Although social psychologist Jonathan Haidt is considered “heterodox” (these days that means “anti-progressive”), I’ve found that nearly everything he’s written is worth reading. That especially includes his two books The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. and The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, the latter co-written with Greg Lukianoff. Haidt is neither a polemicist nor a firebrand, but he says what he thinks and calls out nonsense in a no-nonsense way. And now he’s taking a hike from an important academic group because it violates his principles.
Haidt was in fact one of the cofounders of the Heterodox Academy, an organization of academics promoting viewpoint diversity, which of course is the wrong kind of diversity. The group grew out of a talk promoting viewpoint diversity given by Haidt in 2011 at the meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP)—the biggest and best-known society of its kind.
And that leads to the double irony that’s the subject of today’s post. In an article on the Heterodox Academy‘s website (click below to read), Haidt announces that he’s resigning from the SPSP, and for exactly the reason that helped birth the academy ten years ago—the quashing of viewpoint diversity by academia.
Haidt notes that there are two “fiduciary duties” of professors, and by that he means duties that are directed towards a beneficiary (in this case, academics and students), must be adhered to with absolute loyalty, and in which there is no taint of self-interest. All other duties are subsidiary and must go away when in conflict with these two. Here are those duties as quoted by Haidt:
1). As teachers I believe we have a fiduciary duty to our students’ education.
2.) As scholars I believe we have a fiduciary duty to the truth.
Together these serve to fulfill the telos of a university (its end or purpose), and that telos is truth—finding and promulgating truth.
Haidt actually calls these duties “quasi-fiduciary duties” since we aren’t obligated to promote students’ overall welfare, nor is there an agent for whose benefit we seek the truth. He gives four examples of how a professor can violate each of these duties, and argues that universities are now declining in public esteem because they’re making the second duty subsidiary to other goals, goals that fall under the aegis of “advancing social justice”.
Recalling his 2016 lecture at Duke University where he advanced the telos argument, he says this (my emphasis):
I said that universities can have many goals (such as fiscal health and successful sports teams) and many values (such as social justice, national service, or Christian humility), but they can have only one telos, because a telos is like a North Star. It is the end, purpose, or goal around which the institution is structured. An institution can rotate on one axis only. If it tries to elevate a second goal or value to the status of a telos, it is like trying to get a spinning top or rotating solar system to simultaneously rotate around two axes. I argued that the sudden wave of protests and changes that were sweeping through universities were attempts to elevate the value of social justice to become a second telos, which would require a massive restructuring of universities and their norms in ways that damaged their ability to find truth.
I expanded on this argument in a blog post for Heterodox Academy where I predicted that “the conflict between truth and social justice is likely to become unmanageable … Universities that try to honor both will face increasing incoherence and internal conflict.” It’s now six years later, and I think it’s clear that this prediction has come true. It has been six years of near-constant conflict, with rising numbers of attempts to get scholars fired or punished for things they have said, and a never-ending stream of videos showing students (and sometimes professors) saying and doing things that are gifts to critics of universities and of the left. As one university president said to a friend of mine in 2019, “Universities are becoming ungovernable.” Public trust in universities has plummeted since 2015,² first on the right, but later across the board. We are in trouble.
He’s right. Even at the University of Chicago I can see the search for truth becoming subsumed under loud and ubiquitous calls for the university to become a Social Justice Mill. And the sciences, the exemplar of disciplines whose goal is truth (understanding the Universe), are being bent towards Leftist “progressive” ideology, with departments trying to promulgate ideological statements and beginning to ask for DEI statements by job applicants (that’s technically illegal here, but people find ways to get around that).
Although Haidt sees no way around this truth-effacing clash, his advice for us academics is to always stick to our two “fiduciary duties” above all else. When a subsidiary “duty” violates these, don’t adhere to it.
Recently Haidt was asked to abandon or water down duty #2 in the interest of promulgating social justice. Ironically, he was asked by the SPSP, which has gone woke (my emphasis below):
I have been thinking a lot about fiduciary duty because my main professional association — the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) — recently asked me to violate my quasi-fiduciary duty to the truth. I was going to attend the annual conference in Atlanta next February to present some research with colleagues on a new and improved version of the Moral Foundations Questionnaire. I was surprised to learn about a new rule: In order to present research at the conference, all social psychologists are now required to submit a statement explaining “whether and how this submission advances the equity, inclusion, and anti-racism goals of SPSP.” Our research proposal would be evaluated on older criteria of scientific merit, along with this new criterion.
These sorts of mandatory diversity statements have been proliferating across the academy in recent years. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), the Academic Freedom Alliance, and many professors have written about why they are immoral, inappropriate, and sometimes illegal. I’ll just add one additional concern: Most academic work has nothing to do with diversity, so these mandatory statements force many academics to betray their quasi-fiduciary duty to the truth by spinning, twisting, or otherwise inventing some tenuous connection to diversity. I refuse to do this, but I’ve never objected publicly.
The SPSP mandate, however, forced us all to do something more explicitly ideological. Note that the word diversity was dropped and replaced by anti-racism. So every psychologist who wants to present at the most important convention in our field must now say how their work advances anti-racism. I read Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to Be an Antiracist in the summer of 2020, so I knew that I could no longer stay silent.
He wrote to the SPSP’s president, Laura King, who affirmed that this was indeed the policy: all speakers had to submit diversity statements affirming that their talks would advance “equity, inclusion, and anti-racism”. Talks would be evaluated not just for their intrinsic merit, but on ideological grounds as well. (As implied above, Haidt doesn’t adhere to Kendi’s principles as limning any form of “truth”: they are ideology—debatable ideology—pure and simple. He sees Kendi’s dicta (read How to be an Antiracist) as “incorrect morally because it requires us to treat people as members of groups, not as individuals, an then to treat people well or badly based on their group membership.”
Let me add that Haidt doesn’t disagree that a form of diversity, “amplifying the voices of those who have historically been underrepresented in our field,” as unobjectionable. This is what he objects to:
I believe that anti-racism has a place at SPSP, and I said so to King. Let there be speakers, panels, and discussions of this morally controversial and influential idea at our next conference! But to adopt it as the official view and mission of SPSP and then to force us all to say how our work advances it, as a precondition to speaking at the conference? I thought this was wrong for two reasons: First, it elevated anti-racism to be a coequal telos of SPSP, which meant that we would no longer rotate around the single axis of excellent science. Every talk would have to be both scientifically sound and anti-racist, even though good science and political activism rarely mix well. Second, it puts pressure on social psychologists — especially younger ones, who most need to present at the conference — to betray their fiduciary duty to the truth and profess outward deference to an ideology that some of them do not privately endorse.
The last sentence is, to me, especially important, for it gives the very reason why scientific societies and universities should not make official political or ideological pronouncements or take ideological or political positions— unless (and this should be rare) they buttress the telos of an organization. That is why my University’s Kalven Report prohibits such statements, and why groups like the Society for the Study of Evolution have betrayed their telos by injecting ideology into their program, declaring, for example, that “sex is a continuum.” Here we see ideology—the desire to not offend those who consider themselves of a sex that they weren’t born with—taking precedence over truth, which is that in nearly all animals—and certainly in humans—sex is not a continuum. (Gender is more of one, but we’re talking about biological sex, something that the SSE should know something about.)
But I digress. Since the SPSP will not rescind its policy, Haidt is quitting:
I raised my voice again to write to King and object to the new policy. But soon it will be time for exit. I cannot remain loyal to an organization that is changing its telos and asking its members to violate their quasi-fiduciary duties to the truth. I am especially dubious of the wisdom of making an academic organization more overtly political in its mission, especially in the midst of a raging culture war, when trust in universities is plummeting.
So I’m going to resign from SPSP at the end of this year, when my membership dues run out, if the policy on mandatory statements stays in place for future conventions. I hope that other members will raise their voices.
Would that the large number of academics who object to ideological violations of our telos do likewise! Most academics lack both the eloquence and courage of Haidt. But you don’t have to be eloquent. All you have to do is voice your objections and, like Haidt, resign from academic societies that make social justice a higher value than truth.
26 thoughts on “Jon Haidt to resign from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology for placing ideology above truth”
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“..viewpoint diversity, which of course is the wrong kind of diversity.”
^^^^ I would like to highlight that, because it shows how astonishing it is, to hear/read “diversity” all the time, yet never think precisely about what “diversity” means. Maybe it means every kind of diversity, and so hey, what’s wrong with that? I can almost hear it – “it’s diversity of everything!” And then, as they say in show biz, you are cancelled.
Hooray, it worked.
I can’t count the number of times in academia I’ve heard prospective faculty hires described as “diverse”.
How can an individual be diverse? Sure, they can contribute to the diversity of a group. But the diversity is contextual not innate.
Exactly. But I think we all know it’s a euphemism for “not white” or “not a normal white male”, providing a fig leaf for discrimination that’s supposed to be illegal…
Here is another straw in the wind. After a University of North Texas mathematician dared to speak ill of a DEI agitprop brochure, the university penalized him; he has just won a first amendment lawsuit against the university. See:
This struggle to force everyone to pay lip service to diversity, inclusion etc. represents the violation of some very important goals (what decent academic is AGAINST inclusion, diversity, etc?) in the name of “anti-racism,” which on this context amounts only to social control. It reminds me of the memoir I co-wrote with the Soviet bioweapons scientist and world -class plague expert Igor V. Domaradskij, in which he describes being forced to insert Lysenkoist junk into his dissertation, even though he knew full well it was scientifically garbage.
As Fitzgerald put it, So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
At first I was surprised and a little disappointed when I saw that Haidt was waiting till the end of the year to quit the organization. Why not now? But, it occurs to me that the delay gives a window for him to continue to engage and perhaps influence others.
No: as he says, he’s already paid up and his membership lapses at the end of the year. Now perhaps you’re saying that he should just resign now, and I can see your point, but he’s not as intemperate as I am (I’d resign now) and will just slip away from the organization.
I am curious on getting people’s opinions on something. I think what is going on on college campuses today begs a comparison to what was going on in the late sixties and into the seventies, with the student protests and demands for diversity. I would say however that many people worried about today’s developments, including readers of this blog, are sympathetic to those changes in the past, and might even feel that they were important and necessary. Do you feel there is a fundamental difference between the activism then and the activism today? Are the goals or tactics similar or different?
I think that students protesting things like the Vietnam War and actual institutional practices and laws that discriminated against minorities and women is a bit different than hyperventilating over pronouns and Halloween costumes….
I think that is a bit if a straw man, you can always compare the best of something to the worst of another thing. One could just as easily compare protesting George Floyd to trying to burn ROTC buildings down.
Ok, what are the “best of” issues of today? There actually are some…for example, elite universities have a huge diversity issue with regard to socioeconomic status, as they are disproportionately students from rich backgrounds.
THAT would be something worth protesting about…put pressure on these institutions to drastically increase the number of students from lower SES.
Instead, students seem to be bamboozled by cosmetic diversity…as in “do we have all of the shades of melanin in this school?” This works just great for the institutions, who can placate the students by increasing the number of darker skinned students (who tend to be rich) while doing nothing to address the more substantive concerns of lack of SES diversity.
Another issue is the staggering increase in obesity in this country, in all age categories, and the number of people with serious metabolic conditions. Yet, the zeitgeist seems to be going the other way…. to “fat acceptance”…which does nothing but exacerbate the problem.
So, I agree that there are some very important issues for students to address today…but they seem to be missing mark quite widely.
I didn’t mean to enter into this as an argument. I am actually interested in the kind of stuff you just posted. So you would say there IS a fundamental difference in tenor between the protests of the 60’s and those of today? Do you think students today are role playing activism and blowing up problems to make themselves look good, or do they believe these really are serious problems and are just mistaken in their evaluation of them?
The most dramatic difference is in the institutional response to the student activism. In the 60s-70s there were slow, gradual responses. In 2015, various student groups demanded large institutional changes that added up to a major new bureaucracy. The university world responded by complying with every demand in the space of a few years—the blink of an eye, in normal institutional tempo—providing us with the entire DEI system we have today, with its nomenklatura. For a summary and
2015 forecast, see: https://www.krabarchive.com/ralphmag/IX/student-protest.html .
Interesting, I think 2015 is the year Haidt generally mentions as the year that the decline in university standards began.
I like the idea of faculty having a fiduciary responsibility to speak the truth. I always felt that way but never voiced the idea using that term. Haidt has introduced a good idea here.
Forcing academics to claim fealty to a particular ideology is odious. The poor assistant professors driving for tenure have enough to worry about without having to worry about how to pad their CV’s with virtue signals. Pity the poor junior professor who says the wrong thing out loud, even if it’s true.
Ironically, in order to satisfy the virtue signaling requirements, many junior professors will be *forced* to lie in order to keep their jobs. Is that social justice? Do we really want our students to learn that society functions through coercion? Do we really want to teach them that it’s acceptable (and even required) to lie in order to be successful in professional life? Do we really want to live in a society where the yoke of ideology trumps truth. I don’t think so.
I really like Haidt’s use of the metaphor of dueling telos being like something trying to rotate about two axes at the same time, because even trying to imagine some real object doing it makes my brain hurt…I can’t do it. It’s a nice way to make people think about such things. I also agree with his arguments, and think, if anything, he’s almost too nice about it, but I think that’s his personality, and it’s useful, because when someone who is clearly nice by nature is nevertheless firmly taking a principled stand, it can be VERY convincing.
The precise use of language is like fresh air. Such a memorable piece.
Most proponents of these statements try to emphasize the reasonableness of what’s being required. In response to Haidt’s complaint, SPSP president King said “I am not super clear on why anti-racism is viewed as problematic.” That seems like a reasonable point: shouldn’t honest scholars and academics be against racism?
Haidt then gave a specific example of “anti racism” from Kendi’s popular book on that topic:
Okay, I think Haidt wins this argument, because this isn’t some non controversial “we’re committed to being fair to everyone” boilerplate. In fact, it looks like it might be saying the opposite. It’s certainly not something scholars presenting papers at a conference need to be twisting themselves and their research around to make a statement and align themselves with The Righteous.
Haidt’s words which our host put in boldface ought to be engraved in stone: Most academic work has nothing to do with diversity, so these mandatory statements force many academics to betray their quasi-fiduciary duty to the truth by spinning, twisting, or otherwise inventing some tenuous connection to diversity. What the regime of imposed DEI orthodoxy gives us is the ascendancy of humbug and deception. No wonder that this wave of “Progressive” posturing typically depends on the tropes of post-modernism. Sokal and Bricmont in effect predicted the future of academia in their catalogue of “Intellectual Impostures” in 1998. The puzzle in need of some sociological analysis is: how did this flim-flam get into so many administrative and editorial offices?
Yes that is a good question, “how did this flim-flam get into so many administrative and editorial offices?”
I think one reason is that most administrators and editors are not scientists themselves. But that only says how it
could be possible, not why it actually happened.
And it is not limited to the US, we have a marginally comparable kind of problem here in the RSA. Except it is less limited to academia, and has/had a more understandable political mechanism (‘kader deployment’) in a way. One should not forget we had a suppressed majority, not a suppressed minority, here.
But I’m still mystified how it happened in the US.
Aeons ago, junior editorial staff at some journals I know (in biochem and theoretical biology) were sub-literate in science, presumably English majors. But in those days, the English majors did not all follow an identical catechism, ad majorem gloriam DEI. For that development, we can thank the universities’ indulgence of the church of postmodernism, “Progressive” synod, during the last 40 years.
Freedom Fighters will fight for freedom:
One day they might realize that they don’t own truth. Nobody does. They don’t even own the brand.
Speaking of defending truth, however, clarifying in what ways truth can be a telos would be great. Titled academics have administrative duties, which include making sure everyone’s right is protected. So Jonathan is not only wrong, he his shrinking the responsibilities for which he got tenure.
He’s talking about the telos of a university and of its faculty as their primary obligation. He means that the main purpose of a university is to promote the finding of truth and imparting it to the students. Other duties, while sometimes obligatory, are secondary, for the university exists as a truth finding institution, which, secondarily requires administration to achieve that purpose. You can write him and tell him he’s wrong.
The way the title is worded made me think that Jon Haidt was the one placing ideology above truth. Would be better written something like “Jon Haidt to resign from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology for the Society’s placing ideology above truth.”