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  • Victor C. Bolles

Righteous Mind Redux

Several years ago, I wrote a commentary about Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind which he published in 2013. I have since referred to Professor Haidt’s book and his more recent book, The Coddling of the American Mind, many times in my other commentaries about economics and politics along with Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. These men are psychologists and not economists or political scientists even though Kahneman has won the Nobel Prize for Economics. More and more I find myself gaining insight to economics and politics from psychology, neurobiology and most recently, from biological anthropology.

In the Righteous Mind, Haidt 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, they are; care versus harm, fairness versus cheating, loyalty versus betrayal, authority versus subversion, and sanctity versus degradation. Haidt later added the axis of liberty versus oppression, which is particularly relevant in political discussions.

Haidt discovered in a series of surveys with liberals (better described as progressives), conservatives and libertarians 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 found that they are essentially blind to these moral precepts and cannot acknowledge the validity of 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 income inequality is unfair, 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.

And while professor Haidt’s analysis provided great insight, I always wondered why progressives are so stuck on absolute equality and fairness that it drives them to paroxysms of anger and hate aimed at all that oppose them. Then I read The Goodness Paradox by Richard Wrangham, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard (as detailed in my recent commentary, Sublimation of the Evolutionary Trap). Professor Wrangham believes that egalitarianism was bred into Homo sapiens over hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary development. He theorizes that lower status males formed coalitions of “Elders” that conspired to kill potential leaders and troublemakers thus eliminating their DNA from the gene pool. The descendants of these egalitarian enforcers now, not only have egalitarianism bred into their DNA but also the propensity to use force to assure egalitarian conformity.

Apparently, not all the troublemakers were eliminated since over the last ten thousand years or so egalitarianism has been virtually eliminated from the face of the Earth and replaced by new hierarchical societies led by strong leaders. Economic development in these agricultural societies was slow, but much faster than the non-growth exhibited by hunter/gatherer societies. In the last five hundred years, ever since the Enlightenment led to a rise in science and scientists, the explosion of innovation that created the Industrial Revolution has changed the world.

However, even though egalitarian societies were overwhelmed by agricultural hierarchies and those agricultural autocracies were overwhelmed by capitalist democracies, a streak of egalitarianism still runs strongly through many people. The excesses of the Industrial Revolution resulted in many people living in abject poverty despite working long hours at what were called “slave wages.” Reformers in the nineteenth century believed that much of this poverty was an inevitable result of private property and especially from the private ownership of the means of production.

Karl Marx believed that capitalism was doomed to fail due to its own internal conflicts and that it would be replaced by socialism where the means of production would be owned by the state and that – over time – this socialist state would transform workers into Socialist Man (sorry ladies) where the very existence of the state is no longer needed. Unfortunately for Marx, this egalitarian paradise was not the future of mankind but the prehistoric past and his Socialist Man our prehistoric ancestors.

Socialists around the world, including the younger generations that have a low opinion of capitalism as inculcated by left-wing academics predominating our universities, are equally deluded as Marx. Socialism is not some bright shiny new concept, but an antiquated and barbaric concept only made possible by forceful oppression that was made obsolete by a peasant walking behind an ox pulling a plow while dropping seeds into the ground.

The fact that socialist states and socialism itself has failed every time it has been tried does not deter them from the belief that if good people apply these principles faithfully socialism will provide the long-sought utopia that Marx and others promised. And it is all due to the fact that these idealists are being driven by evolutionary instincts because for many millennia the “Elders” killed off anybody who had a new idea or wanted to lead their tribe to a brighter future.


So how are we supposed to reason with progressives that have obsessive egalitarian fairness encoded in their DNA by hundreds of thousands of years of selective breeding by the “Elders”? For that matter, how are progressives going to reason with conservatives that are driven to dominance by millions of years of evolution from Homo erectus on down? And the real question is how did our parents and grandparents ever get along well enough for us to create the great Western civilization that we now enjoy?

Not that long ago, Southern Dixiecrats could get along with Northern liberals (whether Republican or Democrat). Just ask Joe Biden. And political discourse was civil and legislation could get passed. Progress in expanding civil rights was slow. But there was progress. Those old-time pols knew how to wheel and deal. But when it came time to close a deal, they knew they had to compromise.

These days there is no compromise. There is only gridlock. As leftwing and rightwing true believers have come to dominate the traditional political parties compromise has been flung out the window as the true believers demand ideological and moral purity of political leaders. But these demands for ideological and moral purity are based on emotions and not on reason.

If you believe that fairness is the most important moral belief, then the current level of income inequality is evil no matter how the inequality occurred. And if you are a Christian baker that believes in the literal truth of the Bible, then baking a cake for a homosexual wedding is evil and morally repugnant. Compromise of your core moral beliefs is impossible. Such compromise is a betrayal of who you are.

But wait a minute. Dr. Wrangham has shown that our sense of fairness has been encoded into our DNA by natural selection over many, many generations. And other moral axes are most likely similarly encoded in our brains. And Doctors Kahneman and Haidt have shown that our intuitive brain is in charge most of the time and it is in that part of our brain that our moral encoding lies. Our moral codes are not based on reason or a faith in Good Books but on millions of years of evolution.

If we can realize that the rigidity of our moral foundations lies in the intuitive brain, then we can use our rational brain to overcome the instincts of our intuitive brain. Our rational brain knows that absolute fairness can never be achieved. Our rational brain knows that homosexuals are not wicked sodomites but people whose brains are wired differently than heterosexuals (Dr. Wrangham has some interesting ideas about that as well).

If we use our rational brains we can agree on an economic system that is not too unfair as well as agree that baking a cake for a homosexual wedding will not condemn you to hell for eternity. The radicals on the left and right are wrong. It is the insistence on ideological and moral purity backed by the power to enforce compliance to that standard that will have truly evil results.

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