what a bunch of moral elitists

UPDATE:  A friend just informed me that Jonathan Haidt speaks at TED talks

I was going to write a different post about how Sarah Palin is all about secrecy and doublespeak. Just generally above the law.  In other words, how her governing style is exactly like the Bush Administration’s “unprecedented assault on the principle of open government.” I even had a clever title: “Palin the face.”  Haha.  Except, as Judith Warner writes, Sarah Palin is no laughing matter. Damn. Whatever.

Through the blog of an acquaintance (who might someday become a friend), I’ve found something more interesting — and self-critical:  A moral psychologist’s research on “What makes people vote Republican?” As far as moral reasoning goes, liberals just don’t get it, although we like to think we do.  And that makes us condescending and elitist.  Fair enough.

Jonathan Haidt is a professor of Moral Psychology at the University of Virginia.  He writes

We think of the moral mind as being like an audio equalizer, with five slider switches for different parts of the moral spectrum. Democrats generally use a much smaller part of the spectrum than do Republicans. The resulting music may sound beautiful to other Democrats, but it sounds thin and incomplete to many of the swing voters that left the party in the 1980s, and whom the Democrats must recapture if they want to produce a lasting political realignment.

In other words, based on his research, he’s found that conservatives operate all five sliders compared to liberals, who use only two sliders.  Conservative morality is more complex.  More — dare I say it? — sophisticated.  Gee, can liberals complain about how conservatives are a bunch of moral elitists?  But seriously, here are the five moral mechanisms:

Haidt explains that John Stuart Mills’ vision of a society held together by a social contract “appeals to many liberals and libertarians,” and that there are two moral mechanisms that appear to be “innate” to such a society:

1) harm/care:  people in all cultures are emotionally responsive to suffering and harm, particularly violent harm, and so nearly all cultures have norms or laws to protect individuals and to encourage care for the most vulnerable

2) fairness/reciprocity: people in all cultures are emotionally responsive to issues of fairness and reciprocity, which often expand into notions of rights and justice

Here are the other three:

3) ingroup/loyalty (involving mechanisms that evolved during the long human history of tribalism)

4) authority/respect (involving ancient primate mechanisms for managing social rank, tempered by the obligation of superiors to protect and provide for subordinates)

5) purity/sanctity (a relatively new part of the moral mind, related to the evolution of disgust, that makes us see carnality as degrading and renunciation as noble).

Haidt explains that “these three systems support moralities that bind people into intensely interdependent groups that work together to reach common goals.”  Makes sense to me:  I’ve always found liberals to be a hodge-podge group of people who are just as likely to have heated arguments amongst ourselves as we are to have them with conservatives.  He continues with the results of his research where he and his collaborators have found that

people who call themselves strongly liberal endorse statements related to the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity foundations, and they largely reject statements related to ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. People who call themselves strongly conservative, in contrast, endorse statements related to all five foundations more or less equally.

I don’t agree completely with Haidt.  For instance, with regards to purity/sanctity, the rationalism that runs rampant amongst liberals is a form of worship of mind over body that we can easily reinterpret as a rejection of carnality — our own special form of “purity/sanctity.”  Why else would we capitalize the words Fact and Truth so damned often, and expect them to help us win arguments and convince people of stuff?  But he also says that it’s possible liberals to fire on all five cylinders — and therefore appeal to a wider audience — without actually compromising core principals.  I’d agree — Republicans have garnered public support in spite of their policies and how they govern for decades.

Regardless, you can visit yourmorals.org, take their online quiz and find out where exactly you stand.  Are you a moral elitist or a liberal dunce?

2 Responses to what a bunch of moral elitists

  1. Allison says:

    Great post–interesting about the five sliders. I took one of the quizzes, and what do you know I lined up pretty directly with most liberals. Except I care about purity substantially less…surprise.

    I have long suspected that liberals were out of touch with conservatives, and that wide berth in between–I tend to watch mainstream news with a mix of bewilderment, fear, annoyance and nausea. I can’t tell you how many times I have wondered why I just don’t get the rhetoric. Apparently because I don’t care about purity, authority or loyalty enough. Thanks for the insight. Now I can be condescending and elitist and know why.


  2. […] by sending anyone who hasn’t already e-discovered Ethan by recommending that you check out his most recent post on the political dimensions of liberals vs. conservatives. Not because I believe in reciprocity (I […]

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