Comment on Left-Right Polarization

This is just something I wrote in response to Free Northerner’s response to Slate Star Codex‘s claims of increasing left-right political polarization:
I think there’s an issue here where Left and Right don’t always take stands on the same issues. Liberals can care about Issue A that conservatives don’t give a fig about, while conservatives care about B that liberals aren’t even aware of. So, for example, my conservative uncle might rant endlessly about Benghazi, while my liberal uncle keeps rambling on about White Privilege.

In many ways, the right and left have become more polarized from each other, but the right has been generally unsuccessful in the long term on most of their issues. They have not repealed Roe V. Wade; they have not eliminated Welfare or gotten deficit spending under control. They have not reinstated prayer in school. Hypothetically, they might have “moved right” in some opinion poll of what they profess to believe, or they might have simply felt more to the right as the country shifted suddenly leftward, but they haven’t accomplished their agendas.

I was subjected to a portion of [the most recent] Republican debate, and just disgusted at the sheer amount of verbal garbage the candidates spouted that was nothing more than a re-iteration of Republican talking points for the past thirty years. They have failed to overturn Roe V. Wade for the past 40 years, but they are still up there promising that this time, they’re really going to do it! They promise to cut the budget, eliminate the deficit, and increase military spending! Where, exactly, do they think the money for the military comes from? These people don’t achieve their objectives or else their objective is simply “no change at all,” rather than rightward movement.

By contrast, liberals have actually been achieving their goals. Whether or not they’ve personally become more liberal relative to the rest of the population, or relative to the past, they’ve had a lot of successes and convinced a lot of the country to agree with them.

So we could get both increasing polarization of people and a general leftward trend on actual policies.

People are probably more likely to spout liberal positions when they involve far away people or moral posturing that they suspect will incur no material cost to themselves, and more conservative positions when they bear the potential cost. That is, it’s easy to sit in the US and say, “Oh, yes, Germany should take as many refugees as physically possible,” while at the same time saying, “No, I don’t want to give one of the spare rooms in my house to a refugee.” Or “Ferguson police must stop shooting black people!” while demanding lower crime rates in one’s own city.

But there are far more people in the world who don’t live in Ferguson (or Germany) than who do, and so the collective pressure of people making small, low-cost to them decisions about far away people can overwhelm the local pressure of people making great-cost to them decisions. So general consensus moves leftward.

Morality is what other people want you to do

This is morality from a game theory perspective.

Let’s say Person B and Person C are playing the Prisoner’s Dilemma. We ask B, “What is the moral thing for C to do?” A of course responds, “Cooperate! If C cooperates, we get highest net utility!”

Now we ask Ayn Rand, “What should C do?”
“Defect,” she answers. “Defection gets C more money than cooperation, and C doesn’t have any obligation to care about B.”

B then responds, looking a bit nervous, “I think C really should cooperate. Caring about others is moral.”

Rand: You’re just making a deontological argument with no backing. Morality, hah! You just want C to do what’s in your interest instead of his interest.

B: But obviously this kind of thinking leads to everyone defecting, and then utility is crap! Trustworthiness makes society function!

Ayn Rand: Look, what if C just lost his job? He has a dozen children to feed, and cooperating will not get him enough money to survive. If he doesn’t defect, he and all of his children will die.

B: Well… I guess then it’d be okay…

Ayn Rand: In that case, by your own reasoning, you ought to encourage his defection, because that saves lives!

B. Well… Um… But wait a minute! What if I also have 12 children to feed and no job? My first obligation is to my kids, not C’s kids. C should cooperate so that I can defect!

And, in fact, in extreme cases like famines, people sacrifice their own lives–go without food–to save the lives of others. And people have been known to literally kill and eat other people. It’s gruesome, but it is generally agreed that saving lives trumps most other concerns. (See previous post on morality for why.) People in wartime will also go to extremes, though this may be less justified.

But most of the time, we are not in a famine. B and C aren’t facing death if they cooperate–C’s life will just be marginally better if he defects, (and vice-versa).

B wants C to always cooperate–this is the best possible thing for B, even if B has secret plans to defect. So publicly, at least, B will always insist that the most moral thing is for C to cooperate–even if it harms C.

Some people actually care about the greatest possible good. Many just care about encouraging people not to defect on them. The net effect, of course, is a general message that the “Most moral thing possible” is to completely sacrifice oneself for others. People who, say, run into burning building to rescue people, or give up their lives for their children, or donate kidneys to strangers, or spend all of their time helping disabled orphans, are generally hailed as heroes, the epitome of morality.

We might shorthand this to “Morality = the greatest good to society.” (The cost to you be damned).

Obviously a society that manages to convince people to cooperate in no-famine situations will be better off than a society that fails to do so. In fact, this is the kind of society you want to live in–the alternative would be kind of awful.

The downside to this kind of morality is that people who take it too far tend to weed themselves out of the gene pool, leaving society less moral in their wakes. We might laud people who give up their fortunes to help the poor, but try announcing your plan to give all of your excess money to starving third worlders and begin sleeping in a cardboard box to your parents at [holiday of your choice] dinner, and see how it goes over.

We might even argue that there are two kinds of morality at play, one mitochondrial, the other viral. Mitochondrial cares about the survival of your genes, and people who don’t share your genes be damned. Viral morality cares about the well-being of society, and your particular genes be damned. The connections to liberals and conservatives should be obvious.

If a conservative says, “X is moral,” and it makes no sense to you, they likely mean, “X is in my genes’ interests.” If a liberal says, “X is moral,” and that makes no sense to you, they likely mean, “X is in society’s interests.”

The correlation is not absolute, though, as the vast majority of people employ both sets of morals, and not just hypocritically.

If you want to live in a nice society, you need both approaches. You need people to basically cooperate most of the time, so that you can do business with strangers or live remotely near them. You also need to exert a little interest in your own self-interest, so you don’t die.

Some people lean too far in the self-interested direction, and need to be reminded to cooperate.

This is one of religion’s good points–almost all religions generally try to encourage people to cooperate and make sacrifice for the common good, and religion tends to be effective at doing this because it can say, “Do it because GOD SAYS SO,” which has historically been pretty effective. So in a religious ceremony, we vow, “Until death do us part,”–promising, before god, not to defect on each other, which probably makes people actually less likely to break their marriage contracts than merely promising before a gov’t bureaucrat. Likewise, in many of the most destitute parts of the world, (like the DRC or your local homeless shelter,) the only people doing anything to help are mostly religious folks.

Even many of the world’s most successful “communist” ventures were religious, because “god says so” is an effective motivator to get people to share–but more about that later.

By contrast, some people lean too far in the societally-interested direction, and need to be reminded that it is okay for them to look after their own interests, too. Women who’ve become the primary caregivers for elderly relatives, for example, often end up sacrifice excessively, nearly killing themselves in the process. They may need to be reminded that it is okay to value their own lives, too.

Aristotle posits his virtues as the middle between two extremes–Bravery between Cowardliness and Rashness, for example. I suggest an optimum morality as taking the middle path between these two extremes of social and genetically-interested morality, so that you can have a nice society without all of the nice people dying out and being replaced by jerks.