Monday, September 24, 2012

Haidt's Vindication of Fusionist Conservatism and Aristotelian Liberalism

Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind has provoked a lot of discussion and controversy primarily because of his claim that conservative Republicans have a better grasp of moral psychology than do liberal Democrats.  Haidt argues that Darwinian evolution has shaped human nature to be innately predisposed to grasp six foundations of morality, identified with six pairs of antithetical terms: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.  The first three foundations support individual autonomy.  The second three support communal bonding.  Insofar as human beings have evolved to be both individually selfish and socially groupish--or "90% chimp and 10% bee"--they need all six moral foundations.  But while liberals stress only the first three foundations, conservatives stress all six foundations.  And thus Darwinian moral psychology supports conservatism as having a superior understanding of evolved moral dispositions.

Haidt struggles, however, with the confusing one-dimensional idea that everyone must be either "liberal" or "conservative."  First of all, it's only in recent years that he was forced to recognize "libertarianism" as a third position.  And it's only recently that he has begun to study libertarian morality in a paper that has not yet been published--"Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Roots of an Individualist Ideology."  Moreover, the criticisms coming from libertarians complaining that their morality of individual liberty was being ignored eventually persuaded him to add "Liberty" as a sixth foundation of morality.

It is only slowly that Haidt has come to see that this addition of Liberty to his Moral Foundations Theory is crucial, because this is the one moral foundation that is shared by liberals, conservatives, and libertarians, and it is the one foundation that makes it possible for them to live together peacefully.  What this really means is that in a liberal regime like the United States, almost everyone is a "liberal" in the sense of classical liberalism.  Although modern liberals have moved towards emphasizing "positive liberty" as requiring more governmental intervention in the economy than would be justified by "negative liberty," the modern liberals still agree with the libertarian principle of individual freedom that allows for pluralist toleration.

In his study of libertarian morality, Haidt concludes that libertarians care for their own individual liberty to the exclusion of all other moral principles: "libertarians appear to live in a world where traditional moral concerns (e.g., respect for authority, personal sanctity) are not assigned much importance" (13), and thus "libertarians place lower value on morality as typically measured by moral psychologists" (16).

But Haidt is missing something here, which is suggested by his comment that "libertarians may fear that the moral concerns typically endorsed by liberals or conservatives (as measured by the MFQ) are claims that can be used to trample upon individual rights--libertarians' sacred value" (16).  He also observes that libertarians "might feel little emotional attraction to modern liberalism's emphasis on altruism and positive liberty, and turned off by its willingness to compel some citizens to help other citizens (through redistributive tax policies)" (30).  The crucial word here is "compel."  Oddly, this is the only place in Haidt's paper that he mentions compulsion, even though this is the overriding concern of libertarian morality.  Libertarians object to compulsion or coercion, and thus to any enforcement of morality through governmental coercion.  But they don't object to the moral order and character formation that arises in the spontaneous orders of civil society.  In his surveys of libertarian attitudes, Haidt never distinguished between compulsory and voluntary enforcement of morality, and thus he never captured the true character of libertarian morality.

David Boaz conveys this libertarian morality in chapter 7 of his Libertarianism: A Primer-- the chapter on "Civil Society" as the intermediate social realm between the individual and the state.  He contends that libertarians see human beings as having natural desires "for connectedness, for love and friendship and community," and they think those social desires are best satisfied in the natural and voluntary associations of civil society--in families, in churches, in schools, in fraternal societies, and in commercial associations.  Moral character formation is achieved better through such natural and voluntary associations than through governmental coercion, which "undermines the moral character necessary to both civil society and liberty under law."

This indicates that libertarians believe that political liberty is the condition for social virtue, which has been the fundamental idea of "fusionist" conservatism as most fully stated by Frank Meyer.  Meyer argued that American conservatism rightly understood combined libertarianism or classical liberalism with traditionalist conservatism.  If we see that liberty is the condition for virtue, then we can see that the proper purpose of politics is securing liberty, while the proper purpose of society is shaping our moral and intellectual virtues.  Although Haidt in his paper on libertarianism mentions fusionist conservatism only briefly (4), he captures its main insight when he says that libertarians believe "the liberty of the individual is the essential precondition for human flourishing" (5). 

This fusionist conservatism might also be called Aristototelian liberalism, based on the thought that while Aristotle was right about ethics as directed to virtue, Locke was right about politics as directed to liberty.  (Although he doesn't elaborate the thought in his book, Haidt endorses Aristotelian "virtue ethics" [369, n. 68]; and he speaks favorably of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics in his book The Happiness Hypothesis.)  This conception of Aristotelian liberalism has been developed by Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl.

Although I am surely guilty of confirmation bias, I am happy to see Haidt's work as suggesting that a Darwinian moral psychology supports Darwinian conservatism.

These points have been elaborated in some previous posts here, here, here, and here, and in a lecture for the Philadelphia Society.

Jon Haidt has posted this comment on my post of September 13:

"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!"


Mark Sloan said...

Larry, I wholeheartedly support the idea that optimizing a brand of conservatism, or any political view, requires taking into account the evolutionary origins of morality. By that, I mean taking into account how the evolutionary origins of morality inform us as to the function and workings of our social psychology and motivations, moral intuitions, and experience of durable well-being (durable happiness or flourishing).

My area of interest is the science of morality, understanding morality as a biological and cultural evolutionary adaptation. How familiar are you with the rapid advances in that field in the last 35 years or so?

Haidt is one researcher who has ventured over into the political sphere. While his work is excellent, it is not the central thrust in my view. That central thrust is the idea that morality is a biological and cultural evolutionary adaptation selected (in all its marvelous cultural diversity) by the benefits of altruistic cooperation in groups. The explanatory power of this hypothesis in terms of past and present moral standards, our moral biology, and puzzles about moral behavior is so extraordinary that I don’t see how it could be significantly wrong.

Regarding Haidt’s work, his six moral foundations are not ultimate sources of morality but only biology and culture based heuristics for altruistic cooperation strategies. As you correctly point out, “The second three support communal bonding”. But it might be more insightful to say “The second three are strategies for increasing the benefits of altruistic cooperation in in-groups that share the same Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity”.

Further, liberals lack of emphasis on the second three is not because they don’t instinctively feel these idea’s attractiveness, but is, at least in my view, because liberals consciously reject them as immoral because they too often define as immoral the behavior of out-groups with different Loyalty, Authority, and definitions of Sanctity.

Both liberal and conservative positions potentially could be improved by better understanding the evolutionary origins of morality. That better understanding, which I don’t know how to define except for its goal, would be how to socially encourage Loyalty, Authority, and definitions of Sanctity as to increase the benefits of altruistic cooperation in in-groups without destroying the benefits of cooperation between groups – which it too often does.

Final point. Conservatives should not immediately reject as liberal non-sense the word altruistic in “altruistic cooperation”. They, and liberals, might better understand the evolutionary meaning if it was called “morally admirable cooperation”. Both mean the same thing and distinguish this morally admirable cooperation from merely self-interested cooperation, such as economic cooperation.

I have enjoyed writing this. It had never occurred to me that “moral cooperation” might be better understood than the technical term “altruistic cooperation”.

Anonymous said...

"political liberty is the condition for social virtue"

But what is the point of virtue? Traditionally it was thought that compelled charity, for example, wasn't true virtue because it didn't come from the will of the giver. So you needed liberty in order for true virtue to exist. But the point of fostering virtue was divine salvation. So if you take away the belief in the divine, why bother possessing virtue? Why not indulge in hedonism?
If you argue that virtue is needed for civil order, you end up with the case that one is better off defecting and being a free-rider off the civil order provided by others, while personally enjoying hedonism..

Roger Sweeny said...

Arnold Kling has an interesting essay that talks about some of the things you discuss in your Haidt posts (and elsewhere). It begins,

"When politicians and commentators appeal to group identity in order to support government action, those of us with a libertarian bent tend to resist. Our instinct is to scorn such appeals. When someone says that "government is the name we give to what we do together," I want to shout "Lose the 'we'!"

"Still, I think it is unwise to dismiss altogether the case for group loyalty and adherence to group norms. My inclination is to approve of organizations that promote group objectives and attempt to limit individual choices, as long as participation in these organizations is voluntary. However, within libertarian thought, there are very different points of view as to whether or not the pressure to conform to group norms is morally justified."

and ends,

"What I am saying is that we should not become wedded to the view that the world we want is one in which irrational group attachments have been completely eradicated from the human psyche. Yes, this capacity for group attachment is manifest in state-worship that we find troubling. But group norms are a fundamental component of human nature. We probably owe a debt of gratitude to the part of human behavior that becomes irrationally attached to groups and to group norm enforcement.

"It may be that the role of libertarians is to point out that political demagogues are exploiting the tribal loyalty instincts of citizens against their better interests, as is typically the case. But it may be neither realistic nor desirable to "educate" people in order that they should lose all sense of group attachment, including attachment to the state."

Kent Guida said...

The Arnold Kling piece mentioned by Roger Sweeney is excellent. He uses Haidt, Adam Smith and others to support the idea that “a Tocquevillian ideal of voluntary associations rather than a Randian ideal of individuals living under an objective moral code.” Believe me, this is a big step for a libertarian. Thanks for the pointer.

In response to Anonymous: Aristotle says the purpose of virtue is happiness (Ethics, Book I Ch 4), and I think that is a complete answer to your question. Salvation is a motive for some, but happiness is a motive for all.

Regarding Haidt, I would be very interested to hear his view on how your 20 natural desires correspond to his six foundations of morality. As the Kling article suggests, much of the friction generated by Haidt’s work and yours comes from political viewpoints each taking issue with some of your 20 natural desires. Libertarians, liberals and conservatives all want to give you an argument about one or more of them being natural or being desirable – just like they do with Haidt’s six foundations. And, like Haidt’s conclusion that conservatives have a more balanced appreciation for all six foundations, they also seem to have fewer arguments about the 20 desires. Perhaps this justifies calling it Darwinian Conservatism, although for marketing purposes I still think this is the name least likely to win you a hearing.

Anonymous said...

"Aristotle says the purpose of virtue is happiness." But if so it breaks the connection between virtue and liberty: happiness doesn't require the type of liberty that is necessary for virtue conceived as a means to improving ones soul. No libertarian was Aristotle. The state can interfere to provide the grounds of happiness ala utilitarianism.

Larry Arnhart said...


I don't understand what you're saying here.

Although Aristotle was not a libertarian, Rasmussen and Den Uyl have made a good argument for an Aristotelian libertarianism. Particularly, in his account of how friendship cultivates virtue and happiness, Aristotle comes close to the classical liberal insight as to how virtue emerges in a free society.

I have elaborated this in some of the posts linked to this post. Where do I go wrong?

Anonymous said...

What I was trying to get at is the point made in the post that “liberty is the condition for virtue.” But then if the end of virtue is happiness, then liberty is ultimately the means of happiness. But utilitarianism is the view that the end of the state is happiness and it is usually contrasted with libertarianism as utilitarians justify all sorts of social programs for their ability to increase happiness of the greatest number that are noxious to libertarians. So is the argument that utilitarians are wrong about the means of happiness? Is the argument that libertarianism is the proper means to utilitarian ends? That government programs don’t actually increase happiness?

Contrast this with a pseudo-Kantian view that the point if virtue isn’t happiness, but worthiness, perhaps divine worthiness. Here the goal of virtue is to produce a good soul, or a will good in itself. Now this view does require liberty since compelled goodness does not produce real virtue. The state needs to stay out for although perhaps state intervention could increase the happiness of the many, this is inconsequential since happiness is not the point of the individual or the state. It brings to mind John Adams’ point that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”