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Commentary: Human Nature: The Question behind the Culture Wars

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Why do people so readily assume the worst about the religious motives of their fellow citizens? Why do we let partisanship take precedence over implementing policy solutions? In his new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explores the origins of our divisions and attempts to show the way forward to mutual understanding. In his review of Haidt’s book, Anthony Bradley writes in this week’s Acton Commentary (published Mar. 21) that,”In one sense Haidt is not saying anything that religious leaders and economists haven’t been saying for centuries, namely, that at the root of our understanding of politics are fundamental beliefs about human nature and definitions of morality. In recent decades, Americans have increasingly turned to psychologists as experts on morality and human action.” The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.

Human Nature: The Question behind the Culture Wars

by Anthony B. Bradley

Culture wars can produce nasty rhetoric. Political discourse quickly becomes emotionally charged and divisive. We are tempted to view those with whom we disagree as not only irrational but evil. The culture of demonization of our political opponents is what moral psychologist Dr. Jonathan Haidt seeks to dismantle with his new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt, who serves as professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, believes that we demonize opponents because we do not recognize that everyone values fairness. Moreover, we justify our positions from antithetical moral foundations.

In one sense Haidt is not saying anything that religious leaders and economists haven’t been saying for centuries, namely, that at the root of our understanding of politics are fundamental beliefs about human nature and definitions of morality. In recent decades, Americans have increasingly turned to psychologists as experts on morality and human action. As such, religious and economic texts like Pope John Paul II’sCentesimus Annus, Abraham Kuyper’s Problem of Poverty, and even Thomas Sowell’s Conflict of Visions, which all explain political conflicts as extensions of antithetical views on human nature and morality, are ignored. However, now that a psychologist remixes these themes Americans are willing to listen.

Haidt’s research team identified six moral foundations to analyze and thus explain the differences between progressives (modern liberals) and conservatives: care, liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. After several years of research, Haidt’s team discovered that progressives scored high on their commitments to care, liberty, fairness, and low on loyalty, authority, and sanctity, whereas conservatives evenly care about all six. The result is that progressives and conservatives do not understand each other. They usually talk past each other because issues like welfare, universal health care, and the like, are not where the real disagreements lie. Each side fails to understand the other’s definition of fairness.

Conservatives, for example, value fairness in terms of whether or not free people are able to take advantage of the same processes made available to them in society. Progressives tend to define fairness in terms of equality of material outcome or equality of proportion. Conservatives, then, are more concerned about whether all citizens are free to exercise their gifts and talents, under the law, to meet their own needs through participation in free markets. Progressives, on the other hand, conceptualize fairness as whether people have similar incomes, whether people have the same luxuries in life. They envision a world where the force of government intervention eliminates disparities.

In a recent interview with Bill Moyer, Haidt, a self-proclaimed “centrist” confesses that, “When I began this work, I was very much a liberal. And over time, in doing the research for my book and in reading a lot of conservative writing, I’ve come to believe that conservative intellectuals actually are more in touch with human nature. They have a more accurate view of human nature. We need structure. We need families. We need groups. It’s okay to have memberships and rivalries.” Competition creates the conditions for economic growth, Haidt says, because “cooperation and competition are opposite sides of the same coin. And we’ve gotten this far because we cooperate to compete.” In other words, competition has moral implications.

In the book, Haidt concludes that conservatives have an advantage in connecting with American values because conservative morality equally rests on all six moral foundations. They are more willing to embrace the reality of trade-offs and sacrifice in order to achieve “many other moral objectives.” Moral psychology, says Haidt, also explains why the Democratic Party had struggled to connect with the American people since the 1980s because Democrats have no compelling moral case for their ideas. The lopsided morality of progressives in the Democratic Party is something that Haidt hopes moral psychology can address.

If Haidt’s moral psychology research is right then progressives will be forced to reject long-held presuppositions about human nature. Perhaps moral psychology can help call a truce to the nasty culture wars so that we can stop and discuss what it means to be human—a discussion conducted in the hope that conservatives and progressives can return to sharing the moral foundations that shaped America’s liberties and prosperity.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


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  • RogerMcKinney

    I think Hayek had a better understanding of the cause of the abusive language in politics. It’s related to what economists call the resource curse: in nations where the state owns the natural resources, people spend most of their effort and money trying to control the state so they can capture the enormous wealth that the state controls instead of focusing on entrepreneurship.

    Hayek applied that to culture: when the state dictates culture through the threat of state violence against nonconformists, people will spend most of their money and effort in controlling that power. The power of the state is virtually unlimited, so the prize of capturing the state is intoxicating.

    The only way that we can avoid culture wars is to get the state out of the business of enforcing any cultural values except those that a super majority can agree on. Consent needs to be virtually unanimous. The only principles that people can almost unanimously agree on are the rights to life, liberty and property.

    When the state restricts itself to that trinity, people have no incentive to fight over state power. Then people freely associate with like-minded people and experiment with different social values, as the Amish do or as the hippies of the 60’s did. The consequences are visible to all and people can choose which they prefer.

    That’s why so many on the left are attracted to Ron Paul. They disagree with his Christian values, but they realize he would not force those values on them, beyond the need for protection of life, liberty and property. So they are willing to give up control of the economy in exchange for more cultural freedom and privacy.

    Of course, limited government will not solve the issue of abortion, since the majority has decided that the state should abdicate its responsibility to protect life, as it abdicated its duty to protect liberty when the majority legalized and perpetuated slavery.

    Culture wars involve not just differing values and definitions, but differing concepts of the role of government. The left sees the government as the primary tool for changing human nature and many on the right agree. The left and to some degree much of the right believes the state can perfect human nature with the appropriate laws.

    In addition, the ungodly (a large segment of the US population) hate the truth and will do all they can to suppress it, as Paul wrote in Romans 1.

  • RogerMcKinney

    Tied up in the culture wars is a basic idea of honesty: the Constitution is the law of the land, but dishonest interpretation has gutted it. Hermeneutics is as important to law as it is to interpreting the Bible. Sound hermeneutics is nothing more than honestly interpreting the document. However, the left and much of the right do not care about honesty; they abandon sound hermeneutics and insist that they can make the Constitution say whatever they want it to say by simply calling it a “living” document. That is nothing but a cover for dishonesty. The treatment of the Constitution by the Supreme Court and most presidents since George Washington has been blatantly dishonest. How can anyone debate with people for whom dishonesty is a virtue?

    Original intent is the only honest method of interpreting any document, but if the left and right were forced to follow the US Constitution interpreted according to original intent the federal government would be gutted. The left would have no welfare programs and the right would have to end their love of war.

    Instead, both sides appeal to the “general welfare” clause of the introduction to the Constitution to justify any enlargement of state power they like. In other words, both the left and right say that the introduction ensures unlimited government, even though the entire document after the introduction was intended to limit government. The hypocrisy is absolutely astounding!