Millions of people around the world wait eagerly to witness an unbelievable public spectacle that takes place every 5 years. No, I’m not talking about elections. I’m talking about the Cricket World Cup. Thousands of people erupt into chanting, cheers and ritualized singing for the team. Some have quipped that, for many Indians, patriotism is only limited to cricket. The majority of us fail to understand that the collective exuberance witnessed during a sports event is not evidence of the patriotism of individuals. It is evidence of something deeper. It is, from a Durkheimian perspective, just a by product of our most basic evolutionary instincts i.e. the formation of a group.
In this piece,I’m going to argue that our moral(and by extension political)outlook of the world is influenced by factors beyond our control. I’m also going to argue that we need both liberals and conservatives for a stable society
The Blank Slate
John Locke was perhaps the earliest thinker who formulated the present form of the “blank slate” theory of human nature. Locke argued that “all materials of reason and knowledge” are derived from “experience”¹. He was targeting the then-uncontested view that human abilities were inherited from a supernatural creator. His argument was categorically against the so called divine right of the kings².
The philosopher Thomas Hobbes held a completely different view. Unlike Locke, he held a negative view of human nature. He claimed that human beings are inherently selfish and brutal. Thus, society needs a strong king to remain stable. Though he was one of the earliest proponents of the social contract theory, he still believed in absolute monarchy.
Hobbes and Locke articulated the earliest form of the “Nature vs. Nurture” debate. Who was right? The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle.
It seems imperative for an individual arguing in favor of an “innate morality” to define “morality” itself. There is no single definition of “morality”. The neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harries argues that morality is “a lot like chess”. In The Moral Landscape, Harris writes:-
“There are surely principles that generally apply, but they might admit of important exceptions. If you want to play good chess, a principle like “Don’t lose your Queen” is almost always worth following. But it admits of exceptions: sometimes sacrificing your Queen is a brilliant thing to do; occasionally, it is the only thing you can do.”
Defining morality in terms of individuating its contents is bound to invite debate. To avoid this problem, the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt defines morality in terms of what it “does”. This is a descriptive and empirical definition. Haidt’s definition lays emphasis on the central value systems of communities. As he writes:-
“It’s a moral community saying, “Here are our central values, and we define morality as being about our central values; to hell with the rest of you.”³
Of Babies and Morality
The Yale psychologist Paul Bloom conducted an experiment on one year old babies in which they were made to watch a puppet show. One puppet rolled the ball to the next,who passes the ball again. The first puppet then passes the ball to a different puppet, who runs away with the ball. Then both the puppets were placed next to a pile of treats. The toddler was asked to take away the treat from one of them. The majority of babies took the treat away from the “naughty” one(the one who ran away with ball). Surprisingly enough, one baby wasn’t satisfied and went on to smack the puppet in the head!
Bloom’s experiment serves as just one of the many empirical evidences for the claim that babies are born with an innate sense of right and wrong. It is not to say that they’re capable of all forms of thinking. Culture as well as self constructed understanding plays a crucial role.
The developmental psychologist Jean Piaget argued that there are certain kinds of thinking which are neither innate nor taught by adults. Instead, these are self-constructed. For instance, kids have a proclivity to focus on a single characteristic of an object during Piaget’s preoperational stage(centration). In one of his experiments, Piaget would pour water into two identical glasses and ask kids if the volume is the same(affirmative). Then he’d pour the same water into a tall but slim glass and ask kids to compare the two. Kids below the age of 6–7 usually considered that the taller glass held more water. They failed to comprehend that the volume of water remains the same when it moves from one container to the other. No amount of teaching from adults can dissuade them from this belief until they’re past a certain age.
The Hive Switch
The ability of individual human beings to transcend their own self-interest in order to protect/become a part of the larger group(“hive switch” as Haidt terms it)has always fascinated me. Not merely because it is seems so obviously counter-intuitive but also because it often ends up harming/even eliminating an individual. From an evolutionary perspective, the replication of an individual’s gene and his survival is of primary importance.
Consider the case of Mohamed Atta, one of the ringleaders of the 9/11 attack. He came from a wealthy family and secured high scores in his university. What is it that led him to risk his life and attack the Twin Towers, killing thousands of innocent people?
The answer to this was perhaps perfectly elucidated by the sociologist Emile Durkheim. According to him, individuals experience two sets of “social sentiments”⁵. The first set of which include “honour, respect, affection and fear which we may feel towards one another.”⁶. These can be explained through Darwinian natural selection⁷. The second set of social sentiments relates to the group as a whole. Dukheim wrote “When I act under the influence of the second, by contrast, I am simply a part of a whole, whose actions I follow, and whose influence I am subject to”⁸.The collective emotions(biologically,a rise in the hormone Oxytocin)that arise from the second set leads humans into the sacred realm, where the interest of the group overrides the interest of the individual. It is this “hive switch” which leads suicide bombers to do what they do.
It is, however, not true that this “collective effervescence” or a sense of belonging “connects you to the whole of cosmos”(pace the absurd New Age thinkers). It only makes you care more about the members of your own “group”. In an experiment, a group of players were divided into small groups and subjected to play a game. One group received Oxytocin spray while the other received placebo spray. The Oxytocin group made less selfish decisions. But it was limited only to members of their own group. Their feelings towards members of the “out-group” didn’t change. In fact, Oxytocin triggered them to hurt members of the “other” group⁹.
Why liberals and Conservative need each other?
During the French National Assembly of 1789, members who supported the preservation of monarchy sat on the right while members who wanted change sat on the left. That’s how “Right-left” came to define “conservatives-liberals.”
Many would claim that I’m reducing politics to binaries.As I’ve argued above,politics came into being due to our innate evolutionary morality and tendency to form groups. Thus, all political debates come down to a single question:- Preserve or change?
Most of us assume that the rich naturally want to “preserve” the order(as the establishment prefers them) while the poor want to “change” things(as the establishment oppresses them). The Marxists are more often than not guilty of reducing political differences to this kind of binaries. Research has proved that this is not the case. While rich industrialists tend to vote right, tech billionaires tend to vote poor. The same goes for poor(urban poor being left and rural poor being right)¹⁰
Thus, social and economic status is not the only marker of predicting political beliefs. What should we look for, then? According to a research done by a group of psychologists, personality is a more reliable predictor of political beliefs. Conservatives are more likely to be conscientious and less likely to be open to new experience. The opposite goes for liberals, who are likely to be high in disorderliness and Openness-Intellect.¹¹
Choices in music, book, cuisine, art, movies can be used to reliably predict your political beliefs. In fact, these choices are a more reliable predictor than the household you were raised in!
Jonathan Haidt illustrates this with the example of two fraternal twins. Both are raised together and attend the same school. The brother is described as being a model student who conforms to the norms while the sister is described as being a creative but rebellious girl who constantly argues with teachers. As they grow older, the sister moves into a large city while the brother stays in the same city and studies in a state university. He becomes an integral part of the local church. The brother resonates with “country first” slogan while the sister becomes a democrat. Moving into a big city means encountering the unknown, chaos and a diverse people(openness to experience, which is positively associated with liberalism). Arguing with teachers and rebelling against the norm is a sign of being “disorderly”. All of these choices were influenced by their personality which in turn is the result of genes over which they have no control.
Liberals lack “moral capital” i.e. the ability of a society to form shared values, norms and beliefs that suppress or regulate selfishness and enable cooperation(Haidt). Totalitarian liberal narratives,for instance, invoke a sense of break with the past and advocate for the creation of utopia. This is also the reason why totalitarian communist states almost always break down on their own. They try to make too many changes too rapidly. It is not to say that moral capital is absolutely good. Consider the case of totalitarian conservative states, which advocate a “return to the glorious past”. These states have high moral capital and brainwash their own citizens to conform to those norms.
A stable functioning society needs both liberals and conservatives. A system dominated by one always leads to totalitarianism. That’s why we need to engage in constructive political debates. A common understanding can only arise if we understand that the other person’s beliefs are motivated by intuitive and unconscious reasons. Let us all accept that often things are not as black and white as they are portrayed to be(as Shashi Tharoor quips “Fifty shades of grey can never be the title of a book on politics”). Personality differences are here to stay. We’re all stuck in the same boat. The storm will harm all of us. Therefore, lets recognize that members of the other group have something valuable to say. Let’s try to engage in friendly and decent disagreements.
1- An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
2- The Two Treatises of Government
3- The Righteous Mind, 2012
4- Wynn, K., & Bloom, P. (2014). The moral baby. Handbook of moral development
6- Durkheim, E. 1992/1887. “Review of Guyau’s L’irreligion de l’avenir.” Trans. A. Giddens. In Emile Durkheim: Selected Writings, ed. A. Giddens. New York: Cambridge University Press.
7- Boehm, C. (2012). Moral Origins: Social Selection and the Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame
8- Durkheim, E. Ibid
9- De Dreu, C. K., L. L. Greer, M. J. Handgraaf, S. Shalvi, G. A. Van Kleef, M.Baas, et al. 2010. “The Neuropeptide Oxytocin Regulates Parochial Altruism in Intergroup Conflict Among Humans.” Science 328:1408–11.
10- Kinder, D. E. 1998. “Opinion and Action in the Realm of Politics.” In Handbook of Social Psychology, 4th ed., ed. D. Gilbert, S. Fiske, and G. Lindzey, 778–867. New York: McGraw-Hill
11- Jacob B. Hirsh , Colin G. DeYoung , Xiaowen Xu , and Jordan B. Peterson. Compassionate Liberals and Polite Conservatives: Associations of Agreeableness With Political Ideology and Moral Values. In Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2010.