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
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.