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Archive for February 17th, 2015

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which will examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This dates from November 2012 but resonates both with the posts I am publishing now and with the current electoral atmosphere. Perhaps we can learn useful lessons from the study of critical divides in American politics. 

Divided We Fall

Now we have the results of the US Presidential election, there may be an opportunity to reflect upon some underlying aspects of the polarised debate between left and right without getting pulverised with arguments from one side of the divide or the other. A fascinating treatment of some of these underlying issues is to be found in Jonathan Haidt‘s recent book, The Righteous Mind.

He begins his analysis with a study of how well each side of the divide understands the other side’s mind set, acknowledging that he tends to favour the liberal emphasis on the individual rather than society.

He reckons the findings were unequivocal (page 287):

The results were clear and consistent. Moderates and conservatives were most accurate in their predictions, whether they were pretending to be liberals or conservatives. Liberals were the least accurate, especially those who described themselves as “very liberal.” The biggest errors in the whole study came when liberals answered the Care and Fairness questions while pretending to be conservatives.

Haidt is very honest about his own initial biases (page 289):

As a lifelong liberal, I had assumed that conservatism = orthodoxy = religion = faith = rejection of science.

The source of the study data takes a different view (ibid):

But Muller asserted that modern conservatism is really about creating the best possible society, the one that brings about the greatest happiness given local circumstances.

Moral and Social Capital

He reviews his previous position and admits (pages 289-90):

I began to see that [conservatives] had attained a crucial insight into the sociology of morality that I had never encountered before. They understood the importance of what I’ll call moral capital.

This is strongly linked to another kind of capital (page 290):

Social capital refers to a kind of capital that economists had largely overlooked: the social ties among individuals and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from those ties. When everything else is equal, a firm with more social capital will outcompete its less cohesive and less internally trusting competitors.

He spells out the link with morality (page 291):

To achieve almost any moral vision, you’d probably want high levels of social capital.

And he goes on to state (page 292):

. . . . . we can define moral capital as the resources that sustain a moral community . . . . . .  and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.

Unfortunately, this moral and social capital is a mixed blessing (page 293):

Moral capital leads automatically to the suppression of free riders, but it does not lead automatically to other forms of fairness such as equality of opportunity. And while high moral capital helps a community to function efficiently, the community can use that efficiency to inflict harm on other communities. High moral capital can be obtained within a cult or a fascist nation, as long as most people truly accept the prevailing moral matrix.

He feels that the liberal-left is prone to discounting or ignoring the value of this kind of capital and that is a risky position to take (page 293):

. . . . .if you are trying to change an organization or a society and you do not consider the effects of your changes on moral capital, you’re asking for trouble. This, I believe, is the fundamental blind spot of the left. It explains why liberal reforms so often backfire, and why communist revolutions usually end up in despotism.

The Need for Balance

He feels that both political perspectives are necessary for a state to be healthy. He quotes John Stuart Mill (page 294):

“A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.”

He proceeds to examine various aspects of the moral matrices of the two camps. This clarifies that on the American political scene the word ‘libertarian’ denotes someone of a conservative mind set.  He teases out some important aspects of this world view in order to get out from under his preconceptions about it (pages 305-306):

[Libertarians] do not oppose change of all kinds (such as the Internet), but they fight back ferociously when they believe that change will damage the institutions and traditions that provide our moral exoskeletons (such as the family).

He unpacks this (page 307):

We need groups, we love groups, and we develop our virtues in groups, even though those groups necessarily exclude nonmembers. If you destroy all groups and dissolve all internal structure, you destroy your moral capital. . . . . To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.

John Stuart Mill

So, after this analysis of the way that liberals, with whom he identifies, fail to understand some of the crucial insights of their political opponents (and of course vice versa), he reflects upon a disturbing trend (page 309):

America’s political class has become far more Manichaean since the early 1990s, first in Washington and then in many state capitals. The result is an increase in acrimony and gridlock, a decrease in the ability to find bipartisan solutions. . . . .

The recent election has done nothing to reduce the potential damage that might ensue from this mutual incomprehension and increased polarisation. The US has a Democratic President and a Republican Congress and House of Representatives. This polarisation does not stop there though, he argues (page 311):

Our counties and towns are becoming increasingly segregated into “lifestyle enclaves,” in which ways of voting, eating, working, and worshipping are increasingly aligned.

Transcending the Divide

So, it seems pretty clear that a society that is divided, to put it simply, between those who place individual rights and freedoms first on the grounds of compassion and those who most value community solidarity on the grounds of fairness and responsibility, may not be able to sink its differences effectively enough to achieve the objectivity and unity of vision that will enable it to solve its problems.

From my point of view as a Bahá’í the way out of this stalemate is as plain as a pikestaff – not that you see many of those about these days. We need to develop a perspective that balances the rights of the individual with the needs of society. Even at this early stage in its development the Bahá’í Faith offers some fruitful insights into how this balance might ultimately be achieved.

The central body of the Bahá’ís has shared some profound reflections on this subject:

Freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of action are among the freedoms which have received the ardent attention of social thinkers across the centuries. The resulting outflow of such profound thought has exerted a tremendous liberating influence in the shaping of modern society. Generations of the oppressed have fought and died in the name of freedom. Certainly the want of freedom from oppression has been a dominant factor in the turmoil of the times: witness the plethora of movements which have resulted in the rapid emergence of new nations in the latter part of the twentieth century. A true reading of the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh leaves no doubt as to the high importance of these freedoms to constructive social processes.

They are in no doubt though that we cannot uncritically espouse the ideal of freedom at all costs:

Bahá’u’lláh’s assertions clearly call for an examination of current assumptions. Should liberty be as free as is supposed in contemporary Western thought? Where does freedom limit our possibilities for progress, and where do limits free us to thrive? What are the limits to the expansion of freedom?

Their feeling is that the system of elected and appointed institutions within the Bahá’í Faith offers exactly the right counter-balance to the dangers of unbridled freedom. Clearly, the fact that all Bahá’ís have chosen to believe that these institutions are divinely ordained creates a consensus about their supreme value that is hard to match in the wider world. However, it brings very significant benefits in its train:
Within this framework of freedom a pattern is set for institutional and individual behavior which depends for its efficacy not so much on the force of law, which admittedly must be respected, as on the recognition of a mutuality of benefits, and on the spirit of cooperation maintained by the willingness, the courage, the sense of responsibility, and the initiative of individuals — these being expressions of their devotion and submission to the will of God. Thus there is a balance of freedom between the institution, whether national or local, and the individuals who sustain its existence.

Of course, the core value underpinning this system is the belief in the oneness of all humanity and the preeminent need to combine the compassion of the individual with the fairmindedness of an institution within the one system.  This makes it even easier to tread the fine line between liberty and anarchy on the one hand and fairness and oppression on the other.

Bahá’ís acknowledge that learning how to understand and implement such insights as these will take generations, partly because parenting and education are key factors in the process. But it is also true that every crisis, and Americans as well as most of the rest of us are surely in the grip of one, provides a great opportunity to begin to learn how to shake off old values and methods that have grown unhelpful and replace them with new more constructive ones.

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