Let the best worldview win: using reason to maintain dignity and fend off the Religious Right

A review of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt, (Blackwell's 2012).

C. S. Herrman
25 July 2018

Bill Clinton on stage to discuss his forthcoming novel, The President is Missing, in Toronto, Canada, June 22, 2018. Dominic Chan/Press Association. Jonathan Haidt is a lifelong Democrat whose objective is to employ what is actual about human behavior to the liberal advantage, with a method tailored, like Dale Carnegie’s, to entice a civil conversation with Republicans.

His 2012 publication is getting another romp into popularity, what with the polarization of our contemporary culture. The outcome presupposes that mutual understanding will win concessions from Republicans at the polls. Haidt almost seems to imply that liberals might best sink to the Republican level (the Karl Rove method?) in the conduct of a war we call electioneering. “I didn’t blame the Republicans for trickery. I blamed the Democrats for psychological naiveté.” 

At the very least, he seems to advise liberals to phrase their positions so as to just enough misrepresent the liberal creed to make it satisfactory and relatively more harmless to Republican voters. Haidt acknowledges the mystery and success of Bill Clinton, who “knew how to charm elephants” – the subconscious intuitive aspect of our being. In reality, Clinton had made it a policy to be a clean cut boy to the moneyed interests, which has been the norm, and with Citizen’s United, a part of the problem negatively influencing fair and open elections.

A Religious Right future

What the arguments of the book in fact proclaim are two counter-intuitive realities: first, the promise of a Republican future, in particular a Religious Right future. Haidt paints Republicans as what could also be termed Honor-based. I wrote in a recent book that the Dignity-based competitor would ultimately win. The present book gives the argument that the Honor-based faction will actually win. Dignity-based folks must now rephrase core values (human justice, governmental accountability, the normative influence of money, and a moderate Supreme Court) and in addition adopt some Honor-based criteria (disproportionately low taxation of the wealthy). Ultimately, it all devolves either to social justice or to whatever titillates the Republican palate. This to me is the 30,000 foot view. 

Second, the bulk of the first two-thirds of the book is an argument that our judgements are engendered and recalled intuitively; reason has far less to do with the assessing of judgements than we might ordinarily suppose. So to approach the conservatives one must go for the intuitionist approach which focuses on presenting yourself as a friendly inquirer. Make friends, (then apologize for past liberal intransigence?). “If you want to change people’s minds, you’ve got to talk to their elephants.” Do not suppose that reasoning with them will work (Haidt maintains a knee-jerk reaction against rationalists), and certainly not argumentation. I am sure Haidt didn’t mean it this way, but one could be forgiven for wondering if liberals shouldn’t just apologize for being liberals. I am sure Haidt didn’t mean it this way, but one could be forgiven for wondering if liberals shouldn’t just apologize for being liberals.

His chief evidence that the Republicans have a built-in advantage comes from a six-tiered accounting of “foundational” ideas: “Until Democrats understand…the difference between a six-foundation morality and a three-foundation morality, they will not understand what makes people vote Republican.” Here are the six: Care/Harm; Fairness/Cheating; Loyalty/Betrayal; Authority/Subversion; Sanctity/Degradation, and Liberty/Oppression. Haidt has evaluated conservative and liberal trends and maintains that liberals pay attention to but three of these foundational categories, whereas the conservatives encompass the whole range.

“If you want to understand another group,” he says, “follow the sacredness”. The difference between liberals and conservatives is how the idea of “sacredness” is applied to these foundational categories. This Haidt does not do. My take, for what it’s worth, is very different from Haidt: the Christian Right considers the last four foundations to be truly sacred (loyalty to country and flag, authority of parents, teachers and conservative courts, sanctity of family values and liberty from taxation and regulation); the liberals are widely considered to value as sacred only the first category (the Care/harm dichotomy, translated simply as “justice”). Haidt’s point, well taken, is that conservatives capture the surface of the entire ocean, whereas liberals suck dry a major lake. His advice is that liberals stretch out a bit. Well taken, but for this…

In reality, however, liberals consider all six foundations to be sacred on principle, to the extent that they all revolve around and are a barometer for matters of social justice and all that the term encompasses, which is rather a lot. Thus, liberals could with reason say that care is sacred, for this is on-the-ground evidence for the presence or absence of social justice; fairness is sacred, for this goes to equity and equality before the law, without which there can be no justice; loyalty is sacred because loyalty to the principles of human dignity is the barometer of concern for justice; authority is sacred in the sense that it implies legitimacy of power in the prosecution of offices necessary to justice; sanctity is sacred if by this we mean that the right of every person to social justice is the core of the socio-political religion of America (liberty and justice for all…); liberty is sacred because it designates the constitutional ground for all that speaks to social justice. In short, make a world safe for justice and you improve the overall machinery at the same time. Hallowed traditions remain what they have always been. Despite this, it remains only natural, and broadly correct, to see the concern of liberals as holding only the care category (and secondarily the fairness foundation) as truly valued. Liberals need to sell their track record on the other five, and the dearth of such a record for the Republicans. 

One-way street

In the process of teaching liberals about these categories, Haidt fails to mention what Republicans and the Christian Right could do to meet liberals half-way. But this book was never about a two-way street; it was tailored to a specific argument: liberals must learn how to wage war successfully; and if adopting Republican strategies in the Rovian sense is merely my impression, Haidt does redouble the need for consistent and sustained efforts to show how much we can empathize with the Republican culture. Presumably, goes the trend of his thought, we can present political advertising and speeches that reduce the fear-impact on Republicans if we would only better understand their culture and apply ourselves to all six foundations.

This last point, however, can actually, reasonably, be accomplished, since liberals more than any other political group in America value the rights of Republicans to live peaceably with their culture intact (even like those immigrants who in part refuse to assimilate). We welcome everybody on their own terms, including the Christian Right, which sincerely believes that liberal values are destructive to the Republican culture. They are parochial; they seem as if desiring to stay by themselves. But it is this fact of “groupishness” that finds Republicans concerned to curry their favor. “Conservatives…are more parochial – concerned about their groups, rather than all of humanity.” Don’t tread on me, my business or my country. It sounds vaguely like the “me-me-me” version of society.

Haidt apparently takes the view that we change Republicans one person at a time with comely, uncontroversial chatter. We return with Spinoza (Pt.IV,Appx, no.17), whom Haidt also quotes: “Men are won over by generosity…. Yet it is far beyond the power and resources of a private person to come to the assistance of everyone in need. It is also impossible for one man to establish friendship with all. Therefore the care of the poor devolves upon society as a whole, and looks only to the common good.” Liberals are the realists in this storybook fairy tale in which the Christian Right solves the nation’s problems through their charity. It is nearly as fatuous as John Mackey (of Whole Foods) selling us on the idea that corporations can solve every problem in the world – if only they would try. Speaking as a liberal, the real challenge is to sell our own view with assurances that we have no interest in reducing any of the rights the Right holds dear.

Speaking as a liberal, the real challenge is to sell our own view with assurances that we have no interest in reducing any of the rights the Right holds dear. This Haidt does not mention. Let the best worldview win. Bernie Sanders ran substantially on this core set of values from an outcomes-based vantage, and performed admirably. Time ran out; though time was never on Sander’s side when it came to the super delegates who ultimately held the cards that counted. These rules are actually being redrawn somewhat. It may well be time for another Sanders approach, one so simple and direct that the stump speech need never be varied. This Haidt does not mention. The polls and the courts, with some notable exceptions, have been increasingly in favor of the Dignity-based worldview. We can take stock in that reality; it is a trend twelve hundred years in the making – from at least the ninth century revival of learning.

Time for reason

I finish where I began, with Haidt’s commitment to present “actual” human behavior and how to take better advantage of it. From Plato’s Timaeus, “Glaucon’s thought experiment implies that people are only virtuous because they fear the consequences of getting caught – especially the damage done to their reputations. Glaucon says that he will not be satisfied until Socrates can prove that a just man with a bad reputation is happier than an unjust man who is widely thought to be good.” This sounds as if it is expedience that rules: “We are descended from a long string of winners in the game of social life. This is why we are Gauconians, usually more concerned about the appearance of virtue rather than the reality….”

Honor-based societies are known by three catchwords: respectability, trustworthiness and merited worth. But the Western world, including America, has become far more Dignity-based over time (known by the catchwords acceptance, faith and inherent worth). We only rarely speak of honor and more and more we speak to dignity. We no longer live in a society where one can expect Honor-based norms to influence our conduct as it did in traditional societies, for example. 

Thus the application of the same principle to corporate behavior is sadly beside the point. But here is Haidt: “I am not anticorporate, I am simply Glauconian. When corporations operate in full view of the public, with a free press that is willing and able to report on the externalities being foisted on the public, they are likely to behave well, as most corporations do.” In today’s press, people believe what they want, not what facts are available. The companies that harm the public are usually found to be beyond shame; they react only to a damaged brand or to threats to business via boycotts; they curry favor with Congress, reducing their responsiveness to public opinion. Only when loss of reputation hits their pocketbook do they listen. This devolves less to ethics than to a form of moral warfare. Later, we get a reprise…

 “So far in this book I’ve painted a portrait of human nature that is somewhat cynical. I’ve argued that Glaucon was right and that we care more about looking good than about truly being good. I’m going to show why that portrait is incomplete. I don’t think we can understand morality, politics, or religion until we have a good picture of human groupishness and its origins. Do we have groupish minds today because groupish individuals long ago outcompeted less groupish individuals within the same group? If so…then this is Glauconian groupishness – we should expect to find that people care about the appearance of loyalty, not the reality. Or do we have groupish mechanisms…because groups that succeeded in coalescing and cooperating outcompeted groups that couldn’t get it together?” This is the so-called “collectivist” argument, straight from the Honor-based cookbook.

In this case we expect parochialism and tribalism as the bywords of this newly minted “reality” of human existence. It values the Honor-based over the Dignity-based, the parochial over broadly national interests, and etc. Reason comes on board to investigate whether and to what extent we can actually be “just” and still sell justice in a viable way to the American electorate. We are well aware that politicians do double-speak; desirous of repute before mysteriously backsliding once in office. Looking respectable, looking honorable is so easy…what our elected representatives do in Congress is neither respectable nor honorable.

It is well-nigh time for a bit of good old-fashioned reason. Is it, then, a matter of comparatively straightforward “reason” to argue against the Republican policies even as we admit friendship to the folks who very purposefully elect them – as if to be just as purposefully oblivious to those responsible? Perhaps so. If Haidt would accept the use of reason, this is what he would doubtless say. I think we can provisionally agree with him. Above all, however, reason dictates that we sell our mission without let or hindrance.


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