Ethics Quote Of The Month: Professor Jonathan Haidt

This is longer than the typical featured ethics quote. It comes from NYU Professor of Social Psychology Jonathan Haidt’s 2017 Wriston Lecture to the Manhattan Institute on Nov. 15 , excerpted by the Wall Street Journal.

Today’s identity politics . . . teaches the exact opposite of what we think a liberal arts education should be. When I was at Yale in the 1980s, I was given so many tools for understanding the world. By the time I graduated, I could think about things as a utilitarian or as a Kantian, as a Freudian or a behaviorist, as a computer scientist or as a humanist. I was given many lenses to apply to any given question or problem.

But what do we do now? Many students are given just one lens–power. Here’s your lens, kid. Look at everything through this lens. Everything is about power. Every situation is analyzed in terms of the bad people acting to preserve their power and privilege over the good people. This is not an education. This is induction into a cult. It’s a fundamentalist religion. It’s a paranoid worldview that separates people from each other and sends them down the road to alienation, anxiety and intellectual impotence. . . .

Let’s return to Jefferson’s vision: “For here we are not afraid to follow the truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error as long as reason is left free to combat it.” Well if Jefferson were to return today and tour our nation’s top universities, he would be shocked at the culture of fear, the tolerance of error, and the shackles placed on reason. . . .

I am actually pessimistic about America’s future, but let me state very clearly that I have very low confidence in my pessimism. Because until now, it has always been wrong to bet against America, and it’s probably wrong to do so now. My libertarian friends constantly remind me that people are resourceful–this is what many people forget. When problems get more severe, people get more inventive, and that is actually happening right now.


  • Exactly.
  • Ethics Alarms posits that the ethics rot within the educational system, including higher education, combined with corrupted American journalism, has created an existential threat to core American values and our democracy as it was designed to be.
  • The professor is eloquent and perceptive as well as right. I wonder who is listening.


Filed under Education, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Ethics Quotes, Government & Politics, This Helps Explain Why Trump Is President, U.S. Society

29 responses to “Ethics Quote Of The Month: Professor Jonathan Haidt

  1. dragin_dragon

    Well, I am, for one, and I m doing ll I can, at my advanced age to combat this advanced rot.

  2. charlesgreen

    Lots of people are listening. I know Jon Haidt, have sat in on many of his gatherings, and you may recall I recommended his books to you a year ago or so. One of the most impressive is The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

    I think everyone on this blog, right or left, would find his thinking insightful, and in agreement with him. Which is no mean feat.

    His most recent work is in establishing the Heterodox Academy, which explores the liberal bias in academia.

    Very impressive guy.

  3. John Billingsley

    Wonderful. Eloquently explains something that I have been sort of thinking about but unable to articulate. Thanks for the book recommendation CG. I just ordered it.

  4. I’m also pessimistic about the future of America. I hope when I look at the book Charles recommended it will help me feel there is a possibility for the two conflicting sides to work together. But my view has been for some time now that the fundamental beliefs separating the two sides are so irreconcilable that any of hope of meeting in the middle is impossible.

    I also want to extend my thanks, Charles, for the book recommendation!

    • Another feature I’d like to add here, if I could find time (or a volunteer): an ethics book club.

      • La Sylphide

        A recommended reading list, added to by EA readers with a brief explanation of why they found a particular read informative. Wouldn’t require much of your time. I, for one, would find such a list really helpful.

        • Luke G

          Going off that, it could be as simple as a single post with the comment section dedicated to book recommendations as you suggest, LS. It could be pinned on the sidebar for easy access even after it is pushed into the archives by newer posts.

          At Jack’s (or whoever he designates) discretion, a book that generates enough buzz in the recommendation thread could be given its own post. Slap a “Book Club” or “Commenter Reading List” category tag on the original thread and any book-specific posts, and anyone interested could easily browse the recommendation thread for ideas or the book-specific threads to see/join a more in-depth discussion on a particular title.

  5. Wayne

    I’ve been watching the series on “The Men Who Built American” covering Edison, Westinghouse, Ford, J.P. Morgan, Rockefeller, and so on and it is true that they did some awful things in their pursuit of monopolies. However, unlike Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini they also created the middle class in America and made it possible for the average man and woman to live a life undreamed of by their ancestors. This is where the leftists and progressives have gotten it all wrong.

    • Other Bill

      Great observation, Wayne. I’ve always felt the genius of America is the guys at the top let enough crumbs fall off the table that a schmo like me, with the help of a wonderful wife, can make a meal, and a decent life for ourselves and our children and grand children, out of those crumbs.

  6. Jeff

    “The professor is eloquent and perceptive as well as right.”

    Which, of course, means the campus mob will be calling him a Nazi and howling for his head on a pike in short order.

    Then again, if he only writes books and lectures, and doesn’t waste his time with Twitter and Facebook, those who would be threatened by him calling out the rotting culture on American campuses won’t ever hear of his (very perceptive) observations. That would be way too much work for them.

    • charlesgreen

      Haidt has about 80,000 Twitter followers and has been published in magazines like The Atlantic. He is in fact getting a pretty good hearing not only in academia, but in broader social media as well. I haven’t seen anyone calling him a Nazi. This is a cause for optimism.

      • Glenn Logan

        Talk about your low bars. It’s tragic that we have to acknowledge this as a fair point.

      • Jeff

        I suspect there is a sizable minority of faculty on most campuses that would nod their heads vigorously at Professor Haidt’s words, but fear the backlash that the very vocal leftists can produce. I imagine there’s a bit of a foxhole mentality for people who see the ridiculously intolerant joke that American campuses have become, but who lack the courage to stand up against the mob. Hopefully people like Haidt who aren’t afraid to speak up will inspire others to push back and start to return academia to the pursuit of knowledge, not politics.

  7. Glenn Logan

    Ethics Alarms posits that the ethics rot within the educational system, including higher education, combined with corrupted American journalism, has created an existential threat to core American values and our democracy as it was designed to be.

    If we assume this is true, can what we currently think of as academic freedom be allowed to continue if this is to be repaired?

    I see no way it can. If professors and teachers are free to indoctrinate their students, then how can we ever stop this process? There is no conservative rush to get into academia, and even if there were enough to counter the current liberal domination, there’s certainly no assurance that they wouldn’t adopt exactly the same tactics to impress their ideology.

    Will market forces be sufficient to correct the problem? I don’t see it. Yes, colleges are suffering a decline in enrollment, but the problem starts at the grade school level. How do we fix an indoctrination that is effectively mandated by the U.S. Government?

    I share Haidt’s pessimism, and even though, like him, I am not confident of it, I am probably more confident than he is. We have what appears to be a Gordian knot — a point at which power has become more important than right, wrong, communitarian spirit, or even self-interest. It has become singular, an existential purpose for all to many teaching our children and young adults.

    I see no way out. Do you?

    • I think that the way out begins with just hammering on respect for the law. It’s the only common language we have at the moment.

      • Junkmailfolder

        Is it still common though? When enforcing immigration laws has a good chance of getting you labeled racist, and almost any law enforcement action taken against black people is de facto racist in many people’s eyes, and much of the population will overlook crimes if they agree politically with them, I worry the foundations are crumbling.

        • Glenn Logan

          Yeah, I think respect for the law is pretty much out the window right now. If we demand that laws on the books not be enforced, we’ve jumped the shark, and I see more evidence of academia supporting no enforcement of existing laws they don’t like than a blanket respect for the rule of law.

          • ”I see more evidence of academia supporting no enforcement of existing laws they don’t like than a blanket respect for the rule of law.”

            It gets worse.

            Howse about the intellectual waifs academia is churning out?

            To wit:

            • dragin_dragon

              I actually saw that on the news. Scared the bejeesus out of me.

              • The supreme irony through which that addlepate must cluelessly slog?

                The Bill of Rights protects smug little shits like him.

                • dragin_dragon

                  To which I reply, “I don’t care”. Although I really do. Our Constitution protects numerous Fascists, Nazis, communists and etcetera. While I find it abhorrent that this kind of tyrannical stupidity can be protected, I also understand that it MUST happen in a free society.

  8. Wait! Isn’t this Haidt speech????

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