July 2010 archive

Fear Leads to the Dark Side

Spake Yoda: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

And there you have, in a nutshell, one of Australian opposition-leader, Tony Abbot’s, key strategies in this federal election campaign. In fact, Yoda might well have added “Suffering leads to voting conservative.”

Political insight is strong with this one.

Fear – or more precisely, perception of threat – starts people on a slippery slope towards voting conservative. This is well known from political and moral psychology, where numerous studies have shown that individuals who perceive the world as being a dangerous place – whether it actually is or not – tend to vote conservative.

As they say, “a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged.” (Although I’m pretty sure that wasn’t Yoda. He would have said “a liberal mugged, a conservative is.”)

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Values and Moral Pragmatism

There are values, and there are the values that promote them. This is a distinction that is worth drawing, because it carves values up between intrinsic (whether they are ontologically privileged or just held to be such) and instrumental values.

But what I want to suggest is that it’s the second-order, instrumental, values that actually take priority over the first-order values when push comes to shove. And the real trick in constructing a healthy, functional and robust moral system is navigating the push and pull of the second-order values rather than quibbling over first-order values. This is what I characterise as ‘moral pragmatism’.

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Evolution and Politics, a Cautionary Tale

Does evolution endorse any particular political ideology? Larry Arnhart – he of Darwinian Conservatism – thinks it does (as the title of his blog might suggest). He elaborates on his notion that evolution suggests liberalism (in the traditional sense*) in an essay authored for the libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute, entitled Darwinian Liberalism.

Larry Arnhart

It’s well worth a read, as it weaves together a slew of interesting elements of evolutionary theory, moral and evolutionary psychology and political ideology – a synthesis that I think is largely underrated in academia.

I’m inclined to largely agree with Arnhart’s conclusion that liberalism is an effective political ideology, but I’m wary of calling upon evolutionary biology to justify this fact, and I disagree with him in some key details of his argument.

My own view is that evolution is important in understanding humans and what makes us the way we are, but that it doesn’t explicitly endorse any particular political ideology. Instead, as I’ve argued before, I believe that evolution is not only agnostic when it comes to favouring one political ideology over another, but that, if anything, it favours a diversity of political ideologies.

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Politics is Psychology

Which comes first, psychology or politics? Contrary to popular belief, it’s psychology.

Politics is often talked about as if it’s about ideology first, and that people are drawn to a particular ideological stance because of their life circumstances – i.e. grow up in a working class family and you’ll vote left; grow up in a wealthy family and you’ll vote conservative – or that we are able to detach ourselves from our individual circumstances and reflect on political ideology in an idealised rational way, and we eventually settle on what we think is the ‘correct’ political ideology.

But it’s not like that.

Certainly, circumstance plays a roll, as does reason. But the dominant factor that decides the political ideology we’re likely to identify with is our psychological disposition and accompanying worldview.

This is the sentiment underpinning my recent analysis of a speech given by our new Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, published on the ABC’s Drum website today. The analysis isn’t as much about her political views as the implicit worldview that underpins them.

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