Friday, November 14, 2008

Moral Diversity part 1

A few years ago I read a most remarkable book. I stumbled across it while stricken by a fierce hangover while in Seattle, on the tail end of a media junket. I was wandering through a book store, killing time before the car arrived to take me back to the airport. And while browsing, I spied this book with the simple but intriguing title Moral Politics, by a chap named George Lakoff, from UC Berkeley.

What could it be about? I read the back, and it immediately drew me in.
In Moral Politics, the first full-scale application of cognitive science to politics, George Lakoff analyzes the unconscious world-views of liberals and conservatives, explaining why they are at odds over so many seemingly unrelated issues - like taxes, abortion, regulation, and social programs. The differences, Lakoff argues, are not mere matters of partisanship, but arise from radically different conceptions of morality and ideal family life - meaning that family and morality are at the heart of American politics, in ways that are far from obvious.
It sought to answer some perplexing questions that I had been ruminating over for years, not least of which were:
  • why was the liberal/conservative spectrum so enduring in politics?
  • why were they so violently opposed to each other's world views?
  • why couldn't they agree on some seemingly basic things, like taxation?
  • why did conservatives consistently resist things like environmentalism - what did that have to do with being conservative?
  • why did people seem to fall into one camp or the other so reliably?
  • and possibly more perplexing of all: why did members of each camp often hold contradictory views?
On this last point, I was often mystified as to why conservatives were often so strongly 'pro life', yet they also supported the death penalty. Or why conservatives would blame the poor for not giving their children a decent upbringing, yet would refuse to support the social programmes that were intended to give them a fighting start. Which is not to say liberals were without their contradictions, such as supporting freedom of expression and association, but they were also laced with conformist unionist collectivism such as compulsory student unionism.

Lakoff's book explained all this, and more. His was the first work that explained to me the underlying psychology of the political spectrum.

I had long thought liberals and conservatives saw the world in different ways: liberals saw the world as a generally safe place and people as generally good natured; conservatives saw the world as a dangerous place and people as generally bad. Liberals were idealists and optimists; conservatives were realists and pessimists. Liberals were also more inclined to take the environment (in the general sense, not the 'green' sense) into account when apportioning praise and blame - hence the strong leftist tradition in this country of the 'Aussie battler' and sympathy for those who are 'doing it tough'. And our converse tall poppy syndrome that leads many of us to consider a rich person as no better than we were, just lucky (at least until the Howard government started to erode this sentiment and replace it was a more vigorous aspirationalism).

Compare this to the more conservative tendency (seen in American more than Australia) to attribute more agency to the individual themselves. Hence a rich person deserves their praise, under the assumption they had worked harder to achieve it. Whereas a homeless person deserved their condition because they hadn't worked hard enough, and if they did turn themselves around, they could pull themselves back out of poverty. Thus their poverty is somehow a product of their choice.

However, until Lakoff's book, I had never understood why liberals and conservatives saw the world in these different ways. Then Lakoff revealed his metaphor of the family as a model for moral thinking:

Liberals are like a nurturant mother/parent, caring and compassionate, encouraging and relaxed, open and egalitarian. The nurturant parent encourages the best aspects of their children and is reluctant to punish them when they stray, preferring to steer them back on course.

Conservatives, on the other hand, adopt a strict father perspective. The strict father is the undisputed head of the family and the final moral authority. The strict father knows his children are wild and untamed, and works to instil in them discipline and self control through a model of reward and punishment. The strict father perspective sees hard work as the path to rewards, and deals harshly with those who don't earn their keep. He can't stand freeloaders and coddling, which encourages laziness rather than endeavour. The strict father also respects authority and order, and is suspicious of chaos or unrestrained hedonism.

So, from this metaphorical framework one can see the different perspectives of liberalism and conservatism emerge. One can also start to see a resolution to some of the perplexing questions raised above. For example, conservatives believe in protecting the innocent unborn as a moral imperative, yet they don't back child support programmes once the babies are born because these go against the principle of 'effort leads to reward'.

Conservatives also don't support big government or welfare because they see that as meddling in the natural order, and undermining self discipline and an ethic of hard work. They would rather let those who work hard succeed and reap the rewards, and can't abide the idea that the government would strip them of those rewards to give them to less deserving folk. Just trawl news stories where conservatives were interviewed before the presidential election - and all the fuss they made about Obama's statement to 'Joe the Plumber' about 'spreading the wealth around'.

I think Lakoff's moral metaphor is impressive and has some real explanatory potency when it comes to a lot of perplexing political phenomena. However, even after I'd finished the book, I felt as if this wasn't the end of the story. There must have been some reason why these two moral worldviews emerged, and why they were so persistent.

It was in evolutionary psychology that I found the answers to the first part of that question, and it is from a combination of moral psychology, evolutionary biology and economic game theory that I think we can find the answer to the second part of that question.

The first part, as I've mentioned before, is that we have hardwired moral intuitions that encourage pro-social behaviour and lent our ancestors a selective advantage in our evolutionary past.

The second part is that there are multiple strategies to promote social cohesion and cooperation, and these can be modelled very effectively by game theory. Broadly, the two strategies are egalitarianism and authoritarianism (although they can go by many names and they each consist of many individual moral dimensions). So, it appears that evolution didn't just endow us with one set of sentiments - either the egalitarian or authoritarian - but endowed us with both, and set them in tension with each other.

This enabled humans to generate a wide range of responses to environmental pressures, and apply the strategy that was most appropriate at the time. This is by no means a perfect system, but it has worked to get us this far. And it also accounts for the stubborn persistence of the political spectrum.

This is the background for my thinking about what I call 'moral diversity' - the thesis that intuitions promoting egalitarianism and authoritarianism are both hardwired into human nature, but not equally in all people. In future posts I'll flesh this view out, drum up more evidence in support, and explore some more implications.


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