Are Conservatives More Moral?

George Scialabba in Boston Review:

Scialabba_37.5_stackIf you’ve ever argued about politics with someone holding very different views, you surely know that Hume was right: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

In his fascinating, important, and exasperating new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt explores the root of those passions. A social psychologist at the University of Virginia and once a professed liberal Democrat, Haidt is dismayed by the rightward shift of the country’s political center of gravity over the last 30 years. Seeking to understand it, he looks for answers in the different characters of liberals and conservatives and proposes a new, or at any rate newly formulated, theory of our moral and political judgments, which he calls moral foundations theory.

As we all know and often forget, humans are not purely rational. Or, to put it another way, there’s more to rationality than is dreamed of in our everyday philosophies. We have a long, complex evolutionary history, which has left us with a tangled, multilayered psyche and many more motives than we are usually conscious of. With the help of research by a couple of generations of psychologists, anthropologists, and behavioral economists, Haidt has excavated these psychic structures. But before entering on a detailed description, Haidt pauses to emphasize the first principle of any adequate moral psychology: “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.”

Experiments repeatedly show—to oversimplify only a little—that we all believe what we want, regardless of reasons. Changing one’s views in response to an opponent’s arguments is about as rare as an honest member of Congress. (Cases of both are known, but only a few.) Arguments are largely instrumental; they are meant for attack or defense. Most of the time, we argue like lawyers rather than philosophers.

More here.