BILL MOYERS: You actually studied in India. You were young, liberal, academic-

JONATHAN HAIDT: That's right, that's right. Twenty-nine years old when I went over. I was working with an anthropologist, Richard Shweder with the University of Chicago. And really my ideas about morality and the breadth of it, they really come from him. He had this wonderful theory about these three ethics of morality, not just autonomy but also community and divinity.

So I went to India, to Bhubaneswar, a city in Eastern India, to observe, to do some experiments. And this was 1993. And Bill Clinton had been elected, and I was overjoyed, I loved Clinton. And the religious right were getting evermore active, the culture war was heating up. And I, you know, I hated Jerry Falwell and the religious right.

But here I was trying to pretend I was an anthropologist. And I was in this incredibly sex-segregated, hierarchical, religious society. I mean, sort of analogous to what we might think of as the kind of world the Christian right wants to build in America. Now, in America, I could just see all the terrible things about that.

But here I was in India, these people being really nice to me, and I was there to understand them. And as I developed relationships with them, I wasn't just confirming my old biases, I was actually listening to them and trying to see it from their point of view. And I could see some beauty in it.

BILL MOYERS: Beauty in?

JONATHAN HAIDT: Well, it's, we have an ethos here of extreme individual expression. So for example, here's one of the questions that most distinguishes nations on our moral foundations questionnaire. "It is more important to be a team player than to express yourself." Liberals say "No, it's more important to express yourself." But conservatives, and Indians, and Asians in general, would say "It's more important to be a team player."

So the ethos of, "I have my rights and my desires," I mean, that's a quintessentially American and even more liberal than conservative sort of thing. So I could at least see an ethos in which the individual is not so all-important. The group, the family order, responsibility, duty, are.

BILL MOYERS: But you came back thinking, "Well, maybe the religious right in this country's not crazy at all"-

JONATHAN HAIDT: Exactly, that's right. Once I could see it in India, I came back, and I did a little bit more reading, and now I at least have a vocabulary, and I had the intuition. That's the crucial thing. I had the intuitions of what this is all about. And I could see that, you know, it's not, their emphasis on marriage and all, it's not because they're out to oppress women, it's because they are really, really bothered when men father children and don't raise them.

That is just the worst possible thing. And they want to bind men and women together into units that will raise children in a world of all kinds of threatening media messages. It just made a lot more sense to me. Not that I became a conservative, but suddenly, the demonization was gone. The switch had just turned off and I could look at it.

Jonathan Haidt’s Mind-Opening Journey

February 3, 2012

In this web-extra video, Jonathan Haidt shares how a post-doctoral research trip to India encouraged him to “switch off” his liberal predisposition and, for the first time, truly acknowledge conservative moral concerns.

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