"Liberals ... misunderstand conservatives far more than the other way around."

Haidt wants to change how people think about the culture wars. He first plunged into political research out of frustration with John Kerry's failure to connect with voters in 2004. A partisan liberal, the University of Virginia professor hoped a better grasp of moral psychology could help Democrats sharpen their knives. But a funny thing happened. Haidt, now a visiting professor at New York University, emerged as a centrist who believes that "conservatives have a more accurate understanding of human nature than do liberals."

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"Liberals need to be shaken," Haidt tells me. They "simply misunderstand conservatives far more than the other way around."

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In 1739 the philosopher David Hume wrote 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." Hume disagreed with philosophers who aspired to reason their way to moral truth without examining human nature. An honest inquiry, he argued, reveals that reason is biased and weak while intuition propels our moral lives.

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In 2001, Haidt chambered a bullet at rationalism in a classic paper that tied together moral dumbfounding, philosophy, and recent psychology findings on human judgment, while also bringing in anthropology and primatology. His conclusion: "Most of the action in moral psychology" is in our automatic intuitions. "People do indeed reason, but that reasoning is done primarily to prepare for social interaction, not to search for truth."

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Haidt sees morality as a "social construction" that varies by time and place. We all live in a "web of shared meanings and values" that become our moral matrix, he writes, and these matrices form what Haidt, quoting the science-fiction writer William Gibson, likens to "a consensual hallucination." But all humans graft their moralities on psychological systems that evolved to serve various needs, like caring for families and punishing cheaters.

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In The Righteous Mind, Haidt attributes his own ideological shift to an intellectual awakening. He came to appreciate the right's insights about social cohesion after reading Conservatism, an anthology edited by the historian Jerry Z. Muller. But he also credits another factor: the end of George W. Bush's presidency. Haidt hated Bush. He couldn't shift his views until that animosity disappeared--until he was no longer an angry partisan fighting another team "for the survival of the world."

In other words, his intuition ruled.

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Via Jonathan Haidt Decodes the Tribal Psychology of Politics - The Chronicle Review - The Chronicle of Higher Education.