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Jonathan Haidt on Morality, Politics, Disgust, and Intellectual Diversity on Campus (Ep. 8)

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Mercatus Center
Mar 28, 2016 · 43 min read

On the moral psychology of politics

To start off with a question. Jonathan, you think of people’s political views as stemming from their social intuitions, which are fairly strongly hardwired into them. If I look at politics this year, what I see is we had almost all the pundits, thinking about Republican values, the Republican past, and seeing Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and thinking some mix of those people would be the leaders, because they matched Republican values. And they all have failed, basically. How do we think about this using your constructs?

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The most important finding in psychology in the last 50 to 100 years, I would say, is the finding that everything you can measure is heritable. The heritability coefficients vary between 0.3 and 0.6, or 30 to 60 percent of the variance, under some assumptions, can be explained by the genes. It’s the largest piece of variance we can explain.

HAIDT: Not fundamentally different, but different in predispositions. The most important finding in psychology in the last 50 to 100 years, I would say, is the finding that everything you can measure is heritable. The heritability coefficients vary between 0.3 and 0.6, or 30 to 60 percent of the variance, under some assumptions, can be explained by the genes. It’s the largest piece of variance we can explain.

What Gosling found, people who are conservative, their rooms are more orderly and neat. They have more calendars, more postage stamps. They’re just better prepared to be orderly and neat and get things done. People on the left had more stylistic elements, more high design elements. They had more varied books. So in a variety of ways, our preferences grow out of our innate temperaments.

COWEN: So this is true in all or mostly all cultures.

On intellectual diversity in higher education, microaggressions, free speech, trigger warnings, and all the rest

COWEN: Let’s turn to some of your work on campus, and with this idea of political correctness. I would say you’re the person who’s done the most in a good way to improve the quality of that debate and to make campus life more tolerant or more open. And I’m very appreciative of that. Let me ask you a question about how far this can go. Let’s take your vision of morality based on what you’ve called social intuitionism, and this modularity, where things just get triggered.

[M]icroaggression culture, and a lot of the current campus protests, only emerges when you actually get really close to an incredibly egalitarian, open society.

COWEN: Say we take the military, a very different environment. The military is not-for-profit, it intersects with corporate America, but it’s not itself a corporation. It can at times be highly inefficient, and we at least try to overcome this by building up an ethos which is in some ways fairly homogenous, and it tells people to behave a certain way, and there are strong group norms, and a lot of sanctions.

We should be extremely limited when we say that [university] authorities can step in and change things. The very fact of doing that encourages microaggression culture, encourages students to orient themselves towards appealing to these authorities. The point of the microaggression article is young people these days have become moral dependents.

COWEN: Let me try another analogy on you. You mentioned the army, but take private corporations, and Brown and Yale are in a sense private corporations. Harvard was originally. I wouldn’t call them restrictions on free speech, I think that’s the wrong phrase, but if one’s going to use the phrase that way, there are numerous restrictions on free speech within companies, at the work place.

On things under- and overrated

COWEN: We now move to a segment of the conversation called underrated versus overrated. I threw out a bunch of names or concepts, you tell me if you think they’re underrated or overrated and why. Number one, Sigmund Freud.

Psychedelics have an incredibly positive track record in terms of enriching people’s lives versus damaging them. So to the extent that they are rarely used, and widely feared, I would say that they are underrated and I’m basing this on the research that was done in the ’60s and just starting now that when you give people psychedelic drugs in controlled settings, be they cancer patients, or criminals in jail, the therapeutic effects tend to be quite positive.

COWEN: I’ve done one of these dialogs with Peter Thiel, and he’s a big fan of René Girard, and his theory of sacrificial violence. Do you have an opinion?

…[E]arly economists were great social theorists. My God, you read Adam Smith, what a brilliant world philosopher, historian, they thought so broadly and you tell me, but it seems there was a weird turn in the mid‑20th century towards mathematics. I think it made economists set all the interesting variables to zero.

COWEN: Antiparsimonialism , underrated or overrated?

On Haidt’s earlier research (and what disgusts him)

COWEN: Final segment, let me ask you some questions about your earlier psychological research, because a lot of people aren’t familiar about that. Let me just start with a very direct, personal question. What is it that you find disgusting?


Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages…

Mercatus Center

Written by

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University is the world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas.

Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages with today's most underrated thinkers in wide-ranging explorations of their work, the world, and everything in between.

Mercatus Center

Written by

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University is the world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas.

Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages with today's most underrated thinkers in wide-ranging explorations of their work, the world, and everything in between.

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