Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Morals or Ignorance?

It's not just a morality play.

There has been a plethora of books, papers, and articles in recent years on how personality determines politics. In particular we find an effort to understand the gap between liberals and conservatives on the myriad ways they, we, interpret social phenomena, our religious orientation, our social attitudes, and of course, our political motivations and, ultimately, how we vote. Prominent among these are Chris Mooney's The Republican Brain; Jonathan Haidt's most recent, The Righteous Mind, and material referenced in earlier posts, such as George Lackoff's, The Political Mind, Drew Westin's, The Political Brain, along with the numerous works of Robert Altemeyer.

It is true that different values are driving us, as well as different ways in which people process data, through a moral filtering process. There is also growing evidence that small physical differences in our brains may help explain our different emotional responses, whether we feel disgust, fear, or anger on the one hand, or acceptance, curiosity, or even indifference, on the other.

There remains something lacking in this narrative, however, a narrative that is promoted most enthusiastically by psychologists. And that may be the problem. In a nutshell, it gives too much credence to what are seen as additional moral foundations, and understates the role of ignorance. Indeed, there is a tendency for some, and that would include Jonathan Haidt, to lump such fine qualities as ignorance, prejudice, hate, bigotry, racism and xenophobia into a new sanitized category called morality. Doing so deemphasizes the demonstrable fact that many people are not just processing issues and data through a different set of moral filters, though that is part of it. Nor will it do to declare such reactionary attitudes as simply different but equally legitimate moral code, something that, as Haidt would have it, defines conservative values in ways that liberals seem to not understand and don't appreciate. 

Much of the other material by Mooney, et, al, is not prone to equating hate with morality, but it too may be understating the role of abject ignorance and how it helps drive behavior.

There is a component to all of this that is far more prosaic. Many of us are cocksure in our views on sundry issues and policies, yet the briefest of inquiries reveals not merely different opinions, but testable ignorance of the most elementary facts. In other words, many will arrive at their viewpoints not through or entirely through, considered analysis, different world view, moral framework, or ethical sensibilities. Instead, opinions and attitudes are far too often developed and retained through abject ignorance. People are, as the saying goes, entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.

You cannot, for example, make a scientific or factual case for creationism. You hold creationist views because they accord with your religion-imbued sense of morality, to be sure, but also because you do not understand evolution, will not consider it, and often find comfort making demonstrably misinformed comments about it.

Creationism is but one example; the same goes for so much else. I've mentioned Haidt, who has developed the idea of conservatism as additional layers of morality, layers he says liberals don't have. I will revisit his theses, because there is much there, and much that is challengeable.

Of course, the issue remains why many of us have the propensity to misinterpret or show a willful refusal to consider alternative analyses. Apparently it is easier for certain squeamish academics to pretend that wildly different viewpoints are, on some level, equally valid, than it is to declare that an opinion on various issues of the day is flat-out wrong and arrived at not because proponents have a factual basis for their view, but because they don't. They may have a moral filter that data must pass, as we all do, but their assessments are destined to be flawed without a greater determination to come to grips with empirical reality, no matter how irritating some find it. Perhaps this is why psychologists can more easily engage in sometimes dry and abstract theorizing on the nexus of personality, attitudes, and political orientation. Many political scientists and other policy wonks facing real world problems have more difficulty with such aloof equanimity.

Let me be very clear on this point. If I believed the crap that teabaggers do, I would be upset too. If I thought ACORN had helped Obama steal the election, or that he was willfully undermining our country because he is morally debased, or black, or Muslim, or Benghazi!, I would be upset too. But I know the stream of examples the Right trots out, such as stories involving the IRS or Benghazi, to be non-scandals, because I am willing to read complete analyses.

There is, of course, an element of subjectivity in deciding, for example, whether Obama used the IRS to attack conservative non-profits (he didn't). But what struck so many of us as ideological determinism-and jaw-dropping stupidity- was the astounding ability of right-wing voters to ignore mountains of data and context, and draw hard, fast, self-serving conclusions. It was not the venom so much as it was the mangling of the issues, facts, and storyline. It is clear that those with the most toxic views aren't even trying to understand hot-button topics. And yet if you tell Fox-viewing devotees that Ronald Reagan raised taxes multiple times, that he dramatically increased federal spending, or that the US went from the world's largest creditor nation to the world's largest debtor nation on his watch, they may go apoplectic with rage. But these are not opinions, or moral values, or policy preferences: they are facts. 

To be human is to be flawed, but conservatives are especially adept at holding views that reveal their indifference to how they arrived at them.