Why Liberals Misunderstand Conservatives

Jonathan Haidt is one of the most amazing people working in social science today. Along with J.D. Greene, and, in a different way, Antonio Damasio, Haidt has made incredible innovations in understanding the psychological, neurological, and evolutionary origins of human ethical/moral life.

Read this (pdf). (You should also read this [pdf], but it's a bit longer and on a different subject matter.) Here's the abstract:
Researchers in moral psychology and social justice have agreed that morality is about matters of harm, rights, and justice. With this definition of morality, conservative opposition to social justice programs has appeared to be immoral, and has been explained as a product of various non-moral processes, such as system justification or social dominance orientation. In this article we argue that, from an anthropological perspective, the moral domain is usually much broader, encompassing many more aspects of social life and valuing institutions as much or more than individuals. We present theoretical and empirical reasons for believing that there are in fact five psychological systems that provide the foundations for the world's many moralities. The five foundations are psychological preparations for caring about and reacting emotionally to harm, reciprocity (including justice, fairness, and rights), ingroup, hierarchy, and purity. Political liberals have moral intuitions primarily based upon the first two foundations, and therefore misunderstand the moral motivations of political conservatives, who generally rely upon all five foundations.
Brilliant, absolutely brilliant. His five foundations (which, unlike the categories that philosophers will pull out of their asses, are based on the statistical assessment of cross-cultural data) offer a radically novel approach to ethical life.

But, if that weren't a breathtaking enough insight (tears literally came to my eyes when reading this piece [I know, it's a strange tendency I have that when I read about ideas so profound I tear up; I just think it's an indication that I'm in the right business]), he shows how the "impoverished" ethical worldview of political liberals leads us to misunderstand our conservative compatriots, and ascribe motives to them that are just not fair.
When the moral domain is limited by definition to two foundations (harm/welfare/care, and justice/rights/fairness), then social justice is clearly the extension of morality out to the societal level. The programs and laws that social justice activists endorse aim to maximize the welfare and rights of individuals, particularly those whom the activists believe do not receive equal treatment or full justice in their society. If social justice is just morality writ large, it follows that opposition to these programs must be based on concerns other than moral concerns. Social justice research is therefore in part the search for the non-moral motivations ­ such as selfishness, existential fear, or blind prejudice ­ of those who oppose social justice, primarily political conservatives. For example, one of the leading approaches to the study of political attitudes states that political conservatism is a form of motivated social cognition: people embrace conservatism 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" (Jost et al., 2003, p.340; see also Social Dominance Orientation, Pratto et al., 1994). This view of conservatives is so widespread among justice researchers that it sometimes leads to open expressions of self-righteousness and contempt.
Ben is also a fan of Haidt, and has actually had the opportunity to meet him. He told me that Haidt is the only liberal academic he's encountered who actually seems to understand conservatism. One endorsement, albeit from the most intellectually rigorous conservative I know of, may not suffice to show that he's actually getting the conservative mindset right, but it's a good sign.

Now, if you haven't yet read the whole thing, you should.

His explanation of the culture war is amazing. It's more complex than that, but he certainly has reached a key insight (see his comment about Jon Stewart's interview of Rick Santorum, in particular).

As someone who has worked very hard to understand the conservative mindset--which is so difficult because academics are almost invariably political liberals or, in rare cases, libertarians, which more or less amounts to the same thing (except they seem to reject the whole care/harm ethic and are even more morally impoverished!)--I think this is extremely helpful.

Moreover, it makes me question my own moral beliefs. Now, it seems to me that there is a rational basis for the aspects of morality in which the group is valued over the individual (the hierarchical/traditional and ingroup foundations), but as far as I can tell, purity is based on a mere illusion. If, as Haidt suggests, this last developed as a response to avoiding contaminated meat, it seems that with contemporary understandings of sanitation, disease, and so forth, the purity ethic has been "outgrown".

What disgusts us now is merely an indication of what tended to cause sickness to our ancestors, but now, at best, disgust serves as an intuitive approximation of disease-causing substances. It's interesting that Martha Nussbaum, in her latest book, argues that disgust should have absolutely no place in social policy and law. I tend to agree, since we can now accomplish the function that purity intuitions used to perform through modern medicine and biology.

Now, this does leave untouched the "divine" aspects of the purity ethic, but I'm also inclined to dismiss these as superstitions. Today, there are more rigorous, proven methods of taking care of our bodies and treating it like a "temple": diet, exercise, stress regulation, sanitation, etc. Since the rejection of gay marriage is largely, although not entirely, premised on a disgust of sodomy, I still think there is no sound basis to this, for reasons I just stated.

I won't further explicate Haidt's article or his other body of work (I have other things to do, including responding to people about my last post, which I increasingly feel is inadequate, although I think this stuff sheds a new light on part of what I was trying to get at), but I encourage you to read more of him if you have an interest in ethics (and who doesn't?).


Jeff said...

Great post, Dom. Haidt's work is very interesting and makes good sense to me. One of my main problems with liberalism is that it tends to thin out moral thinking--we see this most in someone like Singer, in which all of ethics is reduced to the harm principle. As I said yesterday, I think that a great deal of post-Nietzschean continental theory is "conservative" in this sense: that it is working to preserve a thick sense of the moral good against a kind of liberal reductionism. Those of us "progressives" who are uncomfortable with the liberal label understand the losses involved in the liberal view. It's heartening to know there are smart folk out there trying to forge a path across the liberal-conservative divide.

anotherpanacea said...

I agree with Jeff; this is a great post. However, I wonder whether Singer's question regarding moral intuition doesn't sound all the more strongly in this context. It seems quite clear liberals are not born with a restricted moral foundation, but rather develop it through reflection and dialogue. Understanding just what it is that liberals have rejected does not make that rejection any less reasonable. In fact, it suggests a strong argument for more reflection in our institutions. Ultimately, I am wondering whether Haidt can maintain his apparent desire for moral 'impartiality' without sacrficing the liberal point of view.

On the other hand, he's definitely going on my next ethics syllabus. Maybe even my social/political syllabus.

specter_of_spinoza said...

I second that, Josh. I'm going to be TAing Ethics this summer in Baltimore at JHU and even though I'm working under an instructor, I will make him add this to his syllabus.

I find this to be an extremely promising direction in ethics and, along with Spinoza and biotechnology, I plan on it being the focus of my dissertation.

Your point about Singer is dead on. This is what I felt about the purity ethic, but we might also ask the question about these more community-centered ethics. Personally, I'm inclined to think that there's something to them that's not entirely captured by liberalism's emphasis on rights and harm prevention.

Certainly, I'd want to reject certain manifestations of these ethics (we should keep in mind here that these will be vastly different from culture to culture, subculture to subculture). But there may be some cases in which a certain kind of authority is warranted, for example. I'm thinking here of expertise and the role it might play in democracy.

The in-group out-group ethic presents a larger challenge. But I think there is something to feelings of local loyalty. To borrow from Royce, a kind of positive provincialism that allows for a diversity of more than just individuals might would be a happy instantiation of this ethic. The communitarians are probably on to something, at least on a small scale.

Jeff said...

To try to stir things up a bit: Isn't the implication of the study that since the 5 bases of moral good have deep biological/cultural roots that liberals are laboring under false consciousness while conservatives are more honest about their own moral deliberations? It's clear that liberals are just as good at making in-group/out-group distinctions (we the intellectuals; them the religious) and claims to a certain sort of purity (though liberal purity is of the "enlightened" sort), it's just that when asked if they are drawing those sorts of distinctions, the liberal will reply, "No, I'm laboring for social distributive justice."

specter_of_spinoza said...

This is a great point, Jeff. This is, in one sense, exactly what Haidt wants to point out.

There's a kind of disingenuousness in liberal elites who think themselves smarter, better informed, or more enlightened than the poor dupes who vote Republican. And this arrogance really alienates a lot of people.

To oversimplify grossly, the really smart ones are the ones who are rhetorically defining their in-group to include red blooded, hard working, Christian Americans. Meanwhile, they exploit the very people who elect them, while they pass on the benefits to their real friends in the corporate world.

Cheney, Rove, Rumsfeld, Rice, and so forth--these are not stupid people. They just happen to be rather unscrupulous.

The lesson to take from this, however, is not that we need to learn to manipulate the masses better by speaking their language--and this is of course okay, since we actually have their real interests in mind.

Rather, we should realize that we could actually learn something from expanding our moral picture of the world. By broadening our own moral vocabulary, I think it will become easier to sympathize with our adversaries and work from a common moral ground.

If we can do this effectively, the manipulative ones won't have the popular support that lets them run roughshod over this nation and the world.

If Haidt humbles us, he has succeeded. We mustn't forget that the masses aren't the only ones capable of false consciousness.

Jeff said...

Amen, brother.

anotherpanacea said...

The use of 'false consciousness' here confuses me a bit. If we take Haidt at his word, these 5 foundations are no 'truer' than the 2 that all humans share. They are intuitions, instincts, developed through evolution. Given the posited sources of disgust, insularity, and obedience, how can we avoid the conclusion that they are vestigial impulses that are best severed? How long ago was it that we discussed the notion that 'nature' is not inherently good or bad, and concluded that justificatory claims based on 'naturalness' are fallacious?

We might as easily cite righteous anger when searching for 'natural' and apparently moral impulses, yet that is off-limits. I can't beat the crap out of people who won't let me merge on 440, but conservative moralists can exclude 'immigrants' and discount the genocides in Sudan under the guise of morality?

specter_of_spinoza said...

Josh, your points are dead on. This is why I've raised concerns about the purity ethic in particular.

Nevertheless, I feel like there are things to the distinctly conservative ethics that are worth consideration. We've talked about this somewhat, and I'm thinking about the possibility of manifestations of these ethics that aren't based on ungrounded intuitions.

It seems to me that even aspects of the purity ethic could be plausible (for instance, one that works in response to medical knowledge about disease and infection).

I'll need to research this further, but I've been wondering if there aren't some important ethical tendencies that Haidt leaves out. Most prominent in my mind is an ethic of toughness, courage, and military prowess.

Some aspects of this strike me as extensions of the purity ethic (various warrior's codes like the chivalric or that of the samurai), but it does seem to me like there are a set of distinct historical ethoi not fully covered by these categories.

Now, the warrior's ethic, if there is such a thing, is probably also one that we would not want to endorse today, at least in its most common manifestations. Maybe it's because I'm cowardly, but I have trouble appreciating how this ethic captures something about human moral life that we'd want to preserve.

Jeff said...

Your response owes an explanation of the means by which "vestigial impulses" are severed. Also, why is righteous anger off limits? Righteous anger sounds like a good description of Martin Luther King Jr.'s mood as leader of the civil rights movement.

It's not a question of severing ourselves from our capacity for moral feeling, but a question of which sorts of practices invoke these moral feelings. This is why education is so crucial--our emotional habits are to a large sense forged in response to the stimuli of culture. We must learn to be disgusted and angered by the treatment of immigrants in this country, not by poor latinos crossing the border. We must learn to purify our rivers and air, not our race.

The point is not to sever ourselves from emotions (the philosopher's fantasy, which has its own emotional bases), but to arrange them so that community, friendship, and the possibility of some degree of autonomy over the possibility of arranging our emotions (i.e. the possibility of learning)are best instantiated.

I take this to be James' point in the essay "The Moral Equivalent of War." War is a phenomenological fact of human experience (what historian would dare deny this?). The question is thus not about ending war or the warrior ethic, but whether the human capacity for warfare might be developed along different paths and manifested differently in experience.

specter_of_spinoza said...


Your points are dead on. I know I support Josh above, but your criticisms are quite apt.

You reflect a sentiment on ethics, that it's a matter of reordering or redeploying affect, that you well know is something I take from Spinoza (among others).

The way you bring in James is also interesting; this is a connection I've tried to make in the past, and you put it quite well here.

Sorry I don't have much new to add, but thanks for your comments.

M. Simon said...

You don't get libertarians. They are not morally impoverished. They are free of fear (mostly).

Which makes them a whole other animal compared to the left or the right.

In a different age it would have been said "They Trust in God". So important it is even printed on our money.