How Political Sides Are Chosen Part II

Choosing political sides is tricky, and I suppose you could ask, given my previous scenario, how one might arrive at any views to start. There’s a great deal that you can read that doesn’t really surprise you or tell you something utterly new. Jonathan Haidt’s article, Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion was one of the few that did that for me. Much of the “culture wars” is shouting about how the other side is crazy or what-have-you. Haidt unpacks some of why he thinks that liberals and conservatives are talking past each other:

“Kohlberg thought that all of morality, including concerns about the welfare of others, could be derived from the psychology of justice. Carol Gilligan convinced the field that an ethic of ‘care’ had a separate developmental trajectory, and was not derived from concerns about justice.

OK, so there are two psychological systems, one about fairness/justice, and one about care and protection of the vulnerable. And if you look at the many books on the evolution of morality, most of them focus exclusively on those two systems, with long discussions of Robert Trivers’ reciprocal altruism (to explain fairness) and of kin altruism and/or attachment theory to explain why we don’t like to see suffering and often care for people who are not our children.

But if you try to apply this two-foundation morality to the rest of the world, you either fail or you become Procrustes. Most traditional societies care about a lot more than harm/care and fairness/justice. Why do so many societies care deeply and morally about menstruation, food taboos, sexuality, and respect for elders and the Gods? You can’t just dismiss this stuff as social convention. If you want to describe human morality, rather than the morality of educated Western academics, you’ve got to include the Durkheimian view that morality is in large part about binding people together.

From a review of the anthropological and evolutionary literatures, Craig Joseph (at Northwestern University) and I concluded that there were three best candidates for being additional psychological foundations of morality, beyond harm/care and fairness/justice. These three we label as ingroup/loyalty (which may have evolved from the long history of cross-group or sub-group competition, related to what Joe Henrich calls “coalitional psychology”); authority/respect (which may have evolved from the long history of primate hierarchy, modified by cultural limitations on power and bullying, as documented by Christopher Boehm), and purity/sanctity, which may be a much more recent system, growing out of the uniquely human emotion of disgust, which seems to give people feelings that some ways of living and acting are higher, more noble, and less carnal than others.”

It is fairly obvious from the way that Haidt goes on to unpack this that conservatives are more attuned to all five of these psychological factors while liberals are more concerned about just the first two. Haidt isn’t sure though that this is a good thing. He cautions that ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity are also the underpinnings of the classic fascist system. I’m also not sure where, say, libertarians fit on this – many of them vote for conservative parties however they seem to use a moral system much closer to that of liberals.

I don’t see this as contradicting what I said earlier, but rather I think Haidt explains why accepting a political system a la carte might be so easy.