Liberals and the wisdom of conservatism

Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, wrote in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion  that good people are divided because liberals and conservatives fail to understand the moral foundations of each others’ values.  Haidt identifies as a liberal, and yet says the conservatives typically have a broader and better understanding than liberals do.

Haidt and his colleagues created what he called a Moral Foundations Questionnaire, which were intended to show how strongly people felt about moral behavior in five categories: (1) Care vs. harm, (2) Fairness vs. cheating, (3) Loyalty vs. betrayal, (4) Authority vs. subversion, and (5) Sanctity vs. degradation.  Later they added (6) Liberty vs. oppression.

righteous.mindThey found that self-identified liberals and progressives cared most about Care, a lot about Liberty, some about Fairness and very little about anything else.  Conservatives, on the other hand, cared about all six Moral Foundations in roughly equal measure.  Libertarians, who don’t fall into either category, called most about Liberty, a lot about Fairness and very little about anything else.

Haidt said that while American liberals care about individuals and their welfare, American conservatives balance this with concern for the virtues necessary to uphold social order.  You don’t help the bees by destroying the hive, he said.  He said libertarians are even more limited; they are liberals without bleeding hearts.

When conservatives were asked to fill out questionnaires based on what they thought a typical liberal would think, they were reasonably accurate.  But when liberals were asked to put themselves in the place of a typical conservative, they failed utterly.   That finding startled me, and I wonder how many Fox News and Rush Limbaugh fans were included in the survey.

But his basic point is correct.  The liberal virtues of freedom, reason and tolerance can be practiced only in a stable society, and a stable society requires the conservative virtues of duty, authority and tradition.

Just as liberals are outliers within American society, Haidt wrote, Americans are outliers among the people of the world.  Americans value the well-being of the individual over all else.  Most other cultures set a higher value on community and divinity.   Haidt became aware of this on a visit to India, where he came to appreciate the virtues of a hierarchical, tightly-knit society in which people weren’t treated equally or even justly, but everyone had a place in society with its duties.

He cited an article on cross-cultural comparisons by Joe Heinrich, Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayen, which coined the acronym WEIRD—Westernized, educated, individualistic, rich and democratic—to define what sets Americans apart from the rest of the world.

Haidt participated with Brazilian psychologists in a survey of moral values of rich and poor people in Recife and Porto Alegre, Brazil, and in Philadelphia.  Interestingly, they found that the richer and more educated Brazilians and Americans had more in common with each other than they did with the poor and working-class people of their own countries.  The poor people thought breaking rules was wrong regardless of circumstance, while the educated people said that it depended on whether breaking the rule did any harm.

I wish Haidt had followed up on that finding.  What it suggests is that so-called WEIRD values are a natural consequence of wealth and education.  I would like to believe that liberalism represents the direction of human progress, rather than a fair-weather philosophy that goes overboard in adversity.

Click on YourMorals.Org to take Jonathan Haidt’s Morality Quiz

Click on Of Freedom and Fairness for Haidt’s article in Democracy Journal about the current political situation.

Click on Why Americans Are the Weirdest People in the World for a feature article about Joe Heinrich, Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayen and their cross-cultural research.

Click on The Knowns and the Unknowns for a criticism of Haidt’s philosophical assumptions by John Gray in The New Republic.

Unfortunately the worthwhile insights of The Righteous Mind come wrapped in a shallow, reductionist world-view based on genetic determinism, speculative evolutionary psychology, postmodern rejection of critical thinking and moral choice, and glorification of groupthink and the hive mind.  He said religious and political thought should be judged not on the basis of whether they are true, but on their utility in promoting group solidarity versus their cost in promoting conflict between groups.   This is more WEIRD than any view he attributes to Westerners, Americans or liberals.

All normal people are rational beings, intuitive and emotional beings and moral beings.  Those who claim to be above reason, emotion or moral judgment are merely hiding their reasoning, their feels or their morality from themselves or others.

I won’t bother to go into this because, in the last couple of chapters, Haidt backtracked on his more extreme assertions.  He endorsed the view of Bertrand Russell that any well-ordered society must balance individualism with discipline and tradition, which of course is true.

Another way in which I differ from Haidt is that I don’t think that philosophical divisions within the American electorate are the main cause of political dysfunction in the United States.   I think the majority of conservative Republicans are decent, reasonable people who are misled by their leaders, just like the majority of liberal Democrats.

The more serious problem is the separation of the mass of the American people from a predatory governmental and financial elite, and a deluded journalistic elite.  People with different moral perspectives can come to the same conclusions.  The mass of the voters, liberal, conservative and libertarian, oppose the government’s “too big to fail” policy on bank bailouts and “too big to jail” policy on prosecution of financial fraud, but this does not affect governmental policy.

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2 Responses to “Liberals and the wisdom of conservatism”

  1. Atticus Says:

    “The more serious problem is the separation of the mass of the American people from a predatory governmental and financial elite, and a deluded journalistic elite.”

    This should be my blog tagline.


  2. A Conservative | Propagating the Philosophy of Liberty Says:

    […] Liberals and the wisdom of conservatism ( […]


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