Tuesday, May 03, 2016

11. The Truth behind Politics

It's deeply ironic that I finish my review of Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion on the day we here in Indiana go to the primary polls. My bet is that Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump will win. I plan to vote for a loser, but that doesn't really tell you anything. :-)

The review of the book so far is:

1. Introduction
2. Intuitive Dogs and Rational Tails
3. Elephants Rule
4. Three Domains of Morality
5. Taste Buds of the Righteous Mind
6. The Moral Foundations of Politics
7. The Conservative Advantage
8. Morality an Evolutionary Advantage
9. The "Chimp to Bee" Switch
10. Religion is like Football

1. He begins the book by talking about how contentiously divided America had become when he was writing in 2012. Little could he have imagined what the situation would look like for the 2016 election. The Republican field of candidates this year was a mud wrestling match, and the leading Republican candidate at one point endorsed violence against protesters at his rallies.

When Haidt was writing, it was things like the inability of Congress to conduct a routine vote to expand the debt ceiling to cover a budget it had already approved. He talked about how, since the 90s, partisans on both sides were discouraged from being friends with each other. Now members walk into the chamber full of hatred.

One key example of this shift, he argues, is when Newt Gingrich urged house members not to move their families to Washington. Without the social interaction of families (e.g., spouses socializing with spouses), an individualistic, isolated climate was advanced.

2. Where does political ideology come from? First, he defines ideology as "A set of beliefs about the proper order of society and how it can be achieved" (322).

A major cause, surprisingly, is genetic. Studies show that identical twins, even if they are separated at birth, will tend to have the same political affinities in later life. Meanwhile, "self-interest does a remarkably poor job of predicting political attitudes" (323).

How do our genes work there way into our later politics? He gives three key factors:

a. First, genes make our brains. "The genes (collectively) give some people brains that are more (or less) reactive to threats, and that produce less (or more) pleasure when exposed to novelty, change, and new experiences" (325). The more reactive mind tends toward the conservative. The more exploration-oriented mind tends toward the liberal.

b. But secondly, our traits interact with our environment to steer us in various directions. Dan McAdams speaks of three levels of our personality:
  • dispositional traits, such as our basic reactivity to threats or our delight in exploration.
  • characteristic adaptations, how our environment interacts with our default dispositions
  • lastly, we construct life narratives. "The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor" (328).
c. So we simplify and selectively reconstruct our pasts into stories, with idealized visions for the future. He gives a great hypothetical about a sister and brother, their default dispositions, and how they interact with a specific story to end up politically conservative or liberal. He also tells a little of Keith Richards' story. :-)

3. Both the left and the right have grand narratives. The terms come from which side of the assembly French delegates sat in 1789, depending on whether they wanted to preserve the past (right - conservatism) or wanted change (left - liberalism). The grand narrative of the left is one of progress. The past is full of inequality and exploitation, but we are throwing off the chains of social oppression and the future is bright because times they are a changin.

The narrative of the right is that America used to be great. Our country used to be strong and we were free to do what we wanted. But the liberals made government too big and they have undermined faith. Instead of punishing criminals and free-loaders, now we reward them. We need to take our country back from the liberals and make America great again like it used to be.

4. He then reminds us of his earlier thesis of the book. If there are something like six different moral areas in our brains (harm, freedom, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity), conservatism tends to hit most of them. Liberalism only hits two or three. For this reason, studies show that liberals find it hard to anticipate what conservatives will think on issues, while conservatives are better at the opposite. That is to say, conservatives tend to understand liberals better than liberals tend to understand conservatives.

He says that the blind spot of liberals is what he calls "moral capital." Moral capital refers to "the degree to which a community possesses interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that... enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible" (341).

"If you are trying to change and organization or a society and you do not consider the effects of your changes on moral capital, you're asking for trouble" (342).

This "explains why liberal reforms so often backfire, and why communist revolutions usually end up in despotism... Liberalism tends to overreach, change too many things too quickly, and reduce the stock of moral capital inadvertently. Conversely, while conservatives do a better job of preserving moral capital, they often fail to notice certain classes of victims, fail to limit the predations of certain powerful interests, and fail to see the need to change or update institutions as times change" (343).

5. He suggests a yin and yang relationship between these two forces in a society--innovation versus preservation. He gives the following as positive examples of these impulses:
  • Liberal values care for victims of oppression. For example, liberals recognize that corporations can become superorganisms that are so powerful that only the government can control them. "When corporations operate in full view of the public, with a free press that is willing and able to report... they are likely to behave well, as most corporations do" (347).
  • "Some problems really can be solved by regulation" (348). Haidt uses lead as an example. In what is very well documented, big corporations in collusion with government perpetuated a situation throughout the mid-twentieth century that retarded the IQ of American children and doubled the crime rate. Crime dropped in half in the 1990s once lead gasoline was completely worked out of the system.
  • Markets are miraculous. When people are allowed to make their own choices on purchases, the law of supply and demand really does lower costs. A kind of "spontaneous order" emerges. When everything is provided for a person, there is little incentive to find innovative ways to reduce the cost of things or increase its quality.
  • "You can't help the bees by destroying the hive" (358). If John Lennon had his way and there were no countries, no religion, no borders or boundaries, the world would quickly descend into hell because human selfishness would reign supreme. We thrive as humans because we have the capacity to hive and congeal together. A world without groups is a world of self-destructive anarchy.
Studies show that if the blending of diverse groups is done in the wrong way, the result is not hiving but "turtling." Individuals simply withdraw into their own shell. "Emphasizing differences makes many people more racist, not less" (361). Bonding comes from commonality.

6. What to do? Haidt seems to suggest that the first steps are social, not intellectual. Facebook is very painful these days, but this is just a sign of how far we have withdrawn into "lifestyle enclaves." Perhaps that social interaction--rough as it has been of late--is a kind of first step back toward civility.

If we truly want to understand the other, he suggests we "follow the sacredness." What are the moral foundations on which the other side is operating?

I'll plan to do a final post of take-aways on this book, political and religious.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

He makes sense, which probably means that things political aren't going to improve.