Liberalism: Weaknesses & Failures

I often criticize conservatives for their tendency toward higher rates (relative to liberals) of motivated reasoning about political issues. It’s not that conservatives are generally less rational on all issues, rather primarily on political issues. It’s not even that conservatives are less informed, rather that they are more misinformed; in fact, the average conservative is more misinformed to the degree they are more informed, a fact that frustrates me endlessly. From global warming to sex ed, it seems impossible to have a straightforward discussion of the facts.

However, when pointing this all out, I want to be absolutely clear that I’m not denying the failures of liberalism, sadly the failures of liberalism being all too apparent to my liberal-minded sensibility. It’s also become clear to me that most people, especially conservatives, don’t understand the actual weaknesses and problems of liberalism. Liberals often get blamed for the problems of conservatism partly because many conservatives don’t want to take full responsibility for their own issues and also because liberals are prone to acting like conservatives, that latter point being one of the oddest aspects of the social science research.

Before I get into more complex factors, let me point out a simple example of liberal bias. There is one particular area where liberals are most strongly prone to motivated reasoning (Chris Mooney, The Republican Brain, Kindle Locations 6130-6132):

“In fact, although many of the psychology studies that I’ve surveyed seem to capture conservatives engaging in more intense motivated reasoning, liberals have been caught in the act too. I’ve shown that the best predictor of liberal bias, in a controlled motivated reasoning experiment, seems to be egalitarianism—e.g., liberals tend to be biased in favor of disadvantaged groups.”

Altemeyer has research showing authoritarians have higher rates of both social conservatism and hypocrisy. Some research confirms this and other research questions it. Part of the confusion might relate to the differences between hypocrisy and other types of biases. Are liberals also prone to their own version of hypocrisy? If so, how?

It is clear that liberals have biases they are prone to, but it isn’t clear that liberals are as predisposed to hypocrisy. It depends on how it is defined. Authoritarians are hypocritical in that they don’t apply the same standards to all people, and this makes perfect sense as authoritarians use criticism to defend their in-group which has nothing to do with the ideal of fairness. Authoritarians treat people differently when they should treat them the same. Liberals, however, have the opposite problem. Liberals treat people the same even when they maybe should treat people differently. Also, liberals in striving for an egalitarian balance of fairness can end up tipping the scale in the opposite direction. In this case, liberals could be judged as hypocritical in failing to achieve their own standard, instead just creating a different state of inegalitarian unfairness.

A real world result of this liberal failure can be found in affirmative action, what conservatives consider ‘reverse racism’. Going by liberal’s own standards of egalitarianism, many liberals have criticized the problems of affirmative action. What liberals criticize isn’t so much the intent as the result. If affirmative action achieved what it set out to achieve, then there would be no problem for liberals. Conservatives criticize it, instead, for its intent; but disagreeing with the intent doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with hypocrisy.

What interests me is less of how liberalism fails according to the conservative worldview and more how liberalism fails according to the very ideals, standards, and values held by liberals. There are certain attributes of liberal-mindedness that undermine liberalism. In some cases, the strengths are inseparable from the weaknesses. One strength of liberals is ‘openness’ (Jeffery J. Mondak, Personality and the Foundations of Political Behavior, Kindle Locations 1214-1221):

“Again, openness to experience partly represents the inverse of dogmatism. People high in openness to experience are not rigid in their own views nor in the expectations they hold for others. Consistent with this depiction, negative correlations have been observed between openness to experience and multiple aspects of prejudice and intolerance. In one recent study with data from the United States and Russia, low openness to experience in both nations corresponded with stigmatizing attitudes toward HIV/AIDS (McCrae et al. 2007). Similarly, other research has identified negative relationships between openness to experience and racial prejudice (Duriez and Soenens 2006; Flynn 2005) and white racial identity (Silvestri and Richardson 2001), authoritarianism (Stenner 2005) and right-wing authoritarianism (Butler 2000; Sibley and Duckitt 2008), political intolerance (Marcus et al. 1995), and homophobia (Cullen, Wright, and Alessandri 2002).”

The research on ‘openness’ fits my own sense of self. I must admit that I’m proud in being less dogmatic, rigid, prejudiced, intolerant, authoritarian, etc. Those all seem like good things to me and I suppose most people in a liberal democracy would at least agree to the merits of ‘openness’ on abstract theoretical grounds. However, liberal-mindedness is defined by other traits as well. For example, liberals measure low on ‘conscientiousness’, a trait like all traits with weaknesses and strengths, but in light of liberalism let me focus on certain strengths that conservatives have in this realm (Mondak, Kindle Locations 1232-1238):

“Unsurprisingly, strong links exist between conscientiousness and job performance. It would be rather odd, after all, for workers who are not dependable, punctual, and hardworking to be named “Employee of the Month” with any great regularity.45 In part, the positive impact of conscientiousness on work performance may reflect the impact of honesty and integrity. In an interesting laboratory study, Horn, Nelson, and Brannick (2004) show a strong correspondence between conscientiousness and honest behavior, whereas Ones, Viswesvaran, and Schmidt (1993) find that integrity is linked positively with job performance and negatively with undesirable work behaviors such as absenteeism and employee theft.”

It’s probably because of ‘conscientiousness’ that conservative values are associated with morality and liberal values with immorality or amorality. Conscientiousness will make someone be the best of whatever they value or idealize. This will make them be hardworking employees, obedient Christians, and dutiful spouses. But this will also make them efficient bureaucrats and lockstep authoritarians. On the liberal side, it is the combination of high ‘openness’ and low ‘conscientiousness’ that leads to what conservatives see as moral relativism. Liberals are flexible and open to change, and this can lead to problems with not seeing morality as black and white, thus potentially turning moral dilemmas into stumbling blocks. Conservatives would morally fail by not questioning rules and commands whereas liberals fail for constantly being in a state of doubt and questioning, plus general curiosity about what is forbidden.

It’s this combination of factors that probably makes liberals more open to alternative views and new info, hence less misinformed about political issues (liberals are maybe no less likely to either be smart or be idiots, but they are less often ‘smart idiots’ — see smart idiot effect). This probably also would be the reason behind liberals being less partisan and more willing to compromise. Liberals aren’t known for their loyalty, even to liberal ideology. Liberalism is anti-authoritarianism which means liberals have a harder time effectively organizing; as it has been described, like trying to herd cats. Liberals dislike rigid hierarchies and strict chains-of-command, dislike strong traditional authority figures. All this makes political activism a bit on the challenging side.

Compare the Tea Party movement to the Occupy movement. The Tea Party, even with in-fighting, had clear leadership take over the movement, what from the liberal perspective seemed like a coopting of grassroots activism, but it was effective. The Tea Party elected many politicians into power. The Occupy movement, on the other hand, spent as much or more time simply making sure every person’s voice was heard in an egalitarian democratic fashion. They created hand signals to ensure communication. They created a sense of true grassroots activism that wasn’t co-opted like the Tea Party. Precisely for these reasons, Occupy hasn’t become a force in Washington like the Tea Party, despite it’s mass support from the American public.

This is where the real problems begin for liberals, beyond the basic challenges of organizing. Liberals are so flexible and so willing to change that they end up being prone to undermine their own liberal nature. On the opposite end, conservatives are so much less flexible and less willing to change that they are more effective in resisting what liberalism offers. This liberal weakness and conservative strength makes liberalism an easy target of anti-liberal tactics such as emotional manipulation and propaganda, especially in terms of fear and disgust which are the foundations of the conservative predisposition and moralistic ideology. Basically, when liberals are overly stressed to the point of feeling overwhelmed, they turn into conservatives:

Political Ideology: Its Structure, Functions, and Elective Affinities
John T. Jost, Christopher M. Federico, & Jaime L. Napier

“Given that nearly everyone wants to achieve at least some degree of certainty, is it possible that conservatism possesses a natural psychological advantage over liberalism? Although answering this question is obviously fraught with challenges, several lines of research suggest that this might be the case. First, a series of experiments by Skitka et al. (2002) demonstrated that “the default attributional position is a conservative response,” insofar as both liberals and conservatives are quick to draw individualistic (rather than system-level) conclusions about the causes of poverty, unemployment, disease, and other negative outcomes, but only liberals correct their initial response, taking into account extenuating circumstances. When a distraction (or cognitive load) is introduced, making it difficult for liberals to engage in correction processes, they tend to blame individuals for their fate to the same degree that conservatives do. Skitka et al. (2002) therefore concluded, “It is much easier to get a liberal to behave like a conservative than it is to get a conservative to behave like a liberal” (p. 484; see also Kluegel & Smith 1986, Skitka 1999). Research by Crandall & Eidelman (2007) takes this general line of reasoning even further, showing that a host of everyday variables associated with increased cognitive load and/or increased need for cognitive closure, such as drinking alcohol, lead people to become more politically conservative. Both of these lines of research are consistent with the notion that conservative styles and opinions are generally simpler, more internally consistent, and less subject to ambiguity, in comparison with liberal styles and opinions (e.g., Tetlock 1983, 2007; Rokeach 1960; Tetlock 1983, 2007). A third reason to suggest that conservatism enjoys a psychological advantage over liberalism comes from research on system justification, which suggests that most people (including liberals) are motivated to adapt to and even rationalize aspects of the status quo, that is, to develop and maintain relatively favorable opinions about existing institutions and authorities and to dismiss or reject the possibility of change, especially in its more radical forms (Jost et al. 2004a). Studies show that justifying the status quo serves the palliative function of increasing positive affect, decreasing negative affect, and making people happier in general, but it also undermines support for social change and the redistribution of resources (Jost & Hunyady 2002, Napier & Jost 2008a, Wakslak et al. 2007).” [ . . . ]

“Although it is abundantly clear that processes associated with social identification, partisanship, and group interest can exert political influence in both liberal and conservative directions (e.g., Bartels 2000, Cohen 2003, Green et al. 2002), Jost et al. (2008a) speculated that—as with epistemic and existential motives—some relational motives could favor conservative outcomes in general. This is broadly consistent with the commonly held notion that conservatives are especially likely to value tradition, conformity, social order, and consensual adherence to rules, norms, and conventions (e.g., Altemeyer 1998, Conover & Feldman 1981, Feldman 2003, Haidt & Graham 2007, Jost 2006). It is also consistent with the assumption that it is generally easier to establish common ground with respect to the status quo than with respect to its many possible alternatives and to communicate effectively by transmitting messages that are relatively simple and unambiguous rather than reflecting the kind of complex, nuanced, and perhaps ambivalent cognitive and rhetorical styles that seem to be more common on the political left than the right (see Jost et al. 2008a).”

As a movement, liberalism rarely ever suffers from the condition of being too liberal for conditions have to be perfect for the liberal predisposition to fully manifest. Such perfect conditions don’t come around that often and they tend not to last very long. In moments of peace and prosperity, the general public can forget about possible threats and their emotional response becomes dampened, a contented optimism taking its place. Such a moment occurred after the Great Depression and once again after WWII, but after those brief moments conservatism ruled during the Cold War Era and into the post-9/11 Era. Liberals have at best hunkered down and at worst given their support to the conservative agenda (pushing deregulation, dismantling the welfare state, building up the military, going to war against Iraq, supporting the Patriot Act, maintaining Gitmo, empowering the executive branch, etc). Sadly, the liberal movement doesn’t make much of a worthy enemy for the conservative movement. Conservative leaders just have to say “Booh!” and liberal leaders run for cover.

One of the difficulties with liberalism is that liberal values are more dependent on higher abstract thinking while conservative values have an emotional punch that hits people in the guts. It’s because of the abstract nature of liberal values that many don’t even see them as being moral values at all or else only moral in their relation to conservative values. Conservatives are very good at political rhetoric, as Lakoff and others have noted. The results of this is that most Americans self-identify as conservatives, despite the fact that most Americans support liberal policies; both the public opinion polls and social science research support this conclusion — (another quote from the above linked Political Ideology paper):

“Since the time of the pioneering work of Free & Cantril (1967), scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic and operational aspects of political ideology (Page & Shapiro 1992, Stimson 2004). According to this terminology, “symbolic” refers to general, abstract ideological labels, images, and categories, including acts of self-identification with the left or right. “Operational” ideology, by contrast, refers to more specific, concrete, issue-based opinions that may also be classified by observers as either left or right. Although this distinction may seem purely academic, evidence suggests that symbolic and operational forms of ideology do not coincide for many citizens of mass democracies. For example, Free & Cantril (1967) observed that many Americans were simultaneously “philosophical conservatives” and “operational liberals,” opposing “big government” in the abstract but supporting the individual programs comprising the New Deal welfare and regulatory state. More recent studies have obtained impressively similar results; Stimson (2004) found that more than two-thirds of American respondents who identify as symbolic conservatives are operational liberals with respect to the issues (see also Page & Shapiro 1992, Zaller 1992). However, rather than demonstrating that ideological belief systems are multidimensional in the sense of being irreducible to a single left-right continuum, these results indicate that, in the United States at least, leftist/liberal ideas are more popular when they are manifested in specific, concrete policy solutions than when they are offered as ideological abstractions. The notion that most people like to think of themselves as conservative despite the fact that they hold a number of liberal opinions on specific issues is broadly consistent with system-justification theory, which suggests that most people are motivated to look favorably upon the status quo in general and to reject major challenges to it (Jost et al. 2004a).”

This situation creates a major disadvantage for liberals. Many liberals don’t understand why it doesn’t work to rationally discuss the issues and objectively analyze the facts. Liberals haven’t yet learned (assuming they ever will learn)  how to use rhetoric as effectively as conservatives. Maybe there is something about the liberal predisposition that makes this a weakness. Maybe the intellectualizing tendencies of the ‘openness’ trait causes liberals to get stuck in abstract thinking and so they can’t really grasp gut-level symbolism. As explained by Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler in their book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics (Kindle Locations 1275-1280):

“Many have observed over the past two decades that Democrats insist on fighting “on the issues” (Tomasky zoo4). But it is perhaps better to conceive this approach as emphasizing the programmatic dimension of issues, while Republicans have done battle on their symbolic aspects. Building on President Clinton’s record of military deployment in the 19gos, Vice President Al Gore proposed significantly larger defense budgets than did George W. Bush in their contest for the presidency in zooo. Bush notably articulated a foreign policy doctrine of restraint, including his oft-noted insistence that he was opposed to “nation-building.” But the public did not see this as evidence that the Democrats are “tough” on defense because the public was not forming judgments based on careful inspection of policy differences. Instead, it drew on symbolic understandings of the parties that had been developing over decades.”

Liberals are perceived as weak. This perception has less to do with actual policies or issues of character. Al Gore was even a veteran while George W. Bush was a draft-dodger. But none of that matters in terms of political rhetoric. Bush was seen as being strong on military simply because he had a more masculine persona whereas Al Gore seemed like a pansy intellectual. Despite the superficiality of this public perception, there is a truth behind it. On average, liberals are less decisive and conservatives more decisive. This is why liberal ‘opennesss’ is in such polar opposition to authoritarianism. As such, liberals are weak in that they aren’t domineering.

If Al Gore had been elected president, even with being strong on the military, he probably would’ve been less prone to start wars of aggression like Bush did. Bush attacking Iraq on false premises was both illegal and immoral, but nonetheless it was certainly decisive. Bush in playing the conservative role of being strong did indeed assert America’s military strength, although the wisdom of such an act is questionable… questionable that is to a liberal who would more likely stop to ask questions before acting, especially before acting out of blind rage and vengeance. A pansy intellectual veteran like Al Gore probably would have been a more wise commander-in-chief, not that the American people necessarily value wisdom all that much.

When you want action, conservatives are who you want. Conservatives will act quickly and they will follow through. This decisive strength comes from their low ‘openness’ and high ‘conscientiousness’. Sometimes that is precisely what is needed. If this past decade we had been fighting an authoritarian leader like Hitler, Bush might have made an awesome commander-in-chief. He would’ve sent in American troops to kick ass and take names. But conservatives aren’t well-equipped for less black-and-white situations as we now face where the enemy is hard to determine and even harder to find.

Still, I can’t exactly blame people for turning to conservatives for a clear sense of certainty and direction. It’s simply a fact that liberals aren’t overly talented in this department. Liberals typically do make weak leaders, especially during times of conflict and uncertainty. Obama, for example, has appeared weak because he acts weak, always begging his opponents for cooperation, always willing to compromise on every ideal he espouses and every promise he makes. The only advantage Obama has is that his pathetically weak liberal leadership is refreshing after the massive failures of the conservative style of strong leadership.

It’s this liberal weakness that makes liberalism so hard to understand. The trait ‘openness’ can lead to chameleon-like behavior. This is why it is easier for a liberal to act like a conservative than a conservative to act like a liberal. To a certain extent, when a liberal acts like a conservative for all intents and purposes he is actually being a conservative. It is confusing trying to figure out who is a liberal. I often say Obama isn’t a liberal. In terms of policies, he follows the examples of conservatives, even his health care reform is modeled after the plan developed by Republicans. Obama doesn’t even identify as a liberal and yet he is considered the figurehead of the liberal movement. However, in terms of personality, I have no doubt that Obama would measure higher on ‘openness’ than George W. Bush and lower on ‘conscientiousness’ than John McCain… and so, at least in that sense, Obama is relatively liberal-minded.

In practical terms, this chameleon-like behavior means there has probably never been a consistent application of liberal ideology at any point in history. You might say that most liberals are simply conservatives who sometimes don’t act like conservatives. The failure of liberalism, like the failure of much of the Left in general, is that it has never been fully attempted. Maybe liberalism by nature could never be entirely implemented. Liberalism is weak because it requires perfect conditions to manifest, a slight change in the weather and it wilts. Liberals talk a good game with their idealism, but the uninspiring disorganization of liberals can never compete with the authoritarian-leaning organizational skills of conservatives.

All that liberals are really good for is moderating the extremism of the Right, keeping it from going all the way over the edge to authoritarianism. This is where the misunderstanding is the greatest. Liberalism isn’t just a mirror image of conservatism, rather liberalism relates to conservatism at an angle. In terms of the Left-Right spectrum, liberalism is actually closer to the center between the extremes. It can play this moderating role because of its ability to more easily switch attitudes. Liberalism is less about a specific ideology. What liberalism does is focus on how things relate and thus playing the middle. There is a liminal quality in this, neither fully this nor that.

This is why strong ideologues, both left-wingers and right-wingers, so often strongly criticize liberalism. Liberals don’t want left-wing revolution and they don’t want right-wing counterrevolution. Liberals just want everyone to get along. This makes sense because liberals can only be themselves during times of peace and prosperity. The moment liberals feel threatened, they simply stop being liberals. The reason liberals promote such things as democracy is that they want to create a world where liberalism isn’t constantly under attack, but this ideal has never and may never come to be. The democracy we have is half-assed at best, constantly being undermined by illiberal and anti-liberal forces.

Liberalism is weak and liberals know it. Liberalism can never win through force and conservatives know it.

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Haidt & Mooney, Moral Foundations & Spiral Dynamics

This post is the third in my series about Haidt’s newest book, The Righteous Mind (here is the previous post, second in the series).

I was watching a video of Jonathan Haidt speaking about compassion in respect to the moral values of liberals and conservatives. I’ve already criticized Haidt elsewhere in the first post in the series (basically, Haidt has many seemingly unquestioned premises that bias both his research data and his theoretical interpretation). In this post, I want to shift my focus somewhat. The second post in the series focused more on the cognitive research and I’ll continue that discussion while using the issues of criticism as entry points into Haidt’s theory.

* * *

To begin my analysis, the following is an insight that came to mind (my thoughts about cognitive research, although placed in the context of Haidt’s theory, is more directly inspired by my reading Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain). There are two pieces of data that superficially appear contradictory, but on closer inspection may represent expressions of the same fundamental thing:

  1. Research shows that liberals are more willing to challenge authority and so lack the submissive attitude of unquestioning respect toward authority which is common among conservatives. For example, more liberals than conservatives state they’d be willing to slap their own father. ‘Openness’ is the main psychological trait that correlates to liberalism. What ‘openness’ is about is cognitive complexity, capacity for cognitive dissonance, intellectual curiosity, desire to experiment and explore, etc. But ‘openness’ also relates to being less inclined to fall into motivated reasoning (confirmation bias, backfire effect, etc)… on issues related to politics, anyway. I’ll point  out the obvious fact that ‘openness’ can’t operate while submitting to authority.
  2. The other aspect is that polling data shows liberals are the only demographic (in the US) with majority support for compromise. Similarly, Democrats of the past several decades show more bipartisan support than Republicans, no matter which party controls the presidency. Also similarly, Pew data shows that “Solid Liberals” (liberal across the board) don’t state a majority positive view of Obama (while Democrats back in the 80s showed majority support of Reagan), but the corresponding category of conservatives showed a strong majority (around 70%) stating a negative view of Obama. So, conservatives are more polarized against liberals than liberals are against conservatives (which means conservatives are more prone to partisanship than liberals). Polarization, it turns out, doesn’t take two to tango… or else, to extend the metaphor, conservatives are by far leading the dance.

Maybe it is precisely because of willingness to challenge authority that liberals are also more willing to compromise, and maybe liberals willingness to challenge authority even among their own is what creates a less partisan attitude. Liberals don’t identify as much with narrowly defined groups and so don’t get stuck as much in the us versus them mentality (their group identity being larger with greater inclusivity, more loosely defined with more porous boundaries). Submitting to a specific authority might allow you to work better with all others who are part of your group, but it will also make it more difficult to work with all others who are outside of your group (a very important point to keep in mind in relation to the diverse multicultural society of a liberal democracy). It could be that liberals are resistant to authority for the very reason they sense how unquestioned authority has great potential to create divisiveness. Liberals are more sensitive to divisiveness in itself (which might relate to research Jost did about liberals being less happy because of their awareness of and sensitivity to inequality and unfairness). Plus, liberals probably dislike divisiveness for what it leads to, specifically how it can close down rational independent thought (which might relate to research about how social stress and fear can cause liberals to react with a more conservative attitude, thus at least temporarily suppressing their preferred liberal-mindedness).

So, despite liberals willingness to challenge authority, it is maybe unsurprising that liberals demonstrate the most respect to those they see as having fairly earned authority such as scientists (intellectual-minded and social-minded meritocracy rather than social Darwinism and hierarchical role-playing)… or maybe its just that liberals are attracted to authorities who are liberal-minded for such authorities aren’t the kind that promotes divisive groupthink. I’d emphasize the aspect of my argument asserting that, for liberals, fairness is closely connected to the idealization of rational independent thought (i.e., higher rates of ‘openness’ and lower rates of motivated reasoning about politics).

Jonathan Haidt, however, argues that humans aren’t primarily rational. I would agree in a general sense, but he is conveniently ignoring an important fact. Relatively speaking, liberals are more rational than conservatives when it comes to political issues (or so the research shows it to be the case in liberal democracies like the US). This is significant since the political issues that provoke the strongest motivated reasoning are always mired in moral issues, all of politics ultimately being inseparable from morality. In practical terms, this doesn’t necessarily mean liberals are more well informed for that has more to do with education and there are plenty of well educated conservatives; but what it does mean (as shown by research; read Mooney’s book for a helpful summary) is that liberals are less misinformed while conservatives are more misinformed. The odd part is that conservatives are more misinformed to the degree they are informed, what is described as the “smart idiot” effect. This also relates to how conservatives and experts (well educated conservatives fitting both categories) are most prone to the backfire effect which is when challenging info causes someone to become even stronger in their opinions.

The failure of the liberal ideal of rationality isn’t necessarily a direct failure of liberalism (either as an ideology or a predisposition), rather it could just be a failure of liberals being forced to live with conservatives and authoritarians who don’t share this ideal (in fact, often stridently oppose it and seek to undermine it). Ignoring authoritarians, conservatives do have many other wonderful strengths and conservative-mindedness has many wonderful benefits to society (such as appreciating the importance of social order, ability to remain focused and persistent, practical knowledge on how to lead and organize effectively, talent with emotionally persuasive rhetoric, etc); however, the Enlightenment ideal of objective rationality isn’t one of them, at least not in terms of being resistant to motivated reasoning about politics, most specifically not political issues that are implicated in emotionally-laden moral values (which includes almost all political debate these days, the culture wars still going strong).

Related to a limited view of rationality, an inherently conservative view, Haidt promotes a limited view of compassion that favors conservative moral values. He emphasizes parochial compassion which he considers conservative: “think locally, act locally”. What he ignores is that much of conservative politics is non-local to the extreme such as hyper-nationalist patriotic support of global military dominance (some might even say imperialism) with its concomitant military-industrial complex and international “free trade” corporatism. So, the conservative vision of parochial compassion might be more accurately stated thusly: “think locally, act globally”. On the opposite side, he also ignores how much liberals argue for localism: grassroots democracy, advocacy for community-mindedness and an environmental sense-of-place, the “buy local” movement, community gardens, etc. The evidence would seem to prove the liberal claim that thinking globally fits perfectly fine with acting locally.

Haidt’s confusion here might be that he is paying more attention to conservative rhetoric than conservative behavior, an important distinction Corey Robin clarifies in his book The Reactionary Mind (which I’ve written about previously). This connects to an aspect of Haidt’s research that I was wondering about. Is Haidt testing for which moral values people state they believe in? How does he determine someone isn’t merely stating what they think they should say? And how does he determine to what extent those statements are genuine versus hypocritical?

This is a fair consideration for social conservatism has been correlated to authoritarianism (low ‘openness’, high ‘closure, strong need for security and social order, submissive to authority, etc) and authoritarians have been measured as rating high in hypocrisy. In light of the research on motivated reasoning, it would be easy to speculate that conservatives might show more hypocrisy with political issues which means their stated values might not perfectly correspond to their actual behavior.  I personally think actual behavior is more important than stated values, and so I’d rather have a theory that accounts for actual behavior. Haidt uses his research to conclude conservatives are more balanced between all moral foundations, but obviously this may not mean conservatives are more balanced in how they act according to their stated values.

* * *

I’ll now return to my thoughts related to the video of Haidt’s talk.

Haidt mentioned one very interesting piece of data. Oxycontin is related to feeling good and feeling love. One might think that this would open one up to a larger sense of empathy and a more inclusive sense of self. However, Haidt claims the research shows that high levels of oxycontin actually reinforce the experience of an in-group and an out-group. As such, even though it increases an experience of love, this positive feeling is directed toward one’s group and not to perceived outsiders.

I don’t know the research, but I suspect that this general trend would show much disparity if it were broken down between conservatives and liberals. We already know that empathetic concern shows a massive difference (see here) and so one might suspect that oxycontin would simply exaggerate this difference. Liberals’ greater empathetic concern for strangers is unlikely to be lessened or disappear because of oxycontin, unless there is something about oxycontin that I don’t understand. Going by the research I do know about, I’d suggest liberals may be the exception to the rule of oxycontin-motivated groupthink (maybe even having the complete opposite effect). Closing the ranks on one’s love-fest might be easier, especially for conservatives. I would just add that it isn’t necessarily inevitable and probably isn’t an equally likely tendency for all people (i.e., not fundamental enough to human nature for it to be made a cornerstone of the entire moral foundations theory).

Let me explore further the issue of comparison and the differences in how it manifests. In an attempt to prove conservative morality superior in society, Haidt refers to research showing conservatives give more than liberals: give more money as donations, give more blood, etc. I’ve heard this many times before, but it doesn’t stand up to analysis. Besides problems with how liberalism and conservatism are defined, there are too many confounding factors that aren’t controlled for and too many aspects that are ignored. It seems to be more of a result of cherrypicking data according to a partisan agenda. The following are some issues and questions I’d bring up in formulating a counter-argument:

  • The younger generation is the most liberal generation alive (along with being the least religious) and they also have extremely high rates of volunteering, although obviously being young they don’t have much excess money to donate. Older people, on the other hand, are more financially secure and more conservative (including more conservative when they were younger).
  • Liberals are more supportive of public services and the taxes that pay for them. Blue states give more money in federal taxes than do red states, and this ends up supporting red states that receive more money from federal taxes than blue states. Blue states have a net loss and red states a net gain. The reason for this is that the red states have more poverty and so red states end up spending more federal money paying for their own local public services and infrastructure. The poor are better off in blue states than in red states (less poverty, less income inequality, less health problems, less high school dropout rates, less teen pregnancies, etc.) which means, no matter the amount of charity, the poor are better served by the collective decisions of liberal communities.
  • Conservatives may give more to churches, but how much of that money simply goes back to benefit the giver through paying for church costs and for proselytizing and for the promotion of political causes? Also, how is tithing fundamentally different than a club fee? Conservatives say taxes aren’t charity, but in a democracy taxation is a public decision. Conservatives say that taxation is coercion by force, but churches implicitly or explicitly threaten your soul to eternal damnation if you don’t obey God’s command about tithing.
  • Liberals quite likely choose to buy more products that donate money to non-profits, but even in paying more for such products this isn’t considered charity. Liberals probably are more likely to work for non-profits and for government agencies helping those in need. Liberals may give more in time than in money because they are more likely to choose careers related to helping people, and much of the help they give might not be recorded.
  • Some argue the data shows rich conservatives give more than rich liberals, but maybe rich conservatives are simply more interested in getting tax breaks from charity giving than liberals. Is it really charitable if part or most of your motivation is about getting a tax break? How much of this is a difference in people giving money that doesn’t get recorded such as if they aren’t interested in reporting it for a tax break? Since the Bible tells Christians to pray in secret, maybe many Christians (liberal Christians?) and those similarly inspired choose to give in secret. Are conservatives actually giving more? Or is it that conservatives are reporting they give more and/or reporting more of what they give? How accurate and representative are the public records about donations of money, time, services, blood, etc?
I could list even further criticisms and questions, but I think I made my basic point. Besides, others have already done a good job of questioning and criticizing (some of the comments at the following links are worth reading as well):

Poor methods invalidate conclusions
By branstrom

lies, damned lies, and statistics
By Richard Bennett “truthinista”

Who’s More Charitable – Liberals or Conservatives?
By Michael White

Who gives more, the right or the left? Studies of conservative and liberal giving disagree with Arthur C Brooks
By Storytellersrus

Concerns About Arthur Brooks’s “Who Really Cares.”
By Jim Lindgren

Haidt’s Righteous Mind
By cognitivedissident

Who gives
A new book appears to show that religious folks, mostly conservatives, are more charitable than secular liberal types — until you look closely at the numbers
By Christopher Shea

Ethical Conduct in the Moral Right
Are religious people really more ethical than atheists?
By Nigel Barber, Ph.D.

Are religious people more ethical in their conduct? II
Does religion make people donate more to charity?
By Nigel Barber, Ph.D.

Bowling for God
Is religion good for society? Science’s definitive answer: it depends
By Michael Shermer

The last link is particularly relevant to Haidt’s talk. And here is the relevant part:

“Is religion a necessary component of social health? The data are conflicting. On the one hand, in a 2005 study published in the Journal of Religion & Society–“Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies”–independent scholar Gregory S. Paul found an inverse correlation between religiosity (measured by belief in God, biblical literalism, and frequency of prayer and service attendance) and societal health (measured by rates of homicide, childhood mortality, life expectancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and teen abortions and pregnancies) in 18 developed democracies. “In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD [sexually transmitted disease] infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies,” Paul found. Indeed, the U.S. scores the highest in religiosity and the highest (by far) in homicides, STDs, abortions and teen pregnancies.

“On the other hand, Syracuse University professor Arthur C. Brooks argues in Who Really Cares (Basic Books, 2006) that when it comes to charitable giving and volunteering, numerous quantitative measures debunk the myth of “bleeding heart liberals” and “heartless conservatives.” Conservatives donate 30 percent more money than liberals (even when controlled for income), give more blood and log more volunteer hours. In general, religious people are more than three times more generous than secularists to all charities, 14 percent more munificent to nonreligious charities and 57 percent more likely than a secularist to help a homeless person. In terms of societal health, charitable givers are 43 percent more likely to say they are “very happy” than nongivers and 25 percent more likely than nongivers to say their health is excellent or very good.”

Even assuming it were true that conservatives give more, it’s possible this data means that conservatism both causes more problems and does more to solve the problems caused. More liberal societies tend to have fewer social problems in the first place (look at the cross-cultural data that compares various data to income inequality: here, here, and here) which might mean liberals prefer spending time and resources on effectively solving problems at the root, rather than treating symptoms. This issue of social problems in conservative communities is the point made by the guy who speaks right after Haidt’s talk, but as I recall Haidt didn’t offer any rebuttal or acknowledge in any way the merit of this data. What the guy pointed out in response to Haidt’s talk is that the greatest problems are found in red states, the precise places where conservative morality has its greatest influence and hence should demonstrate its greatest merits.

That is what I would call damning evidence. If conservative charity actually helped those in need and fundamentally solved social ills, then you would expect to see the complete opposite of what the data shows (see here, here, and here). All in all, measuring donations may not be the best way to measure moral good and social benefit — for the reason that showing what an ideological demographic collectively gives can hide the data about the real world consequences of their ideology in terms of what it takes away; in the case of conservative ideology, what is taken is this: freedom from high rates of poverty, violence, disease, etc. Even if measurements of donations is a proxy for moral intentions, it wouldn’t therefore necessarily follow that moral intentions are a proxy for ethical results… the road to hell and all that.

* * *

This is where the rubber meets the road, wherever that road may lead.

I’ve found that even when I share this data that conservatives don’t necessarily give it much credit. They are often more concerned about principles than about results, or to put it another way the results they are most interested in is that of defending their moral values (social order — i.e., authority and conformity — probably being the most central). For example, the fact that countries banning abortions end up increasing the number of abortions overall is irrelevant or less relevant to many social conservatives for abortion is a moral issue rather than a pragmatic issue (mothers harmed by illegal abortions are simply receiving their deserved punishment, sadly ignoring the potential harm to the fetus if the pregnancy continues to full term after the botched abortion and, furthermore, ignoring the increased economic health costs that will be paid by society).

This connects to my last post about Haidt which distinguished between conservative moral intuition and liberal ethical reasoning. I would further argue that the liberal tendency to compromise and the larger liberal sense of empathy relate to liberals being more focused on measurable results for society (over authority, social order, and group cohesion). This is the standard liberal defense of pragmatism. For conservatives, if their values are undermined, then any other result doesn’t matter or else is less relevant for in their minds breakdown of their conservative moral order inevitably means breakdown of all social order (imagining any other possibility is beyond the scope of their moral vision). The abortion issue isn’t really about abortions for conservatives, rather it’s about family values and a specific cultural vision of how society should be organized — meaning how such moral order by way of the power of authority can be used to enforce social order (even if that requires creating laws to limit and control human behavior, sometimes even when casualties are incurred and the majority of citizens are against it, the War on Drugs being an example).

Conservatives are less bothered by persistent social problems for they assume the world is imperfect and, in the case of conservative Christians, they assume humans are born sinners. In this worldview, life isn’t fair and that is just the way it is, always has been and always will be. It isn’t fundamentally a matter of who is more charitable, rather what purpose charity serves. For conservatives, the value of charity shouldn’t be judged according to it solving what they perceive as insolvable problems. Conservatives don’t even agree with liberals about what is a problem. For example, consider sexuality. The problem isn’t about teenage pregnancy, STDS, or whatever. The problem is unmarried people having sex in the first place, thus acting against conservative moral values which challenges and undermines conservative social order. Such things as pregnancy and STDs, if anything, are the solution to the problem for as consequences of immoral behavior they are seen as self-created punishments and theoretically they are also deterrents, although their role as punishment doesn’t necessitate they effectively accomplish deterrence.

As I’ve explained previously:

“The purpose of condemning sexuality isn’t about whether people are actually able to follow the rules perfectly. The rules are there to create conformity through guilt and punishment. And they work. They suppress the individual for the sake of social order. The moral rules are red herrings that distract away from the fundamental issue. Maybe that is part of the power of such morality. People obsess over the surface details and the underlying motivating force can work unconsciously.”

Most liberals probably don’t disagree that this moral methodology accomplishes its goals, although many would say it’s immoral to use rhetoric to hide what they perceive as the real agenda. To liberals, this may seem like dogmatism forming the groundwork for authoritarianism. But to conservatives, they would claim this is being principled and would argue that liberals don’t understand (as Haidt argues, liberals supposedly lack an intuitive understanding of morality). In the conservative worldview: right is right, wrong is wrong. Conservatives see liberals’ moral pragmatism as moral relativism, and this is why liberal values often aren’t perceived as moral. Even Haidt doesn’t acknowledge all of the primary liberal values and so of course he doesn’t include those unacknowledged values as part of his moral foundations.

In the end, it comes down to conservative order and authority (i.e., closure) versus liberal freedom and egalitarianism (i.e., openness) which at least partly translates to moral principles vs ethical results. The question is as follows: Is the success of a society determined by how that society conforms to a particular vision of moral order or by how a particular vision of moral order conforms to society? Or to put it another way: Is the goodness of a moral ideology determined by how well human behavior conforms to social values or how well social values conform to human nature? Which then leads to another question: Do we want a society based on unquestioned authority or based on questioning democracy? This is the choice we face when put into stark terms of either/or which is the terms that conservatives prefer, but liberals (and others who are more liberal-minded) are left to wonder if there might be another way. Is balance between conservatism and liberalism possible? Or else could at least cooperation be made feasible? If there is another way, how would liberals ever be able to persuade conservatives out of their black and white thinking (all or nothing, this or that, us vs them)?

Jonathan Haidt seems liberal-minded in attitude and idealism, whether or not he identifies as a liberal. He is arguing for the liberal position in advocating for his own sense of liberal-mindedness (not that he necessarily describes it that way), but oddly he tends to emphasize the conservative perspective (or rather what he perceives as the conservative perspective) in his theorizing about compassion and moral foundations. I’m not sure what to make of this. Is he overcompensating for a sense of guilt about his former liberal bias that he has spoken about? Or is being contrarian in order to goad his mostly liberal audience toward questioning their own assumptions?

* * *

In reading Jonathan Haidt’s views, I feel frustrated. He continually uses liberal values and viewpoints to criticize liberalism. He offers some important insights and yet simultaneously increases confusion. It’s unclear if there is a net gain in what he offers. This is shown in the annotation added by Bruce Gibb to an article written by Haidt. Gibb’s annotations are helpful because he is bringing in the developmental framework of Spiral Dynamics which points out the greatest weakness of Haidt’s theory.

From his description of himself, Haidt sounds like he began as a young man with a sense of morality centered in a more individualistic/liberty orientation, what Spiral Dynamics calls the orange value-meme (vmeme for short); and so he naturally felt in conflict with the hierarchical/law-and-order blue vmeme that seeks to suppress individuality and fights against increasing individual liberty. In striving to live up to the liberal ideals he found in anthropology, he used his strong liberal sense of empathy to develop a social-oriented green vmeme worldview where it became possible for him to understand the social-oriented blue vmeme worldview. From the green vmeme, he no longer took personal offense at blue vmeme’s criticism of orange vmeme; in fact, green vmeme also is critical of orange vmeme, although from the opposite side; but his lack of understanding of Spiral Dynamics caused him to conflate blue vmeme’s criticisms of individualism with green vmeme’s criticisms of individualism.

This causes Haidt to criticize modern liberalism (Enlightenment ideals, often labeled as classical liberalism) from a post-modern liberal perspective. The confusion this creates is that he seems to think that by criticizing liberals he will help build a bridge of understanding for blue vmeme conservatives, but this sadly shows a lack of insight. Lower vmemes by their nature can’t understand higher vmemes in the way that a child has to first develop language skills before they can attempt to understand science. Development builds in stages where each state is built on previous stages. This is why Haidt can understand blue vmeme from his greater stage of personal development, but green vmeme by itself doesn’t allow him to understand why blue vmeme can’t understand his own viewpoint. It would require he develop even further to understand the limits of green vmeme in the way he understands the limits of orange vmeme. Green vmeme wants to bring people together in mutual understanding, but that isn’t what blue vmeme wants.

If Haidt understood Spiral Dynamics, he would understand that lower vmemes are inevitably in conflict with higher vmemes but not necessarily the other way around. Modern society can’t solve its problems by returning to a pre-modern worldview. Such social problems can only be solved by transcending and including through further development. Blue vmeme is the thesis, orange vmeme is the antithesis, and green vmeme is the synthesis. However, if we start with orange vmeme as the thesis, then green vmeme is the antithesis; but blue vmeme can’t offer any insight about the relationship between orange and green, instead synthesis must be sought in yellow vmeme which is the next stage of development.

Transcend and include is the key. It was because Haidt transcended the conflict of blue vs orange that he was able to include blue vmeme into his more comprehensive worldview. However, because orange vmeme is prior to green vmeme, the former is as resistant to green vmeme as to blue vmeme and so this antagonism disallows green vmeme to as easily include orange vmeme. It’s because blue vmeme has been so severely weakened by modernity that it can feel less threatening to someone centered in green vmeme or higher. Afterall, most people these days don’t have to worry about suppression of free speech and the burning of heretics, factors that were quite common during the heyday of blue vmeme dominance.

Another confusion is that Haidt isn’t able to see how much society has changed in recent centuries. He still sees the liberal movement as centered in individual-oriented orange vmeme whereas like Haidt the liberal movement has actually shifted its center to green vmeme. Along with this shift of liberalism, the conservative movement has shifted its center increasingly out of blue vmeme and into orange vmeme. This is why liberals defended free market capitalism and libertarian values in centuries past and yet no longer as strongly defend them, often criticizing them instead. It is rather conservatives who have taken up the former position of liberals, although blue vmeme religion has slowed down this shift and created a cultural divide within the conservative movement. The modern conservative movement of blue vmeme meeting orange vmeme is what has created fundamentalism (orange vmeme literal-mindedness serving blue vmeme religion) and reactionary conservatism (blue-vmeme nostalgia serving as rhetoric for orange vmeme individual liberty).

The vmemes should be differentiated from specific ideological groups and movements. When modern politics began, conservatism was centered in blue vmeme and ever since the rhetoric of the conservative movement has held closely to this sense of their own collective past. However, as liberalism shifted out of orange into green, it created an opportunity (a necessity even) for conservatives to use orange vmeme to attack the green vmeme of liberals. The differentiation that must be made in terms of conservatism (specifically reactionary conservatism) is the differentiation between the blue vmeme rhetoric of the culture wars and the orange vmeme choices that dominate Republican policies. It’s not enough to define conservatives (or liberals) according to their own rhetoric.

Let me explain the value of Spiral Dynamics. It doesn’t limit the ideological movements to where they began centuries ago. It explains how and why the main ideological movements have changed so much, within the movements themselves and in the relationship between them. Therefore, it allows us to consider the value memes on their own merits. It is true that blue values of strong social order are important, but we don’t need to return society to a center in the blue vmeme in order to include those values. We should be careful to not limit conservatism to just blue vmeme. Like development in individuals, development in movements is diverse and complex. As a society develops, the population of that society needs to develop as well.

* * *

I’ll end with a defense of the liberal values of intellectuality: logical debate, higher education, academic scholarship, scientific method, etc. In doing so, I want to build my own bridge toward conservatism and the bridge I’ll build is through the Enlightenment ideal of the “rational actor”.

This ideal represents the historical beginning point of liberalism and often a helpful meeting point between liberals and libertarians (along with libertarian-minded conservatives), but this ideal has most recently been taken up by conservatives as they explore ways to adapt conservative values to modern society. Traditional Christianity saw people as irrational, specifically in terms of Original Sin and how the fallen nature of mankind disallows people to act in their own best interest, hence the necessity of the church to act as guide and authority and hence the necessity of individuals to place their blind faith in God. Modern Christians, however, have been transformed by modern values of individualism. Conservative Christians will now more often use the belief in the “rational actor” as a way to impose a moral order that once would have been imposed by church authority and divine fear. They’ll argue that we must allow people to suffer the consequences of their own choices which implies that people are potentially capable of making good choices, an assumption that the early Christian church did not share. The pre-modern theology of Original Sin has been translated into the modern idea of selfishness, the perceived sin of individualism. Conservatives feel this pull between blue vmeme traditionalism and orange vmeme modernity, and these two vmemes are simply in too much conflict at this point in our societal development.

Liberals, on the other hand, see the idea of a “rational actor” in more secular terms. To the degree they believe in it, they would see its strongest manifestation in the science and in academia, the two main pillars of knowledge and learning. It is through liberal faith in Enlightenement ideals that liberals can reach out to libertarians and other more rational-minded people on the right. However, this liberal faith in the intellect has been shaken for politics and science have shown how shaky is the ground upon which stands the ideal of the “rational actor”. This is the main theme of Mooney’s recent book about the research on motivated reasoning. Nonetheless, liberals don’t want to give up on this ideal for no better ideal has yet been found to replace it. Even in its imperfection, it is our best hope for maintaining what democratic advancements we have gained as a society. The conservative attack on Enlightenment ideals has shaken the confidence of liberals and caused the more moderate and intellectual conservatives to flee the conservative movement or at least to grow weary of the divisiveness of the culture wars. In recent decades, conservatives took hold of the reigns of power and having created a new order through reactionary conservatism they aren’t sure they like what has resulted. In response to the loss of power, liberals in recent decades have been doing some serious soul-searching.

As a liberal-minded critic of orange vmeme hyper-individualism, I appreciate the importance of the blue vmeme fear about breakdown of social order. Conservatives and liberals alike have good reason to fear the collapse or degeneration of our society. However, there is one thing that liberals understand that conservatives have yet to fully comprehend: Social order in a liberal democracy such as America is dependent on the Enlightenment ideals so fiercely defended by liberals. Fortunately, a growing number of conservatives are beginning to figure this out and they are becoming less tolerant of the anti-intellectualism promoted by the radicalized religious right. The insight that liberals have is that the creation of “rational actors” in a democracy doesn’t happen by itself. It is very difficult and costly to create a population of educated and informed citizens who are able to act responsibly and choose rationally, but the destruction of this democratic process of citizen-making can be quite easy as it typically is easier to destroy than to build.

What liberals like Mooney point out is how conservatives are unaware of their own lack of rationality about politics. This is a dangerous situation, both for the lack of rationality and the lack of awareness. How do we collectively solve a problem that much of the population doesn’t understand when part of the problem is that very same lack of understanding? A democracy is a difficult way to run a society. Freedom doesn’t come cheap. If you don’t care about freedom, it can be simple for a dictator  or an elite to enforce order through military might and social oppression. Social order isn’t necessarily difficult to attain, but social order without freedom can only be maintained by keeping the population submissive through fear.

Despite conservative doubt about modern society, I’m fairly sure most conservatives don’t genuinely want to return to a pre-modern society ruled by a blue vmeme regimented hierarchy. Either conservatives will learn to appreciate Enlightenment ideals or our society will fail. In order to convince conservatives of this dilemma, liberals need to realize that conservatives by nature are less prone to the type of thinking promoted by Enlightenment ideals. The value of science and higher education, the worthiness of intellectual fairness and curiosity, all of this needs to be translated into conservative terms and thus made to mesh with the conservative predisposition. What conservatives are great at is defending the status quo of a society, and so what liberals need to do is assist in making the standards of rational thinking the new status quo of our society. The liberal-minded need to convince the conservative-minded that the intellectual traditions and institutions are indispensable in maintaining social order.

Haidt, in pointing out the weakness of rationality, isn’t helping. We liberals already know the weaknesses of rationality and that is precisely the reason we defend rationality. It’s in fact liberals, more than conservatives, who deeply and profoundly understand the problems that ensue from anti-intellectualism and motivated reasoning. Humans are capable of rationality as long as society and its institutions put great value on rationality and put great effort into defending it. Mooney shows very clearly the misinformation that is created when a large portion of our society cynically embraces an anti-intellectual worldview. Haidt is completely wrong in arguing that liberals should be more like conservatives in embracing a more ‘intuitive’ understanding. If Haidt were to read Mooney’s book and took the data seriously, he couldn’t make such a dangerously naive argument.

* * *

I have a hard time determining what all of this might mean for the moral foundations theory promoted by Haidt. It might be true that there is a basic set of moral foundations. However, it also might be true that as Spiral Dynamics theorizes such foundations might themselves be built on other foundations which in turn are built on even earlier foundations.

Haidt is arguing for blue vmeme as the ultimate foundation of human nature and society, but according to Spiral Dynamics there are multiple vmemes prior to that stage of development. Why does Haidt pick the blue vmeme as his choice for where society should center itself? If the most fundamental is assumed to be the best, why not instead pick as the center one of the earlier vmemes such as red, purple, or beige? On the other hand, if “transcend and include” is a truth of development, shouldn’t we instead seek a collective centering in the higher vmemes where a more integral social order would become possible?

Haidt’s Moral Intuition (vs ethical reasoning)

This is part two in my series about Jonathan Haidt’s most recent book, The Righteous Mind. To read the first in the series, click on the link here. To see some of the discussion inspiring this post, check out the comment sections of the Amazon reviews of Haidt’s book.

* * *

I had a thought about one aspect of Haidt’s theory that has been bothering me. The bothersome factor has to do with the broader field of social science research as it relates (and as, I argue, it should be related) to Haidt’s research. Maybe someone who has read his book can respond.

I’m reading Chris Mooney’s book The Republican Brain. Mooney isn’t focusing on moral foundations, although he does have a short section where he discusses Haidt’s model and research. Like others have suggested, Mooney sees an obvious correlation between moral foundations and cognitive functioning (Kindle Locations 2075-2079):

“You will probably have noted by now that the moral intuition research of Haidt and Ditto is not fully separate from the [cognitive] research covered in the last chapter. It overlaps. For instance, take conservatives’ greater respect for authority, and their stronger loyalty to the in-group, the tribe, the team. Respect for authority, at its extreme, is hard to distinguish from authoritarianism. And viewing the world with a strong distinction between the in-group and the out-group clearly relates to having lower integrative complexity and less tolerance of difference (although it can also, on a more positive note, mean showing
loyalty and allegiance to one’s friends, and more patriotism).”

An important difference between Haidt and Mooney is the former is arguing for an overarching theory and the latter isn’t. Mooney, instead, simply acknowledges the complexity (Kindle Locations 2087-2089):

“In comparing the psychological, personality, and moral differences between liberals and conservatives, it is not clear which differences come first—which are more deeply rooted, and whether one causes the other or not. But it is clear that they travel together, and that all are reliable dimensions for distinguishing between the two broad groups.”

It would seem that Haidt is overstepping what can be rationally and fairly concluded from the diverse research. We know many of the factors, but we can’t entirely claim to know their causal relation.

So, Haidt’s view of intuition being greater than reasoning has some truth to it while also containing much speculation. We know that all people are predisposed to motivated reasoning. Yes, such bias can manifest as post hoc rationalizations of our intuited moral values. What Haidt ignores or doesn’t fully acknowledge, intentionally or not, is that not all people are equally predisposed to motivated reasoning in all types of situations. Mooney’s book presents a logical argument based on damning evidence about how conservatives are more predisposed to motivated reasoning when it comes to political issues, and it is clear that political issues are inseparable from moral issues in these cases of motivated reasoning.

The problem here has a number of factors.

First, there is the possibility that liberals use intuition less and/or reasoning more in discerning moral values and making moral decisions. Even if liberals use intuition more than reasoning, it is still important that liberals use reasoning significantly more (i.e., use motivated reasoning less) than conservatives. This even undermines Haidt’s critcisms of the sciences being filled with liberals as if this represents an institutionalized and systematic bias. By not wholly engaging the cognitive research (and thus not integrating it into his theory), Haidt appears to want to sidestep the simple fact that liberals have a predisposition suited for science while conservatives have a predisposition that too often puts them in opposition to the major aspects of the scientific enterprise (Mooney discusses this in his book).

Second, the fact that conservatives use motivated reasoning more in these political/moral scenarios ends up problematizing Haidt’s intuitionist theory. How can intuition be separated from motivated reasoning? The simple term of ‘intuition’ covers over a lot of complexity. On the other hand, it might not be possible to entirely separate intuition from reason either. What appears as intuition may just be a heuristic developed from previous reasoning, as some research suggests. So, is Haidt’s ‘intuition’ about feeling over reason or simply about unconscious processes (whether or not those processes originally formed through conscious reasoning)? Reasoning and motivated reasoning can be hard to differentiate in oneself, but importantly the research has clearly distinguished them in actual behavior (specifically in the actual behavior of liberals and conservatives).

Considering all of this, I still feel confused about Haidt’s ‘intuition’. To be fair, part of that confusion might have more to do with me than with Haidt’s theory as I still haven’t yet fully grasped all of the nuances and details of his theory. However, I think part of my confusion is based on the research data being more complex than Haidt’s theory allows for. There might not be a way to fit all of the data into Haidt’s theory which means it is either incorrect or incomplete.

After Mooney’s discussion of moral foundations, he extended his thoughts by discussing the alternative theory of George Lakoff (Kindle Locations 2107-2144):

“However, there is another famous account of the different moral systems of liberals and conservatives, which implies a more uneven distribution of biases. It is closely related to Haidt’s account in some ways, but not others. I’m referring to the account advanced by Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff, in his book Moral Politics and subsequent works.

“Lakoff’s opening premise is that we all think in metaphors. These are not the kind of thing that English majors study, but rather real, physical circuits in the brain that structure our cognition, and that are strengthened the more they are used. For instance, we learn at a very early age how things go up and things go down, and then we talk about the stock market and individual fortunes “rising” and “falling”—a metaphor.

“For Lakoff, one metaphor in particular is of overriding importance in our politics: The metaphor that uses the family as a model for broader groups in society—from athletic teams to companies to governments. The problem, Lakoff says, is that we have different conceptions of the family, with conservatives embracing a “strict father” model and liberals embracing a caring, “nurturing” parent version. The strict father family is like a free market system, and yet also very hierarchical and authoritarian. It’s a harsh world out there and the father (the supreme authority) is tough and will teach the kids to be tough, because there will be no one to protect them once the father is gone. The political implications are obvious. In contrast, the nurturing parent family emphasizes love, care, and growth—and, so the argument goes, compassionate government control.

“Lakoff’s system intriguingly ties our political differences to child-rearing styles (much evidence suggests that Republicans are more likely to physically punish their children). It also overlaps with Haidt’s—particularly when it comes to wanting to care for those who are harmed (nurturing parent) and respecting authority (strict father). What’s more, both accounts overlap with the research on personality and psychological needs—the strict father model, respect for authority, and the exercise of group loyalty all help to provide certainty and order through the affirmation of hierarchy and stability and the resistance of changes to existing social structures.

“But there’s also a key difference. Lakoff’s account implies that liberals and conservatives will have a different relationship with science and with the facts. He told me as much in an interview for this book (and an article in The American Prospect magazine that preceded it).

“The core reason for this differential bias turns on the issue of authority and from whence it springs. In our interview, Lakoff explained that conservatives should have no problem with science or other factual information when it supports their moral values, including free market goals (e.g., the science of drilling for oil, the science of nuclear power). The strict father wants the kids to go out and thrive, and producing energy through technology is an honorable way of doing it. However, science can also be an unruly guest at the party—highly destabilizing and threatening to conservative values, and with the potential to undermine traditional sources of authority that conservatives respect. Scientific evidence “has a possible effect over the market, foreign policy, religion, all kinds of things,” says Lakoff. “So they can’t have that.”

“Liberals, to Lakoff, are just different. Science, social science, and research in general support an approach that he calls “Old Enlightenment reason”: finding the best facts so as to improve the world and society, and thus advance liberals’ own moral system, which is based on a caring and nurturing parent-run family. “So there is a reason in the moral system to like science in general,” says Lakoff.

“Here also arises a chief liberal weakness, in Lakoff’s view, and one that is probably amplified by academic training. Call it the Condorcet handicap, or the Enlightenment syndrome. Either way, it will sound very familiar: Constantly trying to use factual and reasoned arguments to make the world better, and being amazed to find that even though these arguments are sound, well-researched, and supported, are disregarded, or even actively attacked, by conservatives.”

Anyway, this is my long-winded way of presenting my hypothesis. Here is my own speculation based on the data I’ve seen so far:

In an introductory philosophy class, the teacher explained the distinction between morality and ethics, a distinction that seems relevant to my own understanding and relevant to the topic at hand. Morality could be more or less about intuition, whatever intuition may prove to be. However, morality as it is generally used too often becomes conflated with ethics. If morality as distinct from ethics is about intuition, then ethics as distinct from morality is about reason.

Going by the evidence, I would argue that ethics might be more applicable to the liberal value system since for political issues liberals are less predisposed to motivated reasoning. It might not be that liberals don’t use intuition. Rather, maybe liberals just use reason and intuition more equally and maybe even use them more in relation to one another. The difference could be that: Conservatives tend to see moral intuition and ethical reasoning as more opposed or at least less perfectly aligned which fits their own nature; And liberals tend to see moral intuition and ethical reasoning as more inseparable or at least more perfectly aligned which fits their own nature.

What distinguishes the two might not just be which moral foundations they favor. There might be a more fundamental and prior cognitive difference that would motivate such favoring. Liberals and conservatives might not just have different values but actually be different psychological types. If this is true, Haidt is only looking at one part of the picture, the part that emphasizes the conservative view of non-rational moral intuition as primary motivation.

This might also explain why Haidt’s research found that liberals favored certain moral foundations less than conservatives, the explanation being that those more conservative moral foundations may not be as open to ethical reasoning (for they aren’t based on or conducive to the functioning of the liberal trait ‘openness’). For example, respect for authority may not be compatible with an intellectual opposition to motivated reasoning for such an intellectual mindset would place evidence and logic above authority, thus challenging authority. So, liberals would tend to respect authority more when authority respected reason (academics, scientists, etc) while conservatives generally respect authority when reason doesn’t challenge authority (religious apologists, partisan think tank experts, etc). One could argue that this might undermine Haidt’s claim  that conservatives value authority more than liberals. A similar pattern (and discrepancy with Haidt’s theory) might be found with the other supposedly conservative moral foundations as well.

A different theory could be formed by interpreting the moral foundations through the lense of ethical reasoning. Bringing the trait ‘openness’ to bear upon the data might necessitate entirely reworking the scheme of moral foundations.

* * *

For those interested in researching the issue for themselves, here is Haidt’s presentation of his intuitionist theory and following it are some responses by others:

https://motherjones.com/files/emotional_dog_and_rational_tail.pdf

http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2011/11/02/review-of-the-emotional-dog-and-its-rational-tail/

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13869790500492680#preview

http://www.yourmorals.org/blog/2010/08/i-did-not-make-a-mistake-in-disagreeing-with-haidt/

http://darwinianconservatism.blogspot.com/2009/11/jonathan-haidts-darwinian-moral.html

http://beta.in-mind.org/issue-4/fairness-judgments-genuine-morality-or-disguised-egocentrism

Anti-Science in Academia?

There is a phenomena I came across again: anti-science.

I wouldn’t feel compelled to write about it again, though, if it didn’t frustrate me so much. The reason I feel frustrated in this moment is because of three different interactions I’ve had this past week or so. What stood out to me is that these interactions weren’t entirely typical in that it demonstrated how widely spread this problem is.

I should first explain that the issue frustrating me isn’t precisely an anti-scientific attitude, but something that nearly approximates it in specific contexts.

Several interactions I had were all well-educated people who have spent much time in academia. I know at least some of them have worked in the capacity of teaching. All of them are typical intellectual types who are well informed about the world and are certainly way above average in IQ. Also, they also seem like people who are more than capable of independent thinking and rational analysis. Basically, they aren’t anti-intellectual and, of course, wouldn’t think of themselves that way. Nonetheless, the doubts they express about certain scientific issues is so strong that it comes close to the doubts expressed by people who are more obviously anti-intellectual.

One commonality is that all of them have spent time outside of the country of their birth, at least one of them having lived significant part of his life in another country. A couple of them even speak another language besides English. So, these are relatively worldly people.

Besides the commonalities, my attention was caught by the fact that they are ideologically and academically quite diverse. Between them all: They run the entire ideological spectrum from left to right. And they include a diversity of academic knowledge and experience. They are even diverse in their religious proclivities or lack thereof.

I should point out that all of these people are intellectually respectable. In fact, I personally respect them for their intellects. It’s because of their general knowledgeablity and rationality that I enjoy discussing issues with them on occasion, although only one of them did I meet directly through such a discussion.

It is for this reason I felt so disheartened by my feeling the need to defend science against people who should know better… or maybe that isn’t quite the right way of saying it. It’s not that I think all of them are wrong in their views per se, except for one of them who I think is obviously wrong about the data. More basically, it’s just frustration at trying to communicate. Science is one of those topics that brings up a lot of ideological baggage which gets in the way, myself included. It seems odd to me that science is so often one of the most polarizing of issues. It makes me aware of how much views on science can diverge when even well educated people can disagree so widely. On top of that, it has become clear to me how much we are divided simply because of the powerful role of media.

These interactions involved a variety of scientific issues, all related to research: psychology of ideologies, IQ testing, global warming, etc. Fundamentally, all of these people felt some variation of mistrust about potential bias in various aspects: the researchers themselves, the limitations of research, the agendas of scientific institutions, how data was being interpreted or reported, etc.

The specifics aren’t all that important. In some cases, the doubts they shared were to some degree within reason. What didn’t seem reasonable to me was how strongly they held onto those doubts, how resistant they were to treat as trustworthy the scientific method and scientific community. Of course, my own biased opinions about science played into my own sense of conflict and frustration. It’s hard to discuss neutrally many of these kinds of issues, especially when they seem very important in how they touch upon many other issues (global warming being a particularly clear example of this).

It seemed to me that they didn’t want give scientists their due. Despite their being well educated, they were all speaking about science as laypeople. As a layperson myself, I tend to want to put more trust in scientific experts until I discover very good reasons to doubt; for certain, I feel annoyed when an entire scientific field is dismissed or devalued without any seeming good reason besides the consensus of that field not fitting the person’s worldview.

More specifically, it seemed that they didn’t want to acknowledge the fact that scientists are more aware of and careful about such potential problems than anyone outside of the scientific fields. I would point out some of these scientific researchers (specifically the soccial scientists) are experts in bias and in some cases experts in the biases of science itself. If you want to know what are the reasonable doubts to have about science, you just need to ask scientists. Science works by trial and error. If there is bias or limitiation to some type of testing, scientists will be the first to point it out and fix the problem. The scientific method is a self-correcting system.

Doubt within the scientific method is essential and necessary. But doubt about the scientific method itself is a direct attack on the very ideal that puts knowledge above belief or opinion. That said, I’m sure none of these people meant to attack such an ideal and probably would see themselves defending it in their own way. It’s  just that it felt like their criticisms weren’t all that helpful coming from the sidelines of science.

Here is my response to all of this:

If we can’t trust that the best experts on bias can deal with potential problems of bias, then we lesser mortals are beyond any hope of non-scientifically dealing with biases. Attempting to dismiss or discredit a particular field of science is the opposite of helpful. As long as even well-educated intellecuals end up undermining science and the scientific method, whether intentionally anti-scientific or not, we are going to have a hard time advancing as a society. Considering the possibility of losing our collective faith in the ideal of knowledge, do most people realize what we would be giving up?

These interactions demonstrate the apparent failure of the non-scientific fields of academia… or maybe just failure of science education in general (I know the science education I received from the public school system was probably a bit lacking). I would imagine that even many of those working in higher education need to be better educated about science. Our entire society needs to be better educated all around, and I have no doubt that the people I speak of would agree with me on that.

My emotional response to these interactions might have less to do with the interactions themselves. Instead, it might just be that these interactions helped clarify my sense of the problem we face. My perception of science being undermined not only saddens me, it makes me fear for our future. This isn’t about any individual person or any individual doubt. We could argue about the specifics endlessly. What I’m pointing out is much more insidious, the undermining of scientific authority itself where any doubt almost automatically trumps even the vast knowledge accumulated by decades of experts, where scientific peer-review and consensus becomes a reason for doubt of expertise instead of a reason for trust… worst still, where the science itself and the scientists who do it seem to get lost in the cloud of conflict and the whole media charade, where we no longer even have a shared set of facts to work from, much less a shared set of values.

The line between questioning doubt and nihilistic denialism may be thinner than many realize. It’s a line that might be easy to cross. As individuals ocassionally going a little too far over the line isn’t necessarily problematic, but if such a crossing is done on a society-wide scale it may not be easily undone. Nothing good can come of this. We seem to be livng in a an era ruled by mistrust that dangerously verges on collective cynicism. We should tread very carefully.