You calling me a conservative?

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Liberals Can't Admit to Thinking Like Conservatives

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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How do we decide what is right and wrong? Psychologist Jonathan Haidt's theory is that humans have a small number of fundamental, intuitive "moral foundations," such as sanctity, loyalty, authority, fairness, and an axis he calls care/harm. A corollary to this theory is that liberals tend to reason overwhelmingly on the fairness and care/harm factors, denigrating or ignoring other foundations that most other people consider as vital as the Big Two. In a talk for Edge, he once likened this to a restaurant that only serves sugar, or salt:

[I]t's a metaphor for how I feel when I read moral philosophy and some moral psychology. Morality is so rich and complex. It's so multifaceted and contradictory. But many authors reduce it to a single principle, which is usually some variant of welfare maximization. So that would be the sugar. Or sometimes, it's justice and related notions of fairness and rights. And that would be the chemist down the street. So basically, there's two restaurants to choose from. There's the utilitarian grille, and there's the deontological diner. That's pretty much it. 

For reasons that may be obvious, Haidt has become caught up in the culture war between conservatives and liberals, because his work reframes the abundance of social psychology papers that have been produced purporting to show that conservatives are horrible people, frightened, authoritarian, and all-around downright awful. Haidt's work suggests instead that conservatives are people who rely on a broader array of moral foundations than do liberals.

I'm an enormous fan of Jonathan Haidt's work. Nonetheless, I've always had two outstanding questions about it (and would note that these are not exactly questions of which Professor Haidt is unaware).  The first is simply whether his surveys capture the actual moral reasoning that people do, or represent people pretending to do the sort of moral reasoning they think they ought to do. Take two of the questions he asks about purity. One involves brother-sister incest in which every precaution is taken to prevent pregnancy, and leaves both parties feeling pretty good about the experience with no long-term side effects on the family. The other involves a man having carnal knowledge of his poultry before he cooks it and eats it for dinner.

When asked if these two things are morally wrong, American liberals and libertarians would tend to answer no. (Or try to get around the hypothetical by positing undetected harm from the incest, or the potential dangers of salmonella and/or freezer burn from the chicken.) And yet, I submit that if those people found out that a stranger exhibited such behavior, most would probably be less interested in becoming friends with that stranger. That's a moral judgement, but cultural norms among the secular educated elite don't give people any vocabulary to express it, and so they say that it's not wrong in the first place -- even though in the actual situation, they would probably still make a moralizing judgement about it. As I wrote last year, "It is clearly true that liberals profess a moral code that excludes concerns about loyalty, honor, purity and obedience -- but over the millennia, man has professed many ideals that are mostly honored in the breach."

The second issue is a simply a perennial problem for surveys that look at political and moral reason: What questions did you ask? If you give people a quiz on global warming, conservatives may look more ignorant and ideologically motivated than liberals. On the other hand, if you ask that same group how many prisoners are in jail for non-violent drug offenses, you may "prove" that liberals ignorantly and/or willfully underestimate the number. Another way of saying that is that liberals may indeed resort to reasoning from sanctity, group loyalty, and authority -- but the questions Haidt has asked simply may not capture that tendency.

This problem occurred to Jeremy Frimer, who did a paper on how conservative and liberal attitudes towards authority shift when you shift who the authority is. "Together with my collaborators Dr. Danielle Gaucher and Nicola Schaefer, we asked both red and blue Americans to share their views about obeying liberal authorities (e.g., "obey an environmentalist"). In an article that we recently  published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, we found that liberals were now the ones calling for obedience. And when the authorities were viewed as ideologically neutral (e.g., office manager), liberals and conservatives agreed. Only when people perceived the authority to be conservative (e.g., religious authority) did conservatives show a positive bias."

Now Frimer has a new paper, co-authored with Haidt, on sanctity. And again they find liberals arguing from a broader range of moral foundations than Haidt's work initially suggested. When it comes to desecrating the purity of a mountain, instead of, say, the American flag, it turns out that liberal mountain climbers care a lot, even though no sentient being is harmed by the action.

Of course, this is a limited paper: It's a case study of mountain climbers, who, as anyone who has hung out with them can readily attest, are a wee bit different from normal folks. It certainly resonates with my personal experience of the environmental movement, and I suspect that there are other areas where we'd see sanctity take precedence over other moral concerns. But I don't want to lean too hard on a single study, however well it matches my intuitions.

But if this result holds up, it brings us back to the first point I raised: It may not be so much that liberals don't care about sanctity, authority, and so forth, as that they are culturally encouraged not to admit that they do. That may seem like a distinction without a difference, of course, but I don't think that it is, because our stubborn moral intuitions about what is right and wrong are much more powerful than our logic when we make decisions. (Just try to get the average person to sit down and coolly reason through the discovery that their spouse enjoys the occasional fling at a conference with people they never see again.) Coming at someone with utilitarian math when the problem is actually that you've desecrated their sacred space is a recipe for bitter and unresolvable conflict -- and perhaps, for a culture war that no one is going to win.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net