Why conservatives are fair and liberals are weird

Published in The Observer (April 22, 2012)

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt (Penguin)

When Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination in the 2008 US presidential race, Jonathan Haidt was thrilled. After the inward-looking candidates chosen in previous races, here was a man able to speak to the centre and slaughter some sacred cows on his way to the White House. But as time went on, Haidt began to worry that once again his party’s candidate was talking only to his own supporters.

So the social psychologist wrote an essay on why people vote Republican – and from that has evolved The Righteous Mind, which has been causing a stir in both Washington and Westminster.

Haidt looked at the usual ways psychologists explained away conservatism, such as strict parents or an overbearing fear of change. And he came to a radical conclusion: conservatives, rather than being victims of bad childhoods or possessing ugly personality traits, were just as sincere as liberals in wanting the best for society

This may not sound such a startling statement. But many on the left are endlessly baffled as to why working-class voters seem to go against their own interests by supporting conservative politicians, those hated promoters of big business and tax cuts for the rich. They presume such voters are either stupid or are being tricked.

But the left’s real problem, according to Haidt, is that it does not understand the motivations of the right. Drawing on everything from advertising to anthropology, he argues that liberals are driven by a morality based on compassion, the desire to fight oppression and, to some degree, fairness. Conservatives have a broader set of six “moral tastes”, sharing such concerns but balanced by the binding foundations of loyalty, authority and sanctity.

It is, he says, as if the left has three taste buds but the right has six. While the right can “taste” issues such as compassion and fairness, the left struggles to embrace patriotism or religion, seeing traditional institutions and hierarchies as obstacles to their fight for liberty and equality. Haidt calls this “the conservative advantage”.

Indeed, he goes further, saying that western progressives seeking a secular, rational society are out of step with the vast majority of people on the planet. He shows how our liberal values are “Weird” – supported only by those who are western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic. He draws on visual perception studies to show how Weird and non-Weird people think differently and see the world differently, with those in the west putting far greater emphasis on individualism.

At heart, however, The Righteous Mind is an old-fashioned liberal plea for tolerance. Haidt readily admits that he set out to use moral psychology to help political partisans understand and respect each other. It is a welcome attempt to combat polarisation at a time when politics is descending into dysfunctional tribalism, a process speeded up by technology and changing residential patterns. It takes only one glance at the grocery store to determine a US town’s politics: if you see a Whole Foods Market, for example, nine times out of 10 you are in a county voting Democrat.

What makes the book so compelling is the fluid combination of erudition and entertainment, and the author’s obvious pleasure in challenging conventional wisdom. One minute he draws on psychological experiments to defend Glaucon, the cynic in Plato’s Republic who argued that people behaved well only because they were scared of being caught. (Here Haidt gives dishonourable mention to Britain’s MPs, so happy to abuse expenses when they thought no one was looking at their moats and duck ponds.) The next he is enlisting the Scottish philosopher David Hume to challenge our “rationalist delusion”.

He asks a series of strange questions – is it wrong to eat your dog if you run it over by accident, or to perform sexual intercourse on a dead chicken? – to prove how people rely on intuition to find answers, then produce reasons to justify them. Transcripts show how people tie themselves in knots arguing against incest, however much their arguments are torn apart. Reason, he concludes, is like a government press secretary, there to defend your decisions to others. “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason.”

Although Haidt glosses over the uncomfortable conclusions of what he is saying on issues such as race and human rights, his core point is simple and well-made: our morality, much of it wired into brains from birth, at the same time binds us together and blinds us to different configurations of morality. Gut feelings drive strategic reasoning, which can make it difficult to connect with those across the gulf, especially for liberals.

At the same time we are both selfish and groupish – as he puts it, nine parts chimpanzee for every one part bee. But we are not fundamentally selfish creatures, despite what we have been told for the past half century. We just need to encourage the bee to take flight, working a little harder at establishing trust and commonality with each other. “We’re all stuck here for a while,” he concludes. “So let’s try to work it out.”

Related Posts

Categorised in: , , ,