David Blackburn

Interview: Jonathan Haidt on left vs right

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Why are Dennis Skinner and George Osborne locked in enmity? The answer, according to Jonathan Haidt, lies beyond the obvious partisan explanation, and reaches back into humanity’s first nature. Haidt is a professor of moral and social psychology at the University of West of West Virginia, who has written a compelling book, The Righteous Mind, which argues that politics is determined by evolutionary biology and what he terms ‘Moral Foundations Theory’. In a little over 300 pages of incisive prose, Haidt presents a theory that explains why politics is always personal.

His research shows that our high-minded ideals are mere spontaneous gut-reactions, a primeval hangover from our less evolved forebears. He says that intuition comes first, strategic reasoning second. We rationalise in retrospect to justify our impulses. Morality, then, is a social construct. Haidt explains how humans build moral systems on six core foundations: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. 20 years of psychological analysis has revealed that liberals (in the modern American sense of the term) fixate on the first two foundations, while conservatives deal in all 6. This suggests that the right can connect with a larger portion of the electorate, theoretically.  

Haidt’s book is a revelation. It contextualises the peculiarity of Western societies that have elevated the individual above the community, which would suggest why some other cultures resist our conception of universal human rights. It also examines tensions between humanity’s selfish genes and our propensity to group behaviour. And its party political insights are plentiful. Right-wing commentators in particular have been intrigued by Haidt’s findings. In last week’s issue of the Spectator, Toby Young wrote:

‘We [the right] can grasp the importance of protecting people from harm and liberating them from economic servitude, even if we don’t prioritise those principles. Liberals, by contrast, can’t really understand the moral significance of the next four categories. Appeals to things like freedom, honour, patriotism, chastity and law and order don’t make much sense to them.’

Haidt argues that liberals don’t understand the significance of those last four foundations, but he does not say that conservatives understand the principles of care and fairness as liberals do. Conservatives define fairness with reference to proportionality and equity, whereas liberals promote affirmative action to encourage equal outcomes. Small wonder then, Haidt says, that “both sides crucify each other” over issues relating to tax and spending.

Haidt’s favourite saying, both in print and in person, is that ‘empathy is difficult across a moral divide.’ His conception of morality is central to this. There are no moral absolutes, he tells me. Rather, there are “anthropocentric truths” that rely on the passage of time and the “kind of societies we live in”. Haidt is a liberal [in the British sense of the term] who “refuses to say throughout all of human history, from a half a million years ago right up until 40 years ago, [that] all societies were wrong” for not pursuing the cause of equality.

There is no right and wrong, just right and left. John Stuart Mill famously described that confrontation as a ‘necessary element’ in ‘healthy democracy’. But Haidt is the latest American academic to denigrate America’s “dysfunctional” Congress and “polarise”’ electorate. This is a book born of exasperation and no small amount of worry about the US’ “existential problems”. Haidt says:

“It’s a basic demographic and political fact that there are fewer centrists. For the first time ever, there is a perfect split between left and right…and it’s a geographical split, too. It’s not just the coasts and the big cities. Even within metropolitan regions, people will live within certain areas. So around Washington DC, Democrats won’t live in North Virginia because that’s where Republicans live. This is one of our biggest problems because nobody knows anyone anymore.”

He says, tentatively, that he sees the same divides here in Britain, where faction and resentment have inspired crass identity politics and acquisitive rioting.

How then are the chasms to be bridged? Haidt presents a brilliant and accessible thesis on why we are as we are, but he says little about how we might become more equitable. The Telegraph’s Ed West and Tom Chivers have had an interesting exchange over Haidt’s book, and each hopes that they may yet come to understand the other’s position, if not appreciate it. Haidt does not share their optimism, at least where America is concerned:

“There’s so much public revulsion at Congress, but there’s no way to challenge that…I’m hopeful that if political scientists and psychologists work together, we can come up with a few things that, maybe, can harness the public revulsion. That’s part of the story, but even that wouldn’t be enough because although people hate Congress, they tend to like their own Congressman. So it’s very hard to get change. Ultimately, I’m pessimistic for the next five or ten years. But at some point, there will be a President who has control of both Houses and can make major changes.”

Haidt’s contempt for the system is born of experience. “I’ve tried to offer strategic advice to the Democrats for a while, not that anyone listens. My sense is that politics is basically trench warfare 24 hours a day 7 days a week…It’s an incredibly social world where everyone is attentive to who’s in and who’s out, and if they haven’t heard of me then I’m out.”

Haidt is on to something here. The most dispiriting part of my job is reading the press releases which the Tories and Labour fire at each on an hourly basis. None of these splenetic missives bursts the Westminster Bubble; they’re just vehicles for hermetic obsessives. Mainstream political parties in Britain and America are in decline, contracting ever closer to a core of loyal hacks. The great debate in the closing shops of the Bubble and the Beltway is how to enrapture the general public, rather than to enrage it further. Haidt’s weakness is that he does not fully address those facts, because they are at the root of the problem he describes.               

The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt is published by Penguin £11.99.