The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

The Science of Righteousness

published June 2012
Evolution helps to explain why parties
are so tribal and politics so divisive
magazine cover

Which of these two narratives most closely matches your political perspective?

Once upon a time people lived in societies that were unequal and oppressive, where the rich got richer and the poor got exploited. Chattel slavery, child labor, economic inequality, racism, sexism and discriminations of all types abounded until the liberal tradition of fairness, justice, care and equality brought about a free and fair society. And now conservatives want to turn back the clock in the name of greed and God.

Once upon a time people lived in societies that embraced values and tradition, where people took personal responsibility, worked hard, enjoyed the fruits of their labor and through charity helped those in need. Marriage, family, faith, honor, loyalty, sanctity, and respect for authority and the rule of law brought about a free and fair society. But then liberals came along and destroyed everything in the name of “progress” and utopian social engineering.

Although we may quibble over the details, political science research shows that the great majority of people fall on a left-right spectrum with these two grand narratives as bookends. And the story we tell about ourselves reflects the ancient tradition of “once upon a time things were bad, and now they’re good thanks to our party” or “once upon a time things were good, but now they’re bad thanks to the other party.” So consistent are we in our beliefs that if you hew to the first narrative, I predict you read the New York Times, listen to progressive talk radio, watch CNN, are pro-choice and anti-gun, adhere to separation of church and state, are in favor of universal health care, and vote for measures to redistribute wealth and tax the rich. If you lean toward the second narrative, I predict you read the Wall Street Journal, listen to conservative talk radio, watch Fox News, are pro-life and anti–gun control, believe America is a Christian nation that should not ban religious expressions in the public sphere, are against universal health care, and vote against measures to redistribute wealth and tax the rich.

Why are we so predictable and tribal in our politics? In his remarkably enlightening book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon, 2012), University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that to both liberals and conservatives, members of the other party are not just wrong; they are righteously wrong—morally suspect and even dangerous. “Our righteous minds made it possible for human beings,” Haidt argues, “to produce large cooperative groups, tribes, and nations without the glue of kinship. But at the same time, our righteous minds guarantee that our cooperative groups will always be cursed by moralistic strife.” Thus, he shows, morality binds us together into cohesive groups but blinds us to the ideas and motives of those in other groups.

The evolutionary Rubicon that our species crossed hundreds of thousands of years ago that led to the moral hive mind was a result of “shared intentionality,” which is “the ability to share mental representations of tasks that two or more of [our ancestors] were pursuing together. For example, while foraging, one person pulls down a branch while the other plucks the fruit, and they both share the meal.” Chimps tend not to display this behavior, Haidt says, but “when early humans began to share intentions, their ability to hunt, gather, raise children, and raid their neighbors increased exponentially. Everyone on the team now had a mental representation of the task, knew that his or her partners shared the same representation, knew when a partner had acted in a way that impeded success or that hogged the spoils, and reacted negatively to such violations.” Examples of modern political violations include Democrat John Kerry being accused of being a “flip-flopper” for changing his mind and Republican Mitt Romney declaring himself “severely conservative” when it was suggested he was wishy-washy in his party affiliation.

Our dual moral nature leads Haidt to conclude that we need both liberals and conservatives in competition to reach a livable middle ground. As philosopher John Stuart Mill noted a century and a half ago: “A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.”

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13 Comments to “The Science of Righteousness”

  1. Steven Long Says:

    Nice article, Michael. It’s interesting to see the depth of tribalism’s reach (from politics to school yards to online communities) and how it serves to stifle more complex opinions and limit public participation to those most able to stand (or embrace) angry rhetoric.

  2. Alex Krantz Says:

    I think Haidt’s work is very helpful for curbing political disgust for “the other” (for about five minutes). I wonder how libertarians would fare on Haidt’s analysis.

  3. Lynda Lehmann Says:

    Good! I am one iota less worried than I was when I woke up this morning. If everything must be this way, a degree of acceptance is in order. But not without protest!

  4. Dave Sailer Says:

    This is an enlightening article, but then it falls flat on it’s face by seemingly concluding that there are ONLY liberals and conservatives and the solution is to get them to work together. That isn’t going to happen – clearly the trend is the other direction. I personally refuse to fit my mind into one of those tiny boxes. If you believe yourself to be open minded (and either liberal or conservative) you owe it to yourself to think outside these boxes.

    Wake up, take the red pill

  5. Chris Mohr Says:

    This helps explain why a guy like me (pro-choice, anti-gun control, antiwar, anti redistribution of wealth, do not believe America is a Christian nation, reads NY Times, listens to conservative and liberal talk radio) feels a bit like an outsider! But I do think there is evolutionary value to people who are somewhat outside the mainstream in a society without trying to tear its foundations down… we’re like the new genetic variations that sometimes move society forward.

  6. Paul Cassel Says:

    My politics adhere closely with Chris Mohr’s as stated in his posting. Like him, I couldn’t see myself fitting either category as stated by Shermer as side A or side B.

    In fact, the political landscape is a good deal more complex than stated in this article and perhaps the book. There are a good deal of folks who are socially liberal and economically conservative. There’s even a name for them – Whole Foods Conservative meaning we who are there also have a touch of Green to our political make up.

    As another example, my wife is an organic vegan who contributes heavily to environmental causes and is also as fiscally conservative as I am. Where does she fit in this spectrum?

    I’d propose that another issue we have in today’s politics is a desire to shoehorn all of us into neatly defined categories. Doesn’t work and distorts one’s view of reality.

  7. Bad Boy Scientist Says:

    These are the sort of pseudo-scientific articles which make me alternate between mildly annoyed and frightened(1).

    My feelings started while reading the subtitle: “Evolution helps to explain why parties are so tribal and politics so divisive”

    Before reading the test I was already asking “Does evolution *really* help to explain these things or does it help *inspire* candidate explanations (hypothesis) ?” Note that a hypothesis is essentially an untested theory and the elephant in the room is that not all hypotheses wind up becoming theories after adequate testing. We should take all of these ‘explanations’ with a grain of salt until tests can corroborate them.

    Then after reading the simplistic two-party analysis I pretty much gave up. Outside of the United States (and other English speaking nations) two party systems are not the rule. So if you are claiming that two political parties are a result of human evolution you’ve got some explaining to do. Is Dr Schermer suggesting that most Europeans followed a different evolutionary path than Americans, British and Canadians? If so then how does he explain that American, British and Canadian populations are heavily influenced by French (and Norman) blood?

    I am afraid that this is just shoddy scholarship.

    (1) This is frightening because it is a far bigger threat to ‘science literacy’ than homeopathy, astrology and their ilk – because a big name skeptic is passing off pseudo-science as real science in a forum where people take for granted it is real science. If this article were honest it would acknowledge its highly speculative nature.

  8. b Says:

    well said bad boy scientist!

  9. Robert the Skeptic Says:

    I’m going to have to side with Bad Boy Scientist on this as well; the assertions of this hypothesis appear to be based primarily on United States culture. Though good fodder for Sociologists, it seems like a stretch to apply human evolutionary dynamics to our uniquely American political structure.

    As several commenters’ have already pointed out, many people hold preferences that straddle both conservative and liberal ideologies. It makes me wonder if the author (Haigt) conducted his research simply by watching and reading liberal and conservative media – neither of which generally delves sufficiently deeply into the complexities of our social and political issues but rather is more a driver (propagandizes) of them.

  10. James Says:

    Haidt isn’t as casual or sloppy as Bad Boy and Robert suggest. But he does reach some odd conclusions based on his research. The book is definitely worth reading, but then I recommend this post about it:

  11. Dick Kennedy Says:

    The above criticisms of Haidt’s work would not have been made if the critics had read his book. It is definitely not based only on the US but looks at cultures around the world, and Haidt explains, for example, how he was influenced by his experience of living in India. Nor does it predict a two-party system. It examines how views of what is moral differ across the political spectrum (including Libertarians) and the analysis is equally applicable to a multi-party system. All in all, “The Righteous Mind” is fascinating, well-researched, very readable, and aimed at bringing people together–something badly needed in today’s political climate.

  12. Keytin Says:

    Dick Kennedy is right. Haidt was able to identify morals present in a variety of different cultures, which suggests that they may be evolved “moral heuristics” – hence the use of evolution in the byline. He also classified participants based on their ideology (conservative vs liberal) not just their political party (republican and conservative in the US but different in other countries). However, research has shown that there is a great deal of overlap between ideology and political party affiliation.

    The comments in Shermer’s post may seem like assumptions to some of the people who have posted responses, but this is only because they are not familiar with the research that supports his statements. The lesson? Don’t knock the claims until you’ve done the research.

  13. Mike M Says:

    Large complex brains seem to be predominantly adaptive in social animals, dealing with highly variable environments (fine motor skills – manipulative ability – I would here include as environmental to the animal in question, not desiring to search for further analysis: generalization!). Reflection is more useful to a social animal which must detect deception.

    Verbal language as easily involved in useful deception (some primate deceptive exhibitions become socially useful through calling for assistance; and therefrom sustaining coalition), whereas nonverbal signals in context useful for hunting and stability of individual position in social structure (that itself useful in success of that particular band or pack, leading to its selection as trait in some other species which may have convergently developed complex social interaction)

    Shermer posits “agenticity”, the tendency to grant theory of mind to phenomena (by which I mean here, anything which shows modification). We also know that generalization is heuristic. (I’ll go no further here on duality in politics [evolutionary dynamics in USA politics], except to point out that Parliamentary systems leave room for temporary coalition, whereas two-party [which may have been selected for by the original coalition of North American colony-states debating security vs. self-determination] systems might better seek strength through quasi-permanence, and thus select for umbrella-like competitive Monotheism – in their eyes, the other is Ahriman/Satan)

    Morality is, as implied above, in the eye of the biased beholder. Self-serving bias will seek rhetoric (by which I mean obfuscating – deceptive or assumptive – language) in support of what is socially useful to that beholder.

    Hobbesian inference (c’mon, you know what I mean here) may be an artifact of verbal language, itself arising through selection in a deceptive, temporary socially coalitioning species.

    Ideology, or a similar cognition (for those of you who believe in imaginative, but unproven differences in quality among different social species), appears in any goal-directed social species. Shared intentionality appears in some nonprimate species – the gray wolf, for instance, and Humpback whales blowing containment bubbles and reversing resultant feeding roles. It could be that our relatives the chimps withdrew as a species from such activity, due to some as-yet undetected selective pressure; or hominids through having two complex limbs freed, moved further toward normative social behavior. Ostracism has its uses in differential success, and behavior which codifies and refines it (at last I reach specificity!), including verbal constructs – however illusory – leads toward temporally persistent coalition; our species thus could show convergent behavior (however random or intermittent) with other social species that seem to have more obligate coalitional behavior, while retaining options.

    You wonder what my point is? Most political commentary, including in SA, fails to focus on or even notice that human behaviors including politics, are socially coalitional in intent – they are power-seeking.

    Instead we create the illusion that differences are anything but invidious. In this case, political beliefs persist largely because they are a call to coalition. If they failed to do this, your newspapers and armies would need other issues to advance differential mating opportunity.
    But let’s not get into group selection disputes, and instead consider that beliefs themselves have hierarchies, often termed as logic.
    Shermer does seem right about beliefs being first, in that the belief of needing social status in individuals, powers the creation of hierarchy, whether illusory or practical.

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