Sometimes intra-liberal debates can be fun to watch. Remember that spat some years back between the evolutionary psychologists and the feminists over whether there is an evolutionary explanation for rape? The ev-psych guys were throwing out their usual “just so” stories, and feminists were outraged, saying that any natural explanation of rape would somehow justify it. To understand is to approve, so if something is bad, we must try not to understand it. Now there’s a similar argument going on in the halls of liberaldom about whether or not they should try to understand a phenomenon that most of them would put on a moral par with rape–political conservatism.
Jonathan Haidt is a Leftist psychologist who tries to plumb the reactionary mind. As always, the Chronicle of Higher Education is the place to go:
To Haidt, the evolution of morality can help make sense of modern political tribes like this one. And in that evolution, the big question is this: How did people come together to build cooperative societies beyond kinship?
Morality is the glue, he answers. Humans are 90-percent chimp, but also 10-percent bee—evolved to bind together for the good of the hive. A big part of Haidt’s moral narrative is faith. He lays out the case that religion is an evolutionary adaptation for binding people into groups and enabling those units to better compete against other groups. Through faith, humans developed the “psychology of sacredness,” the notion that “some people, objects, days, words, values, and ideas are special, set apart, untouchable, and pure.” If people revere the same sacred objects, he writes, they can trust one another and cooperate toward larger goals. But morality also blinds them to arguments from beyond their group.
How much of moral thinking is innate? Haidt sees morality as a “social construction” that varies by time and place. We all live in a “web of shared meanings and values” that become our moral matrix, he writes, and these matrices form what Haidt, quoting the science-fiction writer William Gibson, likens to “a consensual hallucination.” But all humans graft their moralities on psychological systems that evolved to serve various needs, like caring for families and punishing cheaters. Building on ideas from the anthropologist Richard Shweder, Haidt and his colleagues synthesize anthropology, evolutionary theory, and psychology to propose six innate moral foundations: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation….
And the six moral foundations are central to how Haidt explains politics. The moral mind, to him, resembles an audio equalizer with a series of slider switches that represent different parts of the moral spectrum. All political movements base appeals on different settings of the foundations—and the culture wars arise from what they choose to emphasize. Liberals jack up care, followed by fairness and liberty. They rarely value loyalty and authority. Conservatives dial up all six.
This is not bad. Note that he’s explained conservatism in a way that isn’t manifestly derogatory. Some attempt is being made to understand conservatives’ motivations, to understand us on our own terms, even if he doesn’t accept those terms himself. It’s better than Corey Robin version that we conservatives just want to rob our workers and rape our wives.
As I said, Haidt is a Lefty himself. His primary concern is to understanding these moral cues so that the liberals he approves of can more effectively manipulate the populace.
Now Haidt wants to change how people think about the culture wars. He first plunged into political research out of frustration with John Kerry’s failure to connect with voters in 2004. A partisan liberal, the University of Virginia professor hoped a better grasp of moral psychology could help Democrats sharpen their knives. But a funny thing happened. Haidt, now a visiting professor at New York University, emerged as a centrist who believes that “conservatives have a more accurate understanding of human nature than do liberals.”
So far Haidt hasn’t had much luck interesting political types in his ideas. He reached out to Democratic politicians in his home state of Virginia, like Mark Warner and Tom Perriello, as well as to the Center for American Progress, a liberal research group tightly wired to the White House. But folks in Washington strike Haidt as too fixated on dodging daily bullets to think about the long-term future of liberalism. The few political people who gave him any time seemed more interested in tapping behavioral science for fund raising, or simply too busy to engage with his ideas.
Needless to say, the intelligentsia is outraged that someone is trying to understand conservatives–as opposed to simple condemning them–even if he’s doing it in the interests of liberalism. One must not admit that there are any moral arguments for conservatism, even invalid ones.
But even as Haidt shakes liberals, some thinkers argue that many of his own beliefs don’t withstand scrutiny. Haidt’s intuitionism overlooks the crucial role reasoning plays in our daily lives, says Bloom. Haidt’s map of innate moral values risks putting “a smiley face on authoritarianism,” says John T. Jost, a political psychologist at NYU. Haidt’s “relentlessly self-deceived” understanding of faith makes it seem as if God and revelation were somehow peripheral issues in religion, fumes Sam Harris, one of “the Four Horsemen“ of New Atheism and author of The End of Faith.…
The theory frustrates some. Patricia S. Churchland, a philosopher and neuroscientist, has called it a nice list with no basis in biology. Jost, the NYU psychologist, feels Haidt makes a weak case for defining morality so broadly. Philosophers have long considered whether it’s “morally good to favor members of your own group, to obey authority, or to enforce standards of purity,” Jost says. “And they have come largely to the conclusion that these things don’t have the same moral standing as being fair to people and trying to minimize harm.” Following leaders can lead to horrific consequences, he notes.
Haidt acknowledges that the same beelike qualities that foster altruism can also enable genocide. But as a psychologist, not a philosopher, he generally sees his job as describing moral judgments, not advising what is right and wrong for individuals.
So, court theologians of the liberal establishment insist that their’s is the one true faith. Imagine that. Given how incredibly flawed consequentialism is as an ethical system, I would say that philosophers who prioritize “being fair to people and trying to minimize harm” to the extent liberals do should have a reduced “standing” on our attention.