Saturday, October 11, 2014

Haidt, the Mormon Church, and Libertarian Conservatism

Some federal courts have struck down as unconstitutional laws in 11 states banning gay marriage.  By refusing to hear the appeals of these decisions, the United States Supreme Court has forced these states to legalize gay marriage.  Many people have wondered why the Supreme Court has refused to rule on this contentious debate over gay marriage and thus establish a national legal standard, instead of forcing the debate to be taken up state-by-state.  One possible explanation is that the Court does not want to move too quickly to declare a constitutional right to gay marriage.  By allowing the spread of gay marriage across the states, the Court allows the shift of public opinion towards favoring gay marriage to continue, so that when the Court does rule, the ruling will be seen as conforming to what the general public has already decided in their states.  This is what the Court did in deciding the debate in the 1960s over whether the state laws forbidding interracial marriage were unconstitutional.  The Court waited until these laws had been overturned in most states, reflecting a shift in public opinion, before declaring in Loving v. Virginia (1967) that interracial marriage was a constitutional right.

Social psychologists like Jonathan Haidt who study the moral psychology of the "culture war" between liberals and conservatives in the United States will say that the legalization of gay marriage is a victory of liberals over conservatives, because conservatives believe in moral standards of divinity and sanctity that condemn homosexuality (as well as interracial sex and marriage) as disgusting violations of God's law.  But that Haidt is mistaken about this becomes clear when one notices how almost all conservatives today condemn the legal prohibition of interracial marriage as a violation of individual liberty, and increasingly most conservatives now see that the principle of liberty applies in the same way to gay marriage.

As I have indicated in my previous posts on Haidt, his mistake comes from his not recognizing that most American conservatives are actually liberal or libertarian conservatives, in contrast to the illiberal conservatives that one could find elsewhere in the world today and in past history.  As Louis Hartz argued in The Liberal Tradition in America, American political thought has been dominated almost totally by Lockean liberalism, so that even those who identify themselves as conservatives are liberal or libertarian in their conservatism.  One possible exception to this might be the pro-slavery Southern thinkers, whose position was defeated in the Civil War and in the civil rights movement.

American libertarian conservatism is a fusion of political liberty and social virtue that depends on the distinction between government and civil society.  The purpose of government is to secure individual liberty by using legal coercion to punish force and fraud and to enforce the rule of law and property rights, while leaving individuals free to live as they choose so long as they do not exercise coercive force against other individuals.  The purpose of a free society is to allow individuals to shape their moral and intellectual virtues in the natural and voluntary associations of life.

Much of Haidt's data to support his theory comes from his "Moral Foundations Questionnaire".  But since his questions do not ask people about using governmental coercion to enforce their moral principles, conservatives are not allowed to identify themselves as libertarian conservatives who can be committed to binding moral standards of loyalty, authority, and sanctity as enforced through the voluntary exchanges of social life, while also being committed to the individualizing moral standards of liberty that forbid government from using coercion to enforce the binding moral standards.

This conservative fusion of liberty and virtue explains the recent statement of the Mormon Church in response to legalization of gay marriage in Utah.  The Church has reaffirmed its belief that "only a marriage between a man and a woman is acceptable to God."  "Nevertheless," its statement continued, "respectful coexistence is possible with those with differing values."  And "as far as the civil law is concerned, the courts have spoken."  Thus, they distinguish between the divine law that must be accepted by those who voluntarily join the Church and the civil law that is enforced by government.  Their belief that they should strive for "respectful coexistence" with those whose moral values differs from theirs coincides with Haidt's main idea--that a peaceful coexistence of people who have deeply conflicting moral commitments can overcome the tendency to brutal violence in moral tribal conflicts.

In this way, libertarian conservatism promotes peaceful cooperation in a morally pluralistic society that can combine the moral norms of individual liberty and social virtue.  Introducing political diversity into social psychology, as Haidt and some of his colleagues have recommended, should make social psychologists more knowledgeable about how conservative political thought embraces the broadest set of moral concerns, so that all six of the moral foundations are valued equally.


djf said...

"By allowing the spread of gay marriage across the states, the Court allows the shift of public opinion towards favoring gay marriage to continue, so that when the Court does rule, the ruling will be seen as conforming to what the general public has already decided in their states."

I'm sorry, but the imposition of same-sex marriage by judicial fiat does not constitute a decision on the issue by "the general public," whether the ruling affects the entire nation or only a particular group of states (the federal appeals courts have jurisdiction over groups of states). The overturning of democratically enacted laws by the federal courts does not necessarily reflect any shift in favor of gay marriage in the states affected. Such a shift is ongoing, of course, but the Supreme Court is not facilitating a "democratic" resolution of the issue by leaving in place judicial decisions that remove the issue from the political arena.

Larry Arnhart said...

Are you claiming that the great majority of Americans clearly oppose the idea that gays have the freedom to marry?

If so, then they can easily resist the efforts of the federal courts to repress the majority. The public can ask the U.S. Congress to deny the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court in cases involving gay marriage. They can also demand a constitutional amendment to declare that gays have no constitutional right to marry.

Do you think there will be a great public demand for that? If not, why not?

Is it that there is unlikely to be such a public demand because the public has shifted towards supporting gay marriage?

Larry Arnhart said...

Would you say that Lawrence v. Texas (2003) was also contrary to what the majority of Americans wanted, because they wanted to continue punishing homosexuality as a crime, perhaps even a capital crime?

djf said...

My point was simply that federal court decisions overruling democratically enacted laws are not exercises in democracy. I am not denying the fact that the accumulation of such rulings will probably cause support for same-sex marriage to grow, given most people's acceptance of a status quo that is noncontroversial among the elite. Nor am I denying that the trend in public opinion has been in favor of same-sex marriage since this issue has been manufactured. Your suggestion that, if opposition were strong enough, Congress could eliminate federal court jurisdiction over this issue is not realistic, as I'm sure you realize. FWIW, I note that most state judiciaries have been colonized by the left, and would ultimately rule in favor of gay marriage under state constitutions if the matter were kept out of federal court.

Incidentally, "gays," meaning people feeling same-sex attraction, have always had the same "freedom" to marry as other people; that is, they could marry one other consenting person of the opposite sex. If that was not of interest to them, fine, but to cast state non-recognition of same-sex marriage as treating gays unequally as individuals (as opposed to treating different behaviors as having different social value), or as an issue of individual "freedom," is not really cogent, IMHO.

Rob S said...


You say that gay people "have always had the same 'freedom' to marry as other people; that is, they could marry one other consenting person of the opposite sex."

Isn't this the same claim that people made of interracial couples during the reign of anti-miscegenation laws through 1967? If you were a white man wishing to marry an african-american woman, you weren't denied any "freedoms" because you had the same right to marry a white woman as any other red-blooded white male. How well did that argument stand? Would you defend anti-miscegenation laws with the same reasoning?

Also, why use scare-quotes around the word "freedom" unless you're speaking of freedom tongue-in-cheek?

djf said...

Rob S.,

I think you're misstating your point; what you're really trying to say (I think) is that blacks and whites were treated equally under anti-miscegenation laws, in the same way that gays are treated equally with straights under traditional marriage laws, because each person, under the anti-miscegenation regime, was entitled to marry one consenting person of the same race (but opposite sex, of course). I don't think that this analogy of anti-miscegenation laws to non-recognition of same-sex marriage works.

First, race has no intrinsic connection to sexuality and reproduction, so racial restrictions (as opposed to gender restrictions) on marriage are extraneous to the function of marriage (sex and reproduction); racial restrictions on marriage mates are like requiring an applicant for a license to practice law, medicine or accounting to pass a swimming test (putting aside that racial classifications are expressly prohibited under current US constitutional and statutory law). (Gay marriage proponents, of course, point out that not even many traditional marriages do not result in children, but, from the traditional point of view, the institution exists in large part for the purpose of optimal child-rearing, and extending it to same-sex relationships may reduce its utility for that purpose by making marriage less attractive to heterosexuals.)

Second, anti-miscegenation laws in effect segregate the races; restricting marriage to opposite-sex relationships brings the two sexes together.

Third, and probably most fundamentally, the natural male/female distinction is not analogous to any other division among human beings (such as ethnicity, race, nationality, religion). Same-sex marriage proponents obviously disagree for these purposes, but I think even they would concede that, for any society, opposite-sex relationships are far more important than same-sex ones, and if recognizing same-sex marriage reduces the attractiveness of marriage to many "straight" young people (as it arguably does for young working class men), the society is justified in declining to recognize same-sex relationships as marriages.

As to my putting quotes around "freedom," I do so because the same-sex marriage issue is not, in my opinion, an issue of individual "freedom." Whether or not the state recognizes same-sex relationships as marriages, people who feel same-sex attraction are free, under our current law, to indulge that attraction, to live together with a person of the same sex, and to make whatever contractual and testamentary arrangements they wish with that person. (Even before Lawrence, remaining laws against private, consensual gay sex were rarely enforced.) The state declining to recognize same-sex relationships as marriages does not ban any private behavior, it simply withholds from those relationships a certain kind of legal recognition and whatever benefits go with it.

Rob S said...


Your caricature of anti-miscegenation is anachronistic. Commentators certainly argued that racial restrictions were pertinent to sexuality and reproduction. Both the sexual act itself and the product of the act (namely, "mixed race children") were regarded as impurities among many social conservatives. This links back to Arnhart's original post, as Haidt talks consistently of the conservative disgust for sexual impurity. Opponents of same-sex marriage and inter-racial marriage share the same moral psychology in this regard.

As for your second point, there's no data to suggest that banning same-sex marriage diminishes segregation. That's a red herring.

I'm not sure on what grounds you regard heterosexual marriages as "far more important" than same-sex marriages? I see no support for your assertion there.

Also, what proof do you have that recognizing same-sex marriage reduces marriage rates among straight people? Do you have any evidence for this claim?

A 2004 CBO study established that 1,138 federal benefits, rights, and privileges stem from government-sanctioned marriage. So I think your denial that freedoms are at stake is mistaken.

Michael newsham said...

Ian Shield said
"and if recognizing same-sex marriage reduces the attractiveness of marriage to many "straight" young people (as it arguably does for young working class men), the society is justified in declining to recognize same-sex relationships as marriages."

You are saying that there is some sizable number of young working class males who would otherwise want to get married, who will now change their mind because gays can get married, too? I'd really like to see some evidence of that.