I’ve had my copy of the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind for about 10 days now, and I’m sorry I haven’t gotten around to blogging about it. Longtime readers will know that I’m a big fan of Haidt’s work; we’ve talked about it here on many occasions. I have been so consumed by trying to get the rough draft of my book finished that I haven’t had time to devote to the book. When I get back from Paris, I will remedy this.
All of the above are, in the formulation of a group of North American cultural psychologists, WEIRD—they are from a sub-culture that is Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic. They are, as we have seen, universalists, suspicious of strong national loyalties. They also tend to be individualists committed to autonomy and self-realisation. Balancing that they are usually deeply concerned with social justice and unfairness and also suspicious of appeals to religion or to human nature to justify any departure from equal treatment—differences between men and women, for example, are regarded as cultural not biological.
This is what one might call the secular liberal baby boomer worldview and it is in many ways an attractive and coherent one. It is also for historical reasons, to do with empire, unusually ingrained in the British cultural and political elite, the default position in much of the education system (especially higher education) and the public services more generally, plus significant parts of the media.
The Daily Mail is dedicated to a Kulturkampf against it precisely because it is so powerful. In the neat slogan about British politics since about 1975, “the right won the economic argument, the left won the cultural argument.” But is the left now losing the cultural argument too? Or, to put it another way, is the WEIRD elite coming up against some of the boundaries of everyday morality?
Most traditional societies are “sociocentric,” meaning they place the needs of groups and institutions first. Today most rich societies are “individualistic,” making society a servant of the individual. Yet even in these countries significant traces of our more sociocentric and “groupist” past are to be found in peoples’ instincts and moral intuitions. This has been the message of countless works of popular science since the renewed interest in Darwin (including from the late conservative social scientist James Q Wilson). Humans are not “blank slates” and only partially respond to a WEIRD worldview, we are still also group-based primates and our moral psychology has been shaped by deep evolutionary forces.
And the problem for liberals is that conservatives understand this better than they do. As one conservative friend put it, “it has taken modern science to remind liberals what our grandparents knew.” Ed Miliband’s difficulty is not so much that he is weird but that he is WEIRD. Yet help is at hand in the shape of a truly seminal book—out of that remarkable Amerian popular-science-meets-political-speculation stable—called The Righteous Mindby Jonathan Haidt.
Like Steven Pinker, Haidt is a liberal who wants his political tribe to understand humans better. His main insight is simple but powerful: liberals understand only two main moral dimensions, whereas conservatives understand all five. (Over the course of the book he decides to add a sixth, liberty/oppression, but for simplicity’s sake I am sticking to his original five.)
Liberals care about harm and suffering (appealing to our capacities for sympathy and nurturing) and fairness and injustice. All human cultures care about these two things but they also care about three other things: loyalty to the in-group, authority and the sacred.
As Haidt puts it: “It’s as though conservatives can hear five octaves of music, but liberals respond to just two, within which they have become particularly discerning.” This does not mean that liberals are necessarily wrong but it does mean that they have more trouble understanding conservatives than vice versa.
One of my most politically liberal friends read this book and declared his world view to be transformed. Not that he was no longer a liberal but now “he couldn’t be so rude about the other side, because I understand where they’re coming from.” This will be music to Haidt’s ears as the book was written partly as an antidote to the more polarised American politics of the past 20 years, marked by the arrival of Bill Clinton and the liberal baby boomers onto the political stage.