The Righteous Mind (part 2)

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Here I will discuss Jonathan Haidt’s perspective on liberalism and conservativism, informed by his evolutionary psychology of morality. He views these opposing views as “deeply conflicting but equally heartfelt visions of the good society.” Both are influenced–albeit in somewhat different ways–by the foundations of morality that developed in the course of human evolution. While he sees liberals as placing primary emphasis on “caring for victims of oppression,” conservatives prefer to “preserve the institutions that sustain a moral community.” Haidt calls for a more civil, more empathetic politics, where each side opens their hearts, not just their minds, to the other.

If Haidt’s entire discussion were as even-handed as that, I would find little to criticize. But when Haidt compares conservative and liberal perspectives on each of his six moral foundations, the implicit conservatism I described in the last post comes out. So I want to do something unusual–first discuss how I wish he had approached this topic, and then describe what he actually says.

Two sides of the six moral foundations

Recall that Haidt’s six moral foundations are:

  • care/harm
  • fairness/cheating
  • loyalty/betrayal
  • authority/subversion
  • sanctity/degradation
  • liberty/oppression

The paired terms suggest to me a simple way of distinguishing conservatives and liberals. Let’s start with Haidt’s quotation from John Stuart Mill: “A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.” When these two parties react to the established social order, the party of stability will naturally appreciate its positive adaptive accomplishments (the first terms in the pair), while the party of reform will naturally criticize its failures.

  • On care/harm, conservatives may appreciate the care provided by the conventional family, while liberals may criticize the harm resulting from public neglect of the poor, homeless, mentally ill, medically uninsured, addicted, etc.
  • On fairness/cheating, conservatives may appreciate the rewards delivered by the market to those who are productive, while liberals may criticize the ways the rich and powerful rig the game to deprive others of a fair chance.
  • On loyalty/betrayal, conservatives may appreciate the social cohesion fostered by parochial loyalties, while liberals may criticize the betrayal of higher loyalties like democratic values or universal human rights.
  • On authority/subversion, conservatives may respect the contribution of legitimate authorities to the common good, while liberals criticize self-serving authority figures who abuse their positions.
  • On sanctity/degradation, conservatives may appreciate the social order for protecting what they hold sacred; to use Haidt’s own example, they may appreciate the role of Christian sexual morality in protecting the chastity of young women. Liberals are more likely to notice how the traditional sexual double standard allows men to degrade women, or how industrial capitalism degrades the environment.
  • On liberty/oppression, conservatives may appreciate existing liberties, while liberals react to the plight of oppressed peoples who are not yet free.

Note that if the focus is not on the established order but some proposed alternative system or policy, the tables can be turned, so that liberals accentuate the positive and conservatives the negative. For example, liberals are more likely to see the redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation as an increase in fairness (allowing children of all families to compete on a more level playing field), while conservatives see it as cheating (violating the rules of the game by letting the losers steal from the winners).

From this balanced perspective, we can easily understand how each group is seeking the good in its own way, with some good moral intuitions on each side.

A conservative advantage?

What Haidt actually does is a little different. He argues that conservatives have a distinct advantage in moral/political debates. This is not because they are better people, necessarily, but rather because they are more in touch with fundamental moral realities, the basic moral intuitions that drive moral judgments. The difference between being morally better and being morally more realistic is subtle, and I suspect that in Haidt’s scientific scheme of things they amount to very much the same thing. Much of the time, what he is describing seems also what he is prescribing.

Haidt says that conservatives are better moral psychologists, which may be just another way of saying that moral psychology as Haidt sees it has inherently conservative sympathies. “Republicans have long understood that the [intuitive] elephant is in charge of political behavior, not the [conscious, rational] rider, and they know how elephants work. Their slogans, political commercials, and speeches go straight for the gut….” While liberals blinded by the “rationalist delusion” are trying and failing to persuade people through rational arguments, conservatives are doing something more effective–making emotional appeals to people’s deepest moral intuitions. They are appealing to the elephant that is in control most of the time, not the conscious rider who only occasionally gets the elephant to change direction.

I have to acknowledge the large element of truth in this description. Of course it is easier to press people’s traditional moral buttons than it is to get them to think critically about their society. Of course emotional appeals to family, God and country are effective ways of shaping opinion. As well as race, by the way. Haidt’s example of a Republican message going “straight to the gut” is the Willie Horton ad associating a black criminal with a Democratic presidential candidate. I wonder why that wasn’t a bigger red flag for him. He acknowledges that conservatives are more parochial, but seems rather complacent about the obvious link between parochialism and racism. He even says at one point that parochial love “may be the most we can accomplish.”

Yes, critical thinking is harder, which is why so much of higher education is devoted to it. Study after study has found that more educated people are less parochial and racially prejudiced. Critical thinking about society is especially prized in sociology.

Conservatives may have the upper hand much of the time, but not all of the time. In times of social crisis, when established institutions are not working very well, consciousness tends to be raised and movements for liberal reform come to the forefront. Liberal views that are underdeveloped and poorly articulated in calmer times may suddenly burst on the scene. I find Haidt’s work stronger on past evolution than on contemporary social change, so he may have trouble seeing beyond the recent period of conservative success.

Counting and measuring moral foundations

According to Haidt, conservatives have another advantage in building on the evolutionary foundations of morality. “Liberals have a three-foundation morality, whereas conservatives use all six.” Because liberal philosophy sees society as a collection of autonomous individuals, liberals have a narrower morality that is short on loyalty, authority and sanctity.

Republicans since Nixon have had a near-monopoly on appeals to loyalty (particularly patriotism and military virtues) and authority (including respect for parents, teachers, elders, and the police, as well as for traditions). And after they embraced Christian conservatives during Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign and became the party of “family values,” Republicans inherited a powerful network of Christian ideas about sanctity and sexuality that allowed them to portray Democrats as the party of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Notice, however, the traditional ways in which Haidt has described loyalty, authority and sanctity. For example, the conservative advantage would be less clear if he had made reference to alternative authorities, such as scientists, federal regulatory agencies, or international law. The historical sociologist Max Weber distinguished between “traditional authority” and “rational-legal” authority; the latter would surely command more respect from liberals.

The conservative way in which Haidt conceptualizes these moral foundations also affects how he measures them with his “Moral Foundations Questionnaire.” If you are a social conservative, many items give you a chance to express your views of loyalty, authority and sanctity:

Questions about what considerations are relevant to judgments of right and wrong:

  • whether or not someone conformed to the traditions of society
  • whether or not someone acted in a way that God would approve
  • whether or not someone violated standards of purity and decency
  • whether or not someone’s action showed love for his or her country

Statements calling for agreement or disagreement:

  • I am proud of my country’s history
  • People should be loyal to their family members, even when they have done something wrong
  • I would call some acts wrong on the grounds that they are unnatural
  • Men and women each have different roles to play in society
  • Chastity is an important and valuable virtue
  • If I were a soldier and disagreed with my commanding officer’s orders, I would obey anyway because that is my duty

If, on the other hand, you are a liberal with a strong sense of moral obligation to protect the environment, you’re out of luck. The questionnaire has no place to express a reverence for nature, or a belief in climate science, or respect for the rule of law, or support for international climate agreements. Because of how he thinks about these things, Haidt has inadvertently constructed measures of loyalty, authority and sanctity on which conservatives can hardly fail to score higher.

Conservative morality on the defensive

Still another problem is that recent history has called into question Haidt’s simple distinction between individualistic liberals and sociocentric conservatives, and his clear preference for the latter.  The distinction may work pretty well for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when liberals were indeed promoting rational individualism in rebellion against such traditional institutions as absolute monarchy, mercantilism, hereditary aristocracy and church-state theocracy. But as Haidt acknowledges toward the end of his book, twentieth-century liberals split into two camps, often called libertarians and progressives. The libertarians are the main proponents of the old individualistic liberalism, especially the pursuit of self-interest in the free market (think of the Koch brothers and the writings of Ayn Rand). The progressives actually share many of Haidt’s own moral concerns about laissez-faire industrial capitalism, and they are often the ones advocating for more social responsibility.

To upset Haidt’s intellectual apple cart further, most libertarians have joined a conservative Republican coalition, in cooperation with most white social conservatives. The libertarians seem especially influential in that coalition, since they have more money and often get their way on low taxes and less regulation for corporations and the wealthy. But social conservatives keep voting Republican in the hope of legislating their “family values,” especially a return to strict abortion laws.  Haidt’s somewhat rosy view of conservative morality overlooks the fact that religious conservatives have cast their lot with the rugged individualists, who press their moral buttons to get their vote, but then do things that should make a Christian blush, like trying to throw millions of children off of health insurance.

Today the conservative coalition provides the core support for that great exemplar of morality, Donald Trump. Where does he stand on Haidt’s six moral foundations? Is he more noted for care or harm? Fairness or cheating? Loyalty or betrayal? Authority or subversion? Sanctity or degradation? Liberty or oppression? Hmm, I guess I would associate him with liberty, although he values it primarily for himself and his rich friends and family. In general, his amoral egotism is an embarrassment to conservatives who would like to claim the moral high ground.

Haidt says that “conservatives do a better job of preserving moral capital,” which he defines as a community’s stock of “interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that mesh well with evolved psychological mechanisms and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.” But just as financial capital can be squandered on bad investments, moral capital can be squandered by standing up for the wrong things. Many social commentators are expressing consternation that the religious right is turning a blind eye to Trump’s misbehavior, especially in light of the new allegations about paying hush money to a porn star to cover up an extramarital affair. Family values indeed. Yesterday, Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said that he no longer wants to hear from evangelical Christians at all, since they have now lost their moral authority.

Meanwhile, progressives are building their moral capital by redefining social responsibility and standing up against  harm, cheating, betrayal, subversion (of democratic institutions and values), degradation and oppression. There is an historical process going on here that Haidt’s sweeping generalizations are poorly equipped to handle. One would never know from reading The Righteous Mind that America ever had a religious left, but it has played a strong role in social reform in the past, and may be about to do so again.

In evaluating the book as a whole, I am deeply ambivalent. Haidt has made a reasonable case for the evolution of human morality, and that part of the book may stand the test of time. His political analysis is flawed by overly broad generalizations about conservatism and liberalism and his tendency to favor one over the other without regard to the historical situation. Now that the moral ground is shifting beneath our feet, his argument doesn’t seem as compelling as it may have been just a few short years ago.


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