I’ve been a leftie all my life.
I’ve supported the left-wing candidate in every election since I was old enough to vote. I routinely grumble about the NDP, but it’s because I want to see more fresh thinking, not a more conservative stance. And there is no doubt in my mind that if I lived in the US, I would be a Democrat.
My political views were formed before I became a Christian. But they’ve always felt like a natural fit with my religious views. Christ stands up for the marginalized and oppressed, ignores social distinctions, prods the powerful and up-ends institutions – all the hallmarks of the left. And he calls us to turn our backs on security through personal wealth, national strength, or the exclusion of others – all the things I associate with the right.
It’s probably no surprise that most people in my social circle, and all the people I see through my work, would describe themselves as “left of centre.” How could it be otherwise? I thing the right are entirely wrong about most things. How could we be friends and colleagues? Should we even try to be?
An answer came through my favourite website, ted.org. TED is a global community with one simple mission “spreading ideas.” Their website contains over 500 short lectures – the longest is 20 minutes, the shortest about 90 seconds — from brilliant international speakers challenged to give “the talk of their lives.” Some of my own favourites include JK Rowling on failure; Barry Shwartz on the paradox of choice (and with a different perspective, Malcolm Gladwell on spaghetti sauce); Elizabeth Gilbert on the muse; Majora Carter on community development in the Bronx; Shaffi Mather on a social enterprise to fight corruption in India; Karen Armstrong on the Golden Rule.
The challenge to my right-left thinking came from social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s lecture on “the moral roots of liberalism and conservatism.” Haidt explored cultural anthropology and evolutionary psychology to better understand the moral foundations of political life. He found five moral foundations that seem to be present in all cultures. They are:
- “Care/harm:” care for others, compassion for the weak and vulnerable, and strong feelings about people who do harm
- Fairness/reciprocity: the belief in equality and justice
- In-group loyalty: the bond that creates tribes, teams and nations
- Authority/respect: cultivated not just by power, but also by voluntary deference and love
- Purity/sanctity: the belief that one can attain virture by what one does with one’s body. Among right-wingers, this belief often focuses on sexual behavior. Among left-wingers, it is often focused on the food one eats.
The difference between liberals and conservatives
Haidt then surveyed thousands of liberals and conservatives in the US and elsewhere. He discovered, as I would have expected, that liberals strongly value care and fairness. Conservatives also value these things, although not to the same extent.
The real difference between liberals and conservatives is this: liberals put almost no value on loyalty, respect or purity. For conservatives, these have equal value to the foundations of liberal morality: care and fairness. As Haidt commented, liberals run on two channels; conservatives run on five.
(You can test your own responses at www.yourmorals.org . I did, and received a bit of a surprise. I know that I am liberal in philosophy but conservative in lifestyle, so I expected to find my scores half way between the liberals and conservatives. When it came to fairness, loyalty and authority, that was indeed the case. I ranked “care” much higher than either the conservatives or liberals – which I thought was a good Christian thing. But then I baffled myself by ranking “purity” much higher than even conservatives – not a Christian value at all. I think this is what a lifetime of drinking milk will do if you’re not careful.
Moral diversity. Moral humility.
The real challenge to my thinking was the challenge Haidt offered his audience of TEDsters. He said (I’m paraphrasing), “If our goal is to understand the world, our lack of moral diversity is going to make it harder. When a group of people all share moral values, they become a team, and when you look at the psychology of teams, you see that it shuts down open-minded thinking.”
“If you think that half of America voted Republican because they were blinded by religion or stupidity, then I suggest you are trapped in a moral matrix.” And then he asks, “Are you ready to cultivate moral humility, to get yourselves out of this self-righteousness?”
Is Haidt saying we shouldn’t strive to right wrongs? He says, “absolutely not.” But he does say we need both a passionate commitment to make the world better and a passionate commitment to the truth.
Friends, I enjoyed Haidt’s findings, but don’t really know where to go with them. What are your thoughts and experiences?