Tom Rielly, TED’s director of sponsorship and standup comic, planned not to offer a satirical summary of this year’s conference. He bows to popular demand and takes the stage as “Tom Rielly unplugged.” He tells us his preparation included, “72 miutes, 25 index cards, and one pencil made of psycoactive mycelium.” He tells Queen Noor that, “it’s hard to share the audience with another world famous queen.” And he tells us to look for his new autobiography, “The Billion Bottoms.” We would have missed him had he not taken the stage.
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has been listening closely to the TED conference. He’s figured out that this is a pretty liberal group. And he asks the group to try a thought experiment – two Americans are in Italy looking at the famous statue of David. One is amazed by the beauty of the form; the other is embarrased by the naked penis. Which one is more likely to have voted for Bush?
Our prejudice is right, as it turns out. Liberals are much more likely to be open to new experiences. Conservatives are more likely to seek familiarity and comfort. “With that knowledge, you can understand why people eat at Applebee’s, just not anyone you know.”
He asks for a show of hands and discovers almost everyone here identifies as liberal, with a dozen libertarians and a handful of conservatives. “Our lack of diversity here is a problem.” In these homogenous groups, you end up with team mentality, and you end up rooting against the other side. “If you think half of America votes badly because they are stupid or religious, you are trapped in a matrix.” He invites us to “take the red pill, learn some moral psychology and step outside the moral matrix.”
Haidt argues that the brain is well organized at birth with certain moral values, held in place by neural and hormonal programming. He identifies five basic values:
- Care and harm avoidance. He argues that roughly 70% of the arguments made TED invoke these arguments.
- Reciprocity – we should be fair and just. 30% of arguments followed thiese arguments, he argues.
- Ingroup loyalty, our allegiance to our tribe. “When we don’t have tribes, we make them, because it’s fun” – think sports teams.
- Purity/sanctity – The right does it with sex, but he reminds us that the left does it with food
- Authority and respect
So, if everyone has these five basic moral drives, what happens when you raise people in different environments?
Haidt has been running an experiment at YourMorals.org. It asks people their political affiliations and their moral beliefs. It turns out that liberals care more than conservatives about harm and fairness. And liberals care a lot less about authority, ingroup and purity. This is true in all the nations where they’ve collected data.
Why should liberals care about these other three moral values? Because there’s a tendency for social order to decay. He shows us the Hieronymus Bosch “Garden of Earthly Delights” – reading from left to right, we see purity, then sexual excess, then hell. This is true artistically, but it’s also true in terms of behavioral economics – research shows that cooperation in economic games decays over time without punishment. We may need authority and purity to maintain social order.
“The Grand Canyon isn’t complicated – it’s just wind and rock. Villages in the Grand Canyon are complicated. This is the wonder of the world.” Civilizations require people to “use every tool in the toolbox.”
“Liberals reject three of these social rules – purity, authority and ingroup identity. They want change and justice even at the cost of social chaos. While conservatives want order, even at cost to those at the bottom.”
He advises us to look for balance, places where Vishu and Shiva work together – the creative and destructive forces. He quotes Sent-ts’an, from 700CE China: “If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between ‘for’ and ‘against’ is the mind’s worst disease.” He asks us to step out into moral humility “from the moral self-righteousness that is the normal human condition.”
I’m looking forward to Haidt’s book, The Happiness Hypothesis.