A while back I was involved in some discussions about Jonathan Haidt’s model of moral foundations via some book reviews. One of those discussions was resurrected. Two people offered links to articles. It connected to something else that was on my mind. That something is violence.
“I mostly liked The Happiness Hypothesis, but I think Haidt’s gone downhill since (and in a direction pointed to by the flaws in that book, ie. let’s just appreciate everyone’s viewpoint because it comes from their basic psychology, even if it requires overcompensating for our natural pro-self bias). I’m reading the last chapter of Pinker’s Better Angels, in which he discusses the underlying psychology of the decline in violence. He frames his exposition in terms of Haidt’s Moral Foundations (the original five), though even more in terms of [mumble’s — sorry I’m not near the book at the moment] Relational Models (the two taxonomies roughly inter-map). Pinker argues that human violence has declined precisely as we have moved away from an emphasis on (using Haidt’s terms) Purity, Authority and Loyalty towards Care/Harm and Fairness — IOW, as we have become more psychologically “liberal”. Even modern conservatives are where liberals used to be — it’s getting harder to justify eg. outlawing certain sexual behaviours on the grounds of “yuck” or blind obedience. So to hell with Haidt’s false equivalence — we are better off by ignoring some bits of social-psychological baggage that worked for small foraging bands, just as we need to train ourselves into restraining our natural taste for sweets and fats that developed in the days when dinner was A) uncertain and B) often had to be chased down.”
Haidt argues that humans and hence society functions best when there is an ideal balance between moral foundations. The problem is such an ideal comes off as an abstract belief. Functions best for what purpose and for whom?
He justifies this balance by claiming he has gained a vantage point above all of us peons. Through his model, both conservatives and liberals can be transcended, although with a tilt toward conservatives for he oddly claims they are more balanced than liberals (an argument he makes by not taking into account some of the moral values that liberals possess and conservatives dismiss). As Eamon Knight says in another comment:
“Or to borrow a punchline originally used in a different domain, but which seems applicable here: the important thing is that Haidt’s found a way to feel superior to both sides.”
Haidt sees himself as a missionary who learned from the natives (conservatives) and now wants to teach the civilized folk (liberals) about the benefits of a more natural lifestyle. Meanwhile, from the safe position of his lectern, he conveniently doesn’t mention that the natives have a high rates of violence and death.
Still, I don’t just want to beat up on poor ol’ Haidt. Let me move onto the next link. It is a response to Haidt by Sam Harris. Of course, Harris does beat up on Haidt, but that isn’t what interested me. Instead, I want to beat up on Harris a bit to even things out.
Harris begins with the same basic insight as Pinker:
“Anyone feeling nostalgic for the “wisdom” of the Aztecs? Rest assured, there’s nothing like the superstitious murder of innocent men, women, and children to “suppress selfishness” and convey a shared sense of purpose. Of course, the Aztecs weren’t the only culture to have discovered “human flourishing” at its most sanguinary and psychotic. The Sumerians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Hebrews, Canaanites, Maya, Inca, Olmecs, Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Teutons, Celts, Druids, Vikings, Gauls, Hindus, Thais, Chinese, Japanese, Scandinavians, Maoris, Melanesias, Tahitians, Hawaiians, Balinese, Australian aborigines, Iroquois, Huron, Cherokee, and numerous other societies ritually murdered their fellow human beings because they believed that invisible gods and goddesses, having an appetite for human flesh, could be so propitiated. Many of their victims were of the same opinion, in fact, and went willingly to slaughter, fully convinced that their deaths would transform the weather, or cure the king of his venereal disease, or in some other way spare their fellows the wrath of the Unseen.
“What would Haidt have us think about these venerable traditions of pious ignorance and senseless butchery? Is there some wisdom in these cults of human sacrifice that we should now honor? Must we take care not to throw out the baby with the bathwater? Or might we want to eat that baby instead? Indeed, many of these societies regularly terminated their rituals of sacred murder with a cannibal feast. Is my own revulsion at these practices a sign that I view these distant cultures with the blinkered gaze of a colonialist? Shall we just reserve judgment until more of the facts are in? When does scientific detachment become perverse? When might it be suicidal?”
That is more than a fair point stated with dramatic flair. There are many things that are ‘traditional’ which we would rather not continue. Besides human sacrifice and cannibalism, one could mention common examples from past societies such as slavery and theocracy. Moral progress fits uneasily in Haidt’s scheme of moral foundations.
Harris further on continues his line of thought, but then takes it down a dark alley of his own (bigoted?) paranoia:
“The same point can be made in the other direction: even a liberal like myself, enamored as I am of my two-footed morality, can readily see that my version of the good life must be safeguarded from the aggressive tribalism of others. When I search my heart, I discover that I want to keep the barbarians beyond the city walls as much as my conservative neighbors do, and I recognize that sacrifices of my own freedom may be warranted for this purpose. I even expect that conservative epiphanies of this sort could well multiply in the coming years—just imagine how we liberals will be disposed to think about Islam after an incident of nuclear terrorism. Liberal hankering for happiness and freedom might one day yield some very strident calls for stricter laws and tribal loyalty. Will this mean that liberals have become religious conservatives pining for the beehive? Or is the liberal notion of reducing harm flexible enough to encompass the need for order and differences between in-group and out-group?”
How did the mostly non-Christian Japanese feel when the Christian Americans dropped atomic bombs on their cities? Some of those Japanese were liberals concerned about the long history of being oppressed and exploited by Western countries. And some of those Japanese were liberals concerned about when their own government went the path of oppression and exploitation in relation to the Chinese. Many liberal Muslims, Arabs, Africans and Asians have been concerned about the violent militaristic Western countries with long histories of imperialism, colonialism, genocide, slavery, wars of aggression, invasion and occupations, etc; all issues that many non-Christians see as directly connected to a Christian heritage going back to the Crusades.
A Christian nation is the only one ever to have gone nuclear on another country. Why is it terrorism if Muslims were to do it but a morally justified act of war when Christians do it?
Harris didn’t need to go there. It didn’t help his argument.
Harris isn’t wrong to bring up the violence of particular groups, but he ignores a larger issue of culpability. When the Iraq War (a war of aggression) was promoted, many liberals jumped on board. The number of innocent people who died because of that war makes the casualty numbers of the 9/11 attack look minuscule. Middle Easterners have more reason to fear us than we have to fear them.
This weird mix of liberalism and xenophobia is what I call conservative-minded liberalism. I see it all the time. It’s similar to how some progressives in the past became neoconservatives or how some liberal-minded people today have have embraced neoreactionary ideologies such as the Dark Enlightenment. As I’ve argued before, this seems to be a central aspect of liberalism, it’s ability to shift toward its opposite (sometimes shifting back again and at other times getting stuck).
I came across another example of this from a friend of mine, a very intelligent and well-educated friend I might add:
“Immigration to UK seems to be implicated in the UK criminal class now carrying guns and using them to shoot law abiding citizens and their police adversaries. The old ban on gun crime apparently was maintained by criminal norms–UK criminals shunned others who had shot the police. A criminal who shot and killed 3 UK police in the 1960s was shunned by his fellows and given no place to hide in his local community–he eventually lived in a tent in remote moorland (and was there apprehended).
“Now, that informal arrangement (which empirically, by inspection, seems to have existed) has collapsed. Criminals carry guns and use them against the police, so the police have armed themselves, too.
“One factor that contributes is immigration of Afro-Carribeans to UK, who brought/bring with them different norms for gun crime. For example, murder rates in Jamaica are 50x higher than in UK (Collier’s figures). If Jamaica does not have the highest homicide in the world, it’s quite high.
“A paradigmatic case is Mark Duggan (Afro-Carribean descent) who shot and killed three UK police and was lionized (rather than ostracized) by substantial portions of his co-ethnics in London. After he was shot, vocal portions of his co-ethnics sided with him against the police, and accused the police of brutality.”
Afro-Caribbeans live in poverty that was created from a colonial past. Poverty, for all races and ethnicities, correlates to higher rates of violence and crime. It sucks to be so oppressed to the point that poverty, and the desperation that goes with it, persists for generation after generation. Once slaves, I’m willing to bet those Afro-Caribbeans experience racism on a daily life which makes it hard for them to find good work and housing. Europe has the problem of ghettoizing immigrants, something the US doesn’t do (here in the US we only ghettoize our native-born poor minorities).
Besides, if we included all the violence done in the name of UK citizens by way of their government, the murder rates would look a lot differently. I’m willing to bet Collier isn’t including police brutality and wars of aggression in his figures, and certainly not all the victims of slavery and genocide (and other victims of colonialism and imperialism). We don’t even know how to count up all the victims in order to compare them. But Afro-Caribbeans haven’t enslaved UK citizens en masse nor started a war of aggression against the UK nor tried to make the UK into a colony.
My friend then concluded:
“The interpretation: Duggan can be viewed (in game theoretic terms) as a “super-villian” who violated the old norms, increased distrust between UK indigenes and Afro-Carribean new-comers, and is a paradigmatic signpost / marker of a transition to a new, more violent equilibrium (vigilant UK police must now be ready to shoot suspects before they might pre-emptively be shot *by* suspects).”
Or maybe it is simply the inevitable results of a colonial past with continuing poverty, oppression, and racism magnified by globalized capitalism and growing economic inequality. There are a lot of factors going on and few if any of them can be understood in isolation. There would be no Afro-Caribbeans in the first place if not for the intertwined history with colonialism and slavery. Afro-Caribbeans are as much a product of the Europe as of Africa, both culturally and genetically.
“Another salient example of norms,” my friend explained further, “probably not discussed in Collier but it came readily to mind.”
“In the USA, in theory and I think also in fact, Mafia (La Cosa Nostra) norms prohibited the murder of uniformed police officers and judges. I don’t know when this got to be the case, but it seemed to facilitate a “non-agression pact” in which Mafia members lived openly without much hiding who they were, and cops went home and slept at night with a bit less trepidation.
“The counterexamples in other countries are well known: Italy, Colombia, and Mexico come to mind offhand.”
Yes, norms change. But the argument seems strange.
The Mafia is listed as an example, but Italy is offered as a counterexample. The Mafia brought there norms from Italy. They were social norms and they were quite violent. An early version of the Mafia were the Black Hand. The more Anglo-American KKK was very similar, specifically the second KKK around the same time as the Black Hand.
Both the Black Hand and the KKK were anti-democratic and used violence when they saw it as convenient. They were some of the most violent groups in US history and yes many innocents were harmed, and the era when they dominated was one of the most violent in uS history. They both were trying to enforce their versions of traditional social norms and cultures, but they were also strongly opposed. One of the main motivations of the KKK was fighting against ethnics like the Black Hand because they feared changes that were undesired.
These kinds of arguments fall apart when you look at all of the data and look at the entire history. But that isn’t my main point in writing about this kind of argument. All three of these liberals (Haidt, Harris, & my friend) argue for traditional Western values. They may disagree about other things, but they agree about this style of argument. This is what makes them conservative-minded liberals, conservative-minded with a reactionary slant.
It is obviously a popular viewpoint. Even liberals get stressed out by the uncertainties of modernity: globalization, industrialization, de-industrialization, offshoring of jobs, world wars, etc. Everything is changing and we humans don’t have the capacity to easily deal with this on the individual level. It is overwhelming.
My argument is that liberalism can only operate on its own terms during peaceful times and in democratic societies. Liberalism becomes dysfunctional or forms weird hybrid ideologies when it is dominated by illiberal forces. It is only in brief moments when we can see the potential of liberalism manifest without the constraints of fear and anxiety. That is understandable, but unfortunately I don’t think many liberals fully understand this.