Friday, April 8, 2016

Two boxes of values

I know I haven't blogged much lately, but that doesn't mean I haven't been thinking.  I've been doing a lot of reading about morality, about politics, about tribes and how they work.  Here are three of the best things I've read on the topic, which may be good background for this post:

The Rise of American Authoritarianism - Trump supporters are more likely than others to say that it's more important to be obedient than curious.  Are they a different sort of people than the rest of us, or are they just more frightened?
Some people punch down when they get scared - Why does fear make people authoritarian anyway?
And my favorite, A Thrive/Survive Theory of the Political Spectrum - It's possible that the values of the left and right are each well-adapted for different circumstances -- conservative values for times of danger and liberal values when things are more secure.

And this has gotten me thinking about how I tend to subdivide people, politically, into two groups.  I've done it before with Catholics, but pretty much everyone can be subdivided in this way.  Of course as a division it's as arbitrary as any -- you can't fit everyone exactly into a box.  Rather, these are two general groups of values which people tend to prefer.  Some people select some values from each box, but there's a lot of commonality in the kinds of people who prefer one box or the other.

Here is one box: Life is dangerous.  Your personal life satisfaction is not important.  Your survival is not guaranteed.  It's important to be tough; nobody cares about your feelings.  People who are not like us are probably enemies.  There isn't enough to go around -- if someone wins, someone else has to lose, so I want my side to win.  Bad guys exist, and we have to be ready to defend ourselves against them.  Those who do wrong should be punished.  Trying to be nice to bad guys is a mistake; they won't be nice to us so it's best to attack first.  The strength and cohesion of my group is crucial.  We take care of our own.  If you don't like the decisions the leaders make, suck it up because they only way to succeed is by following orders. Have faith in the things you believe and don't ask too many questions.

Here is the other box: Life is good right now, and it's going to keep getting better.  It's important to be happy.  Sacrificing for others is great, but it's important to take care of yourself too.  Be kind to people who are different.  There's no such thing as a bad guy -- there are only people just like us who we need to figure out how to get through to.  There's enough of everything to go around, we just have to share it and not be selfish.  If we work together, we all win; there are no losers.  When someone makes a mistake, we shouldn't punish them, we should help them get better.  Pursue your own individuality -- if a group is demanding a lot of you, it's probably a cult.  Question everything.  Everyone is equal.

To put it more empirically, Box One contains values like:
  • strong ingroup loyalty and outgroup suspicion
  • hierarchy
  • higher aggression
  • faith and certainty
  • black-and-white thinking
  • abstract justice/punishment
  • concern with purity
Box Two contains values like:
  • weak ingroup loyalty and more openness to strangers
  • equality
  • low aggression
  • curiosity 
  • shades-of-gray thinking
  • mercy, rehabilitative justice
  • openness to experimentation

Most of us like some of the values in one box, and some in the other.  Or we lean toward one, but not stated in such an extreme way.  Because hopefully we all realize that none  of these statements are 100% true 100% of the time.  For instance, I think people are basically good at heart and we should work together with them, but I don't actually think there's any chance of bringing ISIS to peace talks any time soon.

I realized, as I've mulled this over, that the first box is a set of values that are useful in zero-sum situations.  That is, in some contests there really are winners and losers, and so an adversarial outlook makes you more likely to succeed.  For instance, in an agrarian society, land is zero-sum -- if you have this farm, no one else has it.  You will have to defend it against anyone else who wants it, or you will starve.  No wonder these values were all pretty solidly appreciated in the agrarian Middle Ages.

The second box is full of values useful in positive-sum situations.  For instance, capitalism is positive-sum -- a successful trade results in two people who both feel they have "won," because they have improved their situation compared to before trading.  When your survival is based on positive-sum contests, you learn that friendliness toward strangers and generosity toward all are the values that will get you ahead.  You learn to find positive-sum solutions to problems, because these will promote peace and allow you to do more trading.  If you sell bread and your neighbor sells milk, you're not enemies -- you can afford to be friendly and you don't have to be on your guard all the time.  In fact, fear can destroy capitalism -- take bank runs, for example, or stock market crashes.

I can also just borrow the explanation from the blog post I cited above -- the first box is for situations perceived as dangerous, the second for situations perceived as secure.  Being loyal with your friends and suspicious of outsiders is a good plan when things are very dangerous.  There's no time to examine and test what you know; instead, you should rely on time-tested beliefs.  It's no surprise that people who pick a lot from the first box will describe our national situation as very perilous, at risk of collapse, or in a state of decline, while those who prefer the second will say that things have never been better.

Here's the trouble: morals and values are things you don't consciously decide to have.  You learn them from a young age and they're embedded in your gut.  When someone asks me, "Should we execute criminals?" I don't really think that much about it first.  I feel empathy for the criminal and then I try to find a way that it can be wise not to kill them.  And you could tell me till you're blue in the face, "Have faith, obey authority," and I would not be able to do those things.  I am not able to think those are good things, because it seems obvious to me that they are not.  I imagine people whose values come mostly out of the other box feel the same way about their own values.

Now, it's possible that this entire difference is genetic, some of us have "survive" genes and some have "thrive" genes, and the environment simply rewards those who are well-adjusted to the current climate, making one or the other more dominant in the thought of a certain time period.  However, despite a recent emphasis in scientific fields about genetic factors, I do believe that our early upbringing affects our brains.  In particular, we know that stress early in life can give us a more sensitive stress response for life.  Hormones in the brain -- cortisol especially -- change the actual structure of the brain of an infant or young child.  This makes great sense.  The genes that direct the growth of the brain don't have any way of knowing what sort of brain a person will need, whether they ought to be constantly on their guard or relaxed and creative.  But as soon as a child is born -- or even in the womb -- he gets exposed to his environment.  His brain sizes it up and decides how it's going to develop at this point -- for risk, or for safety.  It's similar to the way the metabolism can be set for scarcity early in life when a child goes through a famine.  It's as if the body said, "Well, we see how it's going to be, let's prepare for the worst."

We already know that extreme stress in childhood -- abuse, abandonment, neglect -- has devastating consequences.  But what about more mild stress like a strict upbringing?  Does that simply prepare a person to see the world more cautiously?  That isn't always a bad thing.

Then there's the effect of our parents' explicit teaching.  The stories we are told, the things we are and are not punished for doing.  A child who is expected to obey immediately grows into an adult who is more likely to accept the authority even of a bad government.  (This was a study done on the Nazis, showing that people who had grown up in homes where instant obedience was expected were more likely to collaborate with the Nazis than people who had grown up in homes where they were allowed to talk back.)  A child who is punished for exploring his environment becomes less curious.  One child is told stories about big battles in which good and evil are clearly delineated and the problems can be solved by courage; another is told stories about interpersonal conflict in which the solutions come from collaboration.  Relatively small parenting differences may help influence a child toward one box of values over another -- though I should mention that we aren't entirely sure how much of a person's development relies on genetics and how much on environment. 

There may be some adaptation possible in adulthood as well.  A generally non-authoritarian person may become more authoritarian when they feel threatened by an outside danger, while an authoritarian person might relax when they find out the world is not as risky as they previously thought.

But it seems to me that these adulthood changes aren't that common.  It seems much more likely that a person with a predisposition to a cautious, authoritarian approach will find danger to be afraid of.  Though I have been fed stories about the decline of civilization for much of my life, I never felt it was that close to home.  When I began to research history and found that life is actually pretty good right now compared to the rest of human history, it felt more satisfying than the opposite conclusion had been.  I can state the same facts that convinced me to an authoritarian, and they will either deny that the measures important to me (health, long lifespan, lack of violence) are important, or admit that things are okay at the moment but insist they are doomed to collapse very soon.

And so in adulthood you see people sort into the viewpoints that fit best with the way they see the world.  My husband was a traditionalist and monarchist when I met him, and by the end of college he was an outspoken advocate of democracy and even wrote an article praising the goals of the French Revolution.  But he never changed.  He simply found ideas that fit better with how he really was.  When people raised with very conservative religion abandon it or join a more liberal branch, you're watching the same process.  Likewise, there are liberal authoritarians who either become conservative or take a very authoritarian approach to their liberalism -- believing democracy is in grave danger, seeing conservatives as the enemy, and approaching conflict from a win-lose point of view rather than a collaborative one.

I enjoyed reading about the study on authoritarianism, but what I would really like is to take a peek at voters' brains.  Is there a difference visible on a brain scan between a liberal and a conservative?  Are their cortisol and testosterone levels different?  Can we follow people through time, from infancy to adulthood, and see if their authoritarian tendencies remain stable?  Can we see if twins have similar levels of authoritarianism?  This is so exciting.

But what's the takeaway?  If our viewpoints are so thoroughly informed by our genes and upbringing, how can we say they are rational?  Surely there is one right answer.  Either the world is safe, or it is dangerous.  Either we're engaged in zero-sum conflicts, or we're facing positive-sum problems.  So whoever feels drawn to the other answer is wrong and we need to figure out how to fix them.

Well, no.  Life is a heck of a lot more complex than that.  The world is safe in part because some people are constantly monitoring the dangers.  It can be just as bad to approach a zero-sum conflict with collaboration as to approach a positive-sum one with aggression.  And we're bound to experience both in a lifetime.  Yet how can we react appropriately given that we are in some way predisposed to one or the other?

Naturally my Box Two answer is to be less black-and-white about it.  I think it's good not to get too comfortable in your box and to consider the possible merits of some qualities of the other box, at least some of the time.  Even if you're very solidly in one box, you might find that people who like the other box are actually doing a lot of good in fields other than yours.  You might be the toughest, most aggressive cop in the precinct, and still respect that your soft-hearted, agreeable wife is doing important work when she encourages the kids to share their toys.  I think it would be great if every person looked for a positive-sum solution to problems first rather than jumping straight to conflict, but even after you've done so, it's possible there's no positive-sum solution to be found and you're going to have to fight.  You shouldn't be so attached to your own most comfortable set of tactics that you're unwilling to try others.

And most importantly, I think we should all attempt to be guided by the facts.  If you value nonviolence, as I do, you'll certainly feel more drawn to nonviolent solutions .... but you should also, as rigorously as possible, attempt to predict whether nonviolence will work in a given situation.  I think equality is important, but that's not a sufficient reason to jump into socialism -- I should first consider whether socialism actually produces equality, and whether it sacrifices other values to do so.  In short, though our values determine what our goals are, we have to use fact and reason to help us reach those goals.

Further reading:

Moral foundations of liberals and conservatives
A long scholarly article I just discovered but haven't finished reading. So far it seems to confirm what I've said.

Conservatives vs. liberals - Ethics Defined
A short post which seems to summarize the previous link.

Link-up of studies on liberal and conservative brains
The scientist in me is geeking out right now.

1 comment:

Baroness said...

Huh....this is really interesting.

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