towards a philosophy of radical kindness
Derek Van Gorder
LEFTS + RIGHTS
kindness and strength
I express only after listening to other expressions: Plato, Darwin, Nietzsche, Woolf, Jung, Dawkins, Weinstein(s), Peterson, Haidt. Plus countless other artists and thinkers who necessarily inform my interpretation of their ideas. I do not claim to be a scientist, or even well-read, only that I attempt to think deeply on these issues.
HAIDT'S MORAL FOUNDATIONS THEORY:
Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist currently promoting a theory of baseline, intuitive, cross-cultural human ethics. His Moral Foundations Theory stands in contrast to the tabula rasa, or social constructionist views that are oddly dominant today. In the perspective suggested by Haidt's research, human morality is not determined by social constructions-- rather human morality, just like capability for language, exists innately, therefore is necessarily a product of biological evolution, varying across individuals within populations, and is filtered by social / rational constructions. Society may powerfully shape, but is inherently an expression of latent values-- not the creator of them.
You can view a TED talk of Haidt explaining his theory here.
The six moral foundations (I will use the term instincts) postulated by Haidt are:
Care, opposite of Harm
Fairness, opposite of Cheating
Loyalty, opposite of Betrayal
Authority, opposite of Subversion
Sanctity, opposite of Degradation
Liberty, opposite of Oppression
This is not proposed to be a complete list-- rather a few clear discernibles at present. Haidt's leaving open of the theory is admirable-- and reminds me of another psychological theorist, who once spoke of archetypes, but refused to number them.
Haidt also points out what every one of us knows is true: these instincts are not unique to humans, but shared by even our humblest friends in the animal kingdom.
Why emphasize this? Because the common stereotypical caricature of evolution merely as "survival of the fittest" ignores something rather obvious: the manifest evolutionary fitness available to animals who cooperate well with each other. To me, this suggests: moral emotions like the above can be thought of as mechanisms through which advantageous group cooperation is developed and "enforced" among imperfect, independent social animals who necessarily require internal guidance for their interactions.
Now to the most relevant part: while all members of the animal human can be said to share all such traits, individuals clearly vary in their sensitivity / intensity. And this seems to track, on average, into two directions, or rather trends. Haidt compared his data from different cultures all over the world to find variance in moral sensitivity among self-identified liberals and conservatives. He plots the results like this:
Liberals share all the same instincts as conservatives. But posses a higher sensitivity to Care / Harm and to Fairness / Cheating-- and they less strongly value traits such as Authority and Ingroup Loyalty.
I must wonder: does sensitivity to the former necessarily arrive at the cost of the latter? And might this trend provide some benefit to the species?
Many apologies to Haidt, who as a careful researcher would surely question the following ruminations.
But to me, this line of research holds many obvious and serious implications. I could now wait patiently another 5 or 10 years for more scientists to wake from their collective disinterest on the human question and prove with harder data what I am about to write. But with my developing new view of politics and current events, I do not believe we can afford to wait that long. Therefore I use my own reason, imagination, and common sense to claim what everyone might have admitted a long time ago:
Left and Right are two halves of an evolutionary problem-solving puzzle. Two variants, two types of people within a community of social animals driven to cooperate and compete together, so as to better ensure their tribe will survive & thrive in a changing and unknown environment.
Please allow me further speculation.
Lefts desire to care for the disadvantaged, and promote wellness & variance within the tribe, to foster new ideas over time.
Rights desire to encourage competition, to protect the tribe from outside threats, and to maintain order-- in effect, to codify and preserve over time only the best of the new ideas generated by the Lefts.
I think of it this way:
LEFT KINDNESS: long-term thriving (possibilities of FUTURE: healing and forward movement)
RIGHT STRENGTH: short-term survival (wisdom of the PAST: sustaining and enriching)
I venture this not as some binary system. Humans are not 1's and 0's. Each individual possesses the full range of natural social-moral instincts, whatever they may turn out to be-- only the intensity of their expression varies, and it is only on average, as a trend, that the categories emerge. In a healthy society, Lefts must be somewhere a little bit Right-- and every Right must be somewhere a little bit Left. Just like the tribe itself, the individual would ideally be a self-sustaining whole. Natural daily interaction between the two would foster this. Rights wish to make Lefts more strong, Lefts wish to make Rights more Kind.
Epigentics, if my layman's interpretation is true enough, provides plausible practical motivations for harmony between the two. It is manifestly in the interest of the whole tribe for every member-- even those currently weak-- to be looked after, but encouraged to grow stronger. If genes are affected by lived experience, it seems clear that a helpful combination of kindness and strength would provide innumerable dividends over future generations, as opposed to an extreme of either: letting the weak perish, or providing only care with no imperative toward strength-- neither seems like a good strategy for long-term resilience.
In addition to their main tasks, Rights and Lefts surely keep each other in check-- human behavior is imperfect, and checks and balances between people are necessary to achieve social harmony. For example: Rights might keep Lefts from taking apart traditions crucial to fostering competition. Lefts might keep Rights from pursuing their competitive drives into unnecessary war or conflict when it may damage the overall interests of the tribe. The variance of the intensity of these instincts is the mechanism through which attention is driven to where it is needed most in the community-- for no tribe leader could possibly be wise enough to see every flaw or weakness in their society, and control entirely from top-down.
Is it that much of a leap to assume our modern politics remain expressions of so-called primitive biological instincts like the above? This is strangely common knowledge today (conservatives and liberals are "different"), and accusing one's political opponents of being emotional is a common attack. Of course-- the accusers never look at themselves as being driven by emotion as well. For in our highly rational society today: emotion and instinct are taboo, and frequently constitute the basis of insult. Biological explanations for behavior are not discussed in public. Hardly polite, it seems to us...
Much confusion and trouble, I claim, we have wrought for the sake of this particular, unhelpful politeness. Much unwarranted prejudice has been passed off as rational or noteworthy debate. And while the ratio of prejudice to productive discussion has not always been so overwhelmingly negative, we can now clearly see a trend towards prejudice in the modern era in both camps.
WHICH ARE YOU FIRST: RATIONAL OR MORAL?
To any politically-inclined reading who still fancy themselves rational beings, perhaps hampered by emotions, but whose thoughts and actions are ungoverned by primitive instincts-- with respect I must inform you: science has suggested otherwise for many years. Only everywhere the rational have been nodding their heads at the research and solemnly saying to themselves: "that's interesting," and then carrying on with their rational lives.
I believe it is time to end this illusion.
You are not a rational actor who makes logical market or political choices in response to inputs.
You are an emotional being: moral and social by nature.
You are a helper. Driven by your evolutionary Will, to find where you fit, where you belong, where you can best help. And you desire to find your place through competition (testing yourself against others) and cooperation (receiving help and helping those around you). In a healthy society, the symbiotic relationship between both would be recognized and encouraged by all. In a healthy society, you would find where you stack up next to others organically, and lead or follow as best negotiated through authentic, voluntary social interaction.
But today-- you are one such helpful being who was raised in a peculiar civilization, being everywhere pressured by structures, institutions, forces, other people, and technology to conform into acting rationally-- to ignore emotion and act contrary to your own Will almost constantly.
Society and culture are crucial: imperfect instincts are not enough for beings who have acquired the imperfect tool of Reason: the ability to exceed their instincts, to look for evolutionary shortcuts in the material around them. Such beings require guidance to find the more effective paths in this world beyond instincts. But what kind of society could guide well, that did not understand Lefts and Rights? That placed them into different worlds, and watched them fight each other? What could such a society produce but madness?
How did this happen to us?
THE PROBLEM: E.M.E.