Questions for Particularists

I am an American with two sisters. Suppose that, for whatever reason, one is a French citizen and one is an American citizen. Do I weigh my American sister's interests more highly, in virtue of our shared citizenship? (Start from an egalitarian baseline, then give both a bonus for being my sister, and then give one a bonus for being a co-national?) Or do family relationships trump political relationships, so I must treat them equally, as sisters. What if our countries are at war?

If you think it is permissible to weigh the interests of countrymen more highly that of foreigners, and it is permissible to weigh the interests your family more highly than your non-family, is nepotism permissible? To be encouraged? If you're a congressman and land a sweetheart government contract for you incompetent criminal brother, does that make you a bad American but a good brother? If you had to choose, which is it better to be?

You are the star quarterback of your high school football team. The state championship game is this evening, and your team cannot win without your gridiron virtuosity.  But you discover your twin brother, who was adopted by another family and whom you have never met, is in jail, and in danger. You can go bail him out and save him from being imminently beaten in jail by a gang he has crossed, or make the big game and give your team (which contains your best friends) a shot at the championship, but not both. What do you do? What if you were raised together and joined at the hip until he got mixed up in a bad crowd? But you're not genetically related? What if he is a French citizen? What if you have another brother on the football team? A cousin?

You are American. I have joined the French Foreign Legion and renounced my American citizenship. I have (a) betrayed you, (b) erased our prior mutual obligations as citizens, (c) both. Now, imagine you are French.

You are a Delaware patriot. Some guys from your state, who you certainly never got the chance to vote for, votes to incorporate Delaware into the United States of America. Do you now owe additional regard to the interests of Pennsylvanians? Suppose you did vote for your “representatives”? What then? Suppose you are an American patriot. A constitutional amendment is passed incorporating the United States of America into the North American Union. Do you now owe additional regard to the interests of Mexicans?

Three people are drowning in a pool and you can save just one. One is a fellow American. One is a fellow devout Catholic. One is your son's French atheist girlfriend. Is it permissible for any of these attributes to play a role in deliberation over who will save and who you will let drown? If so, which? If more than one, which weighs most heavily, and why?

I ask because I cannot fathom a set of general principles that could possibly govern these cases. Which leads me to suspect that those who endorse the moral centrality of duties based in egocentric attachment generally have no argument, rational or moralagainst policies that seem to them to run afoul of their imagined special affiliative duties, but are merely asserting an unwillingness to accept them. This amounts to little more than an affirmation of one's prior commitments.

A principled particularist would give us something like a complete schedule of prices: how many countrymen one brother is worth; how many Frenchmen one countryman is worth; etc. We'd then know, say,  how serious a transgression must be before breaking the “thin blue line” and ratting out a fellow cop, and just how many hours one is obliged to spend with one's “bros” relative to one's new girlfriend. We could then know how much immigrants must benefit to offset costs to natives, and thus what an acceptable (to the principled particularist) level of increase in immigration would be. However, a principled particularist is something like a contradiction. I suspect I will be told that these things can't be measured in terms of one another with any precision. So all we can know for sure is that candidate duties to others we do not presently recognize cannot really be our duties, since they are not rooted in attachments we already take ourselves to have, and may even conflict with ones many of us are sure we do have. The easiest way to adjudicate the possible conflict is simply to ignore the possibility of new duties it would be inconvenient to have. And, thus, everything is left as it is.       

On the Brain Drain Refrain

Reason's Kerry Howley (to whom I devote most of my energy for exclusive local attachment) introduced me to Lant Pritchett's exciting and radical work on immigration, and knows way more about this stuff than I do, being a real journalist who covers this issue. So she's got the goods on Larison's ill-supported points about brain drain:

it’s probably not a great thing for a community to lose its most motivated members. But, this, too, is far more complicated than Larison wants to admit. We don’t know nearly as much as he pretends we do about the trade-offs, but we do know that people respond to incentives when they consider whether or not to pursue education. Thus, as the Center for Global Development’s Michael Clemens has shown, claims that the U.S. is stripping Africa of health care workers probably have it backward. Health care workers who immigrate to the United States may never have acquired those skills were immigration not an option. The countries Clemens studied didn’t suffer from a lack of health care workers, generally; they suffered from the fact that they could not employ the workers they educated. There is no incentive to acquire skills you have no hope of using, and the most motivated people in a community might not be motivated at all absent the hope of exit.

And Kerry's analysis of Daniel's analogy to domestic ghettos is spot-on:

Applied domestically, the alternate policy would be rather like forcing people to stay in undeveloped inner city ghettos. It would mean telling the children of poor parents that they could never leave the economically backward neighborhood they happened to be born in, even if that neighborhood offered no education or employment opportunities. It would entail prohibiting suburbanites from inviting inner city residents onto their property to perform an economic service.

You didn't know it before now, but you are anxiously awaiting Kerry's forthcoming Reason feature story on guest worker programs.

Illuminate This

This is not the first time Daniel Larison has replied to a post of mine with a thought like this:

Mr. Wilkinson has successfully shown once again that he hates boundary maintenance–both of the physical and the metaphorical kind–and that conservatives favour it, which is why he isn’t a conservative.  Very illuminating.

Apparently, Daniel thinks I spend a good deal of time saying nothing more substantive than that I do not agree with things I disagree with. It therefore strikes me as odd that Daniel's posts in response to my vacuities are so long.

Anyway, I don't think anyone who has paid attention to what I have been saying thinks I'm indiscriminately against boundaries. I'm against boundaries that do not make people better off. I like systems of private property — which include lots of boundaries — because the ability to exclude on this scale and in this way enables the ability to productively invest and coordinate, leaving most everyone better off over time. One can justify this system of boundaries to the least well-off by showing how it will tend to make them better off than the alternatives. It may not benefit them most, but they will be worse off without something like it. However, national boundaries are not like fences around parcels of property. And unlike local systems of property, the global system of exclusion through citizenships, visas, and borders has manifestly failed to make the world's least well-off better off. On the contrary, it has trapped billions in miserable poverty. They have reason to affirm the terms of this system … why? If Daniel doesn't think the suffering of billions counts as an argument against the current global system of exclusion by nationality, then what would? Anyway, it's just dense to think my argument is a bit of autobiography explaining why I don't identify as a conservative. My argument is that vast human suffering is caused by the systematic denial of the liberty of movement and association. Maybe I'm wrong about that. But it's hard to come up with a less trivial claim.

Now, if Daniel does little more than tells us again and again that he is proud to be indifferent to suffering and injustice just as long as it takes place outside the coalitions in which he chooses (for whatever reasons) to embed himself, and that is why he is a conservative, well, that's still pretty illuminating.

Who Matters?

Daniel Larison kindly responds at length. There's too much to discuss in one post. I'll start here:

In any case, the two posts in question are expositions of the observation that conservatives do not hold his kind of libertarian assumptions about national identity and borders, because, among other things, they do not and cannot take liberty to be the moral baseline. They make distinctions between citizens and non-citizens, nationals and non-nationals, which they consider to be not simply prudent but actually obligatory and right. Neither do conservatives, or most people for that matter, judge the efficiacy and worthiness of U.S. immigration policy on the basis of whether it aids the populations of ”developing” nations, because we do not think that it is the role of the U.S. government to set its policies to maximise the prosperity of the populatiions of “developing” nations. Having put up a rather eccentric set of standards, Mr. Wilkinson finds that conservatives are not measuring up. That’s all very well, but I don’t know that it tells us very much. That is why I wrote the concluding remarks that I did.

Well, I'm not taking liberty as the moral baseline. My baseline in these posts has been primarily a concern for human well-being. People improve their material condition chiefly through cooperative exchange. Rules that restrict the liberty of people to move to where the economic opportunities are directly negatively affect their prospects. Whether or not you take a condition of liberty as the baseline, the fact is that people do worse in a world where their liberty is denied. Or at least that is my claim. Like everyone else, I make the distinction between citizen and non-citizen, national and non-national. But, like Daniel in his better moments, I also think it is possible to consider our obligations to others as fellow human beings, and not only as countrymen, teammates, or fraternity brothers. The issue between Daniel and me isn't over the fact that some people are citizens and other people aren't. The issue has to do with the moral salience or relevance of this fact. Daniel seems to me to want to either deny the possibility of prioritizing our humanity over our more local, exclusive attachments, or to affirm the perversity of doing so. I agree that it is “eccentric” to ask whether the global system of mostly sealed borders hurts people — even when those people don't go to our church, or live in our town, or hold the same passport as we do, or speak our language, or look much like us. But good people will ask it anyway. If they find that the system does hurt people, good people will not consider this irrelevant to policy.

He berates conservatives for privileging the interests of fellow citizens and countrymen (which he finds “morally abhorrent”), but beyond asserting that this act of privileging is wrong he does not give any persuasive reason why this should be so, except to fall back on his assumption that distinguishing between citizen and non-citizen is arbitrary and wrong.

This is silly. I don't deny that fellow citizens may have special obligations to one another, so I can't deny that the distinction between citizen and non-citizen is “wrong,” though it is pretty arbitrary. Yes, I deny that it is generally morally permissible to weigh the interests of citizens more highly than the interests of non-citizens. But with no persuasive reason? Perhaps part of the problem here is a conflict in views about which set of assumptions is the default, and thus who bears the burden of establishing something different. Daniel apparently finds it intuitive or natural that someone born in Minnesota must weigh the interests of someone born on a U.S. Naval base in the Philipines more heavily than the interests of his co-workers who live a mile away across the Canadian border. I don't find this intuitive at all. I don't find it that intuitive or natural that I owed a person less regard on Tuesday because they weren't sworn in as a citizen until Wednesday. The reasons I think privileging the interests of people of my nationality is wrong are basically the reasons I would cite when explaining why privileging the interests of people of the same race or the same sex is wrong. Nationality, like race and sex, is generally a morally irrelevant attribute. If Daniel is unmoved by the assumption that the lives and interests of black, whites, men, women, Ethiopians, Danes, and Americans ought to be weighed equally, unless there is a very special justification for weighing them unequally, then I am not sure what I will be able to say to him.

Yes, United States policy doesn't govern Ethiopians (those not already in the U.S., at least), so the U.S. needn't have their interests specifically in mind when crafting its public health policy. But the issue is rather more complicated when the policies in question are policies for assigning nationality or legal residency. It is up to democratic citizens to choose these policies. How heavily ought we (and every other democratic public) weigh the interests of people we might admit within our borders? My position is more heavily. Daniel's position seems to be “not at all,” if that's what we want. And he seems to think that's what we should want.

Ross on Haidt

I was Indianapolis this weekend at a conference on positive psychology and philanthropy. Serendipitously enough, Jonathan Haidt's happiness book was one of our readings. I've come back to see a lot of follow-up on the NYT article and the yourmorals.org quiz, much of which I think is a bit confused.

In this post, I'll tackle Ross Douthat's long, thoughtful, interesting meditation on a passage from Haidt's recent Edge.org piece, and a passage from my Haidt article. Naturally, I think the part of the post in which Ross replies to me is both most interesting and most wrong. So, Ross quotes me plumping for a “thoroughly liberal” morality and says

I would suggest, briefly, that Will ought to give more credence to the notion that he can't have his cake and eat it too: That what he terms “tribalism, caste, and theocracy” – and what a more sympathetic observer might call “family, community, and religion” – play a stabilizing role in society that would otherwise be filled, almost inevitably, by an ever-expanding state. You can have the kind of economic liberty that Will wants, or you can have the kind of personal liberty, but you can't necessarily have both. This is the old fusionist argument, of course, and while it's taken something of a beating of late, I don't think it's all that easily dismissed.

Whatever else you might say about them, family, community, and religion are the chief preserves of illiberal sentiment in our society. Of course, family, community and religion don't have to be illiberal. For example, most strands of Christianity have been successfully “civilized” — by which I mean radically liberalized — by the liberalizing pressures of modernity. One of the problems with conservatives is that, over and over again, they confuse an attack on the illiberal elements of family, community, and religion as attacks on family, community, and religion itself. For example, arguments for gay marriage are not arguments against the family, despite what most conservatives insist. They are liberal argument for equal-opportunity families. Arguments for racial integration aren't arguments against community. They are liberal arguments for non-racist communities. Etc. If family, community, and religion (and other civil society institutions) are stabilizing, which I don't doubt, they can be stabilizing without being unjust and harmful.

Ross's case for fusionism makes me think he may be a little confused about Haidt's theory. The idea is that the calibration of the five dimensions of the moral sense is highly culturally variable. Our society — like other liberal societies — is already one in which concern for ingroup, hierarchy, and purity is relatively low. But both the liberal U.S. and the liberal Sweden are libertarian paradises — in terms of the individual's protection from the authority of the state — when compared to much more conservative societies such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, or even democratic India. (Japan might be a good and rare example of fairly liberal institutions combined with strongly conservative social norms.) It is very difficult to look at the pattern of the actual world and think that further liberalization of our sentiments will create a vacuum for the state to seep into. It seems to me that Ross holds fixed a relatively conservative calibration of the moral sentiments — one in which concern for hierarchy, ingroup, and purity are high — and then imagines what would happen if you diminished the influence of the family, community, and church. What's going to pick up the slack? The state! But the point is to imagine a calibration of the moral sentiments in which concern for hierarchy, ingroup, and purity are lower. Because the places where these sentiments play the least role in the common morality are in fact the most libertarian, we so ought to expect a further reduction in their role to deliver yet greater liberty.

Yuval Levin on Haidt

I have a lot of objections to Yuval Levin's Haidt post at NRO. Both Ross and Andrew Sullivan seemed to have been impressed. So let's look closer:

I think Haidt's thesis and book are fascinating, but suffer from the general tendency of modern science to turn the study of the nature of something into a study of the history of that thing.

Hmm…. This sounds to me like Levin thinks Haidt's work suffers from studying its subject in the right way. Post-Darwin, we understand that the nature of an animal is the consequence of the history of its lineage. Humans are animals and the human moral sense is a part of our evolved nature. Studying the natural history of the moral sense is almost the only truly illuminating way to study it. It's a whole lot better than simply trying to tease out the implications of our moral judgments from the first-person perspective — from the “inside” — and I say that as someone who has spent a huge amount of time employed in the process of reflective equilibration. I'd say Levin's post suffers from the general tendency of conservatives to do a lot of handwaving about what's wrong with real science in the attempt to preserve a sense of the authority of our moral judgments — and a sense of the legitimacy of the social order built around them — in the face of the scientific evidence for their biological and cultural contingency.

More:

Not everything about our moral life can be rationalized, because important pieces of it derive from (and serve) the complicated set of moral obligations that arise out of our unchosen social relations. No one chooses to be born into the world, and no one chooses into which family and country to be born, but these unchosen relations nonetheless impose inescapable moral obligations on us.

This straightforwardly begs the question. Haidt's whole program has to do with explaining cultural variations regarding which perceived obligations arise from our unchosen social relations. Levin seems to want to think that there is some external fact about what the obligations of our social relations are. But the theory under discussion is precisely that both (a) social structure and (b) the sense of moral obligation experienced by those embedded within it depends on the culturally variable settings on the five posited dimensions of the moral sense. These settings not only change from place to place, but also change over time. That's part of the theory. So what's wrong with the theory?

My sense is that there has been a huge shift in the cultural consensus in the West about, say, the autonomy parents owe their grown and even adolescent children, and, conversely, the obedience and material assistance grown children owe their parents. You probably wouldn't be a conservative if you witnessed such a change in norms and failed to diagnose it as a failure of people to meet the “inescapable obligations” that arise from their unchosen social relations. If you were to accept the mutability of these obligations, it would be pretty hard to characterized them as inescapable. Once we no longer feel an obligation's normative gravity, we stop believing that it has any. And an obligation whose normative pull no one feels stop being considered an obligation. When it stops being considered an obligation, the pattern of individual behavior changes, and, ipso facto, the society is changed. For conservatives, this kind of social change comes as one moral crisis after another. When we in fact arrive at a better place after the change, as we generally do, the conservative mostly just makes peace with it while insisting that we all panic about the next moral shift, which will surely bring down all of society along with it.

Part of what it means to have a thoroughly liberal moral sense, in Haidt's terms, is to see the claims of ingroup solidarity as weak and easily defeated by competing considerations. For example, this liberal finds the claim, implicit in much of the immigration debate, that I ought to heavily discount the welfare gains to non-citizens simply because they belong to a different national coalition morally abhorrent. I don't doubt that many people take themselves to have an “inescapable” moral obligation to treat outsiders unfairly, or to even positively harm them (even kill them!), if it redounds to the benefits insiders. But I deny that there is any such obligation to escape in the first place. Haidt's theory is extremely illuminating because it explains in part how heated cultural and political conflict can flow from opinions that evidently incompatible, but all of which are distinctively “moral” in character. Many of Levin's claims, such as the claim that “some of our most important obligations—particularly those in the family—remain unchosen yet binding and essential” fail entirely to engage Haidt's thesis about the underpinnings of variation in moral judgment and sound like little more than hollow, if pious, exhortation.
Levin:

This means we have one way of moralizing—the contractual way—which makes for more freedom and justice but has nothing to say to the deepest truths of our human experience (and therefore can dangerously distort our society); and we have another—the one grounded in continuity and generation—that helps us make sense of our place in the world but cares too little about avoidable injustices. The first is highly artificial, and so is also better suited to highly rational and verbal defenses. The second is highly sentimental—it is geared to those areas of our life about which we have the least explicit knowledge and so can say the least—so it sometimes expresses itself in unspoken shudders more than organized arguments. This leaves it at a great disadvantage in our time, of course.

No. The “contractual way” of moralizing is no less (or more) sentimental, nor is it more (or less) artificial. That is one of Haidt's central points. All the calibrations of the moral sentiments are calibrations of the moral sentiments. All the dimensions of sentiment naturally evolved. All the calibrations of those setting are conventional and culture-bound. I'm not surprised that Levin, who worked under Leon Kass at the President's Council on Bioethics, wants to defend the normative authority of our “unspoken shudders.” But I do think Levin is right that the liberal dimensions of the moral sense are uniquely amenable to defense by rational argument, which is no doubt why liberalism is part of our rationalist Enlightenment heritage — why the societies that most value reason are also liberal societies and contain the least suffering and oppression. Levin wants to defend the shudder when it comes to, say, cloning, but (I trust) not when it comes to the subhuman treatment of the Dalits. So, those of us armed with reason inevitably ask: “What's the difference?” And he doesn't have a good answer. Which is why, once we hit a certain threshold of sensitivity to harm and injustice, we just keep on getting more and more liberal, despite the best efforts of folks like Levin to get us to see our prejudices as “inescapable” and “essential.”

Jonathan Haidt's Moral Psychology Applied to American Politics

The post below is a review essay I wrote for Reason in Fall 2006 loosely related to George Lakoff's Whose Freedom and Geoffrey Nunberg's Talking Right, both books that attempted to explain Republican political dominance as a linguistic and rhetorical phenomenon. The review essay submits psychologist Jonathan Haidt's theory of moral emotion — specifically his ideas about religious sentiments — as a better explanation of the Republicans' electoral appeal. Before the piece was published, the 2006 midterm elections intervened, making the question of the psychological mechanisms behind GOP dominance seem pretty moot. I decided not to torture the piece into something less politically irrelevant, so it never ran. But I think there's lots of interesting stuff in there that says a good deal about the psychological differences between conservatives and liberals. And given yesterday's big Times Science Tuesday profile of Haidt and his ideas, it seems like a good time to ride the wave of internet interest in Haidt's truly illuminating work. (And, of course, to prove that I was into it before it was cool.)

[Read the essay.]

The Supply-Side Consensus

Brett Swanson points us to today's WSJ op-ed by Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Lucas:

In the past 50 years, there have been two macroeconomic policy changes in the United States that have really mattered. One of these was the supply-side reduction in marginal tax rates, initiated after Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 and continued and extended during the current administration. The other was the advent of “inflation targeting,” which is the term I prefer for a monetary policy focused on inflation-control to the exclusion of other objectives. As a result of these changes, steady GDP growth, low unemployment rates and low inflation rates — once thought to be an impossible combination — have been a reality in the U.S. for more than 20 years.

When I talked to my colleague Bill Niskanen  (former acting chairman of the CEA under Reagan) about Chait's TNR excerpt, he told me exactly the same thing Lucas is saying. It should be pretty obvious that there is nothing discreditable or crackpot about the now-common observation that the supply-side revolution has become part of a broad consensus about macroeconomic policy among economists. Progressives who insist on going on and on about crazy supply-side tax cuts sound to me a lot like certain libertarians raving about the dangers of fiat currency. It's the insistence on revisiting a debate that already soundly concluded, largely because of the way history panned out. The argument is even weirder the second time around, once you already know what actually happened.

Anyway, as OG supply-sider Bruce Bartlett put it:

Today, hardly any economist believes what the Keynesians believed in the 1970s and most accept the basic ideas of supply-side economics — that incentives matter, that high tax rates are bad for growth, and that inflation is fundamentally a monetary phenomenon. Consequently, there is no longer any meaningful difference between supply-side economics and mainstream economics.

This really doesn't strike me as fertile ground for successful leftwing point-scoring.

What's the Frequency Lakoff?

It's religious emotion, not language, that dooms Democrats.

Will Wilkinson

[Read the explanation of this post.]

The Berkeley linguist George Lakoff was a semi-famous academic when he walked into a retreat of Democratic senators in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in May 2003. He walked out as one of the most popular gurus in politics. Hillary Clinton wanted to do lunch. Tom Daschle invited Lakoff to come to D.C. for further schooling. By 2004 he had Howard Dean, noted screamer and future head of the Democratic Party, penning an enthusiastic forward to his pre-election manifesto, Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. Lakoff’s claim? Reagan-loving pols win because of their masterful manipulation of language, not their substantive appeal; with supercharged “framing” Democrats can win, too.

Despite Lakoff’s sage instruction, Bush won a second term, and the GOP picked up seats in the House and Senate. The post-mortem to the 2004 presidential election showed that “moral values” were the “most important issue” for a plurality of voters, and that of those most moved by moral values, a whopping 80 percent punched their ticket for George W. Bush. That would seem to be more a matter of substance than style and a point against the idea that Republicans are winning simply because the mind of the hoi polloi has become a plaything of spellbinding word wizards like the Lakoffians' demon of choice, the Republican pollster Frank Luntz. A small but vehement anti-Lakoff movement has arisen among Democratic commentators, with scathing critiques last year by Kenneth Baer in The Washington Monthly, Marc Cooper and Joshua Green (separately) in The Atlantic, and Matt Bai’s damning New York Times Magazine profile, which noted that Don't Think of an Elephant had become “as ubiquitous among Democrats in the Capitol as Mao's Little Red Book once was in the Forbidden City.” But despite the licking, Lakoff’s linguistic false consciousness doctrine keeps on ticking.

However, as Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker argues in another Lakoff takedown in that appeared in the New Republic, Lakoff’s theories are both bad psychology and bad politics, and the one plays into the other. A better diagnosis of the Dem’s trouble with “moral values” voters might help them claim future victories based on more than Bush fatigue and scandalous instant messages to teenage pages. And better ideas are out there: if liberals take a good hard look at what separates them emotionally from most flag-waving, churchgoing Americans, they can better address their weaknesses.

In his new book, Whose Freedom: The Battle over America’s Most Important Idea, Lakoff dusts off his greatest hits and argues that “The conservative dominance of political discourse has been changing what Americans mean by common sense.” According to Lakoff, the post–Great Society welfare state embodies to near-perfection the “traditional” American conception of freedom. Right-wing newspeak threatens to destroy the real freedom we proud Americans cherish, or would cherish, if only our minds had not been colonized by right-wing newspeak.

Lakoff gets reinforcement from fellow Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, author of the maximally subtitled Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freakshow. Though Nunberg, to his credit, rejects Lakoff’s poorly supported theory that all thinking is based in metaphor, they agree on the root cause of the Democrats’ slump. “[T]he left has lost the battle for language itself,” Nunberg writes. “When we talk about politics nowadays…we can’t help using language that embodies the worldview of the right.” If “values voters” tilt right, that’s just because the word “values” has itself become loaded with conservative connotations.

Disappointed Marxists used the idea of “false consciousness” to explain why the oppressed workingman failed to rise in revolt with outrage at his exploitation; his mind had been hijacked by enemy propaganda. False consciousness explanations are powerful—so powerful that anyone can trot one out in a pinch to explain why people who don't seem hypnotized would nevertheless affirm what the sane and upright despise. Fox News and conservative talk radio would go dead if they couldn't wheel out the alleged leftist death-grip on academia, Hollywood, and the mainstream media to explain the otherwise inconceivable existence of anti-war protesters, practicing homosexuals, and legal fetus-killing. Nunberg and Lakoff's tricked-out linguistic versions of false consciousness are barely better. Democrats interested in winning must surrender this disreputable redoubt of desperation and aim at an account of their woes that is more “reality-based.”

Even doggedly ill-informed voters sometimes notice bad results, and the Democrats may be able ride Republican incompetence and corruption to power. But in case the entire GOP doesn't pull a Ralph Reed, Democrats should face up to the likely possibility that voters are rejecting the content of their message, not just the style. Maybe heavy unionization, comprehensive regulation, high taxes, free-flowing welfare, lax policing, and a passive military posture would have been unpopular in Topeka with or without linguistic shenanigans.

More than just helping Democrats escape the hard truth about unpopular positions, the linguistic mindwarp thesis also blinds the Democrats to their problem relating to voters on crucial non-linguistic frequencies. If they've got to have a guru, Democrats should enlist Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who specializes in the moral emotions, and whose innovative research offers liberals—and libertarians, too—a better picture of their problems.

Working in the emotion-centered tradition of David Hume and Adam Smith’s moral philosophy, Haidt’s research leads him to posit five psychological foundations of human moral sentiment, each with a distinct evolutionary history and function, which he labels harm, reciprocity, ingroup, hierarchy, and purity. While the five foundations are universal, cultures build upon each to varying degrees. Imagine five adjustable slides on a stereo equalizer that can be turned up or down to produce different balances of sound. An equalizer preset like “Show Tunes” will turn down the bass and “Hip Hop” will turn it up, but neither turn it off. Similarly, societies modulate the dimension of moral emotions differently, creating a distinctive cultural profile of moral feeling, judgment, and justification. If you're a sharia devotee ready to stone adulterers and slaughter infidels, you have purity and ingroup pushed up to eleven. PETA members, who vibrate to the pain of other species, have turned ingroup way down and harm way up.

Denizens of liberal democracies tend to be relatively tuned in to harm and reciprocity—concerned with suffering, violations of autonomy, fairness, and justice—while less sensitive to the tribalism and xenophobia of ingroup, the class-bound inequality of hierarchy, and the sense of the sacred and profane wrapped up in purity. That this pattern of sentiment is broadly shared is largely what it means for a society to be liberal.

Haidt's studies, which involve confronting subjects with often bizarre moral scenarios (there is plenty of material about incest and dead animals) and evaluating their responses, suggest that while Democrat-leaning liberals draw almost exclusively from harm and reciprocity, Republican-leaning conservatives draw more from the whole range of moral emotion. “Conservatives have many moral concerns that liberals simply do not recognize as moral concerns,” Haidt and collaborator Jesse Graham write in a forthcoming paper for Social Justice Research. “When conservatives talk about virtues and policies based on the ingroup, hierarchy, and purity foundations, liberals hear talk about theta waves,” Haidt and Graham’s term for imaginary transmissions from space.

Most intriguing is the possibility of systematic left-right differences on the purity dimension, which Haidt pegs as the source of religious emotion. In a fascinating chapter in his illuminating recent book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt explains how a primal biological system—the disgust system—designed to keep us clear of rotten meat, expanded over our evolutionary history to encompass sexual norms, physical deformations, and much more. Haidt asks us to “Imagine visiting a town where people wear no clothes, never bathe, have sex 'doggy-style' in public, and eat raw meat by biting off pieces directly from the carcass.” Disgusting? No doubt. Immoral? If your thought is, “Well, they're not violating anyone's rights,” then, Haidt predicts, you probably didn't vote for Bush.

The flipside of disgust is the emotion Haidt calls “elevation,” based in a sense of purification and transcendence of our animal incarnation. Cultures the world over picture humanity as midway on a ladder of being between the demonically disgusting and the divinely pure. Most world religions express it through taboos of food, body, and sex, and in rituals of de-animalizing purification and sacralization. The warm, open sense of elevation and the shivering nausea of disgust are high and low notes in the same emotional key.

Haidt's suggestion is partly that morally broad-band conservatives are better able to exploit the emotional logic of religiosity by deploying rhetoric and imagery that calls on powerful sentiments of elevation and disgust. A bit deaf to the divine, narrow-band liberals are at a disadvantage to stir religious Americans. And there are a lot of religious Americans out there.

According to the University of Michigan political scientist Ronald Inglehart and Harvard political scientist Pippa Norris, Americans are more religious than citizens of every liberal democracy except Ireland. A recent study by three University of Minnesota sociologists, Penny Edgell, Joseph Gerteis, and Douglas Hartmann, found that Americans trust spiritually insensate atheists less than Muslims, immigrants, lesbians, and probably even the French when it comes to “sharing their vision of American society.” Pew Research Center surveys show that church attendance now predicts Republican and Democratic voting patterns better than income or education. And some of us, like presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, the miraculous Mormon Republican former governor of Massachusetts, grew up believing that Zion is just east of Kansas City. Legions of Americans have the sense that Jesus smiles upon the Constitution, that tiny unborn babies breathe the breath of God, and that the body is a temple drugs defile. Few religious Americans hesitate to speak of America as God's own land, even if they don't think the New Jerusalem is in Missouri.

The much-vaunted “values-voters” were casting their ballot for a man with a broad-band religious morality, like theirs. When George Bush says “Our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world,” people who feel this to be true know he's tuned in, too. But when Al Gore says, “I believe that God's hand has touched the United States of America,” they hear Al Gore expediently aiming to prove his spiritual qualifications for the presidency. That's a real, deep problem that has nothing much to do with language. The liberal pundit Matthew Yglesias gets to the heart of the matter when he advises that “Democrats who don't believe marriage is between a man and a woman but who feel they ought to pretend to believe this in order to win elections…need to do a better job of pretending.” But they'd be better off if they didn't need to fake it in the first place. When it comes to the emotional politics of divinity, narrow-band Democrats are outgunned. Opportunistic fag-bashing and strategic God-talk won't cut it.

Is the narrower morality of liberalism a form of moral retardation or enlightenment? That's a question that also breaks along ideological lines. “Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder,” says the conservative Leon Kass, former head of President Bush's Council on Bioethics, in defense of what he calls “the wisdom of repugnance”—the moral authority of the digust-purity dimension of feeling. But the liberal philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in her book Hiding from Humanity, argues that though emotions such as anger or fear sometimes embody reasons we can offer to others as legitimate justification for action, disgust is uniquely inarticulate, implying no real reason beyond itself, and so is unfit as a basis for persuasion and policy in an open, pluralistic society.

Tens of millions of Americans are viscerally disgusted by gay sex and therefore see the marriage of Adam and Steve as the debasement of a sacred rite. Nussbaum, and others who share her characteristically liberal style of feeling and justification, wouldn't count that reaction as an argument at all. But that doesn't stop tens of millions who dwell within the emotional reality of the sacred and profane from being completely persuaded by it. As Nussbaum notes, there is little hope of reasoning them out of it. An America less fueled by religious feeling—one that tuned down the purity dimension to Danish levels—might be a more just America. But you don't start with the voters you'd like to have.

What, then, are Democrats to do? (And what about libertarians, who tend to have even more tolerance than the average Democrat for godless debasement?) Democrats can try to appeal to religious American voters by giving some ground in the culture wars. But it seems unlikely they will find an effective balance. There is no point conceding stuff too trivial to really matter, such as school prayer, and comically pretending to be moved by the pure and the foul. And there is even less point in nominating religiously convincing candidates who really do believe embryos have the spark of divinity, that gay is gross, etc. Socialized health care isn't worth it.

Democrats should play to their own moral-emotional strengths, not apologize for not having different ones. Haidt's early research on moralized disgust shows that its cultural manifestations vary. The Japanese apparently find it disgusting to fail their station and its duties. And here at home, formerly “repulsive” practices, such as interracial marriage, have become mere curiosities.

Despite its political salience, American religiosity is eroding. Inglehart's and Norris' research indicates that America, like Europe, is becoming more secular over time, “although this trend has been partly masked by massive immigration of people with relatively traditional worldviews, and high fertility rates, from Hispanic countries.” We may be stuck with our voters, but not with the configuration of their moral sensibilities. And despite all those Republican majorities, the margins are thin; if swing voters were that keenly attuned to their religious sentiments, they'd be Mel Gibson fans, not swing voters.

Democrats shouldn't cater to and reinforce sensibilities that both hurt people and hurt the Democrats' prospects. Religious doctrine and religious feeling can and have been trimmed and shaped over time to accommodate the full plurality of liberal society. Illiberal patterns of feeling bolstered by religious sentiments, like disgust for homosexuality, can be broken through slow desensitization, or a shift in the way the culture recruits that dimension of the moral sense. In dynamic commercial societies, this happens whether we want it to or not. But we have something to say about how it happens. The culture war is worth fighting, one episode of Will & Grace at a time, if that's what it takes.

Liberals must understand the profundity to others of feelings that are weak in them, but shouldn't pretend to feel what they don't. They can lead as well as follow. And it remains true that all Americans, conservative and liberal alike, are wide awake to the liberal emotional dimensions of harm and reciprocity. The American culture war is about how thoroughly the liberal sentiments will be allowed to dominate. If a thoroughly liberal society is worth having, liberals will have to spot the points of conflict between the liberal and illiberal dimensions of the moral sense, drive in the wedge, and pull out all the rhetorical stops—including playing on feelings of quasi-religious elevation and indignant moral disgust—to make Americans feel the moral primacy of harm, autonomy, and rights. When the pattern of feeling is in place, the argument is easy to accept.

Haidt can't help Democrats with their lousy economic policy, but he can at least help them see where much of their problem lies. Democrats' problem isn't the Republican lock on semantics; it's the Republican lock on illiberal sentiment. But Democrats simply will not win a contest of religious emotion, no matter how dazzling the “framing.” Their best long-term hopes rest in moving the fight to a battlefield with more favorable terrain.

Perhaps Haidt’s most significant contribution is helping liberals of all stripes see that liberalism is not a mere intellectual commitment, but a condition of the soul, a condition to be proud of—one that puts us at a far remove from tribalism, caste, and theocracy. The culture war is real. It’s a war over the calibration of our moral sentiments, and mere “messaging” won’t win it. Democrats ought to buy George Lakoff a gold watch, send him off to the home for superannuated gurus, and start boning up on the new science of moral emotion.

Will Wilkinson is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.