I agree with a lot in this piece by Will Wilkinson. But I disagree with stuff he says after asking the question ‘why is our moral culture polarizing?’
One place to start is to ask why it is that people, as individuals, gravitate to certain moral and political viewpoints. Jonathan Haidt’s “moral foundations” theory—which shows that conservatives and liberals have different moral sensibilities, sensitive to different moral considerations—is perhaps the best-known account. But there are others.
In a 2012 piece for the Economist, I surveyed some of the research in personality psychology that indicates a correlation between political ideology and a couple of the “Big Five” dimensions of personality—conscientiousness and openness to experience, in particular—and then connected that to evidence that people have self-segregated geographically by personality and ideology. It’s an interesting post and you should read it.
The upshot is that liberals (low conscientiousness, high openness to experience) and conservatives (high conscientiousness, low openness) have distinctive personalities, and that there’s reason to believe we’ve been sorting ourselves into communities of psychologically/ideologically similar people.
Wilkinson goes on to talk about other, non-Haidt stuff that contributes to polarization. I like that better. (I think Wilkinson does, too.) But I want to grouse about Haidt, who I think has done interesting empirical work but who commits what I regard as terrible howlers when it comes to moral theory, and when it comes to reasoning about practical, normative implications of his work.
Let me start with a logic problem, pointing to a crack in the empirical work. (Plus pussyhats and protests, for topical value.) Haidt is highly bothered about two problems he sees with liberalism on campus – and in other environments in which lefties predominate. He’s written a lot of popular stuff about this.
1) An unbalanced moral ecology. Allegedly liberals have a thinner base of values, whereas conservatives have a broader one. Everyone, liberal and conservative alike, is ok with care/no harm/liberty – although liberals are stronger on these. Conservatives are much stronger on the loyalty/authority/purity axis, since allegedly liberals are weak-to-negligible here. (Haidt used to say there were five, now there are six foundations. I’m not going to quibble about that.) So: not enough conservatives in liberal environments to ensure a flexible, broad base of values. How illiberal!
2) Political correctness. Haidt has a real bug in his ear about this one.
The logic problem is this. If 2) is a problem, 1) is necessarily solved. And if solving 2) is important, then the proposed solution to 1) is wrong (or at least no reason has been given to suppose it is right).
To explain: if the absolute very worst that Haidt says about PC run amuck is utterly true, then campus liberals/progressives are, in terms of his moral foundations scheme, shooting through the roof along the loyalty/authority/purity axis. Because that’s what PC is. An authoritarian insistence on ‘safe spaces’ and language policing, trigger warnings and other stuff. If it’s true that universities have turned into PC prison camps – narrow, orthodox, rigid authoritarian, etc. – then it logically follows that universities have successfully broadened their moral bases to flexibly encompass all 6 values. The university is, by hypothesis, filthy with folks who are strong on all 6 value axes: SJW’s, as they are called.
In short, if 2) is a problem, it is logically impossible for 1) to still be a problem, if ever it was.
There is another way to put it: Haidt likes the irony that liberal refusal to see the value of tribalism has made them paradoxically narrow – hence tribal. This seems like the joke is on liberals. But, so far as I can tell, the joke is also on Haidt. The problem solves itself. If the problem is as Haidt says.
Now, outside the groves of academe, and in the news: protests. Why is everyone wearing pussyhats at Protest Marches? (More power to them!) Because the Prez is a professed pussy-grabber, which is a harm but also (this is important) a purity violation. Sacred values are often sacred spaces. Women’s bodies. Trump – who has never attempted to purify himself for former violations – is now in violation of a second sacred space, the White House. It’s wrong for a guy like that to be sullying the White House with his presence. Also, the Russians. That’s a purity violation of the election, to put it mildly.
I’m not saying liberals/progressives just have some sort of weird cult of purity. Not at all. They care about justice. But, quite understandably, symbols and issues and talking points that reach out and grab you not just up here but down there (pardon my locker room banter) are more potent. They touch upon that-which-should-not-be-touched (without performance of proper rites, i.e. getting consent from the proper authorities over that space.)
And conservatives are unmoved by all this protest. They’re all boys-will-be-boys. (And the Russians love their children, too!) Maybe women should be open to new experiences! Not so uptight!
No, obviously conservatives have their own purity values. No transgenders in wrong bathrooms! Don’t say they lack old time religion.
What do we conclude from all this? First, I don’t think it would be sensible to grant Haidt’s premise that universities are PC hellscapes. I argued that IF they are, THEN it follows that universities must be very morally broad-based places, by Haidt’s lights. What we should conclude is not that PC is, or is not, a problem, but that having a broad moral base, in Haidt’s sense, is not as automatically ecologically sound as it sounds; neither here nor there with regard to the question of how to avoid problems of moral narrowness and rigidity, in individuals or communities or institutions. Haidt has a sense that he wants some kind of pluralistic, healthy ecology of values. But his recipe for that has no obvious tendency to correlate with anything of the sort. Why would it?
More generally – and relevantly to Wilkinson’s discussion – I think we should be highly skeptical of the practical, political significance of these correlations between personality-types and political ideologies. I want to be careful here, too, because there is interesting empirical work. But my suspicion is that we have a relatively small effect (the correlations are not that strong) that is going to be totally swamped, overwhelmed, by the vastly stronger tides of tribalism and group identity. It may be that liberals-progressives are marginally less tribalistic – more open and all that – because they have stronger cosmopolitan values of care and no-harm.
Well, I would like to think so.
But, honestly, I doubt systematic personality differences explain much about current polarization patterns, either to liberals’ credit or discredit, on Haidt’s story.
(Setting sociology aside: what matters, morally, is that liberal-progressive symbols of purity violation – pussyhats – and conservative symbols of purity violation – transgender bathrooms – point us towards justice issues, concerning which those on the left are in the right, those on the right in the wrong. I think. I have my doubts about any holiness that bends towards injustice. Why would it do that? Haidt tends to assume liberals are unaware of non-liberal values, rather than aware-but-skeptical.)
Getting back to Wilkinson: he’s right that we should try hard to understand both the mechanisms behind polarization and how – someday – we might get to a better place. I think Haidt’s foundations stuff has something to it, as moral psychology. That stuff has obviously bearings on partisanship, as a normal state of the human moral mind. But it has not much mechanical bearing on political differences between liberals and conservatives. There isn’t some piety gap, and the partisan warfare isn’t asymmetrical. As a result, the stuff Haidt (and others) say at Heterodox Academy mostly makes no sense whatsoever.
I feel bad that Trump is President. But the hats are much appreciated.