Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Righteous Mind - Part Deux

As I suggested in my last post, I like Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, but I also feel an urge to pick some of it apart.  One of Haidt’s main arguments is that there are six basic features underlying our moral codes and that liberals generally favor three of them (Care, Fairness, Liberty) while conservatives favor all six (the three just named plus Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity).  He illustrates this contrast with a metaphor of taste buds whereby a person who is capable of “tasting” a wider array of ethical principles is advantaged over those more limited in this regard.  Haidt goes on to back his position up by offering data showing that conservatives understand liberals better than liberals (especially extreme liberals) understand conservatives.  After all, conservatives are familiar with all six moral systems, liberals only honor three of them.

This is all interesting and worth knowing, but - I think the “range of tastes” image is misleading.  A better one would distinguish vital moral attributes from less essential ones.  How about a metaphorical sailboat, for instance?  A sailboat MUST have sails, rudder and hull in order to function but MIGHT also have flags, decorative painting on the hull and multicolored patterns on the sails as well. Care, Fairness and Liberty in morality are like hull, rudder and sails in a boat: absolutely essential. No moral system that doesn’t incorporate them makes sense.  It would be bizarre for anyone to argue that, “I believe we must obey our leaders and be loyal to our country, but I have nothing against torturing and killing innocent people.”

I’m not saying nobody has ever held such a moral code (I’m looking at you, Mr. Cheney), I’m just saying such a moral system makes no sense to ordinary people or to philosophical ethicists.

The liberal focus on Care, Fairness and Liberty stems directly from the fact that it is self-evidently wrong to inflict acts of cruelty on the innocent.  This is the essence of the Care principle.  The best way to prevent such cruelty is to ensure that Fairness guides our policies and that individuals have the Liberty to look after their own well-being.  Presto, there it is: the three-legged moral code of American liberals.

Cruelty, as I understand it, is the inflicting of pain, suffering or humiliation on people and similarly sentient beings.  I’m going to exclude the killing of animals for food here, on behalf of those who are not vegetarians (including me - and with apologies to the pigs and chickens of the world). 

The liberal values of Care, Fairness and Liberty spring necessarily and obviously from the moral value that says inflicting cruelty is wrong.  The secondary values of Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity do not.

Haidt shows how these “conservative” values function to bind societies together, and his argument here is interesting and partly convincing.  It hinges on the idea that natural selection has favored groups as well as individuals, and this “group selection” has endowed us with DNA that underlies the three conservative morals.  Authority’s role here is obvious.  Societies in which powerful authority figures can coordinate the efforts of all to attain a general goal otherwise unattainable are able to do things that more egalitarian and less obedient mobs cannot.  Loyalty and Sanctity work similarly to promote group efforts.

There is a catch here, however.  Haidt honors those (mainly conservatives) who consider respect for authority a moral ideal in and of itself.  But the 50,000-year-long human story is largely one of people who acted with Liberty, that is, according to their own interests as they understood them.  The great majority of our evolving ancestors lived in egalitarian societies in which there were no powerful leaders.  Haidt believes that despite this ancient, authority-less, egalitarian history underlying our evolution, humans are actually inclined, by virtue of our genetic natures, to defer to authority figures.  He dismisses the thousands of years of human prehistory when people lived without chiefs, kings, generals or dictators as an aberration.  But I don’t.

I believe that Haidt is wrong to claim that we, as adults, are programmed to defer to others who wield authority.  That we sometimes do, reflects those accidents of history that eventually gave us the likes of Genghis Khan, Mussolini, Stalin and Wall Street.  

I grant that sometimes deferring to authority is necessary, particularly when one’s society faces a threat from an enemy contemptuous of Care and other liberal values, and led by a ruthless yet sanctified ruler like Genghis Khan.  A trained and authoritarian army can fight much more effectively against such an enemy than could a mass of armed but independent warriors.  In the face of a Genghis-Khan-type threat, an obedient and armed citizenry is vital.  But this does not make deference to authority in itself a virtue – comparable to the need to refrain from inflicting pain on the innocent.  Authority, in other words, is in no way the equal of Care.  Rather, it is an ad hoc solution to the problem of coordinating the actions of large social groups.  Liberal democracies confirm this by making it the temporary attribute of democratically chosen representatives of the group.

Loyalty and Sanctity are similar to Authority in that they can be said to have their place, but their roles cannot be compared to those of the fundamentally and inherently moral propositions of Care, Fairness and Liberty.  Loyalty and Sanctity (like Authority) are as often abused as ethically applied.  It is well to remember that the essence of Nazism was a general demand for Loyalty and deference to Authority in the name of the Sacred “Aryan” race.  And the terrorists who attacked us on 9-ll were all about Sanctity.  In fact, had they been less devoted to the moral ideal of Sanctity, they would never have inflicted the killing and destruction on us that they did.  Care in itself does not inspire blitzkriegs or terrorist attacks; only Authority, Loyalty and Sanctity do.

In a brief comment like this, I can’t do justice to Haidt’s thought-provoking argument with all its complexity.  I do believe he makes some very interesting and valid points.  I think he is right when he says the three virtues of Authority, Loyalty and Sanctity comprise much of the glue that holds a society together.  We are, however, living in an era when the entire human species is evolving, economically and culturally, into a single, indivisible super-family.  It may well be that our genetic code includes a disposition to dehumanize those who seem different and to conceptualize them as impure “others” worthy only of exile (“Take your anchor baby and get out of my Pure and Sacred country.”) or destruction (“Bomb, bomb, bomb – bomb, bomb Iran”).  But we will be much better off if our policies go against the actions that these narrow impulses would engender and recognize that our real sanctity lies in the realization that we are one worldwide tribe and all of our children deserve to be born into a moral embrace whose sustaining  heart is Care.

Munchkins of the World, Unite!