Why political views are shaped by our inner bee
From The Catholic Herald, April 27, 2012
The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt
ALLEN LANE, £20
Ed West hails a rare book that will frame our thinking on human nature for years to come
A few weeks ago hundreds of Afghans went on a violent rampage after some American troops accidentally burned a copy of the Koran. These protests dwarfed those that followed the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians two weeks later. To educated westerners this behaviour seemed primitive, to atheist ones positively bizarre. Yet as evolutionary psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains in this fascinating study of morals, politics and religion, this appeal to sanctity is innate, normal human behaviour.
Humans, Haidt says, are “90 per cent chimp and 10 per cent bee”. Unlike other large primates we have evolved a hive mentality that allows us to work in very large, non-kin-related groups, and this partly explains our instinct towards tribalism, whether to our countries, ethnic groups, religious communities, political parties or sports teams. We have deep-rooted instincts towards defending our group, and have evolved morality to protect it and to look out for freeloaders within.
This hive mentality influences our moral compasses, which evolved to deal with certain adaptive challenges: caring for vulnerable children, forming partnerships with non-kin, standing up to oppressors within a group, building coalitions to compete with other groups, negotiating hierarchies and keeping free from parasites. This gives human beings six “moral foundations”, Haidt says: a desire for care over harm, fairness, liberty over oppression, loyalty, authority and sanctity. He suggests that these govern our politics and religions.
But not everyone possesses these foundations in equal measures. Surveying tens of thousands of self-identified liberals and conservatives with a series of ethical questions, Haidt and colleagues concluded that liberals were primarily motivated by care, liberty and, to a lesser extent, fairness (equity, not equality), while conservatives cared about all six, roughly equally.
And because they only appeal to three of our moral flavours, liberals have a disadvantage appealing to people outside particular middleclass, metropolitan cliques. It also makes it more difficult for them to understand conservatives. Haidt’s studies of how people perceived others’ beliefs suggested that liberals were far less informed about what conservatives thought than vice versa. What unites all people is their irrationality. Haidt’s research has come out strongly in favour of David Hume’s theory that emotional and intuitive processes run the brain, “only putting in a call to reasoning when its services are needed to justify a desired conclusion”.
Haidt says: “The worship of reason is itself an illustration of one of the most long-lived delusions in Western history… Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason.” Neither are welleducated, intelligent people more rational; they are simply better at justifying their choices.
This is backed up by studies of the brains of people debating partisan politics, which showed they were using areas associated with threat, not the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is associated with reasoning.
And our brains influence our politics. While conservatives react more strongly to signs of danger, including the threat of germs and contamination, and even white noise, liberals have genes implicated in receptors for dopamine, which is associated with sensationseeking and openness to experience, the best-established correlates of liberalism.
So why did morals evolve? There is, as Haidt admits, disagreement among evolutionists, namely about whether evolution of moral behaviour happened at the level of the group or the individual. Haidt falls into the former category and sees group theory as crucial to the understanding of religion.
New atheists argue that religious belief is irrational and harmful, “an extravagant, costly, wasteful institution that impairs people’s ability to think rationally while leaving a long trail of victims”. But, Haidt writes, that ignores the fact that religion is about shared values and a sense of solidarity. It is a “team sport”, and “trying to understand the persistence and passion of religion by studying beliefs about God is like trying to understand the persistence and passion of football by studying the movement of the ball”.
In evolutionary terms the strength of religion is that it creates a moral community. People in religiously cohesive societies may have been more likely to survive and reproduce, as is shown by the success of religious-based communes and the dismal failure of most secular ones.
Haidt started out a liberal. Indeed, he began looking at this subject because, as a Democrat, he saw that his party failed to connect with most ordinary Americans, who did not share its metropolitan liberal distaste for faith and flag. But by the end of the book it’s clear that he’s become sympathetic to conservative philosophy, the ideas “that people are inherently imperfect and are prone to act badly when all constraints and accountability are removed” and that “our reasoning is flawed and prone to overconfidence, so it’s dangerous to construct theories based on pure reason, unconstrained by intuition and historical experience”.
In contrast, the “fundamental blind spot of the Left”, he says, is that it fails to consider the effects of changes on moral capital. That’s why revolutions turn to despotism, and why social reforms aimed at helping perceived victims of society often end up damaging society and even the victims themselves.
And yet despite leaving a bitter taste in many people’s mouth, liberalism controls academia and the media, and by its very nature has a stronger narrative, one in which “authority, hierarchy, power and tradition are the chains that must be broken to free the ‘noble aspirations’ of the victims”.
Haidt’s book has been well received across the political spectrum and its plaudits are deserved. Like Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, The Righteous Mind may become one of those rare publications that frames the public’s view of politics, psychology and human nature. It is a vital work for anyone who wonders why we are like we are.