These crazy politics matter for the British Army

It’s easy to imagine the rise of the leftists and incoherent populists is a sideshow, but this would be dangerously naïve. Whatever the outcome of the US election, and the next UK election, the leftward shift in parts of the electorate has dangerous implications for the British Army. Jonathan Haidt’s recent work points to why.

Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist and professor of ethical leadership at the Stern School of Business. He writes about the psychology of morality, and has written two best-selling books: The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (2006) and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012). Prospect and Foreign Policy magazines both named him one of the world’s top thinkers. He is also a liberal, who voted for Barrack Obama.

Moral Foundations Theory

Haidt’s second book reveals all manner of fascinating aspects of our morality (he described an earlier version of his research in a TED talk here). For instance, “intuition comes first, strategic reasoning second”. In other words, we jump to a conclusion about something, and then use our brains to justify our reaction (this aligns closely to the work of Kahneman).


Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory posits six core elements of morality (and their opposites):

Care/harm: cherishing and protecting others


Fairness/cheating: rendering justice according to shared rules (alternate name: proportionality)


Liberty/oppression: the loathing of tyranny

Loyalty/betrayal: standing with your group, family, nation (alternate name: in group)


Authority/subversion: obeying tradition and legitimate authority (alternate name: respect)

Sanctity/degradation: abhorrence for disgusting things, foods, actions (alternate name: purity)


Haidt and his colleagues surveyed more than 130,000 Americans to see how they prioritised these six moral foundations; the results were very revealing (and were replicated in other studies and in other countries).


Conservatives not surprisingly care most about preserving institutions and traditions, but in contrast to their unfeeling stereotype, they also value fairness and caring for others. They have a relatively holistic moral foundation.

Haidt writes:

Conservatives are the “party of order and stability,” in Mill’s formulation. They generally resist the changes implemented by the “party of progress or reform.” But to put things in those terms makes conservatives sound like fearful obstructionists, trying to hold back the hands of time and the “noble human aspirations” of the liberal progress narrative. A more positive way to describe conservatives is to say that their broader moral matrix allows them to detect threats to moral capital that liberals cannot perceive. They do not oppose change of all kinds (such as the Internet), but they do fight back ferociously when they believe that change will damage the institutions and traditions that provide our moral exoskeletons (such as the family). Preserving those institutions and traditions is their most sacred value.

On the other hand, liberals care relatively little about loyalty, respect for authority, or the sanctity of certain things: they have a very focused form of morality.

Haidt writes:

The left builds its moral matrix on three of the six foundations, but rests most firmly and consistently on the Care foundation …. Liberals are often suspicious of appeals to loyalty, authority, and sanctity, although they don’t reject these institutions in all cases (think of the sanctification of nature) …. Liberals have many specific values, but I think it’s helpful, for each group, to identify its most sacred value — the “third rail” that will get you electrocuted if you touch it. For American liberals since the 1960s, I believe that the most sacred value is caring for victims of oppression. Anyone who blames such victims for their own problems or who displays or merely excuses prejudice against sacrilized victim groups can expect a vehement tribal response.

Each moral foundation can have a different meaning to the two groups. According to Haidt, fairness means proportionality to conservatives — in other words, you get what you deserve (for better, and for worse). By contrast, for liberals fairness means equality of outcomes, and they are uncomfortable with the downside of proportionality (if you do the crime, you must do the time).

Important General Implications

The Righteous Mind is a fascinating book for many reasons, but there are a few particular implications of Haidt’s theory that are worth highlighting.

Haidt explains in his book how each moral foundation has an evolutionary purpose. We instinctively apply the moral foundations because over the millennia they have allowed humans to prosper. As an example, sanctity is the result of needing to keep certain things and places perfectly clean for health reasons — the food preparation area, for instance. But this also makes these moral foundations so primal that they can be difficult to overcome (“intuition comes first, strategic reasoning second”). Conservatives’ respect for sanctity results in being much more closed to new ideas and experiences than liberals, for example. Political beliefs turn out to be just as heritable as most other traits: genetics explains between a third and a half of the variability among people in political attitudes, much more than the politics of your parents.

Haidt emphasises that humans remain incredibly tribal (“groupish” is his word). He notes that Darwin argued natural selection operated at the individual level and the group level, and that this is an important cause of groupishness and morality generally. Depending on your views, you could also argue that this led to religion as a way of binding groups more tightly together. Haidt writes that “morality binds and blinds …. We all get sucked into tribal moral communities”.

One of Haidt’s core theses is what he calls “a yin and two yangs” (referring to liberals, libertarians and social conservatives): both the left and the right make crucial arguments that can boost society’s “moral capital”. Liberals correctly argue that governments can and should restrain corporations, and that some problems really can be solved by regulation. For their part, libertarians and conservatives correctly argue that markets are miraculous, and that “you can’t help the bees by destroying the hive”.

This last point is worth dwelling on. Liberals rush to the defence of victims of oppression and exclusion, and seek to break down what they view as arbitrary barriers. But as Haidt writes, “their zeal to help victims, combined with their low scores on the Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity foundations, often lead them to push for changes that weaken groups, traditions, institutions and moral capital”. Haidt also observes, based on the work of Robert Putnam, that diversity “makes people turn inward and become more selfish, less interested in contributing to their communities”.

So far, so even handed. Haidt makes a strong case in his book that both sides of the moral divide have valid points of view that must be synthesised to create a happy, moral society. But there is one factor he describes but does not fully expand upon: liberals fail the ideological Turning test.

The Turning test (link) was proposed by Alan Turning, of Bletchley Park fame. In seeking to determine whether computers could think, he asked whether it was possible for a computer to communicate with a human in such a way the human mistook the computer for another human (the so-called “imitation game”).

An ideological Turning test (link), which seeks to determine whether liberals and conservatives can correctly represent each other’s views, was proposed in 2011 when liberal economist Paul Krugman claimed that liberals understand conservatives and libertarians better than conservatives and libertarians understand liberals.

Haidt doesn’t use the term ideological Turning test, but it’s clear that his research demolishes Krugman’s argument and proves that the reverse is actually true:

In a study I did … we tested how liberals and conservatives could understand each other. We asked more than two thousand American visitors [to the study website] to fill out the Moral Foundations Questionnaire …. [The survey] allowed us to assess how accurate they were in comparing people’s expectations about “typical” partisans to the actual responses from partisans on the left and right …. The results were clear and consistent. Moderates and conservatives were most accurate in their predictions, whether pretending they were liberals or conservatives. Liberals were the least accurate, especially those who described themselves as “very liberal.” The biggest errors in the whole study came when liberals answered the Care and Fairness questions while pretending to be conservatives. When faced with questions such as “One of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenceless animal” or “Justice is the most important requirement for society,” liberals assumed that conservatives would disagree.

Haidt’s own experience supports his survey findings:

When I speak to liberal audiences about the three “binding” foundations — Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity — I find that many in the audience don’t just fail to resonate; they actively reject these concerns as immoral. Loyalty to a group shrinks the moral circle; it is the basis of racism and exclusion, they say. Authority is oppression. Sanctity is religious mumbo-jumbo whose only function is to suppress female sexuality and justify homophobia.

Performance on the ideological Turning test is the direct result of liberal morality resting on three of the moral foundations, while conservative morality rests includes (to varying degrees) all six. Conservatives may score lower on openness to new things and on empathy, but they are unique in understanding the opposite side of the political spectrum, and in respecting the full gamut of foundational morals.

Implications for the British Army

Let us stipulate for now — although it is debatable — that both sides of the political spectrum are increasingly strident and that the politics in general is increasingly polarised. Let us also stipulate that the British Army is less capital-C Conservative (i.e. Tory) than many would assume, owing to the demographics it recruits from, and the class considerations that influence British electoral politics. Indeed, it wouldn’t be surprising if a plurality of soldiers don’t vote at all.

We must nonetheless recognise that army is very small-c conservative (in Haidt’s sense) in its values: it recruits for and rewards loyalty and respect for authority. The army also sanctifies all manner of things, from behaviours, to places, to colours, and even to little bits of ribbon. If the army took a survey, it would score low on empathy and openness to new ideas. One could make a case that innovative soldiers need a whole lot of luck to be successful (and it would be fascinating to see how many of the army’s great historical innovators were actually closet liberals). In many ways it is the most quintessentially conservative institution imaginable.

This makes the British Army a natural target for progressives. To a certain extent this is a good thing: as Haidt argues, we’re collectively at our best when both sides of the moral spectrum are influencing events. There is no question that on behaviour, the army cannot be left to its own devices; no institution is good enough at self-policing for that, and the military is no different. The problem is that the British Army faces a one-way ratchet: progressives drive change in one direction, while conservatives never succeed in moving things back the other way. Take the integration of women into the combat arms as an example; many conservatives, and many soldiers in general, think this is a bad idea, but there is absolutely no chance it will ever be undone. As such, political polarisation will have an asymmetric impact on the army.

That the army has not already been targeted more heavily is probably due to many of the demographics the left is most concerned about — at the moment, Muslims, gays and women, in that order — not being heavily represented in the ranks. But as the army changes over time, so will progressives’ interest in it.

One doesn’t have to look very far to see the damage that intolerant progressives can wreak. Consider the Rhodes Must Fall movement, no-platforming university speakers, attacking Peter Tatchell for supporting freedom of speech in the Ashers Bakery case, or forcing Brendan Eich out of the company he founded. Things can get pretty nasty when the progressives take aim.

Army officers seem — outwardly at least — very naïve about this. They are possibly mirroring — assuming other people think like they do. Haidt’s work should disabuse them of this view: not only do progressives have different values, they actively reject the army’s values. A soldier would say that morale and esprit de corps are critical, as are the training and experiences that reinforce them — but a progressive would say these things are intolerant and exclusionary. A soldier would say respecting the chain of command is paramount, whereas many progressives would say authority is untrustworthy and oppressive, and should be challenged. A soldier would say that combat effectiveness is the ultimate lodestar. But if progressives think that the army oppresses minorities at home, and oppresses and kills civilians abroad, then actually the less combat effectiveness the better.

How can the military even start a conversation with progressives? And does the military have the integrity to stand up to this bullying, when it comes? We’ll soon see.

Update: It’s not looking good for the military’s moral courage, as the army is reportedly telling instructors to done down swearing. LINK

Update 2: US Air Force academy paying to send cadets to to pagan festivals. LINK

Update 3: CIA director has mandated diversity and inclusion performance targets for all employees. Will that lead to quotas? LINK

Update 4: “Documents Reveal US Army Indoctrinated Soldiers on Dangers of ‘White Privilege’” LINK

Update 5: “Obama marches armed forces leftward” (LINK). Whether you agree or disagree with the changes, you cannot argue the left is not changing the military: women in combat roles, climate change, gun control, white privilege …

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