Kat: I’ve been distracted by the news, as usual, plus my work, but I did manage to read a couple of books in the last two weeks. K.J. Parker’s How to Rule and Empire and Get Away With It was a sequel of sorts to his (better) Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City. After the U.S. election I read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, which was enlightening. Basically, research shows that (1) liberals are more “Open” than conservatives are and (2), world-wide, liberals’ morality contains three domains (Harm/Care, Fairness, Liberty) while conservatives’ morality has six (the three that liberals have plus Authority/Respect, Loyalty, and Sanctity/Purity). Also, liberals’ ideas of Fairness involve equality while conservatives’ value proportionality. (Which is why liberals and conservatives view “pay their fair share” very differently.) This Moral Foundations Theory explains most, if not all, of the differences in liberal and conservative views and behaviors. It is very helpful to understand this. Haidt argues that we need both types working together for a well-functioning society. Here’s a TED talk that summarizes these findings. Haidt’s research group has a website where you can contribute to their research while exploring your own moral values
Bill: This week I only read one book, because it was Brandon Sanderson’s 1200+ page tome, Rhythm of War. But because I can grade with the TV on, I did get in some genre video: I was greatly annoyed by the latest Discoveryepisode, mildly entertained by the most recent The Mandalorian, and really liked the first two episodes of The Umbrella Academy (and its soundtrack). And genre-adjacent, I quite enjoyed Werner Herzog’s documentary about meteors, Fireball, on Apple TV+
Kelly: I’m reading Chloe Gong’s upcoming YA novel These Violent Delights, a Romeo and Juliet retelling set in 1920s Shanghai with monsters, and also the thriller When No One Is Watching by Alyssa Cole, which may or may not have a speculative element, I’m not sure yet.
Marion: I read Karen Russell’s novella Sleep Donation after reading Kat’s review of it, and I finished T. Kingfisher’s creepy folk-horror novel The Hollow Places. After browsing the current issue of Locus which has a wonderful interview with Victor del Valle, I started an old mystery by Nicholas Freeling, Flanders Sky. It’s midway through a series, the style is intentionally eccentric, it deals with world events that I have to brush up on, and the suspect character is malignantly misogynistic and racist, while our detective character (male) shrugs and says, “Well, but he’s brilliant, so what can you do?” Not sure I’m going to make it to the end.
Sandy: Moi? Having recently finished a very fine horror novel from 1927, J. B. Priestley’s Benighted, I have dived into another horror novel from that very same year. The book in question is Leonard Cline’s The Dark Chamber, which was a favorite of no less a figure than H. P. Lovecraft himself. I am enjoying the book very much, but am finding that some of the vocabulary and references are making for a challenging reading experience. I hope to have some thoughts on this one for you very shortly….
Tim: This week I read the second novel in Evan Winter’s THE BURNING series, Fires of Vengeance. Despite a somewhat easier-going plot this time around, I found it as gripping as the first one.
Kat, the Haidt book sounds really good!
Kat, how much of an historical view does the Haidt book take? The meanings of liberal and conservative have changed a bit even in my lifetime, and the values professed by those who refer to themselves by those labels have changed even moreso. (And the actions taken by liberal and conservative politicians, once in office, don’t necessarily jibe with their professions either.) Labels like progressive similarly didn’t always carry the same connotation. In all likelihood, there will continue to be changes in what all these terms mean.
I can see the described moral foundations as a source of division. But humans are able to cultivate divisions over far more senseless and arbitrary criteria with great ease as well.
Hi Paul, Haidt acknowledges the change in those labels over time and across cultures, and also describes libertarianism as a separate but related philosophy, but mainly his conclusion is that there’s a general struggle between progressives and conservatives to shape the future, with progressives moving quickly with a nearly exclusive focus on those three domains, and conservatives applying the brakes because of their concern about the additional three domains.
Haidt agrees with you that we can cultivate divisions over senseless criteria and that is part of his argument. For example, he uses evolutionary psychology to suggest that it’s adaptive for us to be tribal and that humans who weren’t tribal may not have survived to pass on their genes. He suggests this may be the origin of our nationalistic tendencies.
That lends some credibility to his thesis. It does, however, seem that in almost all strong believers of a political ideology, of whatever sort, you find people who are preachy, intolerant, superior, judgmental, doctrinaire and conformist. The ones who will never be content until everyone thinks the same way they do. In rare cases these people form alliances across ideological lines, as when right-wing Christians and left-wing feminists started the “satanic panic” persecution of day care providers in the 1980s and 1990s. So I think there’s an aspect of personality or psychology that intersects with the moral dimension that he’s talking about.
He discusses personality traits, too, such as Openness (he is a psychologist) but I think he would say that those traits you describe come out of the morality domains (Moral Foundations Theory) more than personality. The groups you describe believe that their ideas are moral and their opponents’ ideas are immoral and must be abolished.
Right, and most reasonable people stop at the point of saying, “You can keep your ideas to yourself as long as you don’t behave in a socially unacceptable way and don’t try to force your morals on me.” Then the bounds of what is socially acceptable will settle the issue as they slowly change over time.
But not everyone wants to stop at that point.