Jonathan Haidt Keynote Lecture

The mind of the righteous. Why politics and religion divide sensible people.

On 30 September 2019, the Rafael del Pino Foundation organised the Keynote Lecture "The Mind of the Righteous. Why politics and religion divide sensible people" given by Jonathan Haidt.

Jonathan Haidt is Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University's Stern School of Business. He received his B.A. from Yale University in 1985 and his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1992. Haidt is a social psychologist whose research focuses on morality - its emotional foundations, cultural variations, and developmental course. He began his career studying negative moral emotions, such as disgust, shame, and revenge, but then moved on to understudied positive moral emotions, such as admiration, awe, and moral uplift. He is the co-developer of Moral Foundations Theory, and the research centre. He uses his research to help people understand and respect the moral motives of people with whom they disagree. In 2012 he was named as "one of the top 100 global thinkers" by Foreign Policy magazine and one of Prospect magazine's 65 "World Thinkers of 2013". He is the author of more than 90 academic articles and two books: The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, y The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. At NYU-Stern, he is focusing his research on moral psychology to business ethics, asking how companies can be structured and function in ways that are resilient to ethical failures. Haidt is also working to increase the diversity of viewpoints in academia through Heterodox Academy, his new collaborative project.


On 30 September, Jonathan Haidt, Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at the New York University Stern School of Business, gave a lecture at the Rafael del Pino Foundation entitled "The Mind of the Righteous. Why politics and religion divide sensible people". Professor Haidt began by pointing out that something very strange is happening in the world, because many countries have problems with their political systems, with their democracies. It's a strange time, it's quite scary, but it's also fascinating, because living in a democracy is a challenge that we all have to face together. Nobody really knows what is going on, but in order to solve it, we have to learn from each other. Human beings have evolved not to be tribal beings, but we are not designed to live in large societies. We are prepared to live in small societies, but we are not prepared to live in a large one, unless there are some adjustments that make coexistence possible. Such coexistence is not always easy, especially in democracies. The fathers of the US Constitution knew this. They were well aware that previous attempts at democracy in various parts of the world had been spectacles of turbulence and, as a result, had been very short-lived. Consequently, they understood that democracy was a very unstable thing and therefore wanted its parameters to be well defined, for example, the separation of powers. If those parameters work perfectly, they thought, American democracy could also work for many centuries. Strange developments began in 2016 and surprised many people because of their reflection in the expressions of popular will. There has been an increase in political divisions, not only in the West. There is also the rise of populism in Asia and Latin America. It would not be surprising if, as a consequence, in the next twenty years we witness the demise of democracies, at least some of them. Who has been able to change those fundamental parameters that have made democracies so unstable? Only one man: Mark Zuckerberg. It was not premeditated or deliberate, but that is what has happened. Social media has changed the fundamental parameters of society in a way that is quite damaging to democracy. Politics is different because social media has changed it. Human society is very different now than it was in 2007. Social networks bring people together and concentrate people, but that just means that people have more private conversations. The problem is that communication is a two-way street. In this sense, what happens in social networking groups conditions people and causes them to worry about what others think of them. This affects the nature of communication and alters the public/private ratio because the former becomes more important. Conversations are therefore no longer honest, no longer authentic. On the contrary, everyone now engages in attitudes of moral superiority. Those who behave in this way believe that what they say is always the truth and that, therefore, no one can disagree with them. Things, however, have not always been like this. Before 2009, social networks were different. They were like diaries that allowed people to share things with their friends. It didn't alter any of the parameters of society. But in 2009, Facebook invented the Like button, so now you can quantify everything and optimise what a person has done. And everything can also be shared on the networks. Newspapers, once an important source of information, have had to adapt to the world of social media because people no longer read them. But that means they have to attract readers and, to achieve this, they put a lot of weight on their headlines. This is unprofessional, because it's no longer about reporting, about telling the truth as it is. Now it's all about hooking people. This is why journalists broke with the internet in 2013. All this explains why the parameters have changed. Social media fits perfectly into the grooves of getting everything out of our private lives. Those who want to destroy democracy, like Putin, use it for their purposes. And since, in the end, everything revolves around social networks, this brings us together. The networks, therefore, are very effective in manipulating groups, in getting them angry. People in the United States are very vulnerable to manipulation through networks, as studies show. That is why Americans followed Russian propaganda and acted in accordance with the ends it pursued. This leads to the polarisation of politics, in which Republicans and Democrats are unable to understand each other. This polarisation even reached the university. Suddenly, out of nowhere, people started talking about warnings. If a professor asked students to read a book, he had to warn them that its content might offend their sensibilities. At the same time, people started to veto the presence at the university of anyone who didn't seem to be in the students' interest. They even began to ask for safe spaces so that those who advocate radical views on, for example, gender identity, could speak without being subjected to the pressure of rejection by those who do not share their way of thinking. Why is this happening? Because Generation Z has fewer life experiences than previous generations. It takes them longer to reach the milestones of personal development, for example, getting a driving licence, having their first relationship, or working their way through university. Then they get to university and the professor tells them to read a book about rape. That shocks them and causes depression and anxiety because they are not prepared to deal with it. This problem affects girls much more than boys. Women of previous generations who did not have social networks, however, had fewer problems. Why is all this happening at the same time in many countries? Social networks explain the timing of all this. Kids used to get together after school and go and play. Now it's not like that. Now they connect electronically from home and that's not the same. Girls, moreover, are more affected by the constant social comparison that social networks mean, they are afraid of missing out on something and they think that if everyone is having a good time and they are not, something is wrong with them. And if they have a conflict, they tend to discredit their peers through social networks, with all that this entails. Social networks are therefore harmful for children. Another cause of the problem is overprotection of children. Children need to experience failure, to be criticised, to be isolated, to be picked on, even if not too often, and to learn from it. Overprotection prevents them from developing to cope with life's problems. As a result, children do not learn to protect themselves, to defend themselves. Although, in the end, they will learn it the hard way, but it is better that this is the case than that they never learn it at all. With overprotection we are confusing them. When they play, on the other hand, they learn and practice the skills they will need in life. That's why it's important for them to play with each other. But now they can't do that because parents think it is too dangerous to let them go out alone in the street, to go to a friend's house alone, and so on. Information is also part of the problem. Now, we all have a lot of information, but the percentage of information, in the classical sense, is getting smaller and smaller. Watching television used to be a shared experience with the whole family. Now, when young people hyper-connect with each other, there is no room for an older generation. Young people create and share their own content and don't watch the rest. But that is very little knowledge and people do much better if they can tap into the collective wisdom of humanity, which means breaking out of that confinement. Generation Z has cut themselves off from the transmission of stories from previous generations because they don't listen to them. In doing so, they have cut themselves off from wisdom. So what can we do? Democracy and Generation Z are going to struggle until social media becomes less contagious and pernicious. Changes need to be made to democracy to make people more supportive of it. Also in the education provided by parents to their children, as well as giving them more independence. In addition, we need to delay access to social networks until the age of 16. And we have to make changes in ourselves. Hatred always leads to more hatred. So we have to be more humble, give people the benefit of the doubt, not be so quick to anger. Now that we are all connected, we have to be more careful what we say. However, that won't do much good if we are not less 'sensitive', if we continue to convey messages of anger, and if we don't try to offend others less.

The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for the comments, opinions or statements made by the people who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their sole responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio González, are the result of the debates held at the meeting held for this purpose at the Foundation and are the responsibility of the authors.

The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for any comments, opinions or statements made by third parties. In this respect, the FRP is not obliged to monitor the views expressed by such third parties who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their own responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio J. González, are the result of the discussions that took place during the conference organised for this purpose at the Foundation and are the sole responsibility of its authors.