What does fear have to do with political philosophy?
Academicians who study such things tell us that, in the wake of 9/11, many people who were politically liberal became less so–scientists documented a “very strong conservative shift” in the US after the attacks, with more liberals supporting George W. Bush and favoring increased military spending.
The hypothesis social scientists developed about this effect is perhaps best summed up in a 2003 review of research on the subject: “People embrace political conservatism (at least in part) because it serves to reduce fear, anxiety, and uncertainty; to avoid change, disruption, and ambiguity; and to explain, order, and justify inequality among groups and individuals,” it said.
Researchers have also found that people who self-identify as conservative have larger and more active right amygdalae. This is an area of the brain that has been associated with the expression and processing of fear. A 2011 study looked at MRI scans of conservative young adults and found they had more grey matter in their right amygdalae than their liberal counterparts. Interestingly, when researchers conducted experiments that were structured to make these conservatives feel safer, those conservatives who responded to the constructed environment, who did feel safer, became more liberal.
These results have been linked to evolution’s “fundamental drive for personal safety.” Other political consequences of our evolutionary past have been subjected to experimentation as well. For example, it seems that
washing hands with soap and water can make people less hostile to individuals who are different than they are. Bargh says that’s because to some extent, our modern prejudices are shaped by the way we’ve evolved to avoid unknown, foreign threats like disease.
These studies are interesting, and they have obvious relevance to the partisanship of our current era. That said, they raise thorny questions that have been the subject of philosophical dispute for eons: how much of human behavior is the result of conscious thought? Logical argumentation? Is there such a thing as free will, or are we human animals acting out a lifespan pre-programmed in our genes and modified–if at all–by our very gradual evolution?
Is my opposition to the GOP tax bill really grounded in my analysis of its provisions and my conclusion that it is morally and economically indefensible? Or did I just inherit less gray matter in my amygdala?
Is the revulsion I feel when I see Donald Trump on television a reaction to my conscious recognition that he is totally unfit for the Presidency, is pursuing ruinous policies, and poses a genuine threat to world peace? Or does he simply remind my genes of some primordial cockroach?
It’s a conundrum…