Reason.com's Hit and Run blog has an interesting video up featuring psychology professor Jonathan Haidt, who is best known for his research into the foundations of morality. In the video, Haidt posits that political inclinations are based on sensitivity to disgust -- the sensation that something is innately repulsive, even if that repulsiveness can't be rationally explained.
Our disgust sensitivity, he argues, is the tool by which we structure our morality. (I'm repelled; therefore it is wrong.) And that sensitivity, or lack of it, makes for entertaining political bedfellows:
People who are low on [disgust sensitivity] tend to be attracted to liberalism or libertarianism...people who are high on it tend to be conservative...there is clearly a link between your disgust sensitivity and your moral judgment about cultural issues.
Libertarians are actually in personality very much like liberals, not like conservatives. Very much like liberals, but just lower in compassion [laughter] and more rational...libertarians are the smartest, most logical, least emotional across all emotions.
(If you're curious where you fall on this spectrum, go to Haidt's website, yourmorals.org, where you can take a battery of surveys.)
Haidt explains that disgust originally was a physical defense mechanism -- don't put that in your mouth! -- but it evolved into a means of differentiating between the base and the divine. He expands on the question of divinity -- the extent to which we associate purity (distance from the disgusting) with the divine -- and notes that we in the developed West are living in "the first fully desacralized world ever devised by human beings," with the consequence that "disgust plays a much lower role [now] than it [did] throughout human history and across cultures."
The lecture left me curious on several points. Haidt notes that on surveys, libertarians score by far the highest on systematizing and by far the lowest on empathizing. Those two distinctions also, he points out, define the general difference between masculinity and femininity. Now, he's already stated his premise that libertarians, like liberals -- because of their shared lack of disgust -- are less dependent than conservatives on the idea of the divine for their moral structure. So how does one explain a religious libertarian -- or, even better, a female religious libertarian? And if religious libertarians are an anomaly, are religious liberals equally anomalous?
There is one striking difference between libertarians and liberals that Haidt hints at but then doesn't follow up on. He makes the point that libertarians are not into "perceiving magical essences", but doesn't mention what strikes me as the rampant liberal tendency to perceive magical essences everywhere. I'd be most interested to hear his take on the worshipful -- I use the word advisedly -- adoration of the earth by liberals, as well as their apparent belief that human beings are some kind of harmful aberration, like a virus. I recall a comment Elvis Costello made years ago that he sometimes wonders whether the earth wouldn't be better off if humans had never set foot upon it. Humans, if left to their own devices, will inevitably mar the earth's perfection, so they must be constrained. When it comes to matters ecological, the vaunted liberal tolerance -- by which their supposed spiritual kinship with libertarians is defined -- pops like a balloon. Have sex with a goat if that's what makes you both happy, but you damn well better be feeding that goat organic hormone-free grass or we're coming for you, buddy.
But getting back to disgust sensitivity as the root of our political differences. This theory seems to make some sense. What do you think?