Jonathan Haidt’s Conflation of the Personal and the Partisan

There’s been a conflict running through Jonathan Haidt’s work that it’s time for him to address.

On the one hand, he asserts that there are characteristic moral intuitions that distinguish partisan liberals from partisan conservatives. He recently argued that these moral intuitions are demonstrated by the fact that the vast majority of social psychologists identify themselves as liberal.

If this is true, then there’s an important spectrum of the human condition that liberal social psychologists will fail to address. According to Haidt, liberal partisan identification hamper scholarship because liberals are unable to understand or be motivated by in-group affinities, deference to authority, or purity and disgust. Haidt’s earliest claim was that conservatives have moral intuitions that liberals can’t recognize.

But when he polled social psychologists looking for liberals, their answers signified that they are Democrats or have even more radically “leftist” policy preferences. Is this the same as being liberal in the way that his research suggests, which is to say that they allow their moral lives to be ruled by the intuitions associated with fairness and care? Haidt has said that it is:

The current American culture war, we have found, can be seen as arising from the fact that liberals try to create a morality relying almost exclusively on the Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity foundations; conservatives, especially religious conservatives, use all five foundations, including Ingroup/Loyalty, Authority/Respect, and Purity/Sanctity.

One the other hand, Haidt has been going out of his way to show that liberal partisans demonstrate the supposedly conservative “moral intuitions.” We are now told that partisan liberals evince purity intuitions, in-group solidarity, and deference to authority, too. If they’re excluding Republicans from the academy because of tribalism, they can certainly understand the motivation to allow loyalty to dominate fairness! So liberals can recognize conservative moral intuitions, if only they’d reflect on the ways that they do similar things.

He can’t have it both ways: either liberals have a purity, hierarchy, and in-group intuitions, which keeps partisan conservatives out of the academy, or they *fail* to have those intuitions in ways that importantly hamper their work. So which is it? Are liberals just like conservatives, making conservative perspectives superfluous, or are they unable to feel or understand the full spectrum of moral intuitions, and thus no threat to conservative participation in the academy?

8 thoughts on “Jonathan Haidt’s Conflation of the Personal and the Partisan”

  1. I'm not that familiar with Haidt's work (is the fact that "liberals" reject ingroup/loyalty supposed to be a *bad* thing?), but it strikes me that the "tribalism" point I've seen him make in popularized stuff may not quite fall prey to the inconsistency you see.

    So, OK, imagine I'm a liberal. I reject ingroup/loyalty as a (non-derivative) ground of morality, and in fact I find people who *do* think there is a moral salience to the ingroup not only mistaken but *confusing.* I simply don't share some part of their moral psychology. If you ask me, "should conservatives be kept out philosophy departments (or sociology, or wherever) if they are competent on other metrics?" I will say, "no, that clearly violates fairness!"

    Anyway, you then come along and notice that I am excluding conservatives who are qualified to join my department. WTF? I don't think the only explanation is that I have a moral intuition about ingroup loyalty. What may be even more likely is that I don't realize what I'm doing. Everyone around me holds similar liberal views, so when I'm judging the academic competence of a conservative, I tend to discount it (when someone says, "to each according to their needs," I nod along, and when someone says "I got mine," I look harder for where they're wrong, etc.).

    If you confront me with evidence of my bias, far from defending it (my bias – I might try to argue against your evidence, get defensive, etc.), I am embarrassed and try to fix it. In this case, it seems that I have in-group *tendencies* without having in-group *moral intuitions*. And if that's the case there's no more contradiction than there is for, say, a conservative who feels lust but denies that we have any morally respectable reason to give in to or accommodate our lusts, and, say, finds someone like Dan Savage's moral perspective incomprehensible. I mean, there is *some* grounds for understanding – reflecting on my own (morally deprecated) in-group urges might help me recognize the contours of someone else's better, but that's different from having the intuition that they are moral, and compatible with having strong intuitions that these are unseemly parts of the human character.

    1. For Haidt, the primary reason it would be a problem that liberals don't understand conservative moral intuitions is because as scholars they'd do exactly the discounting and motivated reasoning that you identify when they're looking at the subjects of their research. So it would be impoverished because they'd see someone respect an authority figure and not understand that reaction. Yet Haidt also points out that liberals have their own hierarchies and systems of deference and prestige. So the misunderstanding can't be of the sort that says, "This intuition is unfamiliar, and thus probably wrong." Instead, it's of the sort that says, "Your particular kind of respect is unfamiliar." So if Haidt's recent stuff is true, it's the same intentional state, with a different intentional object: you're respecting your priest, while I'm respecting the Nobel Prize winner.

      One problem is that Haidt's use of "moral intuition" suffers from a lack of clarity: for him, it captures both a propositional judgment and the cognitive tendency you're describing. (It can be either a belief or an alief.) I think this vagueness partly contributes to the various misinterpretations of his work, including his own misinterpretations of the meanings of his experimental results.

  2. "He can’t have it both ways: either liberals have a purity, hierarchy, and in-group intuitions, which keeps partisan conservatives out of the academy, or they *fail* to have those intuitions in ways that importantly hamper their work."

    It is not that liberals lack an identity / purity system. It is that they fail to recognize, acknowledge, adjust for or accommodate it. In so many cases, the fields of sociology and psychology among them the very language is a vocabulary of shibboleths and in-phrases they do not realize that they are swimming in it.

    From a conservative's perspective most liberals are seen to live in an echo chamber, a bubble of reinforcement that if it hears dissonant voices at all immediately dismisses them as unworthy of attention. The same argument has been made from the liberal perspective, but you don't find entire conventions of a professional society full of conservatives, do you. Even the most cloistered conservative will be widely exposed to NPR, New York Times, CNN and other liberal news and commentary media. Even the guy who only listens to Rush Limbaugh and Fox News (if such a creature exists) will hear them discussing the stories and editorials of the liberal media and institutions. Perhaps only to slam them with the occasional exception of one who "gets it." But that will be the topic, what these pesky liberals are doing and saying.

    The academic leftist, on the other hand, is fully capable of going weeks without meeting or hearing an actual conservative.

    1. This is an inaccurate description of academic leftists, who tend to obsess over conservative arguments. More to the point, you don't seem to understand the context of Haidt's work, which is that the difference between liberals and conservatives is supposedly rooted in distinct moral intuitions.

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