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?

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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.

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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

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. Oxytocin 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 oxytocin 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 oxytocin would simply exaggerate this difference. Liberals’ greater empathetic concern for strangers is unlikely to be lessened or disappear because of oxytocin, unless there is something about oxytocin 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 oxytocin-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