Some Suspicions About The Superiority Of Liberal Moral Values

Earlier today, I drew attention to Greta Christina’s article formulating some ideas she picked up from Rebecca Newberger Goldstein.  If you have already read either or both of those posts, you can just skip the next two paragraphs meant to catch up new readers.

The Goldstein/Greta Christina argument built off of Jonathan Haidt’s theory of moral psychology.  Haidt thinks that human moral thinking is biologically rooted in modules in the brain which orient us to be concerned with 5 basic kinds of priorities, (1) fairness/reciprocity, (2) diminishment of general suffering, (3) in-group loyalty, (4) respect for hierarchy, and (5) concern for purity or sanctity. Haidt argues that liberals around the world tend to think morality only encompasses the first two modules’ concerns, whereas conservatives tend to think morality encompasses all the modules’ concerns.  (I’ve previously explored Haidt’s ideas and their implications for moral philosophy here, here, and here.)

Goldstein and Greta Christina want to argue that since liberals are primarily concerned with fairness and the avoidance of harm, their basic priorities are more in-synch with what normative moral thinking, which requires principles of universalization, require of us. And, secondly, Greta Christina argues that liberal values have advanced all sorts of moral progress, such as the eradication of slavery and the creation of rights for women and other traditionally subordinated classes, where conservative value priorities inherently inclined people towards preserving such things.

Below is David’s reply to the Goldstein/Greta Christina defense of the intrinsic and historical superiority of liberal values, followed by my own further thoughts on the topic.


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.

Yes, David, there is something question-begging indeed about simply prioritizing the universalization criteria by the Golden Rule standard when universalization is (a) one of the 5 “competing” modules you are comparing in the first place and (b) compatible with the other three modules on conceptions that treat those module’s primary concerns as matters of intrinsic moral value priority—a priority to such an intrinsic extent that it is capable of trumping other goods, even goods which are typically moral priorities on other occasions in which they do not conflict with other modules’ priorities.  Happiness might be a good that is normally encouragable, but if loyalty, purity, and hierarchical respect are intrinsic moral values they might each be understood to trump the option of increased happiness in every case in which it conflicts with one of them.  (Though I personally disagree with this interpretation of moral priority.)

To expand on your own examples, David: (1) there are clearly universalized rules within hierarchies (e.g., for any x, such that x is in position y in the hierarchy, it is fair for x to be treated in way z), which when applied consistently are seen as entirely fair by those who accept the hierarchies as valid arrangements, (2) there are clearly universalizable rules for loyalty, whereby I accept that I will work for the interest of those who belong to my group and you will work for the interest of those who belong to your group and we will simply be rivals (even enemies) and not morally blame one another for that but accept it as perfectly morally valid for each to act as the other’s rival or enemy.    This could be a mutually respected hatred of one another without the pretense of moral condemnation of either one by the other one.  Usually, in practice, inter-group hatreds see one or both groups rationalizing themselves as moral superior and conceiving of the Other group as having inferior, or outright evil, values.

But nonetheless in many areas of life that involve rivalries we find the acknowledgement that there is nothing wrong with each group looking after itself, even at the material expense of members of the out-group, as long as some generally agreed upon thresholds of inter-familial, inter-tribal, or international fairness is at least met.  It might usually be a much lower standard of cross-group cooperation than liberals want but it exists nonetheless.   So, it might be fair to kill for your family, your tribe, or your nation, but, say, not to kill when it’s not a matter of necessity or not to resort to chemical weapons, etc.

Where I become sympathetic with the Goldstein/Greta Christina position and where I think it might be reformulated in a non-question-begging way is if we reassess values according to their contributions to human flourishing.   Haidt himself, in advocating a non-dismissive attitude towards more closed and conservative cultures, appeals to the proven survival value of these moral mentalities.   Haidt’s argument, put simply, is that we cannot categorically disparage ways of thinking that were naturally selected over the course of many millennia of human life by their the powerful effectiveness of their abilities to unite people against threats both intra-communal and inter-communal and both social and natural.

If we are to think evolutionarily at all, in the first place, we are thinking teleologically. Of course, by this I do not mean that we are looking for any ideal purposes deliberately programmed for all our traits by an intelligent being with explicitly thought out intentions for them.  What I mean in saying that evolutionary thinking is teleological is that it tries to reason about what de facto functionality any given trait might have that could explain why it gave its bearers such a decisive advantage over their rivals within their species such that it became a necessary component of all members of that species (at least for a given period in which it ascended and normalized).

So, in this way, evolutionary thinking is a wholly naturalistic but nonetheless teleological form of thinking.   Not only do evolutionary biologists, psychologists, and philosophers treat the question, “what purpose does this serve?” as a meaningful one, but they typically treat it as the most essential and definitive one for defining traits.

I think the one mistake many evolutionary thinkers is to loosely refer to a trait’s contribution to reproductive success as though it were its only or its primary function in cases where traits have intrinsic functions which are more basic to their actual essential functioning on their own terms (independently of the evolutionary conditions that brought them about in the first place or made it so they stayed around).

Having sketched briefly how evolutionary thinkers are naturalistically and functionalistically teleological, we can return to Jonathan Haidt’s concerns.  Haidt seems to think at least that we must tailor our moral arguments, regardless of their objective categories of justification, to the modules by which different people make moral judgments.  If conservatives think with all five modules and, so, see the priorities each module takes seriously as equally (or relatively equally) important, then regardless of what I personally think of the moral relevance of purity or loyalty or hierarchy, I had better explain how my moral viewpoint addresses the conservatives concerns about these areas of life or they are simply going to dismiss me as morally obtuse, immoral, or amoral.  I ignore the nature of my conservative interlocutor’s biologically conditioned moral priorities at the cost of my own futility in attempts to persuade her to agree with me in my bottom line moral conclusions about good and bad actions.

But more than simply advising liberals to be more sensitive to their audience if they are to persuade conservative-minded people and to include appeals that will reach them or assuage their wider array of concerns, Haidt seems to want to stress to liberals how important the “conservative” moral modules must have been in evolutionary terms in helping our ancestors survive for millennia amidst unbelievable pressures, both natural and social, and both intracommunal and intercommunal.

Despite his liberal temperament, biography, profession, and atheism, Haidt’s theoretical conclusions seem to lead him to the sort of classic teleological conservatism that mistrusts attempts to treat humanity as malleable and perfectable through reason and social institutions that promote autonomy and compassion alone.  Like many conservatives he sees human nature as having certain socially resistant biological tendencies and that he seems to suspect that at least some traditional categories have been successful enough in wrangling human nature that their wisdom, proved to us by the brute fact of their success in making for the survival and relative flourishing of past generations, must not be cavalierly dismissed.  Like conservatives, I think Haidt worries about hastily changing systems which we do not fully understand, which both naturally and culturally evolved to be certain ways because they balanced important priorities in intricately complex and ultimately successful ways.

We may think we can “fix” one part, say tribal loyalty which seems to cause us more trouble than it’s worth, by downgrading it from a “moral” priority where it  is allowed sometimes to override our empathy for those in suffering or to condition our understanding of what is fair in terms of preferences to the in-group alone in some cases.  But how do we know a priori that the conservative is wrong and that tribal loyalty is not actually morally better in some cases in which it will hurt others in the short term?  How do we know that it is in principle never more fair to manifest tribal loyalty than to manifest universalistic impartiality?   If the traits we have evolved are so impressively efficient at advancing civilization to where it is, with soaring populations and steadily expanding technological and cultural innovations, is it really wise to tinker with the delicate balance of elements that contribute to human thinking as we have inherited it?

Sure, we might in the short term remedy some forms of suffering but how do we know that we are not risking greater ones down the road?   The conservative order might cause some people some obviously recognizable miseries, but if the order is dismantled that might mean greater misery for all in the long run.  And sure there may be some features of our lives which are unfair by standards of impartiality, but possibly we would suffer worse unfairness in the long run if the bulwarks of hierarchy and loyalty were not generally firm.  Maybe hierarchy and loyalty are, ironically, in a necessary psychological symbiosis with impartiality and that in their collapse in moral priority, people’s impartiality would collapse as well as selfishness took up more and more of the psyche.  Do we really know enough about whether any of these psychological components can genuinely function outside of their dialectical interconnections with each other by which they might mutually define, inform, support, and check each other?

I think Haidt has a burgeoning conservative consciousness which points in the direction of considerations such as these and which places him surprisingly close to conservative teleologists of both religious and political inspiration who alike think that human nature’s malleability and perfectability through institutions must not be overestimated and that the traditional mechanisms for coordinating human tendencies towards productive endeavors must not be treated with contempt but respected and understood before being radically tampered with.

I think that the case that Goldstein and Greta Christina need to make in order to counter this sort of defense of conservatism about values is that both the moral modules are themselves and the goals they prioritize are primarily instrumental goods, rather than inviolably intrinsic goods.   In other words, Goldstein and Greta Christina need to trump up the same instrumental dimension of teleological goods that Haidt implicitly does when defending the conservative modules for their contribution to humanity’s biological and cultural successes.

Ultimately, any module must be assessable in terms of whether or not it succeeds, minimally, in propagating the species to as many further generations as possible and, maximally, in creating human beings who flourish the very most according to the very most different measures of human prosperity.   This is why, ultimately, I am an indirect consequentialist who thinks that the good to be maximized is human beings who maximally function according to the maximum possible number of the functions that are most characteristic and definitive of human nature.  I see each individual human, as well as each grouping of us, as essentially constituted of hierarchical networks of functions, which when all functioning together amount to a single human being or human group.   We are the sum of our various functionalities and we thrive in what we are to the degree that we maximally function in our collective powers.  Our individual powers themselves are nothing but functionalities and the inherent good for each power therefore is to function according to its capability through which it is instantiated as such a power at all.

So, I take the best argument for apologists for liberal values to be that history has shown that when people have to a greater extent rearranged the hierarchy of moral priorities to place at the top the avoidance of harm and a sort of highly formalistic universalism, which treats all humans as the most similar and the most entitled to the same rights and opportunities as practically feasible, and to place at the bottom, concerns for the in-group, hierarchies, and purity, the outcome has been more success in the attainment of flourishing goods.

So, for example, when loyalty is not allowed to trump freedom of opportunity for all persons regardless of where they come from, one lets a natural competition create efficient workers rather than allowing a nepotism that makes for worse workers. This contributes to overall material prosperity, helps grow intrinsic virtuous powers of industriousness, etc.   Similarly, extending one’s sense of social contract and mutual interdependence outside one’s tribe winds up removing the threat of war and increasing the prosperity through combining the efforts of more people in the same cooperative endeavor.  As both Hobbes and the prisoner’s dilemma teach us, it is on the long run more productive to sacrifice some of what we desire for ourselves for the sake of having a cooperative friend in the Other, rather than a threatening enemy. We don’t waste energy protecting against the Other as enemy that can be redirected into a mutually advantageous endeavor instead and we remove the risk of loss to the Other.  This same principle which works on the level of individual humans relating to each other such as to form an implicit social contract is also operative between individual human groups relating to each other such as to make possible international community according to an implicit social contract.  These sorts of considerations, and a historical record in which mutual interdependency forestalls war and peace leads to prosperity, all weigh in favor of preventing the sorts of principled loyalty considerations that might threaten full cross-border cooperation to be taken as morally legitimate.

One can, of course, argue that Western civilization has not at all thrived by abandoning its conservatism but rather by economically widening the scope of its empire and by downplaying its conservatism only within the borders of that empire, while doubling down on its conservatism towards its Third World Other.   One can argue that Western peace and permissiveness rely on Western prosperity, which in turn materially depends on Western nations’ tribal, militaristic and capitalistic rape of the out-group Third World for resources.   Peace follows prosperity. Western liberality and permissiveness is to a significant extent a function of its wealth, possibly as much as it is the cause of it.   Times of intra-communal desperation generally become more conservative times, intra-communally, in which order (which usually means strict concern for hierarchy, loyalty, and purity) become paramount and trump abstract concerns for fairness and concern for pleasure and the avoidance of suffering at all costs.

Now, if Western prosperity allows for intra-communal moral permissiveness on 3 out of 5 modules, but Western prosperity depends on a tribalistic capitalism which necessarily involves the implicit dehumanization and indifferent exploitatation of the Third World Other, then the question is whether liberal values are really responsible for the advance of internally peaceful civilization or whether liberal hypocrisy is.

It is, of course, at least theoretically possible that prosperity is not ultimately a zero-sum game and that the whole world can flourish some day without any dehumanizing levels of wealth disparity, and that this worldwide maximization of peace, prosperity, and equality will be achieved by the prioitization of liberal moral values as paramount and the relegation of conservative moral values to supporting roles.   But the devil’s advocate within me think this remains to be proven in practice before I will let the liberal in me get triumphalistic about it.

Your Thoughts?

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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.