There’s a curious column written by Simon Jenkins in today’s Guardian, in which he discusses our political opinions and allegencies, and where they come from. He references a book by Jonathan Haidt, called The Righteous Mind, on the subject of ‘the social psychology of politics’.
So, you think reason guides your politics? Think again
I thought I could see tribal bigotry at 100 paces and fell it with a Socratic blow, but I was deluding myself – and so are you
Haidt, a lifelong liberal, was baffled at why so many poor and working-class voters kept supporting conservative politicians when it was clearly against their interest.
Haidt’s answer is not just that politics is seldom purely about money. Conservatives are also more in touch with what he calls the “taste buds” of politics. They understand human intuition. They score on such emotions as loyalty to the nation or group, desire for security and authority and a concern for religious and moral purity. Liberals cover just two bases, a sense of fairness and compassion for strangers, thus missing out on a large chunk of human intuition and concern. Above all, they rely too much on an appeal to reason.
To Haidt, reason is not how people wrestle with a problem to find a path to the right answer. That was for the Greeks (the ancient ones). Reason is rather a weapon we deploy to persuade others that we are right, and they use to prove us wrong. It is not a coming together but a driving apart. As David Hume observed, reason is subordinate to the passions. It rides into battle on the elephant of intuition. Hence the advice of modern political tacticians, that politicians should always “talk to the elephant first”. Conservatives are good at talking to elephants.
So what determines these dominant intuitions, that they are so resistant to reason? Psychologists now believe that we owe our political views not to any argued programme, but to some gene pool or acquired tribal loyalty, parental, territorial, educational or occupational. It is part nature, part nurture.
3Di posted this comment below the article:
Sorry, Simon – Haidt’s book is seriously misleading. Neither intuition nor empathy are the enemies or opposites of reason. A 3D understanding of multiple intelligences shows that intuition and empathy are complementary and beneficial intelligences which operate on completely different planes or axes to the intellect.
The enemies of reason are nothing to do with “taste buds”, “moral purity” or genes – the enemies or opposites of reason are our emotions, and our instincts. Emotions stem from fear, hatred, prejudice, ignorance, frustration, greed, envy, excessive pride and ego, etc.
The opponents of truth and reason use a perverted version of reason that’s based on false premises to play on our emotions and our lack of emotional intelligence, and thereby drive us to unsound conclusions and judgements. In certain sections of the media there’s not even an attempt to convince with false logic – they go straight to playing on known prejudices and emotions.
Our instincts are akin to knee-jerk reactions to what’s happening around us. They are the antithesis of thought and reason, and are very valuable when we are in actual danger. The enemies of reason appeal to instinct or no-thought to provoke a reaction which is similar to ‘fight or flight’. It’s well understood that members of a gang or a clique (or a political entity) tend to adopt the attitudes or aggression of the worst or the strongest elements of the gang, and often behave without recourse to thought or reason.
The only true antidote to ignorance and negative emotion is enlightenment. Having already pointed out that forms of reason can be used for both good and evil, we can’t depend on reason to guide us towards enlightenment. Ultimately politics is transcended by enlightened sets of values and virtues – peace, non-aggression, compassion, love, respect for life, etc. All religions teach this, as do spiritual philosophies and humanism. Most children intuitively understand the difference between right and wrong. Intuition is essentially a spiritual intelligence. Intuition is intellect’s greatest ally.
Our best hope for a more enlightened society is through lifelong education. Beginning with the youngest children we need to teach critical thinking and logic, and we also need to educate for higher levels of empathy, intuition, self-knowledge, emotional intelligence and an understanding of our instincts. Needless to say very little of this education for multiple intelligences (and for life) takes place when the focus is mainly or exclusively on ‘academic’ success.