Conservatives and liberals need each other

October 19, 2018

Jonathan Haidt is Professor of Moral Leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business. He was born in 1963 and raised in Scarsdale, New York.


Haidt has studied moral disgust, which uses the same parts of the brain as physical disgust, as well as moral disgust’s opposite, moral beauty. He believes we’re born with a first draft of our morality he calls the  “Five foundations of mortality”—harm-care, fairness-reciprocity, in-group loyalty, respect for authority, and purity-sanctity.


We subsequently find rational arguments and selectively choose evidence to support our intuitions.


We’re all mammals, programmed to care for the vulnerable and with strong feelings about those who do harm. We believe people should be justly compensated for their contributions and secure from theft and exploitation.


We cooperate within groups. We find this in other animals, but with humans, the in-groups can include thousands or millions of individuals.


We defer to authority. Haidt says that among humans, “Authority is not so closely based on power and brutality as it is in other primates. It’s based on more voluntary deference, and even love.”


We adhere to ideas that virtue derives from controlling what enters the body, or the body politic. For the political right, this includes sexuality and immigration, while the left worries more about food and the environment.


Haidt and colleagues have developed a questionnaire to measure the five values. You can take it at Conservatives care equally about all five values. They care more than liberals about authority, in-group loyalty, and purity, while liberals care more about harm and fairness. Libertarians score similarly to liberals, except in regard to harm. Results are about the same in literate cultures around the world, including Eastern Europe, Asia, and Islamic countries.


Haidt began his study into liberal and conservative values with the idea of helping liberals win elections, but has come to believe that both conservative and liberal voices are necessary to make the world better. He does not say he has become conservative, but speaks favorably of the conservative “five-channel morality.”


For Haidt, the crux of the disagreement between liberals and conservatives is that liberals reject three of his moral foundations. Speaking in 2008 to an overwhelmingly liberal and libertarian audience: “[The lack of a conservative presence] is a bit of a problem because, if our goal is to seek a deeper understanding of the world, the general lack of moral diversity here is gonna make it harder. When people all share morals, all share values, they become a team, and once you engage in the psychology of teams, it shuts down open-minded thinking.”


He ascribes nobility to liberal motives, saying that authority can be repressive to the poor, to women, and to those who don’t fit in, and admits that conservatives want order, “even at the cost to those at the bottom.”


Haidt believes civilizations rose because of traditional morality. “The great conservative insight is that order is really hard to achieve; it’s really precious, and it’s really easy to lose...You do need to be concerned about harm, you do need to be concerned about justice, but it really helps to organize a group if you can have sub-groups and if those sub-groups have some internal structure, and if you have some ideology that tells people to suppress their carnality to pursue higher, nobler ends.”


Liberals and conservatives have different ideas of what the five foundations are. It’s impossible in the questionnaire to stop and ask, “What are you talking about?” Haidt’s slide illustrating authority is of the Dali Lama, not Vladimir Putin. Someone could have been disgusted to the point of gagging by asparagus as a child, but develop a taste for the stuff twenty years later.


Haidt talks about “stepping outside the moral matrix” in terms of Eastern religion, quoting Seng ts’an, an eighth century Zen saint. “‘If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between for and against is the mind’s worst disease.’”


Seng gets no argument from me, but I’ve found at least lip service to this idea common among liberals, and would expect (at least) blank stares from the majority of my conservative acquaintance. In fact, the quote reminded me of The Limits to Growth author and eco-village founder, Donella Meadows. Meadow created a list of “Places to Intervene in a System,” in descending order of effectiveness. The most effective was to “Change the Paradigm.” As an afterthought, she added, “Have no paradigm.”


The excesses of authority and in-group loyalty go without saying, and if conservatives have five-channel morality, why do they need liberals for balance? Haidt does want to reduce money in politics, so maybe that’s it. It’s also possible, given human ingenuity and Ray Kurzweil’s recent graphing of the inexorable progress of information technology, that human cities would have happened even in societies writhing in carnality and irreverence.

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