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Explaining Liberals to Conservatives, and Vice-Versa

• February 22, 2012 • 4:00 AM

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt can tell you why you feel so righteous about your politics, but will you listen?

Pleas to tone down the heated political rhetoric in America tend to suffer the same fate as sensible-eating guidelines: endorsed in principle and ignored in practice. It’s clear enough why. The views of liberals and conservatives rest on fundamentally different foundations, making it difficult to locate common ground. Lacking a basic understanding of their opponents’ motivations, partisans view those on the other side of the ideological divide warily, often assuming the worst.

In his essential new book, The Righteous Mind, psychologist Jonathan Haidt offers no easy way out of this mutually assured derision. But he provides a deep understanding of what has driven us to this point, and out of that could come a rebirth of respect. In the past two decades, American politics has increasingly been cast, by both sides, as an issue of good versus evil. Haidt argues it would be both more helpful and more accurate to think of the left and right as yin and yang — worldviews that arose together, neither of which can exist without the other. Each brings something essential to the table.

I interviewed Haidt three years ago, when he was a scholar in residence at the University of California, Santa Barbara (see “Morals Authority,” May-June 2009). At the time, his framework for the different moral universes of liberals and conservatives struck me as a brilliant breakthrough. It let me hear politicians or pundits make pronouncements and instantly recognize the underlying ethics responsible for their certitude. This understanding didn’t change my own point of view, but it gave me a better handle on both the basis of my own beliefs and of others’.

Readers of The Righteous Mind (Pantheon Books) will likely have a similar experience, although even the most open-minded can expect to encounter fierce internal resistance to some of Haidt’s assertions. This is a book that asks us to step outside ourselves and admit that the ideas we hold — beliefs that seem so inherently right — are products of our genes and environment, not of some immutable truth. Since those beliefs give us identity and meaning, we are loath to question their validity. At several points in the book, my reaction was, “Sorry, Jon, I just can’t go with you there.”

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The March-April 2012
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March-April 2012 Miller-McCuneThis article appears in our March-April 2012 issue under the title “My Morals Are Better Than Yours.” To see a schedule of when more articles from this issue will appear on Miller-McCune.com, please visit the
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Which is entirely understandable. As Haidt notes in explaining his title, “an obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition. It is a feature of our evolutionary design, not a bug or error that crept into minds that would otherwise be objective or rational.” In other words, Keith Olbermann is not a freak of nature. Haidt sums up his thesis in a four-word phrase: “Morality binds and blinds.” It binds us to members of our own group (allowing for greater cooperation and coordination, essential building blocks of a civilization), but it also blinds us to the perspectives of others (inciting distrust and demonization of those who think differently).

That rare academic who can write compelling prose for the general public, Haidt begins his book with a primer on the limits of rational thought. Appropriately, he offers a metaphor from the world of presidential politics: the conscious mind is basically our press secretary. Our beliefs are shaped by unconscious drives and deep-seated emotions, but our minds come up with ingenious ways of justifying them and presenting them to the world as reasonable and well thought out.

Given this reality, debates over illegal immigration or abortion rights are basically pointless. “Moral judgment is not a purely cerebral affair in which we weigh concerns about harm, rights, and justice,” Haidt writes. “It’s a kind of rapid, automatic process more akin to the judgments animals make as they move through the world, feeling themselves drawn toward or away from various things.”

Why some of us end up taking one path while others take an alternative route isn’t entirely clear (genetics certainly plays a role), but there are connections between certain psychological predilections and ideological stances. Liberals tend to be more open to new experiences; conservatives are more sensitive to possible dangers. Looked at in this way, the advantages of their yin-yang nature begin to emerge: every society needs some people eager to experiment as well as others who are on the lookout.

Having established that ideology isn’t based in rationality, Haidt and his colleagues came up with a framework of five moral foundations. (Take the test at YourMorals.org to see which resonate most strongly for you.) They are care/harm, which makes us sensitive to signs of suffering and need; fairness/cheating, which alerts us to those who might take advantage of us; loyalty/betrayal, which binds us as team players; authority/subversion, which prompts us to respect rank and status; and sanctity/degradation, which inspires a sense of purity, both literally (physical cleanliness) and symbolically. The conviction that abortion, euthanasia, or gay marriage is immoral arises from the sanctity impulse.

Melding his own research with that of respected predecessors and peers, Haidt shows that while liberals in the Western world respond strongly only to the first two impulses (care/harm and fairness/cheating), conservatives — and pretty much everyone in the rest of the world — feel the tug of all. Liberals, he notes, are ambivalent at best about such concepts as loyalty and authority; conservatives see them as fundamental building blocks of a sustainable society and consider leftists foolishly naive for doubting their importance.

This understanding provides an answer to the liberals’ longtime lament: Why do so many people vote against their economic interests? The answer is that conservatives are appealing to them on moral frequencies liberals can’t hear. If they could, the health-care battle that dominated President Obama’s first term might not have been such a tough slog. Liberals who pushed the legislation were propelled by the harm/care principle, and their arguments for it were almost always along those lines. Haidt’s work suggests that if health-care reform had been packaged differently — as a way to make us, say, a stronger, more competitive nation rather than just a more compassionate one — it might have won more support on the right.

Then again, the requirement that people buy health insurance — however reasonable from a liberal perspective — will always be a sticking point for conservatives because of a sixth principle Haidt has tentatively added to his list in response to feedback he’s received over the past couple of years: liberty/oppression. Based on the desire not to be bullied, it leads to distrust of big government on the right and of big business on the left. Faced with the requirement that everyone buy health insurance, conservatives protested that it was yet another federal mandate. Liberals might have tried to counter that reflexive antipathy by appealing to the conservative respect for loyalty: Don’t all our fellow Americans deserve good health care? But you can’t influence people on the other side if you don’t understand the values that drive them.

As Haidt shows us, each of these moral foundations evolved for very good reasons. Groups of early humans who could identify cheaters (the famous “free rider” issue) were more successful than those who could not. Tribes that were strong on loyalty were more cohesive and thus could defeat more fractious competitors. But of course, these impulses have different triggers today, and many of them are now counterproductive. Take authority/subversion. A sense of allegiance to revered institutions, along with a deep-seated deference to authority, created the conditions that turned churches and universities into sanctuaries for pedophiles. On the other hand, the Occupy Wall Street protests, largely devoid of leadership or structure, are having difficulty maintaining traction or conveying a consistent message. Some respect for hierarchy seems essential; too much can be disastrous. Yet we’re pulled toward one pole or the other.

For readers like myself, who fall on the left side of the political spectrum, the concept of sanctity/purity is a particularly tough pill to swallow. The evolutionary history underlying this impulse is obvious: people who avoided pathogens were more likely to live long lives and reproduce. But the larger, corollary feeling that it’s safer to avoid the unknown and unfamiliar can easily morph into noxious beliefs, such as the tendency to consciously or unconsciously equate illegal aliens with contamination. (The metaphor of the immigrant as pollutant is surprisingly common in the media, as J. David Cisneros documented in a 2008 paper published in the journal Rhetoric and Public Affairs.) This framework provides a more sophisticated explanation for vehement anti-immigrant sentiment than simple racism, but it hardly brings us closer to consensus. Must we spend millions of dollars on elaborate fencing and demonize individuals hoping to escape poverty and feed their families simply because some people can’t move beyond this thought process?

Having assigned himself the tricky task of being fair to all sides, Haidt sometimes turns rhetorical somersaults in an attempt to equate different expressions of these impulses. Perhaps inevitably, he’s not always convincing. In addressing purity/sanctity, he notes that the notion of sacredness isn’t alien to secular leftists, many of whom consider the natural world sacred. But is their sacralizing nature really the equivalent of sacralizing, say, the city of Jerusalem? One has inspired efforts to preserve a habitable planet, the other, centuries of war and strife.

As that observation suggests, applying Haidt’s moral framework to the issue of environmental degradation is a disquieting exercise. He points out that humans have essentially two modes of thinking: me-first, which is how we operate most of the time, and my-group-first, which leads us to cheer on our sports team or enlist in the military. While it’s helpful to understand these mind-sets, we’re now entering an era where our biggest problems are global. It’s advantageous for my nation to emit a lot of greenhouse gases to produce a higher standard of living — just as it’s advantageous for yours. But for humanity as a whole, disaster looms. One can say the same about nuclear weaponry. If Haidt’s analysis is right — and he’s very convincing — neither of these modes of thinking serves the global good. We could evolve in that direction, of course, but is there time?

Perhaps not, but understanding ourselves as well as others is a vital beginning. “We all get sucked into tribal moral communities, circling around something sacred and then sharing post hoc arguments about why we are so right and they are so wrong,” Haidt caustically notes. The Righteous Mind provides an invaluable road map out of this destructive loop.

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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