Saturday, April 7, 2012

What makes people liberal or conservative?

We're discussing Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

His discussion of what makes people liberal or conservative fascinating, as I've long wondered about that. Sometimes I am genuinely puzzled how people can hold the views they do.

Up to half the difference is heritable, he says. He says one of the main predictors of liberal inclinations is openness to experience.

This finding fits well with many studies showing that conservatives react more strongly than liberals to signs of danger, including the threat of germs and contamination, and even low-level threats such as sudden blasts of white noise.Other studies have implicated genes related to receptors for the neurotransmitter dopamine, which has long been tied to sensation-seeking and openness to experience, which are among the best-established correlates of liberalism. As the Renaissance writer Michel de Montaigne said: “The only things I find rewarding … are variety and the enjoyment of diversity.”

Now, the most obvious thing about any psychology or personality tests I've done personally, like the "Big Five" personality tests, is I tend to be mid-range on four of the five - but almost off the chart on openness to experience. I love novelty, new foods, different cultures, travel, the vast open landscape of history, the insight into experience of literature, and the pleasure of different ways of looking at things. I choose to live in the most dense colorful kaleidoscopic city in the world, New York. I am instaneously suspicious of set answers on anything.

But I'm not that liberal - socially conservative, if anything.And the main reason for that is likely a senstivity to what Haidt calls moral capital.

In fact, we can define moral capital as the resources that sustain a moral community.


Moral communities share moral systems which help glue them together:

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.

And the problem is you cannot assume moral communities can or will sustain themselves. Human beings, Haidt says, have plenty of competitive distrust and incentives to mistreat each other from our primate heritage.

If you look at a troop of chimps, it is not a picture of communal harmony - but rather savage domination and competition.

But that is not the whole story. Humans are 90% chimp, 10% bee, he says. We have a "hive switch" in certain circumstances that makes us instinctually work for the common good. But it is not easy to trigger cooperative behavior.

Moral communities are fragile things, hard to build and easy to destroy.

Of course, it is not that moral capital is always and in every situation a good thing:

Let me state clearly that moral capital is not always an unalloyed good. Moral capital leads automatically to the suppression of free riders, but it does not lead automatically to other forms of fairness such as equality of opportunity.

But liberals often have a tough time seeing any point to the other moral foundations which help sustain a community:

liberals often have difficulty understanding how the Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity foundations have anything to do with morality. In particular, liberals often have difficulty seeing moral capital.

And here is the crux of his argument.

Nonetheless, if you are trying to change an organization or a society and you do not consider the effects of your changes on moral capital, you’re asking for trouble. This, I believe, is the fundamental blind spot of the left. It explains why liberal reforms so often backfire, and why communist revolutions usually end up in despotism. It is the reason I believe that liberalism—which has done so much to bring about freedom and equal opportunity—is not sufficient as a governing philosophy. It tends to overreach, change too many things too quickly, and reduce the stock of moral capital inadvertently.

And so this is why the partisan liberal has now come to see some point to conservatism:

A more positive way to describe conservatives is to say that their broader moral matrix allows them to detect threats to moral capital that liberals cannot perceive. They do not oppose change of all kinds (such as the Internet), but they fight back ferociously when they believe that change will damage the institutions and traditions that provide our moral exoskeletons (such as the family). Preserving those institutions and traditions is their most sacred value.

So I think the main reason I'm a registered independent with a rightward tilt, rather than a liberal, is because I think moral capital is important. I think you can better achieve liberal goals by controlling downside risks, rather than ignoring them. I want change, but pragmatic change that works in practice and delivers better lives to people, not a romantic dream which turns into darkness.

I agree with Haidt on this:

When I was a teenager I wished for world peace, but now I yearn for a world in which competing ideologies are kept in balance, systems of accountability keep us all from getting away with too much, and fewer people believe that righteous ends justify violent means. Not a very romantic wish, but one that we might actually achieve.

I've argued before that the checks and balances of the US Constitution have worked out much better over time than the utopian radicalism of the "Rights of Man" in the French revolution a few years later. Change needs an immune system. If you want to have a changed economy - and I think we really do need to rethink our economic structures - it can't be just a failed utopian experiment. You need ways to promote good behavior and restrain free-riding. Otherwise most people will be too fearful to support change, unless they feel they have little left to lose. And change is likely to lead to disorder and disaster.

On that score, Haidt notes some research on why utopian communities fail, as wel'll see next





  1. Interesting point about the blind eye of liberalism in terms of moral capital. However, I think it's more salient to speak of this phenomenon in terms of the capital of morale. What you call moral capital is a system of moralistic thinking that has nothing to do with true morality, which is the innate capability of a human to differentiate right from wrong. Opponents of this idea call it moral relativism, but I refer to it as reality in an imperfect world. Morale builds communities, not morals. Moreover, the dogma of conservative thought is to aggressively develop technology. Unfortunately for conservatives, increased technological capability will ALWAYS degrade current cultural and social values. In other words, further conservative cultivation of "moral capital" is a reaction to itself continuously changing the social (and actual) climate by its very own design. But in the end it's true: our solution to our social problems should be based in rational fact rather than irrational feelings if we hope to differentiate right from wrong.

  2. I think that's quite a 1970s , or even 1870s, view of the possibility of rational fact and social science. Communism was supposed to be "scientific socialism", more fact-based and rational. But in practice it lead to dekulazation and the Ukrainian famine and the purges and the Great Leap Forward.

  3. The problem with communism is that it doesn't hold up to the facts when you really look at it.

    You expect us to just agree anytime conservatives say "moral capital". If there's a real phenomenon going on that could spell trouble please make it explicit, detail out how X public policy will lead to Y moral attitudes and how that will lead to...and so and so forth. And if your arguments make sense I might agree. I've heard no real evidence that equal rights for gays for example is going to hurt our society. If you could describe how that changes the way people think and behave in all walks of life and point out the fine details of what we should expect and if it's actually coherent and makes sense then I could be bought into supporting the other side. I'm not against these other moral considerations, I just demand you prove it to me first.

  4. You're adopting a "prove it to me" line, but in fact you're not being scientific, for two reasons. First, by defining it as about "equal rights" and "harm" you've already begged the question in an intolerant way. Haidt's point is that liberals cannot see beyond equality and harm, and you have provided an example of that.

  5. Second, there is the matter of scientific method. People are capable of rejecting almost any contrary evidence, as they can always assimilate it to a theory as an exception or a puzzle or , as in preCopernican astronomy, an epicycle. We know this from Kuhn or Popper, which is why real scientific method is about falsification or disconfirmation. What would disconfirm your view?

  6. What would you accept as evidence that, to take your example, gay marriage would harm society? You say communism didn't measure up to the facts. Well, your argument is like Lenin saying I've seen no evidence that "peace, land, bread" will harm society.