Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Righteous Mind: Orthodoxy vs. Conservatism

            A book about ethics, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by psychologist Jonathan Haidt, has deservedly been getting a lot of recent media attention. Haidt’s book poses several interesting challenges for the views expressed in this blog and in The Golden Calf, so I hope to devote at least a couple of posts to discussing those issues.
            Haidt’s basic message can be summarized as follows: we do ethics primarily by emotion and intuition and reason comes along later to explain what we did; humans are programmed by our evolution to be mostly competitive individualists but also to have strong needs for  group identity and community; and we can discover six bases for ethics, of which today’s conservatives are better able to incorporate a broad scope than are liberals, giving the former group a clear advantage in winning hearts and minds.
            Let me here take up the last point. 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.
            Haidt concludes that the culture wars are unfortunate because a well-rounded social ethic would draw on both liberal and conservative thought. He illustrates this conclusion by telling his own story. He began as a pretty much garden-variety academic liberal, but more recently has come to see the value of conservative views. He attributes this recent enlightenment to a particular book that he ran across in 2005, Conservatism by the historian Jerry Muller. Haidt found in Muller a much more sympathetic portrayal of conservative views than he had previous encountered, and much of what he read resonated with his own thinking.
            What struck me as most interesting as I read Haidt’s account of his own conversion at the hands of Muller’s book was how he said Muller began his work—by drawing a sharp distinction between conservatism and orthodoxy. Quoting from Muller, Haidt explained, “Orthodoxy is the view that there exists a ‘transcendent moral order, to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society.’ Christians who look to the Bible as a guide for legislation, like Muslims who want to live under sharia, are examples of orthodoxy. They want their society to match an externally ordained moral order, so they advocate change, sometimes radical change. This can put them at odds with true conservatives, who see radical change as dangerous.”
            Muller further develops this point by placing conservatism firmly within the intellectual precincts of the Enlightenment (now quoting Muller directly): “What makes social and political arguments conservative as opposed to orthodox is that the critique of liberal or progressive arguments takes place on the enlightened grounds of the search for human happiness based on the use of reason.”
            From that point on Haidt explains what Muller has to say about conservatism, assuming that we’ve cast orthodoxy aside and agreed that that could hardly be a suitable basis for politics. But the main argument that I offer in The Golden Calf is that to the extent that today’s conservatives are wedded to the ideology of economism, they have not cast orthodoxy aside at all—they remain orthodox through and through.
            Haidt seems to have an inkling, but only an inkling, of this problem. Trying to be even-handed, he admits that libertarians might have something useful to say about ethics too, even though their thinking has an even narrower base than does liberalism, since they are almost solely concerned about one aspect only, liberty/oppression. So the lesson he believes that others need to learn from libertarian thinking is “markets are miraculous.” In discussing this point, he makes the following interesting comment: “If God is commonly thought to have created the world and then arranged it for our benefit, then the free market (and its invisible hand) is a pretty good candidate for being a god. You can begin to understand why libertarians sometimes have a quasi-religious faith in free markets.”
            This passage is interesting because seldom, in this book, does Haidt see any need to invoke God or religious language, even though he sees religion as one important way humans bond together in communal identity. He appears to make no distinction between libertarianism and economism, though as I explain in The Golden Calf there are important differences. So Haidt simply does not take into account the possibility that in believing in economism, people who call themselves both conservative and libertarian have not abandoned orthodoxy at all, and are in their own ways as fundamentalist as those calling for sharia law.
            While for most of his career, doing the research that he summarizes in his book, Haidt taught at the University of Virginia, he now is attached to the Stern School of Business at New York University. I cannot say whether the transition from the broader university environment to the narrower range of thinking one finds in the typical business school had any impact on Haidt’s apparently not seeing the orthodox features of economism.
            Anyway, Haidt abjures liberals like me to be more understanding of where conservatives are coming from and what wisdom they bring to the table, and I will try to address that point in a later post. I even agree with Haidt, as I stated in The Golden Calf, that markets when they work well are pretty miraculous things (and Haidt admits that there’s a clear danger that markets won’t work well, which is where he thinks the liberals’ message needs to be heeded). But if what gets called conservatism is really orthodoxy, then Haidt and Muller would apparently both agree that there’s not much wisdom to be gained from that source—and I’d claim that that’s true so long as economism holds such a grip on the American public consciousness.

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