Liberals are from Vulcan; Conservatives are from Uranus

Will Wilkinson says Jonathan Haidt “posit[s] five psychological foundations of human moral sentiment, each with a distinct evolutionary history and function, which he labels harm, reciprocity, ingroup, hierarchy, and purity” and that conservatives have “broadband” moral reasoning (all five foundations resonate with them) and liberals “shortband” (they concentrate in harm and reciprocity).

This means when conservatives argue using appeals to “tradition” or “values,” liberals just don’t get it. As I said in a comment last year on a post about Haidt’s research:

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.

But Will (The Lesser) defends the minimalism of liberal moral reasoning by saying being disgusted isn’t a policy argument:

Is the narrower morality of liberalism a form of moral retardation or enlightenment? That’s a question that also breaks along ideological lines. “Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder,” says the conservative Leon Kass, former head of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, in defense of what he calls “the wisdom of repugnance”—the moral authority of the digust-purity dimension of feeling. But the liberal philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in her book Hiding from Humanity, argues that though emotions such as anger or fear sometimes embody reasons we can offer to others as legitimate justification for action, disgust is uniquely inarticulate, implying no real reason beyond itself, and so is unfit as a basis for persuasion and policy in an open, pluralistic society.

I really like that line by Leon Kass, “Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.”

Anyway, Will is too quick to dismiss these conservative pillars of moral reasoning. Much of Haidt’s research shows that these conservative modes of moral reasoning are very old in the human species.

[T]here are two psychological systems [in academics], one about fairness/justice, and one about care and protection of the vulnerable. And if you look at the many books on the evolution of morality, most of them focus exclusively on those two systems, with long discussions of Robert Trivers’ reciprocal altruism (to explain fairness) and of kin altruism and/or attachment theory to explain why we don’t like to see suffering and often care for people who are not our children.

But if you try to apply this two-foundation morality to the rest of the world, you either fail or you become Procrustes. Most traditional societies care about a lot more than harm/care and fairness/justice. Why do so many societies care deeply and morally about menstruation, food taboos, sexuality, and respect for elders and the Gods? You can’t just dismiss this stuff as social convention. If you want to describe human morality, rather than the morality of educated Western academics, you’ve got to include the Durkheimian view that morality is in large part about binding people together.

You can argue that just because something has been around along time in human evolution, that doesn’t make it right. The appendix comes to mind. But might there be some value in the conservative virtues?

In contrast, Kass recognizes that while repugnance alone should not resolve policy disputes, it can be a quintessentially human way of experiencing a deep knowing that certain activities are just plain wrong:

Revulsion is not an argument; and some of yesterday’s repugnances are today calmly accepted — though one must add, not always for the better. In crucial cases, however, repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power to fully articulate it. Can anyone really give an argument fully adequate to the horror which is father-daughter incest… or having sex with animals, or mutilating a corpse, or eating human flesh, or raping or murdering another human being? Would anybody’s failure to give full rational justification for his revulsion at those practices make that revulsion ethically suspect? Not at all. On the contrary, we are suspicious of those who think they can rationalize away our horror, say, by trying to explain the enormity of incest with arguments only about the genetic risks of inbreeding.

This is a powerful truth about the wisdom of human nature that is not easily brushed aside by the disdainful condescension of those who think that raw intellectualism is the only legitimate method of moral analysis.