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?

  • SAJohnson

    Where to start with all of that. I think that the key is at the end, game theory in general, and the prisoner’s dilemma in particular, tells us that shared prosperity flourishes through cooperation because cooperation allows for better outcomes for all. Creating the conditions of trust that would allow cooperation to happen globally seems like an impossible task. Particularly because people are not rational actors and untrustworthy people do not trust others and are prone to defecting/cheating even when they have a trustworthy partner. The fact is that the web of cooperation has grown over human history and we can continue to foster that growth. The greatest impending material threats are global population pressures, global climate change, other possible environmental catastrophes like the potential collapse of key components of the global food chain (honey bees come to mind), and nuclear disaster. All of these would create conditions of scarcity and massive disruptions that would seriously impair the conditions necessary for widened trust and cooperation. I agree that liberals (in the contemporary American usage, not the classic, and which I count myself among) tend to discount the mixed reality of human nature. We do this at our peril. We must consciously, and compassionately, manage our darker side and also give up pipe dreams of utopia. That is in fact the topic of my post today, “Managing the Downside of the Two-Sided Human Coin” at Although I did not go into it today’s post (but plan to in the future), utopian thinking is itself dangerous.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Yes, to put a finer point on the darker possibilities I’m trying to highlight: if there is no scarcity problem, if prosperity is truly a zero-sum game in which mutually beneficial cooperation can expand to the entire globe and genuinely advance everyone’s interests, then liberal values will in the end crush the more tribalistic of conservative values in the long run. But presently, I worry that the widening capitalist circle of liberal mutual cooperation for mutual benefit is still nonetheless in competition for resources with portions of the world which remain destitute in order to fund the disproportionate prosperity of the (largely Western) capitalistic countries. If this general picture of the world is a roughly accurate one, then one cannot honestly explain Western world dominance without acknowledging the role of the West’s own hidden tribalism in buoying it. And since our increasing tolerance within Western borders is made possible in large measure by our civil peace and prosperity, the ability for political liberals to trumpet only the non-tribalistic values as important is materially conditioned in economic terms by our governments and corporations having tribalistic priorities. In that case, the notion that liberal values could thrive (or even minimally survive) without the functional aid of tribal values may be self-deceived and hypocritical (in addition to utopian, as you stress).

      Does that make sense? Your Thoughts?

  • SAJohnson

    There is no question that the West has prospered, and continues to prosper, through exploitation of countries and labor forces less well-off. Many think, and I am one of them, that even putting aside potential global catastrophes, there is a global economic-political adjustment on the horizon that we are just seeing the first rays of. I think the key point is that the West has experienced “disproportionate prosperity.” As more countries in the developing world come along, the West, and the US in particular, will not be able to eat as large a piece of the global resource pie as we have in the past. Putting it in strictly US terms, one of the most striking factual points Michael Moore made in Capitalism: A Love Story was that our Golden Age of prosperity in the 50s was made possible by the destruction of our competitors during WWII. While we were improving our industrial capacity, everyone else’s was bombed into smithereens and/or their pool of young, male labor was severely curtailed due to loss of life during the war. So, the US in particular has enjoyed disproportionate prosperity due to lack of real competition, but the restoration of European and Japanese competitiveness eroded our easy advantage as has the rise of previously underdeveloped countries. China and India immediately come to mind, of course, but there are many others. I would posit that not only is the West’s prosperity disproportionate, it is also excessive. Overall, we do not need nearly as much as we have to lead meaningful, contented lives of basic comfort. However,culturally, we are addicted to our excessive consumption and may misperceive its coming rollback as scarcity–leading to a protectionist (i.e., tribalist, in simple terms) response. Human progress is driven by numerous, often contradictory forces, and is a jagged graph, a bit like the stock market, which has periods of serious downturn and challenge, but its slope has been generally upward. Tribalism undoubtedly has its role in that upward slope. When sufficiently expanded it allows for the larger and more efficient economic blocks of nation-states and promotes useful competition. But it is also one of the more volatile human proclitivities and while I doubt it can be eliminated (or that it should be, even if it could), it needs to be properly contained-as does the West’s culture of meaning through consumption. I believe both tribalism and excessive consumption can be contained through proper education (not the Mao’s Little Red Book sort but a secular, liberal one) and instilling sustainable values. Really, I can’t afford to believe otherwise because the alternative seems quite dystopian. I do believe there is an achievable, sustainable world somewhere between everyone singing Kumbaya and a more violent, more environmentally devastated world with even greater resource disparity.

  • Chris Hallquist

    So if I understand your argument correctly: when we judge the moral foundations according to what best contributes to human flourishing, we see that we should prioritize the harm/care and fairness dimensions of morality.

    Your way of arguing this comes out of a response to Haidt, but I suspect Haidt was already, fundamentally, arguing from the point of view of liberal values. That is to say, trying to generate some sympathy for conservative values by showing how they could aid in the pursuit of liberal values.

    Now… that may be based on a misunderstanding of what you mean by “flourishing.” Squinting at your argument another way, there seems to be something group-selectionisty about your thinking here (if you don’t see that as a bad thing, I suggest Steven Pinker).

    If you’re looking at how our mental modules evolved, the sad truth is that a lot of them probably evolved to benefit ourselves at the expense of other humans. For example, in-group/out-group thinking is great for getting together a bunch of buddies to kill off your hated enemies, but that doesn’t make it beneficial to the species as a whole.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Chris, I’m talking about flourishing, i.e. thriving maximally in our powers, not surviving, i.e., managing simply to reproduce.

    • Chris Hallquist

      OK, in that case:

      (1) How is caring about our ability to flourish distinct from Haidt’s harm/care dimension of morality.
      (2) If it is different, why is it a better starting point for arguing about morality?

      Also, you just posted this on Facebook 4 hours ago, but it’s dated June 18th. Is that a mistake? If so, I’d be sure to redate it so other readers see it.

  • Loren Petrich

    Jonathan Haidt seems to making a sort of natural-selection argument about society. If “Social Darwinism” wasn’t used for something else, that would be a useful term here. It’s not a new argument; Edmund Burke used it in his classic criticisms of the French Revolution as reckless and excessively ideological.

    However, there are problems with JH’s arguments. If social survival is dependent on successfully bullying others, then the biggest bullies will dominate everybody else. By JH’s argument, bullying then becomes “right”.

    There’s also the interesting question of how some things taken for granted in many previous societies have become widely considered abhorrent over the past few centuries. Slavery, for instance. Who nowadays argues that it is legitimate to treat fellow members of our species as the moral equivalent of domestic animals?

    Another interesting curiosity is monarchy, defined as hereditary or family-based succession. Most societies larger than city-states have been monarchies, and monarchy is as old as recorded history in several places, and likely older. Some monarchies have been *very* long-lived, even if not necessarily very continuous, like the Pharaonic Egyptian and the Chinese monarchies at 3000+ years. The Roman-Empire/Byzantine monarchy was no slouch at about 1500 years, and several European monarchies have lasted as much as 1000 years.

    Yet over the last two centuries, monarchy has either disappeared or become neutered in many places, with those places becoming de jure or de facto republics. There are a few monarchies that have emerged, like the North Korean Kim dynasty, but not nearly enough to compensate for the numerous losses. So why are we now living in a twilight of the monarchies?