The healthcare debate: Jonathan Haidt on how our moral roots skew our reasoning

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Only on the TED Blog: In The TED Lens, each Sunday a TED speaker offers a new look at the week’s big news stories. This week, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt talks about how the moral roots of the political right and left are shaping the debate over healthcare in the United States.


In your talk at TED2008, you asked us all to “take the red pill” and step outside of our moral matrix. You said that moral psychology was the red pill, and that it could help people resolve many of the puzzles of politics. When emotions are running high in a debate such as we are seeing in the United States over healthcare, it’s difficult to do this. What can moral psychology tell us about the healthcare debate?

I think there are three basic principles of moral psychology, and I find it helpful to approach any new puzzle by applying them.

The first principle is intuitive primacy: Peoples’ judgments are based primarily on their intuitive reactions — on quick gut feelings, not on reasoning. This is how we make most decisions, and Malcolm Gladwell reviewed this research in Blink. Our feelings guide our subsequent thinking, and in this case there is a vast sea of fear and anger out there caused by the financial crisis, the threat of unemployment, the rewarding of greed and arrogance on Wall Street, and the big changes the Obama administration is trying to implement on many fronts. People who didn’t vote for Obama started off with negative or ambivalent feelings toward him. Independents who may have voted for him without much love are easily turned against him by talk of tax increases, whether true or not. His race may contribute some negativity, for some people. Whatever the source, negative feelings make it easy for people to believe just about any negative proposition given to them about Obama, including conspiracy theories about his birth certificate. Negative feelings make it easy to believe any negative claim about his health care plan, including the stuff about death panels.

The second principle of moral psychology is that moral thinking is for social doing: We engage in moral thinking not to find the truth, but to find arguments that support our intuitive judgments, so that we can defend ourselves if challenged. The crucial insight here comes from psychologist Tom Gilovich at Cornell, who says that when we want to believe a proposition, we ask, “Can I believe it?” — and we look only for evidence that the proposition might be true. If we find a single piece of evidence then we’re done. We stop. We have a reason we can trot out to support our belief. But if we don’t want to believe a proposition, we ask, “Must I believe it?” — and we look for an escape hatch, a single reason why maybe, just maybe, the proposition is false. So people who have a negative intuitive reaction to Obama, or who are fearful about the enormous changes going on, are already inclined to believe rumors against him and his plans. They hear about death panels and forged birth certificates and ask “can I believe it?” The answer is usually yes, particularly if Fox News raises these questions and brings on experts who claim that the propositions are true. Even if Fox News presents both sides, the fact that somebody on TV endorsed a proposition gives viewers permission to believe it, if they want to. Conversely, Democrats can give rebuttals till they’re blue in the face, but if people are asking themselves “must I believe it” about the Democrats’ claims then the answer they will usually reach is “no.” Logic and consistency just aren’t very important when it comes to morality. Reasoning is “the servant of the passions,” as the philosopher David Hume said long ago.

That brings us to the third principle, which is that morality binds and builds. I said in my TEDTalk that morality and politics are team sports. People aren’t just engaging in post-hoc rationalization to justify their individual feelings. Rather, moral reasoning and rationalizing are done in large part to help your team, and to show that you are a good member of your team. Moral teams tend to form around principles held to be sacred. One sacred principle for conservatives since the 1980s, and for libertarians in all eras, is that government is evil, it is a form oppression. Individual liberty, tied to individual responsibility, are good, so nanny states such as those of Europe, which seem so humane to liberals, are reviled as socialist nightmares that are then mistakenly blended with totalitarian nightmares. Hence the Obama equals Hitler comparisons. Of course, people are quite selective about the aspects of government they find oppressive, and many commentators have pointed out the irony of protesters who say, in one case literally, “keep your government hands off of my medicare.” But once again, logic plays little role in our moral lives. Moral claims and arguments function like gang signs — they show others what team you are on, and they let you share emotions with other people, which bonds you more closely together.

At the end of your talk, you say, “The great conservative insight is that order is really hard to achieve. It’s really precious, and really easy to lose.” How does this notion that order tends to decay — suffused by the conservative mentality, which highly values in-groups, authority and purity — shape conservative thinking about President Obama’s healthcare reform proposals? What are liberals missing about the perspective of the political right?

I did say that in-group, authority and purity are necessary for the maintenance of order, but I would never give them a blanket endorsement. Rather, my message to secular liberals is, Don’t dismiss these entirely. Be wary of them, sure; they can motivate violations of civil liberties and human rights. But we need them at times, and to a limited degree. Above all recognize that matters related to ingroup (such as immigration, or the flag), authority (such as crime and punishment), and purity (such as sexuality) are the ones that take on a kind of religious importance for most Americans, because they are about binding groups together around sacred values. Liberals often trigger outrage by ignoring these concerns in their pursuit of social justice, or of efficient policy.

In terms of the “five foundations” that I presented in my TEDTalk, I think that a big area of misunderstanding in the current debate concerns the role of purity/sanctity in biomedical issues, particularly abortion, euthanasia, and stem cell research. If your morality is based on the moral foundations of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity (as liberal morality is, in my data), then you’re likely to take a very practical or utilitarian approach, one that aims to minimize suffering while maximizing the rights of the individuals involved. You take a “materialist” view of life, which doesn’t mean materialistic as in greedy, it means you think the only thing that exists is matter – no souls – so you think life is a physical or mechanical process that can be tinkered with to optimize the welfare of human beings. Hence abortion, voluntary euthanasia, and stem cell research are all justified.

But materialism is deeply and profoundly threatening to many people. It’s the reason that the philosopher Peter Singer is so widely attacked, despite his humanitarian intentions. The current Pope and the last one both railed against this form of materialism. The materialism of the secular left opens it up to charges that it promotes a “culture of death.” Liberals are said to like to kill fetuses and the elderly; they don’t treat anything as sacred. This term has been bandied about on the right for many years, and while it is a gross exaggeration, it is based in a real truth, a real difference on the question of the sacredness of life. So when Palin threw out the term “death panels,” the term struck a chord that had been played many times in recent years. Liberals were flabbergasted, because it’s a blatant lie, but it’s false only in a logical sense, not an emotional one. And once again, logic has little to do with morality. If a pro-life social conservative asks himself whether Obama is secretly plotting to create death panels, he is not asking whether this is likely to be true, he is asking only “can I believe it,” and the answer is usually yes.

Of course, liberals believe that it is conservatives who like to kill people (think militarism and capital punishment). Both sides care about life, but in different ways. Both sides live inside their own moral matrices. And just like in the movie The Matrix, morality is a “consensual hallucination” that is very hard to step out of. But moral psychology can help people to understand that there are moral motivations on all sides. People may not be logical, but few of them are crazy.

How would you advise a proponent of Obama’s healthcare reform bill to go about persuading its opposition — or at least to turn the debate toward the actual validity of its proposals, rather than the sensationalist claims?

While it is useful to rebut charges and get your arguments out in circulation, you have to understand that arguments and evidence have little impact on people as long as their feelings tilt them against you. You’ve got to create trust and liking first, and then people will be willing to listen. People can believe pretty much whatever they want to believe about moral and political issues, as long as some other people near them believe it, so you have to focus on indirect methods to change what people want to believe. You have to get them to the point where they ask themselves “can I believe it?” about your claims, rather than about your opponents’ claims. The time to establish that trust and liking was months ago, and perhaps some of it was burned up in the giant bailouts and coziness with Wall Street. I’m not a political scientist; I can’t say why his poll numbers went down. But as a moral psychologist I can say that there’s now little that can be done to win over or calm down the town-hall protesters. They’ve formed a new gang, a new heroic moral identity of resistance.

My main suggestion is to boil the plan down to a few easy-to-understand ideas, each of which has some intuitive moral content. The compassion and caring-for-all ideas should be easy for Obama, but they are not going to win over non-liberals, particularly those like Congressman Joe Wilson who are offended by the prospect of caring for outsiders (i.e., immigrants). But Obama might have to reach beyond his moral comfort zone to bring in some conservative ideas of fairness, such as that laziness or personal irresponsibility must not be rewarded. Obama might want to consider discussing the role of lawyers, and the role of lawsuits in driving up the costs of medical care. Even if economists say that this is not a major economic factor, it is a major moral issue for many people: whiny, irresponsible patients team up with crooked lawyers to milk the system for multi-million dollar settlements. It’s outrageous, and Obama’s opponents specialize in mobilizing outrage. Opposition parties always do, and neither side has a deep respect for the truth, although I do think that the kind of populist moral outrage now being cultivated by Glenn Beck and other conservative media personalities shows the three principles of moral psychology in an unusually florid fashion: intuitive primacy, moral thinking is for social doing, and morality binds and builds. It’s very hard to combat such attacks with reasons and evidence. I hope the Obama team finds some more indirect ways to change feelings – perhaps by making progress on the economy, or by handling an international crisis well. When it comes to moral persuasion, the way to the head is through the heart.

Jonathan Haidt’s 2008 TEDTalk:

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