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Check and Balance, Moral Foundations Theory, Reason and Experience, Recommendations, The Moral Foundations

“The Righteous Mind” is a Fun Read and a Valuable Tool for Conservatives



The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt, is a fun read for conservatives because it pokes more holes in liberalism than it does in conservatism. In that sense, some parts of this book are quite delicious.

But we conservatives are not without faults of our own, which can sometimes cause us to shoot ourselves in the foot in the political arena. The Righteous Mind is a great tool because it can help us not only to avoid some of those self-inflicted wounds, but also to understand and then express ourselves in ways that might resonate with even more of the electorate.

All of us – left, right, center, and in between – often experience an instant visceral reaction of like or dislike when we hear certain political viewpoints. Haidt  has cracked the code of the evolutionary psychological underpinnings of those reactions.  With that understanding comes the realization that the views of the other side are not “crazy,” but are in fact based in something real and legitimate. Further, it might even help us to overcome some of our innate tendency to fight the other side just because it is the other side.

Haidt observes that we humans are unique in the animal kingdom in our ability to form ultra-social communities – in which individuals can number in the hundreds of thousands or more – and in which the individuals are not related by blood. Moral foundations evolved to help make that possible.

The first three foundations – care, fairness, and liberty – are focused on the individual; the bees in the hive of the non-kin community. The second three – loyalty, authority, and sanctity – are focused on binding those individuals together into a cooperative group; the hive.

Haidt has given us new definitions of liberalism and conservatism, backed up by extensive social science research and analysis: Liberalism is the morality of the first three foundations, and of those, mostly the first one. Conservatism is the morality of all foundations in roughly equal balance.

Herein lies the basis of a quibble I have with Haidt. He characterizes the tension between liberalism and conservatism as yin/yang. That doesn’t seem right to me. It seems to me that the fundamental tension of yin/yang exists between the first three “individualizing” foundations and the last three “binding” foundations. We all love our individual freedom and autonomy, but binding individuals together into a group for our mutual benefit requires some amount of sacrifice of that autonomy. I submit that practically every form of government that has ever been tried has been an attempt to find the proper balance between the two, and a good historian who is well versed in Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory might be able to show this. But I digress. My quibble is this: I don’t see how a morality that is defined by an already equal balance of the individualizing and binding foundations (i.e., conservatism) can be “balanced” in a yin/yang sort of way by an extra helping of the individualizing foundations (i.e., liberalism.) In fact, I would suggest that the “extra helping” upsets the balance, and tends to lead us more toward the “Pathological Altruism” Barbara Oakley describes in her book by that title. But then again, I see Haidt’s point too. The present “culture war” is essentially a tug of war between liberalism and conservatism. Maybe we’re both right, but in different contexts. Maybe Haidt is right if we look at a snapshot in time. Maybe I’m right if we look at the Gemeinschaft – Gesellschaft arc of how civilizations grow and mature; the six foundations, working in concert, make civilization possible, which in turn affords its citizens the luxury of turning inward toward the individualizing foundations and “forgetting” the binding ones. I don’t think the binding foundations actually become less important to the health of the community, I think they only appear less important to those who are predisposed to the liberal morality.  Thus forms the political divide. 

A second quibble I have with Haidt has to do with his conclusion that liberals “care” about other people a little bit more than conservatives do.  The measures of care he uses are all focused on the kind of care that is directed at the individual (e.g., The Interpersonal Reactivity Index, or IRI). But isn’t ensuring a healthy hive also a form of care? Isn’t respect for authority and the social order a form of care? Isn’t loyalty to the group a form of care? Isn’t a respect for “clean living” and treating the body as a temple (i.e., the sanctity foundation) a form of care? I submit that they are. Further, how does the liberal morality of “no harm, no foul,” and the outlook of “my body is an amusement park” equate to “caring,” or to protecting the weak? I submit that they do not. In fact, I submit they are the opposite. Haidt’s measures of care essentially define half of conservatism out of the discussion. Is it any wonder then that he concludes that liberals “care” more?

A third quibble is Haidt’s suggestion to liberals that they would fare better in elections if they could do a better job of framing their views in terms of the loyalty, authority, and sacredness. That strikes me as a little bit like asking a leopard to change its spots. If they did that, and actually believed it and meant it, then they wouldn’t be leopards, or liberals, would they?

But as I said, these are quibbles, and I don’t want to overemphasize them. That would be like complaining about the wine selection in the first class cabin of a luxury airliner after receiving the tickets for free. Haidt has given us The Rosetta Stone for understanding the political divide, and it would be unwise if we let our quibbles get in the way of our grasp of the big picture he is showing to us.

Haidt finds that people form into groups when they share sacred values. Here “sacred” does not necessarily mean religious. It simply means beliefs that are held to be inviolable by the members of the group. When those beliefs are challenged or undermined we rise to their defense unquestioningly, and even (or especially) irrationally. This irrational defense of sacred values contributes to the culture war and, I believe, is where both sides make their mistakes. We dig in our heels and fight the other side just because it is the other side.

I believe it is safe to conclude from Haidt’s work that one of the sacred values of liberalism is reason; the power of the human mind to overcome obstacles and solve problems through logical thought. Reason alone is sufficient to understand and internalize the moral foundations of liberalism. The argument in their favor essentially boils down to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This argument makes sense on its face. It is direct, uncomplicated, and powerful. It is not a great stretch of the imagination to understand why some might see reason alone, and its logical extension through “do unto others,” to the first three moral foundations, as sufficient in and of itself to form the basis of a political philosophy, even to the point of being dismissive of, or at least finding unnecessary, the three remaining moral foundations.

I think a sacred value of conservatism is experience; the lessons learned through the hard knocks of every-day life. Experience is manifested – to varying degrees – in the notions of loyalty, authority, and sanctity which are embraced equally, along with the first three foundations, by conservatism. The argument in favor of these foundations boils down to “these have been shown to work.” Group behavior, for example, exhibits the collected wisdom of all persons within the group over the entire duration of its existence, possibly spanning multiple generations or even centuries. To be a part of a group, then, is to stand on the shoulders, so to speak, of all who came before, and to band together in defense of the group when a threat to it is perceived – thus the “one for all, all for one” sensibility of loyalty. The respect for traditions and social systems of authority, and even the value placed on clean living through the sanctity foundation, I believe similarly reflect, on the part of conservatives, an instinctive, intuitive, possibly even subconscious, respect for, and internalization of, the collected wisdom of experience.

In this way, I believe, it is not traditions, customs, institutions, and laws (i.e., the “status quo”) per se which conservatism seeks to preserve, it is the collected wisdom of experience which those things represent.  This explains why conservatism can seek to preserve different things at different times and in different cultures and still be consistent with itself; the local cultural collected wisdom is different.

We conservatives make mistakes when we forget the lessons of experience and the balance of all six foundations, and let the irrational commitment to some of our other sacred values, like the free market, hold sway.  This is not to say that a defense of the free market is wrong, it is only a reminder not to forget the lessons of experience and the balance, as in “check and balance,” among all the foundations which defines conservatism. Traditions, customs, institutions, and laws usually come into existence as remedies or preventives against something bad that happened, and we change them at our peril.

Case in point: The repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. The Glass-Steagall Act was a direct result of the experience of The Great Depression. It limited affiliations between commercial banks and securities firms. Its repeal during the Clinton administration was a contributing factor to the current economic crisis. Rather than supporting the free market side of the argument for its repeal, conservatism, rightly understood (in this writer’s personal opinion) should have stood in defense of experience, and balance among all the moral foundations, saying “no, no, no.”

Chapter Eight of The Righteous Mind is called “The Conservative Advantage,” which is the ability of conservatives to speak to, and resonate with, all of the moral foundations. By identifying exactly what those foundations are, Haidt gives us a virtual formula for continued, and even increased electoral success, which in my interpretation is this: stop shooting ourselves in the foot by going “tribal” with our sometimes irrational defense of sacred values, and be ever mindful of the lessons of experience and the maintenance of an equal balance among all the moral foundations.

I honestly believe that Haidt’s work can help people of all political stripes make inroads into increasing communication and understanding not only across the political aisle, but also within our own camps. And who knows what may happen then, perhaps a little more civility in political debates? Stranger things have happened.

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