Tyler Cowen interviews Jonathan Haidt



Things that clearly involve harm, violations of rights, there are certain things that are predisposed to be moralized, but the genius of human beings is because we’re so tribal, we can moralize anything that gets tabbed as being predictive of what group you belong to or being part of “them.”

But the more important point is the one that you suggest, which is, once people have taken a position on something, especially if it relates to sacred values — something that has become sacred to them — they’re pretty much impervious to arguments at that point.


You have to see college campuses as being institutions that were designed or intended to be places where people come up against diverse ideas, they’re challenged, and as within the marketplace — monopoly destroys a lot of the value of the marketplace — if you have a monopoly on ideas in the intellectual marketplace, you kill the marketplace. Campuses are supposed to be places where nobody has a monopoly on ideas, but they’ve become that in the last few years.

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.

One may not like all of that, but typically once sees something like that is needed in the military. Now if we take colleges and universities, they’re big, they’re bureaucratic, they’re not-for-profit, the incentives are not traditional commercial incentives — could it be the case that for higher education to function well it needs these tight, strict norms? Tight, strict norms, will ex post always look in some ways silly, as they can in the military. Maybe this is a semi‑second, third best efficient way of running academia, yes or no?

HAIDT: No. Again, you’re looking at it like you look at these giant systems, and then let’s take that analogy to another giant system, but you have to think about what is each system designed to produce. Diversity is divisive. There’s a lot of social science research on this, the more you make something diverse, the less trust there will be, the harder it is for people to work together.

If you’re the US military, or any military, yes in the ’70s the Army in particular embraced ethnic diversity, and they did a great job of it. It’s actually quite striking that the military has done — that things have gotten better and better and better in terms of racial climate in the military, and worse and worse and worse in the academy, we can come back to that. If you’re the military, you need cohesion, and that’s what they say — above all, unit cohesion, we must have that.

You want to basically bury racial and other kinds of diversity in a sea of uniformity. You want to give people a sense of common mission, you have common uniforms, so you want to make people feel they’re all part of the same — that’s what you do if you need a group to function effectively together.

In the academy that is not our goal. We’re not trying to turn out classes of “our graduating class will go forth, and they will all work together as a unit to accomplish greatness.” No, that’s not what it’s all about. We want clashing ideas.

We don’t want uniformity and homogeneity, we want the benefits of diversity, but the irony is we have so focused on racial and other kinds of demographic diversity, because of the political slant of the university, because of the sacred values of the campus left, we have so focused on that kind of diversity.

There’s this wonderful line from George Will, in some essay he wrote, “There’s a certain kind of liberal that wants diversity in everything except thought.” That’s where we are. We now have almost a kind of uniformity the military has, where everybody’s on the left, which gives us cohesion, but that kills the very function of the university, which is to have diversity of thought, so we can change our minds. We challenge each other in the marketplace of ideas.

In other words, right‑wing, or libertarian, or social conservative voices have basically vanished between 1995 and 2005. This has made us unfunctional, but it’s in the social sciences and humanities where the sacred value has become social justice and the protection of victims. That’s the division. One university of the sciences still pursues truth, the other university in the social sciences and humanities pursues social justice.

HAIDT: They should not step in. We should be extremely limited when we say that 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.

If somebody insults them they can’t straighten it out themselves, they have to go right to the authorities, and this embroils everybody in eternal battles. College used to be a lot of fun when I went, and now it’s constant conflicts, and that’s going to happen as far as the eye can see.

HAIDT: Oh gosh, I’d change a lot of things. One thing that I would do is I would start admitting for signs that you can contribute to an intellectually diverse environment. That means that I would look for people who — so Yale in particular, but all of the top schools have a huge problem, that they have basically social justice warriors who are so empowered, so angry, that they dominate discourse and you basically have the small illiberal left has completely terrorized the larger liberal left.

Basically I think a lot of students know is the way to get into a top school is show your social justice activism. Well, top schools are now full of social justice activists, and they’re no longer places where people can say anything that contradicts the social justice activists. What’s that old joke? “Doctor, it hurts when I do this. Well, stop doing this.” They should stop admitting social justice warriors and start admitting people they’ve got the guts to disagree.

COWEN: What’s the best replacement for religion in modern, secular society?

HAIDT: Oh boy, the best replacement.

COWEN: Good question. Durkheimian question.

HAIDT: Yeah. A few years ago I would have tried to give you an answer and say we should have some other sacred value to replace it, but given what’s happened in the last year on campuses, I’m really afraid of it, because you might think, “Humanitarianism should replace it. We should all have a religion of helping the poor, helping each other.” Now, of course, it’s really important to help the poor. It’s really important to help people who are oppressed.

But once you make it a religion, that means you are impervious to evidence. You are committed to certain religious rituals even if those rituals make things worse. For example, I’ve been studying the research on affirmative action and diversity training. As far as I can tell there’s no evidence that they make things better and there is some evidence that it makes things worse.

Now, it’s messy. I can’t say for sure that they do, but the point is, we seem to be doing things on campus that are making things worse. The activists are largely asking for things that will make things worse. Much more affirmative action, much bigger racial preferences, which will cause much bigger gaps between Asians at the top and African-Americans at the bottom. Which is going to inflame prejudice, not reduce it.

Once you make something a religion, you’re not open to evidence. You do really crazy, stupid things. What I would say is, let’s not have a replacement for religion. Let’s set things up so that there isn’t a big religion that unites us all to take on our enemies. Let’s try to return to a climate in which people find meaning and purpose in their private lives and in their smaller associations, but we don’t have a big sense of national purpose.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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