It isn’t unusual in political discussion to hear someone say “Stop making your personal morality the rule for everyone else!” Besides being the epitome of a cop-out, since all beliefs about how society should be structured are based on a vision of morality, it is important to ponder why some beliefs are seen as morality while others are… normative rationalizations(?). Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s research addresses the difference, at least between right and left:
According to the account, moral judgments typically have to do with six dimensions of concern: care versus harm, fairness versus cheating, liberty versus oppression, loyalty versus betrayal, authority versus subversion, and sanctity versus degradation. Surveys show that progressives, by and large, are concerned with the care, fairness, and liberty dimensions, while traditionalists are concerned with all six. So it appears that the “culture wars” have to do with the moral status of loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Traditionally minded people accept them as morally important, while their more progressive fellows do not.
But why the difference? It appears, although Haidt’s concerns lie elsewhere, that the difference lines up with the opposition between the modern tendency to view man as radically free and the world as technological, and the traditional, classical, and religious view of man as social, and the world as pervaded by intrinsic meanings, natural ways of functioning, and natural ends.
The difference is a difference in basic understandings of man, society, and the world. Progressives tend to think of the world as a sort of blank slate that is meaningless in itself. On that view man becomes the creator of values, society becomes a system set up to bring about whatever goals people want it to serve, and it seems most sensible to design the system to help people attain whatever purposes they have, without playing favorites or interfering more than necessary with what they want to do.
So the progressive view makes care, fairness, and liberty seem the right basic standards, with “care” understood from the standpoint of the concerns of the person cared for. Authority, loyalty, and sanctity interfere with people doing and getting what they want, so on such a view they make no sense as standards. They seem dangerous, since they give an advantage to those in charge of the system, who in the absence of a higher good shared with others can be expected to use the advantage for their private ends. So it’s not surprising that “question authority” has been an axiom for progressives, rebellion a virtue, and transgression a desirable form of liberation.
In contrast, traditionalists view society and morality as natural rather than constructed. Since man is naturally social, society and morality are necessary to the world he inhabits and needed to make him what he truly is. That world is considered good in itself as well as productive of good, and to act socially and morally is to realize one’s own nature by participating in it. So the loyalty and authority that create a social world and make us part of it are natural to man and necessary for a good life.
The attitude toward sanctity is perhaps the greatest distinction between the two approaches. The practical necessity of loyalty and authority for a stable and functional social order leads progressives to accept them somewhat, at least as subordinate principles, but sanctity seems entirely baseless to them. What function can it play if man is radically free and the world is understood technologically? Further, purity is an aspect of sanctity, and to say A is pure is to say not-A is impure. That makes sanctity and purity, on a progressive view, look very much like high-toned rationalizations for atavistic exclusionary impulses.
For traditionalists, in contrast, sanctity plays a necessary role as a principle of reverence for the moral and cosmic order toward which social practices and institutions must orient themselves if they are to be worthy of humanity. Sanctity tells us that some concerns trump questions of advantage. If we reject that, everything becomes a matter of usefulness—to ourselves first of all. On that view we will either reject personal sacrifice as a possible obligation, which every society must rely on in times of stress, or accept it even though there are no transcendent concerns in play that make it reasonable to do so. So we will deny either our social or our rational nature.
Read the rest at Crisis Magazine.
This relates directly to Thomas Sowell’s idea of competing visions of the unconstrained and the constrained/tragic which people hold about human nature. Wikipedia explains:
The Unconstrained Vision
Sowell argues that the unconstrained vision relies heavily on the belief that human nature is essentially good. Those with an unconstrained vision distrust decentralized processes and are impatient with large institutions and systemic processes that constrain human action. They believe there is an ideal solution to every problem, and that compromise is never acceptable. Collateral damage is merely the price of moving forward on the road to perfection. Sowell often refers to them as “the self anointed.” Ultimately they believe that man is morally perfectible. Because of this, they believe that there exist some people who are further along the path of moral development, have overcome self-interest and are immune to the influence of power and therefore can act as surrogate decision-makers for the rest of society.
The Constrained Vision
Sowell argues that the constrained vision relies heavily on belief that human nature is essentially unchanging and that man is naturally inherently self-interested, regardless of the best intentions. Those with a constrained vision prefer the systematic processes of the rule of law and experience of tradition. Compromise is essential because there are no ideal solutions, only trade-offs. Those with a constrained vision favor solid empirical evidence and time-tested structures and processes over intervention and personal experience. Ultimately, the constrained vision demands checks and balances and refuses to accept that all people could put aside their innate self-interest.
Which are you? Why?