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The Righteous Mind

Paul Bickley

Why good people are divided by religion and politics
Jonathan Haidt
Allen Lane, 448 pp

Gillian Duffy, a 65 year-old resident of Rochdale, was a lifelong Labour voter until she met Gordon Brown during the 2010 election campaign. After 'popping out to by a loaf', she was introduced to Brown after calling out a question on the economy. They had a five minute conversation, surrounded by television cameras.

This was reasonably amicable, if not without a bit of grit - Mrs Duffy was angry about immigration from eastern Europe, the welfare system, and cuts to student loans. They parted on civil terms, but once back in his car Brown changed his tune: 'That was a disaster. You should never have put me with that woman… she's just a sort of bigoted woman that said she used to be Labour'. Brown's radio microphone was feeding this reflection directly to the Sky News van.

In spite of a 45-minute visit to Mrs Duffy's home  that evening and an apology, the damage had been done. The event became symbolic of Brown's flaws as a politician - rictus grin, temper, control freakery ironically mixed with inability to control the obvious risks. But I'm not sure that many people felt that Brown deserved censure over his views as such. Wasn't Duffy a bigot? Weren't her views of the quaint-cum-racist-elderly-northerner variety, like my wife's grandma, who swore blind that friends of hers found 'Pakis' living in their loft (she's a staunch Labour voter too).

Historically, the British left has had the advantage of being a wide coalition of interests. GDH Cole called it a broad movement on behalf of the bottom dog, drawing everyone from Marxist intellectuals to Christian temperance campaigners. Hence, swathes of its core voters are firmly Labour yet stubbornly unprogressive. Someone like Mrs Duffy saw herself as part of that coalition because she's on the side of the 'bottom dog' - but they are her grandchildren who she doubts will be able to go to university, her neighbours who can't get the benefits they need while scroungers down the road get a widescreen TV, or the men in her community who can't get a job, in her view because they are going to Eastern Europeans. Brown on the other hand, is more of a moral universalist. Anyone could be a bottom dog - it doesn't matter whether they're Rochdalian or Romanian, except for the fact that the Rochdalians have a vote.

This is the kind of conflict that Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist from New York University, has attempted to explain in what is proving to be an influential book. He believes that by developing a deeper understanding of how political and religious difference and conflict are expressions of underlying moral psychology we can make the public square a more civil place to be. He has three key arguments to make.

First, morality is mainly a matter of instinctive and intuitive judgements - reasoning, more often than not, is post hoc justification for decisions already made, usually with a view to maintaining our reputation. Second - and this is important - human beings have an evolved moral matrix which comprises of six foundations: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/
subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/
oppression. A minority of the global population is WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democratic), and WEIRDs tend to see the world in terms of isolated objects (and individuals) rather than the connections between things.

The chief concern of a WEIRD, therefore, is 'does this action hurt anyone' - they're operating primarily on the care/ harm foundation, and mainly ignore loyalty, authority and sanctity? But, argues Haidt, we should be suspicious of these moral monists - they have no understanding of the motivations of the majority of the world's population. Third, human beings are substantially selfish moral beings but we do have a propensity to form groups - he even wants to make the apparently controversial claim that evolution and natural selection can happen at the level of a group as well as an individual. In fact, 'Gods and religions are group level adaptations for producing cohesiveness and trust', and cohesiveness and trust is the function of morality. Equally, political choices are formed by genetic traits (most simply in response to threat and fear or openness to change), though traits drive people along complex biographical paths and cause people to write complex narratives explaining their beliefs.

This book has already proved influential in the Westminster beltway, since it has given grist to an ongoing debate on the post-liberal politics of Red Tories and Blue Labourites, who share Haidt's (and Gillian Duffy's) instinct that the leadership, language and direction of political parties has managed to become disconnected with voters' political instincts, and that liberalism is too narrow to offer a sufficient grounding for strong civic life. Haidt himself hasn't turned conservative or religious - in fact, he refuses to flesh out his own political/moral views at greater length - it's just that he's realised he needs to understand them.

Much of Haidt's account rings true, and it provides a kind of heuristic to understand why political discourse is often intellectually dishonest. Haidt's account of the six moral foundations is also a useful corrective to the view, which Haidt easily discredits, that something can only be considered wrong if it results in some demonstrable harm. Judging the ins and outs of Haidt's account of the evolution of morality and group level adaption are a bit above my pay grade, though I was left with a feeling that he served up too many Darwinian 'just so' stories, something which he commits not to do early in the book.

Does he help us in his overarching aim of fostering a more civil politics? Haidt imagines that by establishing an evolutionary account of our sharpest moral differences, the result will be a kind of pragmatic realism in political discourse. I'm not sure that this is the most likely outcome. If moral reasoning is post hoc strategic justification for instinctive judgement, then one response might be for politicians to indulge in even more demagogic politics. Haidt's book isn't cynical advice on political triangulation, but it could certainly be used in that spirit (e.g., how Obama can operate the 'authority' foundation through speaking about absentee fathers). No-one any favours by teaching politicians the rhetorical tricks to persuade voters that they share their worldview when they really do not.

Is Haidt's book a symbol of the rise of post-liberal politics? Since her encounter with Gordon Brown, Gillian Duffy's been courted by a series of Labour politicians. Do they share Duffy's concerns on the above, or are they just Brown without the microphone?

Paul Bickley