(My thanks to Paul Taylor, an interesting psychological case
in his own right, for recommending it – and my thanks to Tom Palmer for
pointing out the poignant hate-and-factionalism-related picture nearby of a
baby being raised by Klan members and protected by black cops, while being too
young to notice the irony.)
As psychologist turned NYU business professor Jonathan Haidt
writes in this excellent volume, humans plainly evolved to be provokable and
self-righteous, and there are certain predictable modules to their ethical
thinking – some more active in leftists, some in conservatives, some in
Your personality type
really does tend to be predictive of the sort of political faction you’ll end
up in, and once you’re there, you start thinking that faction’s claims are so
patently true that anyone who disagrees must secretly know they’re wrong and be
out to vandalize the world.
Sure, there are a few philosophers and people who
scrupulously try to follow the truth wherever it leads, but psychological
experiments suggest they are even more likely than ordinary folk to engage in elaborate
post hoc rationalizations leading to dogmatism.
Intellectuals are more defensive, so to speak, than your average
And humans really are pretty
sloppy in their ethical thinking: One experiment Haidt recounts suggests you
can even affect survey respondents’ ethical judgments simply by wafting
artificial “fart spray” near them when they give their answers, activating the
“disgust response” in their brains.
Haidt mentions Leon Kass, and I now feel on much more solid
intellectual footing about the blog entry two years ago in which I wrote, “I am
tempted to ask whether...Leon Kass, the bioethicist who believes we should
see disgust reactions as a moral
guide (leading many people away from gays and biotech, for example), could be
duped by an extremely rank act of flatulence into thinking he was in the
presence of pure evil.”
some people can be, anyway.
Disgust isn’t the only thing that matters, though.
Haidt identifies six rough areas of moral
cognition that tend to enter in most people’s moral judgments (with different
areas stressed to greater or lesser degrees depending on temperament, culture,
and political faction), listed here with the opposite of each in parentheses:
fairness (cheating), care (harm), liberty (oppression), loyalty (betrayal),
authority (subversion), and sanctity (degradation).
Interestingly, Haidt suggests that conservatives have a
built-in rhetorical advantage, since they have a near-monopoly on evoking those
last three: loyalty, authority, and sanctity.
Since (I confess) I had forgotten Haidt’s earlier accomplishments while
reading the book, I was a bit taken aback when, in the middle, he recounts
trying to convince failed presidential candidate John Kerry to make appeals to
all of the moral modules instead of just the first three.
Haidt is not just saying there’s something wrong with either
liberal or conservative brains, though.
I believe him when he describes himself as a moderate looking for ways
to get people to stop talking past each other – and vilifying each other.
As he learned from time in India, where
sanctity (and the closely-related idea of purity) is taken more seriously than
in more Western and secular cultures, there tends to be an internal coherence
to a moral system that people fail to appreciate looking in from the
(It may not be coincidence that
an ex of mine from a Hindu family was the most fanatical person I’ve known
about keeping track of dirt and contamination and things-tracked-indoors, even
though, having grown up in the U.S. and studied philosophy, she framed it all
in terms of mostly-legit health concerns.)
I dare say I’ve long been more aware of this need to think
about the internal coherence of seemingly-foreign systems than most people are,
with one manifestation