Thursday, September 25, 2014

Political Diversity in Social Psychology Will Support Libertarian Conservatism

On January 27th, 2011, Jonathan Haidt gave a lecture at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in San Antonio, Texas.  He warned that social psychology suffered from a political bias favoring liberalism and against conservatism, and that this bias could distort the research in social psychology.  He argued that social psychologists needed to adopt programs that would promote political diversity that would overcome the underrepresentation of non-liberals in social psychology.

To test his warning, Haidt asked the roughly 1,000 people in the audience to identify their political identities by a show of hands.  He counted 3 hands as "conservative or on the right," 20 hands as "moderate or centrist," and 12 hands as "libertarian."  The hands for "liberal or on the left" were at least 80% of the entire audience.

Haidt told his audience that he had received messages from some graduate students and professors in social psychology who identified themselves as conservatives who were so afraid of being ostracized by others in the profession that they had to hide their political identity.

A week after Haidt's lecture, there was a New York Times story about the lecture and the controversy that it had begun to stir.

That controversy will continue in an upcoming issue of Behavioral and Brain Sciences.  Along with Jose Duarte, Jarret Crawford, Charletta Stern, Lee Jussim, and Philip Tetlock, Haidt has co-authored an article--"Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science"--that will be accompanied with many critical commentaries.

Here's the abstract:
"Psychologists have demonstrated the value of diversity--particularly diversity of viewpoints--for enhancing creativity, discovery, and problem solving.  But one key type of viewpoint diversity is lacking in academic psychology in general and social psychology in particular: political diversity.  This article reviews the available evidence and finds support for four claims: 1) Academic psychology once had considerable political diversity, but has lost nearly all of it in the last 50 years; 2) This lack of political diversity can undermine the validity of social psychological science via mechanisms such as the embedding of liberal values into research questions and methods, steering researchers away from important but politically unpalatable research topics, and producing conclusions that mischaracterize liberals and conservatives alike; 3) Increased political diversity would improve social psychological science by reducing the impact of bias mechanisms such as confirmation bias, and by empowering dissenting minorities to improve the quality of the majority's thinking; and 4) The underrepresentation of non-liberals in social psychology is most likely due to a combination of self-selection, hostile climate, and discrimination.  We close with recommendations for increasing political diversity in social psychology."
I agree with all of this.  But they don't go deeply enough into the second point here--how political bias produces "conclusions that mischaracterize liberals and conservatives alike."  First, the simple one-dimensional categorization of people as either liberal or conservative is a mischaracterization because it ignores the complexity of different kinds of liberalism and conservatism.  The authors recognize this when they concede that "conservatism is not monolithic--indeed, self-identified conservatives may be more diverse in their political beliefs than are liberals."  They acknowledge that some researchers have identified social conservatism as somewhat different from economic conservatism.  They also recognize that libertarianism apparently differs in some ways from both liberalism and conservatism.  Haidt has even conceded that the libertarians appeal to a 6th moral foundation--liberty/oppression--that might need to be added to Haidt's five other moral foundations--care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.

Haidt and his colleagues fail to see, however, that it's even more complicated than this.  Because despite the differences between conservatives and libertarians, most American conservatives are liberal or libertarian conservatives who are committed both to political liberty and social virtue, thinking that the purpose of politics is to secure negative liberty, while the purpose of society is to cultivate virtue in the natural and voluntary associations of life.

As Frank Meyer argued years ago, most American conservatives are "fusionists" in finding common ground between traditionalist conservatism and classical liberalism or libertarianism.  They agree with libertarians that the state should secure liberty by coercively enforcing the prohibition of force and fraud, while leaving people in society free from coercion in civil society.  They agree with traditionalists that it is in the natural and voluntary associations of society--families, churches, clubs, schools, business enterprises, and so on--that people organize themselves into character-forming groups that manifest their diverse conceptions of the good life.  Haidt points to the fusionist position in a couple of sentences in his article on libertarianism, but he doesn't elaborate this idea, and he doesn't clearly see that this position is implicit in what he identifies in The Righteous Mind as the Madisonian pluralism, in which the American nation would be "full of small-scale hives," and so "many moral matrices coexist within each nation."

Even the most traditionalist of the conservatives--like Russell Kirk--have been emphatic in identifying themselves as liberal conservatives, in that they are not theocratic conservative reactionaries like Joseph de Maistre and Louis de Bonald.  These American liberal conservatives accept the liberal principles of limited government, separation of Church and State, religious toleration, and moral pluralism.  Their aim is to keep the realm of the state very limited, so that the moral contents of life can naturally arise in the social realm.  In that social realm, people are free, in voluntary association with others, to live by their moral norms, including norms of loyalty, authority, and sanctity, but they are prohibited from using the state to enforce their norms through coercion or violence.

Haidt reports that libertarians are suspicious of appeals to loyalty, authority, and sanctity, which separates them from conservatives.  I suspect, however, that libertarians express such suspicious only because they fear the coercive enforcement of these group norms on them, and occasionally Haidt suggests this.  As long as loyalty, authority, and sanctity are enforced through voluntary cooperation in civil society, libertarians will agree that this is necessary for cultivating the moral character necessary for any good society (see David Boaz's chapter on "Civil Society" in Libertarianism: A Primer).

Haidt and his colleagues often speak of conservatives and liberals as if they were the same throughout the world and throughout history.  This ignores the fundamental differences between the largely liberal conservatives in America and the illiberal conservatives elsewhere in the world today and throughout history.

For example, Haidt reports that American conservatives show the importance of sanctity for them in their rejection of gay marriage as a disgusting violation of God's law.  In one of his articles ("Tracing the Threads," Journal of Research in Personality, 2012), he reports asking this question:
"Which statement about same-sex marriage comes closest to your views?:  a. Same-sex couples should be allowed to legally marry.  b. Same-sex couples should be allowed to have a civil union, but not to marry.  c. Same-sex couples should NOT be allowed to marry nor have civil unions."
Consider the likely response if American conservatives had been offered another alternative:  "d. Same-sex couples should be punished as criminals, as they were before the Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), and they should even be executed for a capital crime, as they were in early America."

How many American conservatives would choose d?  Not many, I suspect.  Why not?  Conservatives in many parts of the world today--like Africa--treat homosexuality as a crime, and sometimes even a capital crime.  Throughout much of Western legal history, this was assumed to be part of the moral law of the Bible, including some of the American Puritan colonies.  But now it's almost completely gone in places like the United States, where conservatives are too liberal or libertarian to inflict criminal punishment on homosexuals.

But aren't some American conservatives fighting against gay marriage?  Well, some of them are, but it's amazing how many conservatives are turning in favor of gay marriage, or in favor of privatizing marriage, so that marriage would belong to civil society and not to the licensing of the state.  One can easily predict that soon all American conservatives will agree that gay marriage is a voluntary matter, although those who find it abhorrent should be free to prohibit gay marriage within their voluntary associations.  That's the response of libertarian conservatism.

Haidt and his colleagues don't see the importance of libertarian conservatism, because they don't seem to have studied conservative political thought.  Remarkably, except for one sentence from J. S. Mill, the article for BBS has not a single reference to any work of conservative political thought or political rhetoric, although they have 125 references!  I will say, however, that Haidt shows more knowledge of political theory than most social psychologists, as indicated in The Righteous Mind.

Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan were libertarian conservatives.  In recent years, many conservative thinkers have argued for reviving that Goldwater/Reagan tradition of libertarian conservatism.  There's also a renewed interest in Frank Meyer's argument and the debate it stirred.  Newly emerging libertarian conservatives like Rand Paul and Justin Amash could be the future of American conservatism. 

Political diversity in social psychology should improve the psychological study of such libertarian conservatism and show how different it is from illiberal conservatism.

Some of these points are elaborated in my previous posts on Haidt here, here, here, here, here., and here.

I am sure that my thinking about Haidt's work will be deepened in a few weeks when I participate in a Liberty Fund conference on Haidt's writing.

My libertarian conservative argument for gay marriage can be found here, here, here, and here.


Rob S said...

It's a bit ironic that you would end a post about political diversity in academia with a comment about working on a Liberty Fund conference. While the Liberty Fund provides a valuable experience in learning and conversation for many people, it is opposed in practice to political diversity. If one reveals even an inkling of left-leaning ideas, one doesn't get invited back. Haidt would hate such an academic facade, so it's ironic that you're focusing on his work there.

Larry Arnhart said...


I don't agree with your assessment of the Liberty Fund.

It is true that Liberty Fund does have a general orientation towards classical liberalism, libertarianism, and traditionalist conservatism.

It is also true, however, that Liberty Fund conferences often have many participants who are leftists.

The only requirement is that participants be good contributors to the discussion.

Rob S said...

Well, it will have to be your word against mine, as Liberty Fund is by no means transparent about their process for selecting participants "by invitation only."

Kent Guida said...

“Haidt and his colleagues don't see the importance of libertarian conservatism, because they don't seem to have studied conservative political thought.” Exactly.

How deep is this problem? Haidt himself offers the best possible evidence in his book. He describes accidentally coming across the book Conservatism by Jerry Z. Muller in a used book store and being floored that the argument for classical liberalism "takes place on the enlightened grounds of the search for human happiness based on the use of reason" (337). He had never before encountered this idea.

Think about that. A mature man, with a first-rate education, at the top of his profession, about to teach a course on the moral psychology of political viewpoints, learns purely by accident that classical liberalism was founded on the desire for the common good. Forty-plus, never heard of such a thing.

Can there be any more vivid illustration of a failure to educate?

This is not something that can be fixed by encouraging intellectual diversity among psychologists. One would have to do something about the ignorance of classical liberal political thought in the academy and in the culture.

We should praise Haidt for his openness to learning about these things – better late than never – but for most of his colleagues, my guess is it’s several decades too late.

CJColucci said...

So what specific curricular changes follow from this? It would be anachronistic to characterize Aristotle, Aquinas, Machiavelli, or Hobbes, or anyone before , say, Locke and Filmer, as "conservative" or "liberal," and all of these folks are taught somewhere in the curriculum. I have reason to visit college bookstores frequently, and the nice Penguin edition of Burke and Paine on the French Revolution is still a common sight. (Nobody much seems to teach the scary continental reactionaries and theocrats, but that's not your complaint.) Adam Smith is well-represented. How does one count the Federalist Papers, another common assigned reading? Or Hume? What specific first- or even second-rate political thinker, particularly of the conservative stripe, is missing from the syllabi of courses of general or only slightly specialized interest? (Obviously, a seminar on conservative political thought as such, an entirely worthy curricular option, would include on its reading list thinkers who don't merit inclusion in a course on political thought generally -- one can say the same about the third-tier Marxists who would be appropriate for a course on Marxist political theory but not for a course on political theory generally.) So who is being left out of the general curriculum? What is to be done?

Kent Guida said...

Good question. Again, the problem seems to be much worse than you suggest, and worse than Larry indicates.

After all, Haidt majored in philosophy at Yale. I know nothing of how he was t taught there, (I'd love to hear more about that) but the results indicate it didn't work too well. Clearly, the titles in the book store don't reflect the content of the learning.

It's not that Haidt has conventional liberal views, it's that he never knew there were other views which were based on a concern for the common good. That's almost like saying he was unaware that there was such a thing as political philosophy.

And his colleagues are equally deprived, but seem to lack Haidt's curiosity. As Larry points out, out of 153 footnotes, there one for Mill -- that was it for classical liberalism.