Jonathan Haidt, Ezra Klein and the Nature of Wicked Problems

Can we solve the problem of inequality without compromising our commitment to free speech and the wellbeing of the individual? Can we advance the project of heterodoxy and civil discourse without numbing ourselves to the imperatives of social justice in campus life and broader society? These are the questions over which social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and journalist Ezra Klein sparred in a recent episode of The Ezra Klein Show. (Disclosure: Professor Haidt sits on the board of directors for Better Angels, for whom I work.) However, their conversation also highlighted a larger category of problems that most frustrated sociopolitical spectators fail to fully appreciate: wicked problems. We pine for straightforward solutions to complicated political, cultural and economic challenges and analysts, academics, pundits and politicians respond with an abundance of ideological and policy solutions that appeal to our political preferences. But wicked problems, by their nature, elude definitive, universal answers. They even elude universal definition.

During a section of their discussion devoted to James Damore’s “Google Memo,” Klein expressed concern about the willingness of some to “work backwards from where we are” in their analyses of social inequities. Haidt responded by introducing the idea of the wicked problem:

Wicked problems are problems that don’t just sit there and let you work on them … poverty, education, racism—these are wicked problems because when analysts come to them they bring preconceptions. Analysts come knowing what solutions they want … the more experts study a problem, the more white papers they write, the further we get from a solution because now there’s more and more evidence on each side.

These ideological pre-commitments distinguish wicked problems from tame problems, such as fixing a broken appliance. Most large scale tame problems in the United States had been solved by the 1950s. As urban planning professors Horst Wittel and Melvin Webber argued in the late 1960s:

The streets have been paved, and roads now connect all places; houses shelter virtually everyone; the dread diseases are virtually gone; clean water is piped into nearly every building; sanitary sewers carry wastes from them; schools and hospitals serve virtually every district; and so on … But now that these relatively easy problems have been dealt with, we have been turning our attention to others that are much more stubborn.

The problems that remain are problems for which those charged with solving them have preferred solutions informed by ideological and social biases. For instance, liberal and conservative economists and policy makers are all, presumably, interested in the question of expanding wealth and opportunity in society. But their pre-commitments determine much about their willingness to spend money or cut taxes, administer social programs or cut government bureaucracy, regardless of the data before them. More frustrating still, seemingly objective metrics of progress (such as GDP growth or a falling deficit) are not necessarily seen as definite indicators of successful economic policy, depending on an expert’s bias. Rising stock market valuations, for example, can be evidence of either growing prosperity or widening inequality. Declining spending rates can represent either fiscal responsibility or decreasing investment in quality of life. What constitutes a healthy economy, therefore, is no mere matter of figures. It has become a question of fluid interpretations.

The vexing question of how to balance social justice against freedom of speech, civility, psychological health and viewpoint diversity on campus is an instructive one when viewed through this lens. In the introduction to the podcast, Ezra Klein makes reference to Haidt’s (and co-author Greg Lukianoff’s) use of the story of Roman senator Boethius in their recent book The Coddling of the American Mind. (Editor’s note: this magazine has reviewed Haidt and Lukianoff’s book and interviewed the authors for our associated podcast, Two for Tea.) Boethius was an influential public figure accused of treason by the emperor and condemned to death. At first, as he awaited his fate, he despaired greatly. But then, visited by “Lady Philosophy,” he recalled the numerous blessings of his life and was persuaded to adopt a new point of view. (It is from this imagined interaction that Boethius produced The Consolation of Philosophy during his imprisonment.) Philosophical reflection had brought him peace. Klein remarks:

In their book Haidt and Lukianoff … read Lady Philosophy’s intervention as this lesson in the power of cognitive behavioral therapy. They write that “each exercise helps Boethius see his situation in a new light. Each one weakens the grip of his emotions and prepares him to accept Lady Philosophy’s ultimate lesson: that nothing is miserable unless you think it so. And on the other hand, nothing brings happiness unless you are content with it.”

This is a lesson they think today’s college students need to learn. They’re worried about a culture of outrage, of callouts, of trigger warnings and safe spaces. They see a generation made anxious and lonely … that’s been led into a victim outlook by professors and social justice activists … they’ve come to believe any idea they don’t like is literal violence to them.

But the story of Boethius—it also speaks to the central tension in their book … however peaceful Boethius was when he went to his death, he still went to his death. The psychological outlook that might be best for an individual in an unjust world can also hide or teach them to ignore the injustice of that world.

The problems that combative social justice activism and de-platforming campaigns seek to solve are wicked because their solutions create problems in other areas of valid concern, such as viewpoint diversity and civility. But Klein worries that the solutions to the problems that concern Haidt and Lukianoff are also wicked in precisely the opposite direction. Civility and moderation, desirable qualities for political discourse and decision making, can numb us to the imperative of social change. (Though Martin Luther King, Jr. was a paragon of civility, Klein’s point is strikingly similar to the argument King makes in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”)

The project of political depolarization, which is necessary to the preservation of free speech and heterodoxy, is itself a wicked problem. It is easy to view success in this arena as only unfolding in a direction that empowers one political tribe over another. Some progressives believe that political polarization can only be solved if conservatives moderate their views or behavior, and vice versa. Polarized camps will tend to see any concession on their part to the practice of civility as an act of unilateral disarmament in the face of a political opposition that must be defeated at all costs.

In the conversation with Klein, Haidt offers his view on how wicked problems might be solved:

The conditions for solving a wicked problem are: you have to have people who see it from multiple perspectives; you have to bring them together in ways in which they have relationships of accountability to each other within a zone in which they can talk privately and are reinforced with a reward for actually reaching a solution.

Bringing people from different perspectives together, who see a problem differently, and incentivizing them to communicate and collaborate can unshackle individuals from their pre-commitments and enable them to contribute their perspectives on a given problem to a collective understanding of both the problem at hand as well as its larger solution. This general approach (which sometimes takes the form of a modified application of systems theory) has been helpful in tackling wicked problems in the business world.

But, as Klein points out, politics and business are not the same. He expresses his skepticism about Haidt’s proposal: “It’s not my view that most of the hardest problems are solved in these calm-people-sitting-together-talking ways.” He argues that successful activism has a history of making people uncomfortable, who would otherwise simply ignore injustice. “Confrontation is unpopular, and often necessary, in part to get people to see things they don’t want to see.”

Klein has a point. Unlike the boardroom, or even the classroom, politics does not presuppose that everyone in the room is necessarily committed to a common good as a practical reality. Indeed, for all the wickedness of political problems, one problem that is still tame for political parties is the problem of defeating the other side. Political progress for political parties can still be measured in concrete terms: dollars raised, votes earned and elections won. So how do we circumvent this political cultural status quo to build a new culture of collaborative perspective-sharing that allows wicked problems to be solved?

As Haidt mentions, the academy should be the epicenter of this sort of thinking in society. Perhaps it could be again. The work of the Heterodox Academy is meant to re-establish “open inquiry, viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement in institutions of higher learning.” This is a tall order, given the ideological lopsidedness of campus culture in recent years. More daunting still is the friction in our larger political culture, from the halls of government to the grassroots. As polarization has continued to reach new peaks of intensity, various organizations and notable individuals have sprung up to bridge the divide. But it may be that some element of Klein’s commitment to assertive activism also needs to be applied.

Just as this kind of activism on the Left and the Right has succeeded in making others uncomfortable, perhaps thoughtful voices committed to more collaborative rules of engagement might nevertheless be advised to make leaders and institutions uncomfortable with ignoring calls to constructive engagement. We must realize that the maintenance of dignity in activism does not require the abandonment of fervor.

In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

Now we all should seek to live a well adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities. But there are some things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon you to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself to mob rule. I never intend to adjust myself to the tragic effects of the methods of physical violence and to tragic militarism. I call upon you to be maladjusted to such things.

If our biases are the key source of the wickedness of our problems, then part of what must occur on a cultural level is widespread maladjustment to a status quo that refuses to tame them in the pursuit of progress and truth. Confronting wicked problems on a societal scale requires us to get one another’s attention and walk the finest of lines: to realize that the voice of reason may also roar. That begins with our becoming maladjusted within ourselves to the forces in society that demand that we be maladjusted towards each other. It means that we must wield civility with emotional power so that we may empower civility.

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  1. “Can we solve the problem of inequality”

    It’s depressing to see a critique of a conversation between Ezra Klein and Jonathan Haidt (who has published a paper in which he decries, among other things, “the embedding of liberal values into research questions and methods” opening with a Liberal Value, ‘the problem of inequality’, embedded in the opening sentence.

    Ayn Rand was wrong about many things but she was right to complain about the way in which people reify adjectives and verbs into nouns, and thereby beg every question of how their morality relates to the concrete particulars of individual lives as they are lived. Inequality, per se, is not a problem. It is occasionally, now and then, here and there, in one way or another, a fact. It is a thing which happens. Whether any particular instance of inequality is to be thought good or bad depends upon the way in which some set of values embraced a priori can be shown to be implicated in the actual situation.

    Rational moral thought requires at least saying who has been made unequal to whom, in what respect, through what process or by what means, for what reasons, to what initial purpose or by what accident, and to what ultimate effect. At the very least I would expect that an essayist ostensibly speaking from a perspective on the Right would abstain from conceding at the outset, even tacitly or by implication, that “inequality” itself (ie the adjective now reified into a noun) is “the problem”, and thereby reinforcing the irrational effect of what is essentially a Left rhetorical trick for begging the foregoing questions.

    The Left has its own grammar and semantics which serve to mire any debate with them in connotations rather than denotations, and unexamined moral premises. Perhaps the hardest, but most important thing for advocates on the Right to do is to avoid adding persuasive resonance to the rhetorical tricks of the Left, otherwise, merely by speaking in reply using their tropes or jargon, we advance their cause by putting their deceptive formulations into the ears and minds of our audience out of our mouths, and the audience says, “See! Even the Right agrees that Inequality is a Problem!”

    1. My sense is that what is meant by the problem of inequality is not that of falling short of any financial differences among groups of people but rather something like a shrinking middle class, an entrenched and spiraling downward level of poverty for widening numbers of people,and an equally entrenched and growing wealthier upper quintle. Especially at the top of it when unimaginable wealth coexists with masses of people living hard lives, going without necessities, working more than one job too make ends meet when there are jobs, when there’s a literal coming apart at the seams, then inequality is a problem.

  2. I wonder if Klein gets the irony of (rightly) saying that social activism should make people uncomfortable, whilst defending people who consistently argue that being made uncomfortable is a form of violence and oppression. Me making you uncomfortable is righteous, you making me uncomfortable is literally denying my existence and oppressing me.
    Of course this highlights the fundamental problem, people not being taken as human, judged on the basis of character and the moral force of their ideas, but on a prior namely their identity. If value sits there, not in your humanity, actions, thoughts and ideas it’s hardly surprising that certain groups of people should be protected from words, and others fair game for anything up to and including physical violence.
    I wonder what King would have made of a young woman (biologically born a man) claiming that they were the victims of violence from the words of a women in their 60’s (a ‘terf’) they’d just physically assaulted?


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