Thursday, September 13, 2012

Jonathan Haidt's Darwinian Conservatism

More clearly than in any of his previous writing, Jonathan Haidt's new book--The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion--shows his movement towards Darwinian conservatism.  And now his friends are wondering, how could such a good Jewish liberal atheistic boy from Brooklyn turn out so badly?

Haidt's path to Darwinian conservatism is suggested in his interview in the Wall Street Journal.  An earlier version of his Darwinian moral psychology can be seen in his TED talk in 2008.  More recently, he has extended his theory through a paper on libertarian morality.  A few months ago, he appeared on "The Colbert Report."

The most revealing comment from the Wall Street Journal interview is his praise for Thomas Sowell's Conflict of Visions, in which Sowell elaborates Friedrich Hayek's distinction between the "constrained vision" of the British tradition and the "unconstrained vision" of the French tradition.  The constrained or realist vision of human nature is the vision of classical liberalism (Adam Smith) or traditionalist conservatism (Edmund Burke).  "Again, as a moral psychologist," Haidt says, "I had to say the constrained vision is correct."  The evolutionary support for the constrained vision is one of the major themes of my Darwinian Conservatism.

In his exchange with Stephen Colbert, Haidt said that "conservatives have a more adequate view of human nature than liberals do."  But then Colbert had a good comment at the end of their exchange, pointing out that if Haidt is telling us to see that there might be some truth on opposing sides of the political debate, that's a liberal idea!

Haidt argues that political psychology is rooted in moral psychology, because political ideologies (such as liberalism, conservatism, and libertarianism) express moral commitments.  The moral matrix of each political ideology depends on the relative values given to six possible moral foundations: (1) care/harm, (2) liberty/oppression, (3) fairness/cheating, (4) loyalty/betrayal, (5) authority/subversion, and (6) sanctity/degradation. 

For liberals, the most sacred value is caring for victims of oppression, which gives great weight to care, liberty, and fairness, but almost no weight to loyalty, authority, or sanctity.  For libertarians, the most sacred value is individual liberty, which raises liberty above all other values.  For conservatives, the most sacred value is preserving the institutions and traditions that sustain a moral community, which gives some weight to all six moral foundations.

Haidt's Moral Foundations Theory is Darwinian, because he explains these six moral foundations as products of human evolutionary history.  His theory is conservative, because he suggests that conservatism has the advantage of embracing all six moral foundations, and in that respect, it is superior to the other ideologies.  For that reason, he argues, it is easier for conservatives to understand liberals than it is for liberals to understand conservatives.

Haidt is somewhat evasive or ambivalent, however, about his conservatism.  In his new book, as well as his other writings, he generally identifies himself as a value-free social scientist who is engaged in description not prescription.  He also says that in his personal views, he has moved from being a pure liberal to being a "centrist" rather than a conservative.  But at the same time, he clearly indicates that conservatism is superior in its broad grasp of all six moral foundations. 

In a review of the book in Science (August 3, 2012), John Jost complains about this alternation between Haidt's descriptive science and prescriptive conservatism.  Moreover, Jost writes: "If descriptive morality is based on whatever people believe, then both liberals and conservatives would seem to have equal claim to it.  Does it really make sense, philosophically or psychologically or politically, to try to keep score, let alone to assert that 'more is better' when it comes to moral judgment?"

Another source of confusion is that while Haidt sometimes seems to be a moral relativist, because any of the six moral foundations are equally moral, he insists that he is a "pluralist but not a relativist" (319, 338), and thus apparently following the lead of Isaiah Berlin, in defending moral pluralism as expressing the multiple moral ends of a universal human nature (182, 316-17, 350).

The imprecise terminology of liberalism, conservatism, and libertarianism is also confusing.  From my reading of Haidt's book, he is implicitly embracing a liberal conservatism, or what people like Frank Meyer defended as a fusion of classical liberalism and traditionalist conservatism.  (Haidt mentions fusionism briefly in his paper on libertarianism.)  Crucial for this fusion is the distinction between state and society.  The end for a free state is liberty.  The end for a free society is virtue.  Political liberty provides the conditions for people to pursue virtue in civil society through the natural and voluntary associations of life.  Classical liberals or libertarians rightly emphasize political liberty.  Traditionalist conservatives rightly emphasize social virtue.  Political liberty provides the liberal tolerance by which people are free to pursue their moral visions within whatever moral community they join, as long as they do not violate the equal liberty of all others to live their moral lives as they choose.

This is, I think, implicit in Haidt's book, but he never makes it explicit, because he never clearly makes the crucial distinction between state and society, political liberty and social virtue.

Consider the confusing way in which Haidt argues for going beyond the "ethic of autonomy" to embrace the "ethic of community" and the "ethic of divinity."  On the one hand, the ethics of community and divinity seem to require an illiberal denial of individual autonomy and liberty.  On the other hand, Haidt clearly does not want this, because the whole point of his book is to make it possible for all moral communities to live together peacefully, which requires agreement on liberal tolerance as founded on political liberty.  He opens his book with the famous appeal of Rodney King--"Can we all get along?"  He closes the book by echoing King's language: "We're all stuck here for a while, so let's try to work it out" (318).  But Haidt never clearly explains that his project requires a fusion of classical liberalism and traditionalist conservatism rooted in a Darwinian science of human nature.

From the perspective of the "ethic of divinity," Haidt explains, "the personal liberty of secular Western nations looks like libertinism, hedonism, and a celebration of humanity's baser instincts" (100).  In the footnote to this sentence, he observes: "This, for example, was the conclusion by Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian who spent two years studying in America in the 1940s.  He was repulsed, and this moral repulsion influenced his later work as an Islamist philosopher and theorist, one of the main inspirations for Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda" (337). 

Haidt leaves his reader wondering what this means.  Does this mean that embracing the "ethic of divinity" necessarily requires what he calls elsewhere "moralistic killing" (268) of those outside of one's religious community?  Clearly this is not what Haidt wants, because he wants everyone from diverse moral communities to live with one another peacefully.  How is that possible?

Haidt describes the enlightenment that came to him from living for a few months in the small Indian city of Bhubaneswar, where he saw life organized around the ethic of divinity.  After some struggle, he began to see the goodness of this community: "I began to feel the ethic of divinity in subtle ways" (104).  But he also saw problems.  "I could see the dark side of this ethic too: once you allow visceral feelings of disgust to guide your conception of what God wants, then minorities who trigger even a hint of disgust in the majority (such as homosexuals or obese people) can be ostracized and treated cruelly.  The ethic of divinity is sometimes incompatible with compassion, egalitarianism, and basic human rights" (105-106).

So how do we allow for an ethic of divinity while avoiding its "dark side"?  Haidt writes: "I began to see that many moral matrices coexist within each nation.  Each matrix provides a complete, unified, and emotionally compelling worldview, easily justified by observable evidence and nearly impregnable to attack by arguments from outsiders" (107).  But how is it possible for many moral matrices to coexist in one nation?  Doesn't that require that these multiple moral communities must not be permitted to violate the classical liberal principles of liberty and tolerance?

Haidt complains about the narrowness of people who grow up in Western, educated, industrial, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) societies.  He explains:
The moral domain is unusually narrow in WEIRD cultures, where it is largely limited to the ethic of autonomy (i.e., moral concerns about individuals harming, oppressing, or cheating other individuals).  It is broader--including the ethics of community and divinity--in most other societies, and within religious and conservative moral matrices within WEIRD societies. (110)
But notice the contradiction in this passage.  WEIRD cultures are said to be "unusually narrow" because of their commitment to the principle of autonomy or individual liberty.  But at the same time, this very principle allows WEIRD cultures to include "religious and conservative moral matrices" that manifest "the ethics of community and divinity."  One might infer from this that WEIRD cultures are actually the broadest cultures of all, because only they allow for the individual liberty that is the condition for all moral communities to flourish.

 Haidt suggests this inference again in another passage, in which he is considering the social nature of human beings as like bees:
     Let's imagine two nations, one full of small-scale hives, one devoid of them.  In the hivish nation, let's suppose that most people participate in several cross-cutting hives--perhaps one at work, one at church, and one in a weekend sports league.  At universities, most students join fraternities and sororities.  In the workplace, most leaders structure their organizations to take advantage of our groupish overlay.  Through their lives, citizens regularly enjoy muscular bonding, team building, and moments of self-transcendence with groups of fellow citizens who may be different from them racially, but with whom they feel deep similarity and interdependence.  This bonding is often accompanied by the excitement of intergroup competition (as in sports and business), but sometimes not (as in church).
     In the second nation, there's no hiving at all.  Everyone cherishes their autonomy and respects the autonomy of their fellow citizens. . . . You'll find no culturally approved or institutionalized ways to lose yourself in a larger group.
     Which nation do you think would score higher on measures of social capital, mental health, and happiness?  Which nation will produce more successful businesses and a higher standard of living?
     When a single hive is scaled up to the size of a nation and is led by a dictator with an army at his disposal, the results are invariably disastrous.  But that is no argument for removing or suppressing hives at lower levels.  In fact, a nation that is full of hives is a nation of happy and satisfied people.  It's not a very promising target for takeover by a demagogue offering people meaning in exchange for their souls.  Creating a nation of multiple competing groups and parties was, in fact, seen by America's founding fathers as a way of preventing tyranny. (242-43)

So now it's clear that in arguing for the superiority of the hiving nation, Haidt is arguing not for a nation that is a single hive, but for a nation that is "full of small-scale hives," a nation like that designed by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and the other American founders, a nation that secures individual liberty and thus secures the moral foundation that allows people to pursue all other moral foundations so long as they respect the equal liberty of all individuals in that moral pursuit.  (It should be noted that Madison and Hamilton are identified by Sowell as belonging to the "constrained" or realist tradition of social thought.)

Here we see the fusion of classical liberalism (promoting the political liberty that secures the free exercise of hivishness) and traditional conservatism (promoting the social virtue that is cultivated in hives).

We also see here how Haidt moves from value-free description to value-laden prescription:  by nature human beings pursue happiness, and we can judge some societies as more successful than others in securing that pursuit of happiness.  From this point of view, more is better if Darwinian conservatism is better in accounting for the widest range of those moral foundations necessary for human happiness.

Some of my other posts on Haidt and related topics can be found here, here, here, here. here, and here.

You can determine your "morality profile" according to Haidt's theory by taking some tests at Haidt's moral psychology website.


Anonymous said...

Maybe it's not possible for all moral communities to live together peacefully. Think of them instead as strategies competing in an evolutionary game theory. Maybe we never reach an evolutionarily stable state and the strategies are always competing, sometimes gaining when conditions are right, sometimes losing out when they are not. Sometimes success of one theory leaves it vulnerable to invasion by another and so on. For example, perhaps liberal tolerance leaves it vulnerable to invasion by fast-multiplying religious fundamentalism, which itself is then vulnerable to being invaded by some other strategy.

Kent Guida said...

Haidt’s WSJ interview makes it clear there is such a stigma attached to anything bearing the conservative label that he can’t bring himself to face the conclusions of his research – even after he embraces Sowell’s ‘constrained vision.’

It will be interesting to see how his thought develops over time. Will the boy from Scarsdale who soaked up orthodox liberalism studying philosophy at Yale and made it big in the ultra-liberal field of social psychology ever connect the dots?

Has Haidt ever commented on your work?

Jon Haidt said...

As always, you have done a very close and fair reading of my work. And as before, you see things in my work that I was not fully aware of, but which I agree with. I think you're right to call me on some potential contradictions. I am indeed a Darwinian, and I am indeed sympathetic to both classical liberalism and Burkean conservatism -- more so than to modern leftism or 1970s liberalism. So I'll have to think about this, and about the conundrums of tolerance and nested incompatible moral matrices that you raise. Thank you!

jon haidt