Self-Righteous Morality Politics

I’m about 60 per cent done with Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, having just read another couple of chapters and found my way into the third of three sections. As I said at the start, I didn’t think this was quite up my street, but I forced myself to read it to understand the perspective.

I composited this illustration to illustrate what I feel the problem is. I believe the Media-Industrial complex deliberately marginalises and vilified anyone not in-frame. This is flat Earth territory, where passage beyond the boundaries cannot be attained because, if not empty space, it’s filled with monsters.

Media-Industrial Political Frame – United States Edition

I may have depicted myself on a Z-axis, but that may have been more difficult to digest. The effect is the same. In-frame are institutionalists like Haidt who need their adopted morals to unify around.

Firstly, this book is VERY (read: too) focused on the American political condition. It’s more about party politics through a moral lens (Moral Foundations Theory) lens. Although there is some relevance to the wider world, Haidt could have better generalised the model, and this leads me to my second criticism.

Secondly, Haidt is mired in fundamental attribution bias. Because he frames this in the same way he views the world and his world is Liberal Democrats and Conservative Republicans, he excludes many people not beholden to these partisan beliefs. I keep finding myself, saying that doesn’t describe me.

In Haidt’s defence, these party-affiliated automatons do exist and in large numbers, but they are not the whole story. Also in his defence, he was working as a Democratic strategist—rather, speechwriter—so his personal frame was how to get more of these voters to side with a Democratic message that touched on the 5 moral tenets.

If you are someone with a Nietzschean/Foucauldian perspective and a non-cognitivist like me, then you realise that both of these sides are arguing over the definition of morality rather than whether this was all a construct with the intent to manipulate. Since Haidt’s challenge is to convert believers in one moral framework to another—rather, to convince them that the morals they subscribe to are available in different packaging on the other team—, it doesn’t serve his purpose to try to convince those of us who see that the emperor is not wearing any clothing. Telling us that the nonexistent robe is blue rather than red will do little to convince us to manifest a robe.

This chart illustrates that all represented groups value harm [sic. negation of the care-harm value pair) and fairness. Conservatives value Authority, Ingroup, and Purity. I am not sure what he means by ‘moderates’, save to say that they are some imaginary middle. As I associate Liberals with Moderates, it makes little sense to me. He does not clarify this group in the book.

As noted above, my biggest contention is that this group contains institutionalists exclusively, so anarchists are excluded. These people are proponents of social contract theories. Moreover, it excludes noncognitivists who view morals as constructed bollox. Haidt clearly sides with both of these views.

Here is my take on these pairs.

Care – Harm

I don’t feel that these two are a true dichotomy. Neglect or perhaps apathy is the absence of caring. Harm is a negative activity. Although if one cares, one is unlikely to inflict harm (unnecessarily), one can not inflict harm and still not care. Moreover, this is subjective. If a person one cares for dislocates a shoulder, one may inflict pain (harm) relocating it in an attempt to reduce longer-term suffering.

Fairness – Cheating

Both fairness and cheating are loaded terms. As I’ve discussed at length, fairness is defined differently, which creates ambiguity. Haidt acknowledges this, but he does not further parse the distinction. My strongest rejection may be on this pair.

First, if I reject the notion of property, then from my perspective no one has exclusive rights to it. So a ‘society’ like the United States centred on property rights will consider this to be ‘cheating’ the putative property owner and ‘unfair’, but from the opposite vantage, the property owner acquired the property unfairly, and reclaiming the property may be seen as reestablishing balance.

Secondly, perhaps a non-capitalist feels that profits are excessive, so they feel they are entitled to take an item. Even more justifiable might be software piracy, where the ‘property’ is intellectual and not physical, so the producer never loses possession of their ‘good’.

Thirdly, a person from a collectivist culture may assist a mate who is taking a test. The individualist will condemn this as cheating. The collectivist culture may consider this cooperation to be answering to a higher moral calling. As it happens, this also breaks down on biological sex markers, with women answering in line with collectivists.

Authority – Subversion

This is the first Conservative pair. It feels to me that authority is a relationship one doesn’t need to accept out of hand. I suppose respect comes into play here as well. To me, respect is earned, and one does not deserve authority until they’ve proven oneself. I am not big on authority. Perhaps I stand with Liberals on this one. I may not directly subvert or undermine it, but neither do I take it without question.

Loyalty (Ingroup) – Betrayal

I have a tough time thinking about this one. I feel it may be more about what you are loyal to. Even on the Conservative side. For example, when I view Republicans, it appears that these people are loyal to their party but to the detriment of the country and the world at large. Haidt points out that they do not care about the greater world, as they are groupish or tribalists, so this makes sense, but disloyalty to their country is less clear. What I feel is that these people (not unlike the Democrats) are like an invasive species. They feel self-righteous and will only accept a country populated with others who share their values. In practice, a common refrain from these people is that ‘if you don’t like it, just leave’. They do not accept the response that a person might prefer to stay and ‘fix’ it. They’ll betray their country at the drop of a hat.

As I say, Democrats (Liberals) will do this, too, but according to the charge, they aren’t claiming to be loyal from the start. But I disagree with this assertion. I participate in a lot of ‘Vote Blue no matter who’ groups. When I tell them that their candidates suck, they dig in hard. When I point out that their candidates predictably get voted into office and not even fail to follow through on promises, they don’t even pretend to try. I attribute this to the public being loyal to their parties and the party members being loyal to their funders and handlers.

Sanctity (Purity) – Degradation

Defined, sanctity is the state or quality of being holy, sacred, or saintly, so it’s a metaphysical position or claim. This is where Conservatives get hung up on virginity and the such. The body is a temple. Haidt had initially used purity, as captured in the chart above, which is more in line with secular speech but still poses problems.

The argument is that the brain has a module that recognises and distinguishes clean from dirty—potable versus unpotable; edible versus inedible; fresh versus rotten, and so on. Through evolution, humans use this facility to process metaphorical concepts on this same hardware through firmware updates because hardware updates are extremely rare. It’s similar to adapting a GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) to process AI/machine learning for pattern recognition. It was not the original or intended purpose, but it works—sort of.

I believe a counterargument is that this retrofitting is defective and produces poor results. Being a cynic, I see opportunists exploiting this glitch. They want to leave this glitch in place—not that they could remove it anyway—, so they can manipulate the masses. In fact, Haidt’s argument is that Republican operatives know how to work these levers; the problem in his eyes is that Democrats haven’t figured out how to hack their constituents.

Liberty – Oppression

Liberty is another weasel word. This is a dog whistle—or rather a foghorn. And it doesn’t mean much. When I hear ‘Liberty’, it immediately throws up red flags. I interpret it as government-granted freedoms. So, if we are born free—whatever that might mean to you—into a place with a social contract, Liberty are areas carved out where we retain our otherwise inherent freedoms. In this view, liberty has no context outside of government; freedom transcends government. It’s more archetypal albeit nebulous.

Oppression is subjective. I recall reading about casted people in India and Bangladesh. These people would be viewed from a Western lens as oppressed, but they saw themselves as part of a karmic process. They did not feel oppressed. Of course, an interloper from the West might convey their own narrative to convince the other person that they were being oppressed.

It can work in reverse as well. Cognitive dissonance assuaging mechanisms are strong forces. I’ll argue that most Westerners are wage slaves being oppressed by a system, and yet they’ll defend their exploiting Capitalistic system. We’ve been here before.

Last Word

We humans have a dual nature—we are selfish primates who long to be a part of something larger and nobler than ourselves.

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind

“We humans have a dual nature—we are selfish primates who long to be a part of something larger and nobler than ourselves.” This is a quote in the last paragraph of chapter nine, Why Are We So Groupish?

He does provide some sensible albeit not wholly uncontroversial rationale supporting group selection dominating individual or ‘selfish’ selection. I share this quote because this describes him as part of the in-frame groups above.

Like me, Haidt is an atheist. Unlike me, he feels that there is some higher calling. In chapter 9, he discusses how his feelings for Country were triggered by the events of 11 September 2001. This was not my experience. I didn’t believe in countries prior to the World Trade Centre attacks, and I still don’t. I vocally protested the illegal invasion, though I know a lot of Liberals who became drawn in by the Jingoism.

In the terrible days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, I felt an urge so primitive I was
embarrassed to admit it to my friends: I wanted to put an American flag decal on my car.

Jonathan Haidt, openning sentence to chapter 9 of The Righteous Mind, Why Are We So Groupish?

I am a collectivist, so I value social interaction, but I don’t elevate this as some higher purpose. It’s just a potentially beneficial configuration, but not all configurations are so. Again, I’ll suggest that this is his attribution bias affecting his judgment.

And with that, I am out of virtual ink


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