I’m not sure who Jonathan Haidt offends more with this book, the liberal or the conservative. Both have reason to moan, and perhaps ironically both can agree and just throw the book at Professor Haidt.
We are not who we think we are. Such is his premise.
We are not the rational, thinking, logical animals that we like to think of ourselves as. We are instead still driven by our animal instincts in almost all decisions. Our intuition is the elephant and our logical brain is the rider. The rider can shout all day long, but try kicking an elephant into turning when it chooses otherwise.
Things are not as dire as all this. We do allow our beautiful minds to direct us, we are persuadable. But if our stubborn intuitive decision is against logic and reason, it will be a hard lift.
Haidt explains that we are animals who operate on a system called a morality foundation. Oddly, liberals tend to be interested in only two and sometimes three of the legs, while conservatives use the entire six legs. They are: care/harm, liberty/oppression, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. In other words, liberals tend to decide issues using the first two and a lesser extent the third, while conservatives use all about equally. Moreover liberals tend to consider the last three irrelevant to decision-making.
Once we decide what we believe, we are both fairly impervious to facts to the contrary. Smart people and well-educated people aren’t any different, they just can create a longer list of reasons why they are right than the rest.
While we are chimps in the sense that we are usually about the business of self-interest, we can be lured into group bonding (the bee in us). Religion is a great mechanism for that. Group behavior is what drives civilization. It was what turned us into towns and villages after we developed agricultural pursuits and started to settle down.
Along with grouping, we had to deal with the ever-present problem of “free riders”, those who find ways to reap the rewards of the group without doing any of the work. Liberals as you might expect, being more concerned that no one is harmed, don’t worry too much about this–and that’s not always a good thing. Conservatives know that a group can’t be successful if everyone is being lazy. Carried to the extreme of course, one becomes obsessed with the idea that ANYONE is getting something for free.
Grouping appears innate, part of our genetic makeup, derived along the way as I said, when we developed agriculture and settled down. But we are also wired differently too. Liberals are genetically predisposed to be open to new things and to more fearless. Conservatives are more fearful of more things and tend to like the safety of tradition. The spectrum as you might guess is pretty darn big here.
Moreover, everything has to do with experiences in life. A predisposed liberal can end up, in the right environment a fully functioning conservative and vice versa.
What liberals get wrong? We are too prone to change things, too often and too much. We don’t recognize the value of “social capital” the bonding of individuals that helps bring about altruism within the “group”. What we get right is that government does indeed need to regulate business, it will run over all of us if we don’t.
Conservatives tend to lose sight of the little people who get hurt in the process. They don’t recognize that markets while providing some things that are very useful, are dangerous left unregulated.
Of course the devil is in the details. When we think of the tea party for instance, we aren’t really talking about conservatives at all, but social conservatives. They are ultra partisan, and ultra conservative and so they take all the above to an extreme. Haidt doesn’t really address this in his book. Nor does he discuss what might be the ultra left, the anarchist.
In any event he offers some helpful insights on how we might improve the situation we face today with extreme polarization. Unfortunately I see that as requiring both sides to agree, something highly unlikely. Newt Gingrich encouraged during his tenure as Speaker, members to leave their families at home and commute. This has destroyed the family friendships that served to make bipartisanship work in Washington. That needs to be restored.
We need to redraw congressional districts so that they are more evenly representative of both sides. One-sided districts breed extremism.
We need to address the issue of funding of campaigns which more and more allow only the rich to enter the game.
As a side note, Professor Haidt has an ongoing study going on and you can participate. Just sign up and start taking his short questionnaires. This will enable he and his team to further refine how we think and make decisions, and hopefully how we might develop new ways to work together to solve our admittedly large problems.
Buy it, read it, and learn how to change your way of thinking.