2008-09-09 What Makes People Vote Republican/woozle

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From a rational perspective, this is a truly awful piece of writing. I count at least eight straw men, two appeals to guilt, three counts of demonizing (albeit subtle), four unsupported claims, and five counts of what I can only think of as "shell gaming".

As a piece of neoconservative propaganda, it is splendid; it almost makes sense, and if you are being told what you already want to believe, you'll be happy to ignore the fast moves necessary to make it appear true – and you are now armed with a new collection of seemingly-devastating "facts" to throw at liberals. The bit of science Haidt throws in as a doorstop to let his emotional pleas through is just icing on the cake.

The first hint of trouble (i.e. anything that I can disagree with) is when Haidt says:

People vote Republican because Republicans offer "moral clarity" – a simple vision of good and evil that activates deep seated fears in much of the electorate. Democrats, in contrast, appeal to reason with their long-winded explorations of policy options for a complex world.

The first sentence isn't the problem; it is pretty clearly true that the US Republican brand of conservatism does just that -- present the world in simple, easy-to-digest terms which exploit people's fears for illicit gain. Clearly Haidt is suggesting that the problem with the US Democratic brand of liberalism, then, is that it chooses not to hide the complexity -- thus turning off conservative sympathies. The implied criticism would seem to be not with the integrity or value of Democratism/liberalism, but with its presentation -- its marketing.

So Haidt is, presumably, going to give us some good advice for how to better market liberalism, which he has just stated is more honest than conservatism, right? Let's read on...

Diagnosis is a pleasure [...] but with pleasure comes seduction, and with righteous pleasure comes seduction wearing a halo. Our diagnosis explains away Republican successes while convincing us and our fellow liberals that we hold the moral high ground. Our diagnosis tells us that we have nothing to learn from other ideologies...

Now hold on a minute, buckaroos. A core part of liberalism is the idea that other ways and traditions may have value. Liberalism embraces the idea of diversity. You can't tell me, who has spent the past 6 months as a "rational liberal" debating political philosophy with a "progressive conservative", that I'm not trying to see the good in conservatism.

If anyone is rejecting the idea of learning from other ideologies, it would be conservatives. If conservatism chooses to shoot itself in the foot by insisting on an all-or-nothing, dominate-or-be-dominated view of the political spectrum, that is a choice made by conservatives -- not liberals. If political ideology must be a binary, all-or-nothing choice, the only sane choice is the ideology which respects and values other ideologies. This isn't a matter of liberalism "winning" on some "liberal talking point"; it's a matter of getting along peacefully.

Haidt concludes this thought by continuing:

...and it blinds us to what I think is one of the main reasons that so many Americans voted Republican over the last 30 years: they honestly prefer the Republican vision of a moral order to the one offered by Democrats. To see what Democrats have been missing, it helps to take off the halo, step back for a moment, and think about what morality really is."

Aside from the repeated "halo" swipe, he seems to be getting back on firmer ground: where have Democrats gone wrong in being persuasive to those more inclined to vote Republican? Republicans, says Haidt, want their argument framed in terms of morality -- so we need to have a better understanding of what that is.


First, Haidt rejects the idea that morality is solely about "how we treat each other", citing as examples ancient "rules about menstruation, who can eat what, and who can have sex with whom". This makes some rather questionable assumptions:

  • That these laws were considered "morals" (rules which most people agreed were "right") at the time, rather than just "laws" (rules which people felt compelled to obey)
  • That morality worked the same way in ancient times as it does now (I don't think so; many of those laws seem pretty bizarre and often downright immoral to me, so if they accurately represent the morality of the time, we must have matured a lot since then)

Haidt adds that "There is no rational or health-related way to explain these laws." Okay, so what is the reason for them? Oh, wait, he said there is no rational way to explain them. So they were totally arbitrary. Got it. Moving on...

Haidt then advances the hypothesis that these laws were drawn up on the basis of what an ancient cleric might have found to be "disgusting". (Hmm, I thought he said there was no rational way to explain them. Surely if you're a powerful priest, and something disgusts you, you would quite reasonably want to outlaw it – being ancient and everything, and not really knowing any better or having any reason to question one's ideas since liberalism hadn't been invented yet. So is Haidt excluding emotion as a possible motivator for rational action, here? (...and surely outlawing actions based on whether a bunch of ancient priests found them "disgusting" is a pretty awful way to decide "right" and "wrong", regardless of your goals.))

(Side note: surely an ancient lawgiver would have found defecation to be disgusting, yet as far as we know they did not make any attempt to outlaw it -- presumably for the obvious reason that they knew this would be impossible, and that it was a necessary biological function. They would have had to make a decision about what criteria might override their apparent concern for "disgust" -- which further implies that it's not at all out of keeping with tradition for us modern folk to similarly override our "disgust" if it seems warranted.)

Haidt then tested this hypothesis for his dissertation, where he "made up stories about people who did things that were disgusting or disrespectful yet perfectly harmless." What he found was that most people agreed that the actions were wrong even though nobody was harmed -- which, he argues, supports his hypothesis that morality is not (or not entirely) based on avoidance of harm to others.

What it suggests to me is that most people don't think these things through very carefully. Just because most people don't know the reasons why they do or believe things doesn't mean there wasn't originally a reason, nor does it mean that "going along" with them for the sake of social harmony is irrational.

Let's take a look at some the examples he cites:

  • "a woman ... can't find any rags in her house so she cuts up an old American flag and uses the pieces to clean her toilet, in private": Knowing that many people are very attached to the flag, it would arguably be emotionally hurtful to them to willfully destroy one in a way that seems disrespectful. Also, some people might assume that any such destruction was a political statement against America; whether or not this is true, it would be a bad idea to accidentally create such an impression. (The question of whether these feelings about a piece of colored cloth are rational is a separate discussion.)
  • "a family whose dog is killed by a car, so they dismember the body and cook it for dinner": There are all kinds of flaws with this as an example supporting Haidt's point. First of all, some cultures do eat dog meat (what was that about liberals believing "that we have nothing to learn from other ideologies", Dr. Haidt?). People in such cultures are probably familiar with the proper preparation of such meat, and would therefore know how to do it safely. Their culinary practices have been through the filter of long experience with dog meat, and so are more likely to be safe than those some American suburban family which is used to buying USDA-inspected Grade A meat from the store.

Most (how many?) of the respondents agreed that the actions were "morally wrong" although "nobody was harmed". (Is it really fair to say that "nobody was harmed" in a hypothetical example where the risks aren't even discussed? What if someone got sick or died because the dog meat wasn't cooked properly? Would liberals claim there was nothing wrong with driving a child-filled schoolbus at 90 MPH towards a cliff as long as you slam on the brakes in time to prevent it from actually going over, because after all "nobody was harmed"? Also, Haidt is using a rather narrow definition of "harm" here, and not one which is consistent with the liberal position.)

In any case, Haidt draws the following conclusions:

  • "when gut feelings are present, dispassionate reasoning is rare", and people will exert great efforts "to fabricate harmful consequences that could justify their gut-based condemnation."
    • There is nothing wrong with this statement, on the face of it. Haidt further concludes "If people want to reach a conclusion, they can usually find a way to do so. The Democrats have historically failed to grasp this rule, choosing uninspiring and aloof candidates who thought that policy arguments were forms of persuasion." So now we're back in the territory where Haidt could be offering suggestions to make the liberal message more viscerally appealing -- although one might almost think he is criticizing the Democrats for using "policy arguments" -- he must be using a different meaning of the phrase than I'm aware of, because calling something "morally wrong/right" is also a policy argument, it's just not one based in rationality.
    • The obvious conclusion from Haidt's statements that "there is no rational way to explain these laws", plus the hypothesis that they were based on what actions the lawmakers at the time happened to find "disgusting", would seem to be that making laws based on what you find disgusting is kind of stupid.
    • One is forced to conclude that he is saying that Dems need to use fewer rational arguments and more appeals to emotion in their arguments. While this might be more successful at grabbing conservative ears, wouldn't it also be somewhat dishonest? And from a purely amoral/strategic point of view, wouldn't this be allowing the terms of the argument to be determined by conservatives, who specialize in such arguments and have staked out their territory almost exclusively on the basis of whether it can be phrased in such emotionally-appealing, simple, good-vs.-evil terms – playing on their field, as it were, and into their hands? (For my money, though, the "honesty" factor is more important than which side is more compelling.)
  • "the moral domain varies across cultures" – to which my gut reaction is "Well DUHHH", followed by the similarly-obvious thought that this is exactly why morality (i.e. any single subculture's idea of what is good or bad) cannot be used as a basis for national policy in a multicultural society. Duhhh.
    • Haidt adds that the definition of "morality as being about justice, rights, and human welfare worked perfectly for the college students": the fact that the better-educated segment of Haidt's sample would think this seems like another rather blinding clue as to where the truth lies. Given exposure to only one set of values, those values become internalized in ways that aren't really analyzable; given exposure to multiple cultures and multiple sets of values, one realizes that the underlying commonality is exactly that: preventing harm to society and its individual members.
    • Haidt's final conclusion from this is that "morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way." First of all, this is a profound mischaracterization of the liberal position, and one which is worth looking at more closely.

liberal morality

The liberal position on morality can be characterized as being (as I said earlier) about preventing harm – ultimately to individuals, but this includes preventing harm to the society (and its structures) upon which individuals depend. Sometimes the good of an institution comes into conflict with the good of individuals, and then it is necessary to weigh the two sides in that conflict.

Haidt would have us believe that this equation is not subject to rational analysis. Anyone who says that is automatically suspect, because what do you do when different people reach different "non-analyzable" conclusions? What is the rule here -- if it's an institution, then it is sacred and inviolable? Would Haidt agree, then, that the institution of al Qaeda should be left alone, because "it works for them"? How about the Mafia?

Nor do liberals always decide in favor of the individual, any more than conservatives invariably favor institutions:

  • Who was upset when the Gingrich Congress dismantled the Office of Technology Assessment?
  • Who was upset when Bush kept passing laws which decimated the Constitution (surely a "group binding" document if there ever was one), and when the 109th Congress's violations of customary procedure thoroughly gutted the effectiveness of that institution?
  • Which political party has spent the last 25 years trying to decimate the federal government, an essential institution upon which all but the richest of us ultimately depend for our safety and well-being? (Hint: not liberals or Democrats.)

These are all matters of disagreement which can be resolved by rational discussion of the various merits and costs – to society and to individuals – of each possible action.

conservative morality

Haidt continues:

Conservative positions on gays, guns, god, and immigration must be understood as means to achieve one kind of morally ordered society.

They might work for a completely monolithic society, but not for a multicultural society with many different roots and "moral" systems. (It would also be downright un-American, to put it in emotional terms.) If you want to experiment in medieval social thinking, that's fine -- liberal tolerance allows for different ways, and perhaps we can learn from your experience -- but don't go trying to reshape society in your image, because it's not an image we like or accept.

When Democrats try to explain away these positions using pop psychology they err, they alienate, and they earn the label "elitist."

  • they err: he doesn't show how, unless he's referring to his misrepresentations of liberalism's view of morality. What explanations is he referring to, and how are they wrong?
  • elitist: Anyone frequenting this blog should know that we wear that label proudly. If "elitism" is rule by an elite, and "elite" is "a group of persons who by virtue of position or education exercise much power or influence", I don't see anything so terrible about that -- as long as the "elite" rise to their "position" by merit rather than by some sort of class or in-group system.

Now, remind me: which ideology is it that favors, according to Haidt, in-group loyalty (such as "good old boy" networks and exclusionary manipulative tactics)? Which ideology is it whose philosophical father argued that the "unwashed masses" can't be trusted to rule wisely and that rule can only be trusted to a secret elite, and whose leaders and pundits describe democracy using phrases like "mob rule" and "tyranny of the majority"?

But how can Democrats learn to see – let alone respect – a moral order they regard as narrow-minded, racist, and dumb?

Moreover, why should they do so? Let's see if Haidt addresses that as we continue.

in India

Haidt then describes in some detail his visit to India, the take-away from which seems to be "OMG, people with rigid customs and other ideas I was brought up to despise can be nice people!" He also got used to the idea that lower-caste people didn't necessarily want to be emancipated – or even spoken to politely, if that wasn't part of the rules.

This is all very well, but then Haidt tries to bring this back home and apply it to America, where again he overlooks some crucial nuances:

[Conservatives] want more prayer and spanking in schools, and less sex education and access to abortion? I didn't think those steps would reduce AIDS and teen pregnancy, but I could see why the religious right wanted to "thicken up" the moral climate of schools and discourage the view that children should be as free as possible to act on their desires. Conservatives think that welfare programs and feminism increase rates of single motherhood and weaken the traditional social structures that compel men to support their own children? Hmm, that may be true, even if there are also many good effects of liberating women from dependence on men.

Some points:

  • Did Haidt stop to wonder whether the lower-caste Indians who served him were content in their role, or merely fearful of reprisal if they stepped out of it?
  • Assuming they are content, how does this apply to his American examples -- where women want to be liberated and in control of their reproductive organs, where most people want the option of choosing (or being free from) religion, and where children want to be treated decently?
  • Part of the authoritarian bargain which American authoritarians seem to forget whenever it suits them is this: in exchange for unquestioning obedience and support of his followers, the authoritarian leader must guarantee the safety and well-being of those followers in a manner that is clearly superior to what they could expect from society at large. If Indian servants are truly happy to continue as servants (rather than fearful of the consequences of trying to break away from that system), it can only be because the Indian authoritarians honor their part of the bargain. As long as American conservative authoritarians fail to similarly provide for and protect their charges (in real ways that matter -- not trumped-up dangers like "the homosexual agenda" or "the liberal media elite"), the supposed desirability of the Indian class system cannot in any way be used to justify American conservatism.
  • Claiming "the view that children should be as free as possible to act on their desires" as a liberal preference is a bit of a mischaracterization; it is true at face value, but the word "possible" is open to being misinterpreted as "they want" rather than "is good for them and/or society".

Haidt continues:

I had escaped from my prior partisan mindset (reject first, ask rhetorical questions later), and began to think about liberal and conservative policies as manifestations of deeply conflicting but equally heartfelt visions of the good society.

If that was Haidt's view before India, it was not a liberal one. His post-India view is one that might work for a monocultural society like India (or an isolated conservative enclave) -- assuming the servant class finds it worthwhile -- but America is multicultural; the values shared by those cultures are generally those embraced by liberalism because they are shared, and the values that liberalism rejects (and that contemporary conservatism glories in) are those which demand that one culture must dominate the others -- as is generally the case in the India that Haidt describes.

On Turiel's definition of morality ("justice, rights, and welfare"), Christian and Hindu communities don't look good. They restrict people's rights (especially sexual rights), encourage hierarchy and conformity to gender roles, and make people spend extraordinary amounts of time in prayer and ritual practices that seem to have nothing to do with "real" morality.

Now hold on a minute here (again!). Just because people in those communities don't have rights we're familiar with doesn't mean they don't have rights -- perhaps even rights of equal or greater strength to those we have in the West. Complex caste systems typically have equally complex codes of grievance and redress. This has to do with the "authoritarian bargain" I mentioned earlier.

Just because our slave-owners gave their slaves no rights and treated them like cattle doesn't mean that servitude in India is equally demeaning. Remember, the Indian tradition has survived not decades but many centuries -- possibly millennia, for some elements. It is this attribute of having survived the test of time that makes a tradition valuable, and not to be tampered with lightly if it is still working. Most of the "traditions" claimed by conservatives are recent innovations -- decades old at most -- which they have dusted off, re-branded as "eternal verities", and tried to shoehorn into a changing, modern society which increasingly rejects them. Many of them also do not work well for some significant portion of the people involved.

For a counterexample which reinforces my point, look at the Amish. They've lived here since before America was a country. They have very strict social rules and an aversion to much of modern society -- but they keep to themselves, they don't try to change the greater society which hosts them (despite many philosophical differences), they take care of their own, they don't threaten anyone (this is important!) -- and you'd be very hard-pressed to find a liberal or progressive voice complaining about them, arguing that they need to "catch up" or "get with the times".

If conservatives want to go off and create enclaves where they can enforce their own rules (within reason and within the law and in a non-threatening way), they are certainly welcome to do that. If (on the other hand) they want to remake larger society in their own image, then their ideas and actions are (indeed, must be) fair game for the tools of rational analysis and criticism.

But isn't it unfair to impose on all cultures a definition of morality drawn from the European Enlightenment tradition? Might we do better with an approach that defines moral systems by what they do rather than by what they value?

This is a rather fuzzy statement, when you get right down to it. Is he talking about how we classify moral systems, or how we evaluate them?

If the latter (which would be more on-topic), then this is compatible with what I just said, yes -- and it would be Haidt playing his shell game again: he just said we should judge morality by its effects, by how well it accomplishes social goals -- but wasn't he just saying earlier that morality isn't subject to rational analysis? Isn't he here embracing the liberal view of morality, that it should be judged by its results?

Haidt continues on a direction with which I can't really argue, defining morality as "any system of interlocking values, practices, institutions, and psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible." He says this as if it is somehow sharply contrasted with the liberal view on morality, but I don't see how it is.

(And now we get to a bit to which Michael Barone interpreted as indicating a likelihood that "Republican voters tend to be more nuanced and sophisticated than Democratic voters".)


Haidt sets up two distinct kinds of societal ethos:

  • A Millian society is "a social contract invented for our mutual benefit. All individuals are equal, and all should be left as free as possible to move, develop talents, and form relationships as they please."
  • A Durkheimian society is "not ... an agreement among individuals but ... something that emerged organically over time as people found ways of living together, binding themselves to each other, suppressing each other's selfishness, and punishing the deviants and free-riders who eternally threaten to undermine cooperative groups. The basic social unit is not the individual, it is the hierarchically structured family, which serves as a model for other institutions. Individuals in such societies are born into strong and constraining relationships that profoundly limit their autonomy."

Haidt again casually slips in some assumptions, i.e. that a Millian society is not capable of finding ways to live together, binding themselves to each other, suppressing each other's selfishness, and avoiding social exploitation – or even forming stable, cooperative families.

News flash to Haidt: a society based on social contracts does these things pretty well, too. Probably better. It's kind of like the difference between an evolved use of tools (e.g. a bird creating a particular type of nest out of locally available materials, after millions of years of evolution in an environment containing those materials) and a human designing a new tool after applying a little rational analysis to a mechanical problem. The birds do a damn fine job with their nests, but we can build houses and skyscrapers and automobiles and spaceships -- and if we really wanted a bird's nest, we could build that too.

What, then, we are left to wonder, is the advantage of the second society over the first? Well, apparently

...Durkheim warned of the "dangers of anomie (normlessness)", and wrote, in 1897, that "Man cannot become attached to higher aims and submit to a rule if he sees nothing above him to which he belongs. To free himself from all social pressure is to abandon himself and demoralize him."

Yes, fine, but how does that require the sort of society he describes? Is he claiming that a society based on social contracts (and, by implication, liberalism) cannot have higher causes? That would certainly be nonsense, if that is what he is claiming.

A Durkheimian society at its best would be a stable network composed of many nested and overlapping groups that socialize, reshape, and care for individuals who, if left to their own devices, would pursue shallow, carnal, and selfish pleasures. A Durkheimian society would value self-control over self-expression, duty over rights, and loyalty to one's groups over concerns for outgroups.

One of the major problems with conservatives is that they seem to assume that without that sort of rigid stricture, most people would give in to such impulses, and society would collapse.

(Actually, they don't merely "assume" (assumptions can be corrected); they state it as an unquestionable truth, and continue stating it despite the voluminous evidence to the contrary. I suppose they're just "protecting their institutions" at the expense of the truth, but, you know, honesty is kind of important. If an institution can't survive exposure to the truth, then what good is it anyway? How is it helping society? If it is helping somehow, how can you tell?)

Experience shows that this assumption, too, is nonsense... except possibly among those raised with conservative values. Perhaps the conservative mental wiring is such that they do need this sort of external rigidity to keep them in line – but I'm sure as hell not putting up with it in my life, and I feel quite confident that any children I raise will be better off without it, as will the society into which they mature.

I also doubt very much that those who argue for such strictures are saying "Please, I need more rigidity in my life so I won't do bad stuff and hurt people!"; they generally seem much more interested in seeing other people thusly constrained. Conversely, liberal philosophy waits until someone actually behaves badly before constraining them, and even (gasp) attempts to take non-punitive corrective measures before this happens, minimizing the need for artificial restraint.

Haidt then goes on to make the (more or less obvious) point that the Durkheimian society relies on those ever-popular Pillars #3-5, and that his research confirms that this pattern matches that of conservatism (this is the paragraph which Barone quoted).

the 5 pillars

Haidt's subsequent points rely heavily on acceptance of the "5 pillars" idea (which asserts that liberals are largely insensitive to 3 of the 5 pillars – "Ingroup/Loyalty", "Authority/Respect", and "Purity/Sanctity" – while conservatives value all 5), so a review of the problems with this argument is in order.

In a nutshell, the observation can't be true; liberals plainly have as much interest in the 3 "conservative" pillars, to the extent that Haidt defines them (which isn't much):

  • purity: Liberals are generally far more concerned about purity of environmental conditions than are conservatives. Food is a good example: filtered water, organic foods, avoidance of over-processing, and avoidance of synthetic ingredients in food are all very much liberal causes, ignored or even disparaged by conservatives.
  • sanctity: The idea of certain natural spaces being "sacred" is also something embraced by the more mystical element of liberalism (and definitely not by conservatives)... not to mention protecting the "sanctity" of natural beauty by preventing pollution.
  • ingroup/loyalty: Liberals are every bit as loyal to their in-groups, although their criteria for forming those groups may be different from those used by conservatives; conservatives seem to form loyal relationships based on established institutions (marriage, church, the workplace), while liberals are more focused on personal empathy
  • authority/respect: Liberals often display immense respect (bordering on worship) of certain individuals, but again the criteria and processes by which they choose which individuals to favor thusly are probably somewhat different from the processes used by conservatives. At a guess: conservatives seem to give respect, or deem individuals worthy of authority, based solely on position within a strict hierarchy, while liberals tend to be more willing to independently evaluate individuals for their contribution to society, regardless (indeed, often in spite) of hierarchical position.

It seems clear that Haidt must be using very specific definitions of those three pillars in order to have overlooked the liberal interests in them; obvious unanswered questions are (1) what are those definitions, (2) how did he arrive at them, and (3) why did he choose to exclude any other possible definitions (such as those used by liberals)?

Beyond that, there is the more glaring and significant question of why these three "conservative pillars" should matter, if not for the benefit they may bring to society?

Other questions rear their heads -- there are a lot of potential morality-components not mentioned (honesty, integrity, honor, effectiveness, talent, creativity, competence...); how did Haidt arrive at just those five as being relevant?

Haidt concludes this section by stating:

The resulting music may sound beautiful to other Democrats, but it sounds thin and incomplete to many of the swing voters that left the party in the 1980s, and whom the Democrats must recapture if they want to produce a lasting political realignment.

To the extent that this is a criticism of the Democratic point of view, it is a stupid argument (do you want the medicine that tastes good, or the one that works?). To the extent that it is criticism of Democratic marketing, it is feeble; if I were a conservative, I would find it insulting: "Dem philosophy may actually work much better than that of the Cons, but Cons will shun it anyway until Dems wrap it in a shiny package with a pretty ribbon on top."

Sadly, Cons don't seem to have any problem with being insulted this way, or perhaps (as seems more likely) don't look beyond the surface to realize they're being conned; Barone, for example, references Haidt with apparent approval, and he seems to completely overlook the fact that Haidt is calling him and his ilk gullible fools who will take splash over substance every time, as long as the splash has the right symbols on it (family! church! country!).

The Political Brain

In the next section, Haidt reaches the end of the science he had to present, and keeps going -- not realizing that he has run past the end of what little credibility he had. Republicans have become the party of the sacred, says he, and Democrats the party of the profane -- the secular -- the material.

I don't know if there's any point in explaining how ludicrous this is – loyal Republicans will faithfully ignore any reality I might try to interject (reality has a well-known liberal bias) – but remind me again which party it is whose members have more corruption, more sex scandals, more obsession with money and profit? (...as long as we're judging "by what they do rather than by what they value"...)

It also paints liberals as soulless automatons whose points of view may be safely ignored. If he had a rational argument underlying this claim, that would be fair play -- but he insinuates and implies it without explaining it. Such demonization is not acceptable in civil discourse.

Democrats use polls to decide what they should believe, claims Haidt. Perhaps liberal politicians do this, but that's part of democracy -- you know; the "will of the people". Is he saying he would rather that the elite rulers decide for themselves what they want, and then we have to go along with it? (He said that was bad, earlier.) Or perhaps he's just saying that potential rulers should say what they believe, and then stick to it after being elected. That would certainly be a good thing, but I don't think you'll find that the democrats are any worse at this than the republicans.

A social contract can easily degenerate into a nation of shoppers. ...Wait a minute, I thought it was the Republicans who were all about supporting capitalism. Wasn't it George W. Bush who, in the heat of the US invasion of Iraq, said that what we could do to support America was go shopping?

The Democrats could close much of the gap if they simply learned to see society not just as a collection of individuals – each with a panoply of rights – but as an entity in itself, an entity that needs some tending and caring.

Show me again where Democrats don't see this, and Republicans do? What I see is that Republicans have taken every opportunity to break society apart and sell the pieces to the highest bidder for their own profit -- while Democrats, though not always 9944/100 percent pure themselves, have more consistently acted to build up the infrastructure needed to help modern society function.

Their worst moments have been generally when they were being spineless cowards and refusing to stand up to society's enemies, i.e. most Republican politicians. They probably were sucked in by flowery pseudoliberal "we need to all be friends and respect each other's points of view (no matter how stupid)" arguments like Haidt's, and I despise them for it. Sometimes, a bad idea is a bad idea no matter how different the culture it comes from. This is the kind of liberalesque thinking which apparently has Europe bending over backwards to welcome Islamic immigrants and provide them all the help they need in keeping themselves safely insulated from those horrid "corrupting" western influences.

And, you know, it should be pointed out that the Islamic cultural invaders in Europe are using almost exactly the same arguments that Haidt (and religious conservatives) use for protecting "sacred" values from the "profane, secular, materialistic" values of the larger culture in which they live... yet if you locked them in a room together, we would immediately have both a Christian holy war against the Islamic heathen and an Islamic jihad against the Western infidels.

I just have to ask: what kind of world do you think we're likely to get, if we decide to respect that kind of thinking?

Whenever Democrats support policies that weaken the integrity and identity of the collective (such as multiculturalism, bilingualism, and immigration), they show that they care more about pluribus than unum. They widen the sacredness gap.

WTF is he talking about? Oh, well, I guess he's writing without the benefit of having read what I just written. /ignore

In fact, I'm putting the rest of this section on /ignore. If there are any useful points I missed, someone please point them out.

Haidt concludes

If Democrats want to understand what makes people vote Republican, they must first understand the full spectrum of American moral concerns.

I won't deny that the discovery of these pillars does give us a sort of "starter theory" for understanding the Republican mind. Like Thompson's plum pudding model of atomic structure, it gives us something to talk about (and test) as we figure out what is wrong with it.

However, this isn't really all that valuable of a service, since there already existed a much better model: that of authoritarianism.

An authoritarian is someone who values authority, whether earned or assigned, over all other considerations. Authoritarians generally believe that an individual's authority overrides any rational objections which might be raised by the authority's subjects (i.e. individuals who are under the authority). Authoritarians tend to take the view that division is weakness, rather than seeing dissent as part of an honest effort to help one's country choose the right path.

This is consistent with a wide variety of conservative traits: blind adherence to the "truthfulness" of conservative talking-points despite contrary evidence, just to give the most obvious example. (The online book The Authoritarians makes the case much better than I could, so I will refer you to that for understanding authoritarianism and how it applies to conservatism.)

The idea that these additional three pillars are somehow something important and worthy of respect unto themselves, rather than because of their supposed benefit to society, is complete eyewash. The idea that they are valuable because they are important to society is implicit in Haidt's arguments throughout, but when it comes time to examine exactly how they are valuable -- no no, that's the time when liberals need to just shut up and respect those Three Pillars of Sacred Woo, because Some Things Are Not For Rational Minds to Comprehend.

Sorry, not buying.

Haidt concludes his article with the following paragraph (my comments in [italics]):

Unity is not the great need of the hour, it is the eternal struggle of our immigrant nation [agreed]. The three Durkheimian foundations of ingroup, authority, and purity are powerful tools in that struggle [sure, if you want a religious dictatorship; Nazi Germany was a pretty unified place, I hear. Very interested in racial purity, too. And authority.]. Until Democrats understand this point, they will be vulnerable to the seductive but false belief that Americans vote for Republicans primarily because they have been duped into doing so.

Haidt has failed to show how that "seductive but false" belief is wrong, and I have just shown how it is true.

My "gut" says to tell you this, Dr. Haidt: Bite me.

What, you say, that's not a civilized retort? Exactly my point. We can't use "gut" reactions and emotional arguments that fly under the radar of rationality to settle our differences. You try to distract us at every turn from making the rational connections that might help to find common ground and untangle the mess, while arguing in favor of an intolerant and willfully ignorant ideology whose lack of fundamental integrity is at the root of it.

Stop the Presses

I realized belatedly (nearly a month later) that I missed what may have been the biggest con of all in this piece. It kept nagging at me, but I couldn't parse it out clearly until now.

Haidt makes the argument that most people can't explain the moral choices they make when there is no obvious harm involved in the "wrong" choice, supposedly undermining the (supposedly liberal) idea that morality should be decided on the basis of whether a given action is harmful or not. He goes on to make the implicit argument (without actually saying it up front, of course) that we Democrats and liberals must respect these moral choices because are somehow necessary to support various institutions which are somehow necessary for our society. I took issue with those two "somehow"s (because he doesn't explain the connection in either case), but missed the elephant he had smuggled into the room.

Haidt is basically saying "We don't understand our morals, so we should just follow them."

The first problem with this is that what we're talking about, when we argue over morals versus rational discussion as a means of deciding things, is not relatively harmless trivia like whether it's okay to flush a flag down the toilet or eat a recently-deceased pet, but decisions over rules which affect people's lives and which can cause great harm if decided badly -- like:

  • Should I have the right to marry based on love even if my preferences violate someone else's idea of morality? (gay marriage, interracial marriage)
  • Should public school teachers be allowed to teach their beliefs as fact when those beliefs contradict understandings determined by rational investigation? (creationism vs. science, separation of church and state)

Recognizing that you can't argue morality, liberals have long tried to look behind the feelings that go into it to find the real goals each side is trying to meet through the morals they have arrived at – while conservatives cling proudly to their moral codes as if they were absolute and determined since the beginning of the universe (something which, indeed, many of them profess to believe, evidence notwithstanding).

This then sets up the "conservative morality vs. liberal rationalism" dichotomy Haidt uses throughout – but the fact of the matter is, liberals have morals too, and those morals are sharply at odds with conservative morals on these and many other issues. The difference is that liberals don't try to use their morals as arguments.

To further rephrase Haidt, then: We don't understand conservative morals, so we should just follow them – even when they violate liberal morals.

True, Haidt isn't explicitly arguing that conservative mores should trump liberal ones; he says we need to "close the sacredness gap", find arguments that appeal to the other "pillars" (besides "harm/care" and "fairness/reciprocity") which he claims are the distinguishing (and even ennobling) characteristics of conservative morality.

The fact he carefully shuffles off the table when you're not looking, as I have mentioned, is that all the other pillars (even "fairness", the other "liberal" pillar) must derive from "harm/care". (If some particular "impurity" – say, putting ice and sugar in your tea – harms no one in any way, then why would anyone worry about it?) He tries to hide this very important connection behind a curtain of "morality" and pretend that the 3 "conservative pillars" are moral law unto themselves.

So maybe what he is actually saying is "We won't convince conservatives of anything unless we can explain our morals in terms of theirs", which is rather ludicrous -- especially since we're not supposed to make use of rationality, which is the one tool anyone has identified for resolving this sort of disagreement... other than physical force, which conservatives seem to favor.

Were liberals to try arguing on this basis, with this essential connection declared "off limits" as evidence, they could not even begin to make a case for many of their most strongly-held positions – especially where those positions question the value of conservative institutions, customs, and authority. The liberal position depends on this connection, which it can certainly defend -- but Haidt wants us to not only leave it undefended but to pretend it doesn't exist. Haidt wants us to to hobble our horses so that conservatives will let us into their race.

Questioning assumptions and requiring that major decisions be backed by rational arguments is one of the main tenets of modern liberalism – and indeed, of any sane society. Haidt says we shouldn't try to analyze morals because they aren't rational, but this is backwards; where it affects the well-being (harm/care) of others, that which is not rational is the first thing we should be questioning.

Appendix: Catalogue of Irrationalities

This isn't a complete list, but it catches the highlights. Some sentences are counted more than once due to multiple sins.

Straw-manning the opposition:

  1. "Diagnosis is ... righteous pleasure ... seduction wearing a halo."
  2. "...convincing us and our fellow liberals that we hold the moral high ground..."
  3. "Our diagnosis tells us that we have nothing to learn from other ideologies..."
  4. "morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think)..."
  5. "Democrats try to explain away these positions using pop psychology..."
  6. liberals believe "that children should be as free as possible to act on their desires"
  7. having described himself as a liberal going into India, he then describes that viewpoint as "my prior partisan mindset (reject first, ask rhetorical questions later)" -- implying that liberals would agree with (or at least practice) this
  8. suggests a revised definition (of morality as "any system of interlocking values, practices, institutions, and psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible.") as if it disagrees with the liberal position, when it doesn't

Appeals to guilt:

  1. "Diagnosis is ... righteous pleasure ... seduction wearing a halo."
  2. "Our diagnosis tells us that we have nothing to learn from other ideologies..."


  1. the hypothetical existence of disgusted ancient lawgivers would somehow, if true, explain why morals are necessary for maintaining social institutions, but don't worry about the connection, because there is no rational explanation for morals, just take his word for it that they're necessary (disgusted ancient lawgivers clearly represent an essential social institution of some kind)...
  2. switches freely between talking about care for individuals and care for society
  3. claims that "nobody was harmed" in his hypothetical examples, yet implies (without stating it) that there would be harm to society
  4. implies heavily that support for "essential institutions" should trump caring for individuals -- but deftly palms the issue of how we decide which institutions are "essential" while carefully nudging us away from any objective means of evaluation
    • he later says "Might we do better with an approach that defines moral systems by what they do rather than by what they value?" -- if by "defines" he means evaluates (and by "do" he means accomplish), then this is another shell-game move, because this is exactly the liberal/rational position -- presented as an opposing view
  5. holds out the three "conservative pillars" as being something of vital importance overlooked by Democrats, without ever explaining how they are necessary (regardless of how you value institutions vs. individuals), much less giving any examples


  1. "Republicans have become the party of the sacred, and Democrats the party of the profane -- the secular -- the material."
  2. "Democrats often seem to think of voters as consumers; they rely on polls to choose a set of policy positions that will convince 51% of the electorate to buy." Earlier he was complaining about Dems being elitist -- you can't be both elitist and populist, so which is it?
  3. Democrats see society solely as a collection of individuals (with rights, which they want NOW!) rather than as an entity in need of tending and caring.

Unsupported (and unsupportable) claims:

  1. When Democrats try to explain away these positions using pop psychology they err, they alienate, and they earn the label "elitist."
  2. "Republicans have become the party of the sacred, and Democrats the party of the profane -- the secular -- the material." -- only true if you're talking about image, but that's not where he goes with it
  3. "A social contract can easily degenerate into a nation of shoppers."
  4. Democrats see society solely as a collection of individuals rather than as an entity in need of tending and caring (while Republicans, presumably, are the ever-nurturing responsible caregivers of social programs).

Logical fallacies:

  1. nobody in his sample can explain why they follow morals, therefore there is no rational explanation for it
  2. multiple counts of hidden premise

General anti-rationality:

  1. criticizes Democratic policy for focusing too much on explaining itself rationally; recommends focusing more on image and presentation -- a fundamentally dishonest recommendation
  2. implies heavily that religion belongs in politics: "Religion and political leadership are so intertwined across eras and cultures because they are about the same thing: performing the miracle of converting unrelated individuals into a group." (I didn't catch that one when I originally wrote this analysis; I may have to go back and comment on it...)