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….