The Great Divide

November 2, 2017 · 9 minutes read

The day after The Election, I shared my rambling thoughts here.

Probably many of us felt like the election was an aberration, that those who voted for Trump would “wake up” and realize what unspeakable horrors he has brought to our country. That they would come to regret their vote.

This has not come to pass.


How can the rural poor so staunchly support this man, this party, whose policies seem to be in direct opposition to their interests?

Likewise, how can so many women support this man, and his party, that so clearly regard them as less than human?

On its face, it seems inexplicable.

When discussing the motivations of Republican politicians, I have liberal friends who have said that the motive behind certain policies or decisions is simply the desire to be evil, to cause harm.

Why did Reagan do so little to stop the AIDS crisis in the 1980s? Is it because he hated gay people? Is it because he wanted to cause pain and suffering? Is it because he was simply an evil man?

It may be somehow comforting to frame your opponents in this way. To explain away decisions as simply “evil”.

But it can’t be the true reason.

After all, no one thinks he is evil. Everyone is the hero in their own story. Everyone thinks they are doing the right thing.

Hitler didn’t think he was evil. He thought he was doing the right thing!

So how can so many people, who all think they are “good people”, be so divided?

I believe this book does offer an explanation: The Righteous Mind (Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion) by Jonathan Haidt.

When I have tried to explain this book to others who have not read it, I have been stymied in my efforts to convey what it says, and the implications of its message. I am writing this post in part to solidify my own understanding of the book, and to hopefully share it with others.

It challenges deeply held beliefs.

However, Haidt backs up these surprising insights into the human condition with rigorous experimental research. This book is not just a pet theory by some talking head. This is a book by a psychologist and a researcher, and is supported by many experiments in moral psychology.

It is separated into three main sections, each with a sometimes surprising and important fact about the human moral mind.

The first section’s surprising fact is that intuition comes first, and reasoning comes after.

When thinking of some moral question, we all intuit how we feel. When pressed for why we feel like we do, we come up with explanations for our initial intuition… but those are post hoc justifications, not the reason we feel or judge.

It seems surprising, but Haidt offers compelling evidence via many experiments that this is the case.

His analogy is the rider and an elephant. The mind is divided into the rider (the controlled processes) and the elephant (the automatic processes). Moral judgements come too quickly for the rider to be in control… yet it is from the rider what we hear the explanation of why the elephant is taking the path it is, even if the rider doesn’t really know.

The second section is about the underlying “tastes” of moral intuition, and how those differ in different groups. Of course, we know that those of different political stripes will have differing morals. But it’s also true between cultures… the western world versus the east, for example. What are these foundational aspects of morality and how do they differ between groups?

To put this all together: Moral Foundations Theory says that there (at least) six psychological systems that comprise the universal foundations of the world’s many moral matrices. (p.211)

They are:

The Care/Harm Foundation. We have an innate desire to help those of our family, our clan, our species. We want to protect them from harm. All other things being equal, any human is likely to want to keep another human from being hurt or killed. As they are closer to us, of course, the stronger such feelings are (I would choose to save my own son’s life over a stranger’s), but for people other than sociopaths, none of us wants to harm another for whom we have no antipathy.

The Fairness/Cheating Foundation. We live and evolved in social groups. If a member of that group is a freeloader who does not do his work to help the group, we are predisposed to shun that freeloader. Fairness means proportionality; people should get what they give. The idea of karma fits here too; we want to see cheaters punished and good people rewarded for their efforts.

The Loyalty/Betrayal Foundation. Our ancestors who worked in a cohesive group had an advantage over those who either worked alone, or worked in less cohesive groups. Being loyal to a group conferred an evolutionary advantage. This is the result; we demand loyalty to our groups. We can see this in politics… nationalism, and loyalty to a political party.

The Authority/Subversion Foundation. Demand for respect to our elders, to our leaders. Again, thinking of our evolution, we can see how a hierarchy would be helpful for group survival. Those groups which had a clear hierarchy would be more efficient than those who did not have a clear leader, or who were always fighting internally for leadership.

The Sanctity/Degradation Foundation. As omnivores, humans have competing motives. Neophilia, the attraction to new things, confers an advantage to being able to find new sources of sustenance. Neophobia, a fear of new things, protects us from potentially dangerous foods. This foundation of sanctity was driven by the need to avoid pathogens and parasites and poison. We are disgusted by certain things… fecal matter near food, for example. This repugnance helped us survive, and it also formed into complex behaviours and expectations. In some cultures it is a great affront to offer your left (fecal-covered) hand to another. And religions, with explicitly codified morality, offer some very complex ideas of sanctity (halal/kosher foods, or the many other strictures some groups have on what foods are allowed or not).

The Liberty/Oppression Foundation. We notice and resent being dominated. We want to overthrow bullies and tyrants. We see this foundation on the left with egalitarianism and anti-authoritarianism. We see it on the right with a desire for small government.

What is particularly interesting about these moral matrices, and what begins to explain why we are where we are politically in this country and world, is that different groups stress different foundations. Keep in mind now that these conclusions are not just hypotheses, but have been tested empirically over and over.

Everyone cares about the Care/harm foundation, but liberals tend to care more. They are more disturbed by violence and suffering than conservatives and libertarians.

All groups care about Liberty/oppression. But each group treats it differently. Liberals tend to be most concerned about the rights of certain vulnerable groups (minorities, children, animals) and look to government to defend the weak. Conservatives tend to value the right to be left alone and resist caring for one group over another.

Likewise, all care about the Cheating/fairness foundation. People believe in proportionality and the law of karma. But conservatives tend to be more concerned with proportionality than liberals.

The above may not be so surprising. But understanding the differences between groups on the remaining three moral foundations helped me understand, if a little, what we see in society and politics today.

Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, and Sanctity/degradation. These are foundations embraced heavily by conservatives. Liberals tend to be ambivalent. Libertarians care even less.

Liberals have a three-foundation morality, whereas conservatives use all six. Liberal moral matrices rest on the Care/harm, Liberty/oppression, and Fairness/cheating foundations, although liberals are often willing to trade away fairness (as proportionality) when it conflicts with compassion or with their desire to fight oppression. Conservative morality rests on all six foundations, although conservatives are more willing than liberals to sacrifice Care and let some people get hurt in order to achieve their many other moral objectives. (p.214)

Finally, in part three, he explores why humans are so “groupish”. Natural selection was a force on the individual organism. But those who were cooperative with others had an advantage over those who were not, so natural selection is a force on a group level, as well.

We are not just a collection of individuals. We have always worked in groups. We have been successful as a species because we have done so. Religion is one such group. Those who shared a moral matrix and worked in cooperation with each other were more successful.

We are both chimps and bees.

There is individual competition within groups (chimps), but also with other groups (bees). When we work for a larger group, different behaviours emerge that cannot be explained at the individual level. Altruism, heroism, war, and genocide.

Once we are in a group with a shared moral matrix, we accept that, and tend to reject others.

There is no happy ending, I’m sorry. I hope you didn’t get this far expecting one.

Haidt may offer a cogent explanation why good people can disagree so much. But there’s no magic bullet; there is no recipe for fixing this mess we are in right now.

Personally, as I have thought about this book over many months, at least I see answers and understanding where there once was simply puzzlement and dismay.

Here are just three articles I’ve read in the past year which make much more sense to me now that I’ve read this book.

From an interview with Paul Auster:

Tumultuous as those times were, they weren’t as depressing as what’s going on today,” he reflects. “How little has changed in American life since then. Race is still a very big problem. Stupid foreign policy decisions are still being made. And the country is just as divided now as it was then. It seems as though America has always been split between the people who believe in the individual above everything else, and those people who believe we’re responsible for one another.

From a post by Brent Simmons:

I try — earnestly, with good faith — to understand the Republican ideologies.

And I think I’ve figured out one of them: they want to make life harder for poor people so that they have more incentive to become rich, and they want to make life better for rich people to reward success, since it should be rewarded, and since doing so provides even more incentive for poor people to become rich.

If you look at it just the right way, you can see it’s not entirely wrong.

From George Lakoff:

[…]when Lakoff repeatedly says that “voters don’t vote their self-interest, they vote their values,” progressive politicians continually ignore him. His ideas don’t fit in with their worldview, so they can’t hear him.

It may be cold comfort to have some small understanding of why someone chose to support Trump a year ago, and supports him even now.

Surely, however, the path to a better future is a better understanding of where we are today.