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Public Diplomacy and the WEIRD World

November 11, 2013

I recently came across a reference to Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, thought that sounds interesting so I ordered a copy and was bit bemused to find the copy that I got had “A landmark contribution to humanity’s understanding of itself – New York Times” on the front cover.  I’d never heard of him or his book so it shows how plugged into modern culture I am.  If you’ve been absorbing his insights for years please ignore this post.

The first part of Haidt’s argument is that David Hume’s view of human action where reason is the slave of the passions is empirically correct – he goes through a lot of previous research and his own experiments that back this up.

He then argues that human beings have evolved to have six moral tastes: care/harm;  liberty/oppression; fairness/cheating; loyalty/betrayal; authority/subversion; sanctity/degradation.

The interesting point is that people from what he terms the WEIRD world; that is Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic tend to reason about morality in terms of care, liberty and fairness but only pay marginal attention to the other three.  In American terms this particularly applies to ‘liberals’ while ‘conservatives’ tend to strike a balance between all six.  If you were to look at this in global comparative terms you would probably find that most westerners lean towards the first three.

If you were that way inclined you could construct a typology of public diplomacy appeals based on the prevalence of particular moral tastes among your target audiences – Haidt points to the perceived effectiveness of Republican messaging in the US because of its greater balance – but I think where you would end up is with something like the reified view of culture critiqued here.  I think that the more interesting lesson for public diplomacy practice is in the challenge that this kind of view poses to Western practices and assumptions about the way the world works.

Haidt then goes on to look at what he takes to be the social role of morality but ends with a definition that morality is basically anything that holds society together.  I think psychologists like to think that sociology can be reduced to psychology but I’ve always been sceptical about that.  I’ll pick this point up tomorrow when I talk about a very different book.

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided By Politics and Religion (London: Penguin 2013)

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