Haidt-Love Relationship

Epistemic status: personal, exhortatory, expressive

Jonathan Haidt has an ideology.  In his academic life, he poses positive questions, but he definitely has a normative position as well. And you can see this most clearly in his speeches to young people, which are sermons on Haidtism.

Here is an example.

In it, he contrasts “Coddle U” with “Strengthen U,” two archetypal colleges. He’s clearly arguing in favor of psychological resilience, and against fragility. Let’s leave aside the question of whether feminists and other activists are actually oversensitive weenies, and whether trigger warnings are actually coddling, and engage with his main point, that it is better not to be an oversensitive weenie.

Haidt seems to see this as self-evident. The emotionally weak are to be mocked; the emotionally strong are to be respected.

I don’t find it as obvious.

Fragility can have a certain charm. Sensitive, romantic, tender spirits can be quite attractive.  The soft-hearted can be quick to show kindness. The easily-bruised can be alert to problems that more thick-skinned folks ignore.  We usually trust people’s sincerity more when they are moved to strong emotion.  A frail, innocent person is often a lovable person.  And who wouldn’t want to be lovable?

“Do you want to be strong or do you want to be fragile?” takes us back to Nietzsche’s old conflict of Herrenmoral and Sklavmoral.  Is it good to be successful, skilled, strong, powerful (as opposed to weak, cowardly, unhealthy, contemptible)?   Or is it good to be innocent, pure, gentle, kind (as opposed to oppressive, selfish, cruel)?

Of course it’s possible to be both kind and strong.  Herrenmoral and Sklavmoral are both pre-rational viewpoints, more like aesthetics than actual ethics.  It’s a question of whether you want to be this:

or this:

Ultimately, the consideration in favor of strength is simply that the world contains threats.  Fragility may make you lovable, but it can also make you dead.  You don’t get to appreciate the benefits of sensitivity and tenderness if you’re dead.

Being strong enough to do well at the practicalities of the world — physical safety and health, economic security, enough emotional stability not to put yourself or others at risk — is, up to a point, an unalloyed good.

Think of it as a gambler’s ruin situation. You have to win or save enough to stay in the game.  Strength helps you stay in the game.

And because strength is necessary for survival, there’s something to respect in the pro-strength aesthetic.

From the outside, it can seem kind of mean and elitist. You’re scorning people for failure and pain? You think you’re better than the rest of us, just because you’re pretty or smart or tough or happy?

But another way of looking at it is having respect for the necessities of life.  If you consider that starvation is a thing, you’ll remember that food is valuable, and you’ll feel gratitude to the farmers who grow it. In the same way, you can have respect for intelligence, respect for competence, respect for toughness, respect for all skills.  You can be glad for them, because human skill drives out the darkness of death, the hard vacuum of space that surrounds us, and excellent humans are pinpricks of flame in the dark.  You can love that hard brilliance.

And if respect can tinge into love, love can shade into enjoyment. You can enjoy being awesome, or knowing people who are awesome.  It can be exhilarating.  It can be a high and heady pleasure.

And from that vantage point, it’s possible to empathize with someone who, like Haidt, scorns weakness. Maybe, once you’ve been paying attention to the high points of human ability, anything else seems rather dingy.  Maybe you think “It’s so much nicer here upon the heights, why would you want to be down in the valley?”  Maybe some of the people who seem “elitist” actually just want to be around the people who light them up, and have developed high standards for that.

Not to say that there doesn’t exist shallow, vindictive status-grabbing.  But there are also people who aren’t like that, who just prefer the excellent to the mediocre.

Or, on a smaller scale, there are those who seek out “positive people” and avoid “toxic people” — they’re orienting towards success and away from failure, towards strength and away from weakness, and this is an understandable thing to do.

An addict trying to get her life together would try hard to avoid weakness, temptation, backsliding — and this would be a good thing, and any decent person would cheer for her.  That kind of motivation is the healthy thing that drives people to choose strength over fragility.

So Haidt’s basic premise — that you want to be more strong than fragile — is believable.

His prescriptions for achieving that are risk tolerance and minimizing the negative.

I’m going to reframe his ideas somewhat so they refer to individuals.  He’s talking about a top-down perspective — how schools can make students stronger. I have an issue with that, because I think that “improving” people against their will is ethically questionable, and especially trying to “make people tough” by exposing them to adversity, if they have no intrinsic desire to toughen and no input into the type of “adversity” involved, is probably counterproductive.  However, people self-improve all the time, they make themselves tougher, and that’s a more fruitful perspective, in my opinion.

Risk tolerance is the self-motivated version of “we’re not going to coddle you.” It would mean seeking out challenges, looking for criticism, engaging with “hard truths”, going on adventures.  Trying things to test your mettle.

It’s pretty obvious why this works: small amounts of damage cause you to develop stronger defenses. Exercise produces micro-tears in muscle, so it grows back stronger.  Vaccines made of weakened virus stimulate immunity to that virus.  Intermittent, all-out efforts against fear or failure are good for you.

(You’re still playing to stay in the game, so an adversity that takes you out of the game altogether is not good for you. This is why I think it works much better if the individual’s judgment and motivation is engaged.  Voluntary choice is important. Authorities trying to “toughen kids up” against their will can kill them. )

Minimizing the negative means mentally shrinking the sources of your distress. Haidt cites Marcus Aurelius, Boethius, the Buddha, and the tenets of cognitive behavioral therapy as pointing at the same universal truths.

Now, of course, Stoicism, Buddhism, and modern psychology have very different visions of the good life. The ideal Stoic is a good citizen; the ideal Buddhist is an ascetic; the ideal psychological subject is “well.”  The ideal Stoic is protective of his soul; the ideal Buddhist is aware that his “self” does not exist.  Trying to be a serious Stoic is quite different from trying to be a serious Buddhist, and it’s not clear what it would even mean to try to be the “ideal person” by the standards of cognitive behavioral therapy.

What these philosophies have in common is a lot simpler than that: it’s just “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”

Don’t freak out over trivial shit. Remember that it’s trivial.

Stoicism and Buddhism both use meditation as a tactic; both suggest focusing on impermanence and even death, to remind oneself that trivial shit will pass.  CBT’s tactic is disputation — arguing with your fears and frustrations, telling yourself that the problem is not that big a deal.

Marcus Aurelius in particular uses pride a lot as a tactic, encouraging you to view getting upset as beneath the dignity of your soul.

Of course, “Don’t sweat the small stuff” imposed from without is a bit insulting.  Who are you, authority figure, to say what is and isn’t important?  Aren’t you telling me to ignore real problems and injustices?

But seen from within, “don’t sweat the small stuff” is just another perspective on “focus on your goals and values.”

You want to stay in the game, remember? So you can win, whatever that means to you.  So survival matters, robustness matters, because that keeps you in the game.  Freaking out takes you hors de combat.

Haidt tends not to push too hard on Christianity, perhaps because his audience is secular, but it is a very common source of comfort that does, empirically, make people happier.  My impression of Christian positivity, from a non-theological perspective, is that it says the good outweighs the bad. The bad exists; but the good is stronger and bigger and wins in the end.  And this is another way of not freaking out over trivial shit, which is quite different in aesthetic from the others, and maybe underappreciated by secular people.  Instead of trying to shrink your troubles by minimizing or disputing them, you can make them seem less important by contrast to something vast and Good. In a similar, albeit secular, spirit, there’s Camus’ famous line, “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”

Stripped of the sneering and the political angle and the paternalism, what we have here is a pretty solid message.

It’s a good idea to become stronger; in order to do that, try hard things, and don’t freak out about trivial shit.

Now, I immediately imagine a dialogue with my Weenie Self resisting this idea.

But…that sounds AWFUL!  I don’t want to!

Well, the thing is, “I’m not currently doing X” is not a valid argument against doing X. If it were, nobody would ever have a reason to change their behavior.  We’d all just follow the gradients of our current stimuli wherever they led.  There’s no choice in that world, no deliberate behavior. “But I’m currently freaking out about trivial shit!” doesn’t actually mean that you shouldn’t want to freak out less in future.

I know. It’s weird.  This is a way of thinking about things consciously and explicitly, even when they feel kind of awkward and wrong.

How can it be right when it doesn’t feel right?!  I am currently experiencing a sense of certainty that this is a bad idea! You want me to trust a verbal argument over this overwhelming feeling of certainty?

This, believe it or not, is what people mean when they talk about reason!

Trusting an argument that is correct as far as you can tell, over your feelings, even very strong feelings.  Being consciously aware that a thing is a good idea, and doing it, even when it’s awkward and unnatural and feels wrong.  You’re not used to doing things this way, because you usually discipline yourself with more feelings — guilt or fear, usually.  But there’s a way of making yourself do hard things that starts, simply, with recognizing intellectually that the hard thing is a good idea.

You can make yourself like things that you don’t currently like!  You can make yourself feel things that you aren’t currently feeling!

This bizarre, robotic, abstract business of making decisions on the basis of thoughts rather than feelings is a lot less crazy than it, um, feels.  It’s a tremendous power.

Some people luck into it by being naturally phlegmatic. The rest of us look at them and think “Man, that would suck, having practically no feelings.  Feelings are the spice of life!”  But we can steal a bit of their power, with time and effort, without necessarily becoming prosaic ourselves.

My overall instinctive response to Haidtism is negative.  The ideology initially comes across as smug and superficial.  But upon reflection, I have come to believe that it is right to aim towards self-transcendence, to do hard things and not sweat the small stuff. And I’m resolving to be more charitable towards people who support that creed even when they rub me the wrong way stylistically.  Ultimately, I want to do the things that are good ideas, even when that means awkward, deliberate change.

14 thoughts on “Haidt-Love Relationship

  1. I deny that the Stoics get to speak for all aristocrats. Greek virtue is not unfeeling – it’s keenly sensitive! Think about the Iliad – the whole story is about how Achilles refused to fight after his captive-wife was taken away. It’s all about wounded pride, fatherly affection, friendly affection, all feels all the time, just sometimes the feels are those of glorious combat.

    The *barbarians* are those for whom virtue is toughness, insensitivity. Proper Greeks can put up with pain, but are sensitive to subtle beauty – poetry, music, sculpture, the beauty of the human form. The problem with Ophelia is not that she’s sensitive, it’s that she’s too sensitive to be *interesting* – she just *dies* instead of *doing* anything.

    David (your robust contrast to fragile Ophelia) is also super sensitive. He’s a *harpist*. He’s the *Psalmist*. Important bible stories include his love of Jonathan, the son of the man he supplants as king. His grief at the death of his rebellious son. He’s young and vulnerable as well as brave in that picture, when he’s getting ready to fight Goliath. And he’s no berserker – he kills Goliath with a slingshot, not a sword.

    And – Buddhism? Gautama could only become the Buddha because he’d been raised without awareness of suffering, so that when he first became aware of it, it shocked him, it outraged him, he thought, “this is a wrong situation, I should make it so that there’s no more suffering.”

  2. > He’s talking about a top-down perspective — how schools can make students stronger. I have an issue with that, because I think that “improving” people against their will is ethically questionable, and especially trying to “make people tough” by exposing them to adversity, if they have no intrinsic desire to toughen and no input into the type of “adversity” involved, is probably counterproductive.

    This would be more compelling if we were talking about public grade school. But he is addressing schools that students attend voluntarily, right? In which there are many diverse options?

  3. I don’t know how informative this will be about anything beyond myself, but what I’m struck by here is how poorly Haidtism, as you describe it, works when applied to my own life. “Works” both descriptively, in providing an account of the causal structure, and normatively, in advising me how to change myself.

    I used to believe in something much closer to Haidtism as described here, although it wasn’t quite the same thing. Specifically, I wanted to accomplish whatever I was capable of accomplishing, and scorned people who didn’t have the same ambition. And I tended to throw myself into difficult tasks with the idea that I wouldn’t know they were beyond my limits until I tried them. (This violates your advice about “staying in the game,” but in this case the tasks were things like “take lots of hard college classes at once,” and the worst-case outcome didn’t look that bad. And there is a considerable appeal to this idea that “sensible” estimates of your likelihood of success may end up hiding your true potential from you.)

    Anyway, this package “worked” all right in that I did do well at the goals I was optimizing for. There were three downsides. First, I was miserable much of the time, which meant I couldn’t even appreciate my own successes when they happened, because I was too stressed-out and sleep-deprived at the time. More generally, for any given level stress and sleep deprivation, my aesthetic sense and my sense of my values were more heavily impaired (relative to baseline) than my brute ability to “get it done.” This led to the second downside, which is that my ability to reflect on considerations of value was impaired the whole time, and it turned out that the goals I was optimizing for were often not very good goals. Some of this was just the ignorance of youth; some of it was that I was making myself unable to think about such things.

    The third downside was that “ignoring pain” implied, in practice, ignoring part of the causal structure that determined my level of accomplishment. I was constantly on guard against motivated reasoning for taking the easy path, which meant that I’d ignore potential accomplishment boosters if they happened to reduce pain. For instance, I vastly underestimated how bad sleep deprivation was for my productivity, because depriving myself of sleep was unpleasant, and also had all the right aesthetics — passionately working late in the night, doing it now because it must be done now, transcending the weakness of the flesh (“the trick is not minding”), rather than lazing in bed. But in a time-averaged sense, I had “better aesthetics” but, I’m pretty sure, lower achievement.


    Speaking now of my current sense of things:

    If you were to draw a causal graph of everything that feeds into my achievements or lack thereof, there would be one very important “unexplained” factor, one that causes much but isn’t caused by anything else I’m aware of, whose variation is purely random from my perspective.

    Describing it in terms of its effects, this variable is where I feel on the spectrum from “energetic – lighthearted – focused – external world feels light and unserious – work is pleasant” to “lethargic – heavy-hearted – distractible – external world feels heavy and serious – work is unpleasant” spectrum. I have been trying, for 6 years or so, to find causal levers I can use to alter this, but nothing I try ever seems to work. (Even stuff like “get enough sleep.”) Typically the variable will be at the same level for the length of each day, and every day I wake up and find out how the dice rolled this time around.

    (One positive result: various stimulants produce the former end of the spectrum pretty reliably when I have no tolerance. I’ve long suspected that I could reliably produce this state on a regular basis if I only consumed caffeine one or two days per week, but it’s hard to make that extreme on-off pattern work with the unpredictability of real life, and I’ve never seriously tried it. I did once quit caffeine entirely for a week, in August 2008, and spent the following week in the former end of the spectrum, continuously.)

    Notably, the states of this variable that are the best for productivity are also the least conductive to seeing the world through a Haidtist lens. What is the aesthetic there? Something like these pictures:


    The cutesy anime style isn’t incidental here — I don’t feel self-serious and tough-skinned, but weightless, playful, the labors before me as unthreatening as toys. It also isn’t incidental that the characters seem to be casting spells which are represented as simple glowing shapes arranged in simple patterns. What might at other times seem like weighty “adult” undertakings are now flattened into simple lists of achievable steps. “Make progress in my research and prove to my adviser that I’m serious and capable” becomes “here are the computations I’ll need to do next to continue my current approach; here are the first mental steps I’ll take if I decide to consider alternative approaches.” “Learn $SERIOUS_SUBJECT_FOR_SERIOUS_PEOPLE” becomes “read a page of the text I’m currently reading; think about the concept it is discussing, which reveals itself to be a simple machine, like a toy; repeat.”

    When I’m in this state, I have intrinsic motivation to work; it’s often hard not to move on to the next step, if there’s some reason I shouldn’t. If you were to tell me “good, you’re leaning into difficulty, this will make you tougher,” I’ll think “huh? I’m just playing a fun game!”

    Another thing I’ve noticed is that most of my achievement occurs while I am in this state. This is true even if I push myself and “lean in” when I’m in the opposite state. It’s hard, I have to grit my teeth, but I can work productively toward my values when I’m in the opposite state, and when I do I’m as close to the Haidtian aesthetic as I get; but then, over the window of a month or more, that accounts for like 10% of my overall accomplishment, and the remaining 90% was done when I was feeling like a carefree child. (Indeed, often the carefree child has to re-do what the Haidtian adult attempted, fixing the mistakes of the latter, which was so focused on the grand weight of its task that it would forget to dot its “i”s and cross its “t”s.)

    Recently I started using the T2 Mood Tracker app, in which you rate your current state on various sliders, which you can group together under broader categories. I have separate categories called “Productivity” and “Brains” (roughly “mood”), and the slider that runs from “Avoiding” to “Welcoming” appears in both categories. Until now, I had never thought of this as expressing some deep truth about me. It just seemed obvious: I “lean in” when I’m in a good mood. Some of that is just that getting things done makes me feel happy. But there’s a lot of causal influence in the “good mood –> leaning in” direction, too.

  4. > Trusting an argument that is correct as far as you can tell, over your feelings, even very strong feelings. Being consciously aware that a thing is a good idea, and doing it, even when it’s awkward and unnatural and feels wrong. You’re not used to doing things this way, because you usually discipline yourself with more feelings — guilt or fear, usually. But there’s a way of making yourself do hard things that starts, simply, with recognizing intellectually that the hard thing is a good idea.

    I don’t like the conflation between doing the thing that is a good idea and making yourself do something. Mark
    [https://meditationstuff.wordpress.com] and Focusing [focusing.org] are great for seeing the ways in which your (seemingly naive) feelings and (seemingly naive and wrong and pig-headed) wants are actually brilliant. ACT [https://contextualscience.org/] is great for acting from your values and despite your feelings. I’d like to see a more precise treatment of the proper relationship between feelings and intellectually held views and action.

    • I like that paragraph, and think the ability to do a “systems-override” really is a big part of what it means to be a person with agency. In my experience doing so doesn’t always have to involve a Herculean struggle. This is because even little actions, done for deliberate reasons, contribute to a real sense of self-determination. Which sense can also be a usefully jarring reminder of how much of life happens according to “the gradients of our current stimuli.”

  5. I think this piece, with respect, misses the point in a very important way. You’re taking a perspective on relational obligations – what we owe other people – and trying to apply it to personal standards/ethics – how one should endeavor to live ones own life. It doesn’t seem to me that that is a transfer that works. If Haidtism is validated and sympathetic in your analysis, it’s at least in part because you’re framing it in terms that make it into something it really isn’t.

    It reminds me somewhat (albeit imperfectly) of the Anatole France quote, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

    We can agree that doing all those things are ill-advised ways to live ones life and not practices we should adopt if we can avoid it. However, arriving at that conclusion is a far cry from being able to justify that those who do these things should be mocked, ostracized or seen as worthy of condemnation or contempt. That seems to me what you’re doing with Haidt: i.e: Haidt (according to your own description) mocks the oversensitive and the “weak”, we do not wish to be oversensitive or weak, therefore Haidt must have a point. I’m not sure that quite succeeds at showcasing the rationality to which you and your compatriots aspire. 😉

  6. If I may make a brief tangent defend Haidt (I rather like his stance, I’ll admit): I do not think he believes emotional weakness is something to be mocked. He does believe “that it is better not to be an oversensitive weenie”, but what he derides isn’t weakness itself* but what he perceives as the cultivation of weakness. In other words, people should not be encourages to take offense at minor insults, they should not seek shelter from disagreement, and victimhood should not be valorized. There is an important distinction between condemning people who are not strong and condemning a worldview that discourages strength.

    *not consciously, anyway, though it is quite easy to slip into it.

  7. Basically unrelated to the actual point of the essay, but the ideal Buddhist is not an ascetic. Buddhism is intended to be a “Middle Way” between asceticism and luxury. In the story of the Buddha, he begins as a prince in luxury, then becomes an ascetic, and only after he ceases to be an ascetic does he achieve enlightenment.

  8. I am pretty sure that I could read Ovid or whatever without being put through emotional stress. Strengthen U and Coddle U would pretty much be the same thing for me (and for most people probably). They seem to be arguing that we put a small subset of people under stress because it will be good for them.

  9. To be fair, I think this essay is missing the main motivation of Haidtism. Haidt is against runaway political correctness on university campuses for societal reasons: it create a lack of intellectual diversity in academia, polarizes right v. left and hampers the pursuit of truth in research. The link you gave is from a speech to high school seniors, why would they care about the diversity of political viewpoint in academia? Convincing 18 year olds that avoiding “Coddle U” is in their *own* interests is a tool Haidt uses to achieve his broader goals, not the core of Haidtism itself.

    With that said: stoicism, exposure, meditation etc. are tools that people have developed to help *themselves*. Microaggressions etc. are concepts developed to police *others* (whether you think that policing is justified or not). This doesn’t necessarily mean that stoicism is always beneficial to oneself, but strongly implies that looking for microaggressions never is.

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