Jonathan Haidt on Polarization and the University

The Age of Outrage: What the current political climate is doing to our country and our universities

By Jonathan Haidt

From City Journal

What is happening to our country, and our universities? It sometimes seems that everything is coming apart. To understand why, I have found it helpful to think about an idea from cosmology called “the fine-tuned universe.” There are around 20 fundamental constants in physics—things like the speed of light, Newton’s gravitational constant, and the charge of an electron. In the weird world of cosmology, these are constants throughout our universe, but it is thought that some of them could be set to different values in other universes. As physicists have begun to understand our universe, they have noticed that many of these physical constants seem to be set just right to allow matter to condense and life to get started.

For a few of these constants, if they were just one or two percent higher or lower, matter would have never condensed after the big bang. There would have been no stars, no planets, no life. As Stephen Hawking put it, “the remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life.”

Some have suggested that this fine-tuning might be evidence for the existence of God. This would be a deist conception of God, of the sort that Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and most of the Founding Fathers believed in: a God who set up the universe like a giant clock, with exactly the right springs and gears, and then set it in motion. I myself am not taking fine-tuning as evidence of God. I’m simply using it as a way to open this lecture. I want to lift your attention up into the cosmos and put you into a mindset that is awestruck at our improbability. And if I have succeeded in doing that, then I’d like you to take that same mindset and apply it to the existence of our improbable country.

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This article is adapted from the Manhattan Institute’s 2017 Wriston Lecture.


Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt is the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business. Professor Haidt is a social psychologist whose research examines the intuitive foundations of morality. His most recent book is the New York Times bestseller, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. In that book Haidt offers an account of the origins of the human moral sense, and he shows how variations in moral intuitions can help explain the polarization and dysfunction of American politics.

Before Stern, Professor Haidt taught for 16 years at the University of Virginia. His first book was The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. His writings appear frequently in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and he has given four TED talks. He was named one of the top global thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine and also by Prospect magazine.

Professor Haidt is the founder of Heterodox Academy, “a politically diverse group of social scientists, natural scientists, humanists, and other scholars” who are united in a concern for the lack of viewpoint diversity in higher education. Resources from Heterodox Academy are featured in the “Freedom of Speech on Campus” entry in this year’s Constitution Day website. Haidt also participated in one of our Constitution Day events at Arizona State University.



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