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.