Conservatives, liberals and purity

I have just started reading Jonathan Haidt‘s new book. Its called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion and was released a few days back.

Personally, I have learned a lot from Haidt’s writings and research on moral psychology. I certainly recommend his previous book The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. So I am intrigued by the current book.

However, I do find some of his current claims, made in recent interviews and lectures, a bit disturbing. Perhaps he is being more political than he has in the past. (This seems to be the American season for political books. Chris Mooney has also recently published The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science–and Reality. Looks interesting). Or perhaps this reflects changes in Haidt’s own political views. (He says he used to be “liberal” but has now moved more to a “centrist” position).

1: Are conservatives more “understanding” than liberals?

Haidt seems to suggest they are. He bases this on his “moral foundations” theory. (see www.MoralFoundations.org).  This “proposes that six (or more) innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of “intuitive ethics.” Each culture then constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world, and conflicting within nations too.”

I see this as arguing that human morality is based on a number of subconscious or emotional  instincts or intuitions. He lists: Care/harm, Fairness/cheating, Liberty/oppression, Liberty/oppression, Loyalty/betrayal and Authority/subversion. Have a look at the above link for his detailed description of these. He then has used on-line social surveys of a large number of people to identify the relevance placed on these different instincts by different (self-described) political groups. (By the way, there is a need to define terms here because “liberal” means something different in the US to what it does elsewhere. As Haidt says in his book: “Readers from outside the United States may want to swap in the words progressive or left-wing whenever I say liberal.”)

The results from his survey have been in the literature for a while and are repeated in his new book. The figure illustrates the main point – conservatives give more moral relevance to sanctity, purity, disgust, and authority than do “liberals.”

OK – I can see that. It’s not surprising. But my problem is the conclusion he draws in recent lectures and interviews. (see for example the Blogging Heads discussion with Robert Wright). There he has claimed that conservatives are naturally more understanding of “liberals” because they share the same importance of instincts like care and fairness. But, on the other hand, “liberals’ cannot understand conservatives because they don’t share the same relevance of authority and purity.

If this were true there should be some empirical evidence – and I can’t see it. Especially in the US. But the figure does not say that “liberals” do not share those instincts related to purity, etc. Just that they don’t give them the high relevance conservatives do in their intuitive moral choices.

Haidt appears to want to remove authority and purity from the “liberal’s” instinctual menu – just because of difference placed on relevance! in one case!

Actually, later on in the Blogging Head’s discussion he appears to do an about-turn when he criticises “liberal” academics for invoking a purity instinct when they avoid, or even refuse to allow, any research or discussion of racial differences. He asserts that “liberals” sanctify questions of race – and hence ring-fence it.

I like his moral foundations theory and its use to “explain” political differences in attitude. But I suspect his conclusion about conservatives “understanding” “liberals” (and therefore being able to listen to and communicate with them better than their political opponents) is an example of his “centrist” wishful thinking -  or even political bias.

And he certainly has not supported that conclusion empirically.

2: Preoccupation with “new atheism”

Perhaps this is part of his “new politics” but Haidt is throwing his hat in with those atheists who feel they have to indulge in “Dawkins bashing” and kicking over the straw man of the “new atheism” caricature. This seems to be coming from his desire to promote the scientific understanding of the historical role of religion in binding societies and providing community. Sure, this ties in with his understanding of the evolution of human moral psychology – but he is hardly the one to discover it. Its a common feature of modern understanding of the evolution and role of evolution – and probably has been for a while.

Bloody hell, Daniel Dennett (who Haidt would describe as a “new atheist”) describes these features in his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.

When Haidt says things like “religion is (probably) an evolutionary adaptation for binding groups together and helping them to create communities with a shared morality. It is not a virus or a parasite, as some scientists (the “New Atheists”) have argued in recent years” he is unfairly caricaturing these scientists. Sure concepts of memes, and evolution and movement of ideas in a way similar to viruses have been suggested by some scientists – as a mechanism, not a complete explanation of religion and ideology.

Haidt appears to have a lot to say about “new atheists” in his new book. I’ll have to wait till I have finished before making a final conclusion. But it seems to me that even to use the term “new atheism” is not scientific. Its a caricature, and one that is very often used dishonestly – like “strident atheist,” “militant atheist,” etc. I can’t help feeling that this is the political “centrist” Haidt talking (or even emotively venting) rather than the scientist Haidt.

There are of course attitudes, ideas and approaches that should be critiqued in science. But lets deal with the specifics, illustrated by examples, rather than myths and caricatures.

That said – so far I have enjoyed this book – and with the exception of these lapses, find it very convincing. Well worth reading.

See also: Chris Mooney – The Republican Brain

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One response to “Conservatives, liberals and purity

  1. lol are you saying that “conservatives” don’t believe in fairness or caring at all?

    Your claim about fairness isn’t even worth a response.

    In terms of caring, US “conservatives” support a bigger welfare state than FDR ever imagined. They just support a smaller one than the democrats.

    On the other hand, “liberals” clearly have no reverence for purity of any kind, relish the mess and diversity of all kinds (except that which opposes the “beautiful mess” and diversity).

    I would add to Haidt’s claim that “conservatives” also fail to appreciate the bohemian garden that the “liberals” want. But since Haidt sees the scale as valuing purity or not, he doesn’t treat what “liberals” value as an entity that “conservatives” also don’t see.

    Like

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