This is the eleventh in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.”. I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.
This posting is the second posting on the presentation made by Jonathan Haidt, an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia. Earlier, I discussed his defense of intuitionism and raised objections to it. In addition to defending intuitionism, Haidt presented a number of propositions distinguishing between conservative and liberal morality.
Basically, his claims were these:
Liberal morality can be understood as being grounded on two fundamental sets of principles – each of which can be related to some biological (evolutionary) trait. These are a prohibition on harm (founded on the evolutionary quality of kin selection), and the other is fairness or justice (founded on the evolutionary quality of reciprocal altruism). These values are premised on the idea that societies are made up of distinct individuals and the individual is the fundamental entity that makes up communities.
However, if we look at morality around the world, we find three more fundamental sets of values that liberals tend to ignore. These additional three foundations come from recognition that groups, not just individuals, have moral importance. In order to have a functioning group, we need more than principles concerning harm and justice. We need principles concerning loyalty, respect, and purity or sanctity.
Haidt also charged the liberal community with being opposed to diversity (or, at best, as lacking diversity). He pointed out that there was almost universal agreement in the room about certain (liberal) moral values, and that this has been obtained effectively by driving anybody who would hold a conflicting view out of the community. He pointed out how, at psychology conventions, the attendees make jokes about conservatives and create an atmosphere where somebody holding conservative values would feel very uncomfortable – would feel unwelcome.
Ultimately, people do not like ‘liberal’ policies grounded merely on a foundation of harm and fairness because it undermines what he calls ‘moral communal capital’, which he defines as follows:
Moral-Communal capital: Social capital, plus institutions, traditions, and norms that guarantee that contributions and hard work will be rewarded, and that free-riders, exploiters, and criminals will be punished.
Earlier in the presentation, Haidt made the claim that we tend to do a poor job of moral reasoning – that we tend to think of our conclusions first and to look for arguments to defend it. This happens easiest in a homogenous society – a society that has silenced dissent – the way the liberal academic society has done. In order to make moral progress – in order to do morality right – liberals have to recognize that there is a place, or at least to give serious consideration to the possibility of a place, for some conservative values.
In order to briefly critique this theory, I want to look at it through the lens of desire utilitarianism. Desire utilitarianism holds that the value of a desire is determined by its tendency to fulfill (or thwart) other desires. So, the value of a desire to avoid harm or to promote fairness, as well as the desires that strengthen and better organize a society so that it actually gets things done, are determined by their tendency to fulfill other desires.
So, there is nothing in desire utilitarianism that limits our moral foundation to principles of harm and fairness or rules out the other concerns that Haidt proposes.
There is also nothing in desire utilitarianism that gives support to something called 'five pillars of morality'. This type of taxonomy of values tends to have more in common with intrinsic value theories (theories trying to identify some fundamental entities that have intrinsic worth from which all other values can be derived). Since desire utilitarianism denies the existence of intrinsic values, it denies that intrinsic value can be found in any 'five pillars' of morality.
However, it does suggest some questions for the specifics of Haidt’s account of morality.
For one thing, what is ‘harm’ and ‘fairness’? Both of these are value-laden terms. Nothing counts as a harm unless it is bad in the same way that no person is a bachelor unless he is unmarried. As for ‘fairness’, a great deal of ink has been spilled (and electrons have been charged) over what counts as being ‘fair’.
Haidt, for example, explains the virtue of ‘moral communal capital’ in that it allows us to leave our doors unlocked and our laptops out because we can trust others. However, the moral condemnation of taking a laptop can easily come from principles of harm and fairness – this is hardly a case that shows the need for ‘something more’ in the sense of community values.
I borrow my use of the term ‘harm’ from Joel Feinberg’s book, Harm to Others: The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law, which describes a harm as the thwarting of a strong and stable desire. Any thwarting of weak or fleeting desire counts as ‘hurting’ another, but not ‘harming’ in the morally relevant sense. If the value of a community is in its ability to fulfill desires, and harm is the thwarting of the desires, then Haidt’s concept of ‘community’ is actually captured within the ‘liberal’ concept of ‘harm’. The real question in this case is whether certain activities that purport to be destructive of the community will actually do so, or are the advocates of particular laws merely making up false claims about the ‘dangers’ of, for example, pornography or homosexual marriage?
Perhaps the differences that Haidt sees in the conservative disposition to value such things as community and authority rests in beliefs that our desires will tend to be thwarted in a society that does not have these things. Certainly, their desires to have these values instituted within a society will be thwarted, but the moral question is not whether a society will fulfill their desires for community and authority, but whether the desires for community and authority are good desires.
We can see a case for the value of community and authority in the workings of the military. A unit is brought together and trains together in the hopes of forming a community. This community establishes a set of community values and expectations that all members are expected to live up to. It includes a chain of command – those who give the orders, and those who obey them. This is, to the best of our knowledge, the best way to create a cohesive military unit capable of accomplishing important tasks in extremely unpleasant and dangerous situations. Remove the values of community and authority from a military unit, and it falls apart.
Even ‘liberals’ can recognize these values and the benefits that come from them.
So can desire utilitarians, who hold that we should promote these values to the degree that doing so fulfills other desires, but stop at that point where strengthening these desires do more harm than good.
One of the powers of community values is that they are better at uniting ‘us’ into a common force – a cohesive whole. However, is it even possible to unite ‘us’ into a cohesive whole without a ‘them’ to unite us against? It would seem, in most cases where communities become tight-knit, that they perceive themselves to be the persecuted enemy of some ‘them’ group that must somehow be defeated. Remove the external threat, and community values tend to weaken. Atheists, homosexuals (the so-called ‘homosexual agenda’), communists, Islamic jihadists, secularists, evolutionists, Darwinists, are all names attached to ‘them’ that ‘we’ must unite against.
It would be hard to argue that a sense of community actually does have moral value if it requires an enemy – a group of people who must be harassed, harmed, and brought to submission – in order to be effective. And even if ‘we’ are effective in forcing ‘them’ into submission, then we are going to need to invent another ‘them’ to replace those ‘we’ have defeated.
Similarly, authority values bring up the question, “Who watches the watchers?” The value of authority is brought to question by the fact that those with authority tend to sacrifice those without authority to their own interests. Slave cultures and tyrannies are prime examples of cultures that put a great deal of value on authority.
I want to remind the reader that Haidt’s account of the liberal values of harm and fairness are not without their own problems. In these cases, Haidt uses vague terms that could apply to anything that thwarts (strong and stable) desires. I am not here defending the liberal two-foundation system against a conservative five-foundation system. I am saying that Haidt’s ‘liberal’ foundations of harm and fairness are too vague to be useful, and his conservative values of ‘community’, ‘authority’, and ‘purity’ can be evaluated within a structure that properly defines the concepts of ‘harm’ and ‘fairness’.
One of the claims that Haidt makes is that religion does a particularly good job at promoting community values – creating his ‘moral communal capital’. Yet, it at least seems to be the case that religions do this precisely because they are able to generate an atmosphere of hostility towards others – outsiders that the group must unite against. It uses fear to cause people to huddled together as a huddled mass easily exploited by those who then take control of the group and use them to further the ends of the leaders.
Nobody reading this blog posting should come to the conclusion that I have defeated Haidt’s position. I have, at best, raised questions that require some further thought and consideration. It simply does not follow that because Haidt can show that certain people follow certain patterns of behavior that they have reason to do so. Nor does it necessarily justify any harm that they may be doing to an excluded group of 'them' that the group has decided to use as an enemy, or to the lower members of the group who make the sacrifices that benefit those higher up the ladder of authority.