I have always been a numbers guy. Numbers and math come easy for me (except calculus – although it might have helped if the graduate assistant teaching the class spoke English). Accounting and finance are not a problem so I have done okay.
People are another matter. I was able to make it through most of my life assuming that people made rational decisions about the economic and financial matters that affected their lives. What to buy. What was too expensive. When to buy a house. Where to buy a house. And so forth. Of course there were exceptions. Otherwise there would be no red convertibles. But basically I thought that most people acted rationally most of the time. I thought that if people acted irrationally nothing would work. Right?
Then I read Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow. Dr. Kahneman pointed out that people rarely make rational decisions. Most of the time people react quickly and instinctively. That’s thinking fast. Thoughtful rational decisions take time to weigh all the pros and cons. That’s thinking slow. Human beings are programmed to think fast. Our relatively defenseless ancestors would not have survived to populate the earth if they thought slowly. Dr. Kahneman, a psychologist, won the Nobel Prize in economics for his work in creating the revolutionary theory called behavioral economics.
Dr. Kahneman’s analogy of people having two brains – one fast thinking instinctual brain and a slow thinking rational brain – is a humongous oversimplification of how the brain actually works. But as simple as his theory is, it explains a lot about the curious way human beings function in real life. And it is not just how they function economically but it covers everything we do.
Jonathan Haidt, another psychologist, wrote in his book, The Righteous Mind, that ethics and ethical thinking are more complicated than just the difference between good and evil. Different people have different ideas on what is good and what is evil. He identified six axes that he believed were the foundation of what people think is ethical. Those axes are the care/harm axis, the fairness/cheating axis, the loyalty/betrayal axis, the authority/subversion axis, the sanctity/degradation axis and the liberty/oppression axis.
People often disagree on what is ethical. For example, on the fairness/cheating axis many believe that if a lot of people work toward a common good, then all the people should share that good equally - that’s fair (from a progressive point of view). Others believe that when some people work harder toward achieving a common good, those that work harder should receive a greater reward -that’s fair (from a conservative point of view) because slackers receiving an equal reward would be cheating those that work hard.
So different people have different beliefs of what is fair based on their different moral foundations. So, in addition to having two brains, we not only have six different ethical foundations, but also different definitions of what each moral foundation stands for. No wonder I was more comfortable with numbers. People are complex.
So now I read more books about how the brain works than I do about economics or finance. But really great books about economics are really about people. Before he wrote The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In that book, Smith described how we are naturally empathetic to the situation of others. But Smith also noted that the empathic feeling a person feels when observing the situation of others is not as strong as the feeling the person has to his own situation. We feel the other person’s happiness or sadness as a result of their situation because we can imagine how we would feel if we were in that situation. So an injustice done to a friend or neighbor makes us angry because we would be angry if that were done to us. An impartial stranger observing the injustice would feel the same. The impartial stranger is our conscience and we act or refrain from acting based on this impartial stranger’s reaction. This is how human beings, as social animals, live in a society with other humans.
Hobbes asserted in his book, Leviathan, that an external power, a sovereign, was necessary to enforce compliance to social norms so that people can live together. But Smith responded that even though we do things that are in our own self-interest, our internal impartial stranger – our conscience, will guide our actions in socially responsible ways. This is the moral society that America’s Founders sought to create.
But getting back to Kahneman, we must admit that these moral feelings are not based on reason but are inherent and instinctual. These feelings help us live together as social animals similar to chimpanzees and bonobos. But remembering Dr. Haidt we also realize that chimpanzees and bonobos, although very similar genetically, have very different societies and very different conceptions of how to live together.
We humans have different cultures and different religions and therefore very different ideas about what actions are moral or not moral. But Dr. Haidt pointed out that people in the same culture or religion can have very different understandings of what is moral and immoral. Further, his research showed that conservatives and liberals place very different emphasis on different aspects of the moral axes. But having different ideas on what is moral or not moral does not mean that one person is good and the other person is evil.
The divisiveness we are experiencing in America in the 21st century, may have originated in these differences in moral concepts, but the expressions of hate, and the undercurrent of potential for violence threaten the very fabric of our society. The current extremes on the right and the left are not constrained by impartial strangers. Rage has shackled our collective consciences. And what has caused this rage? Fear.
The famous Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, warned us about the dangers of what he called psychic epidemics in his book, The Undiscovered Self. “Indeed,” he wrote, “it is becoming ever more obvious that it is not famine, not earthquakes, not microbes, not cancer but man himself who is man’s greatest danger to man, for the simple reason that there is no adequate protection against psychic epidemics, which are infinitely more devastating than the worst of natural catastrophes.”
The most vivid example of such a psychic epidemic in America was the Salem witch trials in 1692 and 1693. Hundreds were accused and 19 were executed for practicing witchcraft. But the mass psychosis in America was nothing compared to the tens of thousands of accused witches that were executed from sporadic psychic epidemics that sprang up across Europe century after century. It was fear that drove people mad. Not a fear of something tangible like a hurricane or an earthquake. But fear of the unknown. Fear is the tool totalitarians use to cow their restive populations.
America in the 21st century appears to be suffering from multiple psychic epidemics. Right wing conspiracy theories abound. Child trafficking pizza parlors. Movies about 2000 mules that stole elections. Conspiracy theories that culminated in the Capitol riot on January 6, 2021. The progressive left promotes the fantasies about systemic racism, microaggression and cancel culture that infect our campuses and corporate boardrooms. There has been a mass hysteria among young people identifying as transgender or LGBTQ. The percentage of young people reporting major depressive episodes has more than doubled since 2004 according to Statista.
These multiple mass psychoses have infected the two main political parties in the US. The leaders of these parties, Joe Biden and Donald Trump, instead of providing the leadership needed to lead America out of this fit of madness, are fanning the flames of fear in their adherents. The fear of MAGA Republicans ending democracy. The fear of stolen elections and the sacrifice of freedom to socialism. Fear is how normal people can be manipulated into doing things that their normal moral compass would never allow them to do as happened to the Germans under Hitler’s totalitarian regime.
There are many causes to these swelling psychoses. The symptoms became increasingly acute with the advent of social media. Helicopter parents have kept their children so safe that they don’t know how to deal the challenges of adult life and require safe spaces to hide from any controversy. They then threaten violence and retribution for any idea that challenges their ideological dogma.
These fears, enflamed by so-called political leaders, have driven people mad. Joe Biden and Donald Trump each have formidable leads over their rivals for their party’s nomination to run for president in 2024, even though most people wish otherwise. Each man is disliked by many more people than support them. FiveThirtyEight reports that both Biden and Trump had unfavorable ratings of 55%. Independents are distraught about the looming train wreck they seem unable to stop.
There are organizations that are attempting to bring reason to the political arena such as Braver Angels (Dr. Haidt is a board member of that group). Many Braver Angels members are faithful Republicans or Democrats and many are supporters of either Joe Biden or Donald Trump. From our in-person and zoom meetings we have learned that people with different political perspectives are not evil. But Braver Angels (and the rest of Americans) need to realize the dangers that confront our country and reject the people causing those dangers.
Political leaders on the right and left are stoking the fears of the people so that they can manipulate them more easily, making them react instinctively. Slow thinking reason doesn’t work with people having a psychotic episode and those are the people supporting the radical fear-induced agendas in their respective parties. We must address the fears that are driving them mad. And that starts with Joe Biden and Donald Trump.
Oh, God! I wish life was as simple as numbers.