Moral psychology in an age of outrage

Sean Plunket 15/07/2019

Social psychologist, Professor of Ethical Leadership and author Jonathan Haidt joins Magic Afternoons ahead of his highly anticipated debut in Australia and New Zealand.

As one of the world’s leading experts on moral psychology, Jonathan has taken aim at religion, politics and parenting, in an attempt to uncover what has led us to this “age of outrage”.

Sean first asks Jonathan if we can get people to be more reasonable and less offended? Professor Haidt explains, “every generation going back thousands of years thinks that the one younger than it is weak.”

“However what is happening with Generation Z, those born after 1996, it is astonishing.”

It is horrific.

“The rates of anxiety and depression go skyrocketing after 2012. Especially for girls, girls are getting hit much much worse.”

“This is the exact same trend as has been seen in the US, the UK and Australia.”

It does appear to be global.

“The only explanation is that teen social life moved from talking to one another to moving online.”

“A universal psychological principle is that bad is stronger than good.” He goes on to recommend that children should not make a social media account until they are older at 16 or 18 years of age. 

When asked about the Christchurch call Haidt explained that while he would support gun control he believes there needs to be “empirical research” as to whether censoring speech is really effective at combating violence.

“There needs to be empirical research on whether the American model of absolute free speech or the European model of restricting hate speech is more reliable for online discourse.”

Sean then moved on to another issue he considers important, that of “crybullying”, when in discussion of a contentious matter that you are required to censor yourself for fear of driving an undefined person to suicide.

Jonathan tells Sean “there are separate things going on, one is the rise in mental health. It's everywhere, it really is happening regardless of your politics and the other thing is leftwing identity politics.”

Sean then considers whether the way in which we conduct ourselves online creates a polarised political spectrum as people seek out like minded voices online and avoid contrary conversations which is ultimately detrimental to progress.

Jonathan agreed that the polarisation of politics is a serious issue and quite a difficult one to address. He describes how America had “switched over to what is called negative partisanship. That is that until 2004 elections were about who you wanted for president.” 

Since then our elections are better characterised as who you hate more.

“So it’s not correct to say that half the country wanted to see Donald Trump as president but that more than half did not want to see Hillary win.”

The conversation them moved to how Haidt’s work has been received by those in his field who would identify as left leaning and he speaks about how he was nervous of backlash but it wasn’t the case.

He talks about how his peers read his books and found some useful and thoughtful conversation to be had in that area. One interesting piece of research he shares is that he found “that the more educated you are if you are on the left the more inaccurate you are.”

They then discuss the limits of direct democracy and the fears that representatives have of their electorate and how that can be a detriment to the efficient and effective running of the government. 

Using the example of the united states Jonathan explains that the founding fathers were aware that direct democracies fail and that instead government should run relatively independent but with giving people the power to change those leaders should they disagree with their leadership.

Jonathan Haidt: Moral Psychology in an Age of Outrage will be at the Bruce Mason Centre August 1st find your tickets here.

You can listen to the full interview above.