Monday, 8 January 2018

Jonathan Haidt's enlightening 2012 classic "The Righteous Mind" revisited

I first wrote glowingly about Jonathan Haidt's book in 2013, the year after it was published. It appeared at a time when right and left-wingers were seriously questioning whether their opponents were clinically insane - i.e. whether being a conservatives or a liberal was in fact a mental illness. (I may very well have toyed with the idea on this blog.) Jonathan Haidt - an American liberal-leftist - poited a different theory: the gulf between left and right-wingers is the result of fundamental, intuitive differences in moral outlook. His most interesting (and, let's be honest, pleasing) conclusion was that, when it comes to morality, leftists suffer from a severely restricted field of vision, whereas conservatives have a broader, more balanced range of moral concerns. This explained (to me at least) why the world-view of many left-wingers strike us as demented....

...Five years on from it publication, Haidt's book still represents a major advance in understanding why reaching consensus on just about anything feels increasingly impossible, why debating directly with one's political opponents is largely a waste of time, and why moral insults have become the lingua franca of political discourse. When The Salisbury Review asked me to write about a book for their Conservative Classics feature, I  had no hesitation in proposing Haidt's - even though it was written by a non-conservative, and doesn't advocate a single conservative policy. The New York Times Review of Books was spot on when it called The Righteous Mind "a landmark contribution to humanity's understanding of itself." It really is that important:

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt

The American psychologist Jonathan Haidt didn’t intend his 2012 work, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, to be pro-conservative. He was an Obama-supporting left-winger worried by the increasing tribalisation of US politics - the growing inability of left and right-wingers to argue rationally or to find common ground. Haidt devised an online questionnaire to be filled out by self-defined left-wingers, right-wingers and libertarians. Working on the premise that that our political views are based on our moral outlook, Haidt presented a series of questions designed to reveal fundamental differences between the various sides’ moral intuitions. What he discovered surprised him: having studied tens of thousands of responses, he concluded that mean, selfish, wicked conservatives have a broader and more balanced range of moral concerns than their caring, generous, virtue-signalling opponents.

Haidt’s questionnaire (which is still available online) divides our moral concerns into six main areas: care/harm, liberty/oppression, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. He likens these to the taste receptors which result in disparities between people’s ability to discern and differentiate between, for instance, sweet and sour flavours. Conservatives, Haidt found, possess all six of the moral taste receptors he tested for - and each of those moral “tastes” are equally important to them. Conservatives share the first three moral taste receptors (care, liberty and fairness) with left-wingers. As for the other three – loyalty, authority and sanctity – left-wingers are barely aware of them: it’s as if they were born without the relevant taste receptors.

Haidt’s findings would certainly go some way to explaining the gulf between pro- and anti-Brexiteers, given that the very idea of an autonomous nation state is bound up with the concepts of loyalty, authority and sanctity. They would also explain the tendency of modern left-liberals to sneer at the institution of Monarchy, and why off-colour jokes about the Queen upset most of us, but don’t bother many leftists; why, years of conditioning, most of us are still uncomfortable with bad language in films and television programmes; why even many non-religious people find sacrilegious “jokes” offensive; why topics such as abortion, the sexualisation of children and gay marriage remain contentious for the Right; and why most sensible people are outraged by strident demands to tear down statues of historical figures on the grounds that their views on slavery may or may not have accorded with those of current Guardian readers.

Even the three areas of moral concern conservatives supposedly share with leftists are problematic - the three concepts seem to mean very different things to the two sides. True, leftists care about care, they’re against oppression (by Western governments, at least), and they constantly bang on about fairness. But when it comes to fairness, left-wingers tend to mean equality of outcome, whereas conservatives favour equality of opportunity: the Left feels that equality should be imposed on people regardless of talent or a willingness to work hard or to observe the law - i.e. all must have prizes - and believes that members of its pet victim groups should enjoy unfair advantages denied the rest of us. While the idea that the vulnerable should be protected from harm is a shared belief, it’s the Left’s most active moral taste receptor – and, like anchovies, it tends to smother every other flavour on the plate. The Left talks about liberty, but wants the state to regulate how much we earn, who we’re allowed to employ, and how much we pay them: while it wants us all to be sexually liberated, it only wants freedom of thought and expression for those who say and think left-wing things. The Left says it wants to protect the vulnerable, and yet seems determined to hobble the ability of the police to shield us from criminals, and of the military and the security services to protect us from invasion and terrorism. It seems - to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw - that conservatives and left-wingers are two groups separated by a common moral language.

A further experiment conducted by Haidt offers a clue to the origins of the Left’s increasing unwillingness to debate rationally with the Right. I suspect all conservatives have been struck in recent years by how quickly left-wingers abandon the attempt to support their contentions with evidence and resort instead to impugning their opponents’ morality by routinely smearing them as fascists, racists, homophobes and misogynists. Haidt asked some left-wing respondents to fill in  the questionnaire again, giving the answers they imagined a conservative would give - and vice-versa. The results were startling: while conservatives accurately predicted how left-wingers would answer, leftists got it completely wrong - i.e. we understand left-wingers far better than they understand us. It seems they resort to moral outrage not just because they can’t find any facts to support their theories, but because they don’t have the imagination to see the world from our point of view. (A perfect example of this is the hilariously persistent inability of Blairite and pseudo-Conservative Remainers to understand why Britons voted for Brexit.)

One of Haidt’s most interesting conclusions is that the broader moral outlook of conservatives should automatically enable right-of-centre parties to appeal to a larger segment of the electorate than the opposition. At first, I thought this was nonsense: if that’s the case, why do voters keep electing left-wing governments? But, a few years on, it seems they increasingly don’t. The miraculous thing about the last two British general elections and Donald Trump’s victory is that, despite the Left enjoying almost total control of the most powerful organs of propaganda - broadcasting and education - in both countries for many decades, neither the Democrats or Labour are currently in power.

If you’re a conservative, this book might help you to understand why the left-winger you’re arguing with prefers name-calling to rational debate: the reason your opponent is so blithely convinced that he or she occupies the moral high-ground is that their restricted vision means they can only see half the map.

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