As many readers of this website will likely be aware, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of 2012’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, has spent the best part of a decade engaged in a quixotic quest to convince secular liberals of the wisdom inherent to a broader range of political moralities, including religious conservatism. Central to his argument is the controversial claim that human evolution may have sped up at the dawn of agriculture, and that religion and right wing ideologies represent adaptive solutions to the problems of social cohesion in large-scale, post-agricultural societies – particular those posed by “the deviants and free riders who eternally threaten to undermine cooperative groups”.
This is contentious stuff. For the left, the obvious objection is to ask “What cooperative groups?” It is an unbroken pattern in human history that agricultural surpluses quickly lead to highly stratified societies in which economic elites tend to hoover up the wealth generated by hard labour at lower levels. To liberals, the real free riders look like those at the top, with religions seemingly designed to legitimise this parasitic power structure. Haidt is inclined to talk about the mighty cities of Rome, Babylon, and Tenochtitlan as spectacular feats of cooperation made possible by an ideology that “tells people to suppress their carnality, to pursue higher, nobler ends.” As a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, I’m tempted to agree – just so long as we’re clear that “nobler ends” means “the ends of the nobles”.
The divergence of worldviews between left and right is well captured by Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory (see moralfoundations.org) according to which there exist at least six evolutionary bases for moral reasoning – three of which liberals have come to reject as antiquated and inherently beneficial to the powerful. Here’s the full breakdown (liberals discard numbers 4, 5 and 6):
1) Care (over harm)
2) Liberty (over oppression)
3) Fairness (over cheating)
4) Loyalty (over betrayal)
5) Authority (over subversion)
6) Sanctity (over degradation)
On the basis of this parsing, Haidt’s address to the political left takes the form of a broadening of horizons; since everyone agrees on the virtues of caring for others, freedom from oppression and fair play, it is liberals who need persuading of the positive roles played by loyalty to one’s group, deference to authority and placing infinite value on sanctified notions. Haidt’s arguments to that effect are complex and interesting – but for the purposes of this essay, I’d like to suggest that his reduction of liberalism and conservatism to variations in taste across moral foundations actually works to obscure the more pressing disputes that take place within them. Who should we care for? What policies are fair? Whose freedoms need protecting and from which oppressors? For many, these are the most important moral questions of all – and they are heated precisely because they involve pitting the interests of competing groups against one another. As such they represent a serious challenge to Haidt’s defense of conservatism as a heartfelt vision of the greater good.
Haidt hasn’t failed to notice such within-foundation disputes – but his intellectual strategy for dealing with them takes some heavy lifting. Here’s an extract from his discussion of tax and welfare:
On the left, concerns about equality and social justice are based in part on the Fairness foundation – wealthy and powerful groups are accused of gaining by exploiting those at the bottom while not paying their “fair share” of the tax burden. This is a major theme of the Occupy Wall Street movement … On the right, the Tea Party movement is also very concerned about fairness. They see Democrats as “socialists” who take money from hardworking Americans and give it to lazy people (including those who receive welfare or unemployment benefits) and to illegal immigrants (in the form of free health care and education).
That seems a reasonable summation so far. Liberals and conservatives appear to differ over which cheats are worst: is it the tax cheats at the top or the welfare cheats at the bottom? But seemingly wary of any framing of the left-right dichotomy that so squarely pits rich against poor, Haidt contrives the following distinction:
Everyone cares about fairness, but there are two major kinds. On the left, fairness often implies equality, but on the right it means proportionality – people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes.
By this logic, Haidt is able to argue that the liberal distaste for wealthy corporations has little to do with fairness (defined as catching cheaters) and rests instead on the Care and Liberty foundations (liberals would protect the weak from the strong by making everyone equal, he says). With the Fairness foundation restricted to notions of proportionality, and the discussion of tax cheats safely shunted elsewhere in his schema, Haidt is free to assert that “conservatives care more” about fairness:
For example, how relevant is it to your morality whether “everyone is pulling their own weight”? Do you agree that “employees who work the hardest should be paid the most”? Liberals don’t reject these items, but they are ambivalent. Conservatives, in contrast, endorse items such as these enthusiastically.
This sits neatly with The Righteous Mind’s overarching thesis that societies can only function when religions or rightwing ideologies serve to suppress free riding. Haidt cites the following poster from David Cameron’s Conservative Party in the UK as an example of how the right are generally tougher on those who take from society without giving back:
But phew – this is hard going! Quite apart from the methodological objection that kicking particular issues around the six foundations in order to purify the discussion of one in isolation makes Haidt’s analysis deeply unfalsifiable, his stereotypical conception of liberals as dogmatic egalitarians with little regard for catching cheaters flies wide of the mark. In those instances where corporations break or bend laws to avoid taxation, they really are cheaters in an explicit sense, and liberals are entitled to castigate them as such. To reply to David Cameron’s poster in kind, here’s a liberal meme that began circulating on Twitter in 2013:
More to the point, even when the rich remain within the law, there is still good reason to regard the liberal critique of inequality as a matter of proportionality. When the Occupy Wall Street movement objects to the fact that 1% of the population hoards 40% of America’s wealth, this is not – contra Haidt – a de facto plea for its complete redistribution. It is instead a recognition that no matter how hard top-level CEOs may work, it is not hundreds of times greater than their average employee. That’s what’s disproportionate, according to liberals.
Conservatives may switch tack at this juncture, and argue that the 1% are instead hundreds of times smarter, or more skilled, or more creative. But each of these outlandish explanations of individuals’ success betray the same atomistic thinking that Haidt is so critical of in Western culture more generally. “The WEIRDer you are,” Haidt says “the more you perceive a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships”. (By WEIRD, Haidt means Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic). For conservatives, individual success can only be explained by outstanding intelligence or hard work. Liberals, by contrast, recognise that individuals’ achievements do not take place in a vacuum, and are largely constrained by social forces. Inherited wealth, social contacts, cultural capital, and the ability to take potentially rewarding risks without serious consequences make a huge difference. Liberals agree with conservatives on the virtues of a meritocracy, but in correctly perceiving its absence they understand that gauging hard work independent of inherited social advantages is extremely difficult. This is why, as Haidt says, liberals fail to fully endorse claims such as “employees who work the hardest should be paid the most” – but don’t reject them either. This awareness of social complexity is also, I would submit, a better explanation for liberal politics than a willingness to “trade away fairness” when it comes to caring for the poor or battling oppression.