Linguist; Chair, Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, Illinois State University; Author, Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazon Jungle (November)

The Ties That Bind

I once heard John Wayne say in an interview, "They tell me that things aren't always black and white. I say, 'Why the hell not?'" This is a common sense view of morality and I think that it is fairly widespread. Having spent (in another life it seems) more than twenty-five years as an ordained minister and missionary, I know first-hand that one of the most important messages of many organized religions is that morality is absolute and that there is always a black and white to an issue if you think about it hard enough—grayness is for fuzzy-brained liberals. Or so I was told.

At the other end of the spectrum, Noam Chomsky has often said that the choice between Democrat vs. Republican is about the same as the choice between Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola, not much to get hot and bothered about.

I think that Wayne's view is much closer to being right than Chomsky's. Chomsky's perspective seems to be based on a view of politicians rather than of their parties' political platforms—what we know that political figures are likely to do (very little in all too many cases) vs. what their party spells out as its values. Wayne's question, "Why the hell not" is an anti-cynical, pragmatic question that is intended to challenge us to think harder and act more nobly.

So I think that Haidt's view that people share a strong desire for unity and belonging guided by moral rectitude and dealing with violators of the social bonds is surely correct. But he oversimplifies by failing to consider simpler societies, such as Amazonian peoples, in which there are no social hierarchies, no civic leadership, and only ostracism as the enforcement of constraints to promote well-being and societal harmony. His research, if he is to use lofty adjectives (largely meaningless in my experience) such as 'innate' to describe social structures and desires, must encompass a wider range of societies.

Democrats used to be the ones with the monopoly on belonging. In my family, most with backgrounds like those described in Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, FDR was a member of the divine quaternity—Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit, and FDR. His picture was everywhere in my families' homes. Why?

Because he constructed social ties, based on belonging to the group of the oppressed and depressed, and he offered solutions that respected the concepts of fairness and unity simultaneously. He no doubt was elected four times at least in part because he was perceived by people like my grandmother as satisfying both the Millian and Durkheimian views at the same time—something that we have arguably seen in no other politician or political party since.

Ultimately, reflection like Haidt's is useful and there certainly is a lot worthwhile in it. But, once again, I am skeptical that much, if any, of this is innate. And I doubt that we will ever know whether it is or not without a greater empirical coverage, taking into its scope diverse tribal societies.

Psychologist, Harvard University; (currently) Jacob K. Javits Visiting Professor, New York University; Author, Changing Minds

Jonathan Haidt' s analysis seems on the mark as far as it goes but, in my view, it misses half of the puzzle of why much of the American electorate votes as it does. To be sure, the appeal of right wing ideas is clearly due in part to a Durkheimian privileging of the group over the individual; Rick Shweder is to be commended for introducing this perspective into contemporary, overly Enlightenment-oriented analyses of moral judgment.

But at least with reference to contemporary American society, I would posit an equally important part of the puzzle: a combination due to Oscar Wilde and Leon Festinger. Wilde famously quipped that "Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue." And Festinger, an important social psychologist during the middle of the 20th century, demonstrated that individuals continue to hold on to views, despite (or even because) the empirical evidence against them mounts.

Consider these facts. The right wing says it cares about groups, rather than individuals; and yet it favors the most rampant form of 'dog-eat-dog' capitalism. The left wing is suspicious of markets and wants to even the playing field across citizens. The right wing claims that its positions will reduce crime and strengthen the families. Yet it is the most left wing states that have the lowest crime rate and the strongest, most stable marriages. Happiness ratings are highest in the socialist societies, while lowest in right wing authoritarian societies. This list could be extended.

Why, then, do right wing partisans ignore this evidence and continue to support policies that are patently dysfunctional? I believe it is because, having stated a position, based on either their own family values or those dictated by their religion, they are loathe to change their minds and declare that they have been wrong. And so, following Festinger, the disconfirming evidence causes them (or at least many of them) to dig in their heels more deeply.

Another element operates as well. Right wing positions are more frequently associated with Protestant evangelicals and with traditional (Reagan) Catholics. Often the leaders of these groups (e.g. television evangelists, sinning priests) epitomize the opposite of the stated values. But both of these groups embrace forgiveness, absolution, being born again. Other groups—atheists, non-fundamentalist Jews and non-fundamentalist Protestants—do not have the option of absolution; they make firmer demands on themselves and are oppressed by their superegos. Note the 'pass' that non-combatants Bush and Cheney received, in comparison to Gore and Kerry who volunteered to serve during the Vietnam War. Note the forgiving attitude toward to Sarah Palin, with her sinning family, which would never be afforded a comparable Democrat. "What we profess is important—not what we have done".

Given that the analyses of Durkheim and Festinger are powerful, and unlikely to disappear, my analysis does not give much solace to those of us who would prefer to see more individuals with progressive Enlightenment views secure office. Still, a greater effort to nail hypocrisy—a so-called hypocrisy watch—might improve the quality of the campaign, if not of the candidates.

Publisher of Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist for Scientific American; Author, Why Darwin Matters; and How We Believe

The Conscience of the Conservative

Two cheers for Jonathan Haidt's essay. At long last a liberal academic social scientist has recognized (and had the courage to put into print) the inherent bias built into the study of political behavior—that because Democrats are so indisputably right and Republicans so unquestionably wrong, conservatism must be a mental disease, a flaw in the brain, a personality disorder that leads to cognitive malfunctioning. Thus, Haidt is mostly right when he asks us to move beyond such "diagnoses" and remember "the second rule of moral psychology is that morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way. When Republicans say that Democrats 'just don't get it,' this is the 'it' to which they refer."

I allocate two (instead of three) cheers for Haidt's commentary because I think he does not go far enough. The liberal bias in academia is so entrenched that it becomes the political water through which the liberal fish swim—they don't even notice it. Even the question "What makes people vote Republican?" hints at something amiss in the mind of the conservative, along the lines of "Why do people believe weird things?" As Haidt notes, the standard liberal line is that people vote Republican because they are "cognitively inflexible, fond of hierarchy, and inordinately afraid of uncertainty, change, and death." A typical example of this characterization can be found in a famous 2003 paper published in the prestigious journal Psychological Bulletin by the New York University social psychologist John Jost and his colleagues, entitled "Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition," in which they argue that conservatives suffer from "uncertainty avoidance," "need for order, structure, closure," and "dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity," all of which leads to "resistance to change" and "endorsement of inequality."

It is not the data of these scientists that I am challenging so much as it is the characterizations on which the data were collected. We could just as easily characterize Democrats and liberals as suffering from a host of equally malevolent mental states: a lack of moral compass that leads to an inability to make clear ethical choices, an inordinate lack of certainty about social issues, a pathological fear of clarity that leads to indecisiveness, a naïve belief that all people are equally talented, and a blind adherence in the teeth of contradictory evidence that culture and environment determine one's lot in society and therefore it is up to the government to remedy all social injustices. As all conservatives know, liberals are a bunch of sandle-wearing, tree-hugging, whale-saving, hybrid-driving, trash-recycling, peaceniks, flip-floppers and bed-wetters.

This is a crass, unfair, and inaccurate characterization, of course, and that's my point. Once you set up the adjectives in the form of operationally defined personality traits and cognitive styles, it's easy to collect the data to support them. The flaw is in the characterization process itself. Two recent examples can be found in the 2008 book The Political Mind by Berkeley cognitive scientist George Lakoff and the 2007 book The Political Brain by Emory University psychologist Drew Westen. The tropes are familiar: liberals are generous to a fault ("bleeding hearts"), rational, intelligent, optimistic, and appeal to voters' reason through cogent arguments; conservatives are stingy ("heartless"), dour, and dim-witted authoritarians who appeal to voters' emotions through threat and fear-mongering. But conservatives win most elections because of their Machiavellian manipulation of voters' emotional brains.

None of this is true. Although Republicans defeated Democrats 25 to 20 in the 45 Presidential elections from 1828 to 2004, in the Senate Democrats outscored Republicans 3395 to 3323 in contesting 6832 seats from 1855 to 2006, and in the House Democrats trounced Republicans 15,363 to 12,994 in the 27,906 seats contested from 1855-2006.

Further, according to the National Opinion Research Center's General Social Surveys, 1972-2004, 44 percent of people who reported being "conservative" or "very conservative" said they were "very happy" versus only 25 percent of people who reported being "liberal" or "very liberal." A 2007 Gallup poll found that 58 percent of Republicans versus only 38 percent of Democrats said that their mental heath is "excellent." One reason may be that conservatives are so much more generous than liberals, giving 30 percent more money (even when controlled for income), donating more blood, and logging more volunteer hours. And it isn't because conservatives have more expendable income. The working poor give a substantially higher percentage of their incomes to charity than any other income group, and three times more than those on public assistance of comparable income—poverty is not a barrier to charity, but welfare is. One explanation for these findings is that conservatives believe charity should be private (through religion) whereas liberals believe charity should be public (through government).

Why are academic social scientists so wrong about conservatives? It is, I believe, because almost all of them are liberals! A 2005 study by the George Mason University economist Daniel Klein, using voter registrations, found that Democrats outnumbered Republicans among the faculty by a staggering ratio of 10 to 1 at the University of California, Berkeley and by 7.6 to 1 at Stanford University. In the humanities and social sciences the ratio was 16 to 1 at both campuses (30 to 1 among assistant and associate professors). In some departments, such as anthropology and journalism, there wasn't a single Republican to be found. The ratio for all departments in all colleges and universities throughout the U.S., says Klein, is 8 to 1 Democrats over Republicans. Smith College political scientist Stanley Rothman and his colleagues found a similar bias in a 2005 national study: only 15 percent professors describe themselves as conservative, compared to 72 percent who said they were liberal (80 percent in humanities and social sciences).

Why do people vote Republican? Because they believe their lives—and the lives of all Americans—will be better for it. And as often as not they are right.

Anthropologist, University of Michigan; Author, In Gods We Trust

How Religion Creates Moral Society

"He who is not with Me is against Me;
and he who does not gather with Me scatters abroad."

—Jesus of Nazareth, Matthew, xii, 30

"And the Lord said unto the servant,
Go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in."

—Luke, xiv, 23:

Jonathan Haidt argues on the basis of some experimental evidence and anthropological observation that Republicans more than Democrats tap into universal moral passions to foster in-group solidarity over concerns for outgroups. Daniel Everett responds that some of these supposed universal passions, such as respect for authority and hierarchy, may not be universal because small-scale societies (especially foraging societies) tend to be egalitarian and non-hierarchical. Howard Gardner argues that rightwing authoritarian propaganda that champions collective over individual interests is hypocritical, and its leaders Machiavellian, because happiness is actually lower in rightwing societies and groups, including Protestant evangelicals and traditional (Reagan Catholics). Michael Shermer presents evidence that conservatives in U.S. society do report being happier than liberals, and do really believe in helping others, but through voluntary means of private charity rather than government enforced redistributions of wealth.

Haidt's and Shermer's arguments, I believe, are basically sound. Everett has a point, which requires some tweaking of Haidt's thesis: the moral issue of black versus white, us versus them, arises with large-scale cooperation and competition and is not a critical feature of small-scale societies. Gardner's arguments about hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance miss the key point that true believers in (divinely sanctioned) moral values are usually sincere, and that Enlightenment values cannot be successfully advanced (if Haidt is right) unless the moral passions that Haidt talks about are sincerely engaged by Democrats. Only some professional philosophers, jurists, scientists and academics believe that the principal point of political argument (or most any argument) is, or ought to be, truth rather than persuasion, and that an argument's principal appeal should be reason rather than passion. To paraphrase Karl Rove: reason may be fine for studying and analyzing history and politics, but not for living or making them.

Recent economic studies (most notably Unequal Democracy by Larry Bartels, a professor of political science at Princeton) show that when Democrats were in the White House, lower-income American families experienced slightly faster income growth than higher-income families, and that the reverse was true when Republicans were in control. If people vote rationally their economic interests, one would expect Democrats to be perennial favorites among working poor and middle class, and especially so in this year of economic downturn. Why then does polling show that the election is so close?

Conservative whites who vote Republican generally cite patriotism and national security as the most important issues in deciding who should be President. Over the last few generations, it is only when these voters perceive economy to be in dire straits, or when a previous Democratic administration has been successful in palpably increasing their prosperity, do patriotism and national security take on slightly less value than usual. Patriotism and national security are about binding and preserving what has become the primary reference group for political identity in the modern world, the nation.

In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin wrote that:

"The rudest savages feel the sentiment of glory… A man who was not impelled by any deep, instinctive feeling, to sacrifice his life for the good of others, yet was roused to such action by a sense of glory, would by his example excite the same wish for glory in other men, and would strengthen by his exercise the noble feeling of admiration."

The official website for John McCain's candidacy uses a quote from his book Faith of My Fathers as his banner:

"Glory is not a conceit. It is not a prize for being the most clever, the strongest, or the boldest. Glory belongs to the act of being constant to something greater than yourself, to a cause, to your principles, to the people on whom you rely, and who rely on you in return. No misfortune, no injury, no humiliation can destroy it."

When Jonathan Haidt says that morality is (pretty universally) not just about treating others fairly, but also "about living in a sanctified and noble way," he's right and that's why John McCain's appeal is powerful.

Among many Republican conservatives, there's one factor that is very strongly correlated with patriotism and national security, is of even more overriding concern in daily life, and stands inseparable from love of country. Religion. A Gallup poll found, for example, that nearly two thirds (65%) of highly religious American white voters would vote Republican, no matter what their interests in other issues are. When Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin says that the Iraq war is "a task that is from God," other conservatives may think she is wrong but they honor her sentiment as fundamentally noble and good.

If one looks at recent expression of religious devotion in the USA, as indicated by belief in the Bible and by church attendance, the classic division between the Blue states of the East and West versus the Red States of the South and Middle America is apparent: in the East and West,1 in 4 people believe that the Bible is fable; in the south and Midwest only 1 in 7 believe that.

Also apparent is the difference in education that goes with belief in the Bible (and religious devotion in the United States), where "education" may also be taken as a strong indicator of susceptibility to economic and other "issue-oriented" arguments.

What's Universal about Morality and What's not?

Primatologist Frans de Waal finds that even capuchin moneys have a sense of fairness: if an experimenter offers cucumbers to a pair of capuchin moneys, both eagerly grab the cucumbers; but if one of the monkeys is offered grapes, the other will throw the cucumber in the experimenter's face. This is a primitive version of the "Ultimatum Game" that all human cultures seem to subscribe to. Anthropologist Joe Henrich and his colleagues went to 17 small-scale societies with offers to split the equivalent of days wage between two anonymous players who had done no work for the money. The researchers found that there is always some lower bound that one of the players finds unacceptable, although this varies across cultures (the average cutoff may be close to 50-50 in one society but only 80-20 in another).

Studies by social psychologists Richard Nisbett and colleagues suggest that human cultures fall into two broad categories, individualist (mainly the U.S. and Western Europe) and collectivist (the rest of the world). Richard Shweder argues that for so-called collectivist societies there is also a strong "ethics of community" (authority/respect, duty/loyalty); often there is an "ethics of divinity" (purity/sanctity) as well. Here, too, there is evidence of universal cognitions.

Like other biological systems, moral intuition consists of an imperfect community of jerry-rigged faculties. Societies further combine these universal ingredients in creatively different ways. But in an internet experiment involving thousands of subjects, Haidt shows that even our own society all of these universal elements are not only present but their differential presence helps greatly to explain our current culture wars. Liberals tend to insist on individual rights and are uncomfortable with pronouncements and institutions built on the foundations of "the ethics of community" and the "ethics of divinity" because they often lead to patriotic jingoism (overblown loyalty), inequality (subordination of the weak or disadvantaged) and exclusion (racism, proscriptive nationalism and other forms of purification). Conservatives, however, want a richer, more interdependent social life, which require a regulation of relationships that goes beyond harm and fairness to individuals. This includes limits to sexual relations, management of obligations and authority, and the control of group boundaries and borders. Liberals see Conservatives as "repressive." Conservatives see liberals are "irresponsible."

The combination of moral intuitions into a moral culture is not a natural or logical determination, but an underdetermined product of historical contingency and willful choice. Belief in moral "rightness" or "truth" is matter of faith.

There is blind, closed, reactionary and dogmatic faith, like the Holy Inquisition's faith in the existence of witches and the power of torture to reveal the truth about The Devil. And there is open faith with reason and insight and the belief that cruel punishment demeans everybody's life. Such faith motivated a small band of American colonists to oppose the mightiest empire in the world. It was faith in the good sense and good will of men of reason—a faith supported by "firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence," which gave them the courage "to pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our Sacred Honor."

The American revolutionaries mixed the evolutionary elements of morality in a different way. The "self-evident" aspects of "human nature" that The Creator supposedly endowed us with—including "inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"—are anything but inherently self-evident and natural in the life of our species: cannibalism, infanticide, slavery, racism and the subordination of women are vastly more prevalent over the course of history than "human rights." It was not inevitable or even reasonable that conceptions of freedom and equality should emerge, much less prevail. Nevertheless, the new ideal of individual liberty required upgrading the element of individuality, that is, our innate awareness of individuals as self-motivated agents who can act on their own to achieve goals. The focus of empathy shifted from people as parts of a group to individuals as such.

The Americans also downgraded elements of authority, loyalty and purity current in European politics. The French revolutionaries who followed lowered the emphasis on the individual and raised the importance of the group. That is why whole classes of counterrevolutionaries, rather than just individuals, could be brought to justice and collectively punished regardless of any individual actions or crimes they may have committed. Most modern revolutions and regimes follow more the French example than the American.

Alexis de Tocqueville stresses in Democracy in America, his masterful analysis of our young Republic, that religious conservatism in the United States does not mean sacrifice of individual interest for group interest, or subservience of the individual to the State or any other ruling collectivity. Rather, religion mitigates the selfishness of unbridled individualism and "private animosities," while shoring up free institutions that engage "aspiring hopes" as against "general despotism [which] gives rise to indifference."

"It must be acknowledged that equality, which brings great benefits to the world, nevertheless… tends to isolate them from each other, to concentrate every man's attention on himself; and it lay open the soul to an inordinate love of material gratification…. Religious nations are thus naturally strong on the very point on which democratic nations are weak, which shows of what importance it is for men to preserve their religion as their conditions become more equal….. Thus it is, that, by respecting all democratic tendencies not absolutely contrary to herself, and by making use of several of them for her own purposes, Religion sustains a successful struggle of that spirit of individual independence which is her most dangerous opponent…. As soon as several of the inhabitants of the United States have taken up an opinion or feeling which they wish to promote, they look out for mutual assistance; and as soon as they have found out each other they combine. From that moment they are not longer isolated men, but a power seen from afar, whose actions serve as an example, and whose language is listened to."

De Tocqueville surmised, correctly it seems, that religion in America would give its democracy greater endurance, cooperative power and competitive force than any strictly authoritarian regime or unbridled democracy.

Humans often use religion to cooperate to compete. (For example, it was only in the 1950s during height of the Cold War, that the Pledge of Allegiance was altered to include God). As Darwin noted, in competition between groups with similar levels of technology and population size, those groups will tend to win out that favor and transmit willingness to sacrifice some self interest for group interests (that also promote individual interests in the long run). Most cultures celebrate costly collective commitments as morally good and glorious. Many such celebrations are time-worn collective rituals with proven success in fostering cooperation within the group and making it more competitive with other groups. That basic dynamic is still with us and is unlikely to go away. Republicans intuitively get it; Democrats often don't. But Democrats do get more the meaning and message of the Enlightenment, which may allow in a wider world if only they can learn better from Republicans how to gather up the country first.

Political Scientist, University of California, San Diego; Coauthor, Mandates, Parties, and Voters: How Elections Shape the Future

Why do People Vote at All?

As a political scientist, I see the question "Why do people vote Republican?" and I think immediately of its premise. Haidt and other commenters have focused on the choice between a Republican and a Democrat. But this choice misses half the question. When someone votes Republican, the first question they must ask themselves is "Should I vote at all?" People who vote Republican have chosen not to vote Democratic, but they have also chosen not to abstain. And it is that choice to vote or not that says something deep about political competition and group behavior.

The choice to vote or not hinges in part on our perception of the effectiveness of the activity. Will voting matter? To know this, we need to imagine what happens in a world where we vote and what happens in a world where we do not, and then compare those two worlds. Thinking about the world this way may seem like an impossible task because there are so many possible outcomes. Obama could beat McCain by 3 million votes. Or he could beat him by 2,999,999 or he could lose to McCain by 1,345,267. Or… there are literally millions of possible outcomes.

Of course, there is actually only one circumstance in which an individual vote matters. And that is when we expect an exact tie. To see why this is true, ask yourself what would you do if you could look into a crystal ball and see that Obama would win the election by 3 million votes. What effect would your vote have on the outcome? Absolutely none. You could either change the margin to 2,999,999 or to 3,000,001, but either way Obama still wins. Notice that the same reasoning is true even for very close elections. No doubt some citizens of Florida felt regret about not voting in 2000 when they learned that George W. Bush had won the state (and therefore the whole election) by 537 votes. But even here, the best a single voter could do would be to change the margin to 536 or to 538, neither of which would have changed the outcome.

So what is the probability of an exact tie? One way of looking at this is to assume that any outcome is equally possible. Suppose 100 million people vote for Obama or McCain. McCain could win 100 million to 0. Or he could win 99,999,999 to 1. Or he could win 99,999,998 to 2…. You get the point. Counting all these up, there are 100 million different outcomes, and only one of these is an exact tie. So the probability of an exact tie for a given number of voters is just one divided by the number of voters. Since roughly 100 million people vote in US Presidential elections, that would mean that the probability was about 1 in 100 million. Just to give a sense of scale, the odds of being struck by lightning in the United States are about one in a million, which would make getting struck by lightning 100 times more likely than one person determining the outcome of an election because of an exact tie in the popular vote!

The exact probability is obviously much more complicated than this, since it is unlikely that Obama or McCain would win every single vote. Close elections are probably more likely than landslides. So instead of theorizing about the probability of a tie, we could study lots and lots of real elections to see how often it happens. In one survey of 16,577 U.S. elections for the House and Senate over the last hundred years, not one of them yielded a tie. The closest was an election in 1910 for the Representative for New York's 36th congressional district, when the Democratic candidate won by a single vote, 20,685 to 20,684. However, a subsequent recount in that election found a mathematical error that greatly increased the margin, so there are actually no examples of winning by a single vote, either.

Thus, a rational analysis of voting suggests that the core act of modern democratic government makes absolutely no sense. Economists would literally call voting "irrational" because it violates the preferences of the people who engage in it. For some reason, people decide to vote even though they would not buy a lottery ticket with identical odds, cost, and payoff. Economists typically think that people who vote are making a mistake, or there are other benefits to voting that we have not considered. For example, early scholars noted that people might vote in order to fulfill a sense of civic duty or to preserve the right to vote. Later scholars have also pointed out that people might vote because they enjoy expressing themselves in the same way they enjoy expressing themselves when they cheer for their favorite team at a ballgame. But these explanations beg the question, "Why?" It is a tautology to say that people vote because they feel like voting.

Social Networks and Voting Cascades

In my collaboration with Nicholas Christakis, we have thought about the effect of social networks on voting and several other important phenomena like obesity, smoking, and even happiness. And as it turns out, the rational analysis of voting overlooks important psychological features of human social networks that we have known about for some time. The earliest research on the social spread of political behavior came in the classic voting studies of Paul Lazarsfeld and Bernard Berelson that took place in the 1940s in the towns of Erie, Pennsylvania, and Elmira, New York. These giants in social science helped invent the survey method and bullied their colleagues into starting the long march towards making the study of politics a science. Their classic election studies eventually became the American National Election Studies that are still conducted every two years.

Although Lazarsfeld and Berelson did not collect information about the whole network that interconnected all their subjects, they did ask people to discuss who influenced them and how, and this gave us the very first picture of how important networks can be. One of the key findings from these studies was that the media does not reach the masses directly. Instead, a group of "opinion leaders"—a coinage they may have invented—usually acts as intermediary, filtering and interpreting the media for their friends and family who pay less attention to politics. In other words, the media appeared to work by getting its message to those who are most central in the social network. Politicians themselves follow a similar strategy, targeting frequent voters who have already made up their minds, rather than trying to persuade those at the periphery of the network who may or may not participate. It's efficient to do this, of course, but it is also, as we will see, unavoidable, and this kind of process arises from the fundamental nature of social networks.

Later research by Robert Huckfeldt and John Sprague in the 1970s and 1980s would innovate on these earlier designs. Their voting studies in South Bend, Indiana, Indianapolis, Indiana, and St. Louis, Missouri, would use a "snowball" design, asking people to talk about friends who influenced them and to give the researchers their friends' contact information so they could be in the study, too. Huckfeldt and Sprague found that when it comes to politics, birds of a feather flock together. Democrats tend to be friends with other Democrats and Republicans tend to be friends with other Republicans. In fact, about 2 out of every 3 friends had the same ideology as the respondent. We can even see this on a large scale in recent U.S. elections by looking at the increase in polarization between "Red States" that support the Republicans and "Blue States" that support the Democrats. In other words, people appear to be clustered together politically, acting and believing in concord with the people who surround them.

Nicholas Christakis and I wondered whether this insight could shed light on why people vote at all. We also wondered whether strong similarity in people's local networks could arise from a spread of political behaviors and ideas. Did people choose to associate with those who resembled them or did they induce a resemblance by influencing their peers? Robert Huckfeldt and John Sprague showed us the person-to-person effect, but now we wanted to know how and whether it might spread to other people in the network. Could one vote really spur thousands of others to the polls in a "voting cascade"?

In order to find out just how far we could push the idea that voting might spread from person to person to person, we decided to create a computer model to answer the question, "If I vote, how many other people are likely to vote as well?" The results were very surprising. In some cases one person's vote spread like wildfire, setting off a cascade of up to 100 other people voting. In our world of artificial voters we saw some people tell their friends to vote, who then told their friends to vote, and so on, and so on and so on. Moreover, since liberals and conservatives tend to associate more with like-minded individuals, these cascades would yield sizable increases in the number of people voting the way their friends wanted them to. About 60% of the time, one person's vote turned into two or more votes for their favorite candidate. One interesting implication here is that the more polarized we become by befriending only people with similar ideologies, the greater incentive we have to participate in politics. This certainly creates a dilemma for people who think polarization is bad and voter turnout is good!

We were also able to use this experiment to see what factors increase the size of a voter cascade. Not surprisingly, these cascades got bigger when we increased the number of friends each person has, the number of interactions they have with each other, and the probability that that one will influence the other. But we also discovered a complex relationship between the cascades and the degree to which people were socially clustered in tightly-knit groups. When we move from a low to high probability that one's acquaintances know one another, the number of paths between individuals in the group increases dramatically. This increases the number of ways a single decision to vote can be transmitted to other people in the population. However, as the group gradually gets even more clustered, people tend to cut ties to the outside world and focus only on members of their own group. This means there is a sweet spot in the amount of social interconnection that maximizes the likelihood that people will participate in politics. Thus, contrary to Robert Putnam's advice, sometimes more social interaction is not always better.

Interestingly, the number of people voting had virtually no effect on how far the cascades would spread in our computer model. Nicholas Christakis and I originally believed that the size of voter cascades would be bigger in larger populations because of the increased number of people who might be influenced by a cascade. However, instead we discovered that voter cascades are primarily local phenomena, occurring in a smaller part of the population closely connected to an individual. As it turns out, this is exactly what we have been finding in our other studies of the spread of obesity, smoking, and happiness. These phenomena can spread to our friends (1 degree of separation), our friends' friends (2 degrees), and our friends' friends' friends (3 degrees), but not much further. This "3 Degree Rule" suggests that the power of one individual to influence many is limited by the effect of competing waves of influence that emanate from everyone else in the network.

Experimental Evidence of Voting Cascades

Our computer model provided some of the first indirect evidence that voter cascades are real, but direct evidence was not far behind. In 2006, Notre Dame political scientist David Nickerson traveled to neighborhoods in Denver, Colorado and Minneapolis, Minnesota to conduct a novel experimental study of voter turnout. In this study, experimenters walked door-to-door to contact people who lived in two-person households. Each of these households was randomly assigned to receive one of two treatments. In one treatment, the experimenter encouraged the person who answered the door to vote at an upcoming election. In the other treatment, the experimenter encouraged the practice of recycling. Nickerson noted who came to the door to speak to the experimenter, and then waited until after the election to look up who voted and who did not.

Voter contact studies are very common, and it is well-established that get-out-the-vote campaigns actually work. So it was not surprising that the people in Denver and Minneapolis who answered the door and heard the plea to vote were about 10% more likely to turn out than those who heard the plea to recycle. The big surprise, however, was the behavior of the people who did not answer the door. As it turns out, the other person in the household was about 6% more likely to vote. In other words, 60% of the effect on the person who answered the door was passed on to the person who did not answer the door.

Consider for a moment how these indirect effects might flow through a whole network. Nickerson's creative study showed that a single plea to vote can change political behavior and spread from the experimenter to the person who heard the get-out-the-vote message to a person who neither heard the message nor met the experimenter. But why would it stop there? The person who didn't answer the door might pass the effect on to his or her other friends and family, as well. The effect probably won't be as strong when it gets passed along—like the game of telephone when kids whisper a message from friend to friend to friend, the get-out-the-vote message might get lost along the way as it passes from person to person to person. But suppose that the reduction of the effect is the same between every pair of people, decreasing by 60% at every step. If the first person is 10% more likely to vote and the second person is 6% more likely to vote, then the third person would be 3.6% more likely to vote, the fourth person would be 2.16% more likely to vote, and so on. That may not seem like much change, but remember that while the size of the contagious effect decreases at each step, the number of people affected increases exponentially. Thus the decision to vote appears to be an inherently social phenomenon that scholars are only recently coming to terms with.

Doing Your Civic Duty

So where do these results leave us on the question "Why do people vote?" The existence of voter cascades suggests that rational models of voting have underestimated the benefit of voting. Instead of each of us having only one vote, we effectively have several and we are therefore much more likely to have an influence on the outcome of the election.

The fact that one person can influence so many others may help to explain why some people have such strong feelings of civic duty. Establishing a norm of voting with one's acquaintances is one way to influence them to go to the polls. People who do not assert such a duty miss a chance to influence people who share similar views, and this tends to lead to worse outcomes for their favorite candidates. In large electorates, the net impact on the result might be too marginal to create a dynamic that would favor people who assert a duty to vote. However, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted almost 200 years ago, the civic duty to vote originated in much smaller political settings like town meetings where changing the participation behavior of a few people might make a big difference.

And this norm has taken such a strong hold, that many people are actually dishonest when they talk to pollsters. Typically, about 20-30% of the people who say they voted in an election actually did not. How do we know this? The ballot in America is secret, but whether or not you showed up to cast a ballot is a matter of public record, so we have very good third-party official information about who voted and who did not. The problem of over-reporting voter turnout is very well-known among political scientists and a common subject in college classrooms. One of our favorite moments in Poli Sci 101 occurs when we ask our students to raise their hands really high if they did not vote. Typically only about a quarter raise their hand, but realistically it should usually be more than half the class.

So why do people lie about this? One possibility is that they fear social sanctions. Another is that people believe that others are influenced by their political actions. Consider what happens if you tell everyone you are voting, but then you stay home instead. On average your actions will increase turnout even though you didn't vote yourself. Moreover, since most of the people who decide to vote are likely to share your beliefs, you can increase the vote margin for your favorite candidates without going to the polls. Hence, one explanation for why people vote is that they are connected and that it is rational for them to vote—as a result of this connection. In fact, one begins to wonder why anyone would ever say that they do not vote.

The New Science of Genopolitics

Christopher Dawes and I have also tackled voting from a brand new point of view. Unbeknownst to most political scientists, behavior geneticists began using twin studies in the 1970s to study variation in social attitudes, and these studies suggested that both genes and environment played a role. However, behavior geneticists did not specifically pursue the question of whether or not political attitudes were heritable, and political scientists remained largely unaware of the heritability of social attitudes until 2005. In that year, the American Political Science Review published a reanalysis of political questions on a social attitude survey of twins that suggested liberal and conservative ideology is heritable. Follow-up studies showed that genes did not play much of a role in the choice of a political party, supporting a core finding in the study of American politics that the choice to be a Democrat or a Republican is largely shaped by parental socialization. In other words, one very important reason why people vote Republican is because their parents did. However, other studies have shown that the decision to affiliate with any political party and the strength of this attachment are significantly influenced by genes.

These initial twin studies suggested political ideas are heritable, but they said little about political behavior. That changed this year when we published a new study in the American Political Science Review that examined the heritability of voter participation. We matched publicly available voter registration records to Laura Baker's twin registry in Los Angeles, analyzed self-reported turnout in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), and studied other forms of political participation. In all three cases, both genes and environment contributed significantly to variation in political participation. This suggests that at least some of the difference between someone who votes and someone who does not has to do with the genetic lottery.

More recently, Chris Dawes and I turned our attention to specific genes that might be associated with political behaviors and attitudes. In particular, we focused on genes that affect the serotonin and dopamine systems because these systems are known to exert a strong influence on socialization. In the first-ever research to link specific genes to political phenotypes, we established a direct association between voter turnout and monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) and a gene-environment interaction between turnout and the serotonin transporter (5HTT) gene among those who frequently participated in religious activities. In other research we have also found an association between voter turnout and a dopamine receptor (DRD2) gene that is mediated by a significant association between that gene and the tendency to affiliate with a political party. Thus we are beginning to find specific genes that can help us to predict who will vote and who won't.

In our most recent work with Jaime Settle, Peter Hatemi, and Nicholas Christakis, we have brought together social networks and genopolitics. Political liberalism has been associated with the psychological trait of ‘openness' and the gene DRD4 has been associated with novelty-seeking behavior. One might think that these two associations would lead to a direct association between DRD4 and political liberalism, but this misses the important point that novelty-seekers sometimes exhibit anti-social tendencies. They might, for example, be quite interested in climbing a mountain alone. We thus hypothesized that individuals with a genetic predisposition towards seeking out new experiences would tend to be more liberal, but only if they are embedded in a social context that provides them with multiple points of view. Using data from Add Health, we tested this hypothesis and found that the number of friendships a person has in adolescence is significantly associated with liberal political ideology among those with novelty-seeking variant of DRD4. Among those without the gene variant there is no association. This is the first study ever to elaborate a specific gene-environment interaction that contributes to ideological self-identification, and it highlights the importance of incorporating both nature and nurture into the study of politics.

Whether or not this association or any of the others we find will have an impact on the decision to vote for a Republican is an open question. But one thing is clear. We can no longer hide our head in the sands when people whisper that genes and biology might play a role. And we can no longer ignore the important influence of social network structure on how attitudes and behaviors might spread from person to person to person. In the next few years we will see an increasing number of studies that report neurological and physiological differences between members of these two political groups and how they affect the transmission of political information and ideas.

There is obviously still plenty of room to make and manipulate individual choices—genes and networks are not destiny. However, these studies suggest that the divide between voters and abstainers and between left and right is a long-lasting and natural part of our heritage as humans, and therefore political choices are not always amenable to rational analysis or moral suasion. We are not blank slates, and any effort to understand the moral basis for a political action like voting for a Republican must acknowledge that our evolutionary history has endowed us with genetic and social variation that constrains (but does not extinguish) our capacity for self-control. We do not have vicious debates about why autumn winds cause some leaves to turn red and others blue. So why get so worked up about a similar November occurrence, cleaving our states into red and blue?

Psychologist, University of California, Berkely; Author, The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds tell us About Truth, Love and the Meaning of Life (forthcoming).

The Morality of Childbearing

I agree with Jonathan Haidt that philosophy and politics take off from everyday moral intuitions. And I agree there are real and valuable moral intuitions that liberalism doesn't capture, and that motivate many working-class Republican voters. But the moral intuitions I have in mind aren't in Haidt's moral taxonomy either. They are the special moral intuitions that we all have about raising children. This has become particularly vivid with the Republican enthusiasm for Sarah Palin.

For most of us, our children are the source of our gravest moral obligations, deepest moral dilemmas and greatest moral triumphs. But the moral intuitions of childrearing aren't well articulated by the liberal scheme, or any other philosophical scheme for that matter. (There is an obvious reason for this, childrearing has been women's work, philosophy, psychology, theology and politics have belonged to men).

The liberal Enlightenment philosophy that underpins Democratic politics is rooted in intuitions about good and harm, autonomy and reciprocity, individuality and universality. Each individual person deserves to pursue happiness and avert harm, and by cooperating reciprocally we can maximize the good of everyone—the basic idea of the social contract. But individualist, universalist and contractual moral systems, whether they are libertarian or socialist, utilitarian or Kantian, just don't get it about raising kids.

Childrearing isn't individualistic. It doesn't feel like just another moral relation to another person—a neighbor, a fellow citizen, even a friend. When you take on the care of children, you create a moral unit that is larger than you are. As a result there is nothing morally or rationally incoherent in the fact that caregivers regularly, indeed necessarily, sacrifice their own happiness and autonomy for the happiness and autonomy of their children. The good of the baby simply becomes your own good.

Childrearing is particular, not universalist. One of the everyday but astonishing facts of life is that while we choose our friends and our mates, we don't choose our children. Even when we adopt a baby, we don't know how that baby will turn out. And even the most basic features of what a baby is like are beyond our control, a situation that becomes vivid for the parents of children with disabilities.

And yet, with some tragic exceptions, when we care for a child we love that child, not other children or children in general. And we have a moral relation to that child that we don't have to other children. Sometimes we love the neediest babies most of all. Sarah Palin's baby is such a powerful image for many women because caring for a Down syndrome child exemplifies the paradox of all childrearing—I love my children in particular, it doesn't matter what they're like or what they do, I'd sacrifice my own happiness for theirs.

Childrearing also isn't contractual or reciprocal. We may vaguely expect that our children may one day take care of us. But every sane parent appreciates the fundamental and necessary asymmetry of caregiving. Even with mates, and certainly with friends, we expect a certain reciprocity. The neediest of our intimates give us something in return. But every child is needier than the most intolerably demanding friend or lover.

These moral intuitions have their roots in our evolutionary history. Human beings have a longer period of protected immaturity, a longer childhood, than any other species, and human children demand an exceptional amount of parental investment. As a species, we reap great benefits from this arrangement—in fact, it's the secret of our evolutionary success.

The period of protected immaturity allows us to learn flexibly about a wide range of environments, before we actually have to act on them. It depends on the especially profound and protracted commitments of human caregiving. But I'd argue that our moral intuitions about childrearing are right independently of their evolutionary origins. It really is a good thing that we care for children in the way we do.

Empirically, there is sociological evidence that childrearing is especially problematic and challenging for working–class Americans, particularly in the areas that are most likely to vote Republican. Economic insecurity, divorce, the mobility that puts grandmothers and aunts on the other side of the country, all make it difficult for families to thrive. That itself is a reason why "family values" loom so large for these voters. But middle and upper-class blue state voters also share the intuition that childrearing is special, although they can afford to treat the morality of caregiving as a private matter separate from politics.

Of course, subsidies to new parents, family leave, good early childhood education, fewer working hours with higher pay and more flexibility, are much more likely to actually help parents than abstinence education, abortion restrictions, or gay marriage bans. Some politicians have started to realize this—red states like Georgia and Arkansas have been leaders in creating early childhood programs. It's particularly ironic that contraception and abortion which look inimical to childrearing, may empirically actually allow for more thriving, caring and intimate families, and that the drive for gay marriage is motivated in part by the desire of many gay couples to raise children.

But politics is about articulating ideals as much as about formulating policies. The philosophical framework of liberalism makes it hard for Democrats to articulate the intuitions that most people share. Caring for a particular, individual baby, even a "special needs" baby, and being part of a particular, individual family, even a complex, messy family, are intrinsic human goods. Politics should help people achieve them successfully. All human babies are specially needy and all human families are complex and messy, and nobody could ever make a good argument that you love your kids and your relatives because they maximize your utilities.

Democrats use the language of universal entitlement, when they talk about state-supported preschool or childcare, or the language of individual autonomy, when they talk about choice or contraception, or the language of investment, when they talk about the long-term benefits of healthy and well-educated children. But none of these ways of talking about children really capture our everyday intuitions. Of course, there isn't a good alternative conservative language for these intuitions either. The Republican language of traditional religion also doesn't get it, which is why the celebration of Sarah Palin's unwed daughter's pregnancy seemed so paradoxical.

One way we might try to bridge this gap between intuition, philosophy and policy is by appealing to the fact that human childrearing extends far beyond biological mothers.

Psychologically, there is strong evidence that we love the children we care for, not just the ones we bear. As the ethologist Sarah Hrdy points out, when animals make big parental investments they spread the load. In socially monogamous species, including many birds and a few mammals, fathers as well as mothers invest in caregiving, and fathers make this investment even when babies aren't their genetic offspring.

In other species, including lemurs, dolphins and elephants, there are alloparents—animals who help take care of the babies of others. Humans make particularly great parental investments, they are socially though not sexually monagamous (no species is sexually monogamous, not even swans), and they rely on alloparents.

Sarah Palin quite literally presented a picture of a group of committed caregivers, husbands, siblings, boyfriends and grandmothers—a group larger than a mother but smaller than a state. Philosophers and political thinkers could try to articulate an ethics of childrearing that takes off from this sense of a widening circle of parental responsibility and care—an ethics that would capture the particularity of mother love, but extend it to include an entire community or even a country.

The articulation of moral intuitions in liberal Enlightenment philosophy was one of the greatest human intellectual achievements. Not all everyday moral intuitions survive that sort of philosophical scrutiny. I'll bet that if we just counted up the most frequent moral intuition across cultures and historical periods the winner would be that the way other people have sex is wrong (closely followed by the intuition that the way we have sex ourselves is wrong).

In the case of the moral intuitions of disgust that Haidt studies, the best philosophical policy would be to just persuade people to get rid of them. I'd say the same about lots of intuitions about hierarchy and purity. But raising children really is one of the most morally profound human activities, and it would benefit us all, Democrat and Republican, if we could find a philosophical and political way to talk about it.

Neuroscience Researcher; Author, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation

Brain Science and Human Values

The human brain is an engine of belief. Our minds continually consume, produce, and attempt to reconcile propositions about ourselves and the world that purport to be true: Iran is seeking to acquire nuclear weapons; human beings are contributing to global climate change; I actually look better with gray hair. What must a brain do to believe such propositions? This question marks the intersection of many fields: psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, economics, political science, and even jurisprudence. Understanding belief at the level of the brain is the main focus of my current research, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Belief encompasses two domains that have been traditionally divided in our discourse. We believe propositions about facts, and these acts of cognition subsume almost every effort we make to get at the truth—in science, history, journalism, etc. But we also form beliefs about values: judgments about morality, meaning, personal goals, and life's larger purpose. While they differ in certain respects, these types of belief share some important features.

Both types of belief make tacit claims about normativity: claims not merely about how we human beings think and behave, but about how we should think and behave. Factual beliefs like "water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen" and ethical beliefs like "cruelty is wrong" are not expressions of mere preference. To really believe a proposition (whether about facts or values) is also to believe that one has accepted it for legitimate reasons. It is, therefore, to believe that one is in compliance with a variety norms (i.e., that one is sane, rational, not lying to oneself, not overly biased, etc.) When we really believe that something is factually true or morally good, we also believe that another person, similarly placed, should share our conviction.

Despite the remonstrations of people like Jonathan Haidt and Richard Shweder, science has long been in the values business. Scientific validity is not the result of scientists abstaining from making value judgments; it is the result of scientists making their best effort to value principles of reasoning that reliably link their beliefs to reality, through valid chains of evidence and argument. The answer to the question, "What should I believe, and why should I believe it?" is generally a scientific one: Believe a proposition because it is well supported by theory and evidence; believe it because it has been experimentally verified; believe it because a generation of smart people have tried their best to falsify it and failed; believe it because it is true (or seems so). This is a norm of cognition as well as the epistemic core of any scientific mission statement.

But what about meaning and morality? Here we appear to move from questions of truth—which have long been in the domain of science if they are to be found anywhere—to questions of goodness. How should we live? Is it wrong to lie? If so, why and in what sense? Which personal habits, uses of attention, modes of discourse, social institutions, economic systems, governments, etc. are most conducive to human well-being? It is widely imagined that science cannot even pose, much less answer, questions of this sort.

Jonathan Haidt appears to exult in this pessimism. He doubts that anyone can justifiably make strong, realistic claims about right and wrong, or good and evil, because he has observed that human beings tend to make moral judgments on the basis of emotion, justify these judgments with post hoc reasoning, and stick to their guns even when their post hoc reasoning demonstrably fails. As he says in one of his earlier papers, when asked to justify their emotional reactions to certain moral (and pseudo-moral) dilemmas, people are often "morally dumbfounded." He reports that subjects often "stutter, laugh, and express surprise at their inability to find supporting reasons, yet they would not change their initial judgments…" But couldn't the same be said of people's failures to solve logical puzzles? I think it would be fair to say that the Monty Hall problem leaves many of its victims "logically dumbfounded." Which is to say that even when a person gets the gist of why he should switch doors, he often cannot shake his initial intuition that each door represents a 50 percent chance of success. This reliable failure of human reasoning is just that—a failure of reasoning. It does not suggest that there isn't a single correct answer to the Monty Hall problem. While it might seem the height of arrogance to say it, the people who actually understand the Monty Hall problem really do hold the "logical high ground."

As a counterpoint to the prevailing liberal opinion that morality is a system of"prescriptive judgments of justice, rights, and welfare pertaining to how people ought to relate to each other," Haidt asks us to ponder mysteries of the following sort: "But if morality is about how we treat each other, then why did so many ancient texts devote so much space to rules about menstruation, who can eat what, and who can have sex with whom?" Interesting question. Are these the same ancient texts that view slavery as morally unproblematic? It would seem so. Perhaps slavery has no moral implications after all—could Abolition have been just another instance of liberal bias?—otherwise, surely these ancient texts would have something of substance to say about it. Or, following Haidt's initial logic, why not ask, "if physics is just a system of laws which explains the structure of the universe in terms of mass and energy, why do so many ancient texts devote so much space to immaterial influences and miraculous acts of God?" Why indeed.

Haidt is, of course, right to worry that liberals may not always "hold the moral high ground." In a recent study of moral reasoning, subjects were asked to judge whether it was morally correct to sacrifice the life of one person to save one hundred, while being given subtle clues as to the races of the people involved. Conservatives proved less biased by race than liberals and, therefore, more even-handed. It turns out that liberals were very eager to sacrifice a white person to save one hundred non-whites, but not the other way around, all the while maintaining that considerations of race had not entered into their thinking. Observations of this sort are useful in revealing the biasing effect of ideology—even the ideology of fairness.

Haidt often writes, however, as if there were no such thing as moral high ground. At the very least, he seems to believe that science will never be able to judge higher from lower. He admonishes us to get it into our thick heads that many of our neighbors "honestly prefer the Republican vision of a moral order to the one offered by Democrats." Yes, and many of them honestly prefer the Republican vision of cosmology, wherein it is still permissible to believe that the big bang occurred less than ten thousand years ago. These same people tend to prefer Republican doubts about biological evolution and climate change. There are names for this type of "preference," one of the more polite being "ignorance." What scientific purpose is served by avoiding this word at all costs?

Haidt appears to consider it an intellectual virtue to adopt, uncritically, the moral categories of his subjects. But where is it written that everything that people do or decide in the name of "morality" deserves to be considered part its subject matter? A majority of Americans believe that the Bible provides an accurate account of the ancient world (as well as accurate prophecies of the future). Many millions of Americans also believe that a principal cause of cancer is "repressed anger." Happily, we do not allow these opinions to anchor us when it comes time to have serious discussions about history and oncology.

Much of humanity is clearly wrong about morality—just as much of humanity is wrong about physics, biology, history, and everything else worth understanding. If, as I believe, morality is a system of thinking about (and maximizing) the well being of conscious creatures like ourselves, many people's moral concerns are frankly immoral.

Does forcing women and girls to wear burqas make a positive contribution to human well-being? Does it make happier boys and girls? More compassionate men? More confident and contented women? Does it make for better relationships between men and women, between boys and their mothers, or between girls and their fathers? I would bet my life that the answer to each of these questions is "no." So, I think, would many scientists. And yet, most scientists have been trained to think that such judgments are mere expressions of cultural bias. Very few of us seem willing to admit that simple, moral truths increasingly fall within the purview of our scientific worldview. I am confident that this period of reticence will soon come to an end.

Unless human well-being is perfectly random, or equally compatible with any events in the world or state of the brain, there will be scientific truths to be known about it. These truths will, inevitably, force us to draw clear distinctions between ways of thinking and living, judging some to better or worse, more or less true to the facts, and more or less moral.

Of course, questions of human well-being run deeper than any explicit code of morality. Morality—in terms of consciously held precepts, social-contracts, notions of justice, etc.—is a relatively recent invention. Such conventions require, at a minimum, language and a willingness to cooperate with strangers, and this takes us a stride or two beyond the Hobbesian "state of nature." But prior to emergence of explicit notions of right and wrong, the concept of well-being still applies. Whatever behaviors served to mitigate the internecine misery of our ancestors would fall within the scope of this analysis. To simplify matters enormously: (1) genetic changes in the brain gave rise to social emotions, moral intuitions, and language… (2) which produced increasingly complex cooperative behavior, the keeping of promises, concern about one's reputation, etc… (3) which became the basis for cultural norms, laws, and social institutions whose purpose has been to render this growing system of cooperation durable in the face of countervailing forces.

Some version of this progression has occurred in our case, and each step represents an undeniable enhancement of our personal and collective well-being. Of course, catastrophic regressions are always possible. We could, either by design or negligence, employ the hard-won fruits of civilization, and the emotional and social leverage of millennia of biological and cultural evolution, to immiserate ourselves more fully than unaided Nature ever could. Imagine a global North Korea, where the better part of a starving humanity serves as slaves to a lunatic with bouffant hair: this might, in fact, be worse than a world filled merely with warring Australopithecines. What would "worse" mean in this context? Just what our (liberal?) intuitions suggest: more painful, less fulfilling, more conducive to fear and despair, etc. While it will never be feasible to compare such counterfactual states of the world, that does not mean that there are no experiential facts of the matter to be compared.

Haidt is, of course, right to notice that emotions have primacy in many respects—and the way in which feeling drives judgment is surely worthy of study. It does not follow, however, that there are no right and wrong answers to questions of morality. Just as people are often less than rational when claiming to be rational, they are often less than moral when claiming to be moral. We know from many lines of converging research that our feeling of reasoning objectively, in concordance with compelling evidence, is often an illusion. This is especially obvious in split-brain research, when the left hemisphere's "interpreter" finds itself sequestered, and can be enticed to simply confabulate by way of accounting for right-hemisphere behavior. This does not mean, however, that dispassionate reasoning, scrupulous attention to evidence, and awareness of the ever-present possibility of self-deception are not cognitive skills that human beings can acquire. And there is no reason to expect that all cultures and sub-cultures value these skills equally.

If there are objective truths about human well-being—if kindness, for instance, is generally more conducive to happiness than cruelty is—then there seems little doubt that science will one day be able to make strong and precise claims about which of our behaviors and uses of attention are morally good, which are neutral, and which are bad. At time when only 28 percent of Americans will admit the truth of evolution, while 58 percent imagine that a belief in God is necessary for morality, it is truism to say that our culture is not prepared to think critically about the changes to come.

Classicist; Cultural Historian; Provost, Georgetown University; Author, The Ruin of the Roman Empire (forthcoming)

Edge has latterly published two provocative pieces, Jon Haidt's essay on why people vote Republican and Clay Shirky's ruminations and calculations on the cognitive surplus we have at our disposal. To a historian, these pieces dovetail and underscore a fundamental landslip that's taking place around us. I'll comment on Haidt first, then get to Shirky, but no Edge visitor should miss either. Roughly speaking, we are discovering that words don't matter.

Or they don't matter as much as we thought. Take the political question. The underlying fiction of electoral bodies is that the electors make rational choices about (ideally) what is in the best interests of the whole community or (realistically) what is in the best interests of themselves or some group to which they belong.

We know how to accept the results of that kind of thinking, always closing our eyes a bit to the extent to which things don't actually go that way. Corrupt political machines have been influencing votes wholesale for a long time and it's hard to argue that the dead citizens of Chicago really had their own best interests in mind when they voted. But I'm reading just now Livy's description of how the Romans chose their first king, Numa Pompilius, when Romulus died, and it's certainly framed as looking about for the best qualified candidate for the job.

The cynicism of the last years makes it clear that no one in high electoral politics now needs to, wants to, or should think that way if they want to win an election. This came home to me in the aftermath of the 2004 election when I saw a map of who-voted-how coded at a level that made it clear that the counties of the US that produce the wealth and innovation voted overwhelmingly Democratic and the counties of the US that depend on government subsidy or that simply underperform economically voted overwhelmingly Republican.

That's nuts—and it makes perfect sense at the same time. Perfect sense in that the Republican success of the last generation, since Nixon and Reagan cracked the code, has been to exploit irrelevant (to national policy) anxieties. We are at the point where the national maneuvering for office has nothing to do with argument (so much for folks who say that "the economy should be Obama's best argument") and everything to do with positioning a message between now and election day so that pulling the lever or pushing the button or punching the chad for one candidate makes you feel morally satisfied, which is to say, less anxious and guilty and ashamed.

McCain's choice of Palin confirms what the Democrats choice of Obama made clear: the candidate's qualifications for some notional job don't matter at all. What matters is the candidate's qualification for getting you to push the button. After that, it's politics as usual. And for a generation or more now, one party has been better at that than the other, and of course they claim that it's because their message is stronger and truer. Truth has nothing to do with it.

Shirky's piece gives more context for our transition away from words that matter. I don't mean we don't speak and write and that words aren't highly functional tools, but the exact framing of sentences and the precise structure of the verbal argument are less and less important. Bullet points on a powerpoint get the conversation going and the group working together gets to the result that matters. The "writer" is less important than he has been since, oh, Herodotus. (Example? Obama's speech on race earlier this summer. Good work, well-written, seen by almost no one, read by a few, and then blown off the screens by his preacher's TV appearances. Net result, the image and the illogic prevail.) Shirky is one of many voices confirming that this fading of the power of the specific written word is not all bad news and even has good news to it, but the old classics professor in me at least needs to slow down long enough to observe the the humanistic culture of the orator from Demosthenes to Martin Luther King Jr. is decisively gone. We don't fully understand what's replacing it, but it's happening all around us—you might even call it a third culture...

Formerly Professor, Stanford, Yale, and Northwestern; Latest projects: grandparentgames.com; and an alternative to the existing school systems described on engine4ed.org.

Report From Florida

The Haidt article is interesting, as are the responses to it, but these pieces are written by intellectuals who live in an environment where reasoned argument is prized. I live in Florida.

When I travel, I live the life of an intellectual. In Florida, I hang out with jocks and retirees. I try not to talk politics with them. When, it happens that I have no choice but to hear what they think about politics I take note of it. Here is what I have heard:

Obama is a Muslim. His pastor hates America. In fact nearly everyone outside of America hates America. If you travel outside of America, go on a cruise, so you won't have to eat whatever it is one eats in those places. You don't want to talk to the people either, but that’s not a problem because none of them speak English. And, anyway they all hate us for our freedoms. Obama will put Al Sharpton in the cabinet. Dick Cheney was the greatest Vice President in history. The Jews are running the country anyway.

I am not making this up. This is not a caricature. I wish I carried a tape recorder.

Why do these people vote Republican?

It is common to make the assumption that people are thinking when they vote and they are making reasoned choices. I harbor no such illusion. No argument I have ever gotten into with these people, (despite avoiding talking to them, I sometimes can't resist saying something true) has ever convinced anyone of anything. They are not reasoning, nor do they want to try. They simply believe what they believe. What do they believe?

1. They don't like blacks. Forget the rest. It isn't that they are racists. They will be polite if a black person ever appears. (This doesn't happen much, although I am sure they must live here too.) They just don't like them. They have no reason. If you ask them today, as a result of recent remarks by Michelle Obama and their pastor, they will say that blacks hate America. This is not the reason, but they sound more reasoned in their own minds if they say it that way.

2. They don't like wussies. The Democrats are always nominating wussies,—men who are not men. Obama looks like his wife runs the show at home. Kerry? Gore? Dukakis. Wussies. Not real men. Bad people are trying to kill us. We need to kill them first. Those guys wouldn't pull the trigger. (I am not making this up. I wish I were.)

3. They worry about money. Who wants to take their money away? Liberals of course. They want to give it to the blacks.

Where I live is not redneck country. There is a lot of church going but no talk about abortion or of being born again. There is a just a distaste and distrust for people not like us (which I am sure includes me.)

It is all very nice to come up with complex analyses of what is going on. As is often the case, the real answer is quite simple. Most people can't think very well. They were taught not to think by religion and by a school system that teaches that knowledge of state capitals and quadratic equations is what education is all about and that well reasoned argument and original ideas will not help on a multiple choice test.

We don't try to get the average child to think in this society so why, as adults would we expect that they actually would be thinking? They think about how the Yankees are doing, and who will win some reality show contest, and what restaurant to eat it, but they are not equipped to think about politics and, in my mind, they are not equipped to vote. The fact that we let them vote while failing to encourage them to think for themselves is a real problem for our society.

The scientific question here is how belief systems are acquired and changed. I worked on this problem with both Ken Colby and Bob Abelson for many years. Colby was a psychiatrist who modeled paranoid behavior on computers. The basis of his work was research on how neurotic thinking depends upon the attempt to make inconsistent beliefs work together when the core beliefs cannot change.

Abelson worked on modeling political belief systems. He built a very convincing model of Barry Goldwater that showed that once you adopted some simple beliefs about the cold war, every other position Goldwater took could be derived (and asserted by a computer) from those core beliefs. The idea of a set of unchanging core beliefs is not true of only politicians or psychiatric patients of course. Everyday average Joes behave the same way. Adult belief systems rest on childhood beliefs instilled by parents mostly and by assorted other authorities.

Republicans do not try to change voter's beliefs. They go with them. Democrats appeal to reason. Big mistake.



John Brockman, Editor and Publisher
Russell Weinberger, Associate Publisher

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