Getting Along

May 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

Executive Summary

This is an essay about a book written by a social psychiatrist who argues that, by redefining morality and recognizing that choices and judgments are made initially by one’s emotions and then justified by one’s rational mind, and by re-framing the core beliefs that divide liberals and conservatives, it is possible for those two opposing political groups to interact with each other without the kind of mutual hostility that has rendered government incapable of designing solutions for the economic and social problems that presently exist.

My Dilemma

Many years ago I was told that Sam Rayburn, Texas politician,  powerful Speaker of the House of Representatives and political ally of then Senator Lyndon Johnson, had a small wooden sign on his desk:  “If you want to get along, go along.”  To me that summarized everything I disliked about politics and “sell-out” politicians.

I have just finished reading, and re-reading parts of, a book, “The Righteous Mind.  Why Good People are Divided By Politics and Religion” by Jonathan Haidt, a social psychiatrist.  Professor Haidt has caused me to confront the fact that my aversion to compromise leads to a dilemma:  If, as I believe, government must play a significant role in guiding and regulating economic activity in our country, then government must be functional.  If both sides of the political divide react as I do to compromise, then it is improbable that government will be functional.

The extent of that divide seems to be increasing.  Haidt writes, “Technology and changing residential patterns have allowed each of us to isolate ourselves within cocoons of like-minded individuals.  In 1976, only 27 percent of Americans lived in “landslide counties” – counties that voted either Democratic or Republican by a margin of 20 percent or more.  But the number has risen steadily; in 2008, 48 percent of Americans lived in a landslide county.  Our counties and towns are becoming increasingly segregated into ‘lifestyle enclaves,’ in which ways of voting, eating, working, and worshipping are increasingly aligned.  If you find yourself in a Whole Foods store, there’s an 89 percent chance that the county surrounding you voted for Barack Obama.  [Harris County is part of the 11 percent outlier.]  If  you want to find Republicans, go to a county that contains a Cracker Barrel restaurant (62 percent of these counties went for McCain).

“Morality binds and blinds.” (p. 311)

What is”Morality”?

Professor Haidt argues persuasively that morality is based on more than “harm” or “fairness”.  He begins by citing brain research that establishes that our moral reactions to events and statements are primarily and initially based on our emotional, physical responses, not on rational or logical analysis.  He uses a metaphor:  an elephant with a rider to make his case.  The elephant represents our evolutionary-cultural-emotional response to stimuli.  The rider represents our rational mind.  When we encounter an external stimulus, the elephant reacts instantly by leaning one way or the other.  Then the rider, our mind, crafts a justification for the new direction.

He uses several short stories to illustrate his broad definition of non-harm based morality:

Story One:  A man shops each week at a supermarket where he buys a chicken.  Before cooking the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it.  He then cooks it and eats it.

Story Two: The family dog is killed by a car in front of the house.  The family brings it into the house, cooks and eats it.

Story Three:  A brother and sister, both in their 20’s, are traveling on vacation in Europe.  One night, they talk about how it would feel to have sex with each other.  They have sex, using condoms.  They enjoy it but decide to keep the experience as their secret and to never do it again.

Haidt presented one or more of these and other similar stories to a series of subjects.   All declared that they described immoral behavior but, given the fact that neither harm nor unfairness resulted to anyone, the interviewees were hard pressed to justify their opinions.

Haidt spent time in India and South America where he found that moral principles were different from those in North America.  After studying morality in different cultural contexts, he concluded [based also on research done by other scholars] that a subgroup of North Americans:  Western, industrialized, educated, rich and democratic people (given the acronym WEIRD), were actually a small minority of the world’s population measured by moral similarity.   The nature of morality, according to Haidt, depends significantly on the way that individuals are perceived as either autonomously separate entities or as members of a social or religious group.  As he puts it, “The WEIRDER you are, the more you see a world of separate objects, rather than relationships.”  (p. 96)

In other words, he argues that morality is not based on a set of “natural” immutable principles, but rather on cultural norms that vary widely and are based on emotional, irrational reactions shared by groups and subgroups.

Morality and the Pre-wired Brain

In Iolanthe, W.S. Gilbert wrote:

“I often think it’s comical–Fal, lal, la!
How Nature always does contrive–Fal, lal, la!
That every boy and every gal
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative!
Fal, lal, la!”(Iolanthe, Act II)

Professor Haidt does not go so far.  He identifies six “moral foundations of politics” that he relates to the way brains are wired according to wiring layouts that he attributes to both evolution and cultural conditioning.  He does not believe that we are born with clean-slate brains (tabla rasa) that are then formed entirely by experience.  He asserts that our moral beliefs are the result of  our “elephants”, by which he means emotions and intuitions which are, in turn, the result of generally ambiguous forms that we inherit through evolution, fine tuned with added details acquired progressively in childhood and from information during the rest of our lives.

Haidt quotes Gary Marcus, a neuroscientist:  “Nature bestows upon the newborn a considerably complex brain, but one that is best seen as prewired – flexible and subject to change – rather than hardwired,  fixed, and immutable.” (130)

This is one of Haidt’s core arguments.  He asserts that our inherited prewired brains are equipped to embrace or, at least tolerate, a wide range of moral ideas.   That wiring is changed as a result of the groups in which we live, the parenting we experience and the cultural pressures which affect us.   We have, regardless of these influences, salient capacities for accepting other moral beliefs if we understand them and the emotional-cultural “elephants” that produce them.

Haidt believes that if we interact with those with whom we disagree only at the “rider” level – where our “logical” justifications confront their “logical” justifications – there is little or no chance that we can reach any accommodation or meaningful interaction.  If, however, we understand the true, intuitive, emotional  bases for our opponents’ moral beliefs, we can often find corresponding beliefs in our own brains and this can enable civil disagreements and, perhaps, limited agreement.

Haidt does not mention it, but the recent reaction of the black community to Obama’s embrace of gay marriage seems a good example of what he is writing about.  When the opposition to gay marriage was presented as discrimination against people who were trying to raise stable families, it evoked empathy from people whose lives had been long affected by discrimination.  If  it had been presented as a choice between gay and straight life styles, it is unlikely that the result would have been the same.

The Moral Foundations of Politics

Haidt identifies what he claims are the political flavors of morality.  They are:  (1)  The Care/Harm Foundation; (2) The Fairness/Cheating Foundation; (3) The Loyalty/Betrayal Foundation;(4) The Authority/Subversion Foundation; (5) The Sanctity/Degradation Foundation; (6) The Liberty/Oppression Foundation.

In his book, Haidt asserts that, given this list of moral foundations for politics, conservatives have a definite edge because they claim allegiance equally to all six while liberals spend almost all their energy promoting the first two.  Liberals focus on the harm and potential harm that government and corporate business interests do to the environment, to people and to the economy.  Conservatives are not indifferent to the plight of victims of those forces and they share, to some extent, concern over the safety of the air and water we depend on, but their dedication to these issues is constrained by their equal concern over the remaining four foundations.

The libertarian wing of conservatism balances hostility toward government against their concern about caring for the victims of economic dislocation or damage to the environment.  Social conservatives cling to sanctified norms and rules based on religion, even if that results in harm to those who suffer as a result.  Economic conservatives interpret the fairness/cheating foundation as justifying their belief that taxation unfairly deprives successful people of their earned wealth.  They also focus on the “free riders” and “welfare cheats” who benefit from social safety net programs.

Liberals also focus much of their attention on the fairness/cheating foundation.  Their devotion to progressive taxation and the unfairness of the present extent of wealth inequality are results of this focus.  The “Occupy” movement embodies this foundation.

It would prolong unduly this account to describe the ways that liberals and conservatives view these six “foundations”, but Haidt does it intelligently and, I think, mostly fairly.  [I think he went outside the boundaries of reason when he listed Friedrich Von Hayek in the same sentence with Edmund Burke while listing “conservative” writers who had informed his understanding of conservatism.] (p. 290) He makes an interesting point:  That understanding the basis for your opponents’ disagreement with you, enables you to more effectively bargain with them and, perhaps, reach a settlement or, at least, soften their attack on your positions.

Many years of dealing with insurers and juries and judges has taught me the wisdom of this proposition.  At the end of a trial, at night, preparing for next morning’s closing arguments, I have combed through Gideon Bibles for appropriate passages in which to cloak my effort.  The cadences of the King James language are like a subliminal code for speaking intuitively to strangers on a jury.  When representing a client wrongly fired or harmed by a government agency, like a school board, I always reminded jurors that their decision would define, not only the rights of my client, but the rights of all of us who rely on the Constitution, our contract with government.  Libertarians and Tea Party types on juries respond favorably to such arguments.

A Couple of Nuggets

Before concluding this effort I will share a couple of ideas I found interesting in this book.

First, I found an interesting answer to the question:  “Where did all these gods come from?”  Haidt borrows from several writers who waged an attack on religion, but rejects their attack.  He agrees with the first step in their argument:  He writes that, sometime in the mists of ancient history, people began trying to find ways to identify the agents who produced the various events and conditions that threatened them,e.g. floods, famines, earthquakes, storms, diseases, dangerous animals.  They reasoned that if they could identify the causal agents, they might be able to avoid them or placate them and, thus, survive.

To accomplish this identification, they employed the “hypersensitive agency detector”, a facility wired into their brains as a survival tool.  The tool was prone to false positive error:  Most of the agents thus identified had nothing to do with the problem at hand.   False negative errors occurred only rarely:  Actual causal agents were seldom ignored or exonerated from blame.

These devices were designed to be used on a hair-trigger basis.  Delay meant risk of death.  Over time, imaginative overlay encrusted some of these agents and a framework of belief surrounded some of them.   Communities developed around some of the more appealing agents thus identified and they became gods who presided over religions.

The atheist authors quoted by Haidt proceeded from this premise to attack religion as parasitic and harmful.  Haidt disagrees.  He observes that the communities that clustered around these gods served useful purposes:  Adherents believed that gods would be aware of wrongful acts and omissions, even if undetected by neighbors, family members or co-workers.  This discouraged wrongdoing that would have been harmful to the group.  They created in the group a system of opprobrium that shamed wrongdoers, thus further discouraging harmful behavior.  Finally, they built a shared sense of belonging to the group members who worshiped common gods, strengthening the group and helping it to survive.

So, Haidt agrees with the “hypersensitive agency detector” theory of god origination, but concludes that, on balance, the result was and has been beneficial.

My second nugget will expose my inadequate classical education.  I had not read Plato’s account of the argument between Socrates and Glaucon:  Glaucon asks Socrates to assume that a man had the mythical ring of Gyges that could enable a man to become invisible at will.  Glaucon argued that such a man, released from the fear of damage to his reputation as well as from the fear of punishment, would proceed to become a thief and libertine, reveling in all manner of misbehavior.  Socrates responded that, because the man was a citizen, he would feel constrained by his relationship to the city, regardless of whether his conduct was known to others.

Haidt recounts this story from Plato’s Republic, and uses it to side with Glaucon.  The Professor rejects the idea that rationality and inner-directed feelings of propriety would prevail.  He asserts that approval of others is a vital part of human personality and that its absence would likely lead to the consequences posed by Glaucon.  He cites impressive evidence that, despite our claims to the contrary, we all seek and value the approval of others, especially those in the group to which we have chosen to belong.  So, it is lucky for all of us that the ring of Gyges is mythical.


I have not come close to describing the densely packed information in this book.  It deserves careful reading.  Haidt does not ask us to abandon our morality in order to reach agreement with our political enemies.  He does invite us to consider honestly those qualities in our political opponents that might enable civil conversations with them, encourage them to talk about those qualities that appeal to us, like empathy, compassion and economic policies that are consonant with common  sense.  In return, we might concede that every government program that involves the distribution of money attracts cheaters and others who game the system.

Reform of the federal taxation system offers a myriad of opportunities for trading advantages sponsored by “our” lobbyists for reciprocal advantages sponsored by “their” lobbyists.  That politically fraught process can only be done simultaneously by both Democrats and Republicans.  Recognition of this political reality should go far toward crafting a compromise.

I hope this book has wide readership.  I found it in the Houston public library.  It is not the “last word” but it offers a nourishing intellectual picnic.

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