Quotes drawn from Jonathan Haidt: The Righteous Mind, and Steven Pinker: The Blank Slate.
Jonathan Haidt (pp 299, 364, 336)
“Sacredness binds people together, and then blinds them to the arbitrariness of the practice.”
“Once people join a political team, they get ensnared in its moral matrix. They see confirmation of their grand narrative everywhere, and it’s difficult–perhaps impossible–to convince them they are wrong if you argue with them from outside of their moral matrix. I suggest that liberals might have even more difficulty understanding conservatives than the other way around, because liberals often have difficulty understanding how the Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity foundations have anything to do with morality. In particular, liberals often have difficulty seeing moral capital, which I defined as the resource that sustains a moral community.”
…I went to a used-book store to browse its political science section. As I scanned the shelves, one book jumped out at me–a thick brown book with one word on its spine: Conservatism. It was a volume of readings by the historian Jerry Muller. I started reading Muller’s introduction while standing in the aisle, but by the third page I had to sit down on the floor. I didn’t realise it until years later, but Muller’s essay was my second turning point.
Muller began by distinguishing conservatism from orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is the view that there exists a “transcendent moral order, to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society.” Christians who look to the Bible as a guide for legislation, like Muslims who want to live under Sharia, are examples of orthodoxy. They want their society to match an externally ordained moral order, so they advocate change, sometimes radical change. This can put them at odds with true conservatives, who see radical change as dangerous.
Muller next distinguished conservatism from counter-Enlightenment. It is true that most resistance to the Enlightenment can be said to have been conservative, by definition (i.e., clerics and aristocrats were trying to conserve the old order). But Modern conservatism, Muller asserts, finds its origins within the main currents of enlightenment thinking, when such men as David Hume and Edmund Burke tried to develop a reasoned, pragmatic, and essentially utilitarian critique of the Enlightenment project. Here’s the line that quite literally floored me:
What makes social and political arguments conservative as opposed to orthodox is the critique of liberal or progressive arguments takes place on the enlightened grounds of the search for human happiness based on the use of reason.
As a lifelong liberal, I had assumed that conservatism = orthodoxy = religion = faith = rejection of science. It followed, therefore, that as an atheist and a scientist, I was obligated to be liberal. But Muller asserted that modern conservatism is really about creating the best possible society, the one that brings about the greatest happiness given local circumstances. Could it be? Was there a kind of conservatism that could compete against liberalism in the court of social science? Might conservatives have a better formula for how to create a healthy, happy society?
Steven Pinker (p 232)
And it can lead to risk experts to speak one language and ordinary people to hear another. In hearings for a proposed nuclear waste site, an expert might present a fault tree that lays out the conceivable sequences of events by which radioactivity might escape. For example, erosion, cracks in the bedrock, accidental drilling, or improper sealing might cause the release of radioactivity into groundwater. In turn, groundwater movement, volcanic activity, or an impact of a large meteorite might cause the release of radioactive wastes into the biosphere. Each train of events can be assigned a probability, and the aggregate probability of an accident from all the causes can be estimated. When people hear these analyses, however, they are not reassured but become more fearful than ever–they hadn’t realised there are so many ways for something to go wrong! They mentally tabulate the number of disaster scenarios, rather than mentally aggregating the probabilities of the disaster scenarios.
None of this implies that people are dunces or that “experts” should ram unwanted technologies down their throats. Even with a complete understanding of the risks, reasonable people might choose to forego certain technological advances. If something is viscerally revolting, a democracy should allow people to reject it whether or not it is “rational” by some criterion that ignores our psychology. Many people would reject vegetables grown in sanitised human waste and would avoid an elevator with a glass floor, not because they believe these things are dangerous but because the thought gives them the willies. If they have the same reaction to eating genetically modified foods or living next to a nuclear power plant, they should have the opportunity of rejecting them, too, as long as they do not try to force their preferences on others or subject them to the costs.
Also, even if technocrats provide reasonable estimates of a risk (which is itself an iffy enterprise), they cannot dictate what level of risk people ought to accept. People might object to a nuclear power plant that has a miniscule risk of a meltdown not because they overestimate the risk but because they feel that the costs of the catastrophe, no matter how remote, are too dreadful. And of course any of these tradeoffs may be unacceptable if people perceive that the benefits would go to the wealthy and powerful while they themselves absorb the risks.
Nonetheless, understanding the difference between our best science and our ancient ways of thinking can only make our individual and collective decisions better informed. It can help scientists and journalists explain a new technology in the face of the most common misunderstandings. And it can help all of us understand the technology so that we can accept or reject it on grounds that we can justify to ourselves and to others.