Monday, July 23, 2012

But for the grace of Ayn Rand ...

But for the grace of God, I might have been Christian. As a wee lad, I was raised in a non-denominational Christian household, but most forms of Christianity in Oklahoma are quite conservative by default. I was rarely made to go to church until I deconverted, after which I was forced to go every week to a conservative evangelical church, so perhaps the brainwashing wasn't thorough enough. But the following could easily have happened:

My parents were more involved in the church, such that all my social life growing up all occurred through church activities. And in junior high school I never met the non-Christian friend who teased out of me all the contradictions and absurdities of the Bible and Christian faith. In Bizarro World, I never even met a nontheist until university. But there I found a dozen student organizations centered around more theologically liberal Christianities that were accommodating enough to allow the salvation of even the hot, goth atheist chick who was goodly enough to sleep with me freshman year, as well as the other kind-hearted and interesting folks of non-Christian beliefs who crossed my path at university. Hell, I even wrote a term paper on Origen in an honors course on early Christianity. By the time I started reading a bunch of uppity non-fiction social science literature that plausibly accounted for religion in natural ways, it hardly mattered. As my real life (non-Bizarro) religious friend said, "Religion is something you do, not something you believe."

But for an accident of fate, I might have been a communist. For a while at least, during my impressionable high school and college years. Before I read Atlas Shrugged, I was beginning to settle into your common or garden variety socially tolerant liberalism, with economic ideas following the suit of social issues. Atlas Shrugged turned me into a hardcore natural rights libertarian, and in college I followed the logic of natural rights to Rothbardian anarchocapitalism, reading a lot of essays by the folks at the Mises Institute.

But I could just as easily have read the Communist Manifesto, or something more modern (Anyone know any good, halfway sane reformed Marxist literature?). In this parallel world, I spent my evenings reading essays from the World Socialist Website. I wrote controversial essays for the University's student newspaper, animatedly explaining all the issues of the day within a Marxist framework. Just so. By the time graduate school rolled around, it was just taking too much energy to jam Socialist Calculation Problem-shaped objects into Labor Theory of Value-shaped holes. After gradually shifting from to, I finally became brave enough to read Popper, causing me to finally give up the Marxist label entirely. I became a technocratic progressive with the odd taste for Marxian narratives.

Back to our reality. I can imagine both the scenarios above vividly, but it would be harder for me to imagine alternative timelines where I trod more conservative paths. Going out on a limb, I speculate this is because liberalism (or the moral sentiments supporting liberalism) is just in my bones, while the particular ways liberalism manifested in my worldview are just the die casts of fate. This speculation is backed up by UVA psychologist Jonathan Haidt's new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. The book is about a lot of things, including how we intuit moral judgments before we reason about them, how morality evolved, and tribalism (one of my favorite bugbears). But the biggest takeaway for me was the notion that we are genetically predisposed to our political worldviews. Two identical twins separated at birth are likely to have similar politics later in life even if they were raised by politically opposite families. For a quick rundown, see Haidt's essay Born This Way? (adapted from the book) in Reason Magazine.
But then came the studies of twins. In the 1980s, when scientists began analyzing large databases that allowed them to compare identical twins (who share all of the same genes, plus, usually, their prenatal and childhood environments) to same-sex fraternal twins (who share half of their genes, plus their prenatal and childhood environments), they found that the identical twins were more similar on just about everything. What’s more, identical twins reared in separate households (because of adoption) usually turn out to be very similar, whereas unrelated children reared together (because of adoption) rarely turn out similar to each other, or to their adoptive parents; they tend to be more similar to their genetic parents. Genes contribute, somehow, to just about every aspect of our personalities.

We’re not just talking about IQ, mental illness, and basic personality traits such as shyness. We’re talking about the degree to which you like jazz, spicy foods, and abstract art; your likelihood of getting a divorce or dying in a car crash; your religiosity; and your political orientation as an adult. Whether you end up on the right or the left of the political spectrum turns out to be just as heritable as most other traits: Genetics explains between one-third and one-half of the variability among people in their political attitudes. Being raised in a liberal or conservative household accounts for much less.
This is rather troubling, and not only for those who have a tendency to think that the opposing political tribe consists of evil people intent on controlling our uteri or taking away Christmas or whatever. Politics and policy just seem like the kind of things where, if we all had wholesome, pro-social intentions and (crucially) agreed on all the facts, we could all engage in rational debate and figure out socially optimal policies. It seems like there ought to be a "right answer" to many of the problems of public life, at least in principle. We certainly like to feel that we have arrived at our beliefs by objectively assessing facts and arguments. It's humbling to realize that we're really only justifying arbitrary gut instincts when we debate the fine points of our belief systems with our fellows. While this could mean that some people are simply born to be wrong, à la Calvin, it seems to me (and Haidt) far more likely that our ideological diversity reflects different requirements for living in a successful group.

I take two lessons from all this. First, if we really are "born this way", it means that being Muslim or liberal is just a bit like being straight or autistic, which is to say it's normal and not fully volitional. Without wandering off into the wilderness of cultural relativism, I think this implies that we should treat people with other ideologies like we treat people of different nationalities or skin colors. Or at least we should make an effort to perceive partisans in this fashion more so than we do now. There is a limit to this, of course, as people do from time to time change their views of the world while it's impossible to change your skin color. And we should hold people to account for bad or dangerous ideas. But genetic prior dispositions are powerful and no one benefits when we're demonized for innate differences.

Haidt argues in the book that, in light of all this, if you really want to persuade someone of something, you have to make them feel that you are part of the same tribe, and that you have similar moral values and concerns. This leads to the second lesson. If you want to get the most bang for your persuasive buck, you should focus on the people who are most likely to give your arguments a fair shake. This is of course your own tribe. As comfortable as it is to just nod along to the sloppy arguments of your ideological fellow travelers or cheer on their uncharitable characterizations of the folks on the other side of the debate, it doesn't do anyone, including your own team, any good. If we actually want good ideas to win out over bad ones instead of just gratifying our tribal lusts, we should spend more calories than we presently do on sharpening our own ideas and blunting our own biases.

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