American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt struck a cord with the US political class this year when he published The Righteous Mind, an examination, as his subtitle puts it, of Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt, a self-professed liberal until his research led him to the political centre, wondered why liberals seem to treat conservatism like a pathology, smugly convinced of their own enlightenment, open-mindedness and moral superiority. Why, liberals tend to ask of conservatives, won’t they listen to reason?
But reason is not what drives us, Haidt argues. We use reason to defend our intuitive world view and, he contends, our moral foundation is based on a broader set of values than liberals would have us believe. To the left, the only moral arbiters are “fairness” and “do no harm.” But across cultures, he says, research shows a more diverse palette of values. People share a stake in preserving the social fabric. We are vested in our families and communities. We respect loyalty and prize order. We have a sense of the sacred, rooted not necessarily in religion but in the idea that people have a noble, spiritual side that should not be sullied.
Citing ethnographies, clinical research and hundreds of interviews, Haidt argues that the conservative political vocabulary taps more into these moral touchstones. Those who respond to conservative messages do so not because they have been duped by slick messaging or because they are backward, but because that brand is often more in tune with human nature.
Policy Options has asked two Canadian political thinkers, Ann McGrath and Stephen Carter, to assess Haidt’s thesis and tell us what resonance it might have for Canadian politics.