Richard Handler: Evaluating Jonathan Haidt's liberal-conservative thought experiment

Fairness is valued by both liberals and conservatives, but it means different things to one side or the other, Richard Handler writes.

Let me ask you a question straight out: Have you changed your mind about any hot button political issue, recently? Or do you suffer from what psychologists call "confirmation bias" where what you read, hear or see in the news only confirms the opinion you had in the first place?

Perhaps you think you’re too thoughtful, wise and smart to be so plainly reactive. After all, you take pride in your rationality.

Think again. 

Psychologists like Jonathan Haidt believe reason is the servant of emotion, not the other way around, as many well-meaning rationalists like to think.

Haidt is a psychologist at the University of Virginia and the author of a best selling and insightful book, The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion

He welcomes, even delights in, getting at the core of our assumptions, our reactions, our gut politics.  He believes liberals and conservatives, especially in superheated America, live on different planets and demonize each other.

Take the test

So, taking a cue from Haidt, here’s a test of your political reactions. Play along with me.

Last Friday’s edition of CBC Radio’s The Current dealt with a British parliamentary report that proposed that calling someone obese should be considered "discrimination," a hate crime.

Instinctively, do you react?  Do you agree?  Are you sympathetic to this point of view?

Do you feel (to quote from The Current’s website) that "the West faces an obesity epidemic and people can't be allowed to think it's all right to be fat."

This is what Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York is trying to do in his attempt to ban  extra-large sugary  drinks in his city.  Fat is a public health, not a human rights issue, in the mind of the mayor. 

The trouble is that question, as posed, is entirely in "liberal" terms, according to Jonathan Haidt’s way of thinking. So we’re asked whether "we" should protect obese, vulnerable people from abuse, bullying, an ever-popular topic now. Or whether "society" should protect these people from themselves by banning the products that helped make them fat in the first place.

Liberals, Haidt tells us, value care and empathy. But empathy can extend to either protecting people from bullying or to protecting them from a heart attack. In both cases the instincts are to protect, sympathize and valorize the pain of the other. Empathy is the key emotion.

Conservatives, on the other hand according to Haidt, place more value on authority and something he calls "proportionality." That is, the proper and judicious use of measures which allow personal responsibility. 

It can seem heartless, when people suffer in front of you, often from their own choices. But people must be given the freedom to be fat, if they wish. So goes the conservative argument.

But let’s continue our gut test:  here’s a banner headline, from last Friday’s National Post, which appeared on the front page: Workfare For Reserves: Tories plan ties benefits to job training.

To Haidt’s way of thinking, conservatives, when they read this, would hear a voice in their head exclaiming, "Good for the Tories! Enough welfare! Let people work for their money. Giving people money for nothing is a way to ruin them."

Others, solidly liberal, would say to themselves: "Oh, no, another conservative attack against poor, defenseless people!" After all they’ve suffered another blow.  These people need help.  Don’t attack victims who we’ve "oppressed."

This, then, is a more classic liberal/conservative split. As Haidt would have it, it pits empathy versus personal responsibility.

On a larger scale, do you empathize with out-of-work people, and want their benefits extended? Or do think the rules should be tightened to prevent abuse? (The new EI proposals were the subject of last Sunday’s Cross Country Check Up on CBC radio.)

The liberal/conservative split is not a matter of straight fairness, according to Haidt. It’s a "vision thing," in the immortal words of former President George H.W. Bush, the elder of the Bush presidents.

Soft-touch or inhuman beast

If Liberals are essentially preoccupied with harm inflicted on historic "victims," conservatives are guardians of what they consider larger social arrangements and values. For a demonizing liberal, a conservative is inhuman, beastly, unsympathetic.

For a hard-hearted conservative, a liberal is a soft touch who weakens the very fabric of society.

These are different moral universes.

Fairness is valued by both liberals and conservatives, but it means different things to one side or the other.

So take a breath, argues Haidt, in spite of the fact he knows that’s damned hard to do. Both sides should stop demonizing each other.

In the U.S. that path has led to paralysis and gridlock, non-compromise and contempt. And you can hear this shrill hectoring taking place on both sides of the U.S./Canada border, to different degrees, whether aimed at President Obama or Prime Minister Harper.

The problem is that righteousness, as Haidt readily acknowledges, is   intoxicating. It’s the oxygen of much sneering commentary in traditional media and on the expanding bully pits of the web. But as an emotion, it’s like junk food—full of empty calories.

Righteous is sooo satisfying to imbibe. But it’s deadly to the body politic.