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At Yale, Mr. Haidt majored in philosophy to find some answers. Discovering that academic philosophy had abandoned the big questions of human nature, morality, and the good life, Mr. Haidt turned to psychology — and found his calling. In 1987, he enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania’s doctoral program in psychology, where he went on an intellectual journey that led him to study morality across cultures.

“The left and right in this country,” Mr. Haidt says in reference to his new book, “are two separate cultures.”

After finishing his dissertation at Penn — provocatively titled “Moral judgment, affect, and culture, or, is it wrong to eat your dog?” — Mr. Haidt went on to the University of Chicago. There, he spent two years studying with the leading thinker in cultural psychology, Richard Shweder, “the teacher that most affected me,” Mr. Haidt says.

Based on research he had done in the temple town of Bhubaneswar, India, Mr. Shweder developed a theory about why the idea of the individual differs so much across cultures. In the West, the individual is considered an autonomous entity. In the East, the individual is considered a member of some larger community, like a family or a tribe. These different perspectives lead to differences in moral thinking. Specifically, there are three “ethics” that arise out of the varying conceptions of the self: the ethics of autonomy, community, and divinity.

Fascinated, Mr. Haidt packed his bags for Bhubaneswar to study the ethic of divinity a little more closely. If stumbling upon conservatism at the Strand was Mr. Haidt’s second intellectual turning point, India was his first. “It was a life-changing and ideology-changing experience,” he says.

He set off for India with a “liberal political mindset,” he explains. “I hated Ronald Reagan. I had never met any conservatives at that point.”

Suddenly, the “unquestioning liberal” found himself “immersed in a sex-segregated, hierarchically stratified, devoutly religious society,” as he writes in “The Righteous Mind.”

Overcoming his initial culture shock, Mr. Haidt began to appreciate the guiding moral principles of that culture, which ordered society around family, tradition, and the sacred. He even approached a Hindu monk about meditating in an Ashram. (“I’m an awe junkie,” he confides. “I crave experiences of awe.”)

New foundations

The India trip partly inspired “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom,” which examines from the perspective of modern psychology some of the major concepts of happiness in the history of religious and philosophical thought.

In the book, Mr. Haidt develops his metaphor of the self as a rider (reason) on a sometimes unruly elephant (intuition). Though the elephant is stronger and more powerful than the rider, the two must work together for the self to thrive. Similarly, though “the West values rights and self-actualization while the East values the spiritual side of human existence and family,” human flourishing — and a well-ordered society — needs both.

Mr. Haidt found he was able to apply what he learned in India about sanctity to the culture wars back home in the United States.

“When an artist submerges a crucifix in a jar of his own urine, or smears elephant dung on an image of the Virgin Mary, do these works belong in an art museum?” he asks in “The Righteous Mind.” “Imagine that a conservative artist had created these works using images of Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela instead of Jesus and Mary.”

Mr. Haidt’s experience in India had broadened his moral universe. There, he learned that there was more to morality than harm and fairness. Moonlighting as an anthropologist studying comparative morality from cultures around the world, Mr. Haidt discovered what that “more” was. Six themes recur, in varying degrees, across most societies: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

He developed his Moral Foundations Theory in 2002, but it wasn’t until the Kerry defeat that he began to apply it to politics.

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