Jonathan Haidt’s Liberal-Minded Anti-Liberalism

Jonathan Haidt wrote a new book, The Righteous Mind. I haven’t seen the book, but I listened to an interview by Bill Moyers. I recommend checking it out. Haidt does have an insightful view, although I think his view would be even more insightful if he synthesized his own research with other psychological research about ideologies and with a larger context of data in general.

Haidt talks about two main things: uncompromising partisanship and lifestyle enclaves. The latter factor magnifies the problem of the former. Americans have become geographically isolated such as conservatives increasingly moving to suburbs and the wealthy moving to gated communities. Americans have become informationally isolated such as of the rise of hyper-partisan media that no longer holds to the standard of neutral or fair reporting. Combined together, all of this isolation increases uncompromising partisanship and it becomes a set of self-reinforcing reality tunnels.

This was in some ways inevitable. Haidt and Moyers discuss how the civil rights movement divided America. That is true, but I’d point out two things. First, Civil Rights was a social problem that had to be faced eventually,  one way or another. Second, the seeming negative consequences of a split society are just a temporary situation of collectively seeking a new norm that includes all Americans.

Haidt is misunderstanding this as being something more than it is. This is seen in his bias against liberalism that is built into his research. He claims that conservatives have a more balanced sense of moral values, but he does so by ignoring most liberal values. He is, in fact, taking a conservative position by ignoring liberal values such as curiosity and open-mindedness (he attacks academics as clueless while praising the conservative Christian mistrust of knowledge, and he does this while entirely ignoring how science is the best method of dealing with confirmation bias; this is significant since most scientists identify as liberals and tend to hold liberal views; as a scientist himself, it is odd that Haidt doesn’t respect objective knowledge even as he bases his argument on scientific evidence — an internal contradiction?).

He essentially doesn’t see liberal values as moral values which is a standard conservative position. I would argue, however, that liberals are more aware of conservative values than conservatives are of liberal values. This is the seemingly irresolvable conflict that liberals face. Research shows that conservatives have less desire to understand those who are different than them and that liberals have more desire for this kind of understanding. Haidt doesn’t acknowledge this and instead rationalizes this conservative blindness even as he claims to be advocating better understanding and cooperation, the very values most strongly supported by liberals.

Research shows liberals put greater value on compromise and cooperation. Earlier in the 20th century when both parties included liberals (i.e., when both parties had two wings), both parties were able to work together toward the common good (data shows that now only the Democratic Party includes two wings — a big tent party — and it is Democrats who unsurprisingly still support compromise). Contrary to Haidt’s opinion, it is liberals that helped create a shared group identity for Americans in the past. It’s precisely because conservatives value group solidarity that they are so incompetent at accomplishing it on the large scale of a diverse society. Haidt, however, criticizes liberals for their lack of valuing group solidarity, despite liberals being better at actually accomplishing it.

To put it simply, Haidt is incorrect. He concludes that liberals don’t value group solidarity for the reason liberals don’t talk about it in the way conservatives talk about it, but this misses the point. Liberals take all of those conservative values and transform them through the liberal values that Haidt doesn’t recognize: compassionate opennesss and willingness/desire to self-question, intellecutal curiosity and honesty (research shows right-wing authoritarians as being the most hypocritical), compromise and cooperation, etc.

Haidt proposes 5 moral values (what he calls moral foundations):

  1. Care for others, protecting them from harm. (He also referred to this dimension as Harm.)
  2. Fairness, Justice, treating others equally.
  3. Loyalty to your group, family, nation. (He also referred to this dimension as Ingroup.)
  4. Respect for tradition and legitimate authority. (He also referred to this dimension as Authority.)
  5. Purity, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions.

Haidt claims that conservatives value all of these in a balanced way while liberals don’t, but that is obviously not true if one were to look beyond just Haidt’s research… or rather it isn’t as simple as Haidt presents it.

For example, openness to experience is the moral value that is opposite of purity. Haidt doesn’t recognize openness to experience as a moral value. He takes the biased position that liberals lack the moral value of purity instead of pointing out that conservatives lack the moral value of openness to experience.

As another example, consider the moral value of loyalty. Haidt doesn’t consider that to be loyal to one narrow group means to be disloyal to other groups. Liberals have a grander vision of loyalty that includes all of humanity and so in fact liberals value loyalty more than conservatives. It’s because liberals value loyalty to all of humanity that liberals seek care, fairness, justice, and respect for all humans, not just humans that are part of one’s group.

Furthermore, Haidt is conflating a specific period of history with all of human nature. We are in a divisive time and conservatives are good at dominating during such times. Conservatives do so not by bringing Americans together but by turning Americans against each other.

Haidt has too narrow of a focus and is using too narrow of a set of data. His lack of a larger psychological and historical context causes him to offer conclusions that are so limited as to be limiting and maybe to offer solutions that are the opposite of helpful. Haidt does offer some useful insights, but his views are confused and represent only a small piece of a very large puzzle.

In studying Haidt’s view, discern the truths in his theory from the trash of his speculations. Take Haidt’s suggestion of being willing to listen by not responding to Haidt’s bias with an opposite bias. In this, Haidt is suggesting that one should listen to all point of views according to the liberal moral value of openness to experience. In being liberal-minded myself, I agree.

* * *

After writing the above, I checked out some book reviews. One reviewer discussed the specific moral foundations and it turns out that Haidt now includes 6 moral foundations in his model:

  1. Care/harm
  2. Fairness/cheating
  3. Liberty/oppression
  4. Loyalty/betrayal
  5. Authority/subversion
  6. Sanctity/degradation

What was added is Liberty. That makes the model slightly more balanced and unbiased. Liberty is one of the liberal moral values that Haidt was originally ignoring or not noticing. Liberty would be closely related to the psychological trait of ‘openness to experience’, but it wouldn’t capture the full meaning of Openness (especially as it correlates to MBTI intuition and Hartmann’s thin boundary type). Openness is something that conservatives would consider amoral at best and immoral at worst.

Haidt claims that conservatives value all the moral foundations equally and that liberals only value three of them strongly. I just don’t see the evidence for that claim. First of all, I’m not sure what Haidt even means by ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’. If he is going by self-identified labels, then his research isn’t very useful. Data shows that many self-identified conservatives hold many liberal views. Many people don’t want to identify as ‘liberal’ in America because the label has become a slur. So, Haidt may be getting results of ‘conservatives’ being more balanced because that label in America includes not only conservatives but also many liberals, not to mention many libertarians as well. Self-identified labels are beyond useless if actual ideological/political views aren’t considered.

Even in this new and improved model with Liberty included, the same basic criticism remains. Haidt claims that liberals don’t value Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity. He comes to this conclusion because he defines these moral foundations in terms of positive vs negative rather than as a neutral dichotomy or spectrum (as seen in other psychological research: MBTI functions and FFM traits). The opposite of Loyalty isn’t betrayal. Challenging authority is also a moral foundation. Authorities can tell a person to do something immoral in which case it would be moral to ‘betray’ Authority. If we reversed the last three moral foundations to be biased toward liberals (Independence as moral strength opposed to Blind Allegiance as moral weakness; Questioning opposed to Blind Obedience; and Openness/Curiosity opposed to Fear/Hatred/Prejudice toward what is new, different or ‘other’), then the opposite conclusion would follow: Liberals have a balance of all moral foundations and conservatives only value three moral foundations.

This brings me to a review that hits the nail on the head:

“One of the main difficulties is that the author is not straightforward with his premises. By the subtitle we know this book is going to be about “why good people are divided by politics and religion”. But the author does not tell us his hypothesis until we’re nearly finished with the book. Indeed, he admits on page 274 that he hasn’t even established a definition of `morality’ by that point. “You’re nearly done reading a book on morality, and I have not yet given you a definition of morality.” As a matter of fact, he never really does define morality (he offers a definition of `moral systems’, not `morality’), and so it is impossible to make a reasonable assessment of this argument, supposedly on morality.

“His rationale for doing this gives the show away: “The definition I’m about to give you would have made little sense back in chapter 1. It would not have meshed with your intuitions about morality, so I thought it best to wait.” In other words, he needed to prepare the reader by giving preliminary arguments, the assumption being that only after those preliminaries were done, the real argument could be understood.

“But this is to conceal the point being made until after it has been made, and so no one can properly assess that point in the process. This amounts to a rhetorical trick to get people to accept the argument’s foundation and thus have a harder time denying the argument when it is finally presented. In the meantime, the objective reader will be left confused and a little frustrated–What point is he trying to make? Why is he being so elusive? Why doesn’t he come out and say what he means?

“This approach does conform to the theory, itself, however, one of whose main points is to diminish the role of reason and rationality. According to Haidt, people don’t really pay attention to reasonable arguments anyway, rather making decisions based on emotions and intuition. As such, he spends most of the book bypassing a reasonable argument.

“It is a shame because the theme is fairly interesting and deserves to be fleshed out in a good, straightforward argument. The argument, summed up by the definition of moral systems that Haidt offers (on page 274), is as follows:

“Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.”

“Basically, morality is an artificial construct geared toward making society work. Once we arrive at this thesis, we actually have something to work with and much of the material leading up to this point finds its place. Of course, one will still have questions about the thesis and the various proofs offered in defense, but at least one has substance to reflect on and test.”

The reviewer clarifies his criticism in a comment below the review:

“Though, it is also par for the philosophical course to begin with definitions of the relevant terms. Without this crucial first step, it is possible to build arguments around movable goals, which is nothing more than sophistry.”

The above review caused me to look for some other critical reviews. Here is one review that, among other criticisms, points out a flaw in Haidt’s defense of religion (specifically conservative religion as Haidt apparently doesn’t deal with liberal religious/spiritual views, practices and institutions):

“Haidt asks later “Why are conservative and religious people happier and more generous than liberal and secular people?” but neither of those claims is quite true. In fact, Wikipedia’s look at religion and happiness notes the following:

“The individual level of happiness and religiosity correlations show up when measuring within the United States, a predominantly religious country where people without religion are outsiders. According to a 2007 paper by Liesbeth Snoep in the Journal of Happiness Studies, there is no significant correlation between religiosity and individual happiness in the Netherlands and Denmark, countries that have lower rates of religion than the United States so that being without religion is not unusual. According to the Gallup World Poll survey conducted between 2005 and 2009 Denmark is the happiest country in the world, and the Netherlands rank fourth.”

“I would suspect that belonging to many demographic groups (Christian, heterosexual, able-bodied, etc.) is related to happiness to the extent that those groups also comprise the majority of their society. One could make a reasonable assumption that life is easier for those whose life situations are most readily acceptable in their society, leading to increased individual happiness. I’ll quote here from a previous post on cross-cultural studies to point out how poorly religion does on measures of societal happiness:

“In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies…”

“As far as the “more generous” claim, it is also less straightforward than Haidt’s statement might make it seem. Boston Globe’s Christopher Shea suggested, after reviewing the 2006 book Who Really Cares? that ignited the “stingy liberal” stereotype, that we look closely at the numbers before believing the conclusion. Evolutionary psychologist Nigel Barber looked at the issue here and here, noting that older people have more disposable income and more time to volunteer. He points out that “when age is statistically controlled, there is no difference between religious and nonreligious people in the value of their gifts to secular charities.””

And here is another review that confronts Haidt’s two part claim that conservatives are more intuitive about morality and that intuition is superior to intellect:

“He thinks morality is predominantly intuitive but it’s not quite clear in Marc Perry’s account why this leads Haidt to feel that “conservatives have a more accurate understanding of human nature than do liberals.”

“Human nature may indeed consist of moral imperatives “etched into our brains” through evolution but evolution is a process and simply because some people retain a sense of morality based on mankind’s earliest conditions doesn’t mean that those feelings are confined to those narrower, original concepts. Reasoning comes from experiences and as the human condition changes those experiences broaden our understanding and allow us to see things outside the original box.

“The more intellectual conservatives use reason to explain their so-called intuitive morality as opposed to the “grunt” conservative whose sense of morality is more a gut-level reaction – “I can’t explain it but I know it’s wrong”. Yet this was pretty much the path taken by liberal Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart on his ruling regarding a case about hard-core pornography. The subjective nature of hard-core porn is one of those issues that lacks clearly defined parameters and beyond what had to that point been attempted to describe it in the 1964 case of Jacobellis v. Ohio, Potter simply declared that “I know it when I see it”.”

[ . . . ]

“What it does suggest is that if there is an intuitive gene for morality it is not something that makes us more politically conservative.”

12 thoughts on “Jonathan Haidt’s Liberal-Minded Anti-Liberalism

  1. First, I just want to thank you for your post. I enjoyed it and found it very well thought out.

    Second, I was just wondering if you looked at Haidt’s ‘Moral Foundations Questionnaire’? I ask because I think the phrasing of his questions — especially those in Part I — is both telling and problematic. They appear to be designed to speak to our biases, not our morals. Rather than showing us some specific moral dilemma in which loyalty or fairness or some such would play a part, instead, they tell us that loyalty or fairness played some ambigous part in an ambiguous issue, and ask if we find that relevant. Unsurprisingly, by and large the ‘liberal’ response is to find their buzzwords relevant, and vice versa for the ‘conservatives’.

    Consider the question about love for one’s country. Liberals seem to take it largely as a given that citizens love their country. Conservatives, at least in America, are very intent on telling or showing one another that they love America, that they are ‘real’ Americans. All Haidt’s question does is point out this difference by, essentially, asking whether it is important to you to KNOW that someone loves their country.

    The same is true for the questions regarding ‘liberal’ values. We are asked whether we find it relevant to know, when determining whether something is right or wrong, that someone’s rights were violated. The knee-jerk liberal reaction is to say yes, very. However, in reality that may not be a particularly relevant factor. All Haidt has really discovered is that if you ask us about human rights, we’ll say they’re important.

    As such, I think Haidt’s problem isn’t solely in how he defines loyalty, etc., but in how he tested for them. I think at best he found out what our talking points are.

    • I haven’t looked at Haidt’s questionnaire. I should check it out, but I’ve felt busy lately. I’d like to go into more detail about the specifics of Haidt’s research. It just takes a lot of time and effort. I feel myself growing a bit tired of talking about Haidt. It has become obvious to me that there are so many potential biases in his theory that it is almost impossible to disentangle what is worthy from what isn’t.

      The moral foundation of ‘loyalty’ has come up a lot.

      First, why isn’t the opposite of loyalty also a moral foundation. A liberal perceives their actions as moral when they challenge perceived immoral actions of someone they are close to. This is being principled, applying morality equally to all. From this perspective, loyalty is immoral because it rationalizes moral relativism, interestingly the very charge conservatives make against liberals.

      Haidt is defining loyalty according to the conservative understanding. So, it is no surprise that liberals don’t support the conservative version of loyalty. Furthermore, loyalty is a term that in our contemporary culture is loaded toward conservatism. The term ‘loyalty’ essentially is a codeword for “conservative values”. The only way Haidt could neutrally test for support for ‘loyalty’ would be by not using the word itself.

      Second, this brings up the issue of loyalty to what or whom. Should we be loyal to our group or loyal to our principles? And should we loyal to either of these with an attitude of dogmatism or empathy? Related to this, I’ve always found it strange that certain conservatives can perceive themselves as being patriotic in attacking their own government or in attacking their own fellow citizens.

      For conservatives, loyalty is always to one’s immediate group (one’s kin, one’s religion, etc.) and loyalty is defined negatively (what or whom one is against rather than for, specifically as it relates to an us vs them attitude). For liberals, loyalty is more broad and inclusive. Haidt argues the conservative loyalty translates as “think locally, act locally”, but this is obviously utter bullshit. It is conservatives, not liberals, who support having a military empire around the world and who support wars of aggression.

      Haidt’s theory distorted in so many ways. It isn’t clear what might be useful in it. It isn’t clear if it is even worthwhile trying to save the theory from all the biases it contains. I feel mixed. I think Haidt has presented an interesting approach that could potentially be useful. And Haidt seems sincere in wanting to create something useful. I don’t want to just criticize Haidt’s theory, but I have to be honest that it doesn’t end up being very useful at least for the purposes of social science. For it to become useful, it would require the entire theory be rebuilt from the bottom up by other researchers.

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  3. In case anyone is interested, I noticed someone linked to this particular post:

    The reason I mention this is because that person also linked to a Daily Kos article that was making a similar point as I was making:

    In Haidt’s research, conservatives related positively to three additional values more than liberals did: Sanctity, Loyalty, and Respect for authority. However, nobody seemed to notice that all three relate to those things needed to bind tribes, religions, and authoritarian governments together in the face of a common enemy.

    Liberals have characteristically moved beyond “because tradition or our leader says so” as guidance for thought. Liberals want to be personally convinced, rather than bow to superior force or status. Although this independent streak can make them awkward and unruly members of a team or bureaucracy, it makes them ideally suited for participatory Democracy.

    It need not be a bad thing to leave some values and virtues behind. For instance, you just don’t hear anybody recommending “fealty” anymore. Fealty is the submission that a member of a lower social class owes to his master or king. Vows of chastity, obedience, poverty and silence are not so popular anymore either. Neither is the penance of self-flagellation or the piety of sacrificing children by fire.

    If you have been following my earlier discussion of developmental stages, you can see why most liberals are able to look at these “missing” values and say, “been there, done that, moved on, but still have friends that…”

    Finally, others, such as Integral Theorist Jeff Salzman, have pointed out that Haidt’s research simply omitted some values that are part of the “language of liberalism” that many conservatives have yet to fully embrace. These three additional values are Empathy, Pluralism, and Social Justice.

  4. Benjamin,

    This may be nitpicking, but your comment “For conservatives, loyalty is always to one’s immediate group (one’s kin, one’s religion, etc.) and loyalty is defined negatively.” irked me.

    I think that’s an unwarranted generalization. I’m an uncomfortably contradictory mix of liberal and conservative views, and my definition of loyalty, while tribal, is couched in positive terms: Being available (on the phone or in person) when a friend needs me, even if it inconveniences me; being willing to lend significant money to a friend or responsible relative; defending someone I like against critics, even if I might otherwise agree with said critics; and if I ever have to choose between my friend and my country (or other large institution), I hope I choose my friend.

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