Reading Time: 13 minutes Jonathan Haidt: By Miller Center of Public Affairs flickr page, Charlottesville, VA (JONATHAN HAIDT photo RS3J6847 on Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Reading Time: 13 minutes

In response to Jonathan’s post about Haidt and the Heterodox Academy, I started to write the following, and decided to post it as a new blog post, rather than a response in the comments section.

Needless to say, I have some concerns about Haidt. It is more with how he’s been understood than what he’s said in the past, and how what he’s saying now is becoming more like how he’s been taken in the past. This reminds me of my frequent, though now long-past, confrontations with The Independent Whig.


Jonathan Haidt: By Miller Center of Public Affairs flickr page, Charlottesville, VA (JONATHAN HAIDT photo RS3J6847 on Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Jonathan Haidt: By Miller Center of Public Affairs flickr page, Charlottesville, VA (JONATHAN HAIDT photo RS3J6847 on Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

What’s wrong with Haidt?

In my very first blog post, my complaint was simply that Haidt had focused on binding values, almost to the exclusion of individualizing values. In fact, upon reflection, he almost exclusively looks at the binding values of Ingroup, Authority, and Purity, and the so-called individualizing values of Harm and Fairness – but fails to recognise that these latter two are often deployed as other-regarding individualizing values (in-line with the liberal preference for teaching their children about empathy for others and curiosity – more on that later). He subsequently added the libertarian concept of freedom (a self-regarding individualizing concept, especially in the hands of libertarians), and has continued to ignore anything relating to other such self-regarding values as self-exploration, self-understanding, and self-direction (though freedom/liberty is somewhat synonymous with the last of these).

I have said that his approach was to intentionally counter-bias, and therefore support a political agenda (conservatism), so, to see Haidt stand behind these following statements about motivated reasoning (point 2 in Jonathan’s post) is a touch hypocritical:

  • Scholarship undertaken to support a political agenda almost always “succeeds.”
  • Motivated scholarship often propagates pleasing falsehoods that cannot be removed from circulation, even after they are debunked.

Additionally, under point four (anti-fragility), he fails to note that conservative children are more likely to be home-schooled to protect them from evolution or other non-religious ideas, or sent to seceded school districts to protect them from fraternizing with individuals from other races, and so on. Could this be why there are so few conservative social scientists? This being the stated aim of the Heterodox Academy. Conservatism already thinks it know all it needs to know about people.

Additionally, it’s not possible to study morality, of all things, from a position of total neutrality. If you espouse no values, you have no morality, and with no morality you won’t care about many things that are integral to undertaking science:

Returning to Haidt’s (2008) definition of morality as interlocking systems that suppress selfishness, we can see that all five foundations play a part in encouraging social cooperation, but it is the binding foundations that demote the needs of the self to the needs of the moral community. (Graham & Haidt, 2010, p. 145)

This is the full definition from Haidt’s (2008) paper, cited above:

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, practices, institutions, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible.

Note that Haidt says that the point of morality is to “suppress selfishness”, and encourage “social cooperation.” But for this to be necessary, there needs to be a “self” that can be selfish. In my post about Conservative Education, the more conservative the education, the more emphasis is placed on obedience and (a particular) religious faith – highly conservative child-rearing practices discourage the development of an individualized “self”, placing extremely low emphasis (if any at all) on Independence, Curiosity, and Creativity. The more Liberal the education, the more emphasis is placed on empathy for others and curiosity. So, even where Liberals are placing emphasis on individualism, thoughts about others are paramount. Also, conservative social cooperation is more like benevolence, which is the desire to help other people with which you have regular contact, as compared to liberal social cooperation that is underlined by universalism, the desire to help everybody.

How does this play out in their resultant adult moralities?

This individualizing approach focuses on individuals as the locus of moral value. Other cultures try to suppress selfishness by strengthening groups and institutions and by binding individuals into roles and duties in order to constrain their imperfect natures. This binding approach focuses on the group as the locus of moral value. (Graham, Haidt & Nosek, 2009, p. 1030)

Indeed, children should be the locus of moral value. Ironically, that is in part the impetus behind the “pro-life” “but the babies” argument that was so much the focus of many comments on my post last week. It is not a part of the religious conservatives’ child-rearing morality, only a useful argument for “pro-life” (hypocrisy rears its head again). Children should grow up to understand that they are the locus of their own moral value, but that morality is about cooperation, and that involves working with other people. Conservative child-rearing and education places emphasis on the values of group first (your religion, your family, and sometimes your race or nationality), and the individual second. This is what leads to the individual first/group-second adults who have to be threatened with hell-fire to co-operate at all.

A little bit later in the Graham, Haidt and Nosek paper, they say this:

Importantly, the differences between liberals and conservatives were neither binary nor absolute. Participants across the political spectrum agreed that individualizing concerns are very relevant to moral judgment. Even on the binding foundations, liberals did not (on average) indicate that these were never relevant to moral judgment. As is the case with politics in general, the most dramatic evidence for our hypotheses came from partisans at the extremes. (Graham, Haidt & Nosek, 2009, p. 1030)

So, what happens when the effect of their moralities are compared?


Comparing outcomes

Liberals required slightly more money on average to violate the Harm foundation. However, conservatives required substantially higher amounts to violate the three binding foundations. (Graham, Haidt & Nosek, 2009, p. 1037)

Screen Shot 2017-09-25 at 16.20.10

From Graham, Haidt & Nosek, 2009

If “Liberals required slightly more money on average to violate the Harm foundation,” this means that conservatives were more likely to harm (or allow harm) for less money (QED: The Republicans) – but apparently the amounts were fairly comparable (QED: The Democrats). Meanwhile, consistent with that, “conservatives required substantially higher amounts to violate any of the three binding foundations.”

This only has any meaning when you know what the transgressions were. I’ve included the indicative “buy price” of what it would cost to get a very liberal or very conservative person to transgress these moral values:


(Very liberal: $100,000-$1,000,000 – Very Conservative $10,000-$100,000):

  • Kick a dog in the head, hard
  • Shoot and kill an animal that is a member of an endangered species
  • Make cruel remarks to an overweight person about his or her appearance
  • Step on an ant hill, killing thousands of ants
  • Stick a pin into the palm of a child you don’t know



(All $100,000 – $1,000,000):

  • Cheat in a game of cards played for money with some people you don’t know well
  • Steal from a poor person and use the money to buy a gift for a rich person
  • Say no to a friend’s request to help him move into a new apartment, after he helped you move the month before
  • Throw out a box of ballots, during an election, to help your favored candidate win
  • Sign a secret-but-binding pledge to only hire people of your race in your company



(Very liberal: $1,000-$10,000 – Very Conservative ~$100,000):

  • Publicly bet against your favorite sports team (so that lots of people know)
  • Burn your country’s flag, in private (nobody else sees you)
  • Say something bad about your nation (which you don’t believe to be true) while calling in, anonymously, to a talk-radio show in a foreign nation
  • Break off all communications with your immediate and extended family for 1 year
  • Renounce your citizenship and become a citizen of another country
  • Leave the social group, club, or team that you most value



(Very liberal: $100-$1,000 – Very Conservative ~$10,000):

  • Curse your parents, to their face (you can apologize and explain 1 year later)
  • Curse the founders or early heroes of your country (in private, nobody hears you)
  • Make a disrespectful hand gesture to your boss, teacher, or professor
  • Throw a rotten tomato at a political leader you dislike (remember, you will not get caught)
  • Slap your father in the face (with his permission) as part of a comedy skit



(Very liberal: $10,000-$100,000 – Very Conservative $100,000-$1,000,000):

  • Sign a piece of paper that says “I hereby sell my soul, after my death, to whoever has this piece of paper”
  • Cook and eat your dog, after it dies of natural causes
  • Get plastic surgery that adds a 2-inch tail on to the end of your spine
  • Get a blood transfusion of 1 pint of disease-free, compatible blood from a convicted child molester
  • Attend a performance art piece in which all participants (including you) have to act like animals for 30 minutes, including crawling around naked and urinating on stage


Testing Values

I don’t think that these examples are especially good, but they are the ones Haidt used, and they do allow us to make some interesting inferences. One of the problems I have with the example transgressions is that they are mostly middle of the road. And notice how the consequences of the so-called binding transgressions are nevertheless almost exclusively personal, and sometimes completely unknown to anyone but the individual in question, e.g. Curse the founders or early heroes of your country [binding] (in private, nobody hears you [individualizing]).


I’d be interested to know the responses to questions more like these:

  • Harm:
    Look the other way during the dumping of toxic waste into a waterway near a wildlife reserve and a town’s water reservoir (not your town).
  • Fairness:
    Enable the misrepresentation of information to a committee hearing that enables someone you know and like to gain significant profit.
  • Ingroup:
    Engage in a relationship with someone whom you are profoundly in love with, but of whom your family, friends, colleagues, sports team or church, would disapprove.
  • Authority:
    Stand up to someone you respect as an important authority because of a single but personally relevant point of disagreement.
  • Purity:
    Engage in consensual and relatively consequence-free sex (you both agree that it is a one off, and you will never speak of it again) with someone to whom you are very attracted, but about whom you would be embarrassed to admit the attraction.


As I have said all along, Haidt over-focuses on the binding values:

By asking about issues related to binding groups together—namely, Ingroup/ loyalty, Authority/respect, and Purity/sanctity—we found a more complex pattern. The moral thinking of liberals and conservatives may not be a matter of more versus less but of different opinions about what considerations are relevant to moral judgment. (Graham, Haidt & Nosek, 2009, p. 1033)

Could it be that the complex pattern arises from people engaging in the post-hoc rationalization of their existing views that Haidt himself said was pretty much the only use for moral reasoning (Haidt, 2001)? A claim, by the way, which ignores the fact that many people engage in conversations about moral conundrums in order to clarify their thinking – the difference being that more liberal people are more likely to go to others (depending upon the conundrum), and more conservative people are likely to go to people from their ingroup (Altemeyer, 2006). This latter approach is confirmation buas in action.

The liberal view seems to be, learn about yourself, learn about other people then learn how to work with people who have differing views to you. The modern US conservative view seems to be, learn about religion and obedience, and then try and make other people conform to your views, whilst trying to improve your lot. This is why, particularly in the States, the middle ground has been gradually moving rightwards. Indeed, as a neat exploration of this claim, let us look at a far better indicator of morality than ticking boxes on the Likert scales of psychological studies, let’s look at actual behaviour.


What Do We Want? We Don’t Know!
When Do We Want It? Now!

As we well know, Trump blazed into the White House on the back of a simple slogan, ‘Make America Great Again.’ The people that voted him in were predominantly conservative. And many of them were White Evangelical Christians, which is to say very conservative… indeed those numbers have been increasing rapidly.

Screen Shot 2017-09-25 at 18.51.59Now, we know that there have been partial schisms within the GOP, with the Tea Party “patriots” and the old guard conservatives being somewhat at loggerheads. However, their differences tend to be on matters of degree, not kind. Which is to say, that the Tea Party felt that the more centrist conservatives were too concessionary, and that policy should be all conservative, all the time. But are their complaints valid? What if the policy mechanism in the US has been predominantly conservative for most of the time? If so, then the Tea Party and their ilk are just having a tantrum about not getting their way, all of the time, which goes against Haidt’s claim that morality is to quell selfishness.


Which party has spent the most years with a president in power since the 1950s?

We’re often told that the 1950’s were the golden era for the US, and so presumably it was then that America was “great” (a time during which there was (mostly) a Republican President, but two mostly Democrat houses). Starting in 1953, with Eisenhower, the Republicans have held the presidency for 36 years, and counting – the Democrats, only 28. Even if you took the last three years of Truman’s term (1950-53), it’s still 36-31, in favour of the Republicans.

OK, but the presidency isn’t where the power is really at, and anyway, the Democrats have held the Presidency for 16 of the last 24 years. Of course, if the 1950s truly was the golden age, then it is the presidency that matters, and not the houses, but we’ll entertain the argument, nevertheless.


Which party has held the majority in Congress for all but six of the last 24 years?

In the last 24 years (twelve sessions), the Republicans held the Senate for 12 years (and counting), and Congress for 18 years (and counting). In combination with the presidency, the Republicans have held both houses for two sessions, and both houses but not the presidency for another four sessions; the Democrats, by contrast, have also held both houses and the presidency for two sessions, but both houses and not the presidency for only one. So, the Republicans have had a lot more say on policy twelve of the last 24 years, as compared to the Democrats’ six, with the other six being broadly split (and when there is a split, the obstinacy of the GOP seems to hold sway).


Source: Wikipedia

Over approximately the same time period (1992-2014) Republican supporters have consistently made up around one quarter of the voting public, whilst Democrats have, even more consistently, been one third of the voting public. Independents make up the rest, generally being slightly more than the Democrats. If you force the independents to choose between Democrat and Republicans, the Democrats generally lead th eelectorate, overall, by 7-9%. As such, the Republican representation in the corridors of power has been disproportionate, even though they haven’t held the presidency as much as they would like in the last 24 years.

More here:


Now, it happens that as at 2016 some 36% of Americans do self-identify as conservative, which means that whilst the GOP is the party of conservatives, they only manage to garner two thirds of conservative support, but more of the actual vote. By contrast, some 25% of Americans self-identify as liberal, and more of them have been voting Democrat recently.

The Democrats seem to actually represent centrists and independents as much as, or more than, liberals. In other words, the Democrats are more representative of a broader sweep of the American public, irrespective of political leaning, than the Republicans (which may explain their relative lack of cohesiveness), and that is why Bernie was so popular with actual liberals.

Despite this, the Republicans consistently out-perform their actual support, culminating, of course, in Trump’s electoral college win/popular vote loss. However, contrary to what we saw above, screw Fairness, the Republicans, who are predominantly conservative, want to be in the White House (which suggests that the benefit of doing so really is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars).

I should say, here, that I am aware of arguments for and against the Electoral College, and I think that the Electoral College is now being used to create what it was set up to avoid, what James Madison called “factions”. In addition:

As Alexander Hamilton writes in “The Federalist Papers,” the Constitution is designed to ensure “that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” The point of the Electoral College is to preserve “the sense of the people,” while at the same time ensuring that a president is chosen “by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. – Fact Check, 2008

I think most would agree that the Electoral College has failed in this ambition. Eminent scholar of the constitution, Akhil Reed Amar, agrees. He makes the uncomfortable point (if you’re a conservative who does care about fairness), that, “Thomas Jefferson metaphorically rode into the executive mansion on the backs of slaves.” This is because, despite the fact that slaves were not allowed to vote, they could be counted as part of the population for representation and taxation purposes – population being the basis upon which the number of electoral votes was awarded. Of course a black slave was not awarded a full vote; that would be a bridge too far, even if they were only proxy votes, of a sort. Whilst he was useful for gaining extra votes, it came at the expense of increasing taxation, and one shouldn’t have to pay full taxation for property. So a black slave was considered to be three-fifths of a man. It is telling that many of the most impassioned defenses of the Electoral College come from conservative pundits and think tanks.

Speaking of not caring about fairness as much as you say you do…


Which party benefits the most from gerrymandered districts?

According to Rantt, nine of the 10 most gerrymandered states favour the Republicans. Azavea, a geospatial data research company, suggests that more compact districts (which are not necessarily the most representative, but are more representative than gerrymandering) would eat into unfair Republican advantage in 25 congressional seats, as compared to the Democrats’ eight.

The Most Gerrymandered States Ranked by Efficiency Gap and Seat Advantage

So, despite Conservatives and Liberals being on par for what it would take them to contravene the value of Fairness, Republicans benefit more than three times as much from the unfair districting (gerrymandering) that they had a hand in creating, and none seem to be in a hurry to re-draw the districts or renounce unfairly won seats.


In conclusion

I understand what Haidt is trying to do with the Heterodox Academy, but it is fundamentally flawed. Deeply Conservative people are motivated to not understand their value system or their morality, particularly in the States. Indeed, Evangelicalism trains some of them not to. Conservtaives, and particularly Evangelicals, complain about the state of the States, but they have had the lion’s share of the say in creating the mess they complain about, especially recently. Indeed, it seems clear that, had there been more conservatism in power (which is to say, a Conservative President as well as conservative houses), the mess about which the Trump supporters are complaining would have been worse. An example of this, is my recent post about the morality of abortion, being anti-abortion leads to more abortions and, as we know, so does the banning (or restriction of access to) prophylaxis, and so does abstinence only education, and so on, and so on (all of which are conservative planks, to a greater or lesser extent). Conservatism leads to more of the things it is upset about – the law of unintended consequences in full effect.

Psychologically, the one thing that someone with a deeply entrenched and ideologically driven worldview will not do, is engage with data that contradicts that world view (motivated reasoning, point 2 in Jonathan’s post). Given the output from psychology of the last 50 years, I think there is a very good reason why conservatives are not in psychology, but instead in business, law, and politics. Additionally, and bringing back point four (anti-fragility), a childhood spent trying to conform to a parent’s specific religion in a racially homogeneous social circle ensures that exposure to opposing view points, and thus the ability to cope with them, is minimal. Meanwhile, liberal children have been encouraged to seek out opposing viewpoints and are thus not the snowflakes they are portrayed to be and, indeed, are often interested in knowing more, both about themseleves, and others.