Are Liberal Values Objectively Better Than Conservative Ones?

Are Liberal Values Objectively Better Than Conservative Ones? June 18, 2010

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.

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