We’d like to welcome another Contributor to the Praxis Circle family: Jonathan Haidt!

Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist and bestselling author. His most recent book, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness (2024) is a ground-breaking read that we had the pleasure of writing about at length in our most recent Book of the Month review. In our conversation with Dr. Haidt, we discuss this book and much more of work, including his personal background and advocacy for freedom of speech and inquiry on college campuses. The full interview can be accessed above but continue reading for some key highlights.


Social Psychology and Business Ethics


How did a social psychologist end up teaching in a business program? As Haidt recounts in our interview, the decision to temporarily leave his position at the UVA Department of Psychology stemmed from the demands of writing his seminal work, The Righteous Mind (2013), amidst the arrival of his second child. Opting to forego his salary and teaching duties, Haidt embarked on a daring gamble, fueled by the advance from his book. This leap of faith led him to NYU Stern’s Business and Society program, where he proposed teaching business ethics for a year. What began as a temporary stint soon evolved into a transformative experience, fueled by Haidt’s intellectual curiosity and the vibrant energy of New York City. Immersed in the world of business ethics and positive psychology, Haidt found himself captivated by the intellectual history of capitalism and the profound insights it offered into the modern world’s abundance. His journey culminated in the development of courses such as “Work, Wisdom, and Happiness” for MBA students, and later, “Flourishing,” a course focused on mental health for undergraduates. Through these endeavors, Haidt not only embraced new academic horizons but also leveraged his expertise to address pressing societal concerns.



Understanding Moral Foundations Theory


In the interview, we ask Haidt to explain the origin of his often cited “Moral Foundations Theory” which traces its roots back to fundamental questions of origin and evolution. This theory, he explains, is not merely a static framework but a dynamic model that captures the universal underpinnings of human morality while also acknowledging the diverse cultural manifestations of moral intuitions. Through meticulous research and theoretical synthesis, Haidt identifies key moral foundations such as care, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity, likening them to the “taste buds of the moral mind.” By recognizing the interplay between innate predispositions and cultural influences, Haidt offers a nuanced understanding of morality that transcends simplistic dichotomies of nature versus nurture.



The Happiness Hypothesis


Transitioning to the domain of positive psychology, Haidt discusses the intricacies of human happiness as explored in his first book, The Happiness Hypothesis (2006). Drawing from decades of empirical research and theoretical frameworks, he explains the complex interplay of genetic predispositions, life circumstances, and voluntary activities in shaping individual well-being. Haidt introduces the concept of the “Happiness Hypothesis,” a heuristic framework that encapsulates the multifaceted nature of happiness. By emphasizing the significance of factors such as perceived control, social connectedness, and meaningful engagement, Haidt provides practical insights for enhancing happiness and fulfillment in everyday life in an attempt to empower individuals to cultivate a deeper understanding of their own happiness trajectories and take proactive steps towards greater well-being.



Exploring Psychological & Moral Differences


In the interview, we take a slight political turn and ask Haidt to explain the psychological landscapes that differentiate liberals, conservatives, and libertarians. Contrary to simplistic portrayals of political ideologies, Haidt unveils the distinct cognitive and emotional profiles that characterize each group. Libertarians, he explains, emerge as a unique ideological cohort, characterized by their prioritization of individual liberty and rationality over traditional notions of empathy and loyalty. By unpacking these psychological differences, Haidt challenges prevailing stereotypes and invites us to adopt a more nuanced understanding of political diversity. Later in the interview he explains how understanding these psychological and moral differences can help us make more persuasive arguments. Through his rigorous empirical research and insightful commentary, he explains the rich tapestry of human cognition and emotion that underlies political ideology, fostering greater empathy and understanding across ideological divides.



On The Anxious Generation


Haidt’s exploration of human psychology extends beyond the realm of politics and morality to address a pressing societal concern: the mental health crisis among young people. In his latest book, The Anxious Generation, Haidt collaborates with Jean Twenge and other researchers to examine the profound shifts in childhood and adolescence that have contributed to the rise of youth mental illness in America. Departing from his traditional research focus, Haidt delves into the societal factors, such as the proliferation of social media and the erosion of childhood freedom, that have reshaped the developmental landscape for today’s youth. Through meticulous analysis and compelling narrative, Haidt paints a vivid picture of a generation grappling with unprecedented levels of anxiety and psychological distress. By illuminating the complex interplay between societal trends and individual well-being, his new book offers invaluable insights for parents, educators, and policymakers navigating the challenges of modern adolescence.




Navigating the Future of American Universities


To conclude our interview, Jonathan Haidt offers a sober yet hopeful assessment of the future trajectory of American universities. Reflecting on recent developments and emerging trends, he acknowledges the pervasive influence of identitarianism and ideological conformity within academic spaces. However, Haidt also highlights signs of resistance and resilience, pointing to instances where university leaders have begun asserting principles of academic freedom and institutional neutrality, thanks in part to his organization Heterodox Academy. With a keen focus on fostering intellectual diversity and constructive dialogue, Haidt envisions a gradual shift towards a more inclusive and vibrant academic landscape. Through collaborative efforts and principled advocacy, he believes that American universities can navigate the challenges of ideological polarization and embrace a culture of open inquiry and critical thinking.



As mentioned, these are only the highlights of our interview with Dr. Haidt. Everyone would do well to watch his interview in full and draw from one of the greatest thinkers of our time—he’s been named this twice, actually—who presents his research and ideas in an incredibly humble, respectful, and open-minded manner. He claims that “his goal is to help people understand each other, live and work near each other, and even learn from each other despite their moral differences.” In the little but precious time spent with him and by closely following his work, we know this statement to be undeniably true; like Praxis Circle, Haidt cares about people and their success in life. This is one of the many reasons why we interviewed him and know his answers to our various questions will be useful to all who watch.