Michael Marino and the Righteous Mind

About a year ago, my friend Michael Marino took over my high school for a day.

Not in the literal sense, but he presented a persuasive essay titled “the necessity of deportation” with regards to illegal immigration. Outrage over it immediately became the principle subject of discussion in every class for the rest of that day. The only way to describe it was that it was the conservative strawman of the campus left, something from a promotional video for a conservative college group complaining about liberal bias on campus. He was shouted at, people were literally crying, someone went to counselling, he was told he sounded like a white supremacist, you get the point. All of this despite Mike being widely know as one of the kindest and sweetest young men at our school. Someone else dismissed the whole affair because Mike had grown up homeschooled, and if only he had been better socialized he could never articulate such a belief. If you wanted to see the self-righteous and intolerant side of the political left, this could’ve been exhibit A.

Now, my libertarian streak makes me extremely pro-immigration. A truly free market requires the movement of labor to be as free as possible, even across national boundaries. There is little evidence to suggest immigrants, both legal and illegal, commit crime or use welfare at a higher rate than the native born population. Their effect on wages is quite small, and there’s much to be gained economically from someone leaving Haiti, where a day of their labor is worth on average less than a dollar, to Miami, where a day of their labor is worth forty times that (at least). Those economic calculations don’t change just because that Haitian is here on an overstayed visa, and I don’t believe it’s worth the cost, both the literal cost and the larger economic cost of deporting such a large supply of labor, to carry out mass deportations of illegal immigrants. However, Mike’s argument was hardly an unacceptable position, and whenever and wherever the libs are owned, I’m game.

However, my purpose here is not immigration policy, or to make a point about intolerance among the high school/college left. Over my Christmas break I got the opportunity to read The Righteous Mind, by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, now of NYU. It was fascinating read, and if anyone is interested in politics, psychology, morality, and the intersection of all three, it’s well worth the read. In his book, Haidt makes an observation that immediately brought me back to the Mike Marino incident.

Haidt concluded, through his research into anthropology and social psychology, that morality functions similar to taste. Everyone has the same five basic tastes – sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami, from which each culture builds their distinct menus. Similarly, according to Haidt, there are five basic building blocks to morality, and each cultural appeals to these moral tastes in different ways. (Note: Haidt is a scientist, not a philosopher, and he’s more concerned about how morality works than what is moral.)

Haidt’s five axes of morality are: care vs. harm, fairness vs. cheating, loyalty vs. betrayal, sanctity vs. degradation, and authority vs. subversion. (There’s a sixth, but that’s more complicated and not important for us here). Every moral rule in every culture is supposedly rooted in one of these foundations. But as he began building this theory, Haidt began wondering how this might apply to the field of political psychology. He designed an experiment to test if the difference between liberals and conservatives, and their propensity to talk past each other, could be rooted in different moral foundations.

His answer was yes. When filling out his questionnaire, conservatives scored around a 3 out of 5 on their responsiveness to each of the five moral foundations. But liberals were not as uniform. They scored very high on the care and fairness foundations, scoring over a 4, but they had trouble with the other three, scoring around a 2 on appeals to their moral sense of loyalty and authority and even lower on the sanctity foundation.

Looking at politics through the lense of moral foundations, this makes sense. That’s not to say liberals are all godless and subversive traitors with no sense of dignity. But conservatives respond stronger to appeals to their sense of loyalty, authority, or sanctity. Think about Colin Kaepernick. He was offending the conservative sense of loyalty, and they hated him for it. When posed the question “is divorce wrong” (the loyalty foundation) or “children always should obey their parents” (the authority foundation), I’d bet most conservatives would say yes, while most liberals would probably answer “generally yes, but…”

It’s also not to say conservatives are heartless robots who have no problem with cheating. It’s just their appeals to the caring or fairness foundation are different (and less prominent in their messaging) than the left-wing versions. While liberals appeal to the sense of caring through things like Medicare-for-all, conservatives appeal through being tough on crime. The latter might be hard to see, especially for those on the left, but being tough on crime is rooted in the desire to see safer communities. And while liberals appeal to fairness by protesting white privilege, conservatives target affirmative action. It’s two sides of the same coin.

You can see this divide all over the immigration debate. The situation with my friend Mike was no different. The liberals so outraged over his argument were appalled he could advocate for a position so uncaring (anyone who knows Mike know he’s not exactly Mr. Sensitivity.) And his policy of using force to send people out of the land of opportunity back to wherever they came from, regardless of how that might affect them or the danger that might place them in, is admittedly not a very caring position.

But his argument was coming from conservative moral foundations. It emphasized authority (these people broke the law) and loyalty (we as a nation are a group who need to control who comes into our group.) There were lesser appeals to caring (crime from a porous border) and fairness (illegal immigrants and welfare). Only his major appeals, loyalty and authority, weren’t effective on the liberals in the group, who were so offended by his carelessness.

When we fail to understand someone else, it’s possible our moral tastes are just working differently.


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