10:13

Liberal values

As a general rule, heated up leftovers don't make the best meal. With that in mind, I re-read a blog I wrote in 2012 about Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind which had thoughtful insights into 'liberal' values and the 'conservative' mindset. This has been the year when his ideas have come home to roost....

"David Goodhart was the founder of Prospect and is now an editor at large. His review of Jonathan Haidt's new book The Righteous Mind is one of the most thoughtful I have read. He starts with a vignette of a party that he attended during the dog-days of the Brown government. The party was of the bien pensents of the left who were all deprecating the Prime Minister's speech which had spoken of 'British jobs for British people' - not, it is important to note, 'British jobs for white people'. Goodhart was greatly struck by this as a 'liberal' himself. It occurred to him that if he had asked 90% of the people on the street outside about Brown's speech none would have thought it exceptional - and agreed with the sentiment. What it made him realise was that the people in the room were the 'odd' ones. They, in Haidt's acronym, were WEIRD - western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic. They were a relatively small, but highly influential, subset of the population that saw the world in a rather limited - but certainly not bad - way that had difficulty understanding the mindset of the 'conservative' - note the small 'c'. I have a feeling that WEIRD is going to enter the language like BRICS.

       Haidt's book is fascinating and one that makes you look at the world with different eyes.He is a moral psychologist who studies why we, as humans do they things we do as a group. Morality, he posits, makes groups outside kinship possible - a unique thing in the animal kingdom. He studies how we operate mentally - particularly the balance between intuition and intellect, concluding that we primarily think intuitively - and then engage our intellect to justify that intuition. 


       He believes that the WEIRD's view of the world and morality is formed around 'harm' and 'rights'. If anyone is harmed by someone else that is, ipso facto, wrong and everyone has certain rights. Note that these are all supranational ideas: the job or the wellbeing of someone in Sierra Leone is as important as someone in Glasgow. The logic of this is that if you don't harm anyone and interfere with their rights then anything goes. 


        He goes on to ask whether this is a rather limited view of morality. What, he asks of loyalty to smaller groups - patriotism - or a sense of the sacred - religion or the flag, or authority? These are dismissed by the WEIRD as relics - but have great resonance with 'conservatives'. What is wrong with having a crucifix in an art gallery covered in feces? No one is harmed and no one's rights have been impinged the 'liberal' would say. The artist has the 'right' to make this statement and no person has suffered 'harm'. This logic is fine until you conceive of a statue of Martin Luther King covered in excrement - when the worm turns.


       The point that Haidt makes, as a 'liberal' himself, is that the WEIRD only hear the world in a limited register of harm and rights and fail to hear the extended register of 'conservatives' who have a sense of the sacred and loyalty to smaller groups and a ingrained respect for tradition and authority. Neither is right - in the sense of correct - but this deafness is the cause of much misunderstanding and inability to conceive of another point of view. The WEIRD have won the cultural argument over the past half-century - but their dominance may be ending unless they hear, even if they don't share, the others' point of view."

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