By Neil Reynolds, Globe and Mail, May 5, 2012
University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt, a liberal academic who voted enthusiastically for Barack Obama, now thinks – based on a rigorous morality quiz taken by 130,000 people – that the progressive mindset is, in a phrase, morally challenged. Author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Mr. Haidt says liberals need a religious revival to get back on track, a contrarian assertion that’s reverberating through the secular universe.
Mr. Haidt used his controversial quiz to identify five “foundational attributes,” moral principles that are universally respected, however practised. (The quiz – open for scrutiny at YourMorals.Org – asks disturbing questions: Would you renounce your citizenship for a million dollars? Would you give up a year of your life for a million dollars? Would you kick an animal for a million dollars?) The first foundational attribute is the capacity to care for others and, a corollary, a capacity to reduce harm. The second is fairness. The remaining three are loyalty, respect for authority and recognition of sacred things.
Whether liberal or conservative, Mr. Haidt says, Americans are strongly moved by the first two foundational attributes: caring and fairness. His analysis of the quiz results, however, indicates that liberals care more than conservatives when they perceive harm and that conservatives care more than liberals when they perceive unfairness. Liberals, alas, are ambivalent about loyalty, authority and sacred things – qualities that conservatives embrace.
Mr. Haidt, who recently reprised his argument in a piece for The New York Times, says conservatives possess “a broader set of moral tastes” and are able, in appealing to the public, to tap a richer moral lexicon. Many liberals are embarrassed by talk of sacred things – such as Ronald Reagan’s patriotic reverence for God and country. When they threaten sacred objects, “we can expect a ferocious tribal response.”
And tribal responses, he says, are what politics is all about. “Despite what you might have learned in Economics 101, people aren’t always selfish. In politics, they’re more often groupish. When people feel that a group they value – be it racial, religious, regional or ideological – is under attack, they rally to its defence, even at some cost to themselves. We evolved to be tribal, and politics is a competition among coalitions of tribes. The key to understanding tribal behaviour is not money, it’s sacredness.”
Humanity’s “great trick,” he says, is its ability to form a circle around a tree, a rock, an ancestor, a flag, a book or a god – then to treat that thing as sacred. Thus, across America, the culture wars are now holy wars in which liberals skirmish endlessly with vociferous defenders of God, country, flag and family.
Liberals can still win elections, but Mr. Haidt argues they’ll find it harder and harder to do so. Gallup says that liberals now make up only 20 per cent of Americans, that conservatives make up 40 per cent – and that independent voters, making up 30 per cent, disproportionately share with conservatives a respect for sacred things.
Mr. Haidt’s analysis roughly parallels the findings of Reginald Bibby, the prominent and prolific sociologist who monitors social and religious trends in Canada. In his Beyond the Gods & Back: Religion’s Demise and Rise and Why It Matters, published last year, he documents the growing chasm that separates Canadians who embrace sacred things and Canadians who repudiate them. Can these antagonists, he asks, ever co-exist?
Mr. Bibby has tracked the decline of organized religion in Canada across the years – but now detects signs of religious revival. Some of the Establishment churches in this country are on life support, but other denominations report growth, especially conservative Protestant denominations.
Although both Canadian and American researchers noted in Mr. Reynolds' piece support his conservative take on the world, we think some caveats might apply.
First, I recall working for a very wise man who, among other things owned a Chevrolet, Cadillac dealership for which I wrote and aired advertising copy. He gave me two pieces of counsel on the day I began that assignment: 1) never write an ad that is directed towards doctors, lawyers or teachers because they are the cheapest people on the planet; and 2) remember that people all across North American will tell pollsters that they like something and then go out and buy the competitor's product...simply because they are not about to release their truth to a stranger.
In this case, there might be some application of the second piece of advice. People in both countries are quite anxious to demonstrate their altruism in public, and answering in the manner that proves its existence will make them feel better, while all the time, they are voting for war, for increasing the chasm between "have's" and "have-nots", and all this while demonstrating they could care less about the poor, the unemployed, the hungry and the sick.And this laissez-faire attitude is especially true, we suggest, among the have's whose success demonstrates to them their capacity to "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps" while those living in poverty simply haven't tried hard enough!
Second caveat: the researchers, according to the physics research, are inevitably imprinting their subjectivity on their research, and while both Haidt and Bibby may have taken all precautions against that creeping virus, nevertheless, it has to be considered in analysing their data. Religion is a different subject for public research than almost any other. It is the most private and secret of personal preferences and there will always be those who consider both themselves (in their advocacy of it) and the institutions that represent it 'holy' however they interpret that word, and thereby cling to it more vigorously, without actually practicing any authentic faith in their own lives.
As for Haidt's "wider and deeper moral compass" among conservatives, that, in itself is a value statement, an interpretation of his data, that begs the question about its relevance to actual voting behaviour while in the voting booth.
Third caveat, the gap between truth and reality is growing in all segments of society, as we transition to a much more public offering of our perhaps silly but "personal" moments through the internet. We see it in many public statements by political leaders, and we hear it from multiple sources in our daily discourse; we hear it from employers and from salespeople, and from mechanics and from public service workers.
And, while the truth is a casualty, hypocrisy is winning too often to be able to regard this evidence as reliable and verifiable, two qualities of reputable research in any field.
Reynolds' words, "liberals skirmish with defenders of God, country, flag and family" attempts to render the liberals as peripheral, while the conservatives are "core/central/the sine qua non" in his evaluation of the work of both researchers.
What just happened in France yesterday? The election of a socialist president. And what does that mean for the "skirmish" between liberals and conservatives?
It would seem that public talk (in response to reseachers' questions) might not be congruent with private attitudes, and so long as society requires some kind of public benchmark for believing in its own altruism, the churches, flag, country and family will continue to represent the "old chestnuts" of a once-upon-a-time healthy picture of the world. Similarly the "old chestnut" hymns are those most popular with people in the pews, as if they held a special place in the hearts and minds of worshippers.
"Old chestnuts" whether in hymns or in publicly advocated values are not necessarily representative of either moral goodness, nor religious adherence, nor are they to be regarded as cornerstones for a healthy society and culture...especially when compared with rigorous policies and laws that reduce the number of people without health care by millions, and especially when that kind of comparison was not being asked by either researcher.
Let's look through Reynolds' piece and the work of both researchers with a somewhat sceptical eye, ear and mind-set and examine our very own private attitudes and values, especially in respect of whether or not we support leaders whose lives demonstrate they care for the underclass. Clearly, those answering the questionnaires have different values that an authentic altruism that is more than rhetoric. I wonder where Mr. Reynolds would come down on that scale.