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.