Re: The Moral Stereotypes of Liberals and Conservatives

In this post, I will analyze Jonathan Haidt’s study (in partnership with Brian A. Nosek and Jesse Graham) about liberal and conservative perceptions of and stereotypes about moral foundations:

“The Moral Stereotypes of Liberals and Conservatives”

Haidt did this research on self-identified conservatives and self-identified liberals which invalidates it from the start. Self-report data is notoriously unreliable.

Here is a good summary of the study and in summarizing the author unintentionally pointed out the problem of self-reports:

One of the applications of those pairings is a study that Haidt describes in Reason this way:

“In a study I conducted with colleagues Jesse Graham and Brian Nosek, we tested how well liberals and con­servatives could understand each other. We asked more than 2,000 American visitors to fill out the Moral Foundations Questionnaire. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out normally, answering as themselves. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out as they think a ‘typical liberal’ would respond. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out as a ‘typical conservative’ would respond. This design allowed us to examine the stereotypes that each side held about the other. More important, it allowed us to assess how accurate they were by comparing people’s expectations about ‘typical’ partisans to the actual responses from partisans on the left and the right. Who was best able to pretend to be the other?

“The results were clear and consistent. Moderates and conservatives were most accurate in their predictions, whether they were pretending to be liberals or conservatives. Liberals were the least accurate, especially those who described themselves as ‘very liberal.’ The biggest errors in the whole study came when liberals answered the care and fairness questions while pretending to be conservatives. When faced with statements such as ‘one of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal’ or ‘justice is the most important requirement for a society,’ liberals assumed that conservatives would disagree.”

In other words, conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives.  More precisely, conservatives’ version of liberals matches liberals’ version of themselves better than liberals’ version of conservatives matches conservatives’ vision of themselves.

That last sentence hits the nail on the head, without the author realizing it.

Haidt was studying perception. He oversimplified his conclusions by stating the liberal perceptions of conservatives were wrong for the reason they didn’t match conservatives’ perceptions of themselves. This is oversimplified because, as Haidt should know, self-perceptions are often inccorect (while apparent stereotypes aren’t always incorrect). Haidt would need to also measure the accuracy of self-perceptions among conservatives and liberals.

Haidt is measuring the symbolic ideology rather than the substance on specific issues. This is a failing not only of this particular study by Haidt but also a failing of his other studies as well. As far as I can tell, he is only using self-report data in developing his Moral Foundations Theory. He is asking people what they identify as and asking people which values they identify with (i.e., symbolic ideology). Neither of these gets at people’s pragmatic ideology or gets at whether people’s stated beliefs conform to the less-conscious values they act according to. It certainly doesn’t get beyond the superficialities and biases of self-perceptions and self-reports.

Maybe the difference Haidt is measuring is being incorrectly analyzed. Maybe liberals are correct in their views of conservatives while conservatives themselves have less accurate self-awareness about their own conservative values. Maybe liberals are looking past the rhetoric and talking points to the actual behavior of conservatives. Actual behavior says a lot more about someone’s actual values than their own claims about what they theoretically or idealistically value.

One of the conclusions that Haidt comes to in the study’s paper is that liberals and conservatives are closer together than either side realizes. This is probably true in one sense and untrue in another sense. This is true when speaking of the average American in terms of the average liberal and the average conservative. However, the problem is that the conservative movement includes a significant number of people who are fairly liberal in their political positions.

If these politically liberal self-identified conservatives were removed from the measure of conservatism, then the average conservative would be much further to the right. There is no similar percentage of politically conservative self-identified liberals and so the average liberal would remain about the same. So, Haidt would come to different conclusions if he did a study that categorized people according to their political positions rather than their political labels.

There is an even further point of possible confusion. Haidt does at least distinguish a third group of  ‘moderates’. Polls show that most Americans will identify as conservatives if ‘moderate’ isn’t given as a choice. But if ‘moderate’ is given as a choice, most Americans identify as ‘moderate’.

So, there is a certain amount of overlap between moderates and conservatives. First, this would exacerbate the other overlap of political liberals self-identifying as conservatives. Second, considering there is a large percentage of Americans who will switch between the labels of ‘moderate’ and ‘conservative’, it makes issues of ideological conflation even more fuzzy. Furthermore, considering most Americans are politically liberal, these self-identified moderates are probably in ideological alignment with the politically liberal self-identified conservatives.

All of this leads one to wonder what ideological labels even mean. What is Haidt measuring? And what does Haidt think he is measuring?

—-

Let me continue my analysis with some other types of questions and criticisms.

Were the subjects of the study a representative sample? If the sample was, for example, all or mostly college students who are more liberal, then it would mean that the conservatives were around more liberals and the liberals were around fewer conservatives. In the paper, this is what they say about the participants:

“The participants were 2,212 visitors (62% female; median age 28; only U.S. residents or citizens) to ProjectImplicit.org”

This basically fits in with my doubts. Like college students, females and the younger tend to be more liberal. In general, more liberals are probably found online than in other environments. So, Haidt’s sample would include more people who are liberal, liberal-minded, or otherwise familiar with liberalism and liberal-mindedness. I’d argue that this doesn’t offer a fair and accurate representation of the general population.

This brings me to other confounding factors.

Most older people are conservatives. Simply being older can potentially give one more perspective and experience. Younger generations are more liberal than the older generations were at the same age. However, when these younger liberal generations grow older, they probably will maintain their higher rates of liberalism (as did the older generation maintain their lower rates of liberalism) and will also gain more perspective and experience. Furthermore, younger conservatives may have no better understanding of liberals than younger liberals have of conservatives.

So, are the results of the study merely pointing to a demographic fluke at this point in history? If the study controlled for age, would different results be found?

Ignoring all of that, maybe there is something going on that Haidt isn’t even considering.

First, authoritarianism and social conservatism have been shown to have strong correlation:

“For several decades Bob Altmeyer, an American scholar at the University of Manitoba, has been a tireless and dedicated researcher. According to the Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology, Altmeyer’s work “powerfully predicts a wide rang of political, social, ideological and intergroup phenomena.” Altmeyer’s work is largely directed at other psychologists and social scientists. He has undertaken hundreds of experiments and his work is reliable and valid according to Paul Nesbitt-Larking reporting in

“Political Psychology in 2004. His work goes the distance in understanding conservatism.

“In an article titled “What Happens When Authoritarians Inherit the Earth? A simulation,” Altmeyer explains that, “When I started out, and ever since, I was not looking for political conservatives. I was looking for people who overtly submit to the established authorities in their lives, who could be of any political/economic/religious stripe.” His work identified “right-wing authoritarians” but he was not using the term “right-wing” in the political sense. Rather he used the designation in a psychological sense.

“But as he continued his work he reports that “it turns out that in North America persons who score highly on my measure of authoritarianism test tend to favor right-wing political parties and have ‘conservative’ economic philosophies and religious sentiments. He goes on to say that this empirical finding has been repeatedly duplicated in his continuing studies and has been replicated in studies by others.

“The extensive research on the behavior and personality characteristics of right-wing authoritarians and conservatives concludes that they are people who do not see themselves as they actually are and have little facility for self-analysis.

“The research demonstrates that conservatives delight in hurling invectives against their enemies and often prove to have the thinnest of skins if the same is done to them. Many conservatives are unaware of their illogical, contradictory and hypocritical thinking. And if they are forced to address it, either rationalize it away, fail to care, or go on the attack against those who reveal their human weaknesses.”

And authoritarianism has been correlated with higher rates of hypocrisy:

“Research reveals that authoritarian followers drive through life under the influence of impaired thinking a lot more than most people do, exhibiting sloppy reasoning, highly compartmentalized beliefs, double standards, hypocrisy, self-blindness, a profound ethnocentrism, and — to top it all off — a ferocious dogmatism that makes it unlikely anyone could ever change their minds with evidence or logic.”

It’s certainly not hard to find inconsistencies among conservatives, especially social conservatives. For example, conservatives have the highest rate of porn consumption and conservative states have the highest rates of teen pregnancy. I could list many more examples, but that isn’t as helpful as research on authoritarianism and hypocrisy. By the way, liberals test high on ‘openness’ which is something authoritarians, of course, test extremely low on (‘openness’ probably disinclines someone towards the worst forms of hypocrisy as found in authoritarian groupthink).

So, it is possible that many individual social conservatives even if only moderately authoritarian, enough to skew the conservative sample in that direction, are less consistent in their beliefs than the average liberal. This might skew the entire study for conservatives are familiar with their own inconsistencies and it is easier to be aware of your own inconsistencies (or the inconsistencies of those in your own group) than to be aware of the inconsistencies of someone who is entirely different from you, although being intuitively aware of inconsistencies doesn’t necessarily imply a broader self-awareness. On the opposite side: If liberals are more consistent in their beliefs, then it probably would be easier for a conservative to understand liberal beliefs. It is harder to have accurate views of an inconsistent group, especially one that hypocritically betrays its own stated values on a regular basis.

I really don’t know how this factor might play out in Haidt’s study. I have no data about ideological self-awareness as it might relate to authoritarianism and hypocrisy. My main point is simply that it is a confounding factor not being controlled for.

Secondly, it seems obvious that self-identified conservatives as a group are less ideologically homogenous than self-identfied liberals as a group. This would contribute to the conclusion that conservatives are collectively more inconsistent which would make it harder for an outsider to assess their beliefs on average. To determine this, testing for the average beliefs of liberals and conservatives wouldn’t be adequate, and so the rate of diversity of beliefs would also need to be tested. This is particularly problematic for Haidt’s entire theory as he is relying on self-defined labels which are notoriously unreliable because people’s defintions of such labels aren’t consistent. I’ve analyzed the complexity of this problem before.

The problem of the study is that self-described liberals are a smaller and more narrowly defined demographic group whereas self-described conservatives are a larger and more broadly defined demographic group, diversity making the conservative movement itself less consistent. As Pew data shows, almost 1 in 10 Americans holding strong liberal beliefs self-identify as conservative, but you don’t find a large number of Americans holding conservative beliefs self-identifying as liberal.

The conservative label, besides including 9% of Pew’s “Solid Liberals” (liberal across the board, both fiscally and socially), includes neocon progressives and war-hawks, free market neoliberals, fundamentalists as well as theocrats, some libertarians and socially liberal fiscal conservatives verging on libertarianism, patriotic statists wanting a militaristic empire, anti-statists wanting a weak government, openly gay Republicans, WASP culture warriors, white supremancists, gun-toting militants and survivalists, constitutionalists, small town rural types, elderly people remembering a conservatism that no longer exists, former Cubans who hate communism, small business owners fighting free trade globalism, big business defenders promoting free trade globalism, corporatists verging on fascism, anarcho-capitalists, Randian Objectivists, traditional Catholics who have high rates of membership in unions, union-bashing think tank employees, ordinary people wanting to conserve progressive reforms such as social security, politicians promoting the ending of the progressive reforms such as privatizing social security, etc.

You don’t find such massive diversity among self-described liberals.

A further problem is that self-described liberals don’t represent all liberals. As I pointed out, many liberals self-identify as conservatives. Other Pew data also has shown almost half of liberals self-identifying as Independents. I would suspect that most moderates hold a majority of liberal beliefs, values and policy positions. The data shows that most Americans in general, despite large numbers self-identifying as conservative, are actually very liberal on many key issues.

One other factor to consider is the mainstream media. Maybe some of the most popular pundits (or, most popular or not, pundits with the most ability to make themselves heard) such as Limbaugh and Beck aren’t representative of the average conservative. So, a liberal might mistakenly base their views of the typical conservative solely or largely on these few far right pundits. However, maybe the opposite isn’t true. As liberals are more narrowly defined as a group and because liberal activists are less radicalized, popular pundits of liberalism might be more representative of the average liberal and so the media ends up, intentionally or not, giving conservatives more accurate information about liberal beliefs.

Even if it is true that liberals are inaccurate in their assessment of the beliefs of the average conservative, liberals may be accurate in their assessment of the beliefs of conservatives in the media and other powerful conservatives who control the political narrative of the conservative movement. This is an important difference since pundits and other powerful people have more influence and control over party politics than does the average citizen. Political movements are defined more by their activists and leaders than by the average person identifying with the movement. It might be possible, though, that liberal activists and leaders are closer to the average liberal than is found with conservatives in the conservative movement.

How is the liberal supposed to know what the average conservative thinks when the spokespersons for the conservative movement don’t represent the average conservative? If this is the case, this would be more of a criticism of the conservative movement that causes such confusion than a criticism of the liberal who is confused by it. Going by this interpretation, I would posit that this possible liberal misperception of conservatives would be based on the mischaracterization of the average conservative by the conservative media itself and based on how the rest of the MSM mostly accepts this right-wing framing of the conservative movement.

All of the mainstream media and all of mainstream politics is similarly confused. You’ll never see acknowledged in the MSM that, although the average American would rather self-identify as a conservative than a liberal, the average American holds liberal views on many if not most major social, economic and political issues. The average liberal is simply repeating what they’ve learned from the MSM which is problematic in itself. It is sad that we must judge liberals for believing what they’ve been told by supposedly trusted news institutions. The MSM has misinformed the American people about the general public being more conservative than it  actually is and misinformed the American people about the average conservative being more right-wing than they actually are.

I admit that it is a sad state of affairs. I wish liberals better understood that the average conservative is closer in opinion to the average liberal than the average conservative is to the radicalized activists, leaders and pundits of the conservative movement. This is hard for most liberals to wrap their minds around for these non-radicalized average conservatives keep being manipulated by the radicals in their movement and hence voting the radicals into power, at least in recent decades.

Still, being manipulated by radical rhetoric isn’t the same thing as being radical oneself. Even liberals can be manipulated by the radical rhetoric of the right-wing which is what happened after 9/11. Fear works, sad but true.

Another factor to keep in mind relates back to hypocrisy. Haidt is testing for self-described labels and self-described values. This might in some cases have little to do with actual behavior. If on average conservatives show more inconsistency between their stated values and their actual behaviors, why would Haidt judge liberals as being inaccurate for basing their assessment on the actual behaviors of conservatives rather than on their stated values? Liberals shouldn’t be blamed for assuming that conservatives are more like liberals in thinking that their actual behaviors match up with their stated values. This speaks maybe to the naivette of liberals in not appreciating conservative hypocrisy, but such naivette certainly isn’t a moral failure. I think that ‘moral consistency’ (i.e., lack of hypocrisy) should be added to Haidt’s moral values.

There is also an irony in Haidt doing this kind of research. As I pointed out in my reviews of his theory, it seems obvious to me that Haidt lacks an accurate and unbiased assessment of liberal moral values. The fact that the theory itself is problematic makes any research based on it problematic. Maybe Haidt merely ends up testing for which group ends up agreeing the most with his own personal bias.

Another irony in a scientist like Haidt promoting conservative values is that research shows that conservatives mistrust science more and that this mistrust has been increasing:

http://404systemerror.com/study-conservatives-trust-in-science-has-fallen-dramatically-since-mid-1970s/

But a similar strong and persistant bias can’t be found among liberals:

http://open.salon.com/blog/ted_frier/2012/03/29/everyone_is_biased_only_liberals_try_not_to_be

http://truth-out.org/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=6892:the-republican-brain-why-even-educated-conservatives-deny-science–and-reality

“So now the big question: Are liberals also “smart idiots”?

“There’s no doubt that more knowledge—or more political engagement—can produce more bias on either side of the aisle. That’s because it forges a stronger bond between our emotions and identities on the one hand, and a particular body of facts on the other.

“But there are also reason to think that, with liberals, there is something else going on. Liberals, to quote George Lakoff, subscribe to a view that might be dubbed “Old Enlightenment reason.” They really do seem to like facts; it seems to be part of who they are. And fascinatingly, in Kahan’s study liberals did not act like smart idiots when the question posed was about the safety of nuclear power.

“Nuclear power is a classic test case for liberal biases—kind of the flipside of the global warming issue–for the following reason. It’s well known that liberals tend to start out distrustful of nuclear energy: There’s a long history of this on the left. But this impulse puts them at odds with the views of the scientific community on the matter (scientists tend to think nuclear power risks are overblown, especially in light of the dangers of other energy sources, like coal).

“So are liberals “smart idiots” on nukes? Not in Kahan’s study. As members of the “egalitarian communitarian” group in the study—people with more liberal values–knew more science and math, they did not become more worried, overall, about the risks of nuclear power. Rather, they moved in the opposite direction from where these initial impulses would have taken them. They become less worried—and, I might add, closer to the opinion of the scientific community on the matter.

“You may or may not support nuclear power personally, but let’s face it: This is not the “smart idiot” effect. It looks a lot more like open-mindedness.”

So, the very act of scientifically studying biases, including liberal biases, is typically going to get strong support from liberals and weak support (if not outright antagonism) from conservatives. Even if liberals were more biased about certain issues, that may be less relevant in that liberals also show a stronger desire to correct their own mistaken views.

To me, this relates back to the issue of consistency and hypocrisy. If liberals are more aware of inconsistencies when they occur, they will put more effort into becoming more consistent. I’d love to see Haidt not only study moral values but also how those values relate or don’t relate to moral behavior, especially the specific moral behaviors that the moral values imply.

I should clarify that I’m not arguing that liberals are morally better in all or even most ways. As I see it, there are strengths and weaknesses to both conservative and liberal predispositions. What I am suggesting, though, is that it might be possible that liberals are more self-aware of their own moral failings, at least in terms of being less prone to confirmation bias and the smart idiot effect when it comes to their own cherished beliefs and opinions. The hypothetical part would be whether being more self-aware of moral failings actually leads to lessening those moral failings and hence seeking to morally improve oneself, beyond merely being willing to change one’s mind according to new info.

As a liberal-minded person, what I care about are the facts even when or especially when they contradict or put doubt to my beliefs. However, conservatives don’t equally share my concern and this bothers me, almost causes me to lose hope.

Because of my liberal respect for science, I feel compelled to take Haidt’s theory seriously and to carefully look at his data. What I’ve come to is doubts about how Haidt is going about his research. My doubts are only increased as his conclusion doesn’t seem to fit the broader range of research about biases in terms of conservatives and liberals. I’d like to see Haidt’s response to all this other research and why it seems to point away from his preferred conclusion.

So, I honestly don’t know what to make of it. If someone can fix some of the problems of Haidt’s research model and yet come to similar results, I would be more convinced of his conclusion. Until then, it’s just data, just as likely to turn out to be meaningless as meaningful.

—-

Here are a few of my previous posts about Jonathan Haidt, Moral Foundations theory, and the conservative/liberal distinction:

 Jonathan Haidt’s Liberal-Minded Anti-Liberalism

Haidt’s Moral Reasoning (vs ethnical reasoning)

Haidt & Mooney, Moral Foundations & Spiral Dynamics

Liberalism: Weaknesses & Failures

The Enlightenment Project: A Defense

And here are some relevant commentary on Haidt’s theory and research:

http://skepoet.wordpress.com/2012/06/12/some-incoherent-thoughts-on-jonathan-haidts-moral-compass-and-the-idea-of-the-marxian-left/

http://skepoet.wordpress.com/2012/07/10/marginalia-on-radical-thinking-dialogue-with-keith418-on-the-moral-grounding-of-political-notions/

http://skepoet.wordpress.com/2012/06/10/marginalia-on-skeptical-thinking-interview-with-simon-frankel-pratt-part-2/

http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/05/17/the-unbearable-squishiness-of-jonathan-haidt/

http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/politics/4235/conservatism’s_bulldog_claims_psychology_tilts_liberal

http://accidentalblogger.typepad.com/accidental_blogger/2012/04/a-semi-righteous-book-prasad.html

http://openparachute.wordpress.com/2012/05/17/human-morality-is-evolving/http://www.ethicsdefined.org/the-problem-with-morality/conservatives-vs-liberals/

http://openparachute.wordpress.com/2012/04/16/morality-and-the-worship-of-reason/

http://www.tnr.com/article/books-and-arts/magazine/102760/righteous-mind-haidt-morality-politics-scientism

http://rsafellowship.com/group/human-capability-and-societal-transformation/forum/topics/beyond-the-righteous-mind-helping-jonathan-haidt-understand-his-o

http://readingsubtly.blogspot.com/2012/04/enlightened-hypocrisy-of-jonathan.html

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2012/03/jonathan-hadit-robert-wright-crazy-delicious/

http://isabel.penraeth.com/post/26069975441/tilting-at-a-new-windmill-from-moral-foundation-theory

http://www.desmogblog.com/conservatives-seeking-show-they-are-open-minded-ignore-contrary-evidence-and-no-not-onion-article

Jonathan Haidt’s Liberal-Minded Anti-Liberalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[ . . . ]

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