A lifetime ago – in subjective Trump-time! – I made a post about how pussyhats are potent symbols. Social justice! Purity politics. Sacred values. This seems obvious to me. Then again, as a young man they made me read Durkheim. (There’s a myth about the U of Chicago: they make you read all Plato-Thucydides-Tocqueville, all the time, your first year. In my experience they had so many darn anthropologists, many of us spent our first year reading Geertz, Boas, Benedict, Levy-Bruhl, others. Not anything Allan Bloom might have approved for our tender-minded consumption. Anthropologists are mad, you see, so keep them busy lest they make trouble. They were tasked with instilling ‘core values’ in the young: relativism! Yes, yes, Durkheim is a structural functionalist. Close enough for scandalizing rubes and maroons! Ah, mid-80’s memories.)
The point of my pussyhat example was to to illustrate my allegations about blindspots and contradictions in Jonathan Haidt’s popular writings on the subject of partisanship, PC and pluralism. Things got hot in comments. (Not everyone has read Durkheim, it must be.) Then Haidt showed up in comments (Crooked Timber gets results!) He linked to a post he made, rebutting mine. So now I’m going to rebut the rebuttal.
A word before we dive in: I feel weirdly time-warped, engaging the classic Kulturkampf ‘conservatives in academe?’ issue, in February, 2017. There aren’t more than a handful in Congress; and none in the White House. Trumpism reigns! Why expect conservatives to show up in academe and only academe, apparently? Nevertheless, I’ve been personally engaged by Haidt’s ideas for a long time, and he did respond. I do feel these issues are relevant to American politics. I think it’s good to think about empirical evidence concerning the character of partisanship, in US politics in particular. And about the normative status of partisan impulses and forms. If addressing such topics seems to you misguided, even profane (some commenters to my previous post took this pious line), I can’t think the rest of this post will please you. (Don’t blame me if I make fun of you in comments, if you take that line!)
On we go!
In his post, responding to mine, Haidt made two rejoinders.
First: “Holbo seems to think that if you were to start with a campus faculty entirely composed of non-authoritarian progressives … and then you added in some authoritarian progressives, who punish dissent on their most sacred issues, you would improve the campus ecology.”
No. This is a complete misreading of my post. I constructed this absurd line as a reductio ad absurdum on Haidt’s own position. If Haidt’s ideas lead to this, his logic has slipped. Not my bright idea. His.
This brings me to Haidt’s second rejoinder: he thinks his own position is not contradictory but a sensible and rather mild-mannered conjunction of empirical results and a Millian normative premise. See his recent paper. (There’s a nice bullet-point summary of its main points at the link.)
The argument in that paper admittedly doesn’t sound much like the thing I indicted in my post. Nothing there about Moral Foundations. Haidt is one of five co-authors; the paper as a whole does not mention, let alone presuppose, Haidt’s pet moral theory. The article consists substantially of collected/presented data about political affiliations/attitudes of social psychologists (not many conservatives, turns out!) And, based on the data, normative concerns about how and why the notable skews could be a problem when psychologists study matters about which liberals and conservatives are known to have deep, ideological disagreements. And some proposals – some quite modest, some less so. The article opens with a famous tag from Mill, which – in his post responding to me – Haidt expands to full (not famous but pretty darn well-known!) passage length. It’s from On Liberty, of course:
He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion… Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them … he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.
Haidt sums up his own post: “We don’t care about balance. We don’t need every view to be represented. We just want to break up orthodoxy. Is that illogical?”
It doesn’t sound awfully illogical, no. Maybe not convincing, but not like what I attributed to him in my post. So it looks like I’m making stuff up! Charging him unfairly!
Dear reader, I’m not. The blindspots and contradictions I highlight are evident – and take the form I say they do – in his most recent book, The Righteous Mind. They are especially glaring in this TED Talk from a few years back, which is pretty much Righteous Mind material, TED-ed up (or down, YMMMV.)
Let me just make my argument again, this time with quotes from Haidt himself to back me up. (If you haven’t read my first presentation, in the earlier post, feel free to do so, but I won’t just repeat that presentation since evidently it didn’t work the first time.)
Let me try to be orderly about it.
Premise 1: Haidt’s Moral Foundation Theory is well-supported.
By the time we gets to the bits of The Righteous Mind I think go right off the rails, Haidt is working within this framework he favors. It’s basically a descriptive, psychological theory. Read the Wikipedia article for a summary, if you don’t want to bother to read Haidt himself (which would probably be the responsible thing to do.) I don’t have a major problem with this first step. I’m not sure I buy this picture of six foundation values, but it makes a certain amount of sense. It’s well worth thinking about. Indeed, it’s because I think so that I think everything past this point is even worth bothering with. I tend to think that Haidt is either right or exactly wrong about most things he says. (This is not because he’s perverse, merely that I tend to accept the categories of his thinking, but not his thinking.) In the exactly wrong cases, I can often negate, invert, or perform some other reverse-engineering of his thoughts and get something that isn’t broken any more, by my lights. (Haidt gets a lot of hate, for being a TED-style simplifier, which he is. But he gets a lot right, I think.) Now we get to several such exactly wrong bits. It’s going to look and sound like I’m flogging a dead horse, but I think of it as extracting useful bits that were tragically mis-assembled in the original.
Premise 2: Liberals suffer from a sacredness gap.
I’m going to say that because it’s punchier than ‘liberals suffer from a purity/authority/loyalty gap’; more intuitive than an acronym like, ‘liberals suffer from a PAL gap.’ (America knows NTSC is the one true way!)
Here is Haidt from The Righteous Mind, summarizing some earlier stuff that he is now expanding: “In the remainder of the essay I advised Democrats to stop dismissing conservatism as a pathology and start thinking about morality beyond care and fairness. I urged them to close the sacredness gap between the two parties by making greater use of the Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity foundations, not just in their “messaging,” but in how they think about public policy and the best interests of the nation.”
There you have it. His idea, not some thing I slapped on him artificially. (I honestly didn’t remember that he used that very phrase himself until I went back and checked; when I made my first post I dubbed it ‘purity gap’, I think.) Haidt definitely says this thing. He also definitely thinks it’s normatively vital to close the gap. Another quote:
“Until Democrats understand the Durkheimian vision of society and the difference between a six-foundation morality and a three-foundation morality, they will not understand what makes people vote Republican.”
I’ve read Emile Durkheim and you, sir, are no true Durkheimian!
Let me start with why Haidt is wrong even to credit this gap.
In his TED talk on liberalism and conservatism, he asks a (somewhat rhetorical) question (classic TED!): how did our ancestors manage to get it together as well as they did, the last 10,000 years?
The answer, I think, is that they used every tool in the toolbox. It took all of our moral psychology to create these cooperative groups. Yes, you do need to be concerned about harm, you do need a psychology of justice. But it really helps to organize a group if you can have sub-groups, and if those sub-groups have some internal structure, and if you have some ideology that tells people to suppress their carnality, to pursue higher, nobler ends. And now we get to the crux of the disagreement between liberals and conservatives. Because liberals reject three of these foundations. They say “No, let’s celebrate diversity, not common in-group membership.” They say, “Let’s question authority.” And they say, “Keep your laws off my body.”
OK, we are already waaay off. ‘Keep your laws off my body’ is a fine counter-example to what he is saying, not an appropriate illustration of it. ‘Keep your laws off my body’ is effective rhetoric because it super-charges the autonomy/no-harm values with an overlay of profane/sacred. To a first approximation, any time someone says ‘keep your x off my y,’ as a slogan, they are constructing a dirty/clean dichotomy. Also high/low. ‘Keep your laws off my body’ challenges conservative law-makers to shrug off the heavy hint that they are dirty, no-account low-lifes, unfit to associate with decent folk. ‘Your laws’ rhymes with ‘your paws’. It’s a nice bit of table-turning on Republican taste in legislation-as-slut-shaming. Republicans need to learn to suppress their bad, carnal desire to suppress women’s sexual autonomy! It’s pervy! The law should be a noble thing, not some old panty-sniffer: Vote Democrat!
And this is where the pussyhats enter, stage left – mobile, marching, sacred space from which the pussy-grabber-in-chief is implicitly excluded as profane.
But surely pussyhats are symbols of justice and liberty, not holiness! (This caused considerable controversy in the previous thread.) I say, against this: one thing can have two properties (though that may seem a mad thought!) Moral symbols can be polyvalent. This is hardly the first time, after all, that a group has managed to make potent use of the fact that both poles – clean/dirty – imply ‘don’t touch!’ So if you can, paradoxically, manage to combine them, you get an extra strong jolt of power. As I wrote in comments in the other post: “The cross. Once upon a time a symbol of shame, degradation, exposure. Nothing more exposed and vulnerable than a man on a cross. Nothing more profane and contaminated than a corpse nailed to wood. What a symbol of domination. Then some folks took that and transvalued it into a positive symbol of resistance. Think what it must have been like to be a Roman in those days, looking at people actually wearing a crucified corpse around their necks as a positive symbol of power and purity. How rude. Dirty hippies.”
If you can understand how the cross became a holy symbol, how not a pussyhat?
In general, what infuriates conservatives most about liberals is not that they seem narrowly fixated on justice and no-harm but that they have the social and cultural means and motive to cast conservatives down as low, dirty violators. Worst of all (to hear conservatives tell the tale) are charges of racism. Racism is harmful but the state of being a racist – even if you are doing no demonstrable harm by being one at the moment – is a flagrant purity violation. In American culture, to be a known racist is to be a member of an untouchable caste. (There are no acceptable ‘Yes, he’s a horrible racist but …’ excuses that will gain you re-entry in polite society.) If liberals have the authority to declare who is impure, they have the power of drawing political and social in-out circles to suit themselves, and they may do so in ways that reinforce loyalty to leftist causes. Conservatives who feel they should, by rights, be the ones commanding the high ground, dictating sacred values to the dirty liberals, find this transvaluation of values most galling.
If someone seriously wants to argue that the conservative complaint that liberals have this clean/dirty high/low thing set against them is sheer projection – utter illusion – that would be … relevant, admittedly. But not remotely plausible, surely. I believe, in my heart, that conservatives yield the palm no other tribe when it comes to high achievements of excellence in the field of ressentiment, chronic minor grievance-mongering, recreational victimology, and all-around farting into the same couch cushion over and over about how the other side is biased – until no decent person could stand to be in the same room with them. (As Nietzsche said: it’s the smell!) Nevertheless there is no question those on the left have, in many ways, comprehensively flipped the purity script, sacralizing things conservatives don’t value, making profane (not profaning!) things they do. Them’s just the moral facts. The 60’s and the 70’s, man. They happened. There are reasons conservatives hate those decades.
I am on-balance fine with leftist purity politics because holy makes whole and, as Jacob Levy eloquently argues in this post (which got linked around, which deserved to be linked around even more widely), “The Defense of Liberty Can’t Do Without Identity Politics”. Eyes on the prize. The leftist tribes are sacralizing real values of justice, fairness and liberty. The conservatives, to my eye, are sacralizing unjust privilege, inequality … and some good stuff. And a lot more stuff that ought to be generously tolerated. But, man, their tribe has some seriously ugly idols. Them’s just moral facts. (I’m not a relativist!) Jacob Levy:
Identity politics at its best, in other words, isn’t just a matter of being on some group’s side. It’s about fighting for political justice by drawing on the commitment that arises out of targeted injustice, and about having the intellectual resources to let us diagnose that targeted injustice. It lets us spot the majority group’s identity politics rather than treating it as the normal background state of affairs, and to recognize the oppression and injustice that it generates.
By all means, we should criticize identity politics when it goes wrong, as it often does in moments of symbolic, cultural, and campus politics. But there’s no source of political energy and ideas that doesn’t sometimes go wrong; goodness knows that a commitment to abstract philosophical principles often does. But a revitalized liberalism must be a vital liberalism, one with energy and enthusiasm. The defense of liberal principles—freedom of speech and religion, the rule of law and due process, commerce and markets, and so on—has to happen at least in part in the political arena. In that arena, in liberal politics, we’ll always depend on the passionate and self-conscious mobilization of those who are the victims of state power and domination.
Black Lives Matter is on balance a force for justice. It’s fine if people want to have a lot of personal pronouns. (At worst, it’s silly. Ergo, it’s at best silly to be bothered.) There is a lot of PC nonsense on campus (if we must use the term ‘PC’, but consistently it ought to apply to much conservative nonsense as well, yet somehow it doesn’t.) College students can be dumb. Activism can get unfortunately deflected into groupthink bullying. And that’s bad. But it’s wrong – since inaccurate – to set up those cases as synechdoches of what’s going on off-campus. Conservatives – and Mark Lilla – wonder why liberals don’t talk about Yale and Halloween costumes. Honestly, the reason is because, unlike Lilla, we haven’t lost our sense of moral proportion. Unlike conservatives, we don’t seek to apologize for greater wrongs under cover of indicting far lesser ones. Maybe it’s wrong to pass over any wrongs. But I say, if you are going to ignore wrongs, better to ignore lesser ones. (And for sure conservatism is not a political philosophy of ‘let justice be done, though the heavens fall.’ So that’s some serious process hypocrisy, if they are flying that flag over the Yale Halloween costume controversy.)
BE IT NOTED: I DO NOT WANT COMMENTS TO THIS POST TO DEVOLVE INTO A PC-ON-CAMPUS SHOUT-FEST. YOU MAY EXPRESS YOUR OPINION ON THAT SUBJECT BRIEFLY, using your indoor voice. I WANT THIS POST TO BE ABOUT HAIDT AND WHETHER MY CRITIQUE IS VALID. SERIOUS THREADJACKS WILL BE DELETED.
Getting back to Haidt: he might have argued, not that liberals suffer from some critical sacredness gap – which is plain nonsense – but that they suffer from an awareness gap concerning their own acts of sacralization. That’s plausible. Liberals and leftists like to think of themselves as champions of justice and fairness and liberty – because they are! – not as tribal totem fetishists, shibboleth-minded enforcers and all that – which they also often are! Liberals and leftists are, after all, human.
But no, Haidt said the first thing and, as a result, he falls into serious contradiction and confusion.
But what about the alleged result that conservatives are better at understanding liberals than liberals are at understanding conservatives? (This is per the Haidt paper linked upthread.) This is operationalized, for experiment purposes, by asking conservatives to fill in a Moral Foundations Questionnaire as a typical liberal would, and vice versa for liberals. This ought to work (e.g. it doesn’t presuppose some perhaps tendentious construction, by the experimenters, of what liberals and conservatives ‘really are’.) But, having taken the Questionnaire myself – here are my personal results! –
The experimental instructions read (for one batch of questions):
When A TYPICAL LIBERAL [CONSERVATIVE] decides whether something is right or wrong, to what extent are the following considerations relevant to the liberal’s [conservative’s] thinking? Remember, instead of selecting your own answers, answer all questions as a typical liberal [conservative].
Now suppose, as is indeed the case, I think the values typically relevant to a conservative’s thinking are not the same as those a conservative would typically say are relevant. (And the same is true of liberals.) See the problem? The details of how this is likely to have affected the results depends on the actual set. If the questionnaire provides more fodder for liberals to suspect conservatives of typical false consciousness than conservatives to suspect liberal false consciousness, then … well, this is very speculative. The bottom line is: I’m not impressed by this data as evidence on any kind of ‘sacredness gap’, blinding liberals to the very possibility that someone might hold things sacred, as a moral value.
Let me indicate how Haidt gets from his alleged (but in fact unreal) sacredness gap to the normative conclusion that 1) it ought to be closed and 2) it can be closed by getting a few more conservatives around the place.
Premise 3 – something something plurality something pluralism something diversity?
I think Haidt’s own thinking, past this point, gets loosely associative. (Usually I find he is tighter than this!) He runs thoughts together such that I can’t find or formulate any canonical statement of his argument. He thinks (social) diversity is good, and he tends to equate that with healthy (political?) pluralism, which he tends to run together with exhibiting a larger (psychological) plurality of values. So conservatives turn out to be more pluralistic and, inherently, diverse by nature. There’s a fallacy of composition looming: getting a critical mass of ‘plural-valued’ individuals might catalyze pluralism at the social level! (Anyone who has read Plato’s Republic should be aware these micro-macro arguments-by-analogy oft go astray.)
This is all kind of an echo of stuff you get from Lionel Trilling, in The Liberal Imagination. (I would recommend Haidt read that. I’ve never seen him discuss it.) Some of it could come straight out of Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind. I actually think both Trilling and Kirk are pretty confused, running distinct thoughts together just as Haidt does. Still, three confused heads may be better than one?
Well, anyway, one symptom of this confusion is that Haidt seems to be asking for healthy (diverse) Durkheimian social values, for stability’s sake, and also healthy (pluralist) Millian political culture. But Durkheimian societies are not automatically ideal in Millian terms. Rather, there is an inherent tension. Haidt sees this but thinks he has somehow emerged on the other side, the wiser for having seen both sides. (One of those T.S. Eliot “and know the place for the first time” kind of trips.) It seems to me he is, rather, falling flat, right out of the gate.
In my first post I said the absurdity is this: if there really is a purity-authority-loyalty gap on the left – Haidt thinks so: he says so! – then there just can’t be a problem with PC. Because, at their worst, SJW’s are a bunch of lockstep authoritarian puritans about progressive values of justice, no-harm and liberty. (Let it be so. Haidt certainly thinks it is so.) So: one problem solved at least. All that narrow authoritarianism perforce must broaden the moral foundations of academe to a healthy six-wide. And now we see the absurdity of equating psychological plurality of values with healthy pluralism, in a social or political sense. And now the argument that more conservatives in academe would fix the problem evaporates as well. Because, officially, the advertisement for them is the same as for the PC fanatics. Whom we don’t like. Something has slipped. That is my reductio ad absurdum on Haidt’s argument.
Still not convinced Haidt is on the hook? You are a stubborn one! Alright, a few passages from Chapter 5, The Righteous Mind. Haidt likes to harp on how narrow, hence weird, WEIRD people are. (Western, educated, industrial, rich, democratic.) He talks about how WEIRD-ly Millian all his college students were, for instance.
They were unique in their unwavering devotion to the “harm principle,” which John Stuart Mill had put forth in 1859: “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.” As one Penn student said: “It’s his chicken, he’s eating it, nobody is getting hurt.”
Never you mind about that chicken! You get the idea.
[A well-known study by cultural psychologists] reviewed dozens of studies showing that WEIRD people are statistical outliers; they are the least typical, least representative people you could study if you want to make generalizations about human nature. Even within the West, Americans are more extreme outliers than Europeans, and within the United States, the educated upper middle class (like my Penn sample) is the most unusual of all. Several of the peculiarities of WEIRD culture can be captured in this simple generalization: The WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships.
Related to this difference in perception is a difference in thinking style. Most people think holistically (seeing the whole context and the relationships among parts), but WEIRD people think more analytically (detaching the focal object from its context, assigning it to a category, and then assuming that what’s true about the category is true about the object).5 Putting this all together, it makes sense that WEIRD philosophers since Kant and Mill have mostly generated moral systems that are individualistic, rule-based, and universalist. That’s the morality you need to govern a society of autonomous individuals. But when holistic thinkers in a non-WEIRD culture write about morality, we get something more like the Analects of Confucius, a collection of aphorisms and anecdotes that can’t be reduced to a single rule. Confucius talks about a variety of relationship-specific duties and virtues (such as filial piety and the proper treatment of one’s subordinates). If WEIRD and non-WEIRD people think differently and see the world differently, then it stands to reason that they’d have different moral concerns. If you see a world full of individuals, then you’ll want the morality of Kohlberg and Turiel — a morality that protects those individuals and their individual rights. You’ll emphasize concerns about harm and fairness. But if you live in a non-WEIRD society in which people are more likely to see relationships, contexts, groups, and institutions, then you won’t be so focused on protecting individuals. You’ll have a more sociocentric morality, which means … that you place the needs of groups and institutions first, often ahead of the needs of individuals. If you do that, then a morality based on concerns about harm and fairness won’t be sufficient. You’ll have additional concerns, and you’ll need additional virtues to bind people together.
When I returned to America [from field work in India] social conservatives no longer seemed so crazy. I could listen to leaders of the “religious right” such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson with a kind of clinical detachment. They want more prayer and spanking in schools, and less sex education and access to abortion? I didn’t think those steps would reduce AIDS and teen pregnancy, but I could see why Christian conservatives wanted to “thicken up” the moral climate of schools and discourage the view that children should be as free as possible to act on their desires. Social conservatives think that welfare programs and feminism increase rates of single motherhood and weaken the traditional social structures that compel men to support their own children? Well, now that I was no longer on the defensive, I could see that those arguments made sense, even if there are also many good effects of liberating women from dependence on men. I had escaped from my prior partisan mind-set (reject first, ask rhetorical questions later) and began to think about liberal and conservative policies as manifestations of deeply conflicting but equally heartfelt visions of the good society.28 It felt good to be released from partisan anger. And once I was no longer angry, I was no longer committed to reaching the conclusion that righteous anger demands: we are right, they are wrong.
If you grow up in a WEIRD society, you become so well educated in the ethic of autonomy that you can detect oppression and inequality even where the apparent victims see nothing wrong. But years later, when you travel, or become a parent, or perhaps just read a good novel about a traditional society, you might find some other moral intuitions latent within yourself. You might find yourself responding to dilemmas involving authority, sexuality, or the human body in ways that are hard to explain. Conversely, if you are raised in a more traditional society, or within an evangelical Christian household in the United States, you become so well educated in the ethics of community and divinity that you can detect disrespect and degradation even where the apparent victims see nothing wrong. But if you then face discrimination yourself (as conservatives and Christians sometimes do in the academic world),30 or if you simply listen to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, you may find a new resonance in moral arguments about oppression and equality.
Obviously one good example of the sort of non-WEIRD ‘thickening up’ that Haidt is appreciating, in this passage, would be PC: a narrow orthodoxy of purity, in which individuals are subordinate to social cohesion. And so … fast forward to 2017. Haidt has flipped over from being someone who advocates confronting WEIRD Millians with more broad-based moral characters who insist on enforcing their purity structures to tighten the Durkheimian ties that bind – thereby forcing the Millians to think outside of their narrow box – to being a staunch Millian, insisting on one ‘telos’ for the university.
As Haidt writes in the next chapter: “Morality is so rich and complex, so multifaceted and internally contradictory.”
Indeed it is. But, as I said, I do not believe he has managed to land himself on the far side of all that, with a nice view looking back.
The problem is really that, not only has he not thought through the Durkheim stuff to its logical conclusions; he hasn’t thought through the Mill stuff.
Suppose Haidt were to say: ok, you got me. That Righteous Mind stuff was confused. But the stuff I am writing now over at Heterodox Academy has risen above these contradictions. I’m just advocating Mill now. I’m WEIRD and I’m proud!
I don’t honestly know that he would be willing to take that step, partly or fully. But even if he does, it seems to me that it’s not enough. I think the Mill stuff is too vague … aspirationally associative … as formulated. There are several agreeable-seeming thoughts that feel like they fit together. But on closer examination it’s all much more complicated. Haidt is kind of coasting on the mental momentum of his Righteous Mind stuff and his Moral Foundations, past all the tricky bits. It won’t do. (But it reminds me of a scene from The Phantom Tollbooth … the film version where the dog desperately shouts out “John Stuart Mill!” and pushes the kid out of the Doldrums! You remember that? But you can’t necessarily believe it, even when its great literature. John Stuart Mill is not an infinite power unto himself to clear up muck and muddle, great as he is.)