LIBERALS HAVE AN IMPOVERISHED MORAL WORLDVIEW?
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I don’t want to believe this. I want to believe that moderate political beliefs are choices! That the different beliefs exist so that compromises can be made. No one SHOULD believe on face value. Competition of ideas promotes better ideas. That’s why I am a proud Conservative. Let the best ones one win.
But Haidt seems to say, “No”. The rest of this interview should clarify this discrepancy. Let’s see what happens next. After we read this, let’s have some discussion.
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BLVR: Let’s take a more concrete question. Gay marriage. You brought this up in your talk at Dartmouth and the one I saw at Duke. You say that conservatives in America employ all four of the modules, whereas liberals only employ two. You said that liberals have an impoverished moral worldview, and that conservatives somehow have a richer moral life. Now, I don’t know if that’s just a way to shock the liberal intelligentsia…
JH: No, I meant it, although I don’t mind doing a bit of shocking.
BLVR: You said that we as liberals have pared down our moral foundations to two modules, fairness and do-no-harm—whereas perfectly intelligent conservatives have all four modules
Er…I want him to re-conceptualize that. Maybe Haidt hasn’t fine-tuned his categories. One thing I’m learning about neuro-psychology is that the field is much too young for anyone to make sweeping generalizations.
BLVR: So if you take gay marriage, and let’s say we’re not in Massachusetts, we’re in Mississippi, and you have people who have the intuition that gay marriage is really wrong, it’s impure. Because they have that purity module that liberals lack. Do you want to say that in that culture that gay marriage is really wrong?
JH: I think it depends on the kind of society you have. I’m glad that we have a diversity of societies in this world. And some societies become experts in lives of piety and sanctity and divinity. The four modules are not virtues themselves. Virtues come out of them. America is very much about individual happiness, the right to expression, self-determination. In America you do need to point to harm that befalls victims before you can limit someone elses’ rights. While there’s not necessarily an objective truth about whether gay marriage is right or wrong, when you look at the values and virtues that we hold dear in America, and you look at who is helped and harmed by legalizing gay marriage, if you start with a utilitarian analysis, so many people benefit from gay marriage and no one is directly harmed by gay marriage. So that in itself argues in favor of gay marriage.
On the other hand, conservative morality looks not just at effects on individuals, but at the state of the social order. The fact that acts that violate certain parts of the Bible are tolerated is disturbing to conservatives even though they can’t point to any direct harm. So I do understand the source of their opposition to it. And this is a difficult case, where it can’t work out well for everyone. Somebody has to give. If we were in a Muslim country, or a Catholic country where much of social and moral life was regulated in accordance with the purity and hierarchy codes, then it would be very reasonable to ban gay marriage. But we are not in such a country. We are in a country where the consensus is that we grant rights to self-determination unless a limiting reason can be found. So in this case, I think conservatives have to give. It is right to legalize gay marriage.
BLVR: I want to make sure I understood that. If we were in the 1930s—I don’t want to stereotype—but 1930s Alabama, there’s a pretty safe one, maybe the modules of purity and tradition played more of a role then than they do now. Let’s say you’re the father of a man who wants to marry another man. You would feel comfortable saying to your son that it’s wrong to marry—it’s wrong for you do that…
JH: I do think that facts about the prevalence of homosexuality and the degree of repugnance to it are relevant. In the present case, 5 percent of people are gay. That’s a lot of people. And in the present case, repugnance against homosexuality is not nearly as strong as it used to be. I think we are now at the point where we ought to legalize gay marriage, and some people just won’t be happy about it. But now look at Justice Scalia’s argument in opposing Lawrence v. Texas. Scalia’s argument is very interesting. I think it’s ultimately wrong, but wrong for an empirical reason. I’m paraphrasing: he said, “If we have to legalize sodomy, the next step will be incest and sex with animals.” But I don’t think that would be the next step. Five percent of people cannot live full happy lives if homosexuality is outlawed. If 5 percent of people could not live full happy lives without having sex with their siblings, or with sheep, then we’d have a difficult moral problem on our hands. But we don’t. Very few people fall into either category. So legalizing homosexuality is not the first step on a slippery slope to legalizing everything.
BLVR: OK, but getting back to my question, we’re in 1930s Alabama. Five percent of the people are still gay, I imagine, but repugnance is much higher. Is it wrong then? Or maybe you think it’s not a proper question.
JH: No, I think it’s a very good question. The amount of shock and outrage would have been much greater then than it is now. Plus back then they didn’t know the facts about homosexuality; they didn’t know that it’s caused by hormonal conditions in utero, it’s not a choice. Now that we know these facts we’re in a much better position than they were then. I don’t know if that answers your question.
BLVR: Well, maybe it does. Correct me if I’m wrong. Maybe you want to say yes, in that case it probably would have been wrong. Maybe you want to say to your son: no, you ought not marry that man, or even carry on a relationship with him. But given that we’re not in that situation now, that’s changed. Is that not a fair analysis of what the implications of your theory are?
JH: Yes, I think so. Given that there’s not an objective (nonanthropocentric) fact of the matter, and what makes our moral life so interesting is that any particular act can be justified or opposed by reference to a different constellation of these four modules, of these foundational intuitions, it really is a matter of argument, public discussion, triggering people’s intuitions, and somehow or other the chips fall in a certain way. Sometimes, with time, they fall in a different way. Ten years ago, or even three years ago, we never thought that we’d be this close to having gay marriage—we have it, actually.
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- Jonathan Haidt’s Moral-Political Psychology (psychologytoday.com)
- Jonathan Haidt on the Moral Foundations of Occupy Wall Street (reason.com)
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