Building on Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind

I was knocked out by the approach Jon Haidt developed in this book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion”. Among other things it provided me with some really important and prescient insights into the support Donald Trump garnered to win the US Presidency. (Note: I was one of the people fortunate enough to read it in manuscript and contribute some comments to the author before recent political developments.) But I have now come to use the approach Jon has constructed to build on and move beyond its insights to different ones that I think may be of help in our new current political situation.

My first point of departure is a meta one. Jon makes a strong case that our rational brain (what he calls our Rider) is essentially what he calls Glauconian. Our often unconscious moral auto pilot (what he calls our Elephant) jumps to our conclusions and we use our rational brain, our Rider, not to interrogate our conclusions, to test their validity, but to defend them rather like a defense attorney. As he says, this makes some evolutionary sense as a means to ensure our social credibility in say a hunter-gatherer group. And certainly we have all observed this in others and if we look closely in ourselves. But Jon seems pessimistic that we can transcend it, even when we become aware of it. I am not.

Specifically, Jon’s own book shows him in fine Non-Glauconian mode. He was a liberally inclined social psychologist, yet exposure to the novel cultures of Brazil and India opened his eyes to a whole range of moral foundations missing from his previous world view. He did not attempt to rationalize this new data out of existence, but like a good Bayesian observer, changed his mind. Very un-Glauconian that…

Whether Glauconianism makes sense in complex modern society is also doubtful. Businesses that jumped to particular commercial strategies and then defended them in the face of plummeting sales would not survive. Flawed military strategies that were defended in a Glauconian fashion in the light of battlefield defeats would destroy the army using them. And indeed even in our personal lives, we have I would suggest little time for the bar room bores who drone on in defense of their bigotry, who never give an inch or concede they are mistaken. Try driving on the roads with a Glauconian mindset: ER here you come….And in my life in Labor Relations, Glauconianism would have lasted about five minutes: reality bites as do other people with power and a different take on the world, whether they are Glauconian or not….deals have to be made to survive.

So empirically I rather doubt we are wholly like this, unable to transcend our Glauconianism. Though clearly he usefully describes a tendency we all sometimes exhibit. And of course, as with many such philosophical stances, it is hard to apply it to Jon’s own thought without undermining it. Is his is own advocacy of Glauconian stances, Glauconian: a jumped to conclusion, which his rational mind defends despite the weakness of the description of reality? I don’t think so for the reasons I gave above: he changed his mind. And indeed as someone who has changed his own political and religious beliefs over time quite dramatically, I am not Glauconian either. And this brief essay is not the rationalizing of my existing jumped to beliefs, but an open minded exploration of Jon Haidt’s thinking that may be mistaken.

So I now use Jon’s approach as a push back on any tendency I have to defend the indefensible, and to use empirical data to this end, to be a strong Bayesian observer and allow counter data to overturn my stances. So I use his profound and useful insight heuristically to do better. Though I guess I have always been a bit this way….and I am far from perfect in this approach. Don’t get me started on climate change denial….

I then look at Jon’s original Five Bi-Polar Moral Foundations: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation. He sees them as something where conservatives cover the bases rather better than liberals who focus most on Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating. I am not so sure.

I think he populates his Foundations with a rather narrow data set perhaps overly based on American East Coast liberals, to somewhat overstate my case. Coming from Europe, the Left is far more communitarian, even collectivist, than US liberalism. And, for instance, the auto workers I spent most of my career with, have a very strong sense of Loyalty/Betrayal they call Solidarity. Their sense of Sanctity/Degradation includes disgust at lack of Solidarity and their collective will involves having leaders with Authority whom they follow into disputes and strikes. So in many ways I think Jon’s population is somewhat skewed and lacking a full global sample of progressive Moral Foundations. I grew up in what was then an intensely religious, intensely unionized, very left wing Welsh coal mining area, and my personal feelings on this no doubt reflect that background.

I also think it fails to capture the environmental movement, which strikes me as strong on Loyalty/Betrayal in relation to the planet, which it tends to hold as sacred i.e. has a strong sense of Sanctity. It is also strong on the Authority of science to make judgments on what is good for the environment. I don’t think it helpful to limit and populate these foundations with US conservative content (to see the love of Flag as something sacred but not love of the planet) when there are clearly other contents that don’t fit conservatism, but are still grounded in the same wider Moral Foundations Jon uncovered. I also wonder if he is missing a Moral Foundation around attachment to Empirical Truth/Beliefs: something that the environmental movement is strong on, yet conservative climate change deniers for instance are lacking.

But I also struggle with another angle. One test of any moral foundation is, in the light of 20th century history, is how does it work for the Nazis? They were strong on Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating though they limited it to the Master Race. They were over the top on Loyalty/Betrayal: that was their core stück so to speak, as was Authority/Subversion. And their genocidal policies were all about purity and the Sanctity/Degradation axis. So I struggle to know on which Moral Foundation could they be indicted? Though you could add Jon’s sixth Moral Foundation and hit them on Liberty/Oppression I guess. And in many ways they were extreme conservative nationalists, very tribal and in-group and wrapping all their moral foundations around this and wanting to annihilate other tribes, which they often tried to do: Poles, Jews, Russians, and Serbians etc. So the position along the various Moral Foundations and the combo sandwich that is made out of them matters too?

I think more recently, the so called Alt Right in the US do something similar: erect White Supremacist tribalism and Loyalty to it as the core moral value. Make Care and Fairness only relate to this moral tribe and not relate to any others. Consider as disgusting (Degradation) any deviation from it and any resistance to it as Subversion. Hence President Trump’s stance on these dimensions too. And Liberty is for this moral tribe to do what it wants to other tribes?

So ultimately, I now tend to use the insights of Jon’s Moral Foundations in a somewhat radical way. I try to overcome our tendency towards Glauconian self-serving rationality and replace it with more robust Bayesian self- and my-side-challenging dialogue. And I leverage his Moral Foundations to challenge the progressive Left to grow solidarity as a form of Loyalty. I drive towards using the Authority of science to establish sane policies. And I share the environmental movement’s sense of the Sanctity of the planet and our Loyalty to this sanctity. Rather than focus on burning the flag, I focus on the burning of the planet so to speak. And in many ways, I see Liberty/Oppression is a strong distinguishing feature that separates fascism from traditional conservatism, though I suppose one could have a Moral Foundation around Genocide/Global Empathy or some such? And ultimately I would suggest a dominant Moral Foundation against which all other Moral Foundations should be tested: does the Moral Foundation support the survival of humanity and the planet as a viable place to live?

But then I may be mistaken….

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The Alt Left in the USA

Someone asked me to explain the so-called Alt Left in the USA, the far left, some of whom support Senator Bernie Sanders, though I am not sure if he shares many of their views. This was my reply, based on my personal experience of them, sample size around 50: the Alt Left do have an existence and they are characterized by

1) A visceral somewhat misogynistic hatred of Hilary Clinton, even amongst women Alt Left.
2) A hatred of the corporatism without a clue as to what they would replace it with
3) Nil empathy for the likely victims of Trump: women, minorities, immigrants who are just collateral damage for the “it has to get worse before it gets better, Trump will bring on the revolution” crap.
4) An inability to argue and a tendency to go ad hominem at the slightest push back
5) and yes I suspect they are the Yin to Bannon’s Yang a counterbalancing alternative universe, though as I tend to think of politics as a circle I see them quite close to Bannon round the extremist end of the circle.
6) They have in common the Paranoid Style in American Politics as per Hofstader: there is no systemic understanding but a scapegoating blamey style: it’s the liberals/it’s the DNC sort of thing.
7) and they lean purist/politics is not about building coalitions.
8) They have almost nil knowledge of history and plan to repeat it as farce (as per Marx 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon: “History repeats itself the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”.) (PS and paradoxically they know nothing about Marx’s thinking)
9) They know even less about economics than they know about history
10) They know less about history and economics than I know about American Football….close to zero that is. 🙂

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American Football and Economics Knowledge Thereof

I tend to upset people on the Left, especially the Alt Left these days. But this is what keeps me up nights.

Conservatives have a delusion that capitalism as she is currently constructed is not close to collapse by say 2035 (my best guess timing) given environmental, economic instability, and inequality pressures. And they have no idea how to reform it, see no need to reform it, indeed want to make it worse, far worse, hence their climate change denial and overturning financial regulation and providing tax cuts for the rich. This is likely the reason civilizations collapse: Conservatism can’t see change or the need to adapt to it.

The Left on the other hand. Well they are like me and American Football. Apart from a few team names and the idea there is something called The Super Bowl, I know absolutely nothing about American Football. This is about how much the Left, especially the vocal Alt Left in the US and UK, know about the real economy.

Now if you are going to build a viable greatly reformed (my most probable to be successful approach), or even an alternative to Capitalism, you actually do need to know how capitalism currently works: how food is grown, things made, services provided and the system to make that happen: market economy capitalism and its bastard brother Wall Street etc.

If you don’t then yep the collapse will happen and likely someone like Lenin or Mao who knew about as much about economics as I know about American Football, will take over and millions or in our case hundreds of millions of people will die in the process because food won’t be grown, goods won’t be made and services not provided. Go look at Somalia if you want to see it in action. Or just read about the Great Leap Forward in China: 40 million dead from Mao economic illiteracy. Took China 30 years to recover…

So go figure and sorry to those I upset. I am in my Mark Baum in the Big Short mode at present…. 

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Another Side of Economics

I was recently challenged as to which writers threw light on our current economic situation and what ideas I had to change things. My reply:

James Tobin on a Tobin tax to curb the finance sector. In the US ending differential treatment of interest and other income so no advantage in playing share price games. Both would make capitalism less quarter by quarter. End paying CEOs in stock options. End CEOs sitting on each other’s compensation committees. Employee representatives on corporate boards and comp committees as in Germany. Lean Manufacturing a la Toyota which gives workers direct input to work processes. A variety of world examples of corporations like Mondragon, John Lewis and others wholly owned by employees.

And probably Marx to help understand automation impact. 🙂 J K Galbraith “The New Industrial State” is old but still the best guide to why the left fails at the structural level. I read it in 1970 and its why I went to work in understand what the left didn’t grasp.

And my favorite person writing about it all recently: Brett Scott “The Heretics Guide to Global Finance: Hacking the Future of Money”. He is an environmentalist who instead of rabbiting on about what he didn’t understand went to work for a Hedge Fund and wrote a book for activists to understand the beast. He has some fun ideas.

Ha Joon Chang is the best modern economist who teaches at Cambridge all the varieties of economics not just the current orthodoxy. “Economics a User’s Guide” is his best summary though “23 Things You Don’t Know about Capitalism” is fun too. I have corresponded with him. Richard Wilkinson “The Spirit Level” is the best guide to inequality’s effects and I have corresponded with him.

Thomas Piketty “Capital in the 20th century” is about wealth inequality and inspired the diagram below. He suggests we have from history four options: war, revolution, civilizational collapse or reform of the tax system. Walther Schneidel “The Great Leveller: Violence and the History of Inequality” more pessimistically suggests by looking at 10,000 years of human history that inequality inexorably increases until war destroys the unequal society. Bit dark for these dark times….

PS I haven’t met a single leftist in the US who has read a single work of Marx or any economics books, like the ones listed above btw. Here leftists have no theory, have no economics and have no knowledge of how stuff is made aka labour. At least my UK unions had some theory, some economics and really did know how stuff was made having experienced first hand building cars at 90 an hour: I tried it: it’s hard…

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Definitions of a Demagogue

From Kent Johnson:

“A demagogue must be neither an educated nor an honest man; he has to be an ignoramus and a rogue.”
— Demosthenes, 4th C BC

“The peculiar office of a demagogue is to advance his own interests, by affecting a deep devotion to the interests of the people.”
— James Fennimore Cooper, 1838

” The man who is constantly telling the people that they are unerring in judgment, and that they have all power, is a demagogue.”
— Cooper, 1838

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Across the Great Divide

What the elections in the US and UK and elsewhere are showing is a deep divide in modern advanced economies between 1) those with university education, including those areas where people cluster around those with university education and serve them in bars, and the values that go with that, and the innovation, patents and hi tech results that flow in urban conurbations and no where else; and 2) the places that used to have well paid jobs for high school graduates, and no longer do and whose values are regressive, misogynistic, and tribal, at least partly in response. The latter now get played by the reactionaries and the plutocrats and this is a great threat to democracy.

But no one seems to be looking for real solutions that provide sustainable value add jobs for the left-behind people or regions. And no one is seeing that with the automation tsunami, their fate will spread to many of even the more educated. Trump and Brexit are phony solutions.

But you can’t proof countries against fascism without an economic solution. I don’t have one off-the-shelf, but I think a lot of hard work needs to go into finding one. Far harder work than any pols, academics, activists, voters, community leaders, have so far been assed to do. Identity politics does not provide one, worthy though its causes are.

And the solution is likely not traditional ideological left or right but something genuinely creative and different that addresses how much people get value, satisfaction and yes identity from work, how value add that work is (doing bs non jobs is demeaning in my experience), and how the benefits of automation are distributed: hint not all into the plutocratic pockets.

Or am I mistaken?

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The Banality of Trump

Hannah Arendt observing the architect of the Holocaust Adolf Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem coined the phrase “the banality of evil”. Watching Trump, I think “the evil of banality”…

Memo: Definition of Banality: “the fact or condition of being banal, unoriginality. Synonyms: triteness, vapidity, staleness, imaginativeness, lack of originality, dullness



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