NeuroPsychology Of Politics – Conclusion


Jonathan Haidt concludes his discussion with Believer editor Tamler Sommers of University of Houston.

—–     —–     —–

BLVR: Let’s continue with this culture war discussion. You tend to sound quite pessimistic about the state of affairs in America. What are the prospects of discussion between conservatives and liberals, given that conservatives make use of two modules—purity and hierarchy—that we liberals care little about? Are we speaking different languages? How can we get past this?

JH: First, it would help if liberals understood conservatives better. If I have a mission in life, it is to convince people that everyone is morally motivated—everyone except for psychopaths. Everyone else is morally motivated. Liberals need to understand that conservatives are motivated by more than greed and hatred. …

This is where Haidt goes horribly wrong.  Conservatives are NOT any more or less greedy than other populations. Conservative have fundamental dis- agreements about the nature of “good” itself!  It is exactly the broad-brushing, the stereotyping, of conservative ideas that he should be decrying.  Instead, he does the stereotyping  himself!


…And Americans and George Bush in particular need to understand that even terrorists are pursuing moral goods. One of the most psychologically stupid things anyone ever said is that the 9/11 terrorists did this because they hate our freedom. That’s just idiotic. Nobody says: “They’re free over there. I hate that. I want to kill them.” They did this because they hate us, they’re angry at us for many reasons, and terrorism and violence are “moral” actions, by which I don’t mean morally right, I mean morally motivated.  …

A difference with no differentiation!  When I’m dead, I don’t care why you killed me!  It is taking “moral equivalency” to its most extreme form.


BLVR: And at the same time you want liberals to understand that we didn’t go into Iraq just for oil or Halliburton.

JH: Of course not. Bush is Manichean. He really believes that we are in a battle of good vs. evil. Now I think strategically that he led us into disaster. But I never believed for a moment that this was about oil.

Okay.  I’ll let go of Haidt’s neck.  But I’d love to see if his ideas mature along the lines I’ve described.

BLVR: As an aside, I completely agree with you on this. Being in an academic environment, I’m very frustrated with how people view conservatives—as moral monsters whose only goal is to pursue evil. It’s a little like the pro-choice, pro-life debate, where the pro-choice faction looks at the other side as though all they want to do is oppress women—

There you go!

JH: Exactly, exactly. That’s the press secretary at work; that’s what he does. The press secretary doesn’t just explain your actions in the best light. He strips away any possible  MORAL MOTIVATION   for the opponent. It’s the same thing. Liberals want to understand conservatives as motivated only by greed and racism. They think that conservatives just want to hurt minorities and get money. And that completely misses the point.  [emphasis added]

BLVR: So what would the consequences be of everyone understanding that the other side is morally motivated? I guess we could just get down to the nuts and bolts of the issue at hand. [emphasis added again]

JH: We would become much more tolerant, and some compromise might be possible, for example, on gay marriage. Even though personally I would like to see it legalized everywhere, I think it would be a nice compromise if each state could decide whether to legalize it, and nobody was forced one way or the other by the Supreme Court. And then gay people who live in Alabama, if they wanted to get married, could go to Massachusetts. [again]

BLVR: So there are some nice social implications of your theory—if we can understand and apply it properly. I’m curious how your theory has affected you personally. There’s a large element of self-deception that’s involved in moral judgment, according to your model.

JH: That’s right.

BLVR: So I’m curious how that’s affected you in your day-to-day life. Are you more distrustful of moral judgments that you make? Do you find yourself questioning your own motives or beliefs, or do you not take your work home with you?

JH: Well, for one thing, I am more tolerant of others. I was much more tolerant of Republicans and conservatives until the last two years. George Bush and his administration have got me so angry that I find my hard-won tolerance fast disappearing. I am now full of anger. And I find my press secretary drawing up the brief against Bush and his administration. So I can say that doing this work, coming up with this theory, has given me insight into what I’m doing. When I fulminate, my press secretary writes a brief against Bush. Once passions come into play, reason follows along. At least now I know that I’m doing it.

Which, of course, is the main point.  We all have to live here, in the same country.  Its important to claim the differences between our points of view.  Discussion!  Not vituperation!!

BLVR: But knowing that you’re doing it, does that make you, in a calmer moment, concerning your disapproval of Bush or whoever, do you say to yourself: wait a minute, reason is the press secretary of my emotions—I now have reason to distrust this anger.

JH: I don’t do that.

BLVR: Do you think you should?

JH: No. Because I don’t think there’s an objective truth of the matter.

[And YOU know it?  Hmmm.]

Also, outrage is fun. Outrage is pleasurable. I’m enjoying my outrage.

Look closely at this:  “MODERATION” is a big ‘C’ and little ‘c’ conservative value!  Liberals talk about change for its own sake.  Hope and Change.  Its an enormous yet subtle difference and subtly is exactly what’s missing in political discussions.  On all sides.

BLVR: OK, then let’s bring this back full circle. What do you think of Julie and Mark and their consensual sex in the south of France. Is it wrong?

JH: It’s fine with me. Doesn’t bother me in the least. Remember: I’m a liberal. So if it doesn’t involve harm to someone, it’s not a big deal to me. Liberals love to find victims, and incest cases are usually ones in which someone is being harmed. But that’s the trick of the question. They’re both adults, and it’s consensual. So liberals have an especially hard time trying to justify why it’s wrong. But I wrote the story, so I know the trick.

  1. For those who are philosophically inclined, my thinking is as follows: We have moral intuitions. These intuitions were not selected for their ability to “track moral truth,” nor were they even selected for their contributions to human happiness. They were selected, as you say, because they enabled individuals and their relatives to leave more offspring. At the same time, though, these intuitions lead us to believe that the truth of our moral judgments is “self-evident.” (Think of the Declaration of Independence.) So to me it seems that JH’s model lends decisive support to what philosophers call an ERROR THEORY of morality—a theory that attributes widespread error to human beings about the status of moral claims.
  2. Upon reflection a few months later, JH agreed that he should question his anger, and that his response here was a post hoc justification of his anger.

Tamler Sommers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Houston. His collection of interviews, A Very Bad Wizard: Morality Behind the Curtain, is available from Believer Books. He is currently writing a book about cross-cultural perspectives on moral responsibility entitled Relative Justice (Princeton University Press).


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