It wasn’t a conclusion he thought he’d come to. When he was a young graduate student, Jonathan Haidt presumed that “liberal” was pretty much a synonym for “reasonable,” if not for “obvious.” Now, as he writes in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, he has found that liberals have limited moral vision. One that is, I’d say, therefore certainly less reasonable than conservatism’s, and for the vast majority of people in the world far from obvious.
In the days when Haidt began his work in psychology in the 1980s, the work of Lawrence Kohlberg still dominated. Kohlberg theorized that children go through stages of moral development, culminating in a “post-conventional” attitude that questions social norms and revises them to accord with higher principles of justice. In other words, the mature, morally developed person is a liberal.
Kohlberg’s theory was a comforting one for the liberalism that was for many decades in the middle of the twentieth century our ruling ideology, but as it turns out he was wrong about our moral nature. Haidt tells the story of his intellectual awakening. Now a professor of social psychology at the University of Virginia, as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania he studied the moral systems of primitive cultures and did research in Brazil, and eventually India. He became more and more convinced that our morality flows from our emotional reactions rather than reasoned responses.
It’s not that we’re irrational. We’re largely intuitive, with analysis and reason-giving mostly justifying beliefs we’ve already accepted as true. Reason functions less as a scientist drawing inferences from experiments and more as a lawyer who argues on behalf of the truth of our beliefs—or as a PR agent out to sell our moral intuitions to others, and perhaps even to ourselves. As Haidt argues at some length, our largely intuitive approach to moral reality is very much a part of our evolved nature as social animals. We should not regret that we feel first and think second. It’s the way we’re wired—and for the most part it works well.
Needless to say, Haidt’s basic claim that our moral outlooks are largely intuitive rather than reasoned refutes the standard liberal presumption that conservatives are motivated by subrational emotions (“fear,” for example) while liberals are “reasonable.” One of the main thrusts of The Righteous Mind is that people tend to be liberal or conservative because they have different emotional responses to the same social realities. And not just different. He concludes that conservatives are sensitive to things that liberals have difficulty seeing.
This fact became clear to Haidt when he did the research for his doctoral dissertation. He developed stories designed to bring out moral responses. One involved a family who ate their dog after it had died of natural causes. Another had a woman using an old American flag as a cleaning rag. Still another story described a man having sex with a chicken, which he later eats.
These stories are meant to evoke taboo responses, and when he interviewed working-class people in a McDonald’s in West Philadelphia, that’s what he got. People immediately said that doing these sorts of things is wrong, and when Haidt pushed them for reasons why, they would often be shocked that he imagined reasons are necessary. People just don’t do those things!
Haidt asked the same questions to students at the University of Pennsylvania, and the results were quite different. Yes, they experienced feelings of disgust, but for the most part they set these feeling aside and judged the actions to be morally permissible. After hearing the chicken story, one Penn student said, “It’s perverted, but if it’s done in private, it’s his right.” It may be ugly, but as long as nobody else is harmed and no one’s rights are violated, it’s OK.
The people who live in West Philadelphia are not insensitive to concerns about harming others or violating rights, but Haidt found that they remain loyal to their strong emotional responses. The flag represents our country, and it’s not something simply to use as one wishes. Certain sexual acts defile us, even when done in private without harming anyone. Meanwhile, the Penn students actively suppress these emotional responses and focus on a narrower range of concerns: avoiding harming others, not oppressing others, and empowering those who are disadvantaged.
To explain this difference, Haidt offers an analogy to our capacity for taste: “The righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors.” Our innate moral intuitions fall into six categories or “foundations”: care, freedom, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity. Care, freedom, and fairness tend to focus on individuals. We see someone suffering, and our care taste bud is stimulated. Loyalty, authority, and sanctity focus on social realities. They are what Haidt calls “binding” foundations, because they unify people into social groups. No individual is harmed when someone uses the flag as a cleaning rag, but doing so involves a symbolic disregard for the moral value of patriotic loyalty.
The people Haidt interviewed in the McDonald’s “tasted” all six moral concerns, individual and social. To shift the analogy, they see with both eyes which Haidt argues at some length employs the full range of our evolved capacity for moral emotion.
It’s taste buds sensitive to the social dimension—concerns about loyalty, authority, and sanctity—that identify one as conservative in America today. And religion strongly engages the social dimension, which is why religious believers are now seen more and more as pillars of American conservatism.
Seeing with the social as well as with the individual eye, as it were, unites American conservatives with the vast majority of human beings who in all known cultures place a great deal of importance on the “binding” foundations. All known cultures, that is, except the subculture of people who grow up in Western, educated, industrial, rich, and democratic societies, WEIRD societies, as Haidt calls them.
This subculture, the liberal subculture that formed Haidt in his childhood and throughout most of his education, produces people like the Penn undergraduates who say that it’s alright to have sex with chickens as long as nobody is harmed. They are statistically weird, “outliers,” as social scientists say. Unlike the vast majority of humanity, they’ve been socialized to disregard their emotional responses when faced with offenses to loyalty, authority, and sanctity. They’re blinded in the moral eye that sees the social valences of moral situations.
It’s this difference in the scope of moral concerns that underlies the deep and bitter divisions running through American public life. People who respond so differently to reality can’t argue and debate. Too much separates them, and politics does indeed become a culture war by other means.
But Haidt does not level blame equally, which is why The Righteous Mind has important political implications. Because conservatives see out of both eyes, they see that contemporary liberalism, however misguided, is engaged in a morally serious response to contemporary reality. Conservatives are also concerned about care, freedom, and fairness, and this allows them to debate with liberals about how best to respond to poverty, for example, and to recognize the dangers posed to our civil liberties. However, seeing with only one eye, liberals can’t see that conservatives and their concerns about loyalty, authority, and sanctity are morally serious.
They are, in fact, often actively hostile. Haidt reports, “When I speak to liberal audiences about the three ‘binding foundations’—Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity—I find that many in the audience don’t just fail to resonate; they actively reject these concerns as immoral.”
Struck by these aggressive, angry responses, he designed a study to test how liberals view conservatives as compared to how conservatives view liberals. Liberals were to answer questions as they imagined a conservative would, while conservatives did the opposite. The results? Liberals, especially those who described themselves as very liberal, couldn’t accurately depict conservative views, while conservatives could describe liberal views. As I have said elsewhere, the liberal subculture is not just WEIRD, it is parochial.
Haidt quotes a particularly telling tirade by Michael Feingold in the Village Voice: “Republicans don’t believe in the imagination, partly because so few of them have one, but mostly because it gets in the way of their chosen work, which is to destroy the human race and the planet. Human beings, who have imaginations, can see a recipe for disaster in the making; Republicans, whose goal in life is to profit from disaster and who don’t give a hoot about human beings, either can’t or won’t. Which is why I personally think they should be exterminated before they cause any more harm.”
Few liberals are as intemperate as Feingold, and few liberal publications are as openly aggressive as the Village Voice, but Haidt’s research suggests an inconvenient truth about our divided country. The ill-tempered rancor stems in large part from the moral myopia of liberals. They have a great deal of difficulty grasping the “binding” moral concerns that engage American conservatives, especially when those concerns are heightened and given shape by religion. And their response to this difficulty has been to summarily dismiss those who see with two eyes. Those of us who are concerned about loyalty, authority, and sanctity are subject to rhetorical extermination: We’re denounced as “not mainstream.”
And not just American conservatives. Liberals tend to be unable to muster much respect for the moral outlook of billions and billions of people throughout the globe whose traditional societies train them to use both eyes. Hence, for example, the Obama administration’s desire to make the advancement of homosexual rights part of our foreign policy. It’s just the latest part of the WEIRD subculture’s effort to expand the influence of it’s individualistic ethic.
Thus the profound problem we face. Liberalism is blind in one eye—yet it insists on the superiority of its vision and its supreme right to rule. It cannot see half the things a governing philosophy must see, and claims that those who see both halves are thereby unqualified to govern.
Defending High Culture
Twenty-five years ago Allan Bloom proclaimed a heresy: The supposed idealism of the 1960s was in fact a veneer hiding a new barbarism. He saw that our elite liberal culture has a very definite vision, however much it talks about diversity, multiculturalism, and the like: the relativism of moral truth. This anti-dogmatic dogma, he thought, is leading to an intellectual crisis: We no longer think about the things we must think about to live truly human lives.
The Closing of the American Mind unsettled me when I first read it as a graduate student at Yale. My professors and fellow students were good people, and they believed some things are worthy and admirable. Academic excellence, obviously, but also loyal friendship, concern for the common good, and so forth. And they thought other things shameful and wrong, such as harming others, or coercing them.
But therein lay the problem. The therapeutic mentality that came to predominate in mid-twentieth-century America views confident assertions of moral truth as a kind of coercion. Therefore, postmodern liberalism seeks to build a culture of moral relativism, not because it seeks to promote immorality or amoral disregard for others, but because it wants a society where people aren’t harmed and coerced by morality. As Bloom wrote, “The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate.”
When I say that the Lord God of Israel is the one true God, or even that God exists, I’m putting a great deal of pressure on those who think otherwise. Moral truths are even more fraught. Today, “Homosexual acts are immoral” and “same-sex marriage debases the institution of marriage” are heard as fighting words, and in some circles denunciated as hate speech.
Bloom never put it quite so clearly, but twenty-five years ago he certainly recognized that relativism dominated elite education. The young person going to college in the last few decades is often quickly socialized into the moral mission of moral relativism. He learns to soften his views. “Well, just speaking personally,” he now says. And, “From my experience.” He begins to value “diversity.” Or he acquires a critical superiority that talks of “subtexts” and “power interests” and “heterosexism.” These are the phrases and concepts that neutralize the commanding power of moral truth: It is just an expression of preferences—or a mask for will to power.
In fairly short order the academic establishment closed ranks against The Closing of the American Mind. The presumption prevailed that Bloom’s full-throated attack on relativism was meant to prepare the way for a restoration of traditional modes of moral authority. A particularly agitated critic denounced Bloom as a “Hitlerite.”
In the Weekly Standard Andrew Ferguson offers his own analysis of the significance of Bloom’s surprise bestseller, and he makes it clear that there was something absurd in the critical responses. “Bloom was never a movement conservative. In electoral politics he was a moderately liberal Democrat, and more liberal still in personal and social matters.” An academic mandarin, “he was no fan of the free market or the heedless getting and striving it encourages.” A homosexual, he did not call for the restoration of family values. “I am not,” he wrote, “arguing here that the old family arrangements were good or that we should or could go back to them.”
But he saw that the dogma that has come to dominate elite culture in America, the dogma that there are no dogmas, involves a renunciation of the ageless desire of all cultures, which is to discipline our desires, to direct ourselves toward ideals and inculcate feelings of shame when we transgress. This requires authoritative truths, robust and demanding truths, truths that, like the angel of God at the ford of Jabbok, must be wrestled with.
In Plato’s dialogues, which Bloom loved and taught, Socrates challenges his interlocutors in order to loosen the bonds of prevailing beliefs. However, this was not in the service of the “critical freedom” so cherished today. Socratic reason attacks convention in order to make us vulnerable to the deeper and more intimate voice of timeless truth. He breaks with reason what can be broken so that we’re forced to confront—and live in accord with—what is unbreakable.
Our culture war in America isn’t only between the one-eyed liberals and conservatives with two eyes, as Jonathan Haidt suggests. It’s that, to be sure. But it’s also a struggle over whether or not we’re to sustain the age-old task of high culture, which involves using reason to pierce the complacent armor of convention in order to understand afresh the commanding truths that ought to shape our tastes, our loves, and our lives. High culture involves debate, to be sure, but that debate takes on its urgency because it involves what is true, good, and beautiful. It’s a debate that renews rather than relaxes the force of commanding truths.
Liberalism today allies itself with moral relativism: Commanding truths are “judgmental,” they harm and oppress. That’s why the contemporary university dominated by liberalism has largely abandoned the tasks of high culture, not the least of which is to stipulate a substantive core curriculum. We don’t have them today because they necessarily involve authoritative judgment: This is worth reading, this must be known, this is more important than that.
Any culture worth its salt must seek to be a high culture, making rather than avoiding authoritative judgments that people must wrestle with. Liberals are again one-eyed. Yes, the authoritative judgments of high culture wound our egos (it’s not fun to realize that one has Philistine tastes). Jacob limped. But to wrestle with ultimate questions—and to venture convictions—also ennobles our lives.
The Closing of the American Mind was written to warn us of the enervating, dehumanizing effect of moral relativism. If there are no commanding, authoritative truths to guide us, then we must live in accord with . . . well, with whatever. Bloom saw that there was nothing Socratic, nothing ennobling about “whatever.”
Life Too Inconvenient for Life
The Journal of Medical Ethics, an altogether mainstream, peer-reviewed scholarly publication, recently published an article justifying “after-birth abortion,” a locution authors Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva use to describe killing newborns whose parents don’t want them.
“Children with severe abnormalities whose lives can be expected to not be worth living” can be “terminated,” as the Groningen Protocol in the ever-merciful Netherlands currently allows. Then the authors follow the ruthless logic of the pro-abortion position to its conclusion. “If criteria such as the costs (social, psychological, economic) for the potential parents are good enough reasons for having an abortion even when the fetus is healthy,” they observe, and if we can’t give a cogent explanation why a fetus suddenly becomes a person simply by passing through the birth canal, “then the same reasons which justify abortion should also justify the killing of the potential person when it is at the stage of a newborn.”
If we can kill a healthy child in the womb for a whole range of reasons, then why not in the hospital nursery? Why not abortions “after birth”?
At first I thought the article was meant as cutting humor. The clattering machinery of the simplistic syllogisms seem positively Swiftean, a satire of our present-day moralists. Want to kill newborns? OK, OK, give me a minute or two, and I’ll give you the arguments.
But no, the editors of the Journal of Medical Ethics apparently think that these sorts of arguments should be taken seriously. They will of course say that the journal is committed to “stimulating discussion” and “airing controversial views.” What’s the harm in thinking it through? Aren’t free exchanges like this good for us? Doesn’t it help us refine our moral arguments and perhaps overcome our irrational responses of disgust and moral dismay?
In 1920, two distinguished German professors published an argument in favor of euthanasia. The argument turned on the claim that there are some lives unworthy of life. Giubilini and Minerva use that haunting phrase, perhaps unaware of its origins. And they extend it. Their argument for “after-birth abortion” gives us permission to destroy newborns who aren’t unworthy but are inconvenient.
As Jonathan Haidt observes, our moral culture is shaped primarily by emotion. Very few people reason out moral truths. Most of us have gut reactions. The fixed points in our moral universe are the deeds so heinous we can’t imagine performing them. I can’t imagine eating human flesh without disgust. And I can’t imagine killing a newborn. Which is precisely what Giubilini and Minerva and the editors of the Journal of Medical Ethics want us to coolly entertain as a real option.
Lebensunwerten Lebens: life unworthy of life. The idea expanded the German imagination, and in 1939 the Nazis gassed 75,000 mentally ill and handicapped Germans. They were burdensome, inconvenient, and an impediment to their goal of racial purity. Soon they focused their attention on another impediment, whose victims are counted in the millions.
There is nothing remotely original or philosophically sophisticated about Giubilini and Minerva’s pedestrian reasoning. The editors’ rationale for publishing their article advocating “after-birth abortion” was to break new ground, to “expand” our moral imaginations, to “problematize,” as progressive professors like to say. That’s what the distinguished German professors did in 1920. That’s what our professional ethicists are doing today.
St. Paul teaches that we will reap what we have sown. This, dear readers, is a very poisonous seed indeed.
After Liberalism Continued
Regular readers will remember that the last issue inaugurated a series of three essays and responses designed to advance our thinking about what sort of religious and political culture we would like to see replace—or perhaps modify and renew—modern liberal culture. The papers were prepared for and discussed at a seminar held in late February in New York, all made possible by the generous support of the Simon/Hertog Fund for Policy Analysis and Fieldstead and Company.
Among the first things that First Things puts first is the dignity of the human person. Modern liberal culture may be excessive in its individualism, but its core commitment to defending the dignity of the individual surely needs to be affirmed. But how can we do so without endorsing liberalism?
David Yeago addresses this problem directly. “Modern but Not Liberal” offers a decidedly theological rationale for a vigorous defense of the dignity of the human person. It was a rationale that played a real if often inchoate role in the most important public endeavor to defend human dignity in recent American history, the civil rights movement, and one that we need to recover if we’re to rescue the insights of modernity from the moral collapse of liberalism into the dictatorship of relativism.
In response, the Dominican theologian Thomas Joseph White rejects the assumption that the profound demands of divine authority necessarily diminish us and assault our dignity as free and self-defining individuals. Shalom Carmy offers his distinctively Jewish story of a religious encounter with liberal culture, one he tells us was often happy, sometimes critical, but always presided over by a divine authority fully capable of shaping nuanced judgments.
Can we be modern without being liberal? An important question, yes, but there’s an even more important one: How can we be faithful to God’s covenant? That’s surely the first thing among first things.
Chuck Colson, RIP
Chuck Colson was one of the most important Christians in American public life. Like our founder, Richard John Neuhaus, Chuck recognized that our increasingly secular elites pose a threat to the religious character of American culture. This led him to encourage Evangelicals to enter into close cooperation with Catholics. One result was his work with RJN in starting and guiding Evangelicals and Catholics Together, an initiative of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.
It was in that role that I came to know Chuck. We worked together on the recent ECT statement, “In Defense of Religious Liberty,” which was published in the March 2012 issue. He was a man of immense energy, sharp intellect, and powerful will, along with a capacity for fierce, determined loyalty. It was an inspiration to see all that so happily under the sway of an abiding faith in Christ.
I’m grateful for all he gave to our common Christian witness. We’ll miss you, Chuck.
From the Editor’s Desk
This is managing editor Meghan Duke’s last issue. After two years as a junior fellow, she took the position of managing editor last May and did an extraordinary job keeping a new staff on task and juggling a thousand tasks, as well as working with writers and being a creative member of the editorial team. She will leave this summer to begin graduate study in theology at Notre Dame, a decision that the editor certainly can’t quarrel with, much as he’d like her to stay. Thanks, Meghan, for your expert service and good company.