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Gray on Haidt

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John Gray writes,


With the possible exception of Poland, there is no advanced industrial country as deeply polarized as America is today. Gridlock in Washington is a failure of American politics, and the solution--if there is one--can only come from the resources of America's political tradition.

Haidt's typology may fit the United States, but it has less application for European countries (including Britain) where political consensus is stronger and religion much weaker.

Pointer from Arts and Letters Daily, a venerable, outstanding blog that has surprised me by surviving the death several years ago of its founder, Denis Dutton.

Perhaps the essence of Gray's critique is this:


Human beings are not amoebae that have somehow managed to turn themselves into clever primates. They are animals with a history, part of which consists of creating cultures that are widely divergent. Using evolutionary psychology to explain current political conflicts represents local and ephemeral differences as perennial divisions in the human mind. It is hard to think of a more stultifying exercise in intellectual parochialism.

Gray makes some useful points. However, I think that his strongest criticisms are of positions that Haidt did not take, so that Gray is knocking down straw men.

For example, I do not see Haidt as universalizing the political culture of the United States. Instead, I think he would universalize the tendency for group conflict in politics and religion. Haidt would universalize the inability of groups to resolve their religious and moral disagreements through reasoned argument. On the contrary, reasoned argument can often cause opposing groups to dig in harder. That is my main take-away from The Righteous Mind, and I thought it deserved an extended essay.


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COMMENTS (5 to date)
Curt Doolittle writes:

Yours is the correct interpretation of Haidt.

The problem is worse in the USA than European states because of it's sheer size.

Not only should europe avoid further consolidation, but the USA should reverse its consolidation. Regionalization of political institutions would result not only in increased economic opportunity, but allow regions to explore their tendencies without unnecessary federal conflict.

The problem is not resolvable. The country is too large.

Steve Sailer writes:

What Haidt never quite gets across is that conservatives typically define their groups concentrically, moving from their families outward to their communities, classes, religions, nations, and so forth. If Mars attacked, conservatives would be reflexively Earthist. As Ronald Reagan pointed out to the UN in 1987, “I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world.” (Libertarians would wait to learn the Martian invaders' view on the estate tax.)

In contrast, modern liberals’ defining trait is making a public spectacle of how their loyalties leapfrog over some unworthy folks relatively close to them in favor of other people they barely know (or in the case of profoundly liberal sci-fi movies such as Avatar, other 10-foot-tall blue space creatures they barely know).

As a down-to-Earth example, to root for Manchester United’s soccer team is conservative…if you are a Mancunian. If you live in Portland, Oregon, it’s liberal.

This urge toward leapfrogging loyalties has less to do with sympathy for the poor underdog (white liberals’ traditional favorites, such as soccer and the federal government, are hardly underdogs) as it is a desire to get one up in status on people they know and don’t like.

Steve Z writes:

The writer did not address Haidt head on. Say we ignore the political implications, because they are the less interesting part of Haidt's work. What we have, then, is a typology of types of moral sentiment that people engage in. I see no reason that Russian exceptionalism, for example, should fundamentally alter this typology - after all, humans are animals. And Haidt has enough evidence (not just drawn from the US) that we do have moral "taste receptors" to present a prima facie case.

If Haidt were a psychophysicist, and the theory of colors were politically important, I'm sure people would claim that every culture has its own variant on Fechner's law. This claim would be no more ridiculous than that presented in the essay.

~

Another underappreciated aspect of Haidt's book is the unintentional humor. The part of the book where he puts the UN bumpersticker on his car is hilarious!

Chris K. writes:

"Gridlock in Washington is a failure of American politics"

This is an oft repeated meme, but I believe incorrect. It's not a bug, it's a feature. The structure of the U.S. government was designed to make change very difficult. The more gridlocked government is, the better off we tend to be. How many of the laws passed over the past decade have made us better off? It would be interesting to tabulate the percentage of all laws that have either increased liberty or increased per capita "prosperity" (not sure what the best measure of that would be). Surely both would be disturbingly low.

Gian writes:

"after all, humans are animals"

Correction: humans are rational animals.
Also political animals, contra "Lose the We".

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