- - Tuesday, June 26, 2012

NEW YORK — In 2004, Jonathan Haidt had an experience that changed his intellectual life.

The influential moral and social psychologist — at the time an atheist and a liberal — was at the Strand, a used-book shop in New York, when the brown spine of a book called “Conservatism” caught his eye. Edited by historian Jerry Z. Muller, it was an anthology of readings from David Hume to Philip Rieff.

Three pages into the book, Mr. Haidt was floored — that is, sitting on the ground of the bookstore — paging through “all these gems of insight on the relationship between human flourishing and society,” the spirited 48-year-old academic recalled over tea and chocolate in his office at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

Its passages from Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek and Winston Churchill confirmed Mr. Haidt’s empirical research about the limits of rationalism, human nature’s flaws, the necessity of social institutions and the value of the sacred. That confirmation was surprising to the man who, frustrated by the presidential election defeat of John F. Kerry in 2004, entered the field of political psychology to “help liberals win.”

Before stumbling across the Muller anthology, the popular former University of Virginia psychology professor thought of conservatism as a “Frankenstein monster,” he says — an ugly mishmash of Christian fundamentalism, racism and authoritarianism.

But then, covering his copy of “Conservatism with dense marginalia, he was forced to reconsider: “Might conservatives have a better formula for how to create a healthy, happy society?”

This question appears in his new book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” which takes readers on a tour of human moral and social history. In the book, Mr. Haidt — now a centrist — argues that conservatives, liberals and libertarians each have fundamentally wise insights to contribute to our national conversation about the type of society in which we should live.

And to contribute to our academies.

Mr. Haidt has repeatedly criticized his field, psychology, for including too few conservatives in its ranks. When the topic of academic discrimination against conservatives comes up, he pulls from his filing cabinet a new study by Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers which finds that: “In decisions ranging from paper reviews to hiring, many social and personality psychologists admit that they would discriminate against openly conservative colleagues. The more liberal respondents are, the more willing they are to discriminate.”

Political ideology is an extension of morality — and morality, as Mr. Haidt is fond of saying in his new book, binds and blinds.

Moral multiplicty

Mr. Haidt came to study psychology by seeking to answer the question that has perplexed and inspired humanity from the beginning: What is the meaning of life?

When he graduated from Scarsdale High School in New York State in 1981, he thought there was very little meaning to be found. His senior yearbook quotation stands out, amid the sunny words about optimism and friendship chosen by his classmates, for its gloomy irony: “Whosoever shall not fall by the sword or by famine, shall fall by pestilence so why bother shaving?”

“It was a very Woody Allen depression,” he says, citing the source of that quote and describing his emotional state his senior year. After reading Samuel Beckett’s absurdist comedy “Waiting For Godot,” Mr. Haidt, already an atheist, became fixated on the meaninglessness and absurdity of life. He dwelled on thoughts of suicide in the abstract even though his own life was, by many accounts, almost perfect — he would soon attend Yale as an undergraduate, he had a fabulous girlfriend, and he was captain of the track team.

“Like the author of Ecclesiastes,” as he wrote in his breakout book “The Happiness Hypothesis” (2006), “I thought that ‘all is vanity and a chasing after wind.’ ” He eventually came to a happier conclusion: “If this really is all there is, why not embrace it, rather than throw it away?”

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