Are you WEIRD?

“British jobs for British workers.”

What does that slogan (famously uttered by Gordon Brown in his speech to the 2007 Labour party conference) make you think? If your gut reaction is that it’s either outright racist, or at best pandering to racism, then congratulations: you’re WEIRD. Welcome to the club; grab a drink and find yourself a seat.

WEIRD is the term used by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt to describe the mindset of Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic liberals; a concept discussed by David Goodhart in a fascinating review of Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind. The key question Haidt raises (and that Goodhart discusses) is why many western liberals not only find more conservative viewpoints hard to understand, but why they find it hard even to credit that anyone could ever hold what seem to WEIRDos, self-evidently outdated, stupid or even evil opinions.

The WEIRD worldview can be summarised as follows:

They are … universalists, suspicious of strong national loyalties. They also tend to be individualists committed to autonomy and self-realisation. Balancing that they are usually deeply concerned with social justice and unfairness and also suspicious of appeals to religion or to human nature to justify any departure from equal treatment.

As Goodhart observes, this “secular liberal baby boomer worldview” is in many ways “an attractive and coherent one”. However, this worldview is increasingly running up against the more “sociocentric” and “groupist” ways that are, Haidt argues, hardwired into us as “group-based primates”.

And this is where it gets really interesting. Haidt argues that there are five main “moral dimensions” – but that liberals only really understand, and operate within, two of them. These five moral dimensions are:

  • harm and suffering;
  • fairness and injustice;
  • loyalty to the in-group;
  • authority; and
  • the sacred.

Haidt argues that liberals tend to focus on the first two, while conservatives care about all five dimensions. As he puts it:

It’s as though conservatives can hear five octaves of music, but liberals respond to just two, within which they have become particularly discerning.

This helps explain why liberal/conservative arguments over some issues rapidly become a dialogue of the deaf, particularly where the dimension of the sacred is involved:

The sacred is especially difficult for liberals to understand. This isn’t necessarily about religion but about the idea that humans have a nobler, more spiritual side and that life has a higher purpose than pleasure or profit. If your only moral concepts are suffering and injustice then it is hard to understand reservations about everything from swearing in public to gay marriage—after all, who is harmed?

Not that Haidt wants liberals to stop being liberals. Rather, he wants both sides to understand each other better, so that US politics (in particular) can become less polarised by mutual cultural incomprehension.

So instead of “telling conservatives that their moral intuitions are wrong”, liberals should seek to frame their arguments in terms that address, “so far as possible”, conservative concerns. So for example, to improve racial justice it is not only a case of preaching tolerance, but also of promoting the wider common in-group identity that those of all races within the same society share. As Haidt puts it:

You can make people care less about race by drowning race differences in a sea of similarities, shared goals and mutual interdependencies.

Lots of interesting stuff to think about there, and Goodhart goes on to consider the implications of Haidt’s views for a UK (and Europe) in which the “abstract universalisms” of both left and right are raising concerns about “where the social glue comes from in a fragmented society”.

But for me, reading this also had a personal impact. Haidt’s “five moral dimensions” help explain why, while my political and social instincts are in many ways “liberal”, I have often found myself feeling profoundly out of step with much of “actually existing left-liberalism”: mostly because I’ve never been able to shake off the dimensions of the sacred and of a healthy “loyalty to the in-group” (in which you love your country, just as you love your family, not because it’s better than any other country or any other family, but because it’s the one you’ve been given to love; and thus not uncritically, and not to the exclusion of others or of the demands of justice). I must admit I’m pretty WEIRD when it comes to “authority”, though…

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10 thoughts on “Are you WEIRD?”

  1. I first came across Haidt through his 2008 TED talk. He definitely has some helpful insights, although I question whether a more helpful way of framing the five moral dimensions could be found. For instance, I think that there are counterbalancing concerns to some of the conservative concerns. I would suggest that within certain moral traditions, the definition and realization of personal identity is given particular significance. I would suggest that this could be added to Haidt’s taxonomy as a dimension of moral sensibility, one which is significant for many liberals, and which many conservatives can compromise and be dulled to. At its best, it seems to me, liberalism does not merely have a negative understanding of freedom (framed by justice and a lack of harm), but a notion of non-coercion for the sake of the individual’s realization of a non-imposed good that is truly their own.

  2. I have to say that the “sacred” para doesn’t make sense. As a WIERDo (also atheist) I feel both “nobler” and that ” life has a higher purpose than pleasure or profit”; these underpin my commitment to the first two “moral dimensions”.

    The other 3 aren’t necessarily moral in any intrinsic way but merely control mechanisms for society’s rulers at best.

  3. It seems that John has beaten me to this, but i also have problems with the sacred dimension of this. I cannot see the connection between “pleasure or profit” and swearing or gay marriage. The “protestant work ethic” (which seems to be very much about profit) seems to fall into this category. Yes I am WEIRD, I do very much agree with the first two dimensions. I also, to a great extent, accept that the third is inevitable and instinctive.

    Overall the only one I have a serious issue with is authority. This seems to be both a cause and consequence of inequality and blind obedience to authority seems unhealthy

  4. Another dubious voice regarding Haidt hiving off the last three facets of experience from liberals – perhaps liberals don’t give them the same intellectual weight as conservatives would, but they experience them just as surely. (And as an aside, I feel slightly outraged at the suggestion that a liberal would apply the “who is harmed” test to public swearing and consider it grand: the people who are harmed are the people who don’t want to be sworn at, surely?)

    I suspect that one would have to be profoundly tone deaf to read, say, George Eliot (liberal, in the classic Victorian sense, and a. Dry serious atheist) and not appreciate that she has a sense of the sacred, and sees that sacredness vested in community. And then there’s the question of where this leaves people who are neither liberals nor conservatives – radicals might be the right word for them: Alasdair Gray, say, who is a socialist, and a Scottish nationalist, and a man with an idiosyncratic but undoubtedly genuine sense of Godliness.

  5. A quick thought: is one of the disconnects between liberals and conservatives that liberals see faith as being a higher order of opinion, and therefore open to change, whereas conservatives acknowledge it as something other?

    1. Faith is most definitely a lower order of opinion for one accepts dogma without evidence!

      Opinions with evidence are certainly of a higher order than ones without.

  6. This theory strikes me as flawed and pretty horribly patronising toward “liberals”, to be honest, or at least to the demographic described as WEIRD.

    Let’s look at the three moral dimensions I’m not supposed to understand:

    * loyalty to the in-group;
    I do, of course, question loyalty to an in-group — especially if that in-group is a group that is in power. Does that mean I’m incapable of group loyalty or of understanding it? No. It’s just that I make an effort not to see the world in black and white terms of “people like me” and “everyone else”. It seems to me that a lot of the time, conservative group loyalty is more about one group competing against another than about other facets of group identity. At that point I wonder why it’s apparently desirable for one group to have power or advantage over another, given that the reality is that we are all human beings. Is group loyalty an inherently good thing? If so, why?

    It isn’t that I am not loyal to a group, just that my group loyalty is to a rather larger group than that of many conservatives.

    * authority; and
    How does authority relate to trust? And to in-group loyalty? And to obedience? And to leadership? I tend to take the view that blind obedience to other human beings tends to get adults into trouble, and blind trust tends to get us hurt. Does that mean I take nothing on authority? Absolutely not, life would be unworkable without a certain amount of trust for others. But that trust is not automatic, and it is subject to change. Is automatic trust of authority an inherently good thing? If so, why?

    * the sacred.
    Others have dealt with this. My own belief is that everything is sacred, rather than the “is nothing sacred?” objection some conservatives seem to have to my inclusive attitudes (with regards to church for example). The idea that people who aren’t conservative don’t experience the sacred is pretty nonsensical, especially looking at various religious traditions over time.

    Bah. Sorry, this seems like a pretty blatant attempt to name various virtues as more important than others regardless of context, and then paint anyone with different values (or a wider frame of reference!) as somehow inferior. Thanks for the warning; I won’t bother reading the book.

  7. Thinking about this further, I am even less persuaded by Haidt’s approach. In particular, there are huge differences between the ways that people employ the harm principle. Looking at the way that the harm principle functions within liberal discourse, for instance, it seems to me that it is frequently characterized by profoundly circular thinking. The harm principle is used to justify favoured positions on personal liberties, but favoured positions on personal liberties are also used to justify favoured formulations of the harm principle.

    Liberal thinkers are those who employ the harm principle the most, but on the face of it their applications of the harm principle seem to be riddled with indeterminacies, inconsistencies, and paradoxes. I suggest that this is because the harm principle is not really the deepest source of the liberal moral sense, but is often a casuistic façade for convictions whose true rationale lies elsewhere. The harm principle resonates with all of us in its most immediate forms, and liberal ethics can traffic on the basis of this instinctive appeal. However, we need to recognize that the harm principle, by itself, is fairly empty. The content of the harm principle is imported from elsewhere, from an underlying set of anthropological convictions, which help us to determine what does and what does not constitute harm. By this means liberal convictions can merely be postulated, without actually being demonstrated. It provides the illusion that liberal moral convictions rest upon something more rational and certain than a tendentious and disputable moral aesthetic.

    I suggest that an examination of the way that many liberals apply the harm principle will help to reveal the contours of the underlying anthropology that is at play. For instance, why would many liberals condemn the practice of consensual gladiatorial-style sports before purely consensual audiences as harmful to the character of society, while firmly opposing obscenity regulations? What accounts for the differences in the ways that cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs are spoken about? Why is the harm principle applied so rigorously in areas of health and safety, but fairly loosely in the area of pornography? How about the comparisons and contrasts between the ways that blasphemy and ‘hate speech’ are treated and defined? What are the underlying convictions that drive our understanding of the ‘harm’ caused by something such as divorce and the obstacles that should be presented to those seeking one? Why is the risk entailed to the individual by smoking such a cause for stigmatization, while the frequently higher risks associated with libertine lifestyles are completely justified and even celebrated? Etc.

    I suggest that the answer to many of these questions lies in an understanding of the liberal conception of the self. Certain dominant strains of liberal anthropology emphasize the physical and sexual dimensions of the person, but have little regard for the moral and the spiritual self. Actually, there might be a better way to express this: these anthropologies moralize the physical self and have sexuality as its spirituality. For this reason, they will tend to be hostile to any approach that postulates a morality that exceeds the merely physical, or a spirituality that might place constraints upon the sexual.

    There are many other commitments within underlying liberal anthropologies. The most important of these is that the individual is the fundamental unit of explanation. Consequently, social entities and institutions such as marriage, the family, the Church, the community, the society, or the state will always be secondary, and the individual can always be abstracted from them. The fact that these entities are external to the self, and the self is external to these entities is crucial for the liberal application of the harm principle. If we are connected at a deeper level, the harm principle becomes much more complicated, as my actions, even in private, will always have implications for the wider social organism, and the wider social organism will always have claims upon me and my actions. Within such liberal anthropologies children will generally be problematic. Related to this is the principle of the autonomy of bodies, which treats all of our bodies as if they were entirely our own, and detached from others, downplaying the significance of the bonds of blood, conjugality, biological parenthood, and common human nature (one reason why liberals can struggle to articulate the rationale for their instinctive opposition to consensual incest). There is the assumption of the fundamental privacy of ends, which questions the naturalness of common goods, which we all have a duty to maintain.

    Several other dimensions could be mentioned, but the important thing to recognize here, it seems to me, is that the harm principle (along with the other moral dimensions that Haidt lists) is far from a univocally received principle, and that the differences in its application reveal that the source of differences between different forms of liberals and conservatives (and others, for that matter) reside at a deeper level. I suggest that we would be better off openly articulating our fundamental anthropological convictions, rather than allowing them to masquerade under other principles, which will only obfuscate the moral reasoning that is really determinative for us.

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