A psychologist argues that American conservatives and liberals come from different moral universes:
Jonathan Haidt is hardly a road-rage kind of guy, but he does get irritated by self-righteous bumper stickers. The soft-spoken psychologist is acutely annoyed by certain smug slogans that adorn the cars of fellow liberals: "Support our troops: Bring them home" and "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism."So are sociopaths weird because we have no moral compass while everyone else has some kind of different moral compasses? Or are we just weird because we do have a sense of "morality," but we would just never think to call it that, associate it with random emotions, and/or try to enforce it on everyone else...
"No conservative reads those bumper stickers and thinks, 'Hmm — so liberals are patriotic!'" he says, in a sarcastic tone of voice that jarringly contrasts with his usual subdued sincerity. "We liberals are universalists and humanists; it's not part of our morality to highly value nations. So to claim dissent is patriotic — or that we're supporting the troops, when in fact we're opposing the war — is disingenuous.
"It just pisses people off."
The University of Virginia scholar views such slogans as clumsy attempts to insist we all share the same values. In his view, these catch phrases are not only insincere — they're also fundamentally wrong. Liberals and conservatives, he insists, inhabit different moral universes. There is some overlap in belief systems, but huge differences in emphasis.
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As part of . . . early research, Haidt and a colleague, Brazilian psychologist Silvia Koller, posed a series of provocative questions to people in both Brazil and the U.S. One of the most revealing was: How would you react if a family ate the body of its pet dog, which had been accidentally run over that morning?
"There were differences between nations, but the biggest differences were across social classes within each nation," Haidt recalls. "Students at a private school in Philadelphia thought it was just as gross, but it wasn't harming anyone; their attitude was rationalist and harm-based. But when you moved down in social class or into Brazil, morality is based not on just harm. It's also about loyalty and family and authority and respect and purity. That was an important early finding."
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Haidt went to work for Richard Shweder, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago who arranged for his postdoc fellow to spend three months in India. Haidt refers to his time in Bhubaneshwar — an ancient city full of Hindu temples that retains a traditional form of morality with rigid cast and gender roles — as transformative.
"I found there is not really a way to say 'thank you' or 'you're welcome' (in the local language)," he recalls. "There are ways of acknowledging appreciation, but saying 'thank you' and 'you're welcome' didn't make any emotional sense to them. Your stomach doesn't say 'thank you' to your esophagus for passing the food to it! What I finally came to understand was to stop acting as if everybody was equal. Rather, each person had a job to do, and that made the social system run smoothly."
Gradually getting past his reflexive Western attitudes, he realized that "the Confucian/Hindu traditional value structure is very good for maintaining order and continuity and stability, which is very important in the absence of good central governance. But if the goal is creativity, scientific insight and artistic achievement, these traditional societies pretty well squelch it. Modern liberalism, with its support for self-expression, is much more effective. I really saw the yin-yang."
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[A] range of ethical systems have always coexisted and most likely always will.
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Haidt . . . concluded that any full view of the origins of human morality would have to take into account not only culture (as analyzed by anthropologists) but also evolution. He reasoned it was highly unlikely humans would care so much about morality unless moral instincts and emotions had become a part of human nature. He began to suspect that morality evolved not just to help individuals as they competed and cooperated with other individuals, but also to help groups as they competed and cooperated with other groups.
"Morality is not just about how we treat each other, as most liberals think," he argues. "It is also about binding groups together and supporting essential institutions."
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"I think this is terribly important," he says. "People are not going to converge on their judgments of what's good or bad, or right and wrong. Diversity is inherent in our species. And in a globalized world, we're going to be bumping into each other a lot."