I’ve continued to search for books that contribute to understanding the contemporary social and political dynamics that have emerged in the politics of the U.S., U.K., and other countries. Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) offered particularly helpful insight for those who espouse a more liberal worldview. In fact, one of major points Haidt made was that conservatives are generally more aware of liberal’s views than liberal of conservatives, resulting in blindness that is debilitating in the current climate.
The U.S. Presidential election of 2016 was shocking to many who believed that, regardless of one’s political perspective, the candidate with the greatest experience (Hillary Clinton) would win in a landslide. At the core of this was that the WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) portion of U.S. citizens were talking to themselves and were woefully unaware of how many others were being mobilized by Donald Trump’s candidacy.
One of the most important practical questions to resolve in any social system is the balance between the individual and the group. Most societies tip the priority to the group, resulting in a sociocentric perspective, while a few select societies place the individual at the center, resulting in an individualistic culture. An individualistic focus became more prominent during the Enlightenment period of Western societies. This focus on individualism was accompanied by a rationalistic (reasoning) bias rather than relying on intuitional (emotional/judgment) insight. Haidt characterized this rationalistic bias as delusional and asserted that intuitions come first and strategic reasoning afterward. With intuition as the driver, Haidt described a framework of five initial foundations of morality (p. 125); 1) care/harm, 2) fairness/cheating, 3) loyalty/betrayal, 4) authority/subversion, and 5) sanctity/degradation to which he eventually added another 6) liberty/oppression. His view is that most humans act on their intuition about what is “right” related to these six principles.
Haidt cited a number of research studies and anecdotal evidence that the six foundations of morality are at the core of human inclinations but he also offered evidence that liberal and conservative priorities are somewhat different. For example, liberals tend to place greater value on concerns related to care/harm. In addition, while both liberal and conservatives are concerned about liberty/oppression, liberals express greater concern about harm to vulnerable groups while conservatives are more concerned about the infringement of liberties resulting from government that intervenes too much in their lives. Liberals tend to construct most of their political arguments around the first three foundations while conservatives embrace these three plus add the others (authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression) with relative equal weight across all the foundational moral principles. This is what he asserts as the fatal flaw in the thinking of liberals – they do not recognize, much less affirm, the full range of moral inclinations that are seen as essential to forming and sustaining a righteous society.
Haidt’s perspectives were well documented and his book was organized to continually remind the reader where his argument was headed. While I would not entirely agree with the assertion that conservatives are better informed about liberal causes than vice versa, it is important for both conservatives and liberals to find ways to talk – to seek each other’s perspective, to suspend judgment, and to be open to new understandings. Ultimately, all of us could benefit from striving to create a society where the intuition behind our perspectives is exposed and where this intuitional inclination more explicitly recognizes the moral and ethical practices we observe. Especially at a point in human evolution where we have grown to recognize the need for a common understanding about how we should live in community, it is important to encompass the full range and not just a select number of moral foundations.
Perhaps our evolving communities will have their most powerful influence when “interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.” (p. 270) Religion and politics are important ways to create and regulate a righteous society but in order to be successful in the current divisive stand-off, religion, politics, technology and other connective systems need to open rather than close us to each other as we seek to identify solutions that can satisfy all. Ultimately, we need to become bound together across the full range of principles of an ethical society where “… everyone’s reputation is on the line all the time, so that bad behavior will always bring bad consequences.” (p. 74) Likewise, where good behavior, broadly recognized and enacted, is rewarded.