the moral basis of American politics

Morpheus v. Neo

Oy vey. Is there no end to the flood of pseudo-philosophy coming out of sociology and neuroscience? Rorty, Derrida, all is forgiven. I wish you both were still with us. In your absence, it is hard to ignore these subversions of philosophy for political ends.

Last week, William Saletan published a review of Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Righteous Mind. My thanks to Victor Paladino for alerting me to it! In that review, entitled “Why Won’t They Listen?”, Saletan writes:

You’re smart. You’re liberal. You’re well informed. You think conservatives are narrow-minded. You can’t understand why working-class Americans vote Republican. You figure they’re being duped. You’re wrong. This isn’t an accusation from the right. It’s a friendly warning from Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who, until 2009, considered himself a partisan liberal.

I hope Saletan has this wrong, because otherwise it is ridiculous. Nothing is less friendly than a “warning” from somebody who has renounced their old beliefs. According to Haidt, American liberals have committed themselves to a morally deficient platform:

Haidt has read ethnographies, traveled the world and surveyed tens of thousands of people online. He and his colleagues have compiled a catalog of six fundamental ideas that commonly undergird moral systems: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity […] You don’t have to go abroad to see these ideas. You can find them in the Republican Party. Social conservatives see welfare and feminism as threats to responsibility and family stability. The Tea Party hates redistribution because it interferes with letting people reap what they earn. Faith, patriotism, valor, chastity, law and order — these Republican themes touch all six moral foundations, whereas Democrats, in Haidt’s analysis, focus almost entirely on care and fighting oppression. This is Haidt’s startling message to the left: When it comes to morality, conservatives are more broad-minded than liberals. They serve a more varied diet.

The thing I find most startling about this picture of American politics is how inaccurate it is.

Come now, Mr. Haidt. Stop trying to hit me and hit me. Let’s make this picture of the “liberal agenda” a little clearer.

Equal rights. Due process under the law. Fighting de facto segregation. Making corporations as accountable as private citizens. A living wage. Investment in education.

Including human rights in our foreign policy. Protecting freedom of speech and assembly. Fighting discriminatory voting laws. Promoting treatment over imprisonment for drug offenses. Permitting immigration.

Admittedly, the Left does not believe in unlimited property rights, school vouchers, or unregulated corporate practices. In that sense, their view of liberty is more complex than that of Libertarians. This is why the Libertarian position is so much more valuable than that of Republicans.

What has been the single most destructive pattern of disloyalty in modern America? The disloyalty of corporations. Pensions slashed or emptied. Factories moved elsewhere. Unsafe working conditions. The elimination of seniority and tenure. The only counterweight has been the labor movement, and I am sure Mr. Haidt would not question how many acts of valor have been part and parcel of that movement.

Rule of law. Liberals tend to be proceduralists rather than “originalists,” but they defend the authority and hierarchy of the law, from de-segregation and busing, to ensuring that women have access to abortion clinics.

The sanctity of Nature: conservation, environmental regulation, the parks system. The sanctity of life: opposing the death penalty, supporting gun control, advocating for health and social services, opposing unjust wars. The sanctity of the body: a woman’s right to make all decisions concerning abortion, contraception, and reproductive care. The protection of all forms of religious worship.


Haidt is merely slippery. He begins by arguing that moral intuition trumps reason. Then he argues that Republicans are more in tune with their moral intuition. Finally, he comes around to presenting the same old arguments for the same old conservative positions:

Welfare programs that substitute public aid for spousal and parental support undermine the ecology of the family. Education policies that let students sue teachers erode classroom authority. Multicultural education weakens the cultural glue of assimilation. Haidt agrees that old ways must sometimes be re-examined and changed. He just wants liberals to proceed with caution and protect the social pillars sustained by tradition.

Protecting the social pillars sustained by traditions — pillars that once included segregation, and slavery before that — is not progressive. It is conservative by definition. The rest is just Republican rhetoric. Public aid has never been a substitute for spousal support; it is a safety net for people too poor to support each other adequately. Multicultural education recognizes that the best kind of assimilation is founded upon cultural exchange. As for students suing teachers…what? I am a teacher, and even I’m not focused on that issue. When it does come up, it’s either because some teacher or district decided to impose religious education, or else because some right-wing group is trying to intimidate teachers.

I know Haidt wants to initiate a conversation about reason and morality, but when he advances such partisan opinions, he fatally undermines his own scholarship. His ideas are fraught with contradictions: people want liberty, but they also want authority and order. Traditional societies spurn individualism…but protecting the individual is the rallying cry of fiscal conservatives. Haidt apparently valorizes chastity, but he must know that most traditional societies do not, for obvious reasons. Globally, the strongest opposition to contraceptives comes from the Catholic Church…because it is steadfast in defending reproduction, on the basis of traditional laws that are thousands of years old.

The Republican Party is not mysterious to me. It is a loose alliance of people who believe our government should be more “Christian,” and people who believe in lower taxes and less regulation. All these two groups share, in the end, is a very narrow conception of self-interest and a lot of corporate sponsorship. I can see why they’d fight, in their short-sighted way, for their beliefs and their dollars; I can’t imagine, however, why anyone outside those circles is obligated to play along.

I hope Haidt will say more, to me or to somebody, about this bizarre attempt to sell Edmund Burke to the American Left. Until then…

love and haidt