In a recent PBS interview with Bill Moyers, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explained what his research reveals about the differences between liberals and conservatives. Haidt’s work on positive psychology and what he calls Moral Foundations Theory has received well-deserved acclaim, and much of what he said in that interview was illuminating. But one reference he made was off base, and Moyers — a national treasure whose return to TV from premature retirement is cause to rejoice — did not challenge him on it. Someone should, so here goes.
When asked about the conservative view on policies such as taxing the wealthy, Haidt said, “The conservative moral position on this is the Protestant work ethic. It’s karma.” Never mind the dubious linking of Protestants with a core premise of the religions birthed in India (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism). And never mind that the number of conservatives who would say they believe in karma is about as big as the number of Hindus who consider Jesus their personal Savior. Haidt went on to misconstrue the meaning ofkarma.
“Karma is a Sanskrit word,” he said, “literally for work, or fruit.” Not quite: it is usually translated as “action,” not “work.” But let’s move on. Haidt explained that “Hindu tradition believes the universe will right itself, balance itself. It’s like gravity. If I am a lazy, good for nothing, lying scoundrel, the universe will right that and I will suffer.” Fair enough.