Sunday, December 9, 2012

Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: How Limited is Liberal Thinking?

            In the previous post:
--I summarized the main messages from Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. I noted:

Based on a large-scale survey of ethical attitudes, Haidt holds that our ethics is determined by our views on six basic scales—care/harm, liberty/oppression, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. His research indicates that conservatives are well grounded in all six areas. Liberals, by contrast, base almost all their ethical thinking on care/harm and liberty/oppression, with some concern for fairness/cheating, while largely ignoring loyalty, authority, and sanctity. The broader base for conservative ethics makes it easy for many in the population to dismiss liberalism as empty at best and a threat to society at worst.

            So one important question for people like me to try to answer is—is our liberal ethical and political thinking really as limited and as deficient as Haidt makes it out to be? A full answer to that will require the volume that I hope to write sometime soon as a follow-on to The Golden Calf, in which I will go beyond pointing out the deficiencies in economism and lay out an adequate alternative framework for thinking about human society. So here I will offer simply some brief hints.
            According to Haidt, and based on his careful empirical research, liberals seem to be saying that when they decide what should be done, they tend to focus on care, liberty, and fairness, and to discount loyalty, authority, and sanctity. My question is—is this really what liberals think? And when I ask what liberals think, let me bring it down to the nitty gritty—what sorts of people do liberals hope their children will turn into?
            Since I haven’t done any large scale research I can only speak for myself. Maybe Haidt would declare me an oddity and perhaps I am really a closet conservative claiming to have liberal politics. Maybe all this reflects the way that I was raised in the 1950s. Be that as it may, I am prepared to say the following: I hope that my children feel loyalty to all those who are worthy of that feeling. I hope that my children have a reasonable and healthy respect for those in legitimate positions of authority (including their parents). And I hope that my children have an appreciation for the sacred and spiritual dimensions of life and are not base materialists, whether that’s expressed through religion or some other manner.
            As I said, I may be a very odd duck in liberal’s clothing, but I am going to take a leap here and to imagine that I’m not really all that atypical. In fact I’d be rather surprised to meet a so-called liberal who did not have fairly similar aspirations for her children.
            So what might be going on, when Haidt accuses liberals of ignoring certain bases for ethics that conservatives value, and I insist by contrast that liberals might indeed have a healthy respect for those features? A possibility that I need to develop in more detail on another occasion is that Haidt may have a flat, unidimensional view of morality and politics while I favor a multi-layered view. I think one major difference between typical liberals and conservatives today is not the ethical values they espouse, but where in society they expect to find those values at work.
            Let’s take an example from a different one of Haidt’s ethical bases, fairness/cheating. Liberals want there to be robust welfare programs to assist the less fortunate, while conservatives oppose such programs as encouraging lazy people to avoid doing their fair share of the work. There are a number of factual issues involved in these views, but as Haidt insists, our ethical views are much more formed by emotion and intuition than by dispassionate assessment of the facts. So let’s consider the person who actually is a classic Reagan-type welfare cheat—somebody who could easily go out and get a decent job and earn money, but prefers to stay home and mooch off the system, for no good reason except self-indulgence.
            To hear the conservative talk, the liberal is not bothered by such a person at all, which shows why liberals are a) naïve and b) a threat to social stability. Are these charges true?
            The case that I’d wish to argue is that the liberal agrees fully with the conservative—show me such a person and I will find him morally reprehensible. Where the two disagree is where in society they believe the function of judging such a person ought to occur. This answer shows a certain logical inconsistency within the conservative argument.
            The liberal might say—before you can judge any person you need to know a fair amount of detail about her life story. Some people might look to outsiders like cheats, but if we knew all the facts, we’d realize that they have major disabilities or other good reasons why they have not been able to make their way under their own power. So the right place within society for such judgments to be made is within families, churches, and community groups where people have a lot of detailed knowledge of how each other behave. If those groups came down on people who cheat the government out of welfare benefits, then such behavior would get a lot rarer—most folks don’t want to be cast out of the groups whose approval is most valuable to them. (How to make such judgments more common in society is another issue I have no space here to discuss.)
            The liberal goes on to explain that if you tried to set up the government program in such a way that it had primary responsibility for assuring that not a single cheat made it onto the welfare rolls, two bad results would occur. First, many deserving people would be pushed aside because the government agents could never know enough about each individual’s life to make reliable judgments. Second, in trying to make such judgments, the government would get much deeper into our lives than anyone concerned about freedom and privacy would want. This is where the inconsistency comes up—conservatives presumably want to keep the government out of our private lives (though many social conservatives today want to come into our bedrooms and dictate to us our sexual and reproductive behavior).
            Bottom line—it’s not that the liberal has a totally different moral sense than the conservative about what sorts of behavior deserve blame or praise. It’s rather that politically, the liberal wants to see these functions carried out at different levels of social organization—ones that the liberal argues are more appropriate to the task.
            If I were to have the space to defend this argument in detail, I’d draw on the work of such philosophers as John Rawls, Martha Nussbaum, and Amartya Sen, who I think provide good grounds for taking the stance that I sketched above. All I have space for here is to suggest that Haidt may have been too hasty in concluding that the liberal base for ethical thought is so much narrower than the conservative.

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