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One-Eyed Liberals

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 12, 2012

According to the psychological research of Jonathan Haidt, liberals are capable of seeing only about half of the factors which conservatives appreciate when making moral judgments. Haidt, now a professor of social psychology at the University of Virginia, was quite certain as a graduate student that “liberal” was a synonym for “reasonable”. But he has since been driven by his research to just the opposite conclusion.

Haidt’s work has convinced him that human moral judgments are largely intuitive, and that while liberals are able to grasp and draw moral conclusions from fundamental intuitions relating to individuals, they are generally incapable of moral intuitions relating to factors which bind people together. Haidt argues that our innate moral intuitions fall into six foundational categories: Care, freedom, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Liberals operate only within the purview of the first three; conservative moral responses typically take into account all six.

Haidt expounds his thesis in a new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Whatever the merits of his analysis, his theory goes far toward explaining two commonly observed phenomena. The first is that liberals seek constantly to remake traditional societies according to an individualistic formula. An example would be Barack Obama’s insistence on exporting things like abortion and gay rights everywhere in the world, no matter what the character and values of the societies in question. More broadly, the liberal typically harps on self-proclaimed individual rights over against any effort to recognize or strengthen the values necessary to a healthy social order, the values in Haidt’s categories of loyalty, authority and sanctity.

Second, we see in case after case that conservatives can recognize the values of liberals, and so engage them in discussion and debate, but liberals seem most often incapable of regarding conservatives as motivated by anything other than negative emotions such as selfishness and fear. Opposition to homosexual behavior, for example, is characterized as “homophobia”. And conservative economic proposals are invariably characterized as mere selfishness.

Now Haidt has done further studies which actually prove this inability of liberals, and this ability of conservatives, to recognize and rationally evaluate each other. One such study asked liberals to answer questions as they imagined conservatives would, and conservatives to answer questions as they imagined liberals would. The study revealed that conservatives were generally quite accurate in describing liberal views as a liberal would describe them, whereas liberals were almost completely incapable of describing conservative views as a conservative would describe them.

Haidt’s thesis is highly interesting, not least because of his recognition of the intuitive character of moral judgments, which he sees as sustained but not generally initially formulated through reason. In other words, Haidt argues that we are, in some sense, “wired” to judge things a certain way. Psychologists make bad philosophers, but this comes perilously close to suggesting that there is something built into the human person very like what philosophers call the natural law.

But Haidt’s suggestion that liberals are somehow inadequately wired leaves the impression that we have no control over our moral intuitions. I think it far more likely that the restricted liberal resonance with reality is carefully taught by and carefully learned from our secular Western cultural elites, who are rooted in affluence, comfort, selfishness, status and rebellion against God. This undoubtedly explains why Haidt himself found such striking differences in moral awareness between university students on the one hand and blue collar workers on the other. The latter permitted themselves to respond instinctively, as it were, to the goodness or badness of various proposed moral situations. The former tended to suppress their initial moral repugnance and conclude that people had the right to do what they wished.

Yielding to such temptations also typically darkens the intellect in predictable ways. Moreover, I would further speculate that these differences have something to do with which worldview is dominant in our culture. Those who have been taught and psychologically reinforced constantly to believe they and their views are socially approved invariably tend toward tunnel vision and moral sloppiness. Their very dominance spares them the trouble of thinking deeply and taking their opponents seriously. But those who have been taught, and psychologically reinforced constantly, to believe they are somehow a blighted minority compared with “those who matter”, simply have no choice but to take the opposition seriously and meet it on its own ground. The seduction built into the former circumstance is as obvious as the discipline built into the latter.

In conclusion, please note that I have not read the book. I’m depending for my description of its thesis on R. R. Reno’s arresting commentary in the June/July issue of First Things, “Our One-Eyed Friends” (unfortunately not yet available online). Reno rightly points out that, given their inability to see about half of the fundamental moral indicators relevant to human life, it is puzzling that liberals insist that they alone are enlightened, and so they alone know what is best for everybody. We may grant, I suppose, that there are none so sure of themselves as the morally insensitive, and none so morally insensitive as those who take their superior position for granted. All the same, it is very likely that Jonathan Haidt has provided another piece to this most intriguing puzzle.

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