Monday, April 30, 2012

And Now For Something Completely Different

I have written enough on the subject of Jonathan Haidt for now, and Slacktivist has not given me any more Left Behind movies to comment on.  I will therefore move to a project I have wanted to do for some time.  The Left Behind movies are merely an afterthought for Slacktivist; he got started doing a slow, painstaking review (trashing) of the novels, a few pages at a time.  This has inspired me to the same (sort of) for Dean Koontz novel False Memory.

 The most obvious question is why.  Fred Clark chose a page-by-page trashing of Left Behind because he thought it was such an incredibly bad book.  One can easily imagine a similarly thorough review of a work of great literature to illustrate its genius.  But False Memory is neither.  It is a decent potboiler, but nothing profound.  It is copyright 1999 and clearly expected to come out in 2000, so it is nothing very new or groundbreaking today.  So why bother with the painstaking review?

To that I can offer several answers.  One is that I don’t read that many novels, so any one is memorable and something I want to record.  Another is that I read False Memory around the time I returned from a vacation to discover that the plate glass of my sliding door had been broken, apparently by neighborhood children playing ball.  The pet sitter taped a sheet of plastic in its place, but it took some time for my landlord to replace it.  On the one hand, no real harm was done. It was in the middle of summer, so staying warm was not an issue.  And I live in the back of a duplex that no one passing by on the street is aware of, so there was no actual danger.  But Dean Koontz has a way of inspiring paranoia, so reading his novel with a window missing can be most unsettling.

Another reason is the provocative title.  During the 1990's, the recovered memory movement flourished, based on the belief that many psychological problems were caused by childhood molestation that patient no longer remembered, and that the cure was to recover those memories in therapy.  This, in turn, led to a backlash, motivated by the belief that those memories were false and manufactured by the therapist.  The tension was especially acute in a number of cases in which children in daycare had memories “recovered” in therapy of frightful abuse and people were sent to prison based on those “memories.”

Conceivably, Koontz may be weighing in on the recovered memory controversy, on the side that such memories were false.  If that is what he is trying to do, he signally fails.  Once and only once, Koontz makes a serious effort to take on the issue.  About pages 384-386, a doctor recounts how he was assigned by the court to examine children who alleged they had been sexually abused in preschool.  Despite shocking tales of abuse, he found no evidence of injury.  Then he was alarmed to discover that the psychiatrist examining the children was used hypno-regressive therapy.  At this point, the characters ask the doctor whether hypnosis is an accepted therapeutic technique.  He answers that it is becoming less so because hypnotized subjects are highly susceptible to suggestion, and children especially so.  Children, he says, can be made to “remember” anything the therapist wants to hear.  And then he found that the same psychiatrist had unearthed similar “memories” in earlier investigations.  These are all worthwhile points.  However, they take up less than three pages of a 627 page book.  If Dean Koontz actually wants to refute the recovered memory movement, the rest of his novel does more harm than good.

Recovered memory therapists made two main arguments against the false memory movement.  One was that the whole idea of creating false memories is “junk science.”  The other is that, even if it is possible, it would be unethical for a therapist to do such a thing.  As to the former point, it has been partially refuted.  Psychologists in controlled experiments have created false memories by the power of suggestion, especially in children.  How far this can go is not clear because, as recovered memory advocates point out, any more extensive experimentation would be unethical.  What is “junk science” and clearly not possible is exercising complete control over another person, especially at a distance.  Extensive, highly unethical experiments on the subject have been conducted, mostly by the Communists, but some by us, and it has clearly been proven impossible.  Coercion is possible; “programming” is not.  And as for the argument that creating false memories is unethical, no one is accusing recovered memory therapists of creating false memories intentionally.  The accusation is that, sincerely believing there are genuine repressed memories of childhood abuse, recovered memory therapists end up creating what they believe they are uncovering.  Dean Koontz does not make either of these points, however.  He shows an evil, unethical therapist transforming people into obedient robots under complete mind control.  This is no less a fantasy than vampires and werewolves.

But that is not the primary reason I want to deliver a thorough-going dissection of False Memories.  The main reason is that the first 185 pages or so give the distinct impression of being an earlier draft, before the author had worked out the details of his premise.  Undoubtedly, he knew from the start it would be about mind control, but he had not worked out the details of how that mind control would work.  Around page 185, he decides and reveals to the audience what is going on, thus greatly reducing the suspense as the characters struggle to figure it out.  But the first 185 pages or so are replete with clues as to what is going on that never go anywhere or are explained, and that occasionally contradict the system he ultimately decides on.  I will therefore focus the greatest attention on the part before Koontz reveals his secret, pointing out the maddening clues he leaves dangling.  The next section, from where he reveals what is happening to the reader until the characters figure it out, I will be less thorough about.  And the final part, after the characters realize what is happening, I will breeze through except for sections that particularly interest me.

Sunday, April 29, 2012


I want to wrap up my series on Jonathan Haidt for now, although his analysis has been immensely valuable for me, and I hope to return to it on other occasions, and to filter both events and other people's opinions through his analysis. 

What have I gotten out of Haidt?  First and foremost, he has convinced me that the sacred has a legitimate place in public discourse, however uncomfortable the subject may be to most liberals.  Reverence for the sacred is a matter of primary importance to many if not most people.  To dismiss it as illegitimate is to tell countless people that their deepest-held convictions are illegitimate and mere bigotry.  This leads to large numbers of people feeling angry and disenfranchised because public discourse does not allow them even to present what is most important to them.  You want to understand the source of right wing outrage?  This is it.  You want to tamp it down?  Learn to listen.

Second, he has given me a new definition of what it is to be liberal.  To be liberal is to place (or aspire to place) a universal system of values above in-group loyalty. This is a definition broad enough to encompass classical liberalism, social liberalism and a wide range of other forms.  It is also true that by this definition, the United States is a liberal country, ideologically committed to a liberal ideology, although we have often done a poor job of living up to it. There are few Americans, I think, who would reject this form of liberalism, at least in theory.  Things get quite different when it comes down to practice. 

And finally, although Haidt began his research as looking into why the Democratic Party had difficulty attracting the white working class vote, it also goes a long way toward explaining why Republicans do so poorly with minorities.  This is a real source of confusion to many Republicans, who believe that the welfare state creates dependency and is therefore not in minorities' interest, and that affirmative action fosters racism and is therefore also not in minorities' interest.  They are also no doubt right that minorities are more conservative, in the sense of having a stronger sense of in-group loyalty, a greater regard for authority, and more reverence for the sacred, than most white liberals (or black liberals for that matter).  Republicans also point out that black and Hispanic notions of the sacred overlap with Republican ones, at least on the matter of gay marriage and abortion.

Haidt's analysis would suggest that Republican problems with minorities go beyond just economic issues.  If their concepts of the sacred overlap on some things, they differ on others.  Republicans expressly disrespect many of the authorities who matter to minorities, like community organizers or black preachers (many of whom sound a lot like Jeremiah Wright).  Republican emphasize respect for many authorities minorities distrust, most notably the police.  And above all else, Republicans profoundly distrust any sense of minority in-group loyalty.  I have long believed that right wing hatred of Obama was purely partisan and not related to race.  I am now beginning to rethink that.  From the very start, Republicans have closely scrutinized Obama for the slightest display of in-group loyalty as a black person and treated even the faintest hint of such loyalty as evidence that he hates white people.  They reacted similarly toward Sonia Sotomayor's "wise Latina" remark.  Clearly, Republicans do not consider it legitimate for minorities to have any sense of ethnic identity.  This is not going to attract much black or Hispanic vote for Republicans.

 Over at David Frum's blog, Noah Kristula-Green favorably reviews a recent book Haudt has written.  He is pleased to see that Haidt has come to appreciate so many conservative philosophers that he, too, admires.  But he is much demoralized by Haidt's statement that he is praising conservative intellectuals, not the Republican Party.  Kristula-Green does not go into detail as to why this should be so, and I have not read Haidt's book, but I can guess why.

In giving advice to Democrats, Haidt stresses moving away from multiculturalism and toward a sense of national unity.  He urges us to push harder for assimilation of immigrants and for a shared community.  Our national motto, he says, is e pluribus unum, from many one.  It is time to stress the pluribus less and the unum more.  Perhaps he would suggest something like this speech by Barack Obama at the John Kerry nomination:
Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us -- the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of "anything goes." Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America -- there’s the United States of America.

The pundits, the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an "awesome God" in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America. 
Republicans at the same time that the Democrats were holding their convention in Boston while Republicans were holding theirs in America.  They had spent four years incessantly hammering on the distinction between the virtues of the "heartland" and the the implied lack thereof on the coasts.  They endless harped on the distinction between real Americans in the red states and the out of touch liberal elitists in blue states.  In short, Republicans were using in-group loyalties to divide and to make very clear that they were the unum and didn't want anyone else's pluribus.  Haidt urges Democrats to use in-group loyalty to promote for national unity.  Republicans aggressively use in-group loyalty to divide.

Furthermore, while loudly proclaiming who are and are not real Americans, real Virginians, real Christians and so forth, Republicans are notably intolerant of anyone else's in-group loyalty.  I mentioned their distrust of any in-group loyalty by minorities.  Then there is Occupy Wall Street.  Haidt does not believe that their emphasis on the 99% versus the 1% is an expression of in-group loyalty so much as an egalitarian response to perceived dangerous domination.*  Republicans, by contrast, saw it as alarmingly divisive.  ("Believe it or not," Eric Cantor said, "some people in this town have actually condoned the pitting of Americans against Americans.")  In short, the Republican philosophy is one of group loyalty for me but not for thee.  My guess would be that Haidt's criticisms of the Republican Party would be along these lines.

And now I intend to move to lighter topics, though moving back to this one on many occasions.

*He also comments that group loyalty can take the form of "team-vs.-team tribalism" from sports competitions to gang warfare and "an intense focus on expelling outsiders and punishing traitors."  It should go without saying that such things are not healthy in democratic politics, especially if one starts to see partisan politics are more analogous to gang warfare than to sports competitions.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

In-Group Loyalty: The Darker Side

As my last post suggests, I think there is much to admire in a stronger sense on in-group loyalty, particularly its ability to build close-knit communities that take care of their own.  At the same time, close-knit communities have their shortcomings.  Free market economics tend to undermine them, something that conservatives and libertarians are unwilling or unable to face.  And a great many problems are simply too big for each community to handle on its own.  We need more cooperation across boundaries.  But those are more in the nature of limitations than actual shortcomings.  Strong in-group loyalty has inherent flaws that limit how far any liberal in good conscience can endorse it.

The problem is this.  Deepening ties with one’s in-group means weakening ties with out-groups.  Haidt assumes that the opposite of in-group loyalty is disloyalty or even betrayal.  But what if the opposite of in-group loyalty is, in fact, universalism?  What if what conservatives see as disloyalty in liberals is, in fact, universality?  What if what liberals dismiss as ethnocentrism or bigotry in conservatives is really in-group loyalty? 

The conservative value of in-group loyalty can conflict with the universal value of justice.  And I don’t primarily mean the highly controversial concept of social justice, but the far less controversial notion of criminal justice.  Liberals have the reputation of being soft on crime.  But when do we start sounding tough and insisting that whoever is guilty should be convicted and punished?  Some might say, when it sets off hot buttons about oppressed minorities (see Duke lacrosse team, killing of Trayon Martin).  And I will concede that.  But I believe we also start getting tough on crime when we perceive someone’s in-group loyalties as standing in the way of universal justice, even when those in-group loyalties are the loyalties of an oppressed minority.  The O.J. Simpson murder trial exposed a wide racial gap, but not an ideological gap.  Blacks and whites saw themselves on opposite sides.  But white liberals and white conservatives generally saw eye to eye, insisting that justice must trump racial loyalties. 

So how do I know that universal standards of justice are more important than in-group loyalty?  The sure proof of the need for a universal standard of justice superseding in-group loyalty is how offended everyone gets when someone else’s in-group puts loyalty ahead of justice.  Whether it is white juries acquitting lynch mobs, black juries acquitting O.J. Simpson, police covering up corruption in their midst, inmates whose sole code of honor is not to snitch, unions resisting the firing of a member for clear misconduct, bishops transferring pedophile priests from parish to parish, or family members hiding the knife their brother used to kill his girlfriend – all these provoke outrage in anyone outside the affected in-group.  Indeed, I think it fair to say conservatives are often the most offended.

In-group loyalty strengthens the foundation of care among in-group members.  But it can dangerously narrow the circle of people considered worthy of any kind of care.  Alexis de Tocqueville addressed this issue very well in Democracy in America.  Speaking of the mixture of heroism and cruelty one reads about in the Middle Ages, he says:

Feudal institutions awakened a lively sympathy for the sufferings of certain men, but none at all for the miseries of mankind. They infused generosity rather than mildness into the customs of the time; and although they prompted men to great acts of self-devotion, they created no real sympathies, for real sympathies can exist only between those who are alike, and in aristocratic ages men acknowledge none but the members of their own caste to be like themselves.

When the chroniclers of the Middle Ages, who all belonged to the aristocracy by birth or education, relate the tragic end of a noble, their grief flows apace; whereas they tell you at a breath and without wincing of massacres and tortures inflicted on the common sort of people. Not that these writers felt habitual hatred or systematic disdain for the people; war between the several classes of the community was not yet declared. They were impelled by an instinct rather than by a passion; as they had formed no clear notion of a poor man's sufferings, they cared but little for his fate.
He contrasted with with the broader but weaker ties of a democratic society: 
In democratic ages men rarely sacrifice themselves for one another, but they display general compassion for the members of the human race. They inflict no useless ills, and they are happy to relieve the griefs of others when they can do so without much hurting themselves; they are not disinterested, but they are humane.
Clearly, Tocqueville sees room to regret the decline of the fierce loyalty and devotion that one saw during the Middle Ages.  But he considers it more than counterbalanced by the broadening of basic humane standards to more people. 

Worse, in-group loyalty can mean more than just indifference to outsiders.  One of the best ways to maintain cohesion within one’s group is in the form of solidarity against an outside menace.  Consider George Wallace's (in)famous quote: "I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor."  In other words, people cared less about things that could improve their material well-being than about in-group solidarity against some hated out-group.  The specific out-groups have changed since then, but little else.  Right wing politicians all too often show a need for scapegoats of some kind.  When blacks ceased being acceptable scapegoats, they switched to gays.  Now that gays are becoming an unacceptable scapegoat, Muslims are taking their place.  Or, if Muslims are too remote and unreal, illegal immigrants.  In the past, Catholics were once a popular choice.  And, of course, always the hated liberal elite.  Republican primaries all too often sound like contests to see who can be most brutal and inhumane to the largest number of people outside their in-group.

Haidt asks if the Democratic Party can broaden its appeal to the conservative values of loyalty, authority and the sacred without compromising its principals.  I can only answer that if the suggestion is to stop carrying about oppressed people because they aren’t part of most people’s in-group, or to narrow the circle of people we think worthy of any decency in order to strengthen ties within the smaller group, than my answer is no.  Indeed, Haidt has helped me define what it is to be a liberal.  For now, I will define a liberal as one who places, or aspires to place, universal moral rules ahead of in-group loyalty.  Liberals, by this definition, invariably make up a minority of the population.  Most people are at best indifferent and at worst hostile to people outside their in-group and have little use for bleeding hearts who want to expand the circle of care. But despised liberals lose and lose and lose again, only to end up emerging triumphant as European immigrants, or Catholics or blacks or gays or other despised scapegoats over time become accepted into the larger circle of what it is to be American and (I hope some day) human.

In-Group Loyalty

(NOTE: This is an attempt to re-create a post I deleted by mistake and is no doubt much inferior to the original).

I get to the subject of in-group loyalty last because of all the conservative values Haidt espouses, it is both the most appealing and the most dangerous.

The value of in-group loyalty

I believe this value has more resonance for liberals than perhaps Haidt recognizes.  After all, liberals are generally repulsed by the libertarian vision of society (or at least the Randian version of libertarianism) that equates liberty with atomization of the individual and dismisses the wish to belong to anything larger as tyrannical "collectivism."  Liberals, I think, share with conservatives a recognition that society becomes very cold when people exist only as atomized individuals, when their interactions are purely commercial, and when obligations are limited to refraining from crime and keeping one's contracts.  But what is the alternative.  Liberals don't have that much to offer beyond government programs to soften the harshness of libertarianism.  Conservatives, Haidt seems to suggest, offer something better -- in-group loyalty.

What in-group are we talking about?  Haidt emphasizes mostly the nation and advises against immigration, bilingualism, and multi-culturalism as undermining a sense of national identity.  But he also acknowledges that the United States is too large to have a very tight sort of unity.  Invariably, there will be smaller in-groups that command people's loyalty.  Families are the most obvious one.  Churches and local communities are others, as are social clubs and civic organizations.  Another that conservatives notably dislike are unions.  These in-groups that command people's loyalty are the glue that holds society together.  This excellent article in the National Journal describes the general breakdown that occurs when social bonds are loosened. 

Conservatives have a lot to teach us about maintaining those bonds.  The Journal article remarks, for instance, that a lot of appeal of megachurches is so much their theology (conservative and Evangelical), but their ability to provide a real community in which members take care of each other.  And what could be more conservative than a traditional small town, where interactions are more personal than in the outside world, where friends help friends and neighbors know their neighbors, where you can always drop over to your neighbor's house to borrow something or ask your neighbor to watch your house when you are away?  This may, by the way, be the answer to the charity paradox.  Haidt confirms that liberals score higher on compassion and empathy than conservatives.  But conservatives (as they like to point out) donate more to charity in terms of both time and money.  Could the difference be a stronger sense of in-group loyalty?  Having a strong, supportive in-group, after all, makes people more charitable (at least toward other members). 

Liberals recognize the need for tighter-knit in-groups and are working on building new ones.  For instance, I belong to several dance groups that have also organized to help out members who had a new baby, had recent surgery, or were severely ill.  Others I know are forming liberal churches that deliberately downplay doctrine in favor of mutual assistance and community building.  And some of my friends live in Santa Fe Commons, a "cohousing project" in which members cluster their houses around a common plaza, work on gardens together, watch each other's children, serve common meals twice a week, all have mandatory chores, and hold regular meetings.  The trouble with all these approaches is that they are new and unfamiliar, thus uncomfortable to a lot of people; they are often too expensive  for many people; and they are sufficiently "liberal' in focus to be off putting to people who don't share their political outlook.  But all means, let us develop new types of in-group loyalty, but let us work with old ones as well.

The limits of in-group loyalty

In-group loyalty is essential to addressing our social problems, but it is not sufficient to answer them on its own, especially in its conservative or libertarian iteration.  Haidt believes that conservatives and libertarians have been able to make an alliance despite libertarians' general indifference to loyalty, authority and the sacred largely because they share similar notions of justice.  In particular, they equate justice with karma, as meted out by the free market.  But both presumably would acknowledge that the free market's karmic mechanism is not perfect, that bad things do sometimes happen to good people.  Then what?  Both are dead set against a government funded safety net.  Conservatives say in-group loyalty -- rely on one's family, church and community rather than government programs.  Libertarians say follow the free market -- migrate from troubled to prosperous areas.  These approaches are not entirely contradictory.  It is possible to rely on one's in-group for individual misfortunes like illness or accidents and on market-dictated migration for larger disruptions like plant closings or economic downturns. 

But that highlights an awkward fact. Except for its role as disburser of karma, the free market is not very conservative.  It has no regard for tradition, or for in-group loyalty, or for non-economic authority, or for the sacred.  When asked what is weakening our social bond, conservatives usually say big government, and its social programs that undermine more traditional forms of social support.  But that is to reverse causality.  The free market, by demanding mobility and constant change, is weakening our social bond.  Government social programs are merely an attempt to step in where more traditional forms of support are insufficient.

Tight-knit in-groups are limited in their ability to solve our problems because many such problems are simply too large for such groups to handle.  Turning inward tends to mean turning one's back on the outside world, but the outside world does not go away.  If one plant closing can destroy a whole community, then it can destroy that community's tight-knit structure and support mechanisms.  The megachurches the Journal article praises tend to be "non-denominational," not in the sense of lacking standards of orthodoxy, but in the sense of not being part of a larger denomination.  A Lutheran or Methodist leaving the community can find a Lutheran or Methodist church anywhere.  A megachurch member will have to start all over again.  Many problems, from market forces to natural disasters can overwhelm any one community's resources, both social and financial. 

Furthermore, in-group loyalty is not just limited.  It has a very dark side.  I will get to that in my next post.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Really Depressing Prospect

I have been allowing my imagination to run wild imagining all the horrors that might occur if the Republicans win in 2012. How much will they shred the safety net? How far will they go to starve the beast? Will they actually succeed in repealing the New Deal or returning us to the Guilded Age?

I know some commentators believe that the economy will finally take off in 2013 and that whoever is in power will get credit. I confess to being skeptical. If the Republicans are serious in wanting massive fiscal and monetary tightening I am inclined to believe the 2013 economy will be frail enough that they will derail recovery. But now I see two articles suggesting that such a tightening is coming our way anyhow. One is about Ben Bernanke. It suggests that as soon as he was appointed Chairman of the Fed, he gave way to conventional economic wisdom and lost his willingness to take genuinely forceful measures to revive the economy. And, the author remarks:
This is pretty remarkable stuff and raises a frightening question: if this is what happens to someone who used to espouse aggressive monetary policy, what will happen to someone more timid? It is highly unlike (sic) that a President Romney will reappoint Bernanke and its not clear Obama would either. How likely is it that the next Fed Chairman will be more likely to prematurely raise interest rates, no matter who controls the White House?
Even more alarming is this article about the "fiscal cliff" we are headed towards. At the end of 2012, the Bush tax cuts expire, automatic spending reductions kick in, unemployment benefits expire, and the debt ceiling is again reached. If these issues are not addressed we will automatically hit a massive fiscal contraction that will crash the economy. As the article wisely remarks, none of these issues are likely to be addressed before the election. That leaves the lame duck session to take care of them or at least make some sort of stop-gap measure until the next Congress is sworn in.

But here is the thing. If Obama is reelected, the Congressional Republicans will have exactly zero to avert such a disaster. We now know that no sooner had Obama been inaugurated, than Republicans were meeting to figure out how to wreck his presidency.  They considered this a much higher priority than addressing the worst economic crisis in nearly 80 years.  So, if they refuse to stop the economy from going over the fiscal cliff, and perhaps default on the national debt and block any new chairman of the Fed, or at least insist on one who will massively tighten, they should be able to bring on a sufficient economic crisis to deliver the next election to them by a landslide. 

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Tea Party vs. Hispanics

And just to re-emphasize the non-primacy of the economic, consider this piece by David Frum.  Frum argues that Republicans will not attract the Hispanic vote by encouraging greater immigration.  Hispanics, he argues, are younger and poorer than average, while Republicans are the party of richer and older voters.  Hispanics for for the Democratic Party as a matter of economic self-interest.  Republicans can best attract Hispanic votes by showing greater concern for the economic interests of younger and poorer voters.

The section was interesting.  One comment said it was good that at least someone voted their economic interests.  But two others questioned whether Hispanics' antipathy toward Republicans was primarily economic.  One in particular said:
Listen you can talk about economic reasons and immigration policy and health care policy all you want but when Hispanics HEAR Republicans, especially in many high profile states like Arizona, they know what they are hearing. And it ain't an economic argument that gets their attention. They hear that Republicans don't like them very much. That they wish that they weren't around.

Yeah, basically.


Haidt believes that respect for authority will be the most difficult value for liberals because it is the only one we are directly hostile to, as opposed to merely indifferent.  He recommends being very wary of being "soft on crime," and treating the criminal justice system as sacred, though with a less punitive focus than conservatives have.  The trouble is that being tough on crime all too often means looking the other way when police engage in criminality of their own.  Liberal calls to "question authority" are based on the assumption that power tends to be abused which, after all, it does.

At the same time, let me, as a liberal, clearly and unequivocally state that I think respect for authority is an important value.  Authority is how society maintains order.  Without authority, there can be no order.  Haidt’s description of Occupy Wall Street (as well as many news accounts of them) vividly illustrates this.  Authority can maintain order by respect, or by force.  If people stop respecting authority, then order rests on nothing more than pure, brute force.  And no one, I trust, wants that.  So, then, if we want to avoid a resort to brute force, respect for authority must be inculcated.

 Furthermore, unlike sanctity, I think liberals and conservatives have considerable overlap in which authorities we want to see respected.  Parents are one.  Teachers are another.  Employers, I think, can fairly make the list.  And the police and courts are a biggie. 

The difference is in how liberals and conservatives believe these authorities should be respected.  Conservatives may focus more on respect in the form of obedience and outward signs of deference.  Liberals focus more on respecting authority figures because they have earned our respect.  Thus parents should be respected for their greater experience and wisdom, teachers for their knowledge, employers for their managerial competence, and police as the upholders of law.  Superficially, such an approach may seem less respectful. But I do not think it violates people’s basic moral intuitions.  Haidt emphasizes that authority plays a major role in traditional societies, and that most interactions are not among equals.  But inequality is not the same as irresponsibility.  Authority figures’ demands for obedience and deference are matched by duties to protect and provide for their subordinates.  Obligations are unequal, but mutual and reciprocal.  Authority figures who demand obedience and deference but shirk their duties find that respect for them weakens.  This is part of our basic moral intuition of justice.

So I suppose my own advice as a liberal is to emphasize respect for authority in the form of respect for law and, above all, respect for moral authority.  One good place to start would be to recognize and commend Americans as an orderly, law-abiding people with deep respect for authority (especially in the form of law), because really we are.  I read a fascinating comments thread on another blog [alas, unable to find!] about what the outstanding characteristics of Americans are to other people, and our strict honesty was one of them.  Several commenters remarked that restaurants can put condiments out on tables unwatched and not worry about having them stolen.  Another remarked that, for all our carping about authority, stores can put displays of pumpkins and firewood out in front of the building and count on most customers can be counted on to carry them in an pay for them.  Well, good, let’s give the American people the credit they deserve.  Let’s emphasize how much our society is built on trust, and how well most people live up to that. 
A strong enough emphasis on law, I think, and the duty of everyone, great and small, to obey it, will make it easier to call out police (and other authority figures) when they break the law.  But it can’t be treated just as cover to call out police for abuses.  First and foremost, respect for law must be just that – an obligation on everyone, with police to be respected as agents of the law.*

More troubling are the times when liberals and conservatives disagree on whose authority must be respected.  Conservatives are more likely to include husbands, preachers, generals (often to the exclusion of civilian authority) and chambers of commerce on their list.  Liberals are more likely to include people whose claim to authority is based on claims of knowledge, expertise, and objectivity – people like scientists, professors, or journalists.  Conservatives these days are notable disrespectful of any authority based on claims to superior knowledge, and to dismiss any such claims as mere artifacts of liberal bias.  I have discussed this before and don’t have any very good answers, other than for people who base their claim of authority on knowledge and expertise to emphasize how hard they worked to assemble the knowledge they have, and how they would like some respect for all the effort they put into it.  I don’t know if that will work, but at least it will be an attempt to appeal to conservatives on the basis of their concepts of justice.

 In the end, it is neither sanctity nor authority I see as the biggest stumbling block, but in-group loyalty.  More on that in my next post.

*At this point there is no escaping the thorny issue of illegal immigration.  Illegal immigration is a sort of triple whammy for a lot of conservatives.  Admitting cultural aliens undermines our in-group cohesion.  Allowing people who come here illegally to stay rewards law breaking, which attacks the values of both authority and justice.  So what can we do?  Ineffective as psychologists assure us it is, I think this is one we are just going to have to fight with facts – by explaining just how dysfunctional the law is right now and how unworkable to follow.  I think a lot of people don’t fully appreciate that.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Purity and Sanctity

So, let us start with what I would consider the least problematic of the values Haidt recommends, the concept of the sacred.  After all, that is the whole point of Alexandra Pelosi's videos – that people tend to vote, not for their economic interests, but for what they hold sacred.  On the one hand, I agree.  We need to show greater respect for the things that people hold in reverence.  But doing so is nonetheless fraught with difficulties.

In some ways, our discourse would be improved if we could recognize that people’s concept of sanctity extends beyond church, and if we could recognize it as a legitimate subject for public discourse. Not to do so leads to Robert Altemeyer's maddening obtuseness – his inability to understand that some people can value promoting Christianity over majority rule, minority rights or parental authority because he does not see promoting Christianity as a legitimate value. 

Haidt’s comments on abortion agree with what most liberals believe.  Opponents of abortion frame their opposition in terms of harm prevention, but he believes it is largely a matter of purity and of karmic justice (women who engage in sex outside of marriage should suffer the consequences).  To liberals, this is the pounce moment – see, this isn’t about avoiding harm at all, it is just about (sexual) purity.  The implication is that such concerns are illegitimate.  Haidt’s reply is, sure it’s about (sexual) purity.  Why shouldn’t that be legitimate?  Much the same goes for gay marriage.  Gay marriage doesn’t harm anyone, infringe on anyone’s liberty, or cause any recognizable injustice.  So what is wrong with it? Wouldn’t it be much easier if an opponent could answer that gay marriage tampers with a sacred institution or violates their sense of the sacred and have those accepted as a legitimate answer?  Consider how things look from the perspective of someone who places high value on reverence for the sacred.  What is most important to you is not only excluded from reputable public discourse, but automatically regarded as an illegitimate subject and no better than a cover for simple bigotry.  Is it any wonder you would be angry?
At the same time, admitting reverence for the sacred into public discourse poses some serious problems.  For one thing, it just doesn’t lend itself to debate in the same way that the other moral foundations do.  The whole meaning of holding something sacred is that there is not really a rational foundation for it; it just is.  That makes any sort of public debate on the subject difficult.  Indeed, it can easily be taken as a debate stopper – it’s sacred to me, end of subject, you will just have to respect it.  It is easy to see how this could turn into an alarming sense of entitlement – simply define something important to you as sacred and beyond discussion and you are automatically entitled to win.

For another thing, people tend to regard sacredness as something absolute and take offense at the idea that sacredness might be relative.  But it really is relative.  For instance, different people hold different things sacred.  And worse, to many people, respect for what I hold sacred requires disrespect for what is sacred to you.  This is the attitude of “my god and beat up your god” and lies behind the hysteria over any display of Islam in America.  Furthermore, although sacredness is supposed to be timeless, in fact it changes over time.  Sunday blue laws, prohibition, and restrictions on divorce were all seen as essential to defend the sacred in the past, but all have fallen by the way over time.  Haidt makes the same point about gay marriage – although people fear it as tampering with a sacred institution, in fact the institution of marriage has changed a lot over time and will no doubt change more in the future.  But suggesting such a thing frightens many people and simply means moral decay.  And some things are more sacred than others.   That (I suspect) may go a long way towards explaining why protecting one’s folkways is so important to most people.  Folkways are sacred, not in the sense that church is sacred; sacred in some lesser way, but somewhat sacred nonetheless.  And it suggests why culture wars can be so intractable – if everything is sacred to some degree, change can be very hard, even when necessary.

And then there is the question of how the sacred fits in with other values.  What do you do if many people’s sense of purity means denying access to birth control to unmarried women, but denying such access increases the number of unwanted pregnancies and causes considerable social harm?  What if respect for the sacred for one person means requires saying prayers in school, but to another person being forced to join in such prayers is an infringement on liberty?  What if one person’s sense of the sacred requires saying the Pledge of Allegiance, but to another person, the Pledge is a form of idolatry? What if one person’s sense of the sacred forbids teaching evolution, but fidelity to scientific accuracy requires it?  If you admit the sacred into public discourse, how do you weigh it against other competing values?  How do you balance rival concepts of the sacred?  And how do you urge respect for sacred values you neither share nor understand without sounding condescending?

I don’t have the answers, but I am confident that the answer is not (as Haidt suggests) to try to portray liberal concerns as sacred, too.  What people want is not a general sense that you understand the concept of the sacred.  They want to know that you hold the same things sacred that they do.  Holding the wrong things sacred just proves that worship false gods and opens up yet another front in the culture war. 
So what do I suggest?  I would say start by building on what we already have.  In fact, there are concepts that liberals hold sacred that are generally accepted as sacred in American discourse.  Freedom of religion is one.  Freedom of speech is another.  Racial equality is another.  Reverence for the Constitution is shared by liberals and conservatives, even if it is not held in the same way.  So emphasize respect for people’s religion, whether you share it or not.  (The whole business about requiring church affiliated employers to provide free birth control hasn’t helped here).  Encourage serious study of the Constitution.  Allow schools to teach Bible classes as an elective so long as they stick to the text and refrain from interpretation.  (Confession:  At least part of the reason I make these recommendations is that I think actually reading these sacred documents will make them somewhat more down-to-earth and approachable).

Second, can we please move away from some of the ACLU’s more absurd and senseless positions?  It may make perfect sense to you that a nativity scene in a public park is a grave threat to the separation of church and state while an identical scene in a private yard or in front of a church is freedom that must be defended at all costs.  It may make perfect sense to you that whether such a scene is in Hobby Lobby or an airport is of huge importance.  But guess what?  To most people these distinctions make no sense at all.  They just mean that the ACLU is trying to drive the sacred from the public sphere, and it offends people.  My advice is: learn to deal with some public display of religion.  It is not a shameful thing like pornography.  The question should be whether there is coercion involved.  Can we please drop the view of the libertarians that any tax is a form of coercion and must be treated as unmitigated tyranny?  Teacher-led prayers in school are coercive because they put pressure on a captive audience.  But merely seeing religious symbols on display, even on public property or funded with taxpayer dollars, is not. 
And start acknowledging the sacred as a legitimate topic of public discourse.  Acknowledge that we were wrong to dismiss people’s most heart-felt concerns as irrational or bigoted.  Yes, this can lead to the difficulties discussed above.  Somehow, concern for the sacred is going to have to be put on a level with other concerns, not as something to be left out as entirely illegitimate, but neither as something above discussion that can be imposed on others despite their wishes.  Finding the right balance will be extremely difficult.  But Haidt is right.  Anger and polarization will never end so long as people’s deepest concerns are denied any sort of hearing.

Monday, April 16, 2012

And a Point for Haidt

I have been critical of Jonathan Haidt for his comments on the Tea Party. Let me say, though that his criticisms of Occupy Wall Street are spot-on.

Occupy Wall Street began with an economic issue that many people could identify with -- anger at the bank bailouts. The Tea Party began with that issue, too. Both movements were angry over the bailouts because they violated their sense of justice. The Tea Party's response to the bailouts was to call for an end to our social safety net on the theory that if we couldn't punish the banks, we should at least punish the unemployed so somebody suffered for their bad decisions. Occupy Wall Street, by contrast, is angry that the banks ruined the economy with their mistakes, got bailed out, and now are doing just fine while the rest of us continue to suffer.* Maybe this is liberal bias here, but I am inclined to think that the message that the banks got bailed out and now should give us something in return has more resonance that the message that the bank bailouts are too late to stop, so we should cut off money to the unemployed instead.

What does not resonate is people camping in parks day after day, throwing trash around, attracting the homeless and some criminals, insisting on marching place where they do not have a permit in order to provoke the police to overreact. "Why can't you do what we did, obey the law and just march where you have a permit?" Tea Party members asked. It was a very good question. Haidt would say, because respect for authority is not a high liberal value. But taking disregard for authority to mean disregard for law ultimately means disregard for the inconvenience you cause to people who do follow the law. And that does violate the liberal value of harm avoidance. (The liberal counterpart of "Don't Tread on Me" is "Don't Tread on Others.")

Occupy Wall Street also showed no regard for what other people held sacred or found culturally offensive. Quite the contrary, they regarded pushing the envelope as a point of pride. Well guess what, guys? If you want to start a mass movement, you are just going to have to limit your counter-cultural tendencies to the privacy of your home and your friends' homes. In public, try behaving like ordinary people and in ways that ordinary people can relate to. Humor is fine. Humor can deflect hostility and convince people you really aren't threatening. But please, refrain from mocking what other people hold in reverence.

But above all else,OWS's utter rejection of authority has done it in. When nothing can get done unless there is a universal consensus on it, then nothing gets done. OWS did not even have enough structure or authority to keep out violent, disruptive, dangerous elements that ended up going on a rampage and destroying the movement altogether. What's the use of that?**

*Haidt argues that general complaints about inequality of outcome will get nowhere, but complaints that the 1% made their money dishonestly might. Given what we know about the behavior of banks during the housing bubble, that looks like a message that will resonate. It requires defining the 1% as banks and excluding people who made their money producing physical goods. That is not accurate, but then again, people have hated banks for a long time, largely because they don't produce anything tangible, which makes people suspect they are not producers, but cheats.
**And, yes, as this post may suggest, I am angry and resentful that a movement that might have had something constructive to offer has lost the opportunity by its self-indulgent, self-destructive behavior.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

One More Point Conceded for Altemeyer

Let me add just one more comment when I compare Jonathan Haidt to Robert Altemeyer in their comparisons of liberals and conservatives. I said in my last post that Altemeyer embodies exactly the sort of tendency Haidt condemns in liberal academics -- an extraordinary blindness to deep seated conservative concerns and treating conservatism as pathology.

Nonetheless in my research for that post I came across this gem that convinced me Altemeyer has some points too. The article is explaining the Tea Party. He agrees that its claims to be a movement on behalf of liberty are questionable because, on the whole, social conservatives are less absolutist on behalf of liberty than liberals or libertarians. But neither does he accept various sinister explanations of the Tea Party. Rather, he believes it is about justice, in the sense of karma -- that whatever your fate, it is morally deserved. Tea Partiers, he argues, hate government, not because it interferes with liberty, but because it interferes with karma as enforced by the free market.

Thus, he argues, Tea Partiers see karma nullified. Contraception and abortion remove the consequences of premarital sex. Social welfare programs remove the consequences of bad decisions. Warren Court decisions removed the consequences of crime. But the final straw occurred with the Bush Administration's bank bailouts, Obama's stimulus plan, and proposals for mortgage refinancing, which protected people from the consequences of bad decisions.

There's just one little flaw in this analysis. It would be more credible if the Tea Party's anger were directed mostly at the banks that were bailed out, and toward calling for more punitive measures toward crooked banks. Instead, they seem primarily directed against the unemployed and people who are underwater on their mortgages, and towards ensuring that no government money goes to people harmed by the economic downturn. Haidt goes on to say that liberals see justice mostly in terms of equality while conservatives see it mostly in terms of karma. At least as much to the point the Tea Party crowd sees to see justice and karma almost exclusively in punitive terms. They also assume that misfortunes are never just misfortunes but the result of irresponsibility.

The trouble is that in the midst of a severe economic downturn, there is a huge upsurge in the number of misfortunes that does not correspond with any increase in irresponsibility. Government bailed out the banks because it feared the consequences of letting the financial system crash. We have a safety net in place, not just as a matter of compassion, but because when large numbers of people hit complete financial ruin at once, the result is to shrink the economy even further. Somehow I am guessing that Tea Partiers, confronted with these problems, would simply dismiss them, not seeing how doing the right thing could possibly have bad consequences. To suggest that it could would violate the laws of karma!

Haidt says that liberals see justice in terms of equality, while conservatives see it in terms of karma. But what does that mean, in concrete terms. Well, by his account Tea Partiers want harsher penalties for crime, harsher penalties (in the form of unwanted pregnancies) for sex outside of marriage, harsher consequences for losing one's job, harsher consequences for falling behind on one's mortgage. In short, they see justice almost entirely in punitive terms. They are not greatly worried about collateral damage to the innocent because, as a matter of karma, that just couldn't happen. So Altemeyer's judgment that authoritarians are aggressive and hostile may have some truth to it.

PS: On a separate note, see this article trying to make the case that our political differences are immutable and genetic. I am unconvinced. Overall attitudes have changed greatly over time, and ideas that were once radical and outrageous have become widely accepted. And more people than the author acknowledged change their minds. But it did have one fascinating insight on attraction and repulsion. Liberals, on the whole, found images either attractive or repulsive, but not both. (Neutral images were not used in the study). Conservatives had a lower disgust threshold, but were also strangely attracted to things that repulsed them. That may go a long way toward explaining the appeal of the politics of hate and resentment.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Haidt and Altemeyer

So now, back to Jonathan Haidt and his theory that liberalism lacks popular appeal because it sees morality only in terms of fairness and harm avoidance and is tone deaf to most people's concerns about in-group loyalty, respect for authority, and the sacred. A liberal seeking to answer [and another of those damn links I can't find] proposed that fairness and harm avoidance can be universalized to everyone. Group loyalty, respect for authority, and sense of the sacred are particular -- people disagree on what is sacred and what authority deserves our respect, and, of course, belong to different in-groups. In fact, it seems fair to me to say that Haidt misses an important liberal value -- universalism. He may respond that universalism just isn't the way humans innately operate. But to leave it out of the picture is to ignore an important question -- does expanding the range values you apply mean narrowing the range of people you consider morally worthy. I intend to explore the tradeoff in a series of posts.

In this post, I want to bring in Robert Altemeyer and his book, The Authoritarians as a perfect example of both tendencies -- liberal tone deafness and the advantages of liberal universalism.

In fact, I have been critical of Altemeyer's obvious tone deafness before. He describes conservative views (on the whole) as authoritarian. Consider his judgments of them refracted through Haidt's lens. Authoritarians (conservatives) are illogical (morally intuitive rather than purely rational). They are ethnocentric (value in-group loyalty), conventional (respectful of authority and tradition) and dogmatic (see the importance of the sacred). And above all, their values are highly compartmentalized, hypocritical, and prone to double standards (they value things that liberals don't understand).

Some of his examples clearly tell us more about Altemeyer's prejudices than anything else. Christian conservatives supported teaching Christianity in American public schools and responded to objections by religious minorities by appealing to majority rule. They opposed Arab countries teaching Islam in public schools, urging respect for minority rights. If a Christian child ran away from home and sought refuge with atheists, they believed the atheists should respect the child's parents' authority and not try to convert the child. If an atheist child ran away from home and sought refuge with Christians, they thought the Christians should try to convert the child.
Altemeyer claims they are being hypocritical and applying double standards. But that is nonsense, of course. They are being perfectly consistent. They favor promoting Christianity over rival religions and non-religions. There is no reason whatever why people can't genuinely value majority rule, minority rights and parental authority yet believe that promoting Christianity should trump all other values. But promoting Christianity (the sacred) just doesn't register on Altemeyer's scale of legitimate values. He doesn't seem to realize that just because Altemeyer does not consider promoting Christianity a legitimate value does not mean that other people have to agree.

Conservatives/authoritarians were more likely than liberals to favor censorship of undesirable ideas, including ideas offensive to liberals like racism, sexism and Holocaust denial. Altemeyer describes this as "hostility" and the wish to "clamp right down on lots and lots of people." He contrasts this unfavorably with liberals who did not want to censor, no matter how odious the ideas. More realistically, it means that some people value promoting true ideas over false ones more than a value-neutral concept of free speech. Yes, you can argue that value-neutral free speech is the best way to promote truth over falsehood. You can even argue that free speech is a good in its own right even if falsehood wins. But Altemeyer does nothing of the kind. He simply assumes the importance of value neutral free speech.

If a fight broke out between pro- and anti-gay demonstrators, conservatives/ authoritarians would impose a more or less severe sentence on the person who started it, depending on which side he belonged to. Altemeyer sees this as a double standard. But one could equally well see it as viewing violence as more or less culpable depending on whether it is done in a just or unjust cause. And really, who doesn't agree with that

But if Altemeyer is maddenly blind to what matters to conservatives, he does make the case for liberal superiority in at least one instance, when he compares however different groups play the Global Change Game.

The Global Change Game is a complex, multi-player (as in 50 to 70 player) international role playing game. It differs from other international role playing games in its strong focus on environmental issues; indeed, Altemeyer says it is designed to promote environmental awareness rather than as a typical war and diplomacy game. As in other international role playing games, people are assigned to represent countries. In this case, the number of people representing each country was in proportion to its real world population. Leaders stepped forward to represent their countries to the outside world, but each country had plenty of environmental problems to deal with at home apart from international relations. Since environmentalism had not yet emerged as a culture war issue, conservatives were perfectly willing to volunteer for a role playing game designed to promote environmental awareness.

Altemeyer sorted his players by high and low authoritarian scores. He describes four iterations of the game, one with low authoritarian players and three with high authoritarian ones. One of the high authoritarian versions had only authoritarian followers and no leaders. One assigned on authoritarian leader to each country in the game. The earliest version made no distinction between authoritarian leaders and followers. Needless to say, with a game this complex, it would take a good many more than four rounds to achieve any sort of scientific validity, but his results are revealing.

People with low authoritarian scores had little sense of in-group loyalty and cohesion, but considerable ability to cooperate beyond the boundaries of their countries. The first act of the leaders was to establish an international conference to handle any problems too big to be dealt with at the national level. The game facilitators threw plenty at them, like depletion of the ozone layer. Although there were significant deaths from starvation and disease, they were able to cooperate well to fend off worse disasters and generally ran things for everyone's benefit.

When authoritarian followers with no leaders played, their sense of in-group loyalty proved a handicap. Even though (as Altemeyer points out) everyone in the room actually belonged to the same in-group, and even though their in-groups for the game were arbitrarily assigned for a few hours only, people immediately clustered into tightly-knit in-groups and turned their back on everyone else. Each group cooperated well in addressing its own problems. They showed no interest in working with other groups, but neither were they hostile. They just wanted to be left alone and were perfectly willing to leave other groups alone. Unfortunately, the problems thrown at them were too big to be solved within their groups; greater international cooperation was needed. And people with intense in-group loyalty lacked the capacity to cooperate beyond their group and were overwhelmed by huge, intractable problems.

When authoritarian leaders were added (or at least not screened out), they showed greater capacity for cooperative international trades, but no real commitment to the world as a whole. And levels of international hostility went up fast. In one iteration of the game, the world was first wiped out by nuclear war. The game facilitators then reset it, and the second time around the players were able to limit themselves to a bloody conventional war. In the other iteration, there were no wars, but one aggressive power threatened others into submission, an arms race was on, and the game was, quite possibly, saved by the bell, i.e., it was fast escalating toward nuclear war when time ran out.

Of course, it may be the game was intentionally rigged to penalize in-group loyalty and reward universalism. But then again, the real world does face problems that require international cooperation to address. And any large country faces problems bigger than any one in-group can handle. Altemeyer's experiments show that placing universalism above in-group loyalty is a valuable trait when facing problems too big for one's in-group to handle. They do not show what to do when most people do not think that way.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Economy: It Really is Groundhog Day

The economic news for today looks really bad. After a mediocre jobs report at the end of March, unemploymnent claims have shot up. News stories report they jumped by 13,000 from 357,000 to 380,000, which shows that someone needs a course in remedial math. An increase from 357,000 to 380,000 is, in fact, a jump of 23,000, an alarming leap.* It is also alarming because it is a jump from the level described as adding jobs quickly to stagnant. (Over 425,000 gets into the losing jobs territory).

We went through this cycle in 2010 and 2011, with hiring appearing to pick up at the beginning of the year, faltering around April, looking like a double dip in the summer, and then looking up again toward the end of the year. It truly is Groundhog Day. My interpretation still stands. Given the clearly cyclical and seasonal nature of the phenomenon, our statisticians clearlly are not properly accounting for some sort of seasonal factors. (In particular, an unseasonably warm winter may have skewed the seasonally adjusted employment statistics this first quarter).

*The story I link to says that last week's claims have been revised upward. If they have been revised up to 367,000, then the numbers are right. Unmployment applications (and job creation, for that matter) tend to be revised upward as late comers trickle in. So the 380,000 will probably also be revised upward.

Fairwell to Rick Santorum

So, Rick Santorum has honorably and face-savingly withdrawn from the Republican primary because his daughter Bella has been ill and needs him. Let us all give our best wishes to Bella. And let us salute Rick as an excellent father.

It seems mean-spirited (and no longer relevant) to raise the question, but really it must be raised. Most people, I trust, would agree that we should be concerned about the health of Presidential candidates. Certainly there are many medical problems that should not be disqualifying and may be treated as purely private matters. But a candidate who has a very serious health problem and is in danger of dying in office or becoming incapacitated should be rejected. (See Paul Tsongas).

So perhaps we should ask the same question about family members. If a presidential candidate has a seriously ill family member who is likely to require a great deal of his (or her) time and attention, is that, after all, grounds for choosing someone else? Family comes first, after all, but for a President it is not so easy. Maybe I'm wrong. After all, Abraham Lincoln's son died while he was in the White House and Lincoln, though devastated, managed to carry on during our greatest national crisis ever.

But perhaps the subject is worth at least thinking about.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Jonathan Haidt: The Basics

And now, on to Jonathan Haidt and especially his views on purity and sanctity. Haidt's thesis is that liberal lack liberal appeal to the working class, even if we believe we represent their economic interest, at least better than the Republicans do. He starts with the obvious point that moral judgments are not altogether rational, that they are mostly made at the gut level with rationalizations made afterward. Anyone who ignores people's basic moral intuitions and tries to make morality purely rational, based solely on whether anyone is hurt, is going to end up offending a lot of people. Instead, he argues that morality is not just about whether anyone is hurt, but about "about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in
a sanctified and noble way." He argues that conservatives and people of the lower class are more willing to accept gut-level moral intuitions, even if they cannot give a rational, harm-based explanation for them. And he warns that liberals come across as snobbish, or at least clueless if they reject people's moral intuitions.

Well, sure, I think it is obvious that moral decisions are made at the gut level. I also agree that the idea that a degree in ethics makes you inherently more moral that a person without such a degree is offensive. And I think that to ignore people's moral intuitions and attempt to make moral decisions on purely "rational" basis can reach monstrous conclusions, like, say, killing a socially useless predatory lender in order to use her money for the greater social good. I am less sure that this is simply a question of conservatives/less educated people make intuitive moral decisions; liberals/more educated people make purely rational ones. This may be generally true, but I think there are also times when different groups simply have different moral intuitions. For instance, the intensity and absolutism of liberal opposition to torture suggests that it is the sort of thing that comes from the gut. And Dorothy Sayers' Gaudy Night turns on the question of whether a professor should be fired for falsifying an obscure bit of historical research that has no practical impact on anyone. Yes, say the women professors, even if it means he can no longer support his wife and children. His wife, by contrast, sees this as an outrage. How can they deprive them of their livelihood all over some meaningless bit of trivia that never hurt anyone.

But let us accept his generalization. Haidt goes on to argue that two universal moral values refraining from harming others, and some concept of fairness, roughly defined as reciprocity. These are values equally shared by liberals and conservative. But, Haidt argues, a society that relied only on those values would be a remarkably cold and shallow society. (And, although he does not add it, it would be much like an Ayn Randian libertarian society that liberals find so distasteful; one that equates freedom with atomization and regards individuals' obligations to each other as purely negative -- don't commit crimes or breach your contracts). He argues that there are three other important values that liberals don't relate to as well as conservatives -- loyalty to one's in-group, respect for authority, and purity/sanctity, a category that can cover anything from chastity to respect for sacred symbols to disgust at violation of a taboo. He implies, but does not add, another value -- personal autonomy.* This is an immensely important value in American culture, much esteemed by both liberals and conservatives, although conservatives are more likely to see it in economic terms and liberals in social terms. It is not generally much regarded in traditional societies.

He then goes on to discuss ways in which liberals might start adopting these values as their own. He is rather brief on this matter, but it deserves more discussion. I have two points to make here, that I hope to develop in more detail in my next few posts.

One is that I don't think liberals are quite as tone deaf as he thinks. Contrary to what he suggests, most liberals are appalled at the libertarian vision he paints of a society based solely on harm, fairness, and personal autonomy. It is the society of Ayn Rand, or Margaret Thatcher saying, There's no such thing as society. No doubt part of liberal's aversion to such a society is the fear that it would leave the weaker members vulnerable to the stronger. But I think there is more. Liberals, just like conservatives, long for a closer knit society where people care for each other and feel more obligation than just to refrain from harming each other.

Consider, for instance, an easy example Haidt takes. The family dog is hit by a car and killed. The family had no role in killing their dog. They therefore harm no one in eating it. Everyone felt revulsion at the act, but college student were able to overcome their revulsion and accept the act as "rational." You might come up with a utilitarian argument against eating the dog, mostly that it would upset other family members. But what if the whole family agreed? The answer lower-class respondents usually gave was some variant on, "Your dog is family and you just don't eat family."** I am guessing that most liberal and college people, even if they did not come up with this argument on their own, would happily seize on it as expressing exactly what they were trying to say in explaining their disgust. Exploring these other values may help liberals understand more clearly their horror and revulsion at the libertarian society, and see what alternative there are besides government programs.

But my other point is less optimistic. Simply put, there are trade-offs here. Not everyone agrees on what in-group they should be loyal to, what authority deserves respect, or what is sacred. Nor does anyone agree when members of one's in-group or authority figures no longer deserve respect. In a pluralistic society, these can be immense problems. Furthermore, there are trade-offs here. Loyalty to one's in-group may undermine one's ability to be fair to outsiders. Respect for authority may mean turning a blind eye when that authority acts unjustly. One person's sacred symbols may infringe on another's.

Haidt concludes by saying:
The Democrats would lose their souls if they ever abandoned their commitment to social justice, but social justice is about getting fair relationships among the parts of the nation. This often divisive struggle among the parts must be balanced by a clear and oft-repeated commitment to guarding the precious coherence of the whole. America lacks the long history, small size, ethnic homogeneity, and soccer mania that holds many other nations together, so our flag, our founding fathers, our military, and our common language take on a moral importance that many liberals find hard to fathom.

I worry that the proposals he makes, by ignoring those trade offs, my mean sacrificing our soul for political gain. More on that in the next few posts.

*It is my understanding that he has since updated his moral taxonomy to include this value.
**I suppose this is a matter of in-group loyalty.