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  • Victor C. Bolles

Righteous Thinking and Foolish Nature

Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist, won the Nobel Prize for Economics (actually the Swedish National Bank’s Prize in Economic Sciences in memory of Alfred Nobel) for his academic work in establishing behavioral economics. In his popular book, Thinking Fast and Slow (2013), he explained that the human brain has two systems. System one thinks fast and system two thinks slow. I call system one the intuitive brain and system two the rational brain. Much of economic theory is based on the assumption that people usually employ their rational brain to make economic decisions. Professor Kahneman showed that this is often not the case. In fact many people use their intuitive brain almost exclusively and almost all of us use our intuitive brain very often (which is why economists can rarely predict economic events with any accuracy).

Jonathan Haidt is also a psychologist and a professor at New York University but dedicates his scientific experiments into the psychology of politics. He has a similar understanding of the human brain and how it operates as Professor Kahneman. The key difference between them is that, while Kahneman believe that the rational brain is lazy and only takes charge in difficult cases where higher level thinking is required, Haidt believes that the intuitive brain is almost always in charge and the rational brain’s primary function is to think up rational reasons for doing what the intuitive brain already decided on doing. This makes us less rational beings than even Kahneman posited and in the current American political environment that is not a good thing.

The current level of political thinking in America is basically that if I am a good person and I believe that public policy should go in a certain direction then anyone who opposes my position must (by definition) be a bad person and their policy preferences evil. This type of thinking has not only led to the current political impasse confronting us but has fostered the low level of political discourse that leads to hate and, potentially, violence. Haidt set out to discover the basis for this problem and what he (an admitted liberal and lifelong Democrat) discovered surprised him.

Haidt has used Moral Foundations Theory as the basis for his analysis. Moral Foundations Theory defines five moral axes as the basis for a system of moral belief; care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Haidt later added the axis of liberty/oppression, which is particularly relevant in political discussions.

What Haidt found in a series of surveys with liberals (better described as progressives), conservatives and libertarians (or classical liberals) was that liberals rated caring and fairness as the most important moral foundations while conservatives rated all the elements as more or less equally important. Haidt found that liberals not only placed less importance on elements such as loyalty, authority and sanctity but that found that they are essentially blind to these moral precepts and cannot credit actions based on those precepts. They condemn conservative principles as evil because they cannot see the moral justification for their actions.

Further, Haidt found that libertarians had a moral structure more similar to liberals than conservatives but with some differences. Libertarians placed much greater emphasis on liberty than did liberals (makes sense). He also found that, while libertarians gave great importance to fairness, their concept of fairness (if you have read any of my other essays or books you know what I think of fairness as the basis for policy) is very different. Liberals view fairness as equality while libertarians view fairness as proportionality. So while liberals would say that equal access to healthcare is fair, libertarians would say that somebody that worked harder should get paid more. You can easily see how these two concepts of fairness would be at loggerheads in the development of tax policy.

Does this mean we are doomed to continue flying past each other on our different moral compasses, unable to agree on anything? I don’t think so. Professor Haidt’s analysis indicates that the actions of most people have a moral basis and that people of other political persuasions are not evil. Conservatives don’t want poor people to die any more than liberals want to destroy western civilization.

If Professor Haidt is correct in his hypothesis that our moral sense originates in our intuitive brain (and that our rational brain primarily develops reasons to support our gut feelings), then rational arguments will do little to sway people from their heartfelt beliefs. Outraged fury on the left and right with the potential to descend into violence will only harden these feelings. Reasoning will not change the others’ position on any issue. So how do we escape from this impasse? Compromise!

If you think about it, the differences between the left and right are complementary. The left represents new thinking, change and renewal. Societies need change and renewal or they will ossify and begin to decay. The right tries to hold on to long-held traditions and values. Too much change too quickly can tear societies apart and descend into anarchy or civil war. A democratic society that goes back and forth between left and right can incorporate necessary change while providing time for cherished traditions to adapt top modern innovations. Any democratic society without both a left and right will be doomed to one extreme or the other.

Professor Haidt’s concept of two types of fairness gives us insight on how to approach the country’s problems that we share in common. As conceived by the founders, America is supposed to be a meritocracy, which would imply proportional fairness over absolute equality. But proportional fairness does not imply that people should starve or be without healthcare. Strict proportional fairness is as unfair as an absolute equality of fairness. (Which is why I recommend a standard of “not too unfair” in the development of public policy in Principled Policy (2016)). If we can agree on policies that the opposing groups can all agree are “not too unfair” then we have created the possibility of compromise. No side will get their perfectly ideal policy. But maybe we can get a policy that actually works.

I would recommend that everyone read Professor Haidt’s book, the Righteous Mind (2013). You do not have to agree with every aspect of his hypotheses to gain insight to our human nature and the basis for our moral systems. Political ideology must sometimes defer to scientific investigation. Between Kahneman, Haidt and others we are gaining insight into our human nature and we would be foolish to ignore these discoveries.

But, of course, we are foolish, aren’t we?

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