Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Moral Adolescence and Leftism

This blogger reveals fascinating research on morality and ideology:
With research in the field of moral psychology as a guide, we may discover that the split between the so-called “liberal” and “conservative” mindsets derives from a paradigm we already understand quite well.

Haidt: Ideology and the Moral Mind

The ideological key described above comes from what may seem an unlikely source: a self-described atheist and liberal academic – moral psychology researcher and U. Va. Associate Professor Jonathan Haidt. Through extensive research, Haidt and his colleagues have characterized notions of morality, and have quantified how these notions are expressed differently across various cultures and ideological groups. That expression, as Haidt’s and others’ research shows, is directed by a complex facet of our psyche which he calls our moral mind.
Professor Haidt explains his motivations -- they are not the typical ones often used to attempt to paint conservatism as a mental disorder:
If Democrats want to understand what makes people vote Republican, they must first understand the full spectrum of American moral concerns. They should then consider whether they can use more of that spectrum themselves. … Unity is not the great need of the hour, it is the eternal struggle of our immigrant nation. The three Durkheimian foundations of ingroup, authority, and purity are powerful tools in that struggle. Until Democrats understand this point, they will be vulnerable to the seductive but false belief that Americans vote for Republicans primarily because they have been duped into doing so.
The work of Haidt's group can be found here. Haidt's thesis in a nutshell is:
In brief, the theory proposes that five innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of “intuitive ethics.” Each culture then constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world, and conflicting within nations too. The foundations are:

1) Harm/care, related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. This foundation underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

2) Fairness/reciprocity, related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. This foundation generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.

3) Ingroup/loyalty, related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. This foundation underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it's "one for all, and all for one."

4) Authority/respect, shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. This foundaiton underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

5) Purity/sanctity, shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. This foundation underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).

Much of our present research involves applying the theory to political "cultures" such as those of liberals and conservatives. The current American culture war, we have found, can be seen as arising from the fact that liberals try to create a morality relying almost exclusively on the Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity foundations; conservatives, especially religious conservatives, use all five foundations, including Ingroup/Loyalty, Authority/Respect, and Purity/Sanctity.
You can take your own test, and contribute to the research, here.

But back to Haidt's observation, here is a chart of the priority placed on the different types of morality by leftists vs. conservatives:

The blogger elucidates:
The first striking aspect is, of course, the wide separation at the liberal end of the spectrum, where the intuitive ethics of Harm and Fairness completely dominate the liberal definition of morality. The second striking aspect is how closely all five ethical foundations are grouped together at the conservative end of the spectrum.

Third – and striking primarily because these are the two areas of ethics most commonly cited by liberals, as indicative of conservative “heartlessness”, “corporate greed”, etc. – is the fact that while conservatives certainly associate Harm and Fairness with morality less strongly than liberals, the difference just isn’t really all that great on the overall scale.

Possibly the most critical aspect of the phenomenon exhibited in the graphic above is that Haidt, et al., see this same distribution in every culture they examine. Clearly, this is not an American or even a Western Culture phenomenon, but one grounded in basic human nature and, thus, driven by the rules of human psychological development.

The Nature of Moral Adolescence

Analyzing the data collected by Haidt, et al., and the amazing consistency he sees across various cultures in this regard, we recognize a number of critical points. First, we see that an individual’s political ideology is directly related to their definition of morality. Meanwhile, a moral mind which values only two of the five intuitive moral foundations has a strong affinity for the liberal notions of “social justice” and “fairness” as expressed in the collectivist ideologies of Marxism and socialism. Furthermore, a moral mind which values all five intuitive ethics in a holistic, comprehensive way is drawn to the conservative tenets of classical liberalism, as expressed in republicanism, individual liberty, right to property and capitalism, for instance.

Most importantly, in light of the first element noted up above, regarding the manner in which our morality evolves as we mature, we see that these two viewpoints – liberal and conservative – are clear expressions of moral adolescence and moral maturity, respectively. While Haidt avoids making this observation, this difference is the great insight his work provides. This is the Rosetta Stone needed to understand the fundamental difference between liberal and conservative views.
The blogger goes on to discuss why, therefore, it's useless to try to reason with or compromise with leftists as if they weren't adolescents -- instead they are to be educated:
In fact, outside the framework of scientific research in the realm of common experience, most conservatives – especially those frustrated with the downward slide our Republic has taken over the past 70-odd years – are likely to see moral adolescence as a perfect explanation for why an intellectually, physically and chronologically mature adult can espouse a political ideology that would only appeal to an adolescent with no life experience and no understanding of history. Furthermore, the appeal to ridicule fallacies, overwhelming and unnecessary use of profanity and tantrum-like behavior exhibited by many adult liberals certainly fits the notion of adolescent behavior.

In truth, for all those reasons and more, there are probably very few politically-aware conservatives who haven’t long ago viewed leftist ideologues as adolescents. Up to now however, there was no clear social science to support this view. That’s changed.
Great discussion there on the breakdown of education at the root of this cultural war -- read it all! Plenty of links, and a video of Haidt speaking on the topic as well.

Keep in mind that "moral adolescence is not Haidt's term; rather, he is interested in getting progressives to avoid groupthink in assuming conservatives are just dumb or misled, but instead have a well-defined different way of thinking. The key to his research is that humans are not born as moral blank slates, but across cultures have these five innate moral concerns, which can be shaped by experience.

And Haidt points out that the apparently "repressive" aspects of authority, ingroup, and purity in the conservative moral compass are there for an important reason -- namely, to maintain civilization -- which is a very tricky thing indeed, the difficulty of which leftists underestimate to the peril of us all. He supports this with social research into how group cooperation quickly disintegrates without some kind of punishment or other motivational mechanism (i.e. the conservative aspects of morality), and then we'd all be living in a Hobbesian chaos.

Interestingly, this other site also seems to have developed the notion of modern liberalism as a form of adolescent immaturity -- or in other words, a lack of understanding of the difficulty in building and maintaining a civilization, because all of its bounty was bestowed upon them semmingly without effort, when in fact it was created with enormous difficulty and is truly a miracle. They did not have to struggle to build it, nor did they vicariously partake in its construction through a proper education of traditional liberal arts -- too many "dead white males", apparently:
Under the creed of modern liberalism, the individual citizen is not called to maturity but is instead invited to begin a second childhood. Like the child at play, he is given, or at least promised, ultimate economic, social and political security without having to assume responsibility for himself. The liberal agenda requires him to remain in an artificial environment--the daycare program of the grandiose state--where he need not become an adult, take responsibility for his own welfare, nor cooperate with others to achieve what the state will give him for nothing.
Grow up and learn something!


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