August 07, 2012

My Team's Okay, Your Team's Evil

Patrick Marren
Partner

Jonathan Haidt thinks we're weird. And as scenario consultants, we have to agree.

Actually, he thinks we're WEIRD - as in, "Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic." Or at least you live in a country that by world standards corresponds to such adjectives. And if you live in such a country, you may fall into the trap of believing that all moral questions ultimately can be resolved through rationality. That is wrong, according to him.

His new book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion puts forward a number of intriguing hypotheses: 

- There is no such thing as disinterested truth-seeking rationality; or more precisely, rationality did not evolve in order to ascertain truth. It evolved so we could find reasons and arguments that might back our already preconceived emotionalistic notions. 

- Rational truth seeking CAN arise - but it's only as a result of the social interaction of self-promoting individuals using their rationalities to win arguments. And it's only when we like the person we are arguing with that we start to question our own positions. If we don't like them, we won't try to examine our own stance.

- There are six "flavors" of morality in the world: care/suffering; fairness/injustice; liberty/oppression; loyalty/betrayal; authority/rebellion; and sanctity/sacrilege.

- Conservatives have a built-in advantage in politics because while liberals tend to appeal only to the first two "flavors" (care/suffering and fairness/injustice), conservatives appeal to all six, broadening their appeal. In fact, the "WEIRD" appellation tends to apply most to liberals, who believe that the two "flavors" they are concerned with are the only imprtant ones, and that the others are barbaric relics of bygone eras, and that rational people must agree with them if they just think hard enough. Conservatives, however, simply barge ahead and appeal to what the voters actually care about instinctively, and that's why, according to Haidt, they have been winning elections consistently since about 1980. 

From a scenario perspective, this is fertile ground. Liberals seem to be living in a scenario of their own making, in which people are getting more and more likely to pay attention to those first two, more "civilized" sources of morality. But conservatives have their own scenario, in which liberty, loyalty and betrayal, legitimate sources of authority, and the holy all matter far more. In Europe, the liberal scenario seems to have taken root. But in America, we seem to be far less "WEIRD," and American conservatives the least "WEIRD" of all. (As they already believe, no doubt.)

Haidt's hypothesis about rationality is disconcerting. Is no one actually seeking truth for its own sake? Must we live in a society where all are twisting the truth for their own ends, trusting in the clash between these dirtbags to give us the truth? Is the clash of ignorant armies by night as good as it gets? Yikes. 

What Haidt does not really tell us in this fine book is why the United States has chosen this particular moment to become especially "groupish" -- the group version of "selfish."  Why, during the past two decades, which have been, on the whole, among the most prosperous, least dangerous, and least substantively ideologically diverse in all our history, have we in the United States become more bitterly divided than at any time since the Civil War? 

I don't know the answer to that question. But I can write about ten scenarios about how the whole thing plays out.  Some of them will be "weirder" than others. 

Thoughts?