Review: Of parasites, trust and morality

April 5, 2012

By Martin Langfield
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Without trust, society splits into warring tribes and parasites prosper. The financial crisis of 2008 is a powerful example of what can happen when individuals or small groups set their own gain above the common good. Meanwhile, the U.S. debt debate shows how political polarization can lead to potentially crippling paralysis.

People are moral creatures, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes in “The Righteous Mind.” Citing brain research, evolutionary psychology and the social sciences, Haidt says successful societies use a shared sense of morality to bind citizens to the common good. In a broad sense, religion has been a highly effective tool for building social cohesion and trust. Security expert Bruce Schneier, who charts similar ground in his book “Liars & Outliers,” largely agrees.

Yet people’s moral reactions – feelings of disgust at cheaters and freeloaders, for example – can serve to blind and well as bind. Conservatives may be working from a different moral palette to the one used by the political left. The result, Haidt writes, can be a dialogue of the deaf. Some groups – “Occupy Wall Street” protesters or Obamacare supporters, for example – are motivated by concerns about fairness and sympathy for victims and underdogs. Meanwhile others – like social conservatives and free-market enthusiasts – have a broader set of concerns.

Conservatives, Haidt says, are not immune to questions of fairness, protecting the weak and fighting oppression. But they are also motivated by moral concerns that barely register – or may even be considered immoral – on the left.

Sections of his book could almost have been titled “How a left-leaning academic atheist came to see that conservatives are not just plain wrong.” Haidt lists the “conservative” moral concerns as: loyalty and betrayal; authority and subversion; and sanctity and degradation. Taken to an extreme, these moral motivators can trigger highly tribal and divisive behavior, as seen in controversies over abortion, flag-burning, or excesses in the U.S. response to the attacks of 9/11.

Yet Haidt notes conservatives have an innate ability to appeal to a broader cross-section of people over such concerns, and a cohesive society should address them all. His book is, in part, a plea for Americans on the polarized left and right to understand how each side thinks and reacts in moral terms. Rebuilding trust will serve the common good.

If Schneier agrees with Haidt about the usefulness of moral pressure in keeping groups cohesive and cooperative, he also makes the salutary point that it is impossible – and undesirable – to produce completely compliant societies.

No home, computer system or society can be made entirely safe from attack or subversion, he writes, and trying to do so can end up being counter-productive. Individuals who secede from the values of the society around them may be parasitical – think of self-interested financiers flogging bad mortgages in the 2008 financial meltdown. But they may equally be catalysts of necessary change, as in the Arab Spring or campaigns against slavery. In a police state, as in a failed state, trust is dead, Schneier says. To be healthy, every society needs a few defectors.

 

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