I Wanna Be a Republican


This page written circa 25 April, 2012.

A recent episode of Big Bang Theory contrasts empathetic Leonard and unemotional Sheldon, and of course they get rolled in spite of Sheldon's warnings; in parallel, Penny's unthinking self-absorbtion is contrasted with Amy and Bernadette's internal fight to be good citizens in spite of temptation. I find this kind of episode a bit close to the emotional bone, in comparison with the technical, "hard-geek" sort epitomized by the episode where Sheldon sweats to meet Stephen Hawking and then faints ("[synthesized voice] Oh great... another fainter"). The technical ones are much funnier, and less uncomfortable.

The morality theorist Jonathan Haidt identifies 5 fundamental values that govern a person's moral decisions. These are
(1) empathy, or care/harm, springing from the instinctive compassion inbuilt in primates,
(2) reciprocity, or the wisdom of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you,
(3) loyalty, towards family, pack or nation,
(4) respect, for tradition, order or authority, something like the D&D concept of "lawful" vs "chaotic",
(5) purity, or sanctity, the aversion to things considered disgusting or unhealthy.
Five seems to be a recurrent number in describing people, and the 5 dimensions of personality have evoked comment before.

In his 2008 TED talk Haidt presents evidence that left-wing voters chiefly value the first two of these five (empathy and reciprocity) while right-wing voters apportion more equal weight (thus adding loyalty, respect, and purity). This goes a long way to explaining my split position between left and right: I place great value on loyalty but less on respect for order and virtually none on purity. I also have a lot of trouble with empathy, not so much as a basis for moral decision but because it is inbuilt in my hardware so I find it difficult to turn it off when common sense or my security demands it: Exactly the situation in BBT.

Personally, I do not think Haidt's 5 values are orthogonal. I believe that Reciprocity is enough by itself. If you do to others as you would have them do to you, you are acting perfectly morally. Empathy follows from that. It is pretty clear that empathy has got into the mix because it is burned into our genes, as Frans de Waal shows. Some respect for order is required to make the world run, because you can't stop to debate every tiny event or you would get nowhere. Armies and companies demonstrate this, when the pressure is on you need to follow orders and rules, debate their rightness some other time. This is not, however, a value so much as an organisational necessity. Purity is a special case of respect for authority, and one that is rather open to exploitation, notably to impose local rules after the fashion of religion. This leaves us with loyalty.

Haidt's Democrats would argue that loyalty is just extended selfishness, selfishness for yourself and your friends. They would say it mixes the ideas of reciprocity and a futures market, to achieve a kind of (immoral?) preferential treatment when it comes to reciprocity. In order to do well it pays to know the difference between friends and food, as the sharks in Finding Nemo would put it. On the other hand, Haidt's Republicans would point out that loyalty is the opposite of defection (in game theory parlance) and stuff that builds confidence in reciprocity, I support you now because I may want the reciprocal action one day.

After several days of pondering---this posts days after I started writing---I confess I remain big on loyalty. Am I selfish, in a wolf-pack sort of way? I think I want preferential treatment from friends, and I am very willing to reciprocate up front. Is this immoral?

Years ago, when Andrew and I were flatmates, we agreed most strongly on loyalty being a central tenet. Perhaps we had both been victims of too much disloyalty. Disloyalty is nasty stuff, but morally speaking, this is probably covered under reciprocity... I would not double-cross you, because I don't want you to double-cross me. This puts a particularly republican colour on loyalty, and I mean that in the most disrespectful sense.

Michael Norton's TED talk tells us that giving money away buys happiness, and it holds in every culture and country (except the Central African Republic, for some unknown reason). Spending money on yourself buys no happiness, spending it on others does. Spending "far from home", meaning giving to a homeless man, beats spending "close to home", like buying your mother a scarf. The effect can be measured with sums as small as $5 to $20, which I find very impressive. This has to be built into the genes, and it contradicts my loyalty principle.

Maybe loyalty is necessary because it is easier to implement than reciprocity---it takes more intellectual effort to put yourself in another's position, to see something from their perspective and so check on your reciprocity, than it does to check that you are being loyal, simply holding them in high esteem unthinkingly. Maybe loyalty is evolution's way of implementing survival selfishness through the advantages of family and pack cooperation. Either way I like it, and I'm not giving it up any time soon.

Incidentally, if anyone has a copy of the film linked from the title, I would simply love to see it and I can't find it anywhere.

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