I heart economists social psychologists

Conservatives generally believe, as did Durkheim (1951/1897), that human beings need structure and constraint to flourish, and that social institutions provide these benefits. In a recent edited volume on conservatism, Muller (1997, p. 7) explains:

For the conservative, the historical survival of an institution or practice – be it marriage, monarchy, or the market – creates a prima facie case that it has served some human need. That need may be the institution’s explicit purpose, but just as often it will be a need other than that to which the institution is explicitly devoted.

Muller then quotes the modern conservative Irving Kristol:

Institutions which have existed over a long period of time have a reason and purpose
inherent in them, a collective wisdom incarnate in them, and the fact that we don’t perfectly understand or cannot perfectly explain why they ‘work’ is no defect in them but merely a limitation in us. (Muller, 1997, p.7; taken from Kristol, 1978, p.161)

These are not crazy ideas. They are practical and ultimately utilitarian justifications for some of the intuitions related to the hierarchy foundation. Traditions and institutions which have been vested with authority over the ages should be given the benefit of the doubt; they should not be torn down and rebuilt each time one group has a complaint against them. (Liberals might perhaps examine their instinctive distrust of institutions and authorities, and the ways that this distrust “motivates” their own social cognition.) Viewed from this perspective, the conservative fear that gay marriage will “destroy marriage as we know it” is no longer incomprehensible – it is correct. Legalizing gay marriage would be a change to an ancient institution. We social scientists know that the institution of marriage has changed substantially over the centuries. We also know that homosexuality is not a “choice” or a disease, and we know that gay people are just as good as straight people at parenting and citizenship. We can therefore predict that in countries where gay people do get the right to marry, the new institution of marriage will be better and stronger than the old one. But it will be a change, and if social justice researchers really want to bring that change about, then they will have to understand the moral motivations that are at present working against them. Conservatives and many moderates are opposed to gay marriage in part due to moral intuitions related to ingroup, hierarchy and purity, and these concerns will have to be addressed, rather than dismissed contemptuously.

Haidt and Graham (Social Justice Research 2006)

13 thoughts on “I heart economists social psychologists”

  1. I. Wasn’t it Thomas Jefferson who suggested that each generation should have its own revolution?

    II. I don’t think Liberals are suspicious of authority and institutions per se. I think those labeled as Liberals are the people who have found themselves, one way or another, outside of those institutions. I propose that this is a direct result of the staggeringly wide variety of social interactions available in a developed nation, and the wildly fluctuating social environment that this brings. Deeply rooted conservatism should work best in a relatively static environment.

    III. Social justice researchers should really be going to work on the kids. People with deep moral objections to frivolous things won’t generally be convinced otherwise. The best we can do is wait until they are too old to run and ditch them in the paths of oncoming hurricanes.

    IV. I’m of the school of thought that says that no institution should be taken for granted, and that every institution should be constantly re-examined for its utility. This attitude will be more and more important as global travel, commerce, and communications improve (this trend has been accelerating since the european renaissance).

    Five. To hell with Roman Numerals.

  2. I agree that the utility of institutions *can* be questioned. Because they are easy to evaluate doesn’t imply that we *should* easily change them.

    Institutions formed over long periods of time and without the aid of a central authority are:
    1. good because they are the manifestation of tacit agreement between all members of society
    2. bad because they are distorted to favor those members of society with power

    Its not clear to me how changing institutions by dictate (e.g. a Mass. Supreme Court decision) eliminates the bad while maintaining the good.

    And the suggestion that we should endoctrinate kids because those country bumpkin adults are a lost cause implies that we have all the right answers. We don’t.

    No, instead we should become a little more circumspect in respect to our own ideas and have a reasoned dialog with all members of society. If we’re so right, we should be able to convince others of our truths.

  3. “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.” – Jefferson

    That one?

  4. Question, absolutely. Change, maybe. But always question. Is it that you would rather have the market determine the evolution or survival of said institutions? Doesn’t it already? The Catholic Church, for example, has changed a LOT in the past 500 years.

    Not all bumpkins are from the country. Should the system come crashing down, I’d place much more faith in the country folk than in the city folk. I just happen to believe that a person with flexible beliefs (a real liberal, not just a bleeding heart hippie) will tend to be more adaptable to a changing environment than a deeply conservative individual with rigid beliefs.

    The US constitution, if I understand correctly, was one of the first state institutions to have self-modification built into it. That’s why it has endured so long. I also think that Americans have (so far) collectively demonstrated a reasonable amount of respect for the power inherent in making amendments to it. Lots of crackpot ideas are proposed as changes all the time. Not many make it through.

    I’m a little more pessimistic on the idea of having a “reasoned dialog” with all members of society. Not everyone is reasonable, and that presumes a lot of situational awareness. Consider the possibility that when you are debating an idea with someone from a different belief system, you are probably speaking totally different languages.

  5. Sorry. Don’t let RL stuff like moving out of your apartment get in the way. :-)

    I’m a bit tired of the “not everyone is reasonable” trope. I suspect this complaint really means that, damn it, not everyone agrees with me… I throw up my arms… I’m the one that’s right, why do I have to do all the work conviencing bumpkins of the truth?

    My original point was that the best institutions are built on (perhaps implicit) agreement between all members of society. It seems to me the only way to build consensus or at least a workable social equilibrium is to talk. That’s all. Talk.

    The point of the quoted article is that people come at institutions from a variety of moral bases. Where liberals often concern themselves with social justice and individual rights, they misunderstand calls to hierarchy and tradition as a vieled power play by those with bad intentions. What’s the Matter with Kansas, for example.

    Perhaps there’s nothing the matter with Kansas. Perhaps those people hold a fundamentally different moral basis.

    Thus, “they’re not hearing me” and “they’re being unreasonable” result not from unsound reasoning but from a differences in logical starting points. In math, you’d expect theorems derived from one set of axioms to be different than those derived from another set. Sometimes those theorems directly contradict each other. We shouldn’t expect anything different from moral reasoning.

  6. Heh, the constitution is absolutely an institution; you might call it the kernel around which American society is based. If you burned that piece of paper, the constitution would still exist.

    I will agree that the best social institutions are based on an agreement between as many members of society as possible. An ideal institution is based on 100% consensus among 100% of the members of a society.

    The best we can hope for is to asymptotically approach that. The closest I think that we’ve ever had to that is in isolated tribal societies. Historically, I think we can agree that isolated tribal societies tend be extremely good at enduring in their home environments, but they also tend to get jacked up when outside influences (coke bottles, logging companies, inquisitive Spaniards, etc.) wander in.

    Me, I’m both a moral relativist and a liberal. Live and let live, but leave me the hell alone. This position seems to be highly distasteful, since I refuse to commit to a concept of absolute good or evil.

    Re: Kansas: I’ve never been there’ I’ve heard lots of funky things about Kansas. I probably wouldn’t choose to visit Kansas. Then again, I’m not interested in going in and changing anything about Kansas. As far as I can tell, not much that goes on in Kansas concerns me. My suggestion to anyone that has a problem with what goes on in Kansas is simple: if you live there, move away, and if you don’t live there, leave them alone.

    Oh, re: my point 3 from earlier – I didn’t say that we should be endroctinating the country bumpkins’ kids into liberal viewpoints, I said that social justice researchers should. Conversely, the bumpkins should be working on the liberals’ kids to “teach ’em some moral decency.”

  7. We should be clear about the use of the word “liberal” btw. It has two, and sometimes contradictory, meanings. The first and tradtional meaning is one that is consistent that you should be “left the hell alone”. The second meaning (and the one I used above) is a reference to the modern political left in the United States.

  8. “I’m both a moral relativist and a liberal”

    (I assume you’re using the traditional definition of liberal.)

    I claim this is an impossible position for you to take (and still have an internally consistent belief system).

    Moral relativists would have no problem with a society that has illiberalism at its core. Taliban subjugation of women in Afghanistan would be ok… Who are we to tell them how to live their lives? A classical liberal, on the other hand, couldn’t possibly take a morally relative position in respect to the Taliban.

  9. I’ve been stalling ’cause I don’t know how to respond to the main point of your last post. Actually, I’m having a hard time understanding your position… But here goes.

    To say the Constitution is an institution, not a piece of paper is to beg the question. What is an institution? I contend its nothing but the tacit acceptance by members of society to arrange their society in a particular way. You’ll notice that I’ve backed off from “tacit agreement”.

    The members of society are always changing, new generations, immigration, or just people change their minds. So if institutions are just the tacit acceptance of members of society in the current arrangement of that society and those people are always changing then institutions are always in flux. The only way to gain tacit agreement is to debate/talk/discuss, whatever you want to call it.

    My point is that the purpose of discussion/debate/talk/etc isn’t to indoctrinate or to change minds. Its the talk itself that’s important for building institutions. To bring this back to the quoted article: different people come from different perspectives. When debating/discussing/talking/etc with those people it may feel like you’re not getting anywhere. I claim the discussion itself was the ends and given the fluid nature of institutions the discussion should be ongoing.

  10. I’m not using the traditional definition of “Liberal” (that’s with a capital ‘L’). I might have made up my own position and co-opted the
    word with that one – I’ve taken it to describe someone who advocates flexibility in institutions to accomodate environmental changes. I’d rather not associate with the “L” crowd (“Save the Whales,” “Ban the Bomb,” “No Blood for Oil,” etc.)

    I contrast this with conservatism, which seems to be a position which advocates strong rigidity in institutions; “the old ways are the best.” Bear in mind, I don’t mean the “Conservative” crowd (“Bomb Islam,” “End Welfare,” “Get Back in the Kitchen and Make Me a Pie,” “This Generation is Going to Hell in a Handbasket,” etc.)

    I think we’re coming to a common point on the definition of an institution, though. I absolutely agree that an institution is, at its core, a pact among its participants. Really, what else can it be? Currency is just tokens, marriage is really just an agreement between partners to share stuff and not screw around with other people, and the Constitution is just a set of specifications for laws to conform to.

    The kicker is that participating in the institution means that you accept the terms of this pact, whether or not you fully understand them. If you go to city hall to dispute a traffic ticket, you are participating in the system, and following its rules. If you allow a police officer to arrest you, you are participating in a legal institution. If you buy a burger for lunch, you’ve participated in an economic institution.

    “Tacit acceptance” is an excellent term, and it describes my perception of most institutions very elegantly. Of the total number of participants in an institution, a small number will be agitators. These agitators will either tend to attack the institution or end up running it. Everyone else just rides along as passengers. Want an example? Compare voter turnout rates in this country to tax evasion rates.

    Your claim that there should be an ongoing discussion on the terms of these agreements makes you a liberal, by my reckoning. For a conservative, there should be no discussion.

    Anyway – going back to the original argument, you stated (or quoted, whatever) that institutions which have survived over a long period of time should be given the benefit of the doubt. In the context of this thread, these institutions have “weathered” this constant discussion and have survived in their extant forms.

    The Taliban in Afghanistan kept their women clothed, housed, and fed. Does that mean that Afghani women were better off under Taliban rule? I mean, the Taliban also maintained the rule of law, and they kept those pesky communists at bay, so there are some secondary needs which they serviced. Surely there’s no better way to run a country, is there?

    My point is that sometimes radical change can be a positive force, as long as the institution’s services are replaced with something equal or better. For example, I think, even in raw economic terms, that this country is better off without slavery. It took some really radical changes to get rid of the institutions supporting slavery (there are a bunch of museums back east that cover some of those changes). Overall, though, I think that we’re a lot better off than we used to be, thought it took a few radical changes and a lot of risk to do it.

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