You Think with Your Gut. Politics Explained.

Introduction – We Feel First and then Justify Last

I will attempt to explain through the work of Jonathan Haidt from “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” that most of our attraction or aversion to political issues are because of how we feel toward them and not so much how we think about them – in the process of doing so, we will reveal the stark differences between conservatives and liberals.  Our intellect is usually subservient to our emotions; that is, we feel a certain way towards an issue and then justify its importance through reasoning.  This is because we have an innate sense of right or wrong (morality) concerning fairness, caring, loyalty, authority, sanctity and liberty.  As an example, you may feel disgust towards abortion practices (sanctity), hatred towards it because your tribe says its wrong (loyalty), or may feel relieved that abortion exists because it doesn’t infringe on a mother’s freedom to make her own choices (liberty).  In all these cases, you can see that the issue (e.g., abortion ) triggers an emotional response (e.g., hatred or disgust ) and then there’s justification by the intellect.  For example, the Catholic Church will create arguments explaining why abortion is killing a baby not just an embryo (justification), but the bottom line is that some initially don’t accept abortion because their tribe (Catholic church) doesn’t accept it (loyalty).

Adaptations – The Mechanisms behind Our Reactions

These innate tendencies to help determine right or wrong are really adaptations – evolved psychological mechanisms – that helped us survive our environment, especially our social environment.  An example of an adaptation, one helping us survive a life filled of scarce food resources before the advent of the agricultural revolution, is the preference or desire for high caloric food, like honey or fat.  This preference helped us survive because a desire for broccoli during a famine certainly wouldn’t assist our ancestors.  The same logic applies to adaptations involving our social world.  For example, homo sapiens are sensitive to when something is inequitable or when someone is cheating.  The latter probably evolved to reduce “free-riders” since we lived in tight niche groups or tribes.  So there are triggers (issues or scenarios) that elicit a response (emotions or instincts) that help solve problems that our ancestors faced.  More specifically, these adaptations are mental modules that call upon different areas of our brain to output a response to a recurring problem.  To illustrate further, when we feel fear (emotional output) to a snake (scenario input) we can solve the problem by freezing, fleeing or fighting.  It’s important to note that the design of the modules was forged long ago by problems our ancestors continually faced but are now triggered by similar inputs. We have a mechanism in our brain that gets triggered when care is required from a new born child, say when they are crying for milk.  This adaptation, however, can be triggered by a lot of situations that it wasn’t initially designed for.  So when a baby seal is about to be beaten for its fur (issue: animal rights), this mechanism for caring and having compassion (emotions) for infant humans is elicited by a baby seal in its stead.

Care / Harm – Liberals Feel it to a Fault and Conservatives are Insensitive

The Care/harm foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of caring for vulnerable children. It makes us sensitive to signs of suffering and need; it makes us despise cruelty and want to care for those who are suffering.

The main emotion felt when this adaptation is triggered is compassion.  On questionnaire tests, liberals consistently score higher than conservatives on dimensions of caring.  In anticipation to rebuttals, this is in spite of the possibility that liberals may give less to charities than conservatives (see “Who Really Cares:  The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism” by Brooks).  Caring is obvious in liberals’ endorsement of welfare, entitlements, affirmative action, diversity, animal rights, anti-corporate greed, equality, environmentalism, LGBT community, unions, political correctness, activism, civil rights and so forth.  I, however, think they sometimes care too much, almost to a fault.  These are all noble initiatives, but I don’t know how effective they are at accomplishing their goals (see mismatch theory), with the exception of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s.  As far as welfare programs, these can certainly be the lifeblood to those genuinely in need, but people too often run the risk of taking advantage of it and becoming dependent.  To be fair though, I have great compassion towards humanity’s disparities and weaknesses as we certainly are not all born equal in intelligence, physical appearance, drive and socioeconomic status – markers that are indicative of success – so I commend liberals’ attempts at leveling the playing field and raising consciousnesses.

Conservatives care as well, but not as much, and it tends to be towards others that have sacrificed for the group, like veterans or policemen, feeling the emotions of compassion blended with loyalty.  Conservatives instead value, what they deem as virtues, personal responsibility, self-reliance and espouse phrases such as tough-love, backbone, character and discipline to refer to what you should have, be and do when needing assistance.  But these are only ideals based on false assumptions that come across as obtuse to someone struggling.  Additionally, if you follow conservatives’ maxim of pulling yourself up by your own bootstrap, meaning anyone with a little hard work can do anything, you will likely be led astray.  To get it right, upward mobility, which is moving up the socioeconomic ladder, certainly does occur in America, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to pull off, evidenced by growing income inequality.  The truth is that anyone’s plight in life will be dependent upon effort, genetics, assistance and circumstances not effort alone.  Moreover, conservatism places an inordinate emphases on individualism and self-reliance.  We are in fact all interdependent not independent.  And a self-made man is a myth.  From family, friends and, yes, even the government, we can get empowered by multiple sources and solidarity has beed a key ingredient in America’s success.

But, to return to the theme, both conservatives and liberals alike feel or intuit a situation first and then reason it out.  So liberals may feel compassion to the disproportionate number of blacks in poverty, but they only afterwards reason that the cause is, let’s say, capitalism’s unfair nature. They then may conclude they are justified in thinking capitalism is destructive.  Conservatives may feel something similar but after reflection think that it’s got nothing to do with capitalism and everything to do with effort put forth by the individual.

To be continued …

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