About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

What makes people vote Republican? A response to Haidt

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, has just published an essay in Edge on why Democrats, or more generally liberals, just don’t get it. It makes for insightful and yet irritating reading. The guy is perfectly on target half of the time, and stunningly wrong the other half. Let me try and see if I can sort it out.

Haidt’s basic point emerges from his and others’ studies of the psychology of morality, from which we could all indubitably learn something. It turns out that there are five “dimensions” of morality across cultures:


If you are a liberal like me (and Haidt) you will find yourself nodding approvingly at the mention of the first two dimensions, but you will cringe when the last three are brought up. That’s because you accept the idea of morality set out by, among others, John Stuart Mill in his On Liberty, where he wrote: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” (Libertarians should be pretty happy with this too.)

But if you are a Republican, or more broadly a conservative, then you will think with sociologist Emile Durkheim that “Man cannot become attached to higher aims and submit to a rule if he sees nothing above him to which he belongs. To free himself from all social pressure is to abandon himself and demoralize him.”

The liberal “problem,” according to Haidt, is that we don’t get “that morality is not just about how we treat each other ... it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way.” In a novel twist on this sort of discussion, then, it isn’t that conservatives are backwards and narrow-minded, it is that progressives only use two of the five available dimensions of moral reasoning, and it is their narrow conception of morality that keeps losing them elections.

Now, how did a liberal like Haidt come to appreciate all of this? When he played anthropologist in the Indian town of Bhubaneswar, where his hosts at dinner were served by silent women, and where he was assigned a personal servant who would do whatever Haidt told him. Oh, and people were bathing in filthy and unsanitary waters because they were “sacred.”

Haidt “opened” his mind to his hosts' view of the world, and gradually came to the following conclusion: “Rather than automatically rejecting the men as sexist oppressors and pitying the women, children, and servants as helpless victims, I was able to see a moral world in which families, not individuals, are the basic unit of society, and the members of each extended family (including its servants) are intensely interdependent.” Of course, Haidt was not one of the silent women with no rights, nor was he a servant to someone else. I submit that it is easy to be so understanding of other cultures when you are not the one suffering the brunt of that culture’s practices.

Haidt is correct when he says that many people in America vote Republican not (simply) because they are duped by Republican demagoguery, lying, and electoral fraud, but (also) because many Americans really do espouse the “moral” principles underlying Durkheim’s view of society. But instead of seeing this as a problem that needs to be corrected through education, he exhorts liberals to get with the program and find ways to use the leverages of loyalty, authority and sanctity -- all, somehow, without “losing their souls.”

Haidt makes the plausible case that loyalty, authority and sanctity are important for people because societies did not arise from a rational contract among consenting individuals, but as the “organic” (I would say messy, evolutionary) result of a struggle for life, a struggle in which submitting to a hierarchy and cultivating hatred of outsiders was necessary in order for your group to live another day. As Haidt puts it: “Whenever Democrats support policies that weaken the integrity and identity of the collective (such as multiculturalism, bilingualism, and immigration), they show that they care more about pluribus than unum [referring to the US national motto]. They widen the sacredness gap.” So the hell with immigrants and minorities, since bigots and racists prefer unum to pluribus.

What Haidt doesn’t seem to understand is that that conservative conception of “morality” also brought us endless suffering, wars and destruction, a huge waste of human potential that is truly morally wrong. For Haidt, societies have found “different approaches” to organize themselves around moral principles, and whatever worked, worked. Yes, but by that token we should not be so repulsed by slavery because plenty of societies -- the ancient Roman and Egyptians come to mind -- were very stable and prosperous thanks to the practice of slavery. How is it that Haidt doesn’t get that there is a difference between what “works” and what is morally right? My guess is because he is a psychologist, not a moral philosopher.

But Haidt’s analysis is also factually incoherent. If the reason Democrats have been losing Presidential elections, particularly since the ‘80s, is because they don’t understand or endorse all five moral dimensions, how do we explain that those same Democrats have been controlling Congress for a significant chunk of that time, as they do now? And what about elections, Presidential or otherwise, before the ‘80s? If it’s about fundamental attitudes toward morality, surely liberals didn’t “get it” before Reagan just as they don’t get it under Bush, no?

There doesn’t seem to be any acknowledgment in what Haidt writes of complex social and historical factors that change over the span of decades. The counterculture of the ‘60s, the backlash it generated and that eventually lead to the surge to power of the Christian right, which is now already in decline again, regardless of the outcome of this election, to name a few. If Democrats lose because they “don’t get it” than we are left to wonder how come they actually won so often during the rest of the history of this nation.

No, Prof. Haidt, your diagnosis is only partly correct (and in that part it is indeed enlightening), but your cure is all wrong. Liberals, as eloquently articulated recently by New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, really do hold the moral high ground. It is thanks to the much maligned liberal agenda that we got civil rights, women’s rights, Social Security, unemployment benefits, clean air, clean water, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, legal services, food stamps, college programs, workplace laws, food protection laws, and so on. And, I hasten to say, plenty of Republican voters take advantage of all the above, despite their complaining about “big government.” It is thank to progressives that this is arguably one of the best places on earth where to live.

What do Democrats have to do to win? Besides making sure that there won’t be any hanging chads in Florida, or Ohio districts where one can count more Republican votes than inhabitants, they simply have to do what they did when JFK or Bill Clinton won the election: put forth a politician who can both take the other side to task on their lies and demagoguery and connect emotionally with Americans. That politician certainly wasn’t John Kerry, and it may or may not be Barack Obama. But even if Obama loses in November we better not move toward the Bhubaneswar model of society just to win the next election. Then we would have truly lost our soul.


  1. That were precisely my thoughts when I read the article: Haidt is proposing that liberals should forget about high-standard moral values that promote the common good, and take in all the irrational/faith-abiding crap that is supposed to win elections. If that was the case, what would be the difference between a conservative and a liberal?
    Moreover, I must say that the description of his happy adaptation to pre-modern India revolted me quite a bit: he felt himself integrated by identifying with the oppressor, not the oppressed. That's no doubt a easy way to feel sympathetic.

  2. You said: "What do Democrats have to do to win? ...[T]hey simply have to do what they did when JFK or Bill Clinton won the election: put forth a politician who can both take the other side to task on their lies and demagoguery and connect emotionally with Americans. That politician certainly wasn’t John Kerry, and it may or may not be Barack Obama."

    Actually, Obama is looking pretty good on taking Republicans to task for their lies and demagoguery today. It's just a start, but it's a reason for a little more optimism than I've had lately.

    More generally, thanks for pointing me to Haidt. I've seen references to this stuff before - with similar criticisms of Haidt's utter failure to understand and articulate the difference between descriptive and normative ethics. But bringing it to my attention this week is especially timely with respect to dissertation-relevant issues, so I especially appreciate it. :-)

  3. This is what I love about this blog: it's a well-rounded, thoughtful treatment of pertinent philosophical issues (i.e. ethical, political, as well as scientific), with scientific expertise to boot.

    Keep it coming, Massimo!


  4. Massimo,
    Interesting post.

    Seems like Haidt offers a much more complicated explanation than is neccessary?

    Why or how do the Conservatives/Republicans win as much as they have?

    I just picked up the now 3-4 years old, but still very relevant book, The Republican Noise Machine by David Brock. In it he outlines the very concerted strategy and efforts at building effective propaganda institutions by movement conservatives.

    Basically the recipe has been: corporate and millionaire funding to right-wing think tanks; these think tanks conduct research with pre-determined conclusions that government programs = bad, privatization/market = good; righty think tanks conduct very orchestrated media campaigns to ensure their premises and conclusions dominate the public political discourse.

    Also worth noting, the whole charge of the alleged "liberal biased media" is and was a conscious strategy to intimidate news organizations to conform to the conservative ideological party line. Basically, any facts that don't support conservative ideology is taken to be "liberal bias".

    I think there are some other questions to be explored however. Somehow, this pro-business anti-regulation agenda, along with a beligerent foriegn policy, has been grafted onto the religious-right-moral agenda. This doesn't seem to be a perfect fit in my view.

    Also, Republicans have the perfect rhetorical political platform offer. Tax-cuts. This is like convincing a young child to choose between candy vs. green vegetables. Candy always wins, and nobody really wants to pay more taxes, even if eventually that is what needs to be done.

  5. What makes people vote Republican... I don't know, but it sure is not coherence.

    Hasn't the current Republican administration spent a couple hundred billion dollars in the nationalization of those two companies? If it had happened in, say, Venezuela, the Republicans would be crying bloody murder against those commies intervening in the sacred, wise market. Where is the outcry here? Where is calling them to task? Don't want regulation, fine, but them practice what you preach and let it all hit the fan when the companies abuse the system. Privatizing the profits and socializing the losses is very convenient for some. Was the nationalization needed to avoid greater losses to everyone? Probably, or at least that's what they want us think. But someone has to make noise about this from the Democratic side.

    Another thing that I just remembered was, a couple of weeks ago, hearing an old Republican atheist (they do exist, I know a few) rationalizing he's choice that McCain/Palin should be elected. Basically, he said it does not matter that she is a creationist, fundamentalist, Dominionist Christian nutjob, because it will not change the country and VP's have no importance anyway, etc. So, you see, his choice is anything but rational. He's got his predefined choice already made, and will distort whatever he can of the inconvenient parts of the story to try and fit his choice. The fact that he is 82 years old does not help much either, I'm afraid.

  6. I think there is a longstanding conflation in moral philosophy that leads to this assessment of Haidt. Haidt is not conflating the descriptive and the normative, but perhaps you are doing just that. The basic moral problem is that people generally are not moved by moral arguments but (to reverse the causal arrow) instead are motivated to make such moral arguments (by their moral intuitions--some of which appeal more to liberals, others more to conservatives, and few to both). What Haidt has noted is that the end of morality is to motivate and coordinate socially cooperative group behavior. He uses the words, "bind people together." When you declare, and I'm paraphrasing, "but that's not necessarily right," I, or anyone, can say, "right by whose moral standards?" You've imported your own moral beliefs and meta-ethics into the descriptive analysis. The implication is that we need to change the moral intuitions of those conservatives who emphasize a lot of in-group motivation and intuitions/attitudes (which I admit I also find reprehensible). But the unfortunate reality is that these conservative moral intuitions are not responsive to moral arguments that are based on our liberal moral intuitions. Such arguments will simply be dismissed as missing the point or even as immoral on their face to a conservative. Conservatives and liberals are motivated by different moral intuitions which are in many ways incommensurable.

    It does no good to indicate that the normative and descriptive are unjustly conflated because that implies some kind of universal normativity which can be deployed to adjudicate Haidt's descriptive domains. Haidt believes, and I'm with him here, that there is no such universal morality. So what is left for the liberal is to find a way of emphasizing certain ingroup (conservative) moral principles that a liberal can also tolerate. The effort must be to find common ground. Liberals cannot expect conservatives to renounce loyalty/ingroup, authority/hierarchy, or sanctity/disgust intuitions just because they do not figure prominently in liberal morality. Instead the enlightened liberal is tasked with emphasizing those conservative moral intuitions which do not happen to contradict her own liberal moral intuitions (empathy/harm and justice/fairness). It is possible to find overlap -- then you've given conservatives a moral alternative and made democratic candidates much more appealing to them. Its really not rocket science. You just have to realize that the oughts, rights, goods or whatever else are the phenomenology of morality not the end of morality proper. It certainly seems like we are after 'the good', or after the 'right', or after "ought not is." But that conflates the phenomenology of morality with its true end which is simply to bind people together in cooperative socially coordinated activities. So in order to appeal to conservatives and bind this country together in a common political venture, liberals need to find ways of appealing to conservatives and that wont be with liberal moral arguments but instead with conservative moral arguments that the liberals can stomach. Its not a perfect situation but nobody said it was going to be easy and the alternative of perpetual polarization is worse.

  7. thw,

    thanks very much for the thoughtful comment. However -- not surprisingly -- I have to disagree.

    I do think that the descriptive/prescriptive distinction in ethics still holds, and yes I do believe that one can arrive through rationality at a better system of ethics than the one dictated by our moral instincts. I will even submit that that is the whole point of "civilization."

    Don't get me wrong, as an evolutionary biologist I realize that the kernel of morality evolved over time, largely -- as Haidt would agree -- to improve in-group cohesion and survival. But that's Pleistocene morality, and we have moved past beyond that over the last few millennia. We try to be morally inclusive to humanity at large, and even to other species, all of which requires that one puts a lower priority on the "dimensions" of loyalty, authority and purity.

    (Incidentally, it is also annoying that Haidt claims that liberals are somehow deficient for not appreciating three of his dimensions. The reality is that we put a lower, but non-zero, value on those, and a higher-than-conservatives value on the other two. Talk about "deficiency" is disingenuous.)

    There is obviously more than enough material here for another full post or two, but let us not forget why "progressives" and "conservatives" are so called. It is largely thanks to the progressive push over centuries that we live in a much better world for human flourishing (yes, I'm sympathetic to virtue ethics) than we have ever been before. Again, the example of slavery is an obvious one that needs to be explained by anyone who thinks that the end of in-group welfare justifies conservative ethical means, or by anyone who claims that "my morality is just as good as your morality."

    Besides, I get a bit annoyed when people like Haidt are quick to condemn liberals for allegedly feeling self-righteous or superior, when all we have from the extreme right is self-righteousness to the utmost degree and the hubris of thinking that god himself justifies their petty positions. At least alleged over-confidence is not backed by the threat of eternal damnation in the afterlife and of state police in this life...

  8. Massimo, thanks for putting into clear words the worries I had about that article. There's just one point I would like to focus on that goes past without being properly covered. Haidt says that the people in the very unequal community in India are good people. While I would be happy to agree with him, nothing much follows from this. I am sure that most of the slave owners were basically good people, too. Having the moral imagination necessary to understand why basically good people do immoral things does not require that we see such acts any differently. As Shakespeare might have written - that way postmodernism lies. Let us shun that.

    Given his interest in Durkheim and appreciation for the role religion plays in creating moral communities, I wonder what David Sloan Wilson thinks of Haidt.

  9. I don't agree that we, the liberal intelligentsia, put a non-zero albeit lesser value on the other three dimensions. I personally put a zero or even negative value on "authority/respect".

    Perhaps, since the authority/respect dimension is simple, children need it until their first two dimensions develop more fully later. For any scenario I can envisage where authority/respect seems moral to me, the same moral behavior can be justified based on the first two dimensions alone.

  10. Jo - fancy meeting you in a blog like this - I think that your comment at least partly ties into Massimo's previous post on intellectual arrogance. The fact is that no-one is an expert in everything so we have to accept other people's epistemic authority in many circumstances. But that's the easy end of the spectrum. Much more difficult are cases of moral authority - I am not sure what to say about them.

    Respect also has a couple of varieties. The first, tied to social status, I have as little 'respect' for as you. Something to do with growing up in Australia, I guess. The second, a general respect due to all other human beings, I think is the best covered by what you say as arising out of considerations of care and reciprocity.

  11. Accepting epistemic authority of an expert is merely good common sense, not a moral imperative. But I won't accept any moral argument on the basis of authority, whether the authority is priest or philosopher. When my personal morality goes astray, a good teacher should be able to set me straight through forms of persuasion that are ultimately based on appeals to my own personal experience, not to their authority.

    And yes, the US is a tremendously authoritarian country compared to growing up in Australia. Instances of this are unfortunately not confined to conservatives either.

    Konrad, it is wonderful to run into you again, however unlikely the long-distance forum!

  12. Jo, the issue that I see as lying behind our discussion of the notion of authority is that of the Enlightenment view of human rationality. The position you present is premissed upon the claim that human beings are more or less rational beings that, given the evidence, will come to the correct conclusion. While I wholeheartedly support the goals of the Enlightement, I do not share the view of rationality. The evidence simply isn't there for such optimism as the last few decades of psychology seem to have amply borne out. Indeed, I think that the Enlightenment's biggest mistake was to saddle human beings with a rationality that was more god-like than natural. Need I mention Pascal's thinking reed? But this does not necessitate abandoning Enlightement values. It simply means that the road can't be a straight forward one. Allowances for the fragility of the faculty of reason we do have must be constantly made. This implies, I think, that epistemic and moral issues inevitably intersect rather than being neatly split apart (unlike what my last comment might have suggested). At times people have required any number of helps such as authorities and, dare I say it, churches to get them further along the road. In a way Haidt's article might be seen as recognising this reality. Now, there's no need to remind me of the litany of abuse of power such institutions have led to. This does not mean they have not been necessary. However, it also does not mean that the alternative offered by the Enlightenment-motivated intelligentsia isn't better. One should see it in evolutionary terms, really. Human rationality and human culture are just as jerry-built as anything else evolution has fashioned and any progress has to build upon what went before rather than hoping to sweep it all away. Haidt's weakness, seen in these terms, is to see a clear way forward.

  13. I want to add a detailed comment when time permits, but in the meantime, a query to "thw": if you have a blog or URL with your writings, can you post a link here? I (and perhaps others) would like to read more of your material. It is rare to come across nuanced philosophical opinion (as opposed to the "pre-modern India revoted me" stuff (in the first comment).

  14. M "Liberals, as eloquently articulated recently by New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, really do hold the moral high ground. "

    To have the moral "high ground" one must define "moral". And "moral" cannot just be what you want it to be.

    Like I, for instance, would find it immoral to kill my children no matter what age they are.
    Old, young, unborn - to me it would all be the same person that I would be harming.
    Some people, otoh, would rather find exceptions to make room for their lifestyle. There is no moral high ground to be found there, and that is EXACTLY why you have a few million or billion less Dem voters.

    AND YES - I have heard that some who claim to be a conserv. may have had unwanted pregnancies and ended some in in abortions. BUT it goes without saying that those numbers are always going to be significantly lower.

    Therefore the lib philosophy has killed and limited it's own voting base.

    And one can't cast that off on how much the "Right" must be responsible for everything in the world that does not work out the way you think it should.

    Now what exactly is the moral HIGH GROUND again?

    M "It is thanks to the much maligned liberal agenda that we got civil rights,"

    Civil rights began with Lincoln who was not, incidentally liberal. The abolitionists in Europe were primarily lead by christian people. See, first and foremost, William Wilberforce.

    "women’s rights,"

    Did not began with liberal causes either. Some of the original fighters for woman's rights were in fact Quakers. ' Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Quaker minister Lucretia Mott' They fought for this, later joined by Susan B. Anthony.

    "Social Security,"

    I don't know who's great idea SS was, but firstly families OUGHT to take care of each other. And also, ideally people ought to be taught to be preventive maintenance oriented and plan ahead.

    The STATE is no substitute for a family.

    "unemployment benefits,"
    "clean air, clean water,"

    Very old and obviously untrue propaganda, that for some reason conservatives could care less what happens to the environment and would WANT to breath crappy air and drink nasty water. Get real. Nobody in their right mind believes that.

    "Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, legal services, food stamps,"

    Socialism also breeds some fairly serious problems, to which you are not admitting to at all.

    And head start is good for what exactly ? To have people pay less day care, so they can get out to works earlier and spend less time with their young children?

    "college programs,"

    Most good American colleges and some abroad started solely as a work of a church denomination. Harvard, Oxford and on and on. Do they now represent much of anything of the original intent of the founders? No, obviously not. But that certainly does not mean that the origination of the whole concept of education, college or enlightenment began in liberal circles. IT certainly did not.

    It matters greatly that you depict history accurately, or not. Keep in mind that some people will actually notice when you don't. If that is what you had heard was true and believed it, you need to be a lot pickier with your sources.

  15. Konrad, I agree that human rationality is frail, both more rare and weaker than one would like. Society relies on educational authorities, whether secular or religious/spiritual, whether epistemic or moral, to set man straight. But when authority is accepted for the sake of authority, there is NOTHING to protect against the corruption of that authority and its propagation of false teachings. As individual intellectuals, we can battle for rationality on two fronts, the persuasion of individuals that we directly instruct, and through a power struggle for control of the authoritarian structures of society. On the first front, there are clearly too few of us. On the second, we will be outmaneuvered by those who lack our scruples.

    Our appeal to whatever human rationality there is is the only weapon that we have while our opponents do not. As in evolution, a very slight advantage can, over time, take over. That has to be our hope. For that to work, we don’t need humans to be fully rational beings. Partial but significant rationality, in the long run, should be enough. But just because in our battle we use authoritarian structures (eg, schools and universities), we need to be on constant guard to continue to base any advantage we have on our appeal to rationality, and not be complacent with regard to acceptance of our earned authority. That way lies corruption and our ultimate failure.

    So Caliana’s own personal experience of morality is not something that I would like to override, no matter what society might say is my authority to do so. Continued challenge to think deeply on the facts and details and the way to apply deeply felt morality to issues in society, on the other hand, is always a good thing. For example, the Quakers overwhelming come down on the liberal side of things. Devout Christianity need not be in opposition to being a liberal! Their victories on women's rights were liberal victories on women's rights.

  16. Caliana wrote

    AND YES - I have heard that some who claim to be a conserv. may have had unwanted pregnancies and ended some in in abortions. BUT it goes without saying that those numbers are always going to be significantly lower.

    Well, no, it doesn't "go without saying." That's one of those claims that require data, not bare assertion. Teen pregnancies are higher in "red" states, as are STDs in both men and women source), so it's not apparent that conservatives are more "moral" in their sexual behavior. I see no compelling reason to doubt that the disconnect between professed beliefs and actual behavior should not extend to abortion. There are doubtless multiple causal factors at work, but it's not a prima facia case that conservatives are less likely to have abortions than others. Comparing international rates, the U.S. has a substantially higher abortion rate than that of relatively liberal secualr states like the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, and Germany. So no, it does not "go without saying."

    And in contrast to Joanna Masel, I'm less reluctant to "override" moral pronouncements that are based on dubious "facts." Reality is not what we wish it to be; it's what is.

  17. The problem with Haidt is the one many anthropologists have: they have to remain, lets say, neutral while doing their studies - step out of the matrix of right and wrong, in this case. But Haidt apparently never came back (like many anthropologists!!!). And, trying to be open-minded and politically correct, he falls into the fallacy Sam Harris describes in his response at EDGE. Here's an example from that response: "Haidt is, of course, right to worry that liberals may not always "hold the moral high ground.
    "In a recent study of moral reasoning, subjects were asked to judge whether it was morally correct to sacrifice the life of one person to save one hundred, while being given subtle clues as to the races of the people involved. Conservatives proved less biased by race than liberals and, therefore, more even-handed. It turns out that liberals were very eager to sacrifice a white person to save one hundred non-whites, but not the other way around, all the while maintaining that considerations of race had not entered into their thinking. Observations of this sort are useful in revealing the biasing effect of ideology—even the ideology of fairness."
    Haidt doesn't come close to this, I think, but the bias is the same. And it's that same bias (or sense of superiority, I don't know) that underlies under most of the multi-culturalism here in Europe, and some strands of moral relativism (of the sort shown by Haidt).

    Paulo, Portugal

  18. I've been taking more of an interest in Mr. Haidt recently and decided to do a search for responses and lo and behold here was one from a site I happen to have visited somewhat sporadically over the years.

    Interesting how both show their biased view of conservatives in different ways.


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