Does Eating Dog Make You a Liberal?
“A family’s dog was killed by a car in front of their house. They had heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog’s body and cooked it and ate it for dinner. Nobody saw them do this.”
That was an excerpt from Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion”.
Right vs Wrong, Left vs Right, Liberal vs Conservative, Us vs Them — partisanship impacts our discourse every day, more so in these times of rampant tribalism. But are our political views rational or intuitive? Emotional reactions or calculated responses? How did we, a slightly advanced breed of a chimp, glean obscure concepts such as morality? From what age do we let bias (conscious or otherwise) seep into our psyche?
Haidt provides an evidence-based, experiment-backed, rigorously researched treatise of these in “The Righteous Mind”. He attempts to convince us, through multiple experiments, that we are essentially intuition-driven information processors, constantly scanning the world around us, morally interpreting information and colouring narratives with our unique worldview.
I am a sucker for counter-intuitive, evidence-based research, especially when this lucidly written with a low cognitive barrier to entry. I like questioning my assumptions and am quite open to having my mind changed as newer evidence or persuasive arguments emerge. And that’s what drew me to this book — can this tell me why I think the way I think? Why my “liberal” political views are so deeply disagreeable to conservatives? Can we maybe never fully empathise with and understand each other when talking about “controversial topics” like abortion or immigration or Brexit or BLM or the myriad of other simmering issues. Can we perhaps listen outside of our echo-chambers, parse through relevant evidence and take reasonable positions contrary to our intuitions?
As things stand, this is where we are today: a liberal worldview pegs a conservative as a traditionalist, xenophobic, capitalistic, flag-waving, tax-dodging, climate change denying, warmongering, pseudoscientific, Churchgoing, anti-vaxxer incapable of rational thought. Whilst to the conservative, a liberal is a virtue-signalling, tree-hugging, anarchist vegan gay snowflake citizen of the rainbow-world. Turns out, Haidt’ theory of Moral Psychology has an approach to bridge this semantic divide and to provide a common “language” for the twain to communicate effectively.
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
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I must say, this book does an excellent job of taking the readers through the first principles of Moral Psychology and helping us at least understand “the other side”, the tenor always being non-judgemental and bipartisan — in fact, Haidt’ has achieved something here that politicians and the public the world over haven’t, at least in public discourse, which is to bring a semblance of nuance, balance and consensus in his writings.
So, let me dig into the book a little bit more — I don’t want to give too much away nor am I going to attempt to reduce decades-long research into a blog post. I will, however, list out my key takeaways from each of the three sections of the book.
Section 1: “Intuitions First, Reasoning second”
Theme: Post-Hoc rationalizations of gut feelings
That’s what our minds work like. The crux: the two parts of our thinking rational and intuition are like the rider and the elephant. You’d expect the rider i.e. rationality to control and steer the elephant i.e. our intuitions. However, in almost all cases, it is the elephant that controls the rider. We readily allow intuition to lead us and then use our rationality to come up with evidence to support our beliefs — the absolute arse-backwards way it should be.
- We are terrible at collecting evidence that challenges our own beliefs, we are great at finding evidence that challenge others’ beliefs.
- Our reasoning seeks justification, not the truth. i.e. it’s more like a politician looking for votes as opposed to scientists looking for truth.
- The rider (reason) is the full-time press secretary of the elephant (intuition). Our reasoning jumps through all sorts of mental hoops to come up suitable narratives that support our preconceived intuitive position — and it does this constantly. In fact, Haidt cites research showing that people with higher IQs tend to come up with more “moral” reasons to support their intuitive position i.e. our beliefs pander to and strengthen our immediate tribe or community always, whilst giving us the illusion that we are seeking “evidence”.
Section 2: “There’s more to morality than harm and fairness”
Theme: The foundations of Moral Psychology
Based on years of anthropological and psychological research, Haidt builds a model for Moral Psychology with these key pillars, each of which in turn is built on adaptive changes made by humans to counteract existential challenges — much more detail in the book!
Care: Liberals tend to believe that the smallest indivisible part of human society is an individual, thus, individualism is central to their worldview. Hence, the support for “universalist” care, for example, “so much individual human strife in Nigeria, they need our help”. Conservatives tend to believe that the smallest indivisible part of human society is family, thus, adopting a family or community-centric worldview. Hence, their support for “localised” care, for example, “so much strife happening all over the world, let’s make sure our family is well-cared for and protected”.
Fairness: Liberals tend to believe in equality for all, irrespective of their place in the existing socio-economic order. Conservatives tend to believe in proportionality over equality i.e. you get what you work for.
Loyalty: Liberals tend to believe in universalism i.e. “citizens of the free world”, “global village” while Conservatives tend to put their family, community and nation first.
Authority: Liberals tend to oppose hierarchical structures, inequality and power-centres in their quest for egalitarianism. Conservatives tend to uphold the authority of traditions, institutions and values which they believe to have stood the test of time.
Sanctity: Xenophilia prevails as default in the liberal worldview, the opening of our culture and borders to newer talents and exotic cultures leading to economic progression. The idea of “purity” and “cleanliness” of oneself is central to the Conservative ethos, xenophobia thus may prevail as default due to the opening of our “country/ community/family” to outsiders who may bring disease, heresy and impurity.
Think about any morally ambiguous statement (such as the example of the dog-eating I mentioned in the opening) — what of the above pillars of your morality was perturbed? Why? Which way was your elephant leaning?
What Haidt’ postulates (and backs up in large-scale studies) is that the liberal worldview addresses the “Harm” and “Fairness” pillars of moral psychology in almost all their discussions, whereas the Conservative discourse touches on all five. As a result, the Conservative approach is a far more satisfying (morally speaking) narrative that can engage our elephants (intuitions) and thus garner popular consensus. Liberals aim to please the rider (reason/rationality) through statistics, demographics, numbers (“the unemployment rate is at an all-time high”, “COVD-19 cases reach new highs every day”) while Conservative aim to please the elephant (intuition) by hammering-on the loyalty, sanctity and authority pillars. And when it comes to rider vs elephant, there is only one winner.
Section 3: “Morality binds and blinds”
Theme: We are 90% chimp, 10% bee
The final section, perhaps not as revelatory as the first two but still steeped in information, leans on the link between individual-level and group-level natural selection, to suggest:
- When groups compete, the cohesive, co-operative group usually wins. But within each group, selfish individuals come out ahead. “Homo-duplex”, is what Haidt’ refers to this seemingly dichotomous relationship we as humans have of furthering our self-interest (make more money, finish at the top of the class, etc.) to yearning to be part of a whole with a much larger purpose (sports teams, nationalism, religion, etc.) We are social primates (90% chimp) with a desire to form hives with others within our moral matrix, in which we purse non-selfish projects (10% bee).
- A “nest” is an animal’s construction that it endeavours to fight, kill and die for. Through thousands of years of evolving, humans have built complex social & moral communities that effectively function as these “nests”. Thus, morality for modern humans is a construct worth fighting, killing and dying for.
- Self-interest, as previously argued by rationalists, is not the sole driver for humans, this is borne out in voting patterns in American elections: urban poor and tech-billionaires vote liberal, rural poor and industrialists vote conservative. Each of these groups has markedly different self-interests.
In conclusion, this book is simultaneously both assiduous and urgent that I can easily recommend to anyone on the planet and an innately personal journey that will make you question your beliefs, assumptions and political stances on every issue. It teaches and reinforces in equal measure and equips you with a handy toolkit the next time you come across your ideological nemesis. Read this if you want to trace your morality back to first principles and train your mind to listen to the “other” side — with today’s barrage of news, clickbait, opinion, perspectives, counterviews and counterfactuals, we sure as hell need it.