Sunday, August 05, 2012

Jonathan Haidt Takes Steps to Parnassus in Cement Overshoes

Reading The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt's rich and rewarding account of modern moral psychology, I'm remembering the old canard about the sailor who was beating the Jew:
--Hey, wait, why are you doing that?
--Because the Jews killed Christ!
--But that was 2,000 years ago?
--Well, I just found out about it!
More to the point, here's a suggestion for Haidt:  withdraw the book from publication.  Chop of the last chapter.  Republish in truncated form, perhaps with a new title. Change your own name if you see fit. Then spend the next five-ten years preparing the kind of last chapter you should (and probably could) have written, had  you not been so eager to give your book a toehold in current political debate.

For that's what we have here: an admirable survey/introduction/of recent work in his field, together with a plausible and thought-provoking perspective on how the field might best be understood--all this coupled together with what reads like a hastily assembled postscript on how the theory might apply to our current political agony.  It's a dog's breakfast, this addendum, so out of keeping with the rest of the work that you have to wonder how he stumbled into such a calamity.  One can only speculate: it might be that he did it at the behest of a publisher who figured a book on current politics would sell better than a critique of Lawrence Kohlberg and Immanuel Kant. 

That's a possibility, but more likely it is the result of Haidt's own self-confessedly recent discovery of conservative thought.  On the principle that there's no convert like a new convert he plunges headlong into the field with all the zeal and misdirection of a first-year graduate student--the one you really aren't sure you should have admitted in the first place.

The giveaway is over on page 290, midway through his chapter on contemporary relevance, that he throws in a 12-word parenthetical: "please note," he says, "that I am praising conservative intellectuals, not the Republican party."  That, plus an accompanying dismayed footnote, is the only hint I see in the entire book that Haidt clue of just how messy in application his elegant analytical framework might be.

Grant that the framework itself is ambitious, imaginative and in many ways plausible.  Conservatives, he argues, operate from a broader moral menu than liberals.  Conservatives operate on at least six "psychological systems;" liberals, only two.   Liberals value care and fairness, he argues; conservatives add loyalty, authority and sanctity--later he adds "liberty/oppression" as a sixth arrow in the conservative quiver, but I suspect he himself recognizes that he has more difficulty managing this one than with so many other of his concepts.

It's easy to think of a hundred criticisms, qualifications, challenges to Haidt's program, or at any rate to this crudely oversimplified summary.  I won't try to go through the whole catalog here but if you're interested, you might check the Amazon reviews; a number of them are actually pretty good.  At any rate I'll confess that, qualifications and all, I tend to think that Haidt is onto something here and I'll willing to cut him a lot of slack.  Until, that is, he gets into contemporary politics where I think he gets totally snarled up, perhaps because he really doesn't understand contemporary politics that well or perhaps because the messiness of reality is bound to complicate any theory.

I won't clutter the record by trying to sort out every instance demonstrating why I might be right on this point.    Instead, let me offer a couple of big-picture points that may point a way towards clarification of his analysis,

One: Haidt doesn't seem to have any grasp of what the traditional liberal is all about--specifically, that there may be a reason for the moral thinness that he so deprecates.  To understand this point, you want to go back to the beginnings of liberalism in the late 17th Century, and to the background against which the early liberal thinkers were working.  I give you three words: Thirty Years' War. Specifically this was a generation which had watched while Europe tore itself to shreds in a conflict as bloody as any until the 20th Century (and a lot more pointless).  The whole  program was to say: All right!  Enough!  Everybody out of the pool!  Go home, shut up, simmer down, cultivate your garden and above all, quit trying to carve each other up into little pieces.

Seen in the context of its history, I'd say that liberalism looks entirely plausible.  But spelling out the context also exposes the tragic flaw that has beset liberalism throughout its career.  That is: by trying to separate "politics" from "morals," liberalism may seem to be saying that morals don't matter.  I don't think liberalism ever meant to say that "morals don't matter."  It merely says that morals don't matter to politics.  Narrow the sphere of politics, defang it, neutralize its poisonous effulgences, leave those "moral" issues at home.  Once you are safely at home, do with them as you like; but don't let them poison the arena of public discourse.

Liberals have never figured out how to get this point across: how to sell this distinction: how to sell the listener on the idea that these "moral" issues are important and worthy of respect, even if not rightly assigned to the public arena.  Which brings me to my second large point, which is: it is hard to think of any "public doctrine" that could be so easily travestied and turned against itself.  Thus I suppose the French Revolution itself might be called a travesty of liberalism.  In any event, flash forward to the 1840s.  It may have been Louis Napoleon, Napoleon III, the Emperor Napoleon, the nephew not the uncle, who first learned how easy it was to deploy vacuous platitudes about church and family to turn liberalism back onto itself.   So also Disraeli and so--with a vengeance--Bismark.  It's performances like these that gave Marx a contempt for liberalism that makes Haidt look positively namby pamby.

I know it is bad form ever to invoke the name of Hitler in a discussion of this sort, so I'll limit myself Lenin and the Bolsheviks and observe that they carried themselves into power on precisely the critique of liberalism that has worked so well for so long.

Please to understand my limits here: I'm not committing myself to the notion that Napoleon III, or Disraeli, or Bismark, or Lenin were "conservatives" in the sense Haidt would understand.   Though as I write I am coming more and more to suspect that Haidt's definition of "conservative" is oddly conclusory: that he is using it more to define a moral palate that he commends than to describe any real-word political faction, present or past.  Still, I think his failure to understand the political intentions of liberalism--I think that failure is a limitation on his (in many ways, so commendable) project.  And in particular, I think it helps to explain why he looks so ludicrous when he tries to use his framework to understand what is going on around us right now.


marcel said...

Trivial point: Where you write "Napoleon II", I am confident that you mean Napoleon III.

Buce said...

Non-trivial point. Thanks, corrected.

Ken Houghton said...

"Liberals value care and fairness...conservatives add loyalty, authority and sanctity"

I'm trying to figure out how those are additions instead of substitutes, unless you're routing Conservative thought through Rawls, and I don't mean Lou.

Buce said...

Actually, you have put your finger on exactly what he is saying--that Rawls along with Kant etc. represent a constrained and anemic morality without the richness of human experience. Claims his data back him up. Read the book, it's actually pretty good even though there may be a great deal to quarrel with.

bjdubbs said...

So would Locke and Madison approve of compelling religious institutions to pay for contraception? The left abandoned that form of liberalism a long time ago.

KM said...

I would recommend a course on the Protestant Reformation - with a particular focus on the political upheal it caused - as a primer for anyone trying to understand why morality (often a code word for religious values) is best kept out of the realm of public policy.

Ebenezer Scrooge said...

Important post, but too thin.

The criminal law of most liberal societies is intensely moralistic. (Singapore, perhaps excepted.) Why do we care so much about mens rea? Why is rape considered such a serious crime? Why the peculiar horror of punishing the innocent? (Texas, perhaps excepted.) Why is the unenforceable law of market manipulation on the books?

Liberal societies have not rejected political morality. They have only rejected a divine source of political morality.