This is the third of a mini series discussing why we differ about our political views. The first addressed a biological component, the second a personality traits component and the third is the creation of a life story.
People construct life narratives. Dan McAdams is quoted in Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind’. and this is his third aspect: ‘Life Narratives‘ as a stage in personality development.
We are story processors not logic processors and we engage in telling, hearing and constructing our own life narratives that give meaning and explanations to experience. These narratives are saturated with the 6 moral intuitions; ideas about authority, sanctity, care, fairness, loyalty and liberty.
My own life narrative is infused with the moral intuitions about care and fairness. Allegiance to authority or stories about ‘sanctity’ – purity of the self – are absent. When I did find myself as a teenager responding to a Christian message it was one based on Jesus’ teachings about the poor. The gospel stories for me were infused and interpreted through ‘social justice’ and ‘oppression of the weak’ hitting the care/harm moral foundation. Later Church teachings that focused on tradition, authority and sanctity left me cold, to the extent I renounced my religion and studied sociology – a perfect home for my traits of sensation seeking, novelty and passive resistance. I found the critiques of conservative societies within sociology literally thrilling. I revelled in contrarian positions that sociology taught. For example the critiques of the nuclear family illustrating the sham that it may be in many cases, and the critiques of religion as a stultifying force whose main aim was conformity and a power grab, were exhilarating
My life narrative embraced progressive understandings of society and politics. Upon reflection, it is no mere accident that I came to read sociology at degree level.
I was not predestined to become progressive, and perhaps a different childhood which supplied social and cultural capital might have seen me working my way through into the professions such as law and voting conservative? As it is, the socialism inherent in the Gospels (as I saw it) but also clearly in the Acts of the Apostles allied to my liking for Marxist theory (passive resistance?) came together to reinforce my genetic tendency for novelty seeking. Both seeing the gospels as anti traditional church and marxist theory were experiences that went beyond, loyalty, tradition and old fashioned ideas of sanctity. I positively revelled in rebellious thinking. Later on, when introduced to sustainability concepts, my ‘righteous mind’ found another home and so I come to construct a narrative about green marxism which nods to the socialism found in the bible.
According to Haidt, this life narrative is a post hoc rationalisation based on my innate moral intuitions that emphasises care/harm, Liberty as freedom from oppression and Fairness. Authority, Loyalty/Tradition and Sanctity/Purity rank very low in my moral universe. Starting with a brain wired for novelty, sensation seeking and new experiences while being below average on threat and hence no need for protection using authority, through to childhood experiences that reinforced this and allowed adaptive traits to evolve, and onto the construction of life narratives that give meaning to experiences and reinforce those traits, I end up voting Green and loathing neoliberalism.
That’s the story Haidt allows me to construct. To more fully understand this theory it is necessary to address Haidt’s “Moral Foundations Theory” which outlines 6 moral foundations underpinning political thinking. Haidt is clear on this, the moral intuitions based on these foundations come first, our political and strategic thinking comes second. They are post hoc rationalisations for what we already feel. Once we have constructed our moral matrix, it binds us together as groups and blinds us to the positions taken by others. This is why conservatives attack lefties for their anti monarchy, anti family, anti religious, anti business positions (lack of authority, loyalty and sanctity) while progressives attack conservatives for their anti welfare, pro military, pro corporate stance (lack of care and fairness). Once you have staked out your moral positions then you engage in rationalisations to defend them. These then are presented as objective, reasoned arguments.
Is there room then for reason to return? Does this mean there is no basis in these post hoc rationalisations? Haidt seems to set up the position that politics can be reduced to understanding moral intuitions and then finding a way to work together to reduce political conflict. However, while there is strong explanatory power to this thesis, what is missing is an analysis of power. There are groups in society who can enforce ideas about authority, loyalty and sanctity as well as enforcing their interpretation of what care and fairness means. I also doubt the degree to which many people turn moral intuitions into carefully thought through post hoc rationalisations.
The political culture war he describes in the US results as he says from unthinking and uncritical moral intuitions and rarely get beyond that. The post hoc rationalisations look more like excuses rather than reasons for holding a position. Perhaps this is only to be expected for populations who have better things to do than to examine in detail the basis for political positions rooted on moral intuitions.
However, for the activist academic as discussed by Antonio Gramsci, or the Liberal Educator as discussed by CWright Mills, there is a responsibility to blow away ideological positions based on moral intuitions to reveal power structures complicit in oppression. Of course I acknowledge this is based on the care/harm and freedom/oppression foundation, but that is the point here and of course might be the left critique of conservative academia, that it is founded too much on authority, loyalty and sanctity that, as Haidt suggests, blinds them to analyses of power.