Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Morality's Return

Morality has a big future ahead of it. That's according to Jonathan Haidt, who gave a fascinating talk on the theme at the RSA recently. Haidt - a self-described liberal atheist - has developed Moral Foundations Theory, which identifies:
...six clusters of moral concerns—care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation—upon which all political cultures and movements base their moral appeals. Political liberals tend to rely primarily on the moral foundation of care/harm, followed by fairness/cheating and liberty/oppression. Social conservatives, in contrast, use all six foundations. They are less concerned than liberals about harm to innocent victims, but they are much more concerned about the moral foundations that bind groups and nations together, i.e., loyalty (patriotism), authority (law and order, traditional families), and sanctity (the Bible, God, the flag as a sacred object).
He notes that:
the “liberal progress” narrative ...derives its moral force primarily from the care/harm foundation (concern for the suffering of victims) and the liberty/oppression foundation (a celebration of liberty as freedom from oppression, as well as freedom to pursue self-defined happiness). In this narrative, fairness is political equality (which is part of opposing oppression); there are only oblique hints of fairness as proportionality. Authority is mentioned only as an evil, and there is no mention of loyalty or sanctity.
Obviously the liberal progress narrative has been in the ascendent in the West in recent decades. The dominant ideology of Political Correctness is nothing more than Liberal/Left Morality writ large. But of course it is only a partial morality as it ignores three other foundations of morality: loyalty, authority and sanctity. Foundations that only Conservatives perceive, but that the Left sees as 'immoral': "Loyalty to a group shrinks the moral circle; it is the basis of racism and exclusion, they say. Authority is oppression. Sanctity is religious mumbo-jumbo whose only function is to suppress female sexuality and justify homophobia."

Sometimes observing the Left's morality, made manifest in Political Correctness, it can appear to be a form of 'Moral Aspergers Syndrome', i.e.: it manifests itself as hyper-sensitive with regard to some aspects of morality (e.g.: the treatment of minorities), and hyper-indifferent to other aspects (e.g.: sexual promiscuity). But by rejecting loyalty, authority and sanctity - and with it the assumption of a natural order and purpose - then we end up with the situation described by James Kalb:

If there is no natural order and purpose, because nature lacks those features, the meaning and order we impose on the world will be our own arbitrary inventions. There is nothing to draw on that can make them otherwise. At the level of politics, that means tyranny. Nothing has an intrinsic order and meaning, so those in power invent their own and force them on everything, silencing anyone who spoils the fun by pointing out the emperor’s nakedness. Hence totalitarianism, which is not so much government by terror as government that recognizes no standard outside its own will and purposes: Tutto nello Stato, niente al di fuori dello Stato, nulla contro lo Stato (“Everything within the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State”).
Political Correctness is already moving rapidly towards a unique form of moral totalitarianism (reported daily at Political Correctness Watch), with the result that a new social contract is emerging:
Also hence liberalism and its consequences. Liberals note that if no purpose makes special sense then all purposes must be equally good. The obvious result, since there’s nothing but force and fraud to say which purposes should prevail, is a war of all against all that ends only when one faction wins and forces its preferences on everyone. To avoid that result, liberals propose an alternative: we want our own purposes to be accepted as worthy of support, simply because they are our purposes, so we agree to say that all other purposes are equally worthy. The result is a social contract that takes equal freedom as the highest standard, and makes giving everybody what he wants, as much and as equally as possible, the highest political goal. 
The technocratic liberal state expresses that contract. It tries to give everybody what he wants, so it is thought to promote all good things, and outside itself it sees only war, oppression, and ignorance. Liberals believe it delivers on its promises, to a large and increasing extent, so they find it monstrous and incomprehensible to reject it. Since it is based on equality and technological thinking, it is considered the only legitimate and rational form of political association. It is therefore, people believe, our duty to spread it throughout the world, and in our own society to develop its principles and apply them in an ever more detailed and comprehensive way.
It seems to me that the Liberal/Left morality meme - focused exclusively on care, fairness and liberty - has been around a long time. A recent In Our Time podcast about The Quakers got me thinking that they were the ancestors of today's ideology of Political Correctness, with their focus on legalism, anti-authority stance and campaigns against slavery and gender discrimination - though they probably wouldn't have welcomed the demise of Christianity that has gone with it...

Nevertheless, the same social psychology Haidt draws on has shown that in times of stress, uncertainty and peril people's values become more conservative, i.e.: loyalty, authority and sanctity start to matter more. I'm guessing that the future is going to be a lot more conducive to conservative morality than to liberal morality the way things are going...


  1. Just another way of expressing Isaiah Berlin's concepts of positive freedom and negative freedom.

  2. Really good to see an intellectual argument presented on a blog, as few of us are asked to really *think* about a subject in this day and age.

  3. "... of course it is only a partial morality as it ignores three other foundations of morality: loyalty, authority and sanctity. Foundations that only Conservatives perceive, but that the Left sees as 'immoral'..."

    Nice wild claim there, based on very little that I can see.

    How about loyalty and authority need to be earned?

    How about sanctity is revealed through inner experience of God and through nature?


    The primary deity of the 'conservative right' is institutionalism. They expect the rest of us to revere their deity - to turn away from the voice within, and instead listen to the voice without - the voice of their institutions.

    They try to tell us that loyalty and authority is an automatic right of their institutions.

    They try to tell us that sanctity is defined for us in books like the bible and the laws they write.

    All of this is bound up in spurious dichotomies and narratives they use to try to sow strife and this post is dripping with it.

    "The Kingdom of God is Within You" - There lies the real and only dichotomy at the heart of this 'left' and 'right' bull.


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