The Curse of the Liberal

It’s been weeks since the Edge Foundation held its amazing conference on The New Science of Morality, and I still haven’t been able to digest all that was discussed. I couldn’t attend this select meeting, but like many other people, I’ve been eagerly catching up at the conference’s website, which features transcripts and video of presentations and discussions. The conference focused on the latest thinking in moral psychology, and to a newcomer to the topic like myself, the material is overwhelming. It’s also fascinating.

The first talk was given by University of Virginia Social Psychology Professor Jonathan Haidt, who says:

Morality is a social construction, but it is constructed out of evolved raw materials provided by five (or more) innate “psychological” foundations. In surveys and experiments I have conducted in the USA, Europe, Brazil, and India, I have consistently found that highly educated liberals generally rely upon and endorse only the first two foundations (Harm and Fairness), whereas people who are more conservative, more religious, or of lower social class usually rely upon and endorse all five foundations.

Haidt’s five foundations, in this order, are: Harm, Fairness, Ingroup, Authority and Purity.

Liberals don’t come out very well in his thinking.

The Ingroup, Authority, and Purity foundations are moral foundations because they constrain individuals; they pull them away from self-serving, pleasure-seeking individualism by binding individuals into groups and institutions. (Think about the transformation of an 18 year old who enlists in the army.) Liberals do not see this binding as necessary or as desirable, hence they do not see a moral system based on these foundations as worthy of anything but contempt. They think their opponents are motivated by greed, fear, racism, and blind obedience to scripture or tradition.

What a shame. If liberals could only step out of their righteous bubble, they’d be able to solve these riddles, which at present befuddle their thinking and curse their projects.

This is an interesting take on the long-standing curse of the unpopular liberal. Do we struggle politically because we’re too limited in our own thinking? That’s certainly a possibility.  I need to hear more of Haidt’s arguments and see his data before I come to any conclusion for myself. However, he certainly raises an interesting question, given the fact that all of us squabbling humans have a knack for falling into the trap of righteousness.

Haidt’s talk at the conference focused on issues of bias in research on morality. In a field dominated by political liberals, the conservative point of view is being lost, he argues.

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5 Responses to The Curse of the Liberal

  1. I can’t say that I think much of Haidt’s idea of moral foundation, particularly “ingroup.” I can’t read those words without remembering a time when the “ingroup” to which I belonged — white southerners — considered it acceptable to abuse African Americans and others who didn’t meet their limited idea of “white.” I’m not talking ancient history here — despite Brown v. Board of Education, I went to segregated schools and I remember very well from my school bus riding days that when two Hispanic girls got on at the end of our route, the word would go around the bus “Don’t let those Mexicans sit down.” If there was a seat next to me, I would of course wave them over — something I considered simply decent behavior (and which I was taught to do by my parents), but also something that defied the ingroup.
    As for authority — well, it was authority that kept our schools segregated. It’s moral to respect authority that does immoral things?
    Why don’t you ask the Zen teachers about purity? Somehow, I think they’d have interesting things to say.
    I’m sure there are other core points of morality besides harm and fairness, but I don’t think Haidt has identified the actual ones.

  2. dianesilver says:

    One other thing that seems odd to me is the implication I think I see from Haidt’s ideas that Harm and Fairness don’t, as he says about the other foundations, “constrain individuals (or) … pull them away from self-serving, pleasure-seeking individualism by binding individuals into groups and institutions.”

    Wouldn’t refraining from doing harm and treating people fairly bind people together? If our morality aims at preserving the Ingroup at all cost through codes of Authority and Purity, then don’t we also discard/drive off potentially large portions of people simply because they don’t/won’t/can’t fit our ideals? This is the scenario you paint, Nancy, when you remind us of our segregated past. African Americans couldn’t fit into the Ingroup of whites because they could never be white. The same is true for LGBT people, women and many others.

    However, I’m just beginning my study of this academic field and of Haidt’s work. All I know is what I’ve posted, and that’s far too little to be able to fairly debate the issues. It’s quite possible that we’re misunderstanding his theory. I look forward to diving into it more.

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