Innate Political Influences

Today is the tomorrow we worried about yesterday… the day that millions of decisions will be made that affect all our tomorrows.

If you read my blog yesterday, you may have been surprised at the intensity with which Canadians have been following this election… and the poll results that show overwhelming Canadian support for Obama.

In August I wrote about the difference between the parties as interpreted by George Lakoff.

Moral Politics (1996, revisited in 2002) gives book-length consideration to the conceptual metaphors that Lakoff sees as present in the minds of American “liberals” and “conservatives”.

Lakoff argues that the differences in opinions between liberals and conservatives follow from the fact that they subscribe with different strength to two different metaphors about the relationship of the state to its citizens. Both, he claims, see governance through metaphors of the family. Conservatives would subscribe more strongly and more often to a model that he calls the “strict father model” and has a family structured around a strong, dominant “father” (government), and assumes that the “children” (citizens) need to be disciplined to be made into responsible “adults” (morality, self-financing). Once the “children” are “adults”, though, the “father” should not interfere with their lives: the government should stay out of the business of those in society who have proved their responsibility. In contrast, Lakoff argues that liberals place more support in a model of the family, which he calls the “nurturant parent model”, based on “nurturant values”, where both “mothers” and “fathers” work to keep the essentially good “children” away from “corrupting influences” (pollution, social injustice, poverty, etc.). Lakoff says that most people have a blend of both metaphors applied at different times, and that political speech works primarily by invoking these metaphors and urging the subscription of one over the other. 

Now Jonathan Haidt has given us another paradigm to explain this difference. As Wikipedia tells us:

Haidt is best known for what he dubs “Moral Foundations Theory”, which has been reported in publications such as The Atlantic,Boston Globe, and The Huffington Post.It is the basis of his first TED talk.

Moral Foundations Theory considers the way morality varies between cultures and identifies five (later revised to six) “foundations” that underlie morality in all societies and individuals. He names them using pairs of opposites to indicate that they provide continua along which judgments can be measured. These are:

  1. Care/harm for others, protecting them from harm.
  2. Fairness/cheating, Justice, treating others in proportion to their actions, giving them their “just desserts”.(He has also referred to this dimension as Proportionality.)
  3. Liberty/oppression, characterizes judgments in terms of whether subjects are tyrannized.
  4. Loyalty/betrayal to your group, family, nation. (He has also referred to this dimension as Ingroup.)
  5. Authority/subversion for tradition and legitimate authority. (He has also connected this foundation to a notion of Respect.)
  6. Sanctity/degradation, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions. (He has also referred to this as Purity.)

Haidt found that the more politically liberal or left-wing people are, the more they tend to value care and fairness (proportionality), and the less they tend to value loyalty, respect for authority and purity. Conservatives or right-wing people, tend to value all the moral foundations somewhat equally. Similar results were found across the political spectrum in other countries.

Perhaps this helps to explain the difference in Canadian and American political response. Here north of the border we celebrate a “cultural mosaic” rather than a “melting pot”,

Perhaps, despite our being so like our friends and neighbours to the south, this makes us more willing and able, as a society, to celebrate diversity and embrace ambiguity. This is not necessarily better, merely different!

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One Response to Innate Political Influences

  1. Pingback: The Blind Men and the Elephant | Invest Me in My Motley

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