By Sasha Issenberg
At the vanguard of this movement is Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist whose best-selling new book,The Righteous Mind, collects his own experiments—testing biases, prejudices, and preferences—and the work of like-minded colleagues to unmask much of our political “thinking” as moral instinct papered over, post facto, with ideological rationalization. We may tell ourselves that we believe welfare is just or that abortion violates the sanctity of life, but we’re really using borrowed language to express much more visceral attitudes, oriented around one of six moral dials—harm, fairness, loyalty, authority, liberty, and sanctity. Much of what passes for the daily scrum of electoral politics, he says, is merely an effort to find language that can help citizens justify these instincts. “Once people join a political team, they get ensnared in its moral matrix,” Haidt writes. “They see confirmation of their grand narrative everywhere.”
But the new science of primal politics goes quite a bit deeper than psychology. Over the past few years, researchers haven’t just tied basic character traits to liberalism and conservatism, they’ve begun to finger specific genes they say hard-wire those ideologies. If that work is to be believed, it would mean that an individual’s path to a political identity starts not with a series of choices but with long-ago genetic mutations, and that our collective experience of politics may be less a battle of ideas than a Darwinian contest in which we are all unwitting participants. After a team of geneticists claimed in a 2005American Political Science Review article that they had evidence of DNA’s influence on politics, Duke political scientist Evan Charney rebutted that their findings “would require nothing less than a revision of our understanding of all of human history, much—if not most—of political science, sociology, anthropology, and psychology, as well as, perhaps, our understanding of what it means to be human.”
To those immersed in the science, moral concerns have seemed to exhibit the strongest hereditary influence and to manifest themselves earliest in life. They are the most stable over a lifetime and the least susceptible to persuasion. That may explain why the most angry, permanent divisions in modern American politics have surrounded “God, guns, and gays” and why an intra-Republican truce on such cultural issues strikes nearly everyone as particularly fanciful. What if positions on these issues evoke the most primal responses because, in animal terms, they are most primal?
Such thinking would threaten the pieties of both left and right. Conservatives might have to adjust to a world in which few human failings could be fully blamed on cultural decline. At the same time, the liberal mind would be forced to rethink its posture toward cultural backwardness, and decide whether it ought to treat illiberal attributes like intolerance and racism as part of human nature. Would those who oppose discrimination against gays on the basis that sexuality is no choice still feel empowered to hate the right wing if they knew homophobes, too, were just born that way?