Robert Wright (author of Nonzero, and The Evolution of God), interviews me about the book. We largely agree about the evolution of religion, and about the New Atheists being fundamentalists. Bob is dubious about group selection. He acknowledges it could exist, but tries to come up with individual-level explanations for human groupishness. Bob and I co-taught a class at Princeton. We are on very friendly terms, and this allows our disagreements to be vocal without any risk of it descending into anger. Relationships help open-minded thinking and civil disagreement.Read More
The fate of the Affordable Health Care Act comes down to two competing notions of liberty. A front page article in the NYT today put it like this:
If the administration is to prevail in the case, it must capture at least one vote beyond those of the court’s four more liberal justices, who are thought virtually certain to vote to uphold the law. The administration’s best hope is Justice Kennedy.
The point was not lost on Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., who concluded his defense of the law at the court this week with remarks aimed squarely at Justice Kennedy. Mr. Verrilli said there was “a profound connection” between health care and liberty. “There will be millions of people with chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease,” he said, “and as a result of the health care that they will get, they will be unshackled from the disabilities that those diseases put on them and have the opportunity to enjoy the blessings of liberty.”
Paul D. Clement, representing 26 states challenging the law, had a comeback. “I would respectfully suggest,” he said, “that it’s a very funny conception of liberty that forces somebody to purchase an insurance policy whether they want it or not.”
This is a perfect summation of the difference between the two conceptions of liberty held by Left and Right, which I describe in a footnote in chapter 8 of The Righteous Mind. Here’s a fuller explanation:
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin coined the terms “positive liberty” and “negative liberty” in 1958 as European welfare states were developing new ideas about the relationship between governments and citizens. Negative liberty refers to “the absence of obstacles which block human action.” This is the traditional understanding of liberty—the freedom to be left alone; the freedom from oppression and interference by other people. This is the kind of liberty that, when violated, elicits the psychological state called reactance, which is an angry reaction against perceived pressure or constraint. Reactance makes people do the opposite of what they were pressured to do, even if they were not inclined to act that way beforehand.
Positive liberty refers to having the power and resources to choose one’s path and fulfill one’s potential. Berlin was summarizing a trend in post-war democracies in which some philosophers and activists began to ask: What good is (negative) liberty if you are stuck in a social system that offers you few options? Proponents of positive liberty argued that governments have an obligation to remove barriers and obstacles to full political participation, and to take positive steps to enable previously oppressed groups to succeed.
As Berlin noted, the two forms of liberty sometimes clash. When governments pursue positive liberty for some citizens, it often requires violating the negative liberty of other citizens. Unfortunately, only negative liberty is connected to visceral emotions and instinctive reactions. When Martin Luther King said “One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination,” White Americans could feel the urgency of removing the chains. But when Democrats later fought for programs to enhance the positive liberty of African Americans and other minorities – e.g., forced bussing, affirmative action, and welfare – they triggered outrage, protests, and a mass exodus of the White working class to the Republican Party.
I think the Affordable Health Care act is a perfect instantiation of the tradeoff between positive and negative liberty. We must compel some people to buy something in order to help other people live full and healthy lives. Given how much more powerful and visceral negative liberty is than positive, and given that a lot of research shows that judges are human beings — they reason much like the rest of us, following their intuitions and then searching for legal justifications — my bet is that Kennedy will vote to strike down the law, along with the four more conservative justices.
Politics is so weird in part because voters are not pursuing their self-interest, they’re pursuing their group interest. And even for group interest, it’s often not about the group’s material interests, it’s about protecting their sacred totems. Circling around sacred objects helps a group cohere. So if you want to understand why we’re suddenly all talking about birth control and abortion at a time when economic matters are so much more important, follow the sacredness. I explain this in more detail in a NYT Review essay, here,Read More
Here’s a riotously funny clip from The Daily Show in which a journalist who heads “The Civility Project” is asked about a column she wrote calling the Tea Partiers “economic terrorists.” Isn’t that just a little bit uncivil, asks John Oliver? No, she says, as her inner press secretary (the rider) kicks into action to find justifications for the moral judgment made by her automatic intuitions (the elephant). She doesn’t realize her own flagrant hypocrisy.
The clip illustrates two of the three main principles of The Righteous Mind:
1) “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. Harrop’s reasoning is so clearly devoted to justification, not truth-seeking. She even recommends just telling the Tea Partiers directly that their “name calling is not making them sound intelligent,” but doesn’t grasp the irony when Oliver says that to her directly. You can’t change people’s minds with reasons if their intuitions point the other way.
2) “Morality binds and blinds.” Harrop is such a partisan liberal that she can’t think clearly. She can’t see what’s happening, either with the Tea Partiers or during her own interview with Oliver.
This is why we at CivilPolitics.org do not endorse civility pledges. Pledges are made by riders, and they have no effect on behavior. We endorse more indirect methods and institutional changes to change the “path” that the elephant is traveling.
I spoke at TED 2012, on the reason why people have so many ways of achieving self-transcendence. My goal in the talk was to illustrate visually some of the most complex ideas in my book — chapters 9 and 10 on multi-level selection and hive psychology. If you read those chapters, the video will make even more sense. If you watch this first, those chapters will make even more sense.
The basic idea is that our ability to lose ourselves and become “simply a part of a whole” (as Durkheim put it) is an adaptation, not just a fluke of crossed neural wiring, and the New Atheists would have it. It’s a mental ability that is of little use for helping individuals beat their neighbors in competition, but boy is it useful for helping teams bond together to out-compete other teams.
In other words, I’m siding with Charles Darwin, E. O. Wilson, and David Sloan Wilson on this issue, and against the dominant (but fading) view in evolutionary biology that group selection never happened.
[Be sure to watch this video full-screen, for the video effects]