Every political faction has its distinguishing strengths and weaknesses. In his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt analyzes these strengths and weaknesses through an interesting lens — a group’s appeal to people’s moral intuitions. He posits that moral intuitions play a powerfully underestimated role in guiding our behavior and shaping our beliefs. This is because, Haidt argues, the human mind evolved to be a story processor, not a logic processor. If this is true, libertarians have their work cut out for them. While most of the book is centered on the left-right dichotomy, Haidt does provide some crucial insights for libertarians.
What is a moral intuition? It is the ability to immediately understand a moral truth without the need for conscious reasoning. Haidt likens our intuitive sense to our sense of taste. We all have the same taste receptors but we don’t all like the same foods. Our tastes are influenced by genetics and our cultural environment. The same is true of intuition. Haidt says that the six intuitive “taste receptors,” or moral foundations, are care versus harm, fairness versus cheating, loyalty versus betrayal, authority versus subversion, sanctity versus degradation, and liberty versus oppression. Political groups that appeal the most broadly to these moral foundations prevail over groups with a narrow moral intuitive appeal. Haidt’s research found that libertarians belong to the second camp. In order to become more than a fringe movement, we need to make some serious strategic changes.
Currently, libertarianism’s greatest strength is its appeal to reason. For me, it was the selling point. When I started interacting with a group of libertarians my freshman year of college, I was blown away by their intellectual honesty and poise. I had never met liberals or conservatives who could express their ideas so logically. Libertarianism distinguished itself for me because it was the only political ideology that “played fair.” Libertarians held themselves and each other to higher standards than any other political group I had encountered.
The downside of such an intellectual approach is that it greatly limits the amount of people you can reach. Most people will not or cannot delve into logically driven academic arguments. To reach a wide audience, an idea must resonate with people’s moral intuitions. Haidt uses a metaphor in which he compares the mind to a rider on an elephant. The rider represents our conscious reasoning while the elephant represents the other 99 percent of our mental processes — the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior.
This metaphor is based in fact. Scientists have discovered that differences in the way people fire neurotransmitters partly determines whether we will lean liberal (and libertarian) or conservative. Haidt found that libertarians as well as liberals scored higher than conservatives on openness to experience and lower than conservatives on disgust sensitivity and conscientiousness. This is because neurotransmitters like glutamate and serotonin form the brain’s response to threat and fear. Our brains reward us with happy feelings when we question the status quo while conservative’s brains reward them when they defend tradition. I do not mean to downplay the role of social and cultural pressure in shaping our beliefs. However, our social and political environment is negotiable while intuitions are not. In order to change the structure of society, we need to talk to people’s elephants.
How can we do that? Haidt’s research shows we should borrow strategies from both liberals and conservatives. He found that conservatives appealed to the broadest range of moral tastes by appealing to all six foundations. Liberals take a more narrow focus based on care and fighting oppression. Libertarians also had a narrow moral focus, one that emphasized liberty. As a group, unsurprisingly, we scored extremely high on economic liberty. However we also scored very low on the care/harm foundation. How could this be? Most libertarians adhere to the non-aggression principle after all! However, it doesn’t really matter if his conclusion is false, because it reflects common perceptions. Most people continue to see libertarians as rich white capitalists who are detached from the troubles every day people face. Will Wilkinson has suggested that libertarians are basically liberals who love markets and lack bleeding hearts. We need to distance ourselves from the portrait Wilkinson paints by emphasizing care the way liberals do.
We need to emulate conservatives by embracing the binding foundations. The binding foundations are sanctity, authority, and loyalty. Haidt argues that their evolutionary purpose is to bring people together to make them feel as if they are part of something larger than themselves. As Darwin said, the most cohesive and cooperative groups generally beat the groups of individualists.
Libertarianism rightly emphasizes individualism, but that does not mean we shouldn’t recognize the value of the binding foundations. Historically, libertarians have seen the way people have applied the sanctity, loyalty, and authority intuitions to the state and so we have made the mistake of denouncing them altogether as immoral or collectivist.
However, I think this is a mistake. We must accept that for most of the world, there is more to morality than harm and fairness. As SFL expands internationally, this is going to become increasingly relevant. Far from being inherently collectivist, I would argue the binding foundations are ideologically consistent with libertarianism. The libertarian message says we should increase the care people get within voluntary groups while decreasing the care they get from government. Yet mutual aid societies, religious institutions, and charities, would not exist if people were not motivated by a sense of loyalty, sanctity, and to a lesser extent, authority.
Maybe you disagree. Haidt allows that it could be that our taste for sanctity or authority, like our taste for sugar, is a dangerous evolutionary artifact. However, as Haidt says, “we must learn what we have been, even if our nature is to transcend it”.
We need to reshape our arguments to appeal to the broader population and welcome those who are less logically or individually minded than we are, even if this means less of an emphasis on reason. As David Hume said, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”