A Moral Issue Too

We are above all a cooperative species, with a unique capacity to work creatively together to meet common challenges. We can be highly altruistic, ready to extend aid to others of our species (or even other species) at a cost to ourselves.

And we can also be extremely fierce and even brutal when we feel threatened.

As shown by a brilliant analysis by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, these capacities are all closely linked in our evolutionary history. During the millions of years our ancestors spent living in small bands of hunter-gatherers it was groups composed of individuals with a high capacity for close and unselfish cooperation in the face of conflict with other groups (and other extreme threats) that were most likely to prevail and prosper, thus assuring the survival of their members (even though some might fall in war) and the propagation of their genes. By this means these instincts became deeply embedded in our genes. In a previous post, I described how Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel have found that a great deal of the variation in human moral values can be explained in terms of two polarities, traditional vs. secular-rational and survival vs. self-expression. When we feel under acute threat we tend to band closely together with those we feel we can most depend on to combat it with all our energy. But when we feel secure we can be expansive and generous.

In 1780, John Adams summed it up famously as

I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine. *

(Note the lack of reference to the studies of daughters, even though he was writing to his wonderful wife.)

Very closely related to the survival vs. self-expression variable is what Inglehart in earlier work identified as materialism vs. postmaterialism. People at the survival/materialism end of the scale are more concerned with ensuring that they and those close to them will have adequate resources and defending against threats to those resources, while at the other end people feel there is plenty for all those of good will. When conscious of threat we tend to look with suspicion on outsiders and prefer that matters be in the hands of those we feel we can trust in very difficult circumstances. But when we can relax our vigilance we are inclined to see value in allowing everyone to pursue his or her own vision and values and to favor democratic governance.

Perhaps the descendants of John Adams who came closest to realizing his elysian vision were those of the seventh generation, men and women of our own time, for those of us of a certain age in the United States and elsewhere in the West who passed our adolescence and adulthood in the decades following World War II knew a time of general personal and economic security only occasionally matched in human history. Sure enough, this era brought a sharp advance of self-expression (or postmaterialist) values, expressed most dramatically and colorfully by the hippies and flower children. Bliss was it to be alive, largely freed of need to struggle for survival.

(There were of course little blemishes like the Vietnam War. But the unprecedented breadth and fury of the opposition to the war only proves the point.)

But as the flowers have faded and the hippies have come due for hip replacements a chill has struck. Not only the crash of 2008 but the long stagnation or even decline in real incomes for most people not at the very pinnacle of the economic heap. Self-expression values have retreated like the glaciers before the heat of survival anxieties. The Sensual and the Dark come once more.

In an article in Perspectives on Politics 15, no. 2 (2017) , “Trump and the Xenophobic Populist Parties.” Inglehart and Pippa Norris argue that this trend lies at the root of the rise of Trumpism and xenophobic populism more generally, not only on our shores but in Europe. The polyglot, multispectral immigrants who seemed to offer excitement and rejuvenation in halcyon times now take on a dark and threatening aspect for many.

As the two authors emphasize, it is entirely possible to be in easy and secure economic circumstances oneself and nevertheless be swept up in a general tide toward more survival/materialism values. Indeed, it is perhaps those who feel they have much to lose who are more likely to vote for xenophobic populist movements.

Inglehart and Norris see the materialism vs postmaterialism polarity as separate from the traditional left-right spectrum that has dominated politics in the West since the time of the French Revolution. The traditional left-right variable is fundamentally economic: The “haves,” on the right, sought to preserve the existing distribution of wealth and political power and their favored position in it while the “have-nots” sought to overturn it so they could get more. With plenty of people but little power the left wanted to promote democracy so their potential voting strength could be brought to bear. By the same token, the right resisted democratization.

But postmodernists, although they were most often affluent, tended also to favor broadened democracy, bolstering the laboring-class left. With more resources, better education, and higher social status the affluent postmodernists became the face of the left, first in the United States and then in Europe. While they agreed with the democratizing goals of the old left, however, and largely with its redistributionist aims, they also had other objectives not so widely shared by the laboring left. The materialist white working men who formed the base of the traditional left wanted a better economic and political deal for themselves and their mates, and were at length persuaded to stand together in their demands on behalf of the entire population of white working men. But they never felt that the political power they had gained was any more than sufficient to serve their own needs and they were loath to see it expended on behalf of rights they scarcely understood for people with whom they felt little fellowship or commonality of interest. The moral foundation of the left’s  fusion of materialist labor and affluent postmaterialism existed under constant tension.

The economic circumstances of the past few decades have sharpened the tension, spreading materialism at the expense of postmaterialism. Postmaterialist values are far from dead, but also farther from universal acceptance than they’ve been in some decades. Many experience acute survival-related anxieties which lead them to heightened xenophobia. In the view of Inglehart and Norris this has led to what is effectively a split of the left, with the formation of separate xenophobic factions dominated by materialists whose moral outrage at immigration has estranged them from a traditional economic left now heavily influenced by the postmaterialism they reject.

In the United States many ardent xenophobes turned to the Republicans, voting for Donald Trump and no doubt supplying his very slender margin of victory. It’s a remarkable alliance, as the Republicans are the traditional party of the economic right and if anything have moved even more in that direction in recent years. Many xenophobic materialists have invested their hopes, however, in promises or at least intimations by Trump and some other Republicans to do well by them on economic issues. In their moral fervor regarding immigration, in fact, many chose to believe that Trump would fulfill promises that were frankly and provably impossible, or very strongly at odds with Republican views. But as news interviews and polls show, as as one would of course expect, confirmation bias is leading most of these people to retain their faith notwithstanding the evidences of incompetence and outright bad faith that have come so far. How much of this support will last until 2020 or even 2018 remains to be seen.

There are many more important implications, but I’ll leave those for another posting.


* P.S. I note that where I studied mathematics and philosophy. before turning to politics and war, my son has devoted himself to the study of poker. What John Adams would have thought of this I cannot imagine, but in our present world poker is arguably the most valuable of all these topics.