Head and Heart: Are Conservatives More Moral?
October 15, 2012
‘Rational delusions’ rule the day
If you’ve ever argued about politics with someone holding very different views, you surely know that Hume was right: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”
In his fascinating, important, and exasperating new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt explores the root of those passions. A social psychologist at the University of Virginia and once a professed liberal Democrat, Haidt is dismayed by the rightward shift of the country’s political center of gravity over the last 30 years. Seeking to understand it, he looks for answers in the different characters of liberals and conservatives and proposes a new, or at any rate newly formulated, theory of our moral and political judgments, which he calls moral foundations theory.
As we all know and often forget, humans are not purely rational. Or, to put it another way, there’s more to rationality than is dreamed of in our everyday philosophies. We have a long, complex evolutionary history, which has left us with a tangled, multilayered psyche and many more motives than we are usually conscious of. With the help of research by a couple of generations of psychologists, anthropologists, and behavioral economists, Haidt has excavated these psychic structures. But before entering on a detailed description, Haidt pauses to emphasize the first principle of any adequate moral psychology: “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.”
Experiments repeatedly show—to oversimplify only a little—that we all believe what we want, regardless of reasons. Changing one’s views in response to an opponent’s arguments is about as rare as an honest member of Congress. (Cases of both are known, but only a few.) Arguments are largely instrumental; they are meant for attack or defense. Most of the time, we argue like lawyers rather than philosophers.
Where, then, do our moral judgments come from? According to moral foundations theory, morality begins as a set of evolution-derived intuitions, which each child then learns to apply within his or her culture. Haidt suggests six dimensions or categories or foundations, into which nearly all our intuitions fall: 1) help those in need and minimize suffering everywhere (the care/harm foundation); 2) reward people according to what they contribute (fairness/cheating); 3) advance the fortunes of your group (loyalty/betrayal); 4) defer to legitimate superiors and protect subordinates (authority/subversion); 5) resist domination by illegitimate authority (liberty/oppression); 6) respect your group’s totems and taboos (sanctity/degradation).
By Haidt’s reckoning, liberals focus too narrowly on the first foundation and on a special version of the second. Compassion is the supreme liberal virtue, supplemented by egalitarianism, which relies on a view of contributing that emphasizes effort rather than output. Because it is individuals who suffer and need, liberalism is individualistic.
Conservatives, by contrast, have a more balanced moral matrix, resting more equally on the six foundations. Derived from questionnaires and psychology-lab experiments, Haidt’s main conclusion is overwhelmingly plausible: conservatives are less attuned to individual freedom and fulfillment, more sensitive to and concerned about the cohesiveness and stability of groups. They are instinctive Durkheimians, agreeing with the great French sociologist that every society is unified by sacred, unchallengeable beliefs and that “to free man from all social pressures is to abandon and demoralize him.” Even before “social capital” became a social-scientific buzzword, conservatives understood that communities were fragile and required continual shoring up, sometimes at the expense of individual welfare. “If you are trying to change an organization or a society and you do not consider the effects of your changes on moral capital, you’re asking for trouble,” Haidt explains. “This, I believe, is the fundamental blind spot of the left.” Where liberals see individuals in need, conservatives see social structures at risk.
Experiments repeatedly show that we all believe what we want, regardless of reasons.
“Republicans understand moral psychology. Democrats don’t,” Haidt announces in italics:
[Republicans] trigger the full range of intuitions described by Moral Foundations Theory. Like Democrats, they can talk about innocent victims (of harmful Democratic policies) and about fairness (particularly the unfairness of taking tax money from hardworking and prudent people to support cheaters, slackers, and irresponsible fools). But Republicans since Nixon have had a near-monopoly on appeals to loyalty (particularly patriotism and military virtues) and authority (including respect for parents, teachers, elders, and the police, as well as for traditions). And after they embraced Christian conservatives during Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign and became the party of “family values,” Republicans inherited a powerful network of Christian ideas about sanctity and sexuality that allowed them to portray Democrats as the party of Sodom and Gomorrah.“Set against the rising crime and chaos of the 1960s and 1970s, this five-foundation morality”—this passage arrives before Haidt introduces the sixth foundation—“had wide appeal, even to many Democrats.”…