How the Right-Wing Brain Works and What That Means for Progressives
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For Lakoff, one metaphor in particular is of overriding importance in our politics: The metaphor that uses the family as a model for broader groups in society—from athletic teams to companies to governments. The problem, Lakoff says, is that we have different conceptions of the family, with conservatives embracing a “strict father” model and liberals embracing a caring, empathetic and “nurturing” version of a parent.
The strict father family is like a free-market system, and yet also very hierarchical and authoritarian. It’s a harsh world out there and the father (the supreme and always male authority) is tough and will teach the kids to be tough, because there will be no one to protect them once the father is gone. The political implications are obvious. In contrast, the nurturing parent family emphasizes love, care and growth—and, so the argument goes, compassionate government control.
Lakoff has been extremely influential, but it’s important to also consider other scientific analyses of the moral systems of left and right. Enter the University of Virginia moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, whose new book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion has just come out. In his own research, Haidt initially identified five (and more recently, six) separate moral intuitions that appear to make us feel strongly about situations before we’re even consciously aware of thinking about them; that powerfully guide our reasoning; and that differ strikingly from left and right.
Haidt’s first five intuitions, or “moral foundations,” are 1) the sense of needing to provide care and protect from harm; 2) the sense of what is just and fair; 3) the sense of loyalty and willingness to sacrifice for a group; 4) the sense of obedience or respect for authority; and 5) the sense of needing to preserve purity or sanctity. And politically, Haidt finds that liberals tend to strongly emphasize the first two moral intuitions (harm and fairness) in their responses to situations and events, but are much weaker on emphasizing the other three (group loyalty, respect for authority, and purity or sanctity). By contrast, Haidt finds that conservatives more than liberals respond to all five moral intuitions.
Indeed, multiple studies associate conservatism with a greater disgust reflex or sensitivity. In one telling experiment, subjects who were asked to use a hand wipe before answering questions, or to answer them near a hand sanitizer, gave more politically conservative answers. Haidt even told me in our interview that when someone like Rick Santorum talks about wanting to “throw up,” that may indeed signal a strong disgust sensitivity.
More recently, Haidt and his colleagues added a sixth moral foundation: “Liberty/oppression.” Liberals and conservatives alike care about being free from tyranny, from unjust exertions of power, but they seem to apply this impulse differently. Liberals use it (once again) to stand up for the poor, the weak; conservatives use it to support the “don’t tread on me” fulminating against big government (and global government) of the Tea Party. This, incidentally, creates a key emotional bond between libertarians on the one hand, and religious conservatives on the other.
Haidt strives to understand the conservative perspective, and to walk a middle path between left and right—but he fully admits in his book that conservative morality is more “parochial.” Conservatives, writes Haidt, are more “concerned about their groups, rather than all of humanity.” And Haidt further suggests that this is not his own view of what is ethical, writing that “when we talk about making laws and implementing public policies in Western democracies that contain some degree of ethnic and moral diversity, then I think there is no compelling alternative to utilitarianism.” It’s hard to see how thinking about the good of the in-group (rather than the good of everyone) could be considered very utilitarian.