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Jonathan Haidt: Why Liberals Don't Understand Conservatives
Eletion 2012 | February 15, 2012

Jonathan Haidt: Why Liberals Don't Understand Conservatives

A new Chronicle of Higher Education article profiles Jonathan Haidt, and explores, in depth, his influential work on moral psychology and its impact on politics. For years, Haidt was a partisan liberal. But, frustrated by John Kerry's lackluster 2004 Presidential bid, he began researching the role of moral psychology in determining people’s political affiliations. What he found changed his political views: he "emerged a centrist who believes that 'conservatives have a more accurate understanding of human nature than do liberals.'" His research led him to re-think morality. Here’s the Chronicle:

Haidt and his colleagues synthesize anthropology, evolutionary theory, and psychology to propose six innate moral foundations: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.

The difference between liberals and conservatives, Haidt believes, is in their understanding of these foundations, and where on the scale they lie: "All political movements base appeals on different settings of the foundations—and the culture wars arise from what they choose to emphasize. Liberals jack up care, followed by fairness and liberty. They rarely value loyalty and authority. Conservatives dial up all six."

Jonathan Haidt visited Occupy Wall Street to see how accurately his theories explained moral conflicts—even amongst groups comprised of like-minded individuals. The problems that have plagued the Occupy movement—lack of centralized leadership and an over-emphasis on consensus—all back his thesis that "far-left activists dial down "authority" to zero." While only a test case, Occupy is a fascinating look into how pre-existing moral guidelines shape political movements. Haidt's message isn't that liberals should be more like conservatives; it's that if liberals better understood what drives conservatives, and why conservatives appeal to undecided voters, they could avoid alienating potential voters with a "thin and tolerant morality that gives most Americans vertigo." With his forthcoming book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Haidt, who is speaking at TED 2012, hopes to shake up a political system in partisan gridlock.
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