Nobody who engages in political argument, and who isn't a moron, hasn't had to recognize the fact that decent, honest, intelligent people can come to opposite conclusions on public issues. Jonathan Haidt, in an eye-opening and deceptively ambitious best seller, tells us why. The reason is evolution. Political attitudes are an extension of our moral reasoning; however much we like to tell ourselves otherwise, our moral responses are basically instinctual, despite attempts to gussy them up with ex-post rationalizations. Our constellation of moral instincts arose because it helped us to cooperate. It helped us, in unprecedented speed and fashion, to dominate our planet. Yet the same moral reaction also means we exist in a state of perpetual, nasty political disagreement, talking past each other, calling each other names. So Mr. Haidt explains in "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion," undoubtedly one of the most talked-about books of the year. "The Righteous Mind" spent weeks on the hardcover best-seller list. Mr. Haidt considers himself mostly a liberal, but his book has been especially popular in the conservative blogosphere. Some right-leaning intellectuals are even calling it the most important book of the year.
As we sit in his new office at New York University, he professes an immodest aim: He wants liberals and conservatives to listen to each other more, hate each other less, and to understand that their differences are largely rooted in psychology, not open-minded consideration of the facts. "My big issue, the one I'm somewhat evangelical about, is civil disagreement," he says. A shorthand he uses is "follow the sacred"—and not in a good way. "Follow the sacred and there you will find a circle of motivated ignorance." Today's political parties are most hysterical, he says, on the issues they "sacralize." For the right, it's taxes. For the left, the sacred issues were race and gender but are becoming global warming and gay marriage. Yet between the lines of his book is an even more dramatic claim: The same moral psychology that makes our politics so nasty also underlies the amazing triumph of the human species. "We shouldn't be here at all," he tells me. "When I think about life on earth, there should not be a species like us. And if there was, we should be out in the jungle killing each other in small groups. That's what you should expect. The fact that we're here [in politics] arguing viciously and nastily with each other, and no guns, that itself is a miracle. And I think we can make [our politics] a little better. That's my favorite theme.