Politics as Biology: Explaining the Razor Edge of Partisan Politics

8 11 2012

Following Obama’s re-election, M.S. at The Economist ponders the startlingly improbable situation in the United States where such a strongly partisan country can keep rolling out elections that are knife edge finishes:

This is what strikes one most strongly looking back at America from across an ocean: the country seems repeatedly embroiled in savage 51-49 electoral campaigns, and it seems to be increasingly paralysed by irresolvable rancour between right and left.

And think about it for a second: this is bizarre. If Americans are in fact divided between two extremely different political ideologies, it would be an extraordinary coincidence if each of those philosophies were to hold the allegiance of nearly equal blocs of support. That situation ought not to be stable. Adherence to these two ideologies ought to shift enough just due to demographics that the 50-50 split should deteriorate. And yet the even split seems to be stable. What’s going on?

Good question. Here’s a speculative answer, using the tools of population biology as a lens to understand politics:

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Linking Psychology, Politics and Climate Scepticism

3 04 2012

Conservatives are from Mars, Liberals are from Venus. So says Chris Mooney in his new book, The Republican Brain.

I tend to agree. I’ve written as much on this blog back in 2010, and on the ABC’s Drum website again in 2011.

The thesis is that liberals and conservatives tend towards very different psychological make-ups. Political psychology studies have shown that liberals and conservatives are measurably different along a number of different axes.

For example, liberals tend to have higher scores than conservatives in Openness in personality tests. This means liberals tend to be more curious, inquisitive and exploratory when it comes to information and opinions. Conversely, conservatives tend to be less experimental, more rigid in their thinking and more dogmatic.

Liberals also tend to exhibit greater integrative complexity – which is a metric that measures the tendency to incorporate many different pieces of information into forming an attitude or making a judgement. It’s kinda ‘shades of grey’ thinking. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend towards more black and white thinking.

None of these things are rock solid. There’s no determinism at the root of this. But there are clear leanings amongst those who self-identify or vote one way or the other.

Do these psychological differences contribute to the differences of opinion among liberals and conservatives? Could they help explain why a majority of conservatives reject anthropogenic climate change, for example?

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Evolution and Moral Ecology Abstract

27 03 2012

There’s a conference coming up later this year in Sicily on the evolution of morality, appropriately called: The Evolution of Morality: The Biology and Philosophy of Human Conscience. Looks like a cracker. Speakers include Frans de Waal, Phillip Kitcher, Patricia Churchland, Richard Joyce, Owen Flanagan and Simon Blackburn, among others.

I plan to go. And I plan to give a paper – although they’re only guaranteeing spots for posters, which is odd. There are some short 15 min(!) talks on offer, so I’ll also try to score one of them, if I can, and cut loose with my riff on evolution and moral ecology.

Before I submit the abstract, I thought I’d post it here for comments and criticism. I’ve never done a poster before (not including my year 4 project on scorpions, which was pretty cool, come to think of it). So not sure how much can be crammed in. Also I don’t think I can order a coffee, let alone talk about evolution and morality, in less than 15 mins, so a talk might be tricky. On the other hand, I can talk fast if need be.

Happy to hear feedback on the abstract, on things like whether the first paragraph lending context is necessary, or the last paragraph offering implications, or whether it generally makes sense etc:

Many philosophers have regarded moral diversity – and its concomitant moral disagreement – as an anomaly to be explained away en route to detailing a single correct system of moral norms. In this paper I take an alternate view, looking at moral diversity as a phenomenon worthy of a more detailed explanation, and central to understanding the nature of our evolved moral psychology.

I argue that moral diversity and moral disagreement are, at least in part, a product of evolved psychological variation. I suggest this is because the adaptive social environment faced by our distant ancestors was highly heterogeneous, both in terms of physical environment, such as local resource availability, and social environment, including the behavioural strategies employed by others within the group.

As a result, there was no one psychological type that reliably produced adaptive strategies in these complex and heterogeneous environments, a phenomenon that can be modelled using game theory. Thus humans evolved a stable polymorphism of psychological types, with some proving more adaptive in certain environments and less adaptive in others, but no one type reaching fixation in any population. This is a phenomenon I call ‘moral ecology.’

The upshot of this notion is that moral diversity may not always have been such a bad thing. It suggests that instead of moral diversity being indicative of some error in thinking on behalf of moral agents, in fact the diversity of approaches to social living enabled our ancestors to adapt to a wide variety of environments, both physical and social. It also suggests that philosophers might place greater emphasis on the diverse dynamics of social living and whether it’s even possible to have one system of norms that promotes behaviour that is beneficial to its adherents in every social environment.

Criticise away!

Beyond OWS: Problem #2: The Problem with Politics

1 11 2011

This is part two of my series on Beyond Occupy Wall Street. You can find part one, where I put the boot into contemporary economic dogma here.

In this post, I focus on politics. Or, more specifically, on the failure of the 20th century political paradigm to accord with a 21st century world. Basically, the Left-Right political spectrum as we know it is defunct and, as a result, we’re seeing the political parties of the last century struggle in many democracies around the world, not least in Anglophone world.

In the U.S., Obama was supposed to liberate the country from the bitter partisan politics of the Bush Jr. era, where the Left and the Right had become violently polarised and infected by base-appeasing populism, meanwhile lacking the courage to make the tough decisions that are required to set the country straight. But even Obama – with his feel-good “there’s only the United States of America” – failed to bring the warring parties together.

The recent debt crisis is but one of many, many examples of the abject failure of the two major U.S. parties to put their knives down and govern in the interests of the nation. Not to mention the banality of Fox News and the Tea Party, offering hopelessly simplistic solutions to complex problems – some real, and some fictitious.

In the U.K. and Australia the last elections resulted in hung parliaments, largely due to disillusionment with the major parties and the parlous calibre of political debate. Both countries saw a protest vote lobbed against a long-term sitting government that had gone stale, yet the voters proved unenthused at the prospect of the alternative governments on offer. The result is minority government, with uneasy coalitions formed, which are unlikely to survive the next election.

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The Problem with Revolutions

3 02 2011

We’re all holding our breath watching the events in Egypt unfold. Many commentators are ebullient. Some are more cautious. In fact, I think Mark Colvin makes an important point about the dangers of revolution, and how quickly the unity in deposing a despot can turn into fractious in-fighting to fill the political vacuum.

United a group may be in their opposition of something, but that doesn’t say much about what they do stand for. Those holding hands today might be wielding clubs tomorrow.

Furthermore, it is precisely in times of instability and unrest – such as those immediately following a revolution – when people are more inclined to turn to a strong authoritarian leader to keep the peace. It’s precisely when people feel the most threatened, either bodily or in a more abstract sense by feelings of uncertainty about the future, that people lean to the right.

And it’s precisely when a nation is undergoing unrest, with multiple political ‘tribes’ vying for power, that trust in ones’ fellow citizens is eroded – “I don’t know whether that person is part of my tribe or the other.”

This kind of tribal mentality is devastatingly destructive to democracy, where trust in your state and trust in other citizens is paramount to making democracy a success. Democracy only works when I’m confident that if the ‘other tribe’ get elected and take power, they’re not going to embark on a pogrom targeted against myself and my ‘tribe.’ It’s this distrust in the system that spelt doom for democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In situations like this the trust required for bottom-up democracy is so lacking that a strong top-down authoritarian government is virtually required to keep the peace. However, top-down governments are only good for keeping the peace or defending against invaders. Oh, and they’re good at being corrupt, at entrenching power, at embezzling the nation’s wealth and taking the nation straight back to where it was prior to the revolution.

Democracy is remarkable not because it’s inevitable, but because it’s so difficult to get off the ground. It often takes a unified vision, a population with a largely similar culture and value system, and a stable environment in terms of economic prospects and absence of threat from invaders.

If a state can satisfy all those conditions, and if the people genuinely want democracy – which means they buy in to a system where they might vote for their entire lives and never see their candidate in power – then democracy can flourish. And once established, it’s hard to shake.

Egypt might yet become such a democracy. I’m not conversant enough in recent Egyptian history or ethnography to say whether it does satisfy all these conditions, but I think it stands a chance. The recent restraint shown by the military, and the apparent lack of military ambitions to take over from Mubarak, are positive indications.

But, while the protests underway in Egypt this week are exhilarating  – and cause for optimism for a brighter, more open, more inclusive, more democratic Egypt – we should be mindful of the lessons of history and of political psychology and hope that authoritarianism doesn’t block out the sunlight before democracy has a chance to grow.

What’s the Point (of a Thesis on Evolution and Morality)?

28 01 2011

One of my supervisors asked a singularly curly question when we last met: what’s the point of your thesis?


But he raises an important issue – a couple of important issues, really. One is the fundamental question of: is what I’m trying to say actually important, relevant or new?

And the other is: if it is important, relevant or new, are you making sure this is clear to your reader/marker?

So, anyway, it’s sent me on a navel gazing quest of thesis-introspection. What is the point? Why is telling a story about how evolution has shaped our moral psychology to produce a pluralism of moral strategies interesting? To what is it relevant? Who cares? And how do I make them care?

My initial response – besides being speechless for a rare moment – is to think this thesis is relevant on a few levels. I just need to choose which is the most relevant, and which is worth emphasising, because it’s unlikely I can hammer them all home in one thesis.

The first relevance is simply in providing an accurate genealogy of morality: a purely descriptive endeavour that seeks to understand where morality comes from and how we came to think about morality the way we do. Although, arguably, this is more the purview of anthropologists and moral psychologists rather than a mere philosopher.

The second relevance is in exploring why there appears to be an apparent contradiction between the way we think of morality – i.e. that it’s about finding the correct answers to moral questions – and the fact that we disagree so broadly and intractably about so many moral issues. Is it just that there is a right answer, but that most people are simply wrong?

Or is moral disagreement suggestive of something else – perhaps something more interesting – such that morality isn’t about the right and wrong answer, but is a pursuit that seeks to tackle problems that admit of multiple answers? Perhaps understanding how our moral proclivities evolved can reveal something illuminating about the kinds of problems morality evolved to solve. And this insight can change the way we think and talk about morality today.

A third angle is to tie descriptive evolutionary ethics to contemporary normative ethics. If a normative ethicist wants to advance a normative system, I’d suggest that it needs, at minimum, to be compatible with human psychology.

Advancing a normative system – even one that we can all agree yields the right answer in any particular situation – but which places unreasonable demands on our cognitive faculties is doomed to fail. After all, normative ethics isn’t just an armchair endeavour of speculation about how morality might be (although many moral philosophers and metaethicists might disagree), it’s supposed to be a practical system that can actually guide and encourage moral behaviour.

Perhaps, in light of this, a more robust descriptive account of how we think about morality – and why we vary in the way we think about morality – could be useful for the development of a normative system that has a hope of accommodating our diverse moral psychology. It might also help inform a normative system by having it acknowledge that pluralism and disagreement aren’t a sign of weakness, but a path to a stronger moral system. And it might place practical bounds on what a realistic normative system can achieve.

As it happens, I don’t think I’ve been focusing on any one of these issues exclusively so far. In fact, I’ve found myself in a most interesting diversion talking about the influence of evolved psychology on political attitudes. Well, my supervisor suspects it’s a diversion. So it’s probably prudent of me to lock in one of these (or a different) ‘point’ and focus on that.

After all, a PhD thesis is not one’s last word as an academic. It’s their first. If I want to explore these other issues, there’s ample time to do so after I get my PhD (assuming I do get my PhD, and the even more unlikely prospect that I’ll score a gig in academia afterwards – but still, gotta get the damn thesis done before anything else).

I’m open to any thoughts on what is the most interesting angle of my various rants on this blog, and which aspects of my thesis might yield the ripest (and lowest hanging) fruit. Sometimes I’m far too close to my own research to get any perspective on what’s actually novel or interesting any more…

Redefining the Political Spectrum (Version 2.1)

23 01 2011

A slight revision of my recent redefinition of the political spectrum along psychological lines. I’ve replaced the Beautiful-Safe World axis with the simpler Safe-Dangerous World. The safe-dangerous spectrum is already talked about quite a bit in the literature, particularly concerning Bob Altermeyer’s Right-Wing Authoritarianism scale, so I should stick with that.

So here’s the updated chart:

The x axis represents the extent to which an individual perceives the world as a safe or dangerous place (which can scale to the world-at-large, their society or even their local community – with political attitudes possibly varying for each).

The y axis represents the extent to which an individual perceives the world as being just, such that someone gets what they deserve, either good or bad. If reward/punishment are perceived to be the product of luck or randomness, that’s an unjust world. If you live and breathe (and see the world through) the Protestant work ethic, you see a just world.

The ideologies located on the diagram are those that appeal to individuals at that location. Each ideology might be defined in terms different from safe/just world, but ultimately, I’d suggest they’re responding to the concerns of people that hold that particular worldview at that location in the chart.

Note, I also added a couple of new entries:

Utopianism (high Safe world; high Unjust world): by “utopianism” I mean the view that we can become a society where everything works perfectly, and everyone will cooperate for mutual benefit without defection. This isn’t strictly a political ideology, just an example of extremist thinking, in this case optimistic about the world around us and optimistic about human nature to a fault. You see flashes of it when people say “why can’t everyone just get along” and when people sign off with “peace.”

Honour culture (high Dangerous world; mid Unjust world): those who adhere to an honour culture view, particularly when they aren’t required to, see the world as a dangerous place and other people as potentially untrustworthy. As such, reputation management is crucial. To earn a good reputation is hard when there are many who would fake a good reputation in order to exploit others. Being slapped with a bad rep effectively makes one an outsider in their own community, almost an ostracism. Yet it’s a system and mentality that emphasises community standards that ought to be followed, even to the letter at the cost of the spirit.

Also, talking about Right-Wing Authoritarianism, I’d say high RWAs reside in large bubble on the far right of the chart, centred on Authoritarianism. High Social Dominance Orientation (Sidanius, Pratto et al.) would be in a bubble in the top right-hand corner of the chart. I’ll add them to the chart – when I can figure out how to do so in an aesthetically non-disruptive way…