Commentaries
1:00 am
Fri April 27, 2012

Chris Tucker: Values In Politics

Commentator Chris Tucker has some thoughts on a new book that helps to explain why we believe, argue, and vote as we do.

I’ve been following politics for more than 30 years now, a debate-watching, stay-up-for-the-late-returns junkie, but like many others I find our politics today increasingly shallow, nasty, shrill and dishonest. At times   I almost envy those hard-boiled cynics like H. L. Mencken, who famously said, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want--and deserve to get it good and hard.”

My response to this problem has been twofold. First, I cut way back on my steady diet of the partisan cable-TV shows on which I’ve been hooked since the old days of CNN’s “Crossfire.” So much heat, so little light.  

Second, I began reading books that are not specifically about politics, but about the psychological and sociological forces that help explain political behavior. These include Among the Truthers, by Jonathan Kay; Mad as Hell: The Crisis of the 1970s and the Rise of the Populist Right,by Dominick Sandbrook; and Diversity: The Invention of a Concept, by Peter Wood.

My latest book in this ongoing effort is The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion  by Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. Haidt says that our most important political arguments—including those that mark the “culture wars” of recent years—grow out of our feelings about certain  moral foundations. These include fairness vs. cheating, authority vs. subversion,  and liberty vs. oppression.  Self-described liberals tend to value some of these foundations most highly, while self-described conservatives hold others to be paramount.

Recently, I signed up at Professor Haidt’s website, yourmorals.org, and completed several thought-provoking surveys. In one set of questions, designed to get at what we truly believe is sacred, he asks how much money we would require to do certain things: curse our parents to their face,  leave the social group we most enjoy, vote twice in an election,   harm an animal and many more. The amounts range from zero up to a million dollars. Another option is "no amount of money"--no reward could make me do that. 

In another survey, you’re asked to agree or disagree with several statements about society and morality. These include:

*Men and women each have different roles to play in society.

*Justice is the most important requirement for a society.

*I would call some acts wrong on the grounds that they are unnatural.

*I think it's morally wrong that rich children inherit a lot of money while poor children inherit nothing.  

The website has dozens of other tests about foreign policy, our need to belong and other subjects. After each survey you get the results, which show how much you value each psychological foundation and how your values compare to those of liberals and conservatives who have completed the surveys.

Haidt’s conclusion, so out of fashion today, is that neither liberal nor conservative morality is complete without the counterbalance of the other.  That’s why civil discourse breaks down when we demonize our opponents, denying them any legitimate claim to truth and insisting they are motivated only by negative forces like greed, racism, misogyny, or the lust for power.  We must remember, Haidt says, that everyone’s moral intuitions feel like self-evident truths; as a result, our “righteous minds” can blind us to the moral insights of others.    

Chris Tucker is a Dallas writer and literary consultant.