Much is being written about disinformation, post truth, conspiracy and fake news. It think it is now common knowledge that everyone is experiencing too much information but nowhere near enough knowledge or wisdom. Some of us would like to think that we can counter the nonsense with facts. 

The tragic fact is, that facts do not work, except in specific contexts. John Maynard Keynes, an economist, is quoted as saying ‘when the facts change, I change my mind’. That’s fine for someone trained in certain methods and who is interested in how theory actually applies in practice. Karl Popper of course argued for the principle of ‘falsifiability’, being able to disprove your hypothesis with data or new facts, as being a cornerstone of science. But these are arguably exceptions to most debate and thinking today. People just do not share the same theory of what can count as knowledge (epistemology) or agree about the nature of reality (ontology). 

This is especially true in politics and society. 

People instead rely on ‘gut’, our moral intuitions, and where our interests lie, to decide what is true or not. Cognitive biases may exacerbate this normal process so that we ignore facts we don’t like or even reinterpret and retrench when confronted with facts. The ‘backfire effect’ describes how encounters with opposing views actually reinforce your own existing views. 

So, how do we develop our political views in the first place, against which facts and evidence later may not work? 

Using a novel online tool called ‘The Political compass’ (you can find it here: http://www.politicalcompass.org), I find that I fall into the anarcho-leftie corner. This means I am socially and economically libertarian. A Green Marxist. It is also true that my siblings, although born around the same time, into the same family, are different in their political views. How did this state of affairs pertain?  How do I exercise my decision making, my personal agency based on this political orientation. 

One theory of agency, set out by Graham Scambler, is that we are products of simultaneous biological, psychological and social mechanisms which operate ‘behind our backs’, invisible to consciousness. These mechanisms are highly structured, for example by class, gender, ethnicity, culture, but they do not determine our action. We retain the freedom to choose. We must acknowledge the part luck plays in all of this. 

So, today I decide to be an anarcho-leftie green marxist die to a complex interplay combination of luck, biology, social experiences and my psychology. Knowing this I need to be reflexively aware of my own biases, if I wish to have my mind changed as the facts change. Part of this process is being made aware of my moral intuitions, my gut feelings, that tend to steer my own political views. 

The Covid pandemic is providing daily examples of arguments based not on objective rationale analysis, but of intuitive feel, of one’s interests which trump objectivity. Moral intuitions abound, but most of us are blind to them. 

Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist and has studied moral psychology. His answer thaw we develop political views and exercise our agency is not dissimilar to Graham Scambler’s theory of agency. Both focus n the interplay of biology, psychology and social experiences. 

Haidt’s (2012) starting point is that genes play a part in forming our moral intuitions. They do not determine them. We then respond to social triggers and then develop ‘post hoc’ rationalisations to explain our positions.  One of his key principles is that ‘intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second‘. We do not come to political positions through reason, we come to them via our moral intuitions. Our moral intuition is an elephant, our reasoning is merely a rider. When the the elephant moves the rider follows. 

How do we get to be riding a particular elephant?

Haidt argues that ‘genes contribute, somehow, to just about every aspect of our personalities‘ (2012 p323). He argues that genetics explains about a third to a half of the variability among people on their political views. Thus the foundation for our later political positions is ‘innate’ defined as ‘organised ahead of experience’ as a first draft for our political views. This draft then gets revised by childhood experiences. Therefore our political views have a basis in biology and childhood experience rather than forming 100% through adult reasoning. The story you use to understand the world is partly a post hoc reasoning process, driven by earlier intuitions and early experiences.  

There are three stages to this process:

  1. Genes make brains.
  2. Traits guide children along different paths.
  3. People construct life narratives.

1. Brains: The brains of conservatives and progressives are different. This relates to neurotransmitters such as glutamate, serotonin (threat and fear responses) and dopamine (pleasure responses). Conservatives react more strongly to signs of danger than progressives do (glutamate and serotonin), while progressives are more open to sensation seeking and openness to experience (dopamine). Genes give some people brains that are more or less reactive to threat or more or less pleasure in response to new experiences, novelty and change. This is the first draft of your life story, and later behaviour, based on innate genetic structures. 

This feels intuitively right. All of my life I respond well to, and seek out, new experiences and novelty. I am a sensation seeker: travelling, rock climbing, motorcycling and playing music and other experiences that should not be discussed in public!  If I was born with a ‘progressives brain’ then this was my innate ‘organised ahead of experience’ frame of mind, just waiting for childhood experiences to damp down or fire up this innate orientation to the world. 

2. Traits guide children along different paths. I passed my 11 plus and so gained entry to a Grammar School. From the very first I was like a fish out of water. Consciously at the time, it was because none of my friends passed and so they would go to a different school. However, the feeling of not fitting in carried on for 5 years. I also much later thought that being working class did not equip me well for a middle class education. I did not have the social, financial and cultural capital of many of my fellow pupils for whom the path to University would be straightforward. Could it also be that being born with a progressive brain that responds to sensation seeking and novelty that the ethos of the school emphasising the moral intuitions of authority, loyalty and sanctity ran counter to this? According to Haidt, my genetic traits guided me more easily along the path of passive rebellion involving rejection of the school ethos while dreamed of joining the Royal Navy with its promise of exotica overseas. Compared to this, professional training seemed out of reach and quite dull. 

So we start with a genetic predisposition towards or away from novelty and change. So then comes the psychological element of our personality. 

Haidt draws upon Dan McAdams who provides a three stage theory of personality development:

The first stage is the setting down of ‘dispositional traits’ that are long standing from childhood to old age. They operate in various situations. The traits include threat sensitivity, novelty seeking, extraversion and conscientiousness. Perhaps my brain was constructed by genes that makes it lower than average on threat sensitivity and higher than average for pleasure from new experiences. The Grammar School, being an old fashioned institution based on tradition, God and Country did not provide enough novelty to produce pleasure but to someone averse to threat, would provide a perfect home. Perhaps I was also low on the disposition to conscientiousness and so I would not, and did not, put any effort into my studies. Therefore my dispositional traits guided me adversely through Grammar school with the result of me leaving at the earliest opportunity without taking A levels.  Others, averse to threat, and disposed to conscientiousness, found a ready home. 

The second stage is ‘characteristic adaptations’ these are traits that emerge as we grow, and adapt to particular life circumstances. At the Grammar school I learned to bide my time waiting for the moment to run off to sea. I could not see any positives in stuffy tradition and so I developed rejection of authority symbols such as the school tie or singing hymns at assembly. Perhaps I developed the trait of passive resistance as an adaptation to my schooling. Later symbols of traditional authority would be viewed with suspicion and strategies adopted to circumvent their impact on my life. It is now somewhat ironic that I joined an organisation which shared with the grammar school an ethos of tradition, loyalty and authority. Yet, I did so knowing that the Royal Navy would also provide sensations and new experiences. All the ‘Queen and Country’ paraphernalia was taken with a lorry load of salt, as the pay off was sailing to foreign climes. The passive resistance trait stood me in good stead as it allowed me to take the Navy’s bullshit and see it as merely a path to pleasure. The military suits the conservative mind and those with conservative traits would have them reinforced. If I had responded positively to the grammar school ethos of tradition, loyalty as manifest in physical sports, I might have adaptive traits such as ‘rule following’. I don’t.     

Thirdly, McAdams discusses ‘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 narrative are saturated with moral intuitions, ideas about authority, sanctity, care, fairness loyalty and freedom. My life narrative is infused with moral intuitions about care and fairness. Allegiance to authority or stories about 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 social justice and oppression of the weak angles were the draw. 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. 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.   

This life narrative is a post hoc rationalisation based on moral intuitions that emphasises care/harm, Liberty as freedom from oppression and Fairness (these make up my elephant). 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 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 (Gramsci) or the Liberal Educator (Wright 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).

Jonathan Haidt. The Righteous Mind. 2012.