University of Virginia psychology professor Jonathan Haidt argues in the Sunday New York Times that economic self-interest is a poor predictor of people’s positions on political issues. This is because human beings are tribal in nature and they give their allegiance to the sacred images and expressions that represent their tribes. We can understand the sacred tribal identities, Haidt argues, by looking at the stories told by the tribes. For members of what he calls “the American left,” the dominant story is one of oppressed groups struggling for liberation. He contrasts this with what he calls “the Reagan narrative,” which tells of sacred liberty and traditional values undermined by an activist bureaucracy.
I think it is true that people do not choose their allegiances or their opinions orimarily on grounds of self-interest. But I think Haidt’s version of our “tribalism” is simplistic. We are indeed influenced by those around us, in part because we want to share their ideas and values so they will like us and in part because those around us supply much of the information that shapes our thinking. We also make sense of our ideas by casting them in narratives, and we attach emotional significance as well as truth to those narratives. But this doesn’t explain how different tribes come to hold the ideas that they do. Nor does it account for the fact that in our modern, pluralistic society, people don’t just receive their views from their groups. They also join groups because they agree with the views that the members hold or because they want to believe in the same things as the group members (this is an issue I deal with in an article I published a few years ago on how people can choose their religious beliefs through becoming members of religious communities).
Haidt’s political tribalism lends itself to a kind of ad hominem criticism of strongly-held political views and values. Instead of explaining away contemporary political positions as mere facades of self-interest, he explains them away as irrational chants of tribal identity. But if people see their political views as right because they hold them to be in some sense sacred, they also hold views as sacred because they are committed to those views as being right. Haidt is too eager, in other words, to dispense with reasons and reasoning altogether. His claims also seem to me to verge on the tautological. How do we know that tribal sacred objects are threatened? We know by the intense emotional response of some group of people. Why does that group respond so strongly? Their sacred objects are being threatened.