Human Nature at the Core of the Political Divide
Are you as perplexed as I regarding the acrimony in American Politics? The rift is peppered with claims of amorality and threats of calamity. It’s almost as if the opposing parties come from entirely different realities. Perhaps they do. I have gained some insight into the liberal-conservative divide thanks to Jonathon Haidt’s work, particularly his Moral Foundations Theory.
Haidt contends that the political divide itself boils down to five universal and transcendent morals held to varying degrees by individuals across all cultures and civilizations. He demonstrated how these moral values group in predictable ways. In particular, he has identified two dichotomous groupings that had been previously discussed respectively by John Stuart Mill and Emile Durkheim.
Haidt describes the first cluster as the Individualizing Foundation, where the emphasis of one’s moral imperative is on the rights and welfare of all individuals. Features of this foundation include “widespread human concern about caring, nurturing, and protecting vulnerable individuals from harm” (Haidt, 2009). The second cluster of values is referred to as the Binding Foundation, which weighs more heavily moral issues that increase social cohesiveness and social order. Rather than focusing on individual equality and personal rights, the emphasis of the Binding Foundation is on loyalty, obedience, duty, self-restraint, respect of authority, piety, self-sacrifice for the group, vigilance for traitors or free-loaders, and orderly cultural boundaries.
Haidt noted that liberals value above all the Individualizing Foundation and hold a relative devaluation of the Binding Foundation. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to hold the Binding Foundation as being of equal relative importance as the Individualizing Foundations. This conceptualization helped me understand why less affluent conservatives support the Republican agenda regardless of the negative economic impact that such support bestows upon them. They vote based on values that resonate with them. It also helps explain how people at each extreme can take a stand that they contend is morally superior while their adversaries are viewed as being unprincipled and amoral. The reality is that each perspective stems from a position of deeply held principles.
I recently finished reading Steven Pinker’s book entitled The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Rather than looking at this political divide in terms of morality, Pinker frames it in terms of divergent views of human nature. Underlying this political divide is a deeper and more rancorous debate about what defines human nature. This issue is as old as civilization itself and was, for example, evident in the divergent lifestyles of the conflicted Greek City States of Athens and Sparta. Pinker contends that the political divide really comes down to how individuals attribute the motives and behaviors of people in general. It is a very basic question of how one views the human race and what drives human behavior.
Pinker takes a stand against the commonly held notion that human nature is a blank slate shaped exclusively through environmental circumstances influenced by economic, political, and social forces. The notion of a blank slate concedes social determinism, which is a position that is favored by liberals. Evolutionary biology and cognitive neuroscience bring to the table substantial evidence that suggests that there are indeed genetic or biological determinants of behavior. Accepting this reality comes with the dreadful reality that such notions guided the eugenics movement that resulted in the holocaust (and other horrible crimes of humanity).
As it turns out, political attitudes, for example, are largely, although not entirely, determined by heredity. Pinker quotes a study of political attitudes among identical twins reared apart where the correlation coefficient was .62. This suggests that genetics accounts for 38% of the determination of political attitude. Such a notion is sacrilege to those on the left. It is deeply disturbing for me, as one who leans heavily to the left on political issues, to learn that my inclinations to accept the findings of these increasingly powerful sciences at some level, distances me from other liberal thinkers. How can this be?
You see, liberals emanate from the sociological tradition that holds the position that society “is a cohesive organic entity and its individuals are mere parts. People are thought to be social by their very nature and to function as constituents of a larger superorganism” (Pinker, 2002 p. 284). On the other hand, conservatives tend to hold the belief that “society is an arrangement negotiated by rational, self-interested individuals. Society emerges when people agree to sacrifice some of their autonomy in exchange for security from the depredations of others wielding their own autonomy” (Pinker, 2002 p. 285).
The modern theory of evolution aligns best with the latter economic contract paradigm, where natural selection results in complex individual adaptations benefiting individuals rather than the species or community. This theory holds that “all societies – animal and human – seethe with conflicts of interest and are held together by shifting mixtures of dominance and cooperation” and that “reciprocal altruism, in particular, is just the traditional concept of the social contract restated in biological terms” (Pinker, 2002 p. 285). To make this dichotomy more clear it might help to think of the sociological tradition as being consistent with Marxist thinking while the social contract is more consistent with Milton Friedman’s free-market conservatism.
At the core of these paradigms are very different conceptualizations of human nature. Thomas Sowell has captured this dichotomy in his book A Conflict of Visions where he delineates those visions as being either constrained or unconstrained. Pinker adapted these labels to be more descriptive and thus refers to them respectively as Tragic (a term Sowell later adopted) and Utopian. These visions refer to the “perfectibility of man” whereas the Tragic Vision holds that “humans are inherently limited in knowledge, wisdom, and virtue” and that as a result “all social arrangements must acknowledge those limits.” This pessimistic view of human nature, is steeped in biological determinism and the acknowledgment of self interested motives. The liberal or Utopian View contends that “psychological limitations are artifacts that come from our social arrangements.” It is believed that economic deprivation elicits social depravity and that social engineering can eradicate the ills of society.
Sowell and Pinker suggest that these very visions of human nature shape the belief mechanisms or morals that result in divergent social policies. For example, people who hold the Tragic Vision are more likely to support a strong military because of an inherent human selfishness and the inclination to compete for resources. They are more likely to value religion, tough criminal sentences, strong policing, and judicial restraint because people need to be constrained in order to maintain an orderly and cohesive society. Likewise, because of this pessimistic view of human nature, people inclined to hold such a view are likely to be censorious, meritocratic, pragmatic, and pro business.
People holding the Utopian View are likely to be idealistic, egalitarian, pacifistic, secularist, and more likely to tolerate homosexuality, to be in favor of the rehabilitation of criminals, judicial activism, generous social welfare programs, and affirmative action. They are also more likely to be environmentalists. Pinker’s contention is that all these values, more or less, are heritable and that as a result, people are likely to hold them as self defining. Subsequently, these beliefs are typically not amenable or susceptible to change because they are often held without a rationally based understanding of them. Such deeply held (intuitive) and heritable attitudes quickly spark emotional responses when challenged and people do not move away from such notions even when reason compels them to do so.
So it seems, at the core of the contentious political divide there are discrepant realities pertaining to the very essence of what it is to be a human being. And that essence is evolving regardless of the ideologies that shape the political climate. Perhaps we can escape the gridlock by acknowledging the disconnect between ideology and reality and embrace a truer essence of humanity. That reality, it seems, is a blend of the Tragic and Utopian Visions where human behavior is guided by both social and biological determinants. Reality, as it turns out, is often queerer than one can suppose.
Breaking the chains of ideology necessarily involves abandoning and overpowering intuition, which is itself, a formidable task. But social morays have evolved over time as we have gained deeper insight into humankind. Lets hope for continued evolution!
Graham, J., Haidt, J., and Nosek, B. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 96, No. 5, 1029–1046
Haidt, J. (2008). What Makes People Vote Republican? http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt08/haidt08_index.html
Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Books.