Sunday, April 26, 2009

Why All Moralities Are Not Equal

In an article published by Alternet titled, Conservatives Live in a Different Moral Universe--And Here's Why It Matters, Tom Jacobs expounds upon the morality theories of psychologist Jonathan Haidt to the effect that the problem with liberals is that we fail to understand--and, therefore, discount--the moral values of conservatives when making our cases for our favorite policies. In the article, Jacobs, quoting from Dan McAdams, Northwestern University research psychologist and noted author, describes the "five foundational moral impulses" as follows:

  • Harm/care: It is wrong to hurt people; it is good to relieve suffering.
  • Fairness/reciprocity: Justice and fairness are good; people have certain rights that need to be upheld in social interactions.
  • In-group loyalty: People should be true to their group and be wary of threats from the outside. Allegiance, loyalty, and patriotism are virtues; betrayal is bad.
  • Authority/respect: People should respect social hierarchy; social order is necessary for human life.
  • Purity/sanctity: The body and certain aspects of life are sacred. Cleanliness and health, as well as their derivatives of chastity and piety, are all good. Pollution, contamination, and the associated character traits of lust and greed are all bad.
According to Haidt (and I don't think many folks on the right or left would vehemently disagree), liberals tend to feel strongly about the first two in the list but often feel cold or even negatively about the last three. Further, Haidt argues that his studies have indicated that conservatives are drawn to loyalty, authority, and purity--thought of as outdated or backward by liberals--while acknowledging the importance of preventing harm and being fair.

The article by Jacobs began with him telling a story about Haidt--how, though a liberal himself, he would fly almost into a rage over bumper stickers on "Volvos" such as, "Support Our Troops: Bring them home!" or "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism." What upset Haidt was that, in his view, liberals were thus being disingenuous for claiming to be patriotic or supporting our troops when we were, in fact, being critical of our government because our moral system doesn't value loyalty to nations.

Well, gee, we ARE talking about a bumper sticker! I don't see a lot of balancing of competing moralities on conservative's bumper stickers, either. (America: Love It or Leave It! comes to mind.)

The issue here isn't really bumper stickers. It's whether or not the five moralities which Haidt describes--and for which he believes it is incumbent upon liberals to account--are all equal. If there are moralities among the list which can lead--inevitably--to the diminution of any of the others, then we should not pay as much homage to those. I would argue that, if history has anything worthwhile to teach, it is that a morality based upon the word "should" should (irony intended) be taken with a grain of salt.

Example 1: In-group loyalty. I see this brand of morality as virtually worthless as a moral compass. In fact, I would say that it is greatest force for evil in the world (unless your cousins in a strange city insist that you attend a football game with them and not rooting for their team would jeopardize family ties (another questionable, but arguably discretionary, loyalty)). If you doubt what I am saying, let me remind you that Hitler was really, really big on in-group loyalty--as are the Taliban, the Mafia, and others of that ilk. Unless you're talking about Nobel Peace Prize winners, almost all in-groups have nothing at all to do with moral meritocracy; they are about circumstances over which the individual members have absolutely no control and have few requirements for membership beyond happenstance.

Let me say, as forcefully as I can, that I do believe in patriotism. But it is a patriotism based upon merit and not "My country, right or wrong!" This is why liberalism is morally superior to conservatism. In fact, the Jacobs article admits as much when he quotes Dallas Morning News columnist and BeliefNet blogger, Rod Dreher, "an Orthodox Christian, unorthodox conservative, and Haidt fan" as saying, "Look how horribly the GOP had to screw up [during the Bush II years] to alienate many conservatives. In the end, the GOP, the conservative movement and the nation [emphasis added] would have been better served had we on the right not been so yellow-dog loyal. But, as Haidt shows, it's in our nature [emphasis added]."

Here's the question I would have for Mr. Haidt: Should liberals pay lip service or make any kind of concessions (other than the merely semantic ones) to people who cling foolishly to their senseless false morality that places personal vanity and pride over the welfare of the country?

Example 2: Authority/respect. I believe that most all liberals have a full measure of deference to authority. After all, we seem to be just as successful at business and non-profit enterprises as conservatives. Obama ran a superlative and very successful campaign with his staff stuffed with liberals. His White House seems to run in a tight and disciplined manner. As far as I know, FDR was a pretty good manager and his staff got the job done as he wished.

I think the difference between liberals and conservatives might be that liberals seek to work for people that they admire; respect must be earned. I would guess that conscientious objectors tend to be liberals. Those Germans, Austrians, Poles, Danes, and Dutch who harbored Jews from the clutches of the Nazis were probably liberals. Most of them were not Jews themselves. (What does that say about the morality of in-group loyalty?) Liberals know when the righteous bounds of authority have been breached and it is time to withhold respect. Would there be any whistleblowers without liberals? Would we have known about My Lai?

Robert Oppenheimer worked diligently on the atomic bomb and contributed a great deal toward the success of that project. Yet, he spent the rest of his life, much of it black-balled, because he regretted what he had done and sought to put an end to proliferation. Oppenheimer was a liberal who did his duty to country, despite his personal morality that valued "do no harm" more. It nearly destroyed him.

Example 3: Purity/sanctity. As Jacobs admits in his piece, the notion of purity has been, since the early 1900's and the advances in science and medicine and to quote a noted conservative in the Bush II Justice Department in an entirely different context, made "quaint". As Jacobs suggests, it is most likely to rear its pugnacious head in defense of one of Haidt's least favorite human characteristics--disengenuousness (remember his bumper sticker diatribe). To argue that gay marriage--one of Haidt's examples of this morality coming into play--somehow taints the purity of the institution of marriage or the family is like saying that allowing African-Americans full citizenship will destroy Western civilization. It really isn't about "purity" or "sanctity" at all. It's back to the old, rotten-to-the-core idea of in-group morality. The "institution" of marriage has undergone more transformations than music. In most states, it is easier to get a marriage license than a driver's license. As for family values, well, I think we've heard enough news stories about infanticide, matricide and patricide to know how far that notion will carry you.

Here's a new Dot for all my [three or four] readers: Liberals are the ONLY ONES in our society who worry about how to reach across the aisle toward those of different moral points of view. Conservatives may understand liberal morality more than liberals understand theirs (as Jacobs contends), but, if so, their tendency to remain loyal to country, party, class, sect, family, faith, and quarterback keeps them huddling inward and not facing outward toward the world. In that posture, it's a little hard to feel caring or empathetic about your fellow humans. What usually happens is that they only hear the play as called by the quarterback, then break for their set positions.

1 comment:

Detroit Dan said...

Well spoken -- especially the parts about "in-group loyalty".

By the way -- your link to the article didn't work. Here's the link I found to work:'s_why_it_matters/