Monday, 1 April 2013

So now we know why liberals are strange – they don’t care about loyalty, authority or sanctity

I recently finished American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 book, The Righteous Mind, and, so fascinating was it, I’ve been walking around in a bit of a daze ever since, mulling over his theories. Essentially, Haidt, trying to explain why US politics are currently so polarised, looks at the difference in moral outlook between the two sides: he concludes that right-wingers have broader moral foundations than their dirigiste opponents.

Having argued (successfully, I think) that morality is a matter of instinct rather than rationality, and that those instincts are essentially down to evoluton and group selection, Haidt posits six main areas of moral concern to conservatives: care/harm, liberty/oppression, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. He likens these to separate tastes: conservatives have the equivalent of six different moral taste receptors in their psyches.

When it comes to the first three receptors, we appear to share them with liberals – they’re big on care, they’re against oppression, and they go on about fairness a lot. In fact the idea that the vulnerable should be protected from harm is the most acute moral taste receptor the Left possesses – like anchovies, it tends to smother every other taste. When it comes to fairness, Liberals tend to mean equality of outcome, whereby conservatives tend to think about people being rewarded for good behaviour and being punished for bad behaviour (the Left believe all should have prizes). The Left talks about liberty all the time, but is relaxed about the State interfering with our lives - as long as it’s to protect their pet victim groups or to impose their absolutist notion of equality on the rest of us.

When it comes to the other three moral “tastes” – loyalty, authority and sanctity – well, liberals barely react in any meaningful way to any of them. For instance, they experience a frisson of pleasure whenever they hear the word “subversive”; they think the Monarchy’s an outmoded farce; they’re perfectly relaxed about seeing their country’s flag burned; and jokes about Jesus are an absolute hoot - the more sacrilegious the better. (Jokes about Mohammed aren’t at all funny, of course, because they’re assumed to be aimed at Muslims, who are a pet liberal victim group, and therefore any disrespectful comment immediately lights up leftists' harm taste receptor).

Haidt’s theories are supported by on-line questionnaires covering the six major moral foundations, completed by tens of thousands of self-professed liberals, conservatives and libertarians. You can complete the questionnaire yourself here, and then compare your results with the average American conservative and liberal – it doesn’t take long, it’s fun, and you can do lots of other tests while you’re there. (I was unsurprised to find that I’m far more right-wing than the average US conservative.)

Haidt equates “liberal” with “left-wing” – but makes it clear he’s only talking about those in WEIRD societies, i.e. Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic. If we’re talking about modern, urban, educated leftists, his analysis works well and is extremely illuminating. His theories shed little light on the moral intuitions of old-fashioned socialists, communists or fascists - but they're not meant to: his sole concern is with recent American political scene.

I was particularly struck by Haidt’s conclusion that the fact that right-wingers outscore left-wingers on all but one of the taste tests (care/harm, inevitably) gives conservative politicians an inbuilt advantage in appealing to a broader segment of the electorate. (The book was written before Obama’s re-election, and you get the sense that the writer, a former liberal-turned-centrist and an avowed Obama fan, was assuming that Barry would be turfed out - if only!)

Haidt refers to the well-publicised findings that only 20% of American voters see themselves as liberal, compared to 40% who class themselves as conservative. If, as he suggests, conservative moral intuitions are more balanced (we tend to score evenly across all six major foundations), that would indeed suggest that right-wingers are more “normal” than leftists. So why the hell do electors keep voting for liberal governments?

The answer, I suspect (and I know I’ve mentioned this before) is probably that our culture has been entirely captured by liberals who have managed to brainwash small “c” conservatives – electors and politicians alike - into believing (quite wrongly) that there’s something fundamentally wrong with their moral intuitions.

I'll be returning to the subjects raised by Haidt regularly, but I'll leave you with one of his many intriguing insights: because conservatives are more morally balanced, he suggests, we're able to understand liberals far better than they're able to understand us. We know what's upsetting them, and can occasionally sympathise (as one would with a child who can't understand why life is, like, so unfair!). We don't automatically assume that leftists are evil or wicked, just because they don't agree with us - but right-wingers who disagree with them are inevitably dismissed as morally inferior.  And when conservatives object to gay marriage or feel that traditional families should be supported by the tax system or that jokes about the Queen's vagina might not be suitable for mainstream BBC comedy programmes - liberals genuinely don't understand why we get so upset, and that's because their moral universe is so constricted; they're decidedly low on empathy.

I can't recommend The Righteous Mind enthusiastically enough - it's terrifically stimulating and a great read. If you think you might have any interest in it, you might start by watching this excellent online lecture by the author. Or you could buy the book here.


  1. It sounds good.Its almost impossible to get away from righteous or self-righteous reporting in the media of world events.
    Bucking this lefty trend,Thomas Sowell in Investor Business Daily yesterday reflects on so called 'Democracy'in the Mid-East with his wonderful clarity.
    The left has an iron grip on the media which may be viewed as misplaced righteousness at the expense of the facts.As an example I would cite the convoluted,tip-toeing around the real issue in CBS' report on "mischievous youth" in Chicago recently.The good news is that the flash mob were a whole lot less obese than usual.

  2. I think I've probably already suggested that Thomas Sowell should be given some sort of honorary British title for his services to common sense - apparently, there's nothing to stop foreigners being given a peerage (although they're not allowed to sit in the House of Lords). I'm sure he'd find it a bit ridiculous, but "Lord Sowell" has a certain ring to it.

  3. Nobless O' Bleege6 April 2013 at 05:50

    I didn't know that. I just hope the Government gets in quick enough for Lord Mandela. Hurry up, Dave.