Jon Haidt on the University Paradox

You’ve surely heard of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt by now, as he’s been involved in discussion of morality, university culture, and political correctness for a long time. Previously at the University of Virginia, he’s now Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business.  Although he’s a liberal, he’s been somewhat demonized for criticizing “social justice warriors.” As you’ll see in the lecture, that’s not completely fair, for Haidt, as a liberal, is in favor of just treatment for members of recognized groups, giving them equal opportunities, which is his (and my) definition as social justice.

But in this video, whose YouTube description is below, Haidt explains why universities cannot simultaneously pursue both truth and social justice as their main missions. That, he argues, leads to mission conflict and a lack of coherence. He’s clearly in favor of the former, but because he describes the choices and the two types of universities (SJU versus TU) dispassionately—almost like an anthropologist, he gets away with it.

The first video shows his entire hour-long lecture, while the second is a 14-minute excerpt (starting at 46:56 of the first video), talking about the conflict in gender policy between creating equal opportunities versus promoting equal outcomes—a contentious issue. If you don’t have time for the first video (and I hope you do), watch the second. Haidt will get criticized for that, too.

The YouTube description:

On October 6, 2016, Professor Jonathan Haidt gave a Hayek Lecture at Duke. The event was co-sponsored by the programs in the History of Political Economy (HOPE), Philosophy, Politics, & Economics (PPE), and American Values and Institutions (AVI). The event was open to the public, but also served as a guest lecture in Professor Jonathan Anomaly’s PPE course. Professor Haidt argues that conflicts arise at many American universities today because they are pursuing two potentially incompatible goals: truth and social justice. While Haidt thinks both goals are important, he maintains that they can come into conflict. According to some versions of social justice, whenever we observe a disparity of outcomes between races, genders, or other groups, we should infer that injustice has been done. Haidt challenges this view of social justice and shows how it sometimes leads to violations of truth, and even justice.

Even if you disagree with Haidt’s views, or his thesis on the incompatibility of a university’s promoting both social justice and the search for truth, you have to admit he’s an engaging and compelling speaker.

A segment:

I love this slide from the near the end of the talk. I’m at Truth University and boo to Brown!


  1. Heather Hastie
    Posted March 29, 2018 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t watched this yet, but I will. Coincidentally, I’ve been watching a few of Haidt’s other talks over the last few days. I highly recommend them, and am very much looking forward to this.

  2. Posted March 29, 2018 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    I too have not watched, but I will. This problem has concerned and baffled me for a long time.

    • Posted March 30, 2018 at 12:00 am | Permalink

      I watched the whole hour. I highly recommend it.

      He hits right on the mark with STEM artificially inflated for girls at an early age. I have boys in elementary and middle school and have seen first hand how the education system treats them unfairly but allows girls to avoid criticism. The only thing that will do is make girls incapable of dealing with adversity in STEM. It’s nowonder STEM for girls is not working. They don’t need preference they need to be given the same adversity as the boys.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 30, 2018 at 9:05 am | Permalink

        I’ve argued this many times here and have been told over and over that I’m wrong but that is just part of being a girl. Girls are often given a pass in these types of things because they are treated as cute little dears when they make a mistake where boys are judged more harshly. Girls learn quickly that it’s okay to be sloppy and even cute if you mess up.

      • Posted March 30, 2018 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

        It is cultural. Here in Bulgaria, schoolgirls are expected to be better than boys in all disciplines except physical education. Serious people claim seriously that studies allegedly “proved that the male brain matures later”. I have never seen these studies, but I have read a study that girls get an advantage when the educational system values homework very much (as is in my country).

        When results of exams are commented, you hear all the time things like, “He got 5, excellent for a boy” and “I keep reminding her that she, being a girl, has no chance with grades like 5.25”.

        Eventually, young men catch up. They become (on average) better than young women in technology, math and computers. There is parity in physics and chemistry and continuous female advantage in biology and medicine.

  3. Jon Gallant
    Posted March 29, 2018 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    Quite aside from the usual regressives, too many conventional, well-meaning liberals go along with the trope that “social justice” is the PRIMARY function of the University, trumping every other possible function. It is worth examining the provenance of this idea.

    Once upon a time, in a galaxy far away in Eurasia, the ruling Party decreed that its definition of social justice—meaning the Revolution and obedience to the Party—was primary to everything else, and was imposed on both education and practise in such fields as literature, music, art, and Biology. For some reason, most things beside the secret police and the border controls did not work very well in that galaxy, and it imploded.

    In our galaxy, the academic primacy of “social justice” is proclaimed most loudly in departments of Gender Studies, Cultural Studies, This Studies, and That Studies—i.e., in departments which have no primary intellectual focus to start with, and so “social justice”, or Ashtanga Yoga, or vegetarianism, or backgammon, might as well be primary. This is harder to sell in areas which already have a primary focus, like, for example, the School of Dentistry.

  4. Posted March 29, 2018 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    It’s true but trivial that any organization can’t give both truth and justice top priority. Give truth top priority, and there’s essentially no obstacle to pursuing justice. I doubt that we’re headed to thought police at most universities, but I’ll watch Haidt’ s video and see if he offers evidence.

    • Posted March 29, 2018 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

      I agree. The only reason the pursuit of truth and the pursuit of justice might be interpreted as being at odds is if you define “justice” narrowly and idiosyncraticaly, as the extreme SJWs do.

      I, too, am skeptical that many universities are adopting a primary mission of promulgating the extreme SJW version of justice.

    • Posted March 30, 2018 at 6:38 am | Permalink

      So I watched, and no evidence was presented, unless you count Haidt’s summary/conclusions from some studies he’s done. At the end of the lecture Haidt asked for a show of hands on the question of which mission the U. should have, and one audience member asked, “are there any hands for objecting to false dichotomies?”

      Egg. Zactly.

      • Posted March 30, 2018 at 9:04 am | Permalink

        Two eggs. At least. 🙂 🙂

      • Posted March 30, 2018 at 11:58 am | Permalink

        Which claims of Haidt’s do you think lack evidence?

        What is the false dichotomy you think he presents?

        • Posted March 30, 2018 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

          Do you, seriously, believe there are two categories of universities: those more interested in finding out the Truth and those more interested in fighting for Social Justice?

          • Posted March 30, 2018 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

            I think that it is a spectrum.

          • Posted March 30, 2018 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

            Certainly there’s a spectrum, but it’s easy to distinguish those schools on the ends, while quibbling over whether those in the very middle are net pro-truth or pro-SJ.

            You also seem to have missed Haidt’s suggestion that schools openly declare themselves in one camp or the other, and let the market decide which is more profitable.

        • Posted March 31, 2018 at 5:40 am | Permalink

          The claim, or at least strong suggestion, that many universities are abandoning the quest for truth in order to pursue social justice.

          • Posted March 31, 2018 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

            I’d say UC San Diego’s SJW hiring requirements, for example, certainly constitute that.

            • Posted April 1, 2018 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

              I read about that. Truly sad.

              In the 80’s I left my university for journalism because of the weird looks I got, being a biologically informed sociologist.

              Social justice can only be based on the truth.

  5. Posted March 29, 2018 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    Watched the second video and agree. Disparities in peoples’ lives are well worth eliminating for obvious reasons but difference in individuals should be encouraged, which includes gender.
    Not dissimilar to biodiversity to my mind, as differences make life interesting and generate different ways of solving problems and illuminating truths.
    Who i ask wants to live in a bland world.
    As a twist but progressing co operation, it has been observed, monozygotic twins (genetically identical) readerly work together to solve problems as opposed to dizygotic (genetically different) twins who tend to work alone, taking longer to solve the same problem.
    I think this, all things being equal, says something about inclusion outperforms exclusion, even for something like justice.
    Independent thought converging to solve a problem.

  6. Chris B
    Posted March 29, 2018 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    Haidt is a smart guy and a good writer; but if I remember correctly from his book, _The Righteous Mind_ (my Goodreads review here: he does consider himself more of a conservative than a liberal.

    • Posted March 29, 2018 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

      Haidt is a pro-religion conservative who votes for Democrats.

      This doesn’t take anything away from his eloquence, and I guess he studied his populations rigorously before coming to the conclusion that conservatives endorse all six innate moral foundations more equally than leftists.

      Despite my European allergy to his wishy-washy positive psychology cra… um, views, I feel that, concerning this particular issue, he is telling us something important.

      • nicky
        Posted March 30, 2018 at 1:52 am | Permalink

        He did not strike me as ‘pro-religion’. He hypothesises that religion was a way to enhance in-group cohesion when groups became larger and its members not so closely related anymore.
        I really think that is a good explanation -short of a better one-, but it does not imply he thinks religion is ‘good’ as such. ‘It does not follow’.

        • Posted March 30, 2018 at 3:17 am | Permalink

          I have nothing against the standard sociological explanation of religion’s roots.

          In the Durkheimian sense jazz is the religion of my cultural identity.

          It’s been awhile since I read The Righteous Mind, and nowadays I’ve got less boring books on my desk.

    • danstarfish
      Posted March 30, 2018 at 1:44 am | Permalink

      I read his book a year or two ago and this doesn’t sound right to me. I don’t think he said he is conservative. Though it has been a while and I don’t remember all the specifics. He said he used to be further left, but I think he ended up more centrist.

      I found an article by Cass Sunstein that says “Haidt is not himself a conservative, but he offers a sympathetic explanation of why progressives often fail to understand their political adversaries.”

      • Chris B
        Posted March 30, 2018 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

        danstarfish, I went back and read the section I was thinking of (p. 125-128) and yes, I agree that your statement is in fact a more accurate description of his evolution.

        While his move from being firmly liberal toward the center can’t help but mean he’s more conservative than some, he does emphasize that he believes it made him more of a centrist, recognizing “liberal and conservative policies as manifestations of deeply conflicting but equally heartfelt visions of the good society.”

  7. Posted March 29, 2018 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    Readers in the UK might be interested to know Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis is currently £1.99 on Kindle.

    • Posted March 30, 2018 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      Snap it up before he, too, gets a lifetime ban from IngSoc for thinkcrime.

      • Posted March 30, 2018 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think you have to hurry. Wait till it drops to €0.99 🙂

  8. Posted March 29, 2018 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    Harvard already claims to be the “truth” univesity. I do like UC’s motto better: “Crescat scientia; vita excolatur”. Which is sometimes translated “Where fun comes to die.”

  9. Posted March 29, 2018 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  10. nicky
    Posted March 30, 2018 at 1:58 am | Permalink

    I can’t remember who said it: “Correlation is not causation, but it is a reasonably good place to start looking.”

    [Was it Nick Lane? Richard Dawkins? Our host? Isaac Asimov? Somebody else?]

    • Posted March 30, 2018 at 7:01 am | Permalink

      Dunno if this counts, but an XKCD cartoon says that “Correlation doesn’t imply causation, but it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing ‘look over there’.”

      • nicky
        Posted March 30, 2018 at 4:11 pm | Permalink


    • Posted March 30, 2018 at 7:43 am | Permalink

      Edward Tufte wrote that

      “Empirically observed covariation is a necessary but not sufficient condition for causality.” Or possibly “Correlation
      is not causality but it sure is a hint.”

      and Ted Garland said that

      Correlation is not causation. But that’s how the smart money bets.

      • nicky
        Posted March 30, 2018 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

        I have read Tufte nor Harland (I do not dispute they may have been the originators of the trope), so they can’t directly have been my source. I’m still wondering where I read it.

  11. danstarfish
    Posted March 30, 2018 at 3:53 am | Permalink

    This video was fantastic. It was very clearly presented and framed several issues very well.

    There were a couple ideas I had been mulling over half formed in my mind that I was surprised to see him present in a clearer more fully developed form.

    I loved his idea that if a university puts a sacred value like social justice above the pursuit of truth then they should do so explicitly, similar to how a religiously affiliated university does. Students could then make an informed decision when choosing where to go.

  12. Flaffer
    Posted March 30, 2018 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    I see a major issue with his claim that racial disparity in punishment led to an abomination. That is to say, it may NOT be an abomination. The key question is how much does RACE ALONE explain the disparity versus other factors he names? He seems to implicitly claim that race explains little but then he does not back that up.

    So, he might be hand waving around that key question on whether changing punishments to lessen its effect on minorities is justifiable (in the strong sense).

    I might also add: even GIVEN that there might be other factors besides race explaining the disparity, the actual EFFECT of disparate punishment DOES hinder minority opportunity, a very bad thing; it adds insult to the injury of systemic racism by causing bad outcomes in school for minorities.

    I am not convinced.

    • Posted March 30, 2018 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      Not sure what you’re driving at here.

      The claim was that the racial disparity in punishment meted out was due to racism (i.e., punishing black students more frequently & severely solely based on their race.)

      The reality was that black students committed a higher rate of infractions & disruptions, and more severe ones. The level of punishment was commensurate to the level of offense.

      • nicky
        Posted March 30, 2018 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

        Exactly, he was trying to convey that ‘social justice’ and ‘justice’ do not necessarily overlap completely.

  13. Posted March 30, 2018 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    “Although {Haidt is] a liberal, he’s been somewhat demonized for criticizing “social justice warriors.”

    Stray but one iota from the regressive leftist dogma, and they will vilify and demonize you.

    Spotted recently at a certain Patheos:Nonreligious (read: Patheos:SJW) blog*, a response to info on Brett Weinstein & Heather Heying:

    So far, from what I can gather, they are part of the “anti-identity-politics” crowd. They seem to have a pretty large audience and have spoken across some very large platforms thanks to support from some very big anti-feminist names since this happened [they are affiliated with Boghossian (Mr. I-tried-to-discredit-gender-studies-and-only-managed-to-expose-my-ignorance), did a talk with Fired-From-Google james Damore, and are notably supported by Pinker-fan Jerry Feminists-Are-Wasting-Our-Tax-Dollars Coyne who has a well-known disdain for the humanities, promotes evo-psych, and falls in easily with the ‘hyper-rational’ Atheist Bro crowd]. Anyway, they both seem to really be sky-rocketing in popularity, and I’ve not seen any progressive awareness or push-back against them in particular or the narrative they’re spinning.

    As you can see, these scoundrels Weinstein & Heying are in good company!

    (* A blog, btw, where I was banned from commenting for stating that “binary sex is 900 million years old.”)

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