Are Liberal Values Objectively Better Than Conservative Ones?

In recent years, Jonathan Haidt has been influentially arguing that there are five essential modules in the mind from which human moral concerns originate.  He has made this claim in several places, most prominently among philosophers in his contribution to Moral Psychology, Volume 2: The Cognitive Science of Morality: Intuition and Diversity (from Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s groundbreaking three volume collection of essays by moral psychologists and moral philosophers on moral psychology, which also includes Moral Psychology, Volume 1: The Evolution of Morality: Adaptations and Innateness and Moral Psychology, Volume 3: The Neuroscience of Morality: Emotion, Brain Disorders, and Development (Bradford Books)).

According to Haidt, the moral modules create our basic concerns for (1) justice and equality, (2) aversion to harm and suffering of others, (3) respect for hierarchy, (4) in-group loyalty, and (5) purity and sanctity.  Haidt also has argued that contemporary American liberals typically emphasize concerns for justice/equality and minimization of suffering as trumping concerns for hierarchy, loyalty, and purity in cases of conflict (or to not consider the latter moral priorities either very important or even specifically moral at all). Whereas, on the other hand, contemporary American conservatives tend to retain a robust sense of the moral importance of either all five categories or, even, the importance of hierarchy, loyalty, and purity over the concerns for justice or harm avoidance, at least in some cases.   You can see him make this argument in the TED video below:

I contextualized this account of moral psychology within my general perfectionist account of value and normativity in human lives and cultures as part of relating both my metaethics and Haidt’s moral psychology to the question of burqa bans.  This all happened in the three blog posts; France Considers Banning Burqas in Public and I Consider Haidt on Pluralism, Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation, and Further Towards A “Non- Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation, portions of which were adapted and revised such that they wound up in my recently defended doctoral dissertation.

Now, Greta Christina has an interesting article out formulating another approach to reconciling Haidt’s moral psychology with a normative moral philosophy in order to ask what we should respond if Haidt’s account is correct and there are these naturally occurring moral categories which different types of people experience with different strengths for reasons rooted all the way in our brain’s “hardwired” structures.  She asks the difficult question of whether the “liberal” or the “conservative” ways of hardwiring can be assessed for their relative value, such that one was preferable to the other by some objective metric of value.  Formulating ideas she attributes to Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, she wants to argue that the “liberal” set of moral priorities is more rational defensible than the more conservative set.  She reasons as follows:

Fairness and harm are better values — because they can be universalized.

Goldstein’s argument is this. The basic philosophical underpinning of ethics (as opposed to its psychological and evolutionary underpinnings) are:

(a) the starting axiom that we, ourselves, matter;

and (b) the understanding that, if we step back from ourselves and view life from an outside perspective, we have to acknowledge that we don’t, cosmically speaking, matter more than anyone else; that other people matter to themselves as much as we matter to ourselves; and that any rules of ethics ought to apply to other people as much as they do to ourselves. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and all that. (Some version of the Golden Rule seems to exist in every society.)

In other words, the philosophical underpinning of ethics are that they ought to be applicable to everyone. They ought to be universalizable.

And liberal values — fairness and harm — are universalizable.

In fact, it’s inherent in the very nature of these values that they are universalizable.

And the value of harm, and the avoidance thereof, can easily be universalized as well. It can be applied to everybody. In fact, the history of the evolution of human ethics can be seen as the history of this principle being expanded to a wider and wider population: to people from other countries, to people of color, to women, etc. etc. etc. It can even be universalized further, and applied to non-humans. (It may well be that, in 200 years, people will look back on the way we treat animals with the same bewildered, “How on earth could they do that?” horror with which we now view slavery.) There’s nothing in the principle of avoiding harm that prevents it from being applied to any creature with the capacity to experience suffering. It is an easily universalizable value.

Conservative values, on the other hand, are not universalizable.

Quite the contrary.

It is in the very nature of conservative values — authority, loyalty, and purity — that they are applied differently to different people. It is in the very nature of conservative values that some animals are, and ought to be, more equal than others.

I’m saying that any moral progress humanity has made over the centuries and millennia has been made, not in the direction of greater adherence to authority or purity or tribal/group loyalty, but in the direction of expanding our understanding and application of fairness and the avoidance of harm. I’m saying that, in every example I can think of where our morality is a clear improvement over the morality of the past — democracy, banning slavery, religious freedom, women’s suffrage, etc. etc. etc. — the core values being strengthened have been the values of fairness and the avoidance of harm: the liberal values, the ones that can be applied to everyone.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • JRQ

    Where has it been demonstrated that Haidt’s moral factors are antecedent of political philosophy (as would be the case if they were hardwired modules), as opposed to products of it?

    • Daniel Fincke

      Excellent question, JRQ. I don’t have it on hand, but if I remember it correctly, his article in Moral Psychology Volume 2, he claims to have derived these modules from canvassing a number of books which formulate the cross-cultural universal categories of morality from anthropological perspectives. He distills from the variety of the lists of universals, the features which are most agreed upon among those lists.

  • David


    I am unpersuaded by Goldstein’s argument.

    I take it that the universalizability of moral principles entails two things.

    1. All valid moral principles must apply to all people, and all actions.

    2. persons situated the same way in all morally relevant ways must be treated the same.

    It does not entail that the application of moral principles will be identical in all respects. In fact the universalizablity requirement requires that moral principles be stated at a level of generality that abstracts from features of situations that lead to differences in application of the principles (that’s why “help old ladies across the street” is not a universal moral principle, while there might be a more abstract, general principle which yields the requirement that certain people should help certain old ladies across certain streets). Or the principle must specify certain conditions that must be met before the requirement applies (e.g., in the case of helping old ladies, one must be able bodied oneself. This would be universal, but conditional (For all x, if x is able bodied and…then one must…))

    Golden rules formulate that it is wrong to exempt ourselves from principles for irrelevant reasons. So rich people can’t exempt themselves from requirements simply because they are rich.

    But holders of conservative values view matters of purity, etc. as morally relevant. Goldstein has offered no argument that requirements of purity etc. cannot be enforced impartially, impartially meaning that people aren’t exempted from the requirements for irrelevant reasons. And of course attempts to do so with no moral resources except a criterion of universalizability run the risk of being question begging. And that I take it is because the real dispute is about what matters are morally relevant and important.

    My take, for what it is worth, is that the problem with politcal conservatives is that they often hold to values in the absence of any intelligible account of why and how those values are morally relevant. That is why their invocation of such values is arbitrary (and hence not impartial, universalizable). But the same charge often applies to the political left’s invocations of fair treatment.