Monday, October 23, 2017

Altruism: Don't We Wish

I recently heard an interview with Jonathan Haidt, a professor at New York University. He had some really interesting thoughts; and not just thoughts, but results of his own research. Oh how I wish I could agree with him.

Haidt’s research shows that our political convictions—in particular, being liberals vs. conservatives—is based on psychology rather than reason. Of course, liberals have always “known” this about conservatives: those conservatives are just mean people who want to oppress and victimize other people. And conservatives have always “known” this about liberals: those liberals are just immoral people who want to destroy the moral compass of society. But Haidt has shown that liberal vs. conservative biases may come from the deepest part of our brains. Conservatives have a need for order, while liberals relish diversity. This even shows up in the conservative preference for dots on a screen that move in lock-step with one another, and liberal preference for dots moving independently.

But what do we do with this information? It is here that, I fear, Haidt has gone off on a cloud of wishful thinking. If both liberals and conservatives can just recognize that their beliefs have a psychological basis, then they could start to talk and work things out. This is, as I understand it, Haidt’s gospel, as it were. He also says that our society needs both liberals and conservatives, to keep each other from going overboard.

Alas, there are two problems here.

  • Liberals are much more likely to agree with Haidt on his basic points. Conservatives will usually reject the very premise that psychology has any influence on their beliefs. They believe that they are God’s chosen and that they are as unlikely to be wrong as for God to not exist. The Holy Spirit has made them conservatives. That being the case, a true conservative will consider it unnecessary or even evil to have a meeting of minds with liberals. Haidt reached his conclusion from his liberal background; can he point to even one conservative scholar who has reached the same conclusion from his or her conservative background? Maybe he can, and if so, I’d like to hear about it.
  • Conservatives have a lot more guns piled up, ready to hand, than liberals. How can any parity of discussion be reached when one side is heavily armed and the other side virtually helpless? If you have guns, who needs dialogue?

These are two deadly asymmetries that make discussion impossible between liberals and conservatives, in general. Happily, some individual conservatives and liberals can talk, but this will not happen on a large enough scale to influence the immediate future.

Haidt gave an example of how liberals and conservatives could discuss an issue and perhaps come to a better understanding of one another. The issue: global warming. The liberals could begin a discussion by citing a military general, rather than an environmentalist, who talks about the dangers of global warming. Great idea. Only we climate scientists have already tried this. Defense Secretary Maddis has already said that global warming will cause international conflicts to which the U.S. military must pay close attention. Maddis is not just a conservative, but a hand-picked Trump follower. But the conservative global-warming denialists have either taken no notice or have been hostile toward this prominent conservative. A search of the most prominent denialist website turned up no matches with “Maddis.” The reason is, of course, that the denialists are paid by fossil fuel corporations, or individuals who have gotten rich from them, or foundations started by them.

Haidt also said that, on average, religion makes people more moral. But in order to justify this statement, Haidt had to include, in the term “morality,” those activities that bind the group together, even if it means that the group is hostile toward other groups and causes a great deal of harm to the world in general. I am sure Haidt does not mean to establish a moral equivalence between, say, the United Nations and the Nazis, but I am unclear about how he avoids this equivalence.

This problem is the very same one we encounter when we consider altruism, about which I have often written. Altruistic behavior, encouraged by empathetic feelings, enhances an individual’s evolutionary success within his or her social environment. In ancient times, the social environment was very local. Today, the environment can be the whole world. Natural and cultural selection may favor warm, fuzzy feelings within the group, but may also favor extreme hostility. This hostility can take two forms: the feeling of sweet revenge against cheaters within the group, and extreme hostility toward people outside the group, whether they are cheaters or not. It might be enlightening to think that conservatives draw the line between “us” and “them” more narrowly than do liberals. Haidt may have written about this someplace.

In a related thought, Haidt also said that, according to surveys, conservatives care more about the people around them, while liberals care more about the people of the world. And here is where I have to draw a completely different conclusion from my Oklahoma experiences than Haidt may draw from his New York experiences. The conservatives who live around me in Oklahoma seem to be hostile toward everyone except, maybe, their own families. They dump garbage in their neighbors’ yards and allow their dogs to attack anyone who is out on the street. Many of them fly Confederate flags, which displays their hostility toward even many of their immediate neighbors. And, in this reddest of red states, “Oklahoma is ranked 3rd in the nation for women killed by men in single victim-single offender homicides.” (see data here). Red states are not moral, at home, or in their communities. I wonder if the surveys that Haidt has conducted indicate more about what people like to think about themselves than what they actually do. Prominent conservatives, from Bill O’Reilly on down, proclaim Christian morality while pursuing immoral personal lives.

What I come away with, from Haidt’s statements, is that individual conservatives and liberals might try to understand one another better, after finding some personal common ground. This common ground might be something as strange as a shared adoration for the music of the 1930s country singer Jimmie Rodgers—which I share with a very conservative person I’ve not yet met but if I do I will talk to her about this rather than about politics. But on a national level? I think it is hopeless.

Haidt’s views might be appropriate for a society at equilibrium—that is, one in which liberal and conservative views can mix and respond to one another, reaching some kind of stable balance. But right now, our country is experiencing extreme disequilibrium. This is not true in every country. In France, a country about which I know a little, the conservatives and liberals disagree vividly. But the conservatives do not have stockpiles of guns in France the way they do in America. Even if American conservatives choose not to use these guns, they have the psychological advantage: we all know that they have them.

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