Monday, October 13, 2008

Moral Psychology and Politics

Some months ago in one of my “reading list” posts, I pointed my readers to the work of moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt. My friend Bill, who gave me the original tip on Haidt, recently sent me a link to Haidt’s article, “What Makes People Vote Republican?” To liberal academics, who rarely encounter anyone unlike themselves (except for undergraduates, most of whom can be easily manipulated, intimidated, or dismissed), this seems to be a real puzzle. Not surprisingly, these academics have no trouble producing self-serving theories that explain away behavhiors they disapprove of as irrational, misguided, or just plain stupid. (This obviously does not apply to economists, as our discipline requires us to assume that people always behave according to rational self-interest.)

Haidt takes his fellow liberals to task for their (literally) two-dimensional definition of morality and the resulting mischaracterization of how conservatives think. He himself overcame his knee-jerk disdain for his opponents in the culture war while doing research in India. The “liberal” attitudes that came to him so naturally in the context of his own academic-American culture were impossible to reconcile with the life of his friends in India, “a sex-segregated, hierarchically stratified, devoutly religious society.” As he came to know and like his friends in India, he developed greater empathy for their culture.

Eventually, Haidt produced an inclusive definition of morality that evaded the ideological biases of previous definitions: morality is any system of interlocking values, practices, institutions, and psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible. He found five moral dimensions that are hard-wired into human nature as it has evolved over the millennia: 1) harm/care, 2) fairness/reciprocity, 3) ingroup/loyalty, 4) authority/respect, and 5) purity/sanctity. While liberals think entirely in terms of 1 and 2, conservatives are more holistic, operating in all five moral dimensions. Conservatives understand the concerns of liberals because they also value the things that liberals value. But liberals do not understand conservatives because the last three dimensions simply do not register with them as things that anyone would be sincerely concerned with.

I highly recommend the article. There is a link on the page to a longer article in a similar vein, in which he challenges the simplistic atheism of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris: “Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion.”