I'm not suggesting you do, but maybe. We'll find out. I think we tend to romanticize; I do think there's something romantic and wondrous and marvelous about spontaneous order. But I also realize there are many emergent orders that are horrific and a-moral or immoral. Slavery, say, in the late 18th, early 19th century in America, even though that was an emergent phenomenon--no one designed it [?]. In fact the opposite; a lot of people tried to stop it from being part of the American fabric when we became a literal nation. So it was emergent but it was awful. And I have no problem saying that the morality that saw African Americans as inferior was evil. So, in that sense, I'm not a relativist. Guest: Okay. So let's build on that. The way I like to think about it is this. A cultural relativist would say, Hey, if that's the way they do it then it's okay. That's the first step. And I definitely would not say that [?], and for the reasons that you said. The next step would be: Let's look at the people who appear to be victims in this society and if they themselves think they are victims, that's enough of a reason for us to condemn it. So, African slaves did everything they could to flee; they hated it; there is no reason to think that this was a legitimate moral order that they approved. Same thing for Jews in Nazi Germany. But if we look at, say, Muslim societies in which the women veil, well, sometimes--I don't know enough about it--but it seems as though that is not necessarily enforced against their will. So there could be multiple emergent moral orders in which even the people that we think are victims endorse it, don't feel they are victimized, and can articulate justifications that don't seem crazy. Now of course there are issues of false consciousness and deception. But at any rate, I'm one who believes that-- Russ: You're right; I think that's a great starting place. Looking at how the alleged victims actually feels seems to be a crucial way to distinguish.
25:41Russ: Now, you say at one point--you say it a lot actually, and I think it's a beautiful phrase. This is a good point to explain it. You say 'morality binds and blinds.' Explain that. Guest: Yes. So the thing that really has motivated me in writing the book is trying to think about this miracle of human civilization. No other species on the planet can cooperate unless they are siblings. So that bees, ants, wasps, termites, and naked mole rats can all live in giant structures that they've built together because they are all sisters, or sisters and brothers. But humans develop this ability to work together in all kinds of ways, not just people who are not kin but even with strangers. You and I have never met but we are able to cooperate and put on this podcast. We're just so good at this. How did that happen? And so, you know, we could look at language; we could look at all sorts of things that allowed us to interact. But what allowed us to actually trust each other and not take advantage of each other and to reap the benefits of cooperation? And the story I tell in the book is that morality serves a variety of functions but they are social functions, one of which is to bind groups together in ways so that they can cooperate to compete against other groups. And so what we gain in cohesion we often lose in open-mindedness. And you see this on Capitol Hill all the time--one side, the mere fact that one side proposes something means the other side will suddenly do everything it can show why that's wrong. Even if that side had actually proposed the same idea 10 or 20 years earlier. Now, some of that is strategic and is just Kabuki theater. But in general, but when you get a moralistic group, a group bound together by a certainty that it's right, they become blind, closed off to contradictory evidence. And I've kind of made a little cottage industry of showing how that happens on the Left. The academic world, where almost everybody is Liberal; I think in general we do a good job in the sciences, social sciences, but on the key issues, where there are sacred moral values at stake, it's hard for us to think straight. Russ: Let's talk about that. Let's talk about the role of reason. You say that 'intuitions come first; strategic reasoning second.' And you use the image of the rider and the elephant. Explain that image and how you apply it. Guest: So, from my first book, The Happiness Hypothesis, I was examining ten ancient truths, and the most basic psychological insight from around the world is that the mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict. Usually one of these parts is said to be reason or conscious reasoning or something like that. And the other is emotion or intuition, something like that. Now, Plato gave us the metaphor that these two parts are--reason is the charioteer and the passions are the horses. And the charioteer, if he can control the horses, then you get a rational reasonable person. And so a man should study philosophy and learn to control the passions. But that's a very optimistic view of reason. But I think the evidence just doesn't support it. The evidence shows that people are automatically and effortlessly do motivated reasoning. We start with the conclusion and we think: How can I find evidence to support that conclusion? Research has found that if you compare people who are really smart versus those that are less smart, the really smart people aren't more open-minded. They are not better at looking at both sides. What they are better at is finding ever more and better post hoc justifications. So, basically, I concluded pretty early on that David Hume was right when he said that reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them. Most of my career has basically been an experimental vindication of David Hume's arguments against those who are worshiping reasoning in the Platonic tradition. Russ: So, talk about the rider and the elephant. Guest: So, what I came to see in writing the first book is that the mind is divided like a rider and an elephant. If you make New Year's resolutions--this came about when I was, say, in dating relationships, and I would resolve, Oh, I should break up with her; but I found myself powerless to do so. And I just marveled at my--what's the word--my inability to make myself do what I thought I should do. There's a line from Ovid: I see the right way and approved it; alas, I follow the wrong. So, individual reasoning I think is not very powerful. Danny Kahneman talks about this as System 2, with reasoning, versus System 1, the intuition. But all is not lost for reason. While individual reasoning is so flawed, while an individual rider is pretty poor at making the elephants do what the rider wants; but if you put us together in groups in the right way so that we can correct each others' motivated reasoning, human beings and human groups can actually end up producing pretty rational behavior. So this is my main debate with the rationalists. A lot of people accuse me of being an anti-rationalist who thinks that reason doesn't exist or doesn't matter. And I say, no, it's just that individual reasoning is really, really unreliable, or rather it reliably plays the role of a lawyer or press secretary. But why science works so well is because, while we can't disprove our own ideas--we are bad at that--boy, are we good at disproving each others' ideas. So, science ends up being pretty rational, even though it is made of individually flawed scientists. Russ: Yeah. Vernon Smith says something similar on this program a few years back. He won the Nobel Prize the same year that Danny Kahneman did and they both were experimentalists. Kahneman emphasized the irrationality of the human mind, and what Vernon Smith's interested in is how markets push irrational people into rational decisions. Guest: Yeah. Perfect. I love it. Let's give that guy the Nobel Prize. Russ: I do too. But of course I would like it, given my ideology, so I have to be careful. But there is no doubt that individuals don't make great decisions and markets make pretty good ones. So there's something going on there. Guest: Yeah, you aggregate--that's right, the weaknesses cancel out. Russ: Well, I don't know if they cancel out, but something's going on. It's actually, I think, a subject for a different kind of research agenda than the experimental kind, that the experimentalists do in labs, to think about how that process works. I don't know if anyone's written successfully on that. I think it would be a good idea.
32:09Russ: Let's talk about your metaphor of our individualism versus our social side. You just mentioned that how we work well in groups and of course sometimes we work well in groups to hurt other groups; sometimes we work well in groups to create beautiful, extraordinary things, like a symphony performance. You say humans are 90% chimp and 10% bee. First, say what you mean by that. And my question, which I don't think you talk about much in the book, is: Where do you get those numbers from? Guest: Okay, sure. The easy part is the numbers I just made up as being approximate. Russ: Yeah, I understand. It's not 90.3, 90.7. Guest: Yeah. So what does it mean? There's so much written on the evolution of morality. And this especially started in the 1960s. So, Charles Darwin was really concerned about the evolution of morality, because here he was talking about the importance of competition, and why is it that animals sometimes cooperate? And what about humans? Morality seemed to be something of a challenge for his theory. So he had a lot of really good ideas about it, one of which was that sometimes a virtue might put one at a disadvantage relative to your peers, but if it helps the whole group and your group is competing with other groups, then this virtue can spread in that way, because your group is more successful. So this is known as group selection. And Darwin thought that perhaps as one of several processes human morality was a result of group selection as tribes vied with other tribes. And lots of people loved this idea that we are born to be cooperative. But it was applied in very wooly-headed ways. In the 1960s George Wilson basically demolished the idea and showed that if you just do very simple mathematical models that any sort of genetic basis for being altruistic might help your group but if there is a selfish person in the next tent over from you, that person will on average have more children than you and the genes for it will disappear. So that became dogma. Richard Dawkins really the developed the idea further in The Selfish Gene. That idea really became dogma: No group selection; there is no group selection. And so for 30 years all anyone talked about was reciprocal altruism, which is, you can easily show--Darwin suggested this--how we can't evolve to be uniformly nice, but boy, if we can recognize who is likely to return the favor, it is adaptive to be nice to that person. So, reciprocal altruism and kin selection. For 30 years that's all anyone ever wrote about. It got so boring, I couldn't stand to read these analyses in books, in the 1980s and 1990s. And in the 1990s then this guy, David Sloan Wilson at Binghamton University had been arguing all along that, No, no, the models actually work for humans because as long as we have a way of stamping out free riding and punishing cheaters, actually you can get group selection models working well. And I read his book, Darwin's Cathedral, and I found it very, very persuasive. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that if you are just thinking about morality as altruism, you don't need group selection. But if you expand the moral domain as I did and you are interested in group loyalty and respect for authority and the idea of making things sacred, boy, these things don't make a lot of sense from reciprocal altruism. But they make perfect sense if you think about tribes competing with other tribes. And if you think as Darwin did that group cohesion matters when you have intergroup competition. So, what I'm saying here is that almost all human nature can be explained without group selection. We are 90% chimps. Chimps are not really group-selected. So, as Frans de Waal says, all the building blocks of human morality can be found in chimps. And I think almost all can. So that's the 90% chimp. But I think that, beginning with Homo heidelbergensis, which is about 800,000 years ago, beginning with that species, which is thought first to tame fire, have campsites, hunt large game cooperatively, bring it back to the campsite, butcher it--well, this group probably also, they had spears. They probably also were engaged in intergroup conflict. And it's this species that also begins to have cumulative cultural evolutions--the first signs of culture building on previous innovations. So, that I think was our Rubicon--Homo heidelbergensis, 800-500,000 years ago. So that opens up the possibility of true group selection aided by gene culture co-evolution. Now, bees are group selected. The bee doesn't live or die based on its ability to outcompete other bees. Bees live and die based on the hive's ability to prevail over other hives. So that's what I mean by we are 10% bee. We have a short period, maybe just a couple hundred thousand years, in which I believe there was group selection, adding a kind of group-selected overlay to our older human nature. And this is crucial for not just understanding war and genocide and all the ugly stuff, but patriotism, nation-building, local pride, sports. Our ability to form companies. Corporations--a corporation is, in law and in practice, a body composed of other bodies. So I think the evidence is all around us that we are groupish. And that's what I'm trying to capture in that metaphor--we are 10% bee. We have a little bit in common with bees because we went through a group selection process.
37:34Russ: I'm deeply in agreement with that. It's one of the things I think libertarians sometimes miss, which is our desire to be part of something larger than our self. I think the Left romanticizes, say, our democracy or political process and takes away some of the realities of it to make it look more appealing than it actually is. But I think libertarians have no ability, almost no ability, to even appreciate the idea of the body politic or collective decision-making. And I understand the harm of it, the dangers of it. But it seems to be an important part of our humanity in lots of ways. And for some people, their political persuasion is their religion; for other people, their sports is their religion; and for some folks, their literal religion is their religion. Let's talk about that. I like your UVA, University of Virginia, Saturday afternoon religious experience. Talk about that and talk about how sports, religion, and all these things have many things in common. Guest: Yeah. That's what I found so--so, to make the structure of the book clear, the first part of the book is about the idea that intuition comes first, strategic reasoning second. And you and I already talked about that. The middle part of the book is based on the idea that there is more to morality than harm and fairness. And that's all the moral taste buds, the moral foundations. The third part of the book is based on the idea that morality binds and blinds. And it's because I saw so much the same behavior--if you read about initiation rites in non-Western societies and what it takes to turn a boy into a man and make him feel part of the group and a warrior who will defend the tribe's honor, and you look at what gangs do in the inner cities--same stuff. You look at the rituals, the way cults work to incorporate people--same stuff. You look at what a lot of religions do, a lot of sports teams do. Now even though they are doing more, more complicated. But there are all these different ways of achieving the same end, which is changing the individual to a group member. I'm very ungroups. I'm rational atheist; I identified more with Spock than with Kirk growing up watching Star Trek. But at least as a scholar and a social scientist I see all this stuff. And I felt it at times. So I began studying it that way. And I think your point about libertarians--that's what I've found in my research on the different psychological types--libertarians are the most individualistic, the least emotional, the least sociable. They are the most rational. They are the smartest. Sounds like if you lean libertarian and if you recognize that portrait of libertarian, it sounds like you at least can rationally recognize that most people are really groupish, even if you are not. And so that's what I'm trying to do in this part of the book, is appeal to everybody to just explain that sort of bizarreness of our species. You look at sports, look at people going to football games in sub-zero weather painting their faces and taking their shirts off. By any rational calculation [?] intuitive, it's crazy, unless you realize that we are 10% bee. Russ: Yeah, and I think libertarians have handicapped themselves tremendously by failing to realize that most people aren't like us. Guest: That's right. I agree. Russ: Most people are groupish, most people are emotional. They don't want an analytical argument. Most people don't. They want an argument that appeals to the heart; and they want to feel part of something. So the libertarian--obviously there are many different strands of libertarianism, but I think the worst strand is the one that is totally individualistic and totally analytical; and that appeals powerfully to an analytical individualist. And then they can't understand why no one wants to go with them. And the answer is because you've made it unattractive.
41:17Guest: Here, I think we should bring in the idea of stories and narrative. And I know you've written two books that try to get at this. So, I must first ask you: Why did you write your books? Was it because you recognized this problem? Russ: Yeah, that's part of it. I've written actually three novels. They are all designed to touch the heart, because I think that's the overwhelming way that people accept or adopt ideas. And if we only as people of freedom, people who care about liberty, only couch our ideas in blackboard graphs and charts, we lose. Guest: Yeah. That's right. And here I would also bring in Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute [AEI]-- Russ: He's trying to do the same thing. Guest: He's trying to do the same thing for Conservatives. Exactly. That's right. That the arguments for the free market system can't be about productivity and graphs. Russ: Getting rich. Guest: They have to be that markets end up solving poverty; markets end up helping people, markets end up doing things that people on the Left would approve of. Russ: You, as we've talked about, are sympathetic, at least in concept, to Conservatives, and in certain issues. But what I've noticed--and this goes back--I'm going to lump Conservatives and libertarians together. Obviously in many ways they don't belong together. But in many areas they do overlap. They overlap certainly in economic policy. Excuse me--they tend to. I think there is a problem with the pro-business wing of the Conservative movement, which libertarians totally reject. But let's put that to the side. In 2001, James Buchanan, Nobel Laureate, wrote a rather extraordinary op ed in the Wall Street Journal, where he said that classical liberalism--and by that he meant a whole bunch of things, but one of the things it includes is free market policies--has lost the moral high ground. And you suggest in the book, implicitly, that because of these different moral centers that we have in our brain, that in many ways Conservatives, and you could argue libertarians who are free-market oriented, have an advantage, because they've got all these additional arguments. But I agree with Buchanan. I think the free-market viewpoint has lost a lot of its moral fiber; has trouble making a moral case to skeptics and independents. And we see this today when Republicans are trying to stop, say, unemployment benefits from being extended for--I think they've been in place for 5 years instead of the normal 39 weeks. But Republicans cannot make a moral case. And therefore they are going to vote to extend it, which they've done so far. What's going on there? Guest: Well, I don't know that free market ideology has lost the moral high ground, in that the evidence of history, which was ambiguous during the 20th century and which looked pretty bad in the 1930s for free market policies, obviously scored a big win with the fall of Communism. But what I'm seeing--here, I am in the business school--is the incredible rise of India and China and so many other countries, which has led to the rapid fall of poverty. I mean, this is one of the biggest events in human history: poverty rates are plummeting around the world. Because whenever a nation turns toward free markets, bang!, their poverty level drops. Maybe there are exceptions here and there, but in general. So, I think that free market have in a sense, won, on the global scale. Now, I think what's happening is that there are so many different forms of capitalism, which vary in their corruption, efficient markets are wonderful things but business leaders, government officials--there is so much to be gained by warping markets and taking kickbacks, bribes, rents. So, to the extent that free market societies in practice are corrupted, then it triggers outrage. It triggers the fairness foundation, that these guys are cheating; it triggers the liberty/oppression foundation and that these guys are bullying us. So, I spent a little time at Occupy Wall Street. I arrived at NYU--I moved here in 2011, just as Occupy Wall Street was starting. And there's a lot to hate about a system that overall is the only system that actually generates wealth and leads to good society. That's the conundrum. And I think that if the free market folks were less ideological--as I said, morality binds and blinds--if they would say, Markets are wonderful things but when left to their own devices you can bet that there's going to be monopoly; there are going to be distortions of information, there are going to be all kinds of terrible externalities foisted on the environment and the poor and animals. So, if the free market types would be less worshipping of Milton Friedman and a little more focused on how do we get markets to actually be efficient, I think they would regain the high ground pretty quickly. Russ: I totally disagree with that. But that's a long-- Guest: Okay. But tell me where I'm wrong. Because I'm just trying these ideas out. I'm new in the business school. I'm especially interested in--I've sort of swallowed the Kool-Aid on the power of markets, but I want to be convinced that they can actually deliver in ways that are not exploitative. Russ: Well, I think the big question is when you try to fix them using the not-so-healthy, not-so-perfect political system, what you end up with would seem to matter. Guest: Right. Russ: I want to push this in that direction. Which is, it seems to me, and I want your psychologist hat now: It seems to me that people care a lot about appearances rather than reality in policy areas. So, let's take the minimum wage. The minimum wage, I believe, is overwhelmingly bad for poor people. I could be wrong. I'm totally willing to accept the possibility that the empirical evidence is otherwise. I happen to know something about that empirical evidence and how hard it is to actually tease out the independent effect. But a lot of economists have come to the view, which is very different from how it used to be, that the minimum wage is a good idea and we ought to increase it. I think they are wrong, but a lot of people feel that way. And they've got "evidence" to support it, but it's not very good evidence. And it's not very good evidence on my side, either, by the way. I don't want to suggest that I've got the good evidence and they've got the bad evidence. I don't think that's true. But my point is that--let me take a better example: Education. We ask people in a survey: Should we spend more on education? A lot of people say yes. The answer is independent of how much we already spend. It's independent of what the impact has been. And a lot of it is--let's just talk about social circles. I don't want to be one of those people who doesn't like children. And my answer is always: I like children; that's why I don't want to spend more on education. It's not working. It's hurting children. We've lost a generation of children, two generations now, kids in the inner city, through this top down education system. But they say we just need to spend more. And so the moral high ground--my side, which one is decentralize education, which is something of a crapshoot, because it looks scary and uncertain. The other side just says: What, you don't like the children? So it seems to me a lot of our debate on the Left/Right axis or the free market, top down vs. bottom up axis--we lose, those of us who want less government, more bottom up, because we can't in general make a very convincing moral case. Do you think that's true? Guest: Absolutely. This is so--we reason not to find the truth. We reason to find arguments that we like. We reason to defend our reputation. So in general we are like a public relations firm. We are much more concerned with appearance than with reality. And this is the big problem with voting. People always wonder: Why do people vote against their self-interest? Answer: no matter which way you vote, it doesn't affect your self-interest unless the election is won by a single vote. Voting is expressive. It's an expressive act. And if you vote for--more welfare or more school spending--you are saying you are a compassionate person. Russ: I'm a good guy. Guest: Yeah. So, voting, policy. And this is even with the minimum wage. I can't see any argument--whatever you think of the minimum wage--I can't see any argument against indexing it for inflation. But apparently legislators never do because they want the credit--when they raise the minimum wage, they want the credit for it. So this is the problem. And you are right to say that the political system is so inept, and it's in part because even more than normal life, politicians live and die by appearances, not by reality. There is no feedback mechanism by which a bad policy will lead to a person or a party being kicked out. The delays are so long; the complexities are such. So the political system doesn't evolve. Policy doesn't evolve. In the biological world, innovations that are maladaptive fade out. In the business world, innovations that don't bring in more customers fade out. In the policy and politics world, there is no corrective mechanism; there is no evolution. It's a disaster, of course. Russ: There's some. Guest: You're right, there is some. But it's pretty poor. And this is where at least in a Parliamentary system, at least one party, you've got responsible party government. So, a party is in control; if things aren't working out, you punish the party. But we with divided government, nobody knows whose fault it is. Russ: Yeah.
50:38Russ: Well, let's turn to economists. Economists use some moral reasoning, just like everybody else. Talk about your work in that area. Guest: Again, now that I'm in a business school and I'm beginning to shift my research away from politics and more toward business and business ethics, so just for example, I read--there was an interesting essay by Paul Krugman last year in which he argued that the austerians[?]--actually, I have a quote from him right here. The austerians, the people who favor austerity, they tend to be Conservative. He said, "Some [powerful people] have a visceral sense that suffering is good, that we must pay a price for past sins" [brackets from Michael Kinsley--Econlib Ed.]. And I thought that made sense and I looked at our data set from YourMorals.org, and what I found--in fact[?], there's a great question in there. Here. We had a question measuring the Protestant work ethic, we had an item: 'Life would have very little meaning if we never had to suffer'. Well, it turns out Liberals generally say No, I disagree with that; and Conservatives say Yes. Another one is: 'The world would be a better place'--let me find the exact wording of it--'if we let unsuccessful people fail and suffer the consequences.' Really steep slope on that one. Liberals say definitely No, and Conservatives say definitely Yes. So, if you think about economists who are thinking about austerity, what's the proper response to a fiscal meltdown; and if you have this sort of Protestant work ethic, you know, a binge should be followed by a purge, you are going to look for the data that supports austerity. Austerity policies are going to be pleasing: it's the punishment after the sin. And you'll find it, because as long as there is ambiguity, you'll find the evidence you want. Whereas Liberals are focused on the poor; they are focused on the greedy bastards at the top who made off with all the gains--they left the poor holding the bag. They are going to look for the evidence that austerity doesn't work. Now, I happen to think that Krugman is right on this. I happen to think that austerity is a foolish policy in the wake of a--but I'm not an economist; what do I know? All I'm saying is that everybody--Left, Right, libertarian--when they approach an ambiguous field of controversial findings, they start with their own moral intuitions. Those guide them to prefer certain conclusions. They look for the evidence that those conclusions are right. They always find that evidence. And this is why--what's the famous saying--if you laid economists end to end you wouldn't reach a conclusion? This is why you can't get closure on some pretty basic empirical claims in economics, if they are ideologically laden. Would you agree with that claim? Russ: Well, I think it's worse than that, actually. I think it's, because we deal in a multi-causal world and because the economy is complex, because there's an infinite number of things that change at the same time, as you say, you can always cherry-pick the data in a way, you can always tell an ex post, ad hoc story. And economists on the Left and on the Right are really good at that. But you are saying something stronger than that, which is which side you pick to align with is based on your moral principles, not your scientific understanding. It's not just that there are two different sides. It's that people line up with sides that they are already pre-conditioned to line up with. Guest: Yeah. That's the whole point of the heritability part of my story. So, let's take the case of compassion. Some kids are, like if they see animal cruelty, it's so painful for them. They are really affected by cruelty. Other kids, you know, they'll swing cats into trees. Now, if compassion is incredibly powerful in you, you will then resonate more toward Leftist arguments about the poor than you will towards libertarian arguments about the importance of competition or individualism or whatever. Similarly, some people are very low on disgust sensitivity. Others people are very high on it. If you tend to see or feel that certain things are contaminated, others are sacred, you'll respond more to arguments about sacredness and to some religious practices, say in Judaism or Catholicism, that treat certain things as sacred or off limits. So, what I'm saying, as we know, every aspect of personality is heritable. Identical twins reared apart tend to be similar. So as identical twins grow up in different families and are exposed to political argument, when they reach college, let's say, they will gravitate to the ones that resonate with their innate personality. That's exactly what I'm saying. Economics as a field, once it became so mathematical, it began to attract more high systemizers, probably more people with Asperger's, so economics is going to attract, you know, more people who are very rational, very high systemizers, relatively low on empathy. Russ: To be fair to Paul Krugman, he argues relentlessly that he's just a scientist and it's the other folks who have these biases. But I actually suspect that both sides have these biases. Being an austerian myself, and admitting to my bias, I can certainly make the case that the stimulus didn't work very well. But Paul seems to make the case easily on the other side. Strangely enough. Guest: Yeah. I think Paul is quite a passionate partisan. So, while I think he's a good economist, nobody is just a good--well, I shouldn't say 'nobody'-- Russ: You can. Guest: Certainly someone as passionate as he can't be just an open-minded scientist. Russ: It's hard. It's difficult. And having said that, however, I do believe that there are historic episodes that add to knowledge in economics. I don't think it's all, whatever you want it to say and the numbers don't tell us anything. I think there are some episodes in economic history where people do learn things, that a consensus does build around, even on Left and Right. Just to pick one we've mentioned before, what causes inflation. A lot of people say it's an increase in the money supply. Though, having said that, we do have a time now where there is an increase in the money supply without inflation. People debate about why that is. But what is true-- Guest: Because the world is multi-factorial, multi-causal. Russ: Yeah, it is. But what is true is, I don't think there are very many if any episodes of inflation without a money supply increase. It's not the same thing. But that point I think is correct. And I do want to encourage, I'll put a link up to it, over at EconLog, the sister-blog of EconTalk at the Library of Economics and Liberty, Scott Sumner has been chronicling some of the recent statements by some economists claiming to predict the effects of monetarism or stimulus. And there's some pretty strong evidence. It's never conclusive, though. And that's why there's always a chance to tell a story later.
57:16Russ: We're almost out of time. How has the academic community taken your work? I have two more questions. This is the first one. You've had a very successful non-academic book. That usually makes academic folks annoyed, and they tend to disparage it because obviously it's tawdry to be successful. How has your book been received by the academic community? Guest: So, I think what you say about how academics would look down on popular trade books--I think that was very true up until the 1990s. But I think especially in the Social Sciences, there have been so many good trade books, starting with Steve Pinker and [?] Wilson and the literary agent John Brockman brings a lot of these out. I found that actually my academic colleagues have liked both of my books, and I don't think I've lost any credibility for speaking to a broad audience or writing trade books. In part, my recent book was sort of riding the giant wave of findings, from neuroscience, primatology, about the importance of intuition and emotion and evolution. So, in part The Righteous Mind is really just chronicling major trends. So, in that sense I'm still very much, I'm part of the movement and I don't think I'm seen as a rebel or a crazy person. Russ: But your former colleague, Brian Nosek, was a guest on EconTalk, and he, along with others, has been working on the credibility and replicability of psychological experiments. You say you are riding a wave of findings. Do you think they'll stand up? Guest: Yeah. So we have a huge problem in psychology, which turns out to be common to most of the sciences--the social sciences--and medicine, which is that the publication process makes it very easy for people to get results that are not replicable, that are false, that are spurious, but that you can still get just if you just vary things enough-- Russ: Do enough studies-- Guest: Torture the data [?] as we say-- Russ: Fool yourself. Guest: So Brian is doing fantastic work, holding our feet to the fire and saying we've got to up our game. Look at it this way: something as simple as posting your data online is going to stop people from doing the shenanigans. It's common practice in my field and in many others to try lots of different statistical tests until you get one that works. And you could just decide that. But of course you could just tie in with anything when there's ambiguity. So Brian is saying, and what others are saying, is: Let's post our data online. And that way you'll be held accountable and responsible. So that would be a big improvement. That's one problem. I've been calling attention to another problem, which is because there are essentially no Conservatives in Social Psychology--I have only been able to find one. So this means that our science, our tendency, our need for those to take the other side of the bet, for those to challenge confirmation bias--it breaks down on ideological matters. Especially race and gender. So we have a problem there, too. We have a few problems. Well, they are common to the sciences, especially the Social Sciences, and especially Psychology. We have several problems. But I think it is ultimately self-corrective. After scandals. We've had a number of scandals of people who actually just made up data. And so this is part of what has given people like Brian both the push to do something about it and the respect that it's painful. What Brian is asking us to do is going to be difficult; it's going to be harder. But I think we are learning. We are going to improve our standards and produce better science as we go forth. Russ: Last question: do you worry your book will be used by political players to shape messages that move us further apart politically? I know you make a strong plea for bipartisanship at the end of the book, and how--just humanity, it's good to try to understand our fellows and people who don't agree with us are human beings; they actually have good motivations sometimes. But political players, it's a blood sport. Your insights into the human brain--do you think there's a temptation to use them for purposes that are not so-- Guest: Oh, my God, yeah. One of my former students worked on the Obama campaign. He said he saw copies of the book around political headquarters. Liberal commentators on the web will say, Oh, you should read this book; it will tell you how to speak to Conservatives. So I know it's being used that way on the Left. And that was really part of my original impetus for writing the book was back when I was a partisan Liberal, I wanted the Left to win. So, I know the book is being used on the Left. I believe it's being used on the Right as well. But I'm encouraged at least that readers who are not active in politics, readers from what they write on Amazon and elsewhere, really are having the kind of experience that I myself had from looking at both sides. And that my students in my classes have. Which is: Hey, wow, it doesn't change my politics, but, man, I see they are not as stupid and crazy as I had thought. And so I'm very encouraged by the general reaction that most readers are having.

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COMMENTS (54 to date)
lloydfour writes:

That's me, the analytic mind. I need to add more of the empathetic side I am ordering this book.

Andrew Wagner writes:

It would be interesting to map the Six Types of Morality to Arnold Kling's three Languages of Politics. Liberty vs Oppression maps directly. Fairness vs Cheating maps well to Civilization vs Barbarism. Freedom vs Coercion maps well to Authority vs Subversion.

MG writes:

I am only very early into the interview, but I sympathize with Russ' skepticism with the first experiment cited -- puppets in a hill. My questions is more rooted in psychology. How was the clip being shown shot? For example, does it start with a shot of the puppet trying to climb; with the one sitting atop; or a panorama showing both. I suspect it was the first, which makes sense from a story perspective, but it may lead the kids to assume they are the puppet being pushed. So how much of meanness is about perspective?

DougT writes:

Definitely going to be a favorite for 2014! It's amazing the winding road Haidt takes as he--a materialist/relativist--ends up with transcendent values.

My question for Haidt has always been, where does he get his six axes ("types of morality")? Were they mailed down to him in a postcard from the sky? He assigns transcendent authority to his rubric, as a way to categorize ALL other values, but where does that authority come from? I could just as easily come op with other foundations.

His self-confidence in his "moral reasoning" is reminiscent of Kohlberg--who asserts that only he and Martin Luther King were capable of stage-six moral reasoning.

It's so comforting to put oneself among the most advanced group. "Ours is a high and lonely destiny."

BZ writes:

1. Agree with DougT -- going to be hard to top for 2014.
2. The role of justification in reason was talked about, but not much about the role of signaling, which is surprising considering the guests focus on social/group interactions.
3. The observation about the blind spot of libertarians is "spot" on (pun intended). As a libertarian, I've yet to be convinced that there is such a thing as "collective decision making" in the real physical observable world. The only question to me is the scope of control of individual decisions, whether from the top or at the bottom. This is a lesson I learned before embracing individualism when working for a company that modeled human behavior in meetings, or what you might call small-scale "collective" decision making.

Andrew' writes:

Psychopaths are incurable. That also implies that non-psychopaths are non-psychopathable, though it can be approximated.

Wasn't it Chomsky's assertion that we simply don't (can't!) teach kids as fast as we observe them to learn. That's almost obvious- especially if you have kids.

Musca writes:

The early part of this interview actually undermines Hume's epistemology even if the middle appears to confirm his skepticism of individual reason.

By "knowledge of physics", we can assume Haidt to mean that the outcome of certain physical interactions can be predicted well by humans when the interactions are observed, even if those particular ones haven't been experienced before. If true, then that moves causality from being something abstracted to something directly perceived. Hume argued against the latter as against innate ideas but, as an empiricist, seemed skeptical about abstraction generally.

This has all sorts of fantastic implications for induction, the scientific method, and just about all of post-Enlightenment thought. Buckle up!

Since the minimum wage is mentioned, and Russ said, several months ago, that he'd like to know more about the Australian high minimum, here's about as comprehensive a paper, by Rob Bray, as I've ever seen.

Isegoria writes:
Let's look at the people who appear to be victims in this society and if they themselves think they are victims, that's enough of a reason for us to condemn it. So, African slaves did everything they could to flee; they hated it; there is no reason to think that this was a legitimate moral order that they approved.
This may shock your audience — I dare say it should — but many slaves, at least at the time of Abolition, did not see themselves as victims, did not try to flee, and did not see the system as illegitimate, as you can see from the slave narratives collected by the WPA as the last living slaves were in their dotage.
Arnim Sauerbier writes:

The subject of the interview has a fair amount of overlap with Joyce's "The Evolution of Morality"

The title pretty much sums the book up. What role did evolution (in tribes) play in developing our inherited (in social structures as well as biological brains) sense of right and wrong?

Thanks to Russ for another thought provoking interview. Econtalk is to me one of the best podcasts in the English language.

[broken html fixed. --Econlib Ed.]

Musca writes:

Assuming the moral foundations or personal temperaments Haidt identifies are correct, is there any research showing how mutable they are in any one person?

If our temperaments or personalities, and therefore values, are set from birth, some unfortunate implications follow:

  • is there any point in having a discussion with someone outside your foundational group, if your chance of convincing him to change values is zero? After all, reason is only being used for rationalization of pre-existing viewpoints which stem from personality, not conviction.

  • is there any point in political involvement by libertarian-leaning individuals if, by their temperaments, they are in a permanent-minority status and will never see their kind of society emerge?

  • how much of Western values and culture stem from immutable temperament? If the basis is highly genetic, as implied, then what explains the adoption of greater individual autonomy across the world?

cswaters writes:

This is the first time in I've ever felt the need to comment on an Econ talk episode.
It is disappointing that "centrist" would find the idea that those who agree with austerity measures deep down favor them because they think people need to suffer a plausible explanation. It must be because the free market types "worship at the alter of Milton Friedman." I think Russ put those same exact words in the mouth of the Laura's brother in the "Invisible Heart."
Lastly, it's quite strange that Mr. Haidt didn't come across sanctity/purity issues with left leaning folk. Environmental issues and ideas like Mother Earth, Gaia, Renewable energy, GMO's, etc are often surrounded by terms like "not natural", "polluting" , "clean", "man made" (as opposed to nature which is good). These beliefs are much more prevalent on the left. I wonder why they weren't picked up in Haidt's 'research.'

Stephen writes:

Fantastic episode. I disagreed with a fair bit, but I loved his breakdown of the types of morality. But I think he carried us only 70% of the way to the full spectrum, and I'd like to carry him the other 30%:

He listed 6 types of morality, and broke them up into traditional vs leftist/"WEIRD" applications of each morality. But he wasn't able to identify the leftist applications of the last 3, PLUS he omitted a uniquely leftist morality that has developed in the last 50 years. So here we go:

1. Care vs Harm.
Fine as is.

2. Fairness vs Cheating.
Traditional application: Proportionality.
Leftist application: Equality.
Fine as is.

3. Liberty vs Oppression.
Traditional application: Suspicious of centralized authoritarian governments.
Leftist application: Suspicious of companies and free trade.
Fine as is.

Now he drops the ball...but I'll pick it up and run with it.

4. Authority vs Subversion.
Traditional: Respect for parents, elders, religious leaders, religious texts, etc.
Leftist: Unquestioning respect for the authority of the white lab coat. To even question the academic establishment, the IPCC, Darwinism, etc is considered "backtalk". See documentary "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed"

5. Loyalty vs Betrayal. (Blood is thicker than water)
Traditional: Grouping by national identity (patriotism), civic pride, duty to family.
Leftist: Grouping and dividing by race identity, sexual identity, income identity. For a black man to be a Republican is a betrayal to his race; he's an "Uncle Tom". The left ostracizes such sinners like they did Bill Cosby.

6. Sanctity vs Defilement.
Traditional: Haidt's description is good enough.
Leftist: Mother Earth, Gaia (credit to @cswaters above).

And a new leftist moral foundation he missed...

7. Acceptance vs Judgment.
Look what happened with Mr Duck Dynasty. How the left lambasted him as an evil, hate-filled, bigot and demanded that he lose his livelihood. All because, when asked, he modestly identified homosex as a sin. For many on the left, judgment is now the ultimate sin, and it warrants harsh punishments. For me to say "Islam is false" is seen as the height of offense and arrogance. The left doesn't allow me to treat my beliefs as beliefs, but merely as preferences.

Michael Byrnes writes:

cswaters wrote:

"It is disappointing that "centrist" would find the idea that those who agree with austerity measures deep down favor them because they think people need to suffer a plausible explanation."

Honestly, the "suffering" narrative is out there, and you don't have to look very hard to find it.

Where Krugman goes over the top, in this regard, is his attribution of the need for suffering to all "Austerians". Roberts, who noted in this episode that he is an Austerian, is just one of many examples of Austerians who do not favor suffering. Scott Sumner is another. There are lots more to be found without looking too hard.

Still, there's a grain of truth in Krugman's assertion. Here is Michael Knisley responding to Krugman:

"I don’t think suffering is good, but I do believe that we have to pay a price for past sins, and the longer we put it off, the higher the price will be. And future sufferers are not necessarily different people than the past and present sinners."

I think where the "suffering is necessary" crowd (which includes some but not all Austerians) goes most wrong is that they really calling for some people (by and large not themselves) to suffer in payment for the sins of others (say, the Dick Fulds and Jimmy Caynes who are largely immune). As summarized by Ryan Avent:

"We, rather than some divine agent of economic karma or physical economic law, are the ones causing the pain. And just because we don't know any better now doesn't mean we'll never learn. Once upon a time humans burned heretics at the stake. Much more recently, they thought that raising interest rates to protect an international gold standard was a useful approach to global depression. The beauty of bad ideas is that they can be replaced by good ones. And so I dream of a day when the only people who suffer from money-losing investments are the money-losing investors, whose only penance is lost money."

Amren Miller writes:

Talking about morality on the left and right regarding the minimum wage raises typically a false canard these days. I wish the issue wasn't over whether or not we should raise it but rather what we can do in a reasonable way to ensure a fair wage.

People don't like unions, ok I get that; they have their problems. But if conservative-leaning economists would get beyond the never-ending arguments of supply and demand for a while, they'll see that their are other points of concern that we should be focused on.

For instance, and this is my main point of concern, is that stores get full of people even after wages drop. You could consider the labor they perform after that occurs as rent that goes to the capitalists. It doesn't seem like there is a limit to what shareholders can get.

So my main argument here is that we should not be focused on unions versus non-unions or what the minimum wage should be even if we have it at all, but what is the mechanism that is able to balance the whole thing out. Because I don't think supply and demand will work to fix everything, unless perhaps we have full employment. In the meantime, capitalists will just use excuses to give themselves more.

I always talk about Walmart, since I worked there for three years. They are pretty good at making excuses, including that they can pay less to workers because most of them are young. Fine, I guess being young, I don't have a problem with that per se; I just don't consider it a good reason for shareholders to take more. In a perfect world I would rather just have everyone dictate their own pay. I would have been ok, being young, taking less, since I don't have a family and would have blown a lot of it on junk anyway. I think this would either be a good libertarian experiment or perhaps even an anarchist experiment. It's a shame we can't try more things.

But the other thing I find pallatable is germanys co-determination law; half of the board of directors must be made up of labor. It's not just Karl Marx who talked about the conflict between capital and labor, but also, I believe, Andrew Carnegie.

The conservative arguments that capitalism must stay the way it is in the US are actually pretty flimsy. I have heard some pretty bad ones. One is that the board of directors and shareholdrrs provide a directionality to the business and I guess the implication is that they must have absolute dictatorship powers to do that. But people and their lives on the ground level are also a part of that directionality. Shooting for profit first will usually make your company stay solvent and keep it around, but you cannot neglect the people in the organization and just test treat them as second class citizens to the shareholders and hence just something like civilian casualties if something goes wrong during the quest for profits and nothing else cause you can lose business over time if you don't treat your employees well.

The other argument is that capitalists deserve all the profit because they guide people to be productive and make sure the company makes enough money for payroll or something to that effect. Well, that may be true, but if I can lure you, Russ, with a little Hayek.....that tends to be a dismissal of the argument for dispersed knowledge in society. You might be able to say that capitalism isn't functioning as well as it could be today for the same exact reason that communism failed. It couldn't make good use of the dispersion of knowledgeamong workers.

Capitalism is more top heavy today than people want to admit. I would even say, somewhat facetiously, that it periodically teeters on the edge of communism, with its centralized shareholder command economy dictatorship. And whats even more frightening is that these shareholders can be single individuals like Carl Icahn.

Long story short, maybe the point of my argument is that we need to stop arguing about the minimum wage. It's a faux argument and I get tired when that seems to be the only issue at hand when we really should be focusing one the bigger picture. Yes abolish it but not without the introduction of something else to counter balance capitalism, especially for at times when we are not at full employment

Callum writes:

Wow, Jonathan's profile of the typical libertarian describes me and my position toward the collective perfectly:

"Libertarians are the most individualistic, the least emotional, the least sociable. They are the most rational. They are the smartest. Sounds like if you lean libertarian and if you recognize that portrait of libertarian, it sounds like you at least can rationally recognize that most people are really groupish, even if you are not."

I both recognize and identify with this portrait of the libertarian. As such, I feel like a cultural dissident and intellectual minority on a daily basis. It has driven me into commerce, an activity where I can serve the needs of the individual while recognizing no group or collective authority besides that of the market.

Doug Fechter writes:

Excellent podcast. I'm not sure I agree, though, that libertarians (I am one) have no "desire to be part of something larger than our self." I think we simply prefer that it be voluntary.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

Data point: I fell off of my bicycle, broke my arm, and was laying in the street. A passerby in a car saw me, picked me up, and voluntarily took me to a hospital.

Regarding the suggestions by your guest, I think it is the electorate that needs to think more like economists. Only that would lead to a change in the views of politicians.

mk writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address and for rudeness. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

John writes:

I have a problem with this idea-that the right/libertarian wants to inflict pain after a sin is committed. The real question is: what is the quickest path back to prosperity and what will prevent the "bad" economic result from happening again? Does prolonging the "correction" really solve the problem?

Krugman and all like him want to inject an undefinable amount of money into the economic system - money which draws people and corporations to want to have a share in it by rent seeking or through various crony capital schemes. This injection of money creates money stability uncertainty - will it be worth the same in the future and doesn't allow the capital to be allocated in an efficient manner. And on top of that, major legislation was passed that no one read and no one really knows still what the law is or what it will be which the President is constantly lawlessly changing and that has created economic uncertainty. And then, still, on top of that, does handing out fish indefinitely really help the poor? Do people help the poor or does the government?

Again what economic policy creates the shortest path back to prosperity?

The evidence from what the democrats did after 1931 and 2008 clearly shows it is not what they did and are doing! Who then is cruel and who is really making the poor pay for "their" sins?

A person does not become righteous or virtuous by passing off their moral responsibilities onto the government.

Mark Crankshaw writes:
“It's one of the things I think libertarians sometimes miss, which is our desire to be part of something larger than our self. I think the Left romanticizes, say, our democracy or political process and takes away some of the realities of it to make it look more appealing than it actually is. But I think libertarians have no ability, almost no ability, to even appreciate the idea of the body politic or collective decision-making. And I understand the harm of it, the dangers of it. But it seems to be an important part of our humanity in lots of ways.”

Speaking as a libertarian (but, of course, not for libertarians), I don’t “miss” that fact that other people desire to be part of something larger than our self. On the contrary, I recognize this desire, but for a variety of philosophical reasons, I simply do not share this desire and find the impulse alien and repulsive. The vast majority of mankind has (and continues to have) a desire for the “certainties” and “comforts” of faith and religion. I do not share that desire as I find “faith” and the worlds’ innumerable religious creeds equally alien and repulsive. I cannot “appreciate” the desire for “manufactured reality” in others.

The unavoidable fact is that any “grouping” of human beings is a purely subjective mental construct. Individual human beings exist objectively and externally. The existence of a “group”, be that a family, nation, body politic, or the government is, in sharp contrast, subjective and internal. A “group”, “society” or any “collective” exists only within the minds of those individuals that have conceptualized the group; they do not exist within the minds of those individuals that have not conceptualized the group. Ones feelings towards the subjective mental construct of a “group” is likewise subjective and internal.

I also do not “miss” that not everyone shares in the opinions above. Billions of people on Earth will insist that their “god” is actually an objective reality that is external to themselves. My problem is that, historically, and in many regions today, there are/were many who would kill, torture, or punish those whose assessment differ. I don’t really care if people want to “believe” in pink fluffy unicorns, but I would resent the insistence that I must consider unicorns to be objectively real as well and I despise those who will kill me should I refuse to believe.

Likewise, many people conceive that other subjective mental constructs—such as society, government, humanity—are actually an objective reality that is external to themselves. The political philosophies that I find must repugnant—fascism, socialism, communism, American “liberalism”—hold this view. They contend that the individual merely serves to further the interest of the group (be that the “nation”, “society”, or “mankind”). They contend that the individual has a host obligations to the group and that they must meet the demands of the group (“put others before yourself”—which really is the collectivist way of saying “put ME before yourself”). If the individual fails to do so, then the “group” may act to coerce, punish, (or in the extreme but hardly rare case) liquidate the individual. The most repugnant insistence these (mostly leftist) political philosophies is that the individual must be “grateful”, obedient and appreciative of the group (and the self-serving individuals that use the abstraction for individual gain): only the group gives the individual value and worth. Without the group, the individual is nothing. I believe that those who favor collectivism imagine that they are the group, that, in their conceptualization, the “group” and their own ego are fused into one, and that other individuals exist merely to serve them. They incessantly preach “sacrifice” and “altruism” to the group (that is, sacrifice and altruism by everyone else to themselves). They are, in my view, the epitome of egoistic selfishness.

I most strenuously disagree with their world view. I hold that the subjective mental constructs called groups exist merely to serve the interests of those individuals that conceptualize them. I contend that groups have obligations to individuals and that groups have merit if, and only if, they meet the demands of all individuals. If the group fails to do so, then no individual should be forced, coerced, or intimidated to do anything in the name of the offending mental abstraction. Feelings of “gratefulness”, obedience, and appreciation are purely voluntary and discretionary. I compete and cooperate only where and when it is to my advantage; if a mental construct such as a group is advantageous to me (say, the free market), then it is useful and not despised. If a mental construct (such as government or society) is disadvantageous to me, and public choice theory is replete with examples of such political activities, then I feel morally unrestrained to act to reduce the perceived injury. Those who don’t like the way I favor (such as reducing the size, scope and power of the government) are merely self-serving political competitors and I feel morally unrestrained to treat them as such.

The feeling of loathing I have towards “collectivists” stems between a striking similarity between “collectivism” and religion. They both pass off subjective mental constructs as objective reality and they do so for the same reason. “Gods” were created by man for a self-serving reason. Those who could “speak” for a “god” could control others, gain power, and hence wealth and all that it could buy. Similarly, those who peddle “collectivism” wish to be those who “speak” for the nation, society, or mankind. Life is one big cooperative competition, I agree, and the ability to put your words into the mouth of a “powerful” mental abstraction has always been the quick route to control, power and wealth. In the hands of a collectivist, history has shown that the “group” is merely the cudgel they use to gain at my expense. Being “generous” with other people’s money is no virtue. I don’t feel even the slightest moral hesitation to stridently oppose such political and moral “bad actors”.

Mort Dubois writes:

Underlying all of our political differences is the fact that we still choose to decide who is in/out of a governmental group based on geography - a very old, and increasingly disfunctional way of forcing incompatible groups of people into a single political system. So what this discussion raises in my mind is the question of whether it would be possible to form voluntarily political unions that aren't tied to place of birth/residence, and for those political unions to negotiate treaties with each other in the same way that geographic units do at present. These treaties could form a legal basis for interaction between members of different groups, no matter where the individual members happen to be located. So we could have an America in which all citizens can choose to be of one or another political party or faction, chosen voluntarily (an perhaps that choice is contracted for a particular term, say 12 years or some other non-trivial time period.) Plenty of more to be said about this concept, but in short: why does geography drive our politics? In the past, difficulty of communication over distance made any alternative plan unworkable, but that objection no longer applies. Could we come up with a better way?

(Webmaster: I apologize for being rude last week, and I thank you for your good work in keeping this forum civil. Please post my comment if you find it worthy. - Mort)

[No problem, Mort. --Econlib Ed.]

Jeff writes:

Thank you for the podcast! Always entertaining and stimulating, especially with Haidt.

A quick note with regards to intelligence and libertarian views. As a member of a several high IQ societies e.g. Mensa (and +.1%), I have made a few observations my own. Based on viewpoints expressed in society fora, I would say the libertarian association to IQ is largely a myth. It is true, based on my experience, that the highly intelligent people are more liberal on social issues, such as gay rights and legalization of marijuana. However, it is also true that they tend not to support libertarian views, whether these stem from Friedman or Rand. As a group, these individuals tend to be individualistic, but a large majority do see a need for "liberal policies" that increase equality in society. My experience is that 9 out of 10 could be characterized as some form of "liberal", while the 1 is evenly split between libertarian and republican.

Obviously I realize these are my observations based on a skewed sample and that intelligence does not equate with IQ.

Ak Mike writes:

Jeff - did you notice that Prof. Haidt did *not* say that there is a "libertarian association to IQ." He said that libertarians tend to be smart. Big difference. Haidt's comment is perfectly consistent with your observation that 9 out of 10 smart-group people are liberals. But -

As a smart guy, you must realize that the high-IQ folks who join groups like Mensa are not necessarily representative of high-IQ folks in general.

Jeff writes:

Ak, "smart guy, you.. are not necessarily representative of high-IQ".

Yes, I am aware of that, which is why I wrote "are my observations based on a skewed sample".

However, I'm not convinced there is a higher frequency of libertarians among very intelligent people (as a proxy an IQ>99.9%) than the within the population at large. (Even if there may be slightly more among e.g. college students.) Based on my, admittedly non-scientific observations, I have not seen this.

Note that the question is completely different from asking if a person essentially agrees with the tenets of capitalism and the free market. In my view, a large majority of smart people believe in this notion, as long negative externalities are capped.


Mark Crankshaw writes:

@ Jeff

My experience is that 9 out of 10 could be characterized as some form of "liberal", while the 1 is evenly split between libertarian and republican

Your observation is not only based on a skewed sample, they are also based on a false (or at least unproven) and unstated assumption. Namely, that a desire to become a member of a "society" is independent of political inclination. I suggest that it is not.

It may very well be that the desire to join a "elite society" such as Mensa is not equally shared across the political spectrum. Most libertarians I know (myself included) are not "joiners" and have little to no need or desire for membership to any group. Even if that were not the case, it is very likely that libertarians would have little desire to become members of any society that is, as you have observed, dominated (at very least numerically) by liberals. I'd say that a libertarian who wish to become a member of Mensa, and maintained that membership given that 90% of members are liberals would be quite peculiar indeed. I wouldn't join such a group even if I were paid to do so...

John Berg writes:

First, a listing of Dr. Haidt's axes:

1. Care vs Harm.
2. Fairness vs Cheating
3. Liberty vs Oppression.
4. Authority vs Subversion.
5. Loyalty vs Betrayal.
6. Sanctity vs Defilement.
7. Acceptance vs Judgment.

None of these pairs permits a continuum since no pair of endpoints are opposites/antonyms of each other.

One arrives at my reasoning by noting that Isegoria commented:

... if they themselves think they are victims, ... many slaves, at least at the time of Abolition, did not see themselves as victims, did not try to flee, and did not see the system as illegitimate, as you can see from the slave narratives collected by the WPA as the last living slaves were in their dotage.

We may have another Haidt axis: morality may change with age. Currently one may consider the change in morality from “invincibles” to the “old farts” about the care, fairness, authority, etc. of our accumulation of debt for the future generations.

I might have said the debt made by US citizens but I've noticed an unusual change in our administration use of the phrase "American persons" where once "citizens" was used.

John Berg

Stephen writes:

John Berg,
Those aren't Haidt's moral axes; they're my changes to his axes. I changed his word "Degradation" to "Defilement" because that's a clearer opposite word of "Sanctity". And I added number 7.

Jonathan writes:

Haidt's work undermines itself.

He contends that people construct clever reasons to support their prior beliefs. Like this book for example?

He recognises this and says writing the book changed his political views to be more of a centrist but for such a clever guy, his views when expressed were clearly to the left/liberal and his characterisations of libertarians were caricatures.

Speak to any Libertarian at a Ron Paul convention about how he doesnt understand that most liberals or republicans like to be part of a big group. He might casually remind you that he is attending such an event and is a paid up subscriber to Mises institute and has many blogs, twitter, facebook connections to likeminded 'individualists'.

I understand why we ought to be very wary of too heavy a focus on empirical 'evidence' in economics because there are so many variables even an event as seemingly obvious as the Great Depression can be used by Rothbard, Friedman and Keynes to 'prove' completely contradictory explanations.

However, I think we need to be very wary indeed when someone starts to say the same about reason. You cannot undermine reason without using reason which presupposes its logical necessity.

Thanks Russ for all these shows.


John Berg writes:

Dr. Robert’s econtalks always strikes me as his teaching us, the commenters, and the interviewee because Dr. Roberts can’t help himself. Fortunately he is also very good, and skeptical about himself and his discipline. I always benefit from the comments.
@stephen I understood and, when considering the differences between each pair of synonyms (as suggested by an earlier podcast), came to my realization.
To add to my earlier comment:
Consider this hypothetical example. A woman sometime after conception becomes “brain dead.” Who should make the decision to stop life support and kill the new life in her? The husband, her family, the doctor, the hospital, the state (either legislatively, judicially, or executive-ly), the expense bearer?
Does the duration of the pregnancy matter? Or the viability forecasted for the life?
Frankly, I came to conclusion that the only word that should be on the axes was the Biblical “love” as, e.g., in “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

John Berg

Greg G writes:

Jonathan,

I think you are being unfair to Haidt. He is not undermining reason by saying that people use it to support their prior beliefs. This has been well know, and often discussed, at least since Hume and Hume was no enemy of reason.

Even though reason may not be the source of most beliefs it still has a crucial role to play in undermining false beliefs. Haidt is not claiming otherwise. And he is not claiming to be exempt from the things he describes.

It is entirely possible that writing the book left him more centrist than he was when he started even though he still falls well short of your approval for his views.

I'm pretty sure Haidt was not claiming that libertarians are unlikely to join libertarian groups or have libertarian friends. He was just claiming they tend to be relatively less likely than those who are not libertarians to be group joiners in a more general way.

MikeL writes:

Russ,
I think most new libertarians, including myself, are inspired by the non-aggression principle and not by dry analytical arguments regarding cost and benefit. Simply, I don't like being pushed around by either individuals or by collectives; thus, it is wrong for me to push others around. Who cannot understand this principle on the most basic emotive and logical levels?

Ron Crossland writes:

Russ,
Good interview - I appreciated your personal disclosure and that of your guest. Also felt your varying views were well represented. Civility educates.

Gaining good evidence in the social sciences is difficult, but doable. Informed individuals from other fields might trust in the peer-review scientific method where it is applied. Sample size is always a problem, but size varies with the type of investigation.


For BZ-

your thought about "collective decision-making" caused me to remember something you might enjoy over at Edge.com. You might enjoy the conversation column by Nicholas Christakis on "A New Social Science for the 21st Century." He discusses how simple changes to group structure changes information flow and decision-making.

For Musca -

Many see values as mutable - lots of things can influence the change, else we wouldn't have cross-cultural marriage (as one easy to see example).

As for your "libertarian society" - doesn't that resemble the old slogan "anarchists unite!" Excuse the attempt at humor, but the idea that if 90% of humans were libertarians causes one to speculate seriously about how populated the earth would be and how "society" would be defined.

For Callum -

Libertarian listeners of this podcast are smart, else they might not listen. I have known some and have benefitted from the association. I have also personally met a number who score low on any scale - intelligence, emotional, or social. They would likely never listen to an economics podcast as the views they have expressed about economics are not allowed in this comments section.

My guess is that intelligence amongst libertarians follows a typical population distribution.

SaveyourSelf writes:

@ Michael Byrnes wrote, “Honestly, the "suffering" narrative is out there...”

Michael, from the context of your writing I gather by “Suffering Narrative” you mean that some people advocate austerity because they want other people to suffer.

That is an inappropriate way to think about Austerity. If Krugman or Knisley or anyone else chooses to debate about Austerity in this fashion, they are using the wrong language.

Merriam-Webster defines Austerity as “enforced or extreme economy or the state of being Austere.” Further, it defines Austere as “giving little or no scope for pleasure or markedly simple/unadorned.” In other words, Austerity does not carry any connotation about suffering. Nor does it have anything to do with sin.

The “suffering” that I think those men are referring to is one-half of the predetermined outcome of the contractual obligations between a lender and a borrower. In its entirety, the lender experiences a lower standard of living in the present in exchange for a higher standard of living in the future whereas the borrower experiences a higher standard of living in the present in exchange for a lower standard of living in the future--during the payback period.

This is a classic case of mistaken-causality. The discomfort of paying back a loan is not caused by austerity—although it is correlated with austerity during the payback period of a loan. The discomfort of paying back a loan is caused by BORROWING. Austerity, in stark contrast, is causally related to the lender's ability to accumulate the savings made available for the loan and the borrower's ability to pay back that loan. Once these causal relationships are correctly identified and both parties to the contract are considered simultaneously then it is easy to see that the “Suffering Narrative” described above is both incomplete and inaccurate.

emerich writes:

Regarding the supposed puritanical streak of the Austerians: Perhaps it's not that they think suffering is good; it's that they think suffering is likely. Why would they think that? Well, how about 800 years of history, as documented, for example, by Reinhart and Reinhart (This Time is Different). There's also the fact that the supposed austerity almost never happens. Where in the world have government budgets shrunk? Nowhere. Krugman et. al. seem to think it's austerity if deficits fall below 10% of GDP. That has not been the mainstream view, at least until this cycle. Look in Krugman's textbooks and I'll bet you'd find that governments are supposed to run surpluses in periods of growth. The recession ended 4 years and 8 months ago.

In short, there's been no austerity and government continues to grow. The result? A crummy economy (aided, to be sure, by lots of other crummy policies), and needless suffering. Why are those Keynesians and neo-Keynesians so insensitive to suffering caused by their policies?

Michael Byrnes writes:

Save Your Self wrote:

"Michael, from the context of your writing I gather by “Suffering Narrative” you mean that some people advocate austerity because they want other people to suffer."

No. Suffering was perhaps the wrong word. If I had to boil my view down to one sentence, it would be this: Some people advocate austerity (by either or both of the definitions you used) for others but few advocate it for themselves.

People who say "We must pay for our past excesses." often mean "YOU must pay for MY past excesses.". In other words, "Austerity for THEE... but not for ME!"

Tom writes:

I agree with Haidt in regard to the current state of political extremism; extremists are all the same with the exception of what nouns they happen to employ. But I must depart from him in regard to his implications that what is true is so obscured by the passions that it cannot be known, or doesn't exist at all. He says his life's work has been to vindicate David Hume's claim that reason is subject to the passions instead of the other way around. It occurs to me that the proof of that proposition undercuts its own logical foundation because the proof itself would therefore be an a priori emotional conclusion and not the end result of reasoned inquiry.

Classical philosophy distinguished between the intellect, the passions, and the will. Haidt did not engage this distinction. Reason is not necessarily subservient to the passions, the will is often too weak to enact "the good" (point for Aristotle).

The quest for scientific exactness in the realm of philosophical inquiry, leads to some very wrong presuppositions: Empiricism gives us data, it does not give us meaning. Arguments that morality is evolutionary are essentially meaningless, or they replace an omnipotent God with omnipotent brain chemicals. They presuppose the standard they purport to explain. Evolution has no will. Evolution cannot explain why "survival of the herd" should be valued. Evolution cannot provide an ontological hierarchy of values. Punishing the "deviant" who shoots up a theatre would then be nothing more than the strong imposing their will on the weak, and Hitler's only "crime" would have been to rush the evolutionary process to quickly.

MikeL writes:

@Tom,

"Arguments that morality is evolutionary are essentially meaningless, or they replace an omnipotent God with omnipotent brain chemicals."

Next time you get the chance, lean over the corpse of a rotting mammal and take a deep breath. I guarantee that your brain chemicals will remind you who's boss.

Greg G writes:

Tom,

Hume and Haidt are NOT saying that what is true either doesn't exist or cannot be known at all. The ARE saying that what is true cannot be known with 100% certainty. Science does not deal in final proofs. In the scientific view all knowledge is provisional and subject to challenge.

Despite this we are able to know many things with such a high degree of probability that it makes sense to act AS IF they were certain. Different people will disagree about what knowledge should be regarded as most certain. Haidt is not claiming to have "proved" his ideas. He is merely advancing those ideas and telling us why he finds them convincing.

It is certainly true that empiricism gives us data not meaning. We create meanings for ourselves. And it is a good thing that we do because that is what motivates us to do our best to prevent people from shooting up theaters or allowing people like Hitler to take power.

It is true that "Evolution cannot explain why 'survival of the herd' should be valued." It does explain why it will be selected for by natural selection though.

John Berg writes:

[Comment removed for irrelevance. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Tom writes:

@ Mikel: Then why is it that you can speak of "me" as something different than my brain chemicals? My point was that evolutionary morality makes assumptions not supplied by evolutionary morality.

@ Greg G: Fair enough for most of what you said--after all, it is an act of faith to assume that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. I think the denial goes further than that though.

However, you advocate as much faith as any Theist (but without any historical claims). So did Hume in that his epistemology was neither a "mater of fact", nor a "relation of ideas" (categories imposed on all knowledge by his epistemology). There is no reason (if Hume is right) to "do our best to prevent people from shooting up theaters". We don't, after all, "do our best" to change the chemical properties of cabbage, or express moral outrage at deck furniture. We know that there is a difference between the alligator that eats a tourist, and the zoo keeper that eats the tourist (and the difference cannot be brain complexity).

As for your last sentence, nothing will be selected by natural selection. We can't speak of a random--and astronomically improbable--accident as a "selection". Take that to the "n^th" degree, and we arrive at meaninglessness.

Brian Donohue writes:

Really outstanding, Russ and Jonathan,

Two quibbles:

10% bees? Bees in a hive are all related. It's quite proper to think of the hive as a single organism. Human cooperation among unrelated individuals is a different thing.

So, austerity now means $600 billion deficits?

Greg G writes:

Tom,

All forms of reasoning depend on premises not "supplied" within that reasoning. This is not something particular to "evolutionary morality" or other non-theistic systems of morality.

Some people are able to find meaning in a non-theistic world view. Some are not able to. Does anyone doubt that we can create families and friendships and art? Most people find meanings in those things, don't they? I don't have any trouble finding reasons to try and keep myself and my family and my friends safe. People find and lose religious faith all the time. They usually (but not always) find some meaning in life at all points along that process.

There are two parts to natural selection: variation and selection. Only the first part is random. The second part(selection) depends on how well the variations match up with the reality of what works for survival and reproduction. That part is the opposite of random. That is how you can get the appearance of design without requiring a designer.

MikeL writes:

Tom,

"Then why is it that you can speak of "me" as something different than my brain chemicals? My point was that evolutionary morality makes assumptions not supplied by evolutionary morality."

I don't know, I guess because the whole of the parts, what we call Tom, is greater than the sum of Tom's parts. And besides, even genetic clones are phenotypically unique because individuality is the manifestation of many processes such as epigenetics and complex biological feedback loops; e.g., your reaction to the dead animal may be different than mine, if ever so slightly. The miracle is how, given that individuality implies divergent interests, we can ever evolve a set of moral codes that is respected by large numbers of individuals.

Greg G writes:

--"Then why is it that you can speak of "me" as something different than my brain chemicals? "

It is not that you are something "different than" your brain chemicals. It is that limiting the conversation to a discussion of chemistry will cause the discussion to miss the most interesting things worth discussing about you.

You wouldn't say "Why is it you can speak about a computer as something different than the manipulation of 1's and 0's."

You wouldn't say "Why is it you can speak of a great painting as something different than an assortment of colors."

Brain chemistry emerges from biochemistry, which emerges from ordinary chemistry, which emerges from classical physics, which emerges from quantum physics. At every step along the way there is much we don't understand about this process of emergence.

One thing we do understand is that an emergent phenomenon is not "different than" the parts that constitute it even though a mere description of those parts is not sufficient to understand it.

Tom writes:

Thanks guys, I believe I understand your points. I agree that we are a bunch of chemicals subject to chemical properties, evolutionary processes, etc. I just say that that doesn't get it all. At the risk of tedium, I will end with my final thoughts:

Greg G, you said: "All forms of reasoning depend on premises not "supplied" within that reasoning."

True, but forgive my imprecision, I meant that it violates its own premise (which is what I have been attempting to illustrate).

It is true that people of just about any philosophical disposition live happy meaningful lives. I am only discussing the ontological grounding of meaning as an academic question.

"Computer" is a pronoun for a bucket of sand that processes 1's and 0's. But "human" is not a pro-noun for chemical machine. We may slap a drunk on the back after he has had his 5th drink and tell him he should be more manly, but we would not slap the Alligator on the back after he has eaten his 5th tourist and tell him he should be more alligatory. Alligators have no "ought".

No matter how complicated we make the chemical processes and all that stuff, if it doesn't escape itself, it is ontologically meaningless; complexity doesn't manufacture meaning.

Thanks for the discussion!

Kevin writes:

This was an interesting discussion. One of the things I found interesting in this discussion is how proud Haidt seems of himself for realizing that people who disagree with him politically have moral reasoning for their beliefs which they view as legitimate and which we should take seriously. While that must be quite an intellectual feat for a leftist "angry at Reagan" who thinks "George Bush was destroying the country" that says more to me about leftist academics such as Haidt than anything else. His whole fame seems to be as an advocate to leftists to stop assuming your political opponents are evil. As a fairly average grad school student I also managed to reach all these conclusions while doing research on a different subject by trivial observation and a little compassion and interaction with my fellow man.

Haidt calls himself a centrist - which his definition seems to be someone who does not hate his political opponents, except for GWB whom Haidt explicitly says he hated because he was destroying the country. In no issues that I could detect does he actually hold centrist views (not sure what those would be, since I am not a centrist, but lets assume they involve some fusion or compromises between the traditional right and left). None of these necessarily detract from his points, but they do inform me about where he is coming from.

[Comment revised by commenter.--Econlib Ed.]

Erik Bays writes:

I have some problems with Haidt's moral foundations theory. I have read "The Righteous Mind" and my brother is dating one of the team members of yourmorals.org. I have read many of the team's published papers.

There is no room in the five moral foundations for a morality that focuses on actions. All of the foundations are categorized based on the results of actions. I believe, for example, that a lie is wrong for its own sake, regardless of the probable outcome, and that type of philosophy doesn't fit in any of the pillars. The closest seems to be the disgust/degradation foundation, but that doesn't fit.

There are many good observations made in the book, but I believe the overall theory focuses on the observed, external aspects of different moralities. It doesn't get at them from the inside. The website yourmorals.org attempts to get at philosophies from the inside by asking people questions, but the questions are simply once again looking at results. You may say that libertarians consistently answer a question a certain way with a mathematical certainty, but that doesn't really tell you why they answered that question that way. None of the questions were focused on the actions themselves, and on many questions I felt there was no right answer for me.

I think that there is a liberal bias to the framework. For example, democrats rank higher on the "care" foundation than republicans, so it could be argued that published papers say democrats care more. That is simply a label, however. Republicans simply go about caring in a different way. They aren't as willing to collect taxes and use the money to help others, but they are more willing to use their own money to help others. Republicans volunteer more time, money, and blood than democrats do -- by those objective measures republicans are more caring, yet the moral foundations theory has categorized republicans as less caring because of a set of subjective definitions.

The stated purpose of the book "The Righteous Mind" was to help people from different philosophies understand each other, yet I felt that the book didn't speak to my philosophy at all.

DougT writes:

Why these axes? Why not the following?

1. Honor/Dishonor
2. Beauty/Efficiency
3. Organized/Messy
4. Spontaneous/Planned
5. Public/Private

Of course, this exposes my Scandinavian/Midwest/Religious/Communitarian prior assumptions. But my point is that Haidt's axes are totally subjective. An infinite number of alternatives could be formulated.

John P. writes:

Exceptional interview and "The Righteous Mind" is an exceptional book. It's refreshing to hear such a productive, material discussion about perspectives tied into politics, economics, and humanity in general.

Ralph writes:

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

People are divided by politics and religion because they have different assumptions. Generally the right and left agree on major categories of good and bad (poverty, crime, oppression etc.), what they disagree on is the solutions.

HAIDT: "if they would say, Markets are wonderful things but when left to their own devices you can bet that there's going to be monopoly; there are going to be distortions of information, there are going to be all kinds of terrible externalities foisted on the environment and the poor and animals. So, if the free market types would be less worshipping of Milton Friedman and a little more focused on how do we get markets to actually be efficient, I think they would regain the high ground pretty quickly."

As you noted but don't seem to understand, one of the externalities of the market IS relieving poverty.

Conservatives and Libertarians DO understand and say that markets can be manipulated and that there is inherently imperfect information. That is the reason we want only limited government to protect property and the rule of law while limiting the inefficiencies of taxation and regulation.

The coercive power of government makes market problems not only unavoidable, but irreparable. Without government intervention, markets adjust and allow creative destruction.

The environment and animals are within the purview of the market - government management is no more 'natural' than private sector landholding (remember the "shutdown" - government failure is also a problem). I have nothing against state and federal parks, but there are limits to what they (government is not the people) can take, even with consent, not only because of property rights, but because of financial limits.

Occupy, an intentionally illegal movement as the name suggests, should not be the basis of your critique of capitalism. As essentially a PR front for Big Labor (mostly public sector) and socialists, it never presented any honest evaluation of free markets.

Ralph writes:

I just had to return to this:

Moral thinking is just like all other thinking - it is all based on your underlying assumptions.
Some assumptions are natural and some are based on nurture.

You might say there are Laws of nature and corollaries inherent in any successful species at the most primitive level. Reptiles and fish generally just lay eggs and the young are on their own; birds protect their young I don't know enough about insects to say.

Generally, mammal species will seek to protect their young, and some will even extend that protection to other species. Just from that natural assumption, there are many corollaries about group behavior.

But take an individual from birth and raise him under different conditions and behavior may be drastically different because of the different nurture assumptions. Animals raised in captivity are most often unable to be returned to their native habitat.

Human behavior works the same way at its most primitive level, but the spin-offs into group behavior are where Morality occurs. If a mentally disabled man commits a crime there is a legal requirement to discover whether or not he understands his actions and can bear guilt or not, we call this possibility "invincible ignorance."

Our morality has a basis in Natural Law (whether attributed to selection or religion, these are not incompatible). We know some actions are wrong. Nurture involves the justification of honoring or dishonoring those Natural Laws. Nurture introduces the complexities about when it is ok to kill or take from others or lie etc.

Nurture plays the primary role in how we live together in families and local communities and as citizens sharing the rights and responsibilities of proper government, and much of our judicial system is based on the assumption of Natural Law.

The education system understands this and is consciously nurturing children against the historic morality of western civilization followed in most American homes.

There is now a generation gap in morality in America. The young and the old have been raised with different nurtured assumptions, just as different cultures nurture different morals – that’s why “Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.” Socrates was condemned for “corrupting the morals of the youth.”

The good or bad of such deliberate education is visible in the results. American Conservatives and Libertarians prefer personal liberty and markets, while Modern Liberals prefer government elite planned economies. Historically, that is the difference between economic growth and alleviating poverty vs. failed nations. There is evidence of the benefits of the American Conservative/Libertarian free market preference versus various conceptions of secular planned economies or versus theocracies.

Ralph writes:

Read Evan Sayet's Kindergarden of Eden.

Simon writes:

I disagree with Russ when he says that "It's one of the things I think libertarians sometimes miss, which is our desire to be part of something larger than our self. . . But I think libertarians have no ability, almost no ability, to even appreciate the idea of the body politic or collective decision-making." Libertarians absolutely understand that no man is an island and that, with the specialization of labor, everyone must interact with others to have their needs satisfied, and that the only way you can satisfy your own needs is to produce something valued by others and engage in a trade with someone who has produced something you value. Libertarians simply insist that these interactions be voluntary, and not imposed by other individuals, whether private citizens using coercion or individuals using coercion on behalf of "the collective" (otherwise known as politicians and bureaucrats). So too with associating with others for pleasure to pursue common goals; libertarians understand that the human being is a social animal and needs such interaction, but simply insist that such association be voluntary, rather than coerced by others (particularly the government). There are plenty of examples of "collective decision-making" that are voluntary in which libertarians do believe: every homeowners' association, every non-profit, every business, in fact, every contract.

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