Brexit – was it the moral intuitions wot won it?

So most will have spotted that the UK voted to leave the European Union (EU) in a nationwide referendum on the 23rd of July this year.  The President of the EU described this as a setback to whole of the civilised world order and the global liberal project in general; in contrast, because politics might just be a form of competing moral intuitions, the leader of the French National Front described this as the most joyous occasion in Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall.   What can be agreed upon is that this was a triumph for the UK insurgent hard right party UKIP which went from 1 million votes at the 2010 UK general election to 4 million in 2015; this rise in support caused the UK Conservatives to offer a referendum its 2015 manifesto to prevent a critical loss of support to UKIP. It worked and then it didn’t work.  Brexit overthrows 40 years of UK economic, security, foreign and social policy unleashing a decade of more of legislative and political turmoil and uncertainty,  threatening the very existence of the UK in its current form, with the possibility of a Scottish secession and a new instability in Northern Ireland.    This was such a big deal (on the Joe Biden scale of such things) that the Prime Minister resigned either (a)  having laid down his country for his party or (b) having inadvertently secured a joyous moment of national liberation.

How an insurgent right party was able to so destabilise the entire British state by electorally intimidating the Conservative Party is a thing of wonder to international observers.  The immediate purpose in this post is to consider whether the argument that politics is a form of moral psychology is in ruins post Brexit or is it just about possible to infer something more than a modest psychological component in this joyous/ruinous moment?

In descending order of justification……

2.8 Million Non Voters

Exactly as the standard model would NOT have predicted 2.8 million non-voters voted in the Referendum and they all voted for the UK to Leave the EU.  In the standard model non-voters are non-voters meaning that they don’t vote.  They are unreachable in their poverty, disaffection and low educational attainment and they cannot be appealed to.  However, make the choice binary and simple:  British sovereignty regained, our money back from the EU and an end to immigration versus the argument for free markets, investment and jobs and shared sovereignty and what happens is that people, however previously alienated, can respond on the basis of moral intuitions and the moral intuitions supporting “free markets, investment and jobs and shared sovereignty” are weak or non-existent.  The moral intuitions supporting “British sovereignty regained, our money back from the EU and an end to immigration” are fierce and are easily named – In Group Loyalty (nationalism), Authoritarianism and Freedom.

Recall that is the everyday task of politicians to confound voters:  citing now the new British Prime Minister Theresa May who voted to do this but raged against social injustice on her first day in Downing Street.  Referendums overcome this confounding effect (the turnout in Scotland in 2014 was 85% as non-voters entered the process in support of Leave only to induce other non-voters to enter on the side of Remain with Scottish and British identity competing with each other in the hearts of previously disaffected Scots).   Why did non-voters not enter the process to vote for Remain in the EU?  This is because the moral intuitions for Remain are weak or non-existent as argued here, the emotion and salience is and was with Leave.  And so they came…..

Note another point here about the nature of moral intuitions, In Group Loyalty may be held strongly or weakly, and if held weakly among non-voters they won’t play in normal elections but if the issue is as stark as is in a Referendum then weak In Group Loyalty voters may enter the process, and none of them are going to vote for EU membership.

It is worth repeating almost no evidence of non-voters supporting the side in the Referendum which was stuck with the weak emotional argument and strong rational argument.

Nationalism (joint second with Authoritarianism)

The recovery of sovereignty was the most important reason cited by Leave voters. Is the degree of identification with a nationality an indicator of a strongly help moral intuition called In Group Loyalty?  Who loves their country other than for its expression of shining moral qualities? Look at the uncanny similarity between the EU Referendum and Scottish Independence Referendum with strong English and Strong Scottish identity driving the Leave vote and in the EU Referendum case British identification also unsurprisingly drives support for Leave.



Of course UKIP are formally a British nationalist party and it would be surprising if that wasn’t a factor in the Leave result but many commentators were als able to identify English nationalism as a factor including Fintan O’Toole.  Nationalities are arbitrarily assigned and didn’t exist when moral intuitions began , so Europeanism could have been a useful form identity on the Remain side but to their cost it is a notably weak form of identification in the UK.

Is this a description of Nationalism?

  1. We are different from you
  2. We are better than you
  3. You are the problem

Did these instincts play in the EU Referendum for Leave? Do they not sound like the Strategic Reasoning of In Group Loyalty?

From the standard model Professor Michael Kenny demurs about Nationalism

“this does not in any way prove that the relationship between English Nationalism and voting is a causal one. Indeed, it is more plausible to think that a stronger sense of Englishness is – like scepticism about the EU – also a manifestation of and response to a complex set of social and economic change, including globalisation, economic inequality and new forms of cultural anxiety”

What if English nationalism is a moral intuition for many but not all, and that it clusters with the moral intuitions of authoritarianism and freedom?  How likely is it that the three powerful moral intuitions that define right wing politics are not the cause of “cultural anxiety”, and the absence of those intuitions in millions of people causing an absence of “cultural anxiety”? It is typical in the standard model to find “cultural anxiety” as a motivating factor for Leave voters (with some justification) without asking why it is completely absent as a motivating factor in others and indeed why do many rejoice in mass immigration, multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism?

Authoritarianism in joint second place with Nationalism

We have Donald Trump to thank for the view in a full 5% of mainstream political opinion and commentary that Authoritarianism is in play in post Great Recession politics.  Trump conducts a hostile takeover of the most powerful conservative party in the world and in the process treats its ideology of small state, pro-business, freedom, free trade and personal responsibility with broad contempt.  Not satisfied with that, he then proceeds to overthrow fifty  years of Republican thinking on national security in his admiration and support of Vladimir Putin.  The Conservative commentator David Frum in an otherwise brilliant article wonders whether there might not be something in Republicanism that facilitated the takeover

“It’s driven by something else—and the source of that something is found inside the conservative and Republican world, not outside.”

Yes indeed but Frum can’t even venture a guess at the central feature of right wing politics: it is not driven by ideology but the moral intuitions of Freedom, In Group Authority and Authoritarianism.  Trump is Nationalist, Authoritarian and so are UKIP and its leader Farage.

The American Social Scientists Hetherington and Weiler wrote about “Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics” and found that immigration activated authoritarian tendencies in the US, whereas the UK has just experienced a unique bout of mass economic immigration. Eric Kaufmann a Professor of Politics at Birkbeck College found that authoritarian attitudes to crime, sexual behaviour, lifestyles and the death penalty predicted Leave voting in the UK.  But how do Americans and Brits become an authoritarian, well Kaufmann puts this down to being motivated by personality, values and attitudes rather than economic worries.  What are the chances that these Leave voters had a moral intuition and the emotions associated with Haidt’s Authority Moral Foundation rather than “personality, values and attitudes”?

See Authoritarian attitudes driving the Leave vote

Graphic Authoritarianism

Recall that the reason that the UK had the Referendum was the same reason that Trump was able to conduct his hostile takeover of the Republican Party; in the mid-2000s the Conservatives tracked to the centre to compete with New Labour shoring the Party of its nasty party image (Authoritarianism) and stopped banging on about Europe (Nationalism).  This had the effect of allowing UKIP to colonise this moral psychological space on the right and then UKIP promptly got nasty and banged on about Europe threatening the electoral prospects of the Conservative Party, Cameron’s political defence mechanism resulted in his ruin.

Against their Interest

If moral intuitionism was in play in the Referendum then there would need to be evidence that the standard model’s reliance on presenting economic conditions or economic advantage, group identity (pensioners), personal wellbeing, or class interest as being of overriding salience as an explanatory factor in how people vote.  This is exactly what was found; the Remain campaign made the appeal to economic interest central to its campaign, so how many Leave voters rejected that argument believing that they would be better off outside the EU?   Com Res found precisely 3%!! of Leave voters thought that the economy would be better off outside the EU, so a clear victory for Remain at the useless intellectual and rational level.   Remain wins the argument on economics but loses the Referendum; something in Leave voters overrode their perceived economic interest.


Explanations based on Economics

It is not the argument of Politics is Moral Psychology that all politics is moral psychology: moral intuitions and their supporting emotions are both unevenly spread in individuals which is what creates politics, but are also very weakly evident or expressed in many, which creates non-voting, apathy, indifference and disengagement.  Even when strongly expressed formal IQ will affect an individuals’ ability to participate as some might expect.

A whole level of Leave voting explanations is entirely valid and simultaneously incomplete and inadequate.  Yes indeed the uneven impact of globalisation was a factor but why would a third of poorer displaced workers vote Remain?  Deep seated grievances matter, although not so deep as to create an almost 50:50 vote split and the characteristics of local areas mattered as did educational level but not overwhelmingly so it would appear.  Contingent factors, the immersion in local norms, educational level, town size all matter but in arguing from this alone aren’t the most important factors missed or underestimated?  What needs to be understood is the inverse, if areas with high levels of recent immigration voted Leave then why not all residents?  Why did Londoners in social class AB vote Leave, why did people in left behind coastal towns vote Remain and fascinatingly why did recent immigrants vote Leave?

Labour Voters

It was argued previously and before the Referendum that Labour voters could not be relied upon to support their Party’s Remain position as the underpinning Moral Intuitions of leftism – Fairness and Harm Reduction were hardly in play as the could not be identified with the EU.  Over one third of Labour voters voted to Leave.

So in summary……..

When David Cameron called the Referendum he gambled that the British would not in the end vote against their economic interests.  They demurred to put it mildly, the binary nature of the choice played directly to their emotions and underlying moral intuitions, 2.8 million people who had not understood politics hitherto entered the process exclusively on the side with strongest emotional appeal.  Labour voters mutinied, economic interests were violently ignored and the siren call of anti-immigrant pro-authoritarianism, nationalism, freedom (take back control) all morally underpinned, intuitions,  as a form of virtue were wot won it.

Afterthought on Scotland

One of the implications of the Leave vote is that the SNP may trigger a second Scottish Independence Referendum.  In truth the decision of the UK to leave the EU makes Scottish Independence a much bigger ask as the SNP will have to propose a new Scottish currency or the use the currently unsuccessful Euro.  Combine that challenge with the fall in the oil price which has seen Scotland’s oil tax revenues fall almost to zero and would denude and Independent Scotland of 14% of its public expenditure then the rational economic case for Independence is severely weakened.

The British establishment is currently insouciant about the whether the Referendum could ever be called and, if called actually won, as it would require the Scots to defy their economic interests.  What does the EU Referendum Campaign teach us about economic interests versus the emotion of nationalism and freedom?

The UK’s EU Referendum – The Moral Psychological Landscape

For the second time in two years the UK is having a Referendum of monumental import (on the Joe Biden scale) which will have enormous consequences for the future integrity of the UK as a nation state, its broader economic future and wider international position.  The EU referendum is scheduled for the 23rd of June with the opinion pools currently showing a dead heat.  This referendum follows on from the Scottish Independence referendum which defied expectations of an easy win for the No side granting Scotland a 45-55 spilt which has now become the bedrock shape of Scottish politics destroying Scottish Labour in the process, and probably denying the UK Labour Party the possibility of an overall majority at Westminster.   Whether the aftermath of the EU Referendum will see a resetting of right wing politics in the UK with a possible movement of Labour and Conservative Leave voters to UKIP remains to be seen.

How Moral Intuitions Shake Out in the EU Referendum

Shake Out 2

The Tory Cleavage

The UK is having a referendum because the Conservative Party and government was divided on Europe and threatened electorally by the rise of UKIP.  To shore up Tory votes a referendum was proposed in the Tories’ 2015 General Election manifesto, now as in conceding the Scottish Independence Referendum, the Tories believe the risk to be low of a Leave vote as the rational arguments for stating in the EU are overwhelming.  See the problem with rational arguments below. Traditional free market, pro-capitalist, small state, low tax, personal responsibility Conservatism is rooted in the moral veneration of contract.  Contract is the moral intuition of Market Pricing and that gives political Conservatism its powerful moral purpose and appeal.  However, right wing politics also venerates Freedom, In Group Loyalty and Pro-Authority.  These last three have found themselves hostile to the political project of the EU, so hostile that a whole new right wing party taking 13% of the vote, UKIP was founded to stand up for them.  UKIP is anti-business and indifferent to the EU’s core virtues of the free movement of labour and capital.   No less that 132 out of a total of 304 Tory MPs are voting Leave including six ministers.  Cleavage indeed.

How Moral Intuitionism Works in this EU Referendum

Moral Intuitionism
Political arguments in the EU Referendum, Remain and Leave are simply Strategic Reasoning in support of emotions in support of moral intuitions.

Why Referendums are so divisive

Moral intuitionism provides insight into why referendums are so divisive compared to normal elections: there is no appeal to the other side’s intuitions or emotions which is a common electoral tactic in every normal election.  Each side is locked into their competing intuitions with no overlap therefore the other side sees the other side’s strategic reasoning as disgraceful and egregious lies, driving mutual outrage.

In Scotland two years after the independence referendum the Yes side is, for example broadly unaware that Oil revenues have fallen by £8 billion leaving an independent Scotland unable to pay for schools, colleges and universities, so profound is the lockout that moral intuitionism has gifted Scotland.  The No side feel a sense of panic and despair that a fact of such profound consequences cannot be heard, the Yes side a sense of treachery in a country denied them by the lies (strategic reasoning) of the No side. Is this the future of the UK post 23rd June?

Rational argument with and emotional one

When the SNP lost the Scottish referendum in 2014 they and their supporters believed more strongly, more ferocious in their cause, reasoned more closely in support of their idea and became more resolute in their determination to achieve their goal.   As their emotion around their sense of Scottishness was rejected they doubled down; although defeated they could no more abandon their moral intuitions than stop breathing. The Moral Intuitions that underpin Nationalism – Freedom and In Group Loyalty were ferociously re-embraced because they were rejected. The insult of electoral defeat in normal times and the rejection of your values is temporary; rejection in a referendum because it is a one off binary Remain or Leave, seems to suggest that your emotions (mapped to your moral sense) are themselves invalid hence the sound and fury, the unpleasantness, a killing, the bile and ever more the outrageous lies as strategic reasoning plays its role in protecting each sides existing emotions.  The prominent Leave campaigner Michael Gove has asked for everyone to ignore the experts as they can’t be reconciled with his strategic reasoning so obviously don’t make any sense. Politics is moral psychology.

Referendums versus Elections

Normal elections are emotional arguments with emotional arguments, whereas this referendum has a strong emotional argument weakly rationally underpinned, having an argument with a rational argument weakly emotional underpinned. The Remain campaign owns all the experts, the think tanks, the universities, the intellectuals, the economists, the newspaper editorials (mostly)…..Indeed the more rational opinion has swung behind Remain the greater the reduction of the Remain lead in the opinion polls.  That is not a coincidence, politics is moral psychology so rational arguments which contradict your emotions are alienating to Leave minded voters. But surely rational arguments which support your emotions are welcome?  Why no boost to the Remain campaign from the boffins at the IFS the Legions of the LSE?  Because the Remain campaign is weakly under girded by moral intuitions and the Leave campaign has all the strongest most salient moral intuitions and therefore the greater level of emotion.  As in the Scottish Referendum, Leave’s rational argument with its fierce emotional component is having a non-rational argument with Remains’ rational argument with it significantly weaker emotional component.  It is consequently making hay.

The whole EU project is built upon the values of solidarity and internationalism.  Well solidarity and internationalism are only values; they are not moral intuitions so they don’t inspire emotion so Remain doesn’t even bother to offer them as reasons to vote to stay in the EU.  That’s right the founding values of the EU are not even on the pitch.

The central issue of campaign is immigration; the almost completely ignored issue of the campaign is emigration.  Immigration plays to In Group Loyalty which it can reduce and confuse and Pro-Authoritarianism with its emphasis on order, tradition and respect for authority is held to be adversely impacted by high levels of immigration.  Emigration has 1.3 million Brits living and working across the EU but this is merely a social good, one of those value things, not an emotion, so no Remain votes because no moral intuition addressed.

The Leave Campaign, like the devil has all the best tunes…..

Intuition Discussion
Pro-Authoritarianism Before the whole of European politics and US politics, see Donald Trump, became structured by Authoritarianism the role of Authoritarianism was obscure and controversial.  No longer;  the emergence of the authoritarian UKIP in the UK is the reason that the EU Referendum is taking place at all as the Conservative government sought to shore up support by offering the opportunity to repudiate the EU as the trans-national usurper of rightful British authority.  They are sorry now, and their grief may continue for some time.
In-Group Loyalty The politics of US versus Them.  Moral virtue resides in the In-Group and the emphatically not in the out-group.  Nearly everyone has this bifurcated moral sense to some degree but Nationalism is the political expression of those who experience the emotions driven by this Intuition the most intensely. UKIP was founded to pursue a British Nationalist agenda.

Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are largely in the Remain campaign as their British loyalty is weaker than in England causing them to take a more benign view of the EU.

Freedom Freedom from the sharing of sovereignty, freedom from meddlesome regulation, freedom from EU law, from EU based human rights legislation.  Freedom from freedom of movement, freedom to make our own laws
Anti-Market Pricing Market Pricing is the moral foundations upon which the EU was founded.  Market Pricing gives us the centrepiece of the EU which is the single market with its free movement of labour and capital.

Most Conservatives venerate Market Pricing and draw from it their valourisation of capitalism, free enterprise, contracts, private economic imitative and a small state which allows for the maximum number of private contracts.  Some leftist have an absolute moral objection to private contracts and see markets and private initiative as forms of moral dissoluteness.  They are the leftists who will vote Leave.

Remain has the weaker hand……

Intuition Discussion
Pro-Market Pricing See Market Pricing discussion above, the EU began as a free trade area and retains that dominant characteristic to this day. A single market of 500 million people that develops its own form of law and contract is specifically moral enterprise.
Equality Matching The political structure of the EU in which 28 nations share sovereignty and establish EU wide individual legal rights  in the context of an elected EU Parliament all speaks to and an explicitly moral purpose which forms the basis of many European centrist parties such as the UK’s Liberal Democrats.

The problem for Remain is that although it has a moral basis these two intuitions may be very significantly weaker than those tunes referenced by Leave.  Equality Matching and Market Pricing must be ancient because they are part of our evolved psychology but they fact that they only played in human politics from the 17th century and 19th century respectively attests to their weakness relative to the other intuitions.

Lost Intuitions…….

Two intuitions favoured on the left are split both ways in the EU Referendum confusing Labour voters who are the key to success of Remain

Intuition Discussion
Fairness Fairness is foundational to left politics so Remain emphasise the social chapter and worker rights but Leave claims that the 10 billion a year that UK “sends to Brussels” could be spent on the NHS. The EU’s enthusiasm for brutal hyper austerity in southern Europe makes it a poor champion of Fairness as a moral foundation.  Result: Draw
Harm Reduction The EU is fabled champion of the consumer protection that sits happily in the Harm Reduction foundation, but the British right and its ardent tabloid supports have  long campaigned against this dynamic as “nanny state” finding easy caricatures in the curvature of bananas. Result: Draw

A foot in both camps……?

Intuition Discussion
Anti-Authoritarianism The most interesting of the foundations in respect of the EU referendum would be the moralised anti-authoritarianism that grows as you move leftwards on the spectrum.  The hard left considered the EU a baker’s ramp historically but softened in its opposition just as some other anti-authoritarians began to see the EU as the establishment and joined the ranks of the UKIP voters.  From that perch they see the EU as the worst type of unelected and unaccountable authority.

However some anti-authoritarians in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK see the EU as the enemy of their enemy (The UK Government) and side with the EU against it.  Result: Score Draw.


When the Conservatives decided to have their election they did not expect that Labour would be led by someone instinctively anti-EU but that appears to be the case.  Corbyn has the traditional core Labour intuitions of Fairness and Harm Reduction but also he evinces the Anti-Authoritarianism and anti-Market Pricing of the Hard Left.  He has to say that he supports the Remain campaign as Labour opinion is 95% in favour but his lukewarm endorsement may refusal to sell the EU to working class anti-immigrant Labour voters may prove consequential.

There is a rational case for the UK to Leave the UK but as things stand the Leave campaigbn it is being powered along by the winds powerful moral intuitions, even if it loses it may change British politics forever.


There is no Left or Right (Part 2)

It was argued in There is no Left or Right (Part 1) that a better explanation for conspiracy theories and their pervasive hold on sections of public opinion, was not, that they have salience on the extreme left and extreme right as left/right are traditionally expressed, but rather conspiracy theories represent the strategic reasoning of strong moralised anti-authoritarianism and strong moralised pro-authoritarianism.

In another blog post on the LSE blog website Jonathan Wheatley argues that Politics is too complex to be understood just in terms of Left and Right.  Indeed…….here at politics is Moral Psychology it is argued that politics is form of moral psychology and requires reference to the moral foundations of Haidt and almost certainly Robert Fiske.

Wheatley proposes two axis of political belief:  the traditional economic left right dimension and “communitarian/cosmopolitan” dimension with “communitarian” defined as anti-immigration, anti-EU, localist, anti gay marriage and English nationalist.  Leaving aside nationalism, those attitudes look strikingly like what two American political scientists, Hetherington and Weiler found in their Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics (2009) as the defining attitudes of pro-authoritarianism.  They found that attitudes to authority shaped views on welfare, immigration and terrorism.

Wheatley finds the split proposed here that UKIP represents a split on the right between the pro markets, low tax, small state standard Right and the Pro-Authoritarian Right.   Wheatley finds evidence that UKIP voters are not Conservative at all by the standard measure. Also, Wheatley’s definition of the “cosmopolitan” vote seems weak; they are simply not “communitarians” it appears and the Greens and the Lib Dems are competing for the same space apparently.

In Politics is Moral Psychology it is argued that we need Haidt’s Moral Foundations (Authority Pro and Anti, Freedom, Fairness, Harm Reduction) and Fiske’s notion of Equality Matching (EM) and Market Pricing (MP).  In EM sits support for rights and relationships and democracy and MP provides support for markets, capitalism and contracts.  Note that it is required here that the structure of these two is for and against.  Some people for example simply despise capitalism and markets and see it as morally bankrupt, others value it a an entirely moral system rewarding the industrious and talented.

If the prominent political leaders from the past were to be mapped then what would the result look like?


For current British political leaders?


Taking the Moral Foundations one at a time

Haidt Authority

The post-governing Liberal Democrats will revert to their traditional anti-authority stance, repudiating the liberal interventionist ISIS hating, tough security policy that they adopted in government. Corbyn as observed here has an irreducible (possibly overwhelming) element of anti-authoritarianism in his politics.  Farage is the strong authoritarian or “communitarian” as Wheatley has it.  Cameron occupies the necessary authoritarianism of those who would govern in the UK.

The difference in position between Cameron and Farage here is what is driving the decision to hold and in or out referendum in Europe.  Cameron is attempting to close the gap with a “remain” decision and harvest UKIP voters

Haidt Fairness

Farron will attempt to move back to a strongish Fairness stance post the governing coalition with the Conservatives who according to Haidt have weak attraction to Fairness.  Very weak if the analysis of the IFS is to be believed (and uniquely they are).

Tory Fairness

This projected pattern of the strong adverse impact of future changes on the poorest sections of British society is entirely consistent with their last government

Tory Fairness 2

To consistently display this pattern Conservatives cannot be motivated by a strong moral sense of Fairness.

Haidt Harm Reduction

Conservatives and UKIPers  denounce the “nanny state” politics of the left but in practice there has been little deregulation from the Conservatives and UKIP rhetoric hopes for a bonfire of regulation post EU exit

Haidt In Group Loyalty

Farage’s British Nationalism is the most striking feature here, the addition of the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon to the chart would see here occupy the same space as Farage. Different In Group,same Moral Intuition

Fiske Equality Matching

This Foundation is the core 19th century John Stuart Mill classic Liberalism and as such is the core foundation of the old Liberal Party.  Mr Farron is likely to track back strongly to this core and hope to use it as a base for a Lib Dem political recovery

Fiske Market Pricing

A poll of Corbyn supporters found evidence for moralised hostility to Markets.  See the dramatic difference between Corbyn supporters and current and potential Labour voters in the last two questions in this table:

Corbyn Markets

On the LSE blog website Jan-Willem van Prooijen  and Wheatley speculate that politics is more than about left or right as it is traditionally conceived.  Looking closely at the Moral Foundations of politics strongly bears out this thesis.

There is no Left or Right (Part 1)

If politics is moral psychology and our psychologies evolved over millions years to help solve the problems of social living and resource acquisition in the conditions faced by our distant ancestors before settled agriculture, it would be somewhat surprising if there was a single and simplistic left right dimension which explained all our current political attitudes.  Indeed the fundamental issue that delineates the differences between the left and the right is held to be attitudes to markets and capitalism in general.  Capitalism didn’t even exist when our moral psychologies formed but free trade did and was an important part of hunter gatherer existence.

Two blogs on the interesting LSE Blog website adduce evidence for a more complex picture.  Firstly, (and in Part 1) Jan-Willem van Prooijen  argues that people often exhibit a ‘conspiratorial mindset’ that seems to transcend traditional left-right distinctions”.  Van Prooijen here assumes the left right low tax/high tax, large state small state, pro-business anti-business standard model isn’t a good predictor of whether people hold “conspiracy theories” but when he asked them people to identify themselves as either being on the extreme right or extreme left he found that those self-identifying held as such did hold “conspiracy theory” type views.  It is noteworthy that he asserts that “conspiracy theories” are “are endorsed by a surprisingly large number of citizens”.

So what is the Haidtian Moral Psychological perspective?  Firstly, politics is conceived as a series of Moral Foundations – Fairness, Harm Reduction, Freedom, Sanctity, Loyalty and Authority and it is the clustering of the first two and the last two which appear to give a left-right spectrum.  The evidence for authoritarianism is provided by two American political scientists, Hetherington and Weiler (Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, 2009) who have found that attitudes to authority shape all aspects of US political opinion from welfare to terrorism to immigration.

This blog asserts that what we have is moralised pro-authoritarianism strongly and weakly, and moralised anti-authoritarianism, moralised because we tend to think that virtue inheres in authority or that authority is inherently corrupt. See this picture

Conspiracy Theories Here and Authority

If this is the whole population then that bears out Van Prooijien assertion that “conspiracy theories” are endorsed by large sections of the population.

Hadit’s Moral Intuitions theory helps us place “conspiracy theories” in their correct context.  For Haidt our reasoning, our rationalisations, our opinions and our views are a form of strategic reasoning that support our emotions about a topic – immigration, refugees, the Iraq war and that that emotion is driven by moral intuitions.  Here it is asserted that “conspiracy theories” have a signature which reveals the underlying intuitions to be moralised anti-authoritarianism and moralised pro-authoritarianism.   “Conspiracy theories” are forms of strategic reasoning which support the emotion and intuition that Authority is corrupt. Or support the inverse – the emotion and intuition that since Authority is clearly virtuous its enemies and those disrespecting it are morally dissolute.

Moralised Anti-Authoritarianism

(Authority is corrupt)

Moralised Pro-Authoritarianism

(Authority is virtuous but the enemies of my authority are corrupt)

The Iraq war was for oil Saddam was behind 911
The CIA killed Kennedy Castro killed Kennedy
Apollo Moon Landing Hoax Climate change is scientific establishment conspiracy
Big Pharma is suppressing knowledge of known cures Moscow Apartment bombings
New World Order (EU, Freemasons, Israel conspiracy) Harold Wilson Soviet Agent
Israel was behind 911 Holocaust never happened
McCarthyism (Pervasive Communist Conspiracies)

The symmetry doesn’t look like a coincidence and each side has its own conspiracies as its reference point the for the the corrupt or virtuous  nature of authority.   A fuller list bares the same scrutiny here; see them as the strategic reasoning response to an emotion response to an ancient misfiring intuition.

Van Prooijien adds that there is “good reason for the social sciences to conduct serious research on the psychology behind the belief in conspiracy theories.”  The Moral Psychology of Authoritarianism might provide a reasonable starting point.

Good News – Labour does have virtues, Bad News – So does the SNP, the Lib Dems and Tories….especially the Tories and that is why they mostly win

Daniel Johnston, in a thoughtful piece on the Scottish Fabian’s Website asks for Labour to understand its virtues and act upon them, seeing this, rather than clever policy formation as a potential route back to power.  In a related piece Duncan Hotherstall wonders whether politics has become “post rational” and that that, perhaps explains how it was a long discredited nationalism such as that offered by the SNP were able to unexpectedly crawl out of the dustbin of history to which humanity, in a fit of progress and nobility had long consigned it.  Daniel is specific; he wants Labour to ascribe to a set of ethics called moral intuitions rather than a crude utilitarian calculus of the greatest happiness of the greatest number.   Duncan observes the tide of emotion upon which the SNP surge has surfed so successfully and despairs of a way to defeat it in rational argument.

I think Duncan is right about the emotional basis of the SNP’s politics but I would argue that Labour’s politics also has an emotional basis.   Daniel is correct in regarding virtuous moral intuitions as superior to utilitarianism; indeed Labour displaced an elite intellectual political Liberalism in the 19th century for this very reason.  Labour offered two moral intuitions back then, two cardinal virtues which sustain it today: Fairness (call it social justice or solidarity or equality) and Harm Reduction (think health and safety, seat belts, breathalysers, smoking bans).    Now there is problem with this magnificent moral purpose – other people can consider social justice immoral.  We call them Conservatives.   Others regards, smoking bans for example as a basic infringement of their basic freedom and immoral for that very reason.  We call them Libertarians, fewer in number than, Conservatives but not less morally outraged.  For Conservatives the transfer of wealth from the industrious to the indigent is moral turpitude, or even that taking earned wealth from one party to give to another is moral hazard.  That is the problem with virtue based politics as moral intuitions, they simultaneously repel and attract.  Labour has something of a monopoly on its particular virtues but the Conservatives, the SNP and the Lib Dems all have moral appeal based on differing senses of what constitutes moral worth.  That is why and how they are political parties, immensely salient and stable over time, and still relevant in their appeal to millions.  Many (possibly most) voters most of the time are not fooled but, on the contrary, actually understand really rather well what politicians stand for.

Does the notion of competing moral intuitions doom Labour to failure and what is the relationship of these moral intuitions to emotion and rationality?  Is there any explanation in any of this, at a deeper moralised level, for Labour being beaten twice (in both Scotland and England) in the one election? And how does policy formation fit into all this? And why do the Tories win all the elections?  Oddly, or perhaps, not oddly, all these questions are interlinked.

First, a word about morality and morals in this context: moral intuitions are not the same as ordinary common or garden morals such as not cheating, not stealing, and not lying and emphatically, not hitting people on the head with beer glasses in pubs.   Politicians all subscribe, publicly at least to this common or garden morality and get into more and more trouble when they transgress against it. It is their job, however,  to transgress against some moral intuitions and support others.  Politics has this entirely moralised character in ironic contrast to the public perception of a “parcel of rogues”. There are then, two different flavours of morality in play, not that they aren’t often confused, but no political party can base its appeal on a claim to virtue defined as personal honesty.  (In other words, honesty may be the best policy but it shouldn’t go into your manifesto).

So why do moral intuitions about right and wrong confuse and confound so much?  Historically ignorant armies would clash by night but now an American Social Psychologist has gone and put the light on in a ground breaking book called the Righteous Mind subtitled How Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Haidt might as well have said that bad people are similarly divided but that is not strictly relevant here, what he means is that people who are personally honest can regard their politics as moral and virtuous and your politics as morally dissolute.  Haidt identifies six moral Foundations that define our politics

  • Fairness
  • Harm Reduction
  • Freedom
  • Loyalty (to your in group)
  • Authority (For and against, think Jeremy Corbyn and George W Bush)
  • Sanctity

If that last one seems a bit odd, consider whether the SNP have sanctified Scotland itself and the Saltire in particular.  Others regard the SNP’s capturing of the Saltire as an outrage.  All the other Foundations work like that, some ascribing to them strongly some weakly, some with approbation, some with hostility.  Take the Fairness Foundation, Labour people have a strong moral intuition that Fairness is right and unFairness is wrong.  Haidt then observes that liberals and socialists consequently experience strong emotions and then reason strategically to support that intuition with arguments, policy papers, manifestos and books.  That deployment of strategic reason is universal, and gives politics it tower of babble character, the endless talking past one and another, with say, moralised pro freedom Libertarians acknowledging some facts, deploying others, inventing some, distorting others.  Who knew that politics worked like that?  Everyone, but Haidt shows how and why:

Moral Intuition of Rightness or Wrongness > Big cloud of emotion > Strategic reasoning

Labour’s central strength is also it weakness, it is founded on a passion for Fairness and Harm Reduction and weak on Freedom, Loyalty and Pro-Authority and Sanctifies virtually nothing with its strong adoption of these two Foundations having the effect of both attracting and repelling support simultaneously.  Labour is like golfer going around the course with a three iron and a putter, technically possible but Conservatives have the advantage of wielding more clubs; they do actually believe in Fairness and Harm Reduction but weakly, the believe in the Nation as a source of moral authority, they believe in In Group Loyalty over out group considerations (we are having a Referendum on our EU membership) and they sanctify things – Church, the Constitution, tradition.  Haidt calls this the Conservative advantage and if politics is a form of moralised psychology primarily, and secondly a contest of ideas then that might just explain the near hegemonic Conservative ascendancy in current European politics.  In May one in seven English voters voted for a new political force based on In Group Loyalty, Pro-Authoritarianism and remarkably and simultaneously anti-authoritarianism, Freedom from the EU and re-establishing the purity (read sanctity) of the UK legislative process and UK society from contaminating individuals from wider Continent seeking our jobs.

So enormous is the nature of the in-built Conservative Advantage identified and described by Haidt that, not one but two, conservative parties walked over and annihilated Labour in England.

To Daniel’s point that Labour will “not emerge from this crisis through policy and positioning” this is not the case.  Labour still needs to give people reasons to strategically reason back to its moral intuitions of Fairness and Harm Reduction, policy, additionally can also have a critical function beyond its primary purpose (making stuff better) to pointing to other intuitions such as our basic patriotism (In Group Loyalty) , our scepticism of some EU activity (more In Group Loyalty), our contempt for ISIS (moralised pro-authoritarianism) or our objection to ending the Human Rights Act (moralised Freedom and moralised anti-authoritarianism). The trick is to emphasis or even event policies which reference and touch the places that Labour politics doesn’t instinctively go.

To Duncan’s point about living in a “post rational” world is that it was always so, morals first, emotion second and reasoning third.  This is the basic architecture of our evolved human nature, what is probably happening is that under conditions of stress the efficacy of the interplay of competing strategic reasoning breaks down, becomes less effective and the emotional core of our politics is revealed.  Now the UK has just had its worse seven years since that plague of insects in Egypt mentioned in the Bible and this type of notorious stressor is going to increase the emotional cloud as basic moral intuitions are referenced and the quality of strategic reasoning becomes weaker and shriller.  The emotional content was always there it is just rising to the surface.

If the election went badly for Labour in England (blame Jonathan Haidt ) then in Scotland Labour was wiped out by a Party which had a policy of closing down all the primary schools, all the secondary schools, all the colleges and all the universities or alternatively borrowing that additional sums required amount under  a policy of full fiscal autonomy for Scotland.  If politics was about contending values or ideologies or the clash of ideas then that wouldn’t happen, but if you thought that Scotland itself constituted virtue, was a moral incarnation (In Group Loyalty) and you valued Scottish Freedom (Freedom moralised) and supported your Government (pro-Authority) and hated the Tories (moralised anti-authoritarianism) and believed in Fairness (and we do in Scotland but they do not in England), then in that case you might reason strategically, that is you might overlook certain discordant facts (pan UK solidarity is really quite a thing) and stress others (food banks protected by nuclear weapons).

Labour’s wipe out by the SNP is caused by the direct attack on Labour’s central weakness – it only believes in two big things, Fairness and Harm Reduction.  The SNP used to only believe in two gig things as well – the Foundations of In Group Loyalty and Freedom (for Scotland) and after consciously pursuing a strategy of displacing Labour by deliberately, intentionally and determinedly colonising its Fairness and Harm Reduction Foundations over the last 15 years.  In addition to this strategy their political positioning reaped no less than, in Haidtian terms, three other Foundations – they always had the sanctification of the Saltire and Scotland as something sacred, but being in Government they can appeal to moralised pro-authoritarians and their antipathy towards the UK reaps the rich harvest of the hard left’s and Greens moralised anti-authoritarianism (what else causes the Scottish hard left to abandon pan UK solidarity other than a psychological factor?).

It is this conjunction of moral Foundations gives the rise of Nationalism in Scotland the feel of a religious revival and a broad based cultural revolution.  The self-referential hermetically sealed nature of the SNP’s politics is explicable by the pivot nature of In Group Loyalty as once Scotland is the pivot then only the other moral intuitions apply to Scotland, Fairness is Scottish Fairness only and so on.

The referendum process suited the SNP perfectly because they were able to organise an argument from the whole spectrum of the intuitions upon which its politics have come to be based, to the epic cloud of emotion which was everywhere last autumn, to the rational argument of Scotland’s future.  Their Better Together opponents decided to have a rational argument with an emotional one and the result was a formal numerical victory but an epic political defeat.

OK, enough analysis already, what to do?


Authoritarianism Misfires and Misfires

One of the key arguments in this blog is that attitudes to authority represent a key foundation of all politics and political debate.  Authority, it is argued, is a moral foundation whereby individuals tend to find themselves on a spectrum which regards authority as morally worthy per se or morally disreputable per se. For many therefore, authority is virtue by default and for others, evil at birth, however, for many, probably most, the intuition is weak either way. In his book, the Righteous Mind, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt demonstrates that moral intuitions about authority trigger in us a sense of right or wrong and then a cloud of emotion and then the deployment of strategic reasoning (use some facts, ignore others, forget other, twist some) to get to our goal: reason and argue in politics to support our moral intuitions about authority (and fairness, harm reduction, loyalty, freedom and sanctity).

Neither of these intuitions are correct or wrong, they may have served several significant social purposes over many the millennia in which they formed but today the are a form of faulty wiring, a series of confounding cross circuits.  Authority is now neither good no bad or average, it needs to be seen for what it is free of these ancient biases.

Doesn’t the Greek crisis provide insight into this process?  How many commentators simply default to either the sins of the Greeks or the sins of the institutions the ECB, IMF and the EU?   The crisis is an interplay of two grave failures, the legacy of Greek misgovernment and the mishandling of the issue by the Institutions.  Fascinatingly, the IMF has conceded incompetence but it is unremarkable how this is ignored by moralised authoritarians and their strategic reasoning which stresses Greek corruption, Greek pensions… Unremarkable if these commentators are employing reasoning in support of moralised pro-authoritarianism….and they are.

An aspect of the crisis is Syriza’s unwillingness to take responsibility to take ownership of a reform process which would satisfy their creditors, and in fact this has deepened the austerity that they potentially face.  Syriza failed in this, in part, because it conceives the issue as the malevolence of authority which had the effect of diminishing the responsibility of the Greeks.

These misfiring Intuitions sometimes manifest themselves in the starkest terms as the moralised pro-authoritarianism at Fox News demonstrated earlier, but Jon Snow of Channel News in the UK recently raised eyebrows by lamenting the death of a key Saddam Hussein ally, Tariq Aziz calling him “a nice guy”.  Counter intuitive to find a good guy at the heart of Saddam’s wars of aggression and multiple repressions but intuitive if you conceive authority as inherently corrupt and the enemy of your (corrupt) enemy can be considered morally benign.

Another stark illustrations was the attitude of the campaigner and comedian Russell Brand to the one minute silence held in the UK to honour the 30 Brits murdered by a terrorist in the seaside resort of Sousse in Tunisia.  Brand thought the minute’s silence “bullshit” and explained to an interlocutor that the massacre of tourists on the beach in Tunisia was created by the UK Government.  Stretching the strategic reason to breaking point he claims that authority is arming the terrorist by arming the governments’ fighting the terrorists.  His interlocutor, a friend of the victims agrees with him.  That shouldn’t be so surprising if the premise here is correct that moralised pro and anti-authoritarianism is pervasive in forming opinions.

Worthless, distorted misapprehensions worsen and deepen the Greek crisis and almost everything else.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 266 other followers