I find it difficult to have moral discussions with conservatives. It's rather like a greyhound chasing a mechanical rabbit around a track. You get lots of exercise ... but you end up right back where you started, and you never catch the rabbit. They'll defend some action if a conservative does it - It's OK If You're A Conservative - but rail against the same action if anyone else does it.
We often mistakenly assume that's because they're unintelligent or uneducated. We offer facts and logic, and they still can't see the obvious contradiction. So either they refuse to accept facts, or they don't understand basic logic. Unintelligent or uneducated. Right?
More below the fold....
IOKIYAC - Different Moral Equations
Examples abound of conservatives arguing double standards. If Afghani or Iraqi insurgents torture our troops, they're "animals." If we torture theirs, we're "keeping Americans safe." Bailing out banks is "vital for our economy." Bailing out auto workers or homeowners facing foreclosure risks "moral hazard." Those who bombed government buildings to protest the Vietnam War were "terrorists." Those who bomb women's health clinics or murder doctors are "lesser magistrates" carrying out divine justice in defiance of a sinful government.
We progressives often decry this obvious double standard, and we often assume conservatives can't see the double standard because they're either unintelligent or uneducated. Surely if they were as rational as we are, they would recognize the contradictions in their own positions. That may be a comforting belief, but research suggests it's false.
Five Biological Bases of Moral Reasoning
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt offers another perspective in this video, and it's one that has kept my mind buzzing for a few days now. Haidt and his colleagues explored cross-cultural and cross-species behavioral norms and identified what he thinks are the five top candidates for the biological bases of moral reasoning. He considers these biological because studies find evidence of them in pre-verbal children, and in most other social mammals. They are, Haidt suggests, evolution's "first draft" of moral reasoning aimed toward social cooperation, coded into our brains at birth. They are:
- Avoid Harm and Care for Others.
- Fairness and Reciprocity.
- Group Identity and Loyalty.
- Obedience to Authority.
- Personal Purity.
He notes they're a "first draft" because we can and do rewrite them with life experience. We rewrite them - or at least weigh them differently - in ways that map closely to our political perspectives. If you watch the 18-minute video, you'll see graphs of how progressives and conservatives weigh these five values. Haidt derived his data from over 30,000 surveys, in countries around the world, and the data hold up even when he and his colleagues changed the questions to eliminate "political" issues. (He gives a wonderful example about progressive vs. conservative reactions to descriptions of a dog proposed for adoption.)
Our different moral equations:
Specifically, progressives weigh the first two principles - avoid harm and care for others, and fairness and reciprocity - as cardinal virtues, much more important than the other three. In contrast, conservatives weigh all five principles roughly equally. Haidt finds the same pattern among progressives and conservatives in Western Europe, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.
In math-speak, we use different equations to answer moral questions. The equations I offer are my own - not Haidt's - and they're offered only for illustration. But I do think putting them in math-speak can help explain why it can be so frustrating to engage in moral conversations with conservatives.
The variables are:
M - moral correctness; is this the right thing to do?
H - avoid harm and care for others
F - fairness and reciprocity
G - group identity and loyalty
A - authority and obedience
P - personal purity
And the progressive and moral equations seem to look like this:
Progressive - M = (2*(H + F)) + G + A + P
Conservative - M = H + F + G + A + P
That is, if I'm reading Haidt's graphs correctly, progressives think those first two principles of avoiding harm and caring for others, and fairness and reciprocity, are roughly twice as important as the other three. Again, conservatives seem to value all of them about equally. The different equations have profound moral implications.
It's OK If You're In My Group.
Fairness and reciprocity includes the ethical concept of universality, that the same principles should govern a given behavior regardless of the actors. That ethical concept is expressed in the Golden Rule, in Kant's Categorical Imperative, and it exists in almost every ethical philosophy and religion. It's also one of the foundations of our legal system, and John Rawls identifies it as the core concept of due process of law: "like cases should be treated alike."
And progressives consider that a cardinal moral principle alongside avoiding harm and caring for others. Given a situation where fairness and reciprocity suggest one answer but group loyalty suggests another answer, and all other things being equal, we're likely to choose fairness and reciprocity. We take it as a given that the law should apply equally to everyone, even to ourselves and other people like us.
But for conservatives, fairness and reciprocity is no more important than group identity and loyalty. Conservatives don't take it as a given that the law should apply equally to everyone. Group identity and loyalty weighs equally with fairness and reciprocity - in fact American conservatives weigh group loyalty slightly higher - so the correct moral outcome, all other things being equal, is to favor group loyalty over fairness and reciprocity. It is OK, if you're a conservative.
Arguing numbers vs. Arguing equations:
That creates a big problem when we have moral discussions, because we progressives take our equation as a given and assume conservatives use the same equation ... while conservatives take their equation as a given and assume we use theirs.
So we end up arguing facts, the 'numbers' that would fit into those equations, and we get nowhere. We offer evidence for the facts, and maybe we can even convince the conservative that we're correct about those facts. Which is to say, we've agreed on the 'numbers.' But we still get different moral answers, because we're plugging the numbers into different equations. Because we assume they're using our equation - while they assume we're using theirs - we both end up thinking the other must be too unintelligent or uneducated to understand simple logic.
In order to convince people in moral discussions, we first have to agree to apply the same moral principles with the same weightings. We progressives must advocate for the cardinality of avoiding harm and care for others, and fairness and reciprocity. We first have to convince our conservative counterparts that those two principles are more important than the remaining three, that they are indeed the foundations of moral reasoning. Group identity and loyalty, obedience to authority, and personal purity are not irrelevant, but they are secondary. They are not ends in themselves, but rather to the ends of avoiding harm and caring for others, and achieving fairness and reciprocity.
Until we can make and win that argument, we're like greyhounds running around that track. We get lots of exercise, but we end up right back where we started ... and we still haven't caught that rabbit.