On Morality, and that

By lex, on September 20, 2008


Two people I respect, each of them coming into the world with very different points of view, have separately turned me on (in various media) to the work of Jonathan Haidt, associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. I suppose you could look upon it as a kind of intervention.

Haidt strikes me as one of those cheerful and industrious academic liberals of the very best sort – bright and affable, earnestly trying in his own way to get to the bottom of one of life’s enduring mysteries: Why on earth would anyone vote Republican?

He does so not merely out of academic anthropological interest – though there are, to be sure, charmingly Fossian elements in his “Conservatives in the Mist” narrative – but rather because if we’re ever going to get anything done in this absurdly bifurcated world of ours, we’ll have to understand what motivates the conservative mind. The better, you know: To change it.

Being a psychologist (rather than an economist, say) he uses the closest tools at his disposal:

(We) can map the brains, genes, and unconscious attitudes of conservatives, we have refined our diagnosis: conservatism is a partially heritable personality trait that predisposes some people to be cognitively inflexible, fond of hierarchy, and inordinately afraid of uncertainty, change, and death. People vote Republican because Republicans offer “moral clarity”—a simple vision of good and evil that activates deep seated fears in much of the electorate. Democrats, in contrast, appeal to reason with their long-winded explorations of policy options for a complex world.

If this seems at a glance more than usually reductive, auto-normative and self-serving – the casual reader is left to wonder what an ordinary fear of uncertainty, change and death is, and where one goes to get calibrated – do not give up hope. It does get better, and Haidt at least never loses his seemingly genuine affection and even sympathy for the objects of his study. Not for him that liberalism that loves humanity, but hates people. (For fellow travelers less generous in spirit, read the comments that follow Haidt’s essay.)

Haidt believes that there are five domains to morality. The first two, upon which everyone seems to agree, revolve around harm/care and fairness/reciprocity. It’s wrong to harm others and good to care for them, while it’s important to be fair in order to reap a reciprocal fairness. Which is fair enough (beg pardon) as far as it goes, but Haidt argues that – where conservatives are concerned at least – it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Added to those first two value sets for the conservative mind are considerations of ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect and purity/sanctity. Questions impinging on those domains do not much budge the needle for the progressive mind but do evoke strong reactions in conservatives. When we say that liberals “just don’t get it,” according to Haidt, these are the “its” that they’re not getting. (Follow the link to an online questionnaire that will sort you into your proper, five-axis bin).

Read Haidt’s article – or if you prefer, watch a video * of one of his speeches – to understand how he uses these terms. The Reader’s Digest version is that as a conservative constructs the latter three palisades of his value structure alongside the generally agreed upon first two (bearing in mind that it’s not his fault that he’s over-building), he encases himself in a mental prison from whence he cannot escape. Without, you know, the well-meaning assistance of correct-thinking progressives who – and this is key! – understand how he built it. Thus it is that 51% of the country could decide in 2004 that it was better to persevere to victory in a foreign war against a brutal terrorist enemy than vote in their own self-interest. As defined by other people.

It’s always dangerous to peer inside a man’s soul, especially for those of us that haven’t got PhD’s in psychology and aren’t teaching at the University of Virginia. But it seems to me possible – just barely – that the cognitive and ideological lenses Dr. Haidt brings into his study color his perceptions not merely of the data he has gleaned, and the analysis he draws from those data, but of the very questions that he asks when he raises his eyes from the Elysian fields of Charlottesville to study the picaresque rustics down the road in Lynchburg.

It’d be a little too glib to ask Haidt whether there is partially heritable personality trait that predisposes some people to not make up their minds, while simultaneously making them fond of anarchy and foolishly casual about topics like change, uncertainty and death. I submit that what Haidt misses about the conservative mind is not where it ends up, but rather where it begins: Our fundamental way of framing the universe, our understanding of good and evil. God stuff.

Oh, not necessarily capital “g” god – there are plenty of atheist conservatives – but rather our understanding of The Good (however defined) as contrasted to its opposite. Philosophy, in other words. Some of it explicitly religious – for what is any religion but a philosophy for seeking the good? – but none of it necessarily so.

This is all of it the source of our culture wars; abortion, gay marriage and diversity fetishes vs. God, guns and bitter clinging. E pluribus unum, and so on.

Liberals, I believe, tend to think that good and evil are internal perceptions, personal and relative. Conservatives on the other hand tend to believe in a Platonic form of good and evil that exists separately and apart from our perception of it, immutable and unchanging. “If it feels good, do it” vs. “seek the good and do it.” In time Haidt gets around to an academic appreciation of religion – or philosophy, if you prefer –  even if only as a fascinating detour around the main body of his work. Conservatives start there.

Thus, those things that Haidt imputes upon conservatives; a certain rigidity of thought, the appreciation of order drawn from chaos, our several inordinate fears, might be viewed through a different set of cognitive lenses as a philosophical underpinning to our moral understanding of the universe. Critics will call such a thing “ideological” as though 1) an examined ideology is inherently evil, or 2) any substitute put forward is not intrinsically ideological in its own right – the substitution of one value set for another.

Conservatives know that however deeply you analyze an issue eventually you will have to either make a choice based on imperfect understanding of the facts or else resign yourself to inactivity. When forced to make that leap of faith – to finally choose, to commit to that choice – it helps to have a road map that makes a distinction between good choices and bad, along with the will to actually make those distinctions. Anarchy only sounds like fun until you’ve spent some time living it. The only people truly unafraid of death are psychotics, those who’ve never brushed up against it and/or are too shallow to have really considered the implications of it all and the deeply religious.

Which one is not like the others?

When it comes to religion, I have to admit that I share a common understanding with Haidt: Fundamentally (and leaving aside the self-actualization benefits: religious people tend to be much happier than the secular among us) it serves the necessary minimum purpose of enforcing social order. If there exists a separate Good and Evil outside our perception of it it, a moral person, family, clan, tribe, city, county, state, world ought to seek out the Good in a collective way. If there is not, if morality is contingent upon the best good for the individual (and is enforceable only when he is concerned he that might get caught), there are nearly no limits as to what can be rationalized. We see the consequences of this every day from sociopaths, hedge fund managers and other disaffecteds because there simply aren’t enough policemen in the world, and the rest of us wouldn’t like it so much if there were.

So it comes down to this: A guarded acceptance of the inherent limitations of the human animal – his imperfectability, if you will – on the one hand against a precious (if historically freighted) notion that if a smart and well-intentioned group of elites really applied themselves to the world’s problems (always defined by their own value set) society would progress. Unintended consequences are a regrettable part of the overhead. Previous, hideously failed experiments to reshape man’s nature were well-intentioned but imperfectly calibrated. Just let the new gang hammer away at it for a while.

Well, good luck with building that thing up another level. Knock yourselves out. Wonder what it’s going to look like when you’re done. Wonder what it’s going to cost. And don’t send me the bill.

I’m sticking with what works.

Update: Words that have never before been uttered in the same breath: Read Whittle – he’s shorter.

** Link changed from Wayback Machine 03-23-18 – Ed. 

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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, by lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, Lex, Neptunus Lex, Politics and Culture

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