Haidt’s work presents a conundrum for conservatives.
On the one hand, in one context, everything he says is right. We should understand where both sides are coming from, realize that both sides offer valuable insights, give more benefit of the doubt, stop demonizing the other side, and build a door through the wall of the political divide. I will commit to doing all of those things to the best of my ability.
But on the other hand, in a different context, everything he says is also right. The six-foundation morality is congruent with human nature, while the three-foundation morality is not. Successful human cooperation requires all six-foundations or “all the tools in the tool box” as he says in his first TED talk, which explains why the three-foundation “unconstrained vision has the worst track record in the history of ideas.”
It’s little like being between a rock and a hard place. It’s a conundrum.
Here’s part one of the rock:
One of Haidt’s messages is that we all should understand that the views on the other side of the political aisle are based in something real and legitimate. Those people aren’t crazy. They’re good people. They have everyone’s best interests at heart. Give them the respect they are owed.
Got it. Agreed. Roger, willco.
Another of his messages is Yin/Yang. Both sides offer valuable insights, and when either side circles around its sacred values it develops an irrational commitment to those values. Morality blinds, so try to be aware of the log in your own eye before you spend too much energy being hypercritical of the speck in the other guy’s eye.
Got that too.
And he even makes suggestions on how we might be able to reduce the rancor and the demonization across the political divide. If we develop personal relationships with people on the other side it is harder to see them as “evil,” and easier to have civil discussions.
Roger that, too.
All of those things are wonderful. Sign me up. I can do them.
I can realize that three-foundation people are good; that they’re not crazy, or evil. I can try to be aware of my own irrational commitment to the six-foundation sacred values, and of the fact that people circle the wagons and go tribal when the sacred values of their team are threatened. I can be aware that riders, mine included, make post hoc rationalizations of what the elephant has already decided. I can understand that we’re all great at seeing the speck in each other’s eyes while at the same time being ignorant of the log in our own. I can empathize. I can develop personal relationships; I can join softball teams or bowling leagues, or attend community or company picnics. I can do everything that Haidt imagines and recommends that we do.
Given that, here’s part one of the hard place:
The fact that both sides believe equally strongly in their points of view, and both sides make valuable contributions, does not mean that both sides are equally valid, or “good,” or beneficial to human society. It does not follow from “everybody thinks they’re right” that everybody is indeed equally right.
At some point in a discussion about politics, even with the full realization that I have a log in my own eye, and that three-foundation people are not “crazy,” and they’re certainly not evil, and we all really are “good people” who are “divided by politics and religion,” the basic fact remains that human nature consists of at least six moral foundations, and people with a six-foundation moral lens can see all of them, whereas people with a three-foundation lens for all practical purposes cannot. This has a very real, practical, utilitarian, impact in the real-world, which is that, in the end, the three-foundation morality, when it gets to do things the way it wants, ends up, in the aggregate, doing more harm than good, and the six-foundation morality ends up doing more good than harm.
It’s not just liberals that conservatives have a better understanding of (than liberals have of conservatives) it’s human nature. The six-foundation morality is more “in tune” with who and what human beings really are, what makes us tick, how we function, and what we’re capable of, both good and bad – both as individuals and as groups – in the real world than is the three-foundation morality. Given that, how can the six-foundation morality not, on average, over the long haul, offer better solutions to societal issues than the three-foundation morality? And how can the three-foundation morality not, on average, over the long haul, miss out on, and sometime trample over, key aspects of human nature without which a healthy society is impossible?
All of the moral foundations are necessary if society and the individuals within it are to have their best opportunity to survive and to thrive. A morality, or a world view, made of only the individualizing foundations simply doesn’t offer that opportunity.
Haidt illustrated this in a talk he gave at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) called “When Compassion Leads to Sacrilege.” He was working on The Righteous Mind at the time he gave the talk. I watched that video online and typed up a transcript (hitting pause and rewind many, many times). Here’s a portion of it. In this quote he is talking about how the liberal three-foundation (but mostly just one) world view, which he calls the “unconstrained vision” (from Thomas Sowell’s book, A Conflict of Visions) actually performs in the real world:
“The unconstrained vision, I believe, has the worst track record in the history of ideas. This is a terrible and really dangerous idea, quite frankly. In the French Revolution, I’ve been stunned to read this, for the book that I’m writing, to read on the French Revolution. My beef with them is that they’re rationalists, they think that reason is a reliable way to find truth, it’s great in the natural sciences, but once you care about something, if you have passions, if it’s a moral issue, reasoning is the slave of the [passions]. David Hume said that “Reasoning is the slave of the passions and can pretend to no other office but to serve and obey them.” I think Hume was right.
So I’m really concerned about rationalists. But what I discovered is that in one of the few places on earth where the rationalists got control of an entire country and were able to do with it what they wanted, they created a cult of reason, they banned the clergy, they killed the nobles, ah, and what we had wasn’t oh, let’s get rid of ah, let’s get rid of nations and religion and then people will be one. No, what they had was most people didn’t, or a lot of people didn’t, want to go along with the revolution, and of course they’re wrong because we know we’re right; we have reason on our side. They called themselves the party of reason, also the party of humanity, the French Revolutionaries ended up murdering hundreds of thousands of people. They committed genocide in the Vendee region, lining people against the walls and shooting them; putting them out into boats and sinking the boats. The French Revolutionaries committed genocide. They committed, they would round people, anybody who was accused of anything, rounded up, pronounced guilty, guillotined. We don’t usually say, “Well yeah they committed genocide but other than that oh the French Revolution was great.” So the French Revolution was based on the ex, the most extreme unconstrained view, the philosophes, Condorcet, Sam Harris, people like that.
Um, other research, on 19th century communes. Richard Sosis, anthropologist, compared, he found the records of communes in the 19th century. Many were organized, were socialist communes based on equality and openness, many were religious communes. And he looked to see how long did they last. answer, the religious ones tended to last two to three times longer than the liberal, than the secular ones. Because, if you bind people in, you, it turns out the active ingredient was demanding sacrifice. Making them change their names, wear funny clothes, cut all contact with the outside, give up certain foods. If you ask for sacrifice, if you constrain people, they form a community of trust, and they don’t cheat each other.
And if you say, “Welcome everyone. Constraints are bad.” It quickly decays into a moral, into moral chaos. Again, the unconstrained vision, when it gets a chance to run things, screws it up.
Twentieth century communism, fascism, any any movement that tried to create a new man ends up committing atrocities, ends up committing mass murder. Um, if any, if there are any historians here, but as far as I understand it most left wing revolutions have ended with mass murder, because, you have this utopia, people don’t go along, because you got human nature incorrectly, they don’t go along, but you know you’re right because you have reason on your side, so you use force, and you use more force, and you use more force, and you end up like Cuba, or North Korea, or the other communist revolutions. It doesn’t work.”
In the final analysis, the three-foundation morality, by itself, just doesn’t work. It is not congruent with fundamental human nature. Six-foundation people know this, literally intuitively, by virtue of having internalized all of the foundations. It’s in our elephant. We have all of the taste buds, to use Haidt’s analogy. Our palate appreciates the entire cuisine of human nature. Our moral vision – both in the sense of perception and in the sense of imagination of the limits, positive and negative, of human society – employs all of the color receptors, to use my own analogy. We “see” the full spectrum of human nature.
And, the facts of history, which Haidt summarized in his CCARE talk, prove that the unconstrained vision, the three-foundation morality, doesn’t just fail to provide the optimal solution, it actually harms more than it helps.
All of which helps to make one of my points: Moral foundations work best, and offer the best result for human social society, when they check and balance each other. Society works best when the individualizing foundations are in roughly equal balance with the binding ones. Even though we love our individual freedom and autonomy, civilization – our need to form cooperative groups for our own mutual benefit and flourishing – is literally not possible without loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Things go haywire, and society collapses in on itself, and people sometimes even resort to genocide, when the balance is upset and one or two or three foundations dominate the others. For our own sake, for the common good, for the general welfare, we must do the best we can to keep the moral foundations of our collective culture in balance.
Here’s part two of the rock:
The three-foundation morality does have some key insights, and it does make some good points, as Haidt rightly points out. So I need to be cognizant of that and account for it.
Liberals can talk about the bad aspects of the binding foundations, like authoritarianism. And they make good points, which I’ll often concede. They can talk about the need for a social safety net, and the protection of the weak, and they’ll make more good points, which I’ll also concede. As I’ve said, conservatism makes mistakes too. I believe that many conservatives are unaware that their instant visceral reaction to like or dislike something comes from the moral foundations, and if more conservatives did understand this then they’d be less apt to fight the other side just because it is the other side, and more apt to strive for balance, which (in my humble opinion) is the real key to successful, thriving communities. I’ll work with liberals to try to keep the six-foundation morality from pulling too hard to the right, and to keep the binding foundations in balance with the individualizing foundations.
Conceding all of those points is the right thing to do for two reasons. First, they’re right, and second, being fair and open minded in that way is part of Haidt’s prescription for decreasing the partisan divide. It’s better for everyone.
Here’s part two of the hard place:
But what am I supposed to do when, no matter how understanding and empathic and open minded I am to the three-foundation points of view and the reasons for them, and no matter how civil I am when I communicate with liberals, and through those things, no matter how many bridges we build across the political divide together, they still insist on implementing policies which I know, both in my heart (because of my six-foundation elephant) and in my head (because of the facts of history) will do more harm than good? And what am I supposed to do when no matter how many times, and no matter how many ways, and no matter how many facts and figures and statistics I show them, and no matter how much “reason” I apply, and no matter how much I speak in metaphor and in emotional stories as Haidt does and recommends, liberals simply cannot see it because their moral vision employs only three of the six available color receptors, which makes them blind to half of human nature. They’re not just neutral toward the binding foundations. They openly reject them. They not only don’t give those foundations the benefit of the doubt, they go further, and often directly blame them for much of what’s wrong with the world, which means that practically everything I say and do is seen and interpreted, through the three-foundation moral lens, as “proof” that I just don’t get it.
So here are my choices; this is what I’m left with; this is the position I am literally forced into by the “tin ear” of the three-foundation morality. I can either, 1) Give in, sacrifice my principles, and “compromise,” or 2) Defend and advocate what I know is right. Yes, right – in the best interest of all people – because it is more congruent with human nature and because the facts of history show it to be true – and risk being accused of being heartless, and unfeeling, and racist, and homophobic and all of the other things I’m routinely accused of, not because I actually am those things, but because the three-foundation morality just can’t see the world, or me, any other way.
Well, its really no choice at all. I must choose option 2. And I must do it on at least two fronts
First, I must, with all the patience I can muster, listen with an open mind. I have to actively find ways to incorporate three-foundation ideas into my moral matrix in a way that does not upset the balance or my own beliefs. I have to admonish fellow six-foundation people to try as hard as possible to avoid pulling too hard to the right, and instead pull hard for balance.
And when I advocate my views I have to adopt a posture like that of Martin Luther King. I’d never actually compare myself with him, but I can use him as an example to strive toward. I can do the best I can to preach my message as fairly, honestly, and respectfully as I can, and, as Lincoln said, “With Malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right,” I must forthrightly, unabashedly, and unashamedly stand for what I truly believe.
It’s a fine line to walk, this balancing act between Haidt’s admonition for civil politics and standing up for what I feel in my bones, and what I think human history proves, is right. No single argument will ever just convince an elephants to change its spots (pardon the mixed metaphor), but if the argument is offered respectfully, consistently, persistently, with reason and data in support, an elephant can make some mid-course corrections to the path it is on.
And second, I choose to advocate the teaching of Moral Foundations Theory in schools. A large part of the reason for the political divide is that people on both sides of the political aisle just don’t have a firm grasp of how the brain really works, and why we think and say and do the things we do. A lot of the presuppositions that many of our moral and political arguments, and thus the political divide, are built on are myths. I think our best hope of bridging the divide comes through busting the myths and giving people that firm grasp.
Moral Foundations Theory, (augmented by, for example, by Mercier and Sperber’s Argumentative Theory, along with the understanding of “Thinking Fast and Slow” as represented by the metaphor of The Rider and The Elephant) offers a deeper understanding of the human condition, and the motivations behind the things we say and do with, and to, each other, than has heretofore been available to us. This is the genius of The Righteous Mind. I believe it is an integral part of the history of mankind, and certainly of politics; that is, of group-level human interaction. I also believe it is an integral part of how we get along with each other on an individual level. I believe, therefore, that a module on moral foundations theory belongs in, and the principles of moral foundations theory should be an integral part of, every social studies, history, economics, and even health class, in an age appropriate way, in every grade in every public school in this country. If we could somehow find a way to do this I think we would, in fact, diminish the width and depth of the political divide, and I would have more faith that our children, after they grow up and assume the reins of power, will make choices that keep this country on a path of health and prosperity.
I believe that through teaching Moral Foundations Theory in the public schools of America, and in all of the colleges as well, we might be able to lift the veil of misunderstanding, and through that lifting possibly even decrease the width and depth of the political divide, and be able to respond to Rodney King’s question, “Can we all get along?” with a tentative “yes.”