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A psychologist and historian of morality reflects on the conventions

A psychologist and historian of morality reflects on the conventions

Gareth Cook of Scientific American introduces us to Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt, he says, “is concerned, like many Americans, with the way our country has become divided and increasingly unable to work together to solve looming threats. Yet, unlike most Americans, he is a psychologist and specialist on the origins of morality. In his book, Haidt examines the roots of our morality, and how they play out on the stage of history. Cook asked Haidt what he made of the recent political conventions, and he said:

I was mostly struck by how much the culture war has shifted to economic issues. These days it’s fought out over the three moral foundations that everyone values: Care/harm, Fairness/cheating, and Liberty/oppression. The Democrats say that government must care for people, and that government programs are necessary to make America fair – to level the playing field, and give people the basic necessities that they need to enjoy liberty, especially education and health care. George W. Bush once called himself a “compassionate conservative,” but Republicans in the Tea Party era don’t talk much about compassion. For them, government is the cause of massive unfairness – taking money from taxpayers (the “makers” and “job creators”) and giving it to slackers and freeloaders (Romney’s “47 percent”). Government is seen as the principle threat to liberty. The private sector is much more trusted.

This is a huge shift from the period between 1992 and 2004, when the culture war was fought out mostly between social conservatives, particularly the religious right, and the secular left. It was fought out primarily over the three moral foundations that we call the “binding” foundations, because they bind people together into tight moral communities: Loyalty/betrayal (for example, issues of patriotism and flag protection), Authority/subversion (for example, respect for parents, and whether parents and teachers can spank children), and Sanctity/degradation (which includes most bioethical issues pitting the sanctity of life against a more harm-based or utilitarian ethos). This older culture war re-emerged briefly with Rick Santorum’s turn in the spotlight, but then it faded away. The Republican Party in particular has changed, and the moral arguments made in this Republican convention were very different.

I can’t say I noticed that. Your thoughts?

Hat tip Andrew Sullivan.


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Harriet Baber

On providing contraceptive coverage…the idea that these moral issues or, as I’d characterize them conventions regarding behavior are religious is adopting a very latitudinarian notion of religion. Sure, religious organizations promote rules for behavior and moral notions. But that’s peripheral to RELIGION. Religion is what you do in church, and what you do at home that’s like what you do in church–it consists of harmless ceremonies and equally harmless metaphysics. Ethics isn’t religion. Certainly we should accommodate religion in the strict sense–rituals and metaphysics. But no accommodation whatsoever for ethical or moral agendas. Religion isn’t ethics, and the sooner religion groups ditch ethics and get back to their proper business–ritual and metaphysics–the better off we’ll be.


For example, it was foolish of the Obama administration to insist that religious schools, hospitals, and other institutions must pay for birth control for all employees. This was extremism in defense of one of their sacralized issues – women’s rights—and it led them to pass a rule that would have forced many Christians to violate some of their sacred values. But it’s not as if those institutions were stopping women from using birth control. The issue was just whether religious institutions should pay for birth control in health insurance policies. It’s like forcing synagogues to buy pork lunches for their non-jewish employees.

Criminy, this is NONSENSE.

Employees EARN their health benefits: they are compensation, not a gift “paid” for (“pork lunches”?!).

Being earned, they rightfully BELONG TO the employees, and should not be subject to the EMPLOYER’S religious doctrines!

Government is seen as the principle threat to liberty. The private sector is much more trusted.

So seen by Haidt, apparently. The private sector, “job creators”, the 1%, as Great Beneficent Fathers, whom their peon employees should always to defer to as their moral betters. Humbug!

JC Fisher

Gary (NJ)

Regardless of where one falls on the political spectrum, it’s a good thing that (most) people are less obsessed now with sexual issues and more with economic, quality of life issues; which are much more important and impactful on the lives of the average citizen.

Gary Calderone (added by ~ed.)


“I was mostly struck by how much the culture war has shifted to economic issues.”

BIG Amen to that! When I was in Louisana awhile back I was invited to speak at an adult education forum and was making the case that the movement toward full inclusion of LGBT people in the church was part-and-parcel of the wider arc of history that bends toward justice and includes racial justice, gender justice and economic justice.

After a 40 minute presentation to a crowd of a couple hundred folks I opened it up for questions — and the first one came from an eager man in the back row who have been diligently scribbling notes. After 40 minutes of making a detailed case for LGBT equality his question was: “What do you mean by economic justice? Isn’t that just a code word for socialism? And what about the fact that Jesus said that those who don’t work shouldn’t eat.”

Seriously. I could not make this up.

The culture war has indeed shifted to economic issues.

Susan Russell

Diocese of Los Angeles

Harriet Baber

“Democrats say that government must care for people”

It’s a pity that Democrats have framed their project is this way–which is offputting: smarmy, sentimental, suggests people are weak. The idea of “care” is sickening.

Democratic social programs are in fact geared to expand freedom, to give people more options–to liberate people from the constraints imposed by powerful non-government agents and, by providing a social safety net, seeing to it that no one is absolutely trapped with no room to maneuver. The point is to see to it that no one is forced to beg, or take a job they find absolutely intolerable,that everyone has a chance to get trained for work they can tolerate.

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