Free Liberal

Coordinating towards higher values

by , Correspondent, Free Liberal

In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt sets forth an intuitionist theory of morality that encourages us not to take the discursive (or rational argument) dimension of moral narratives at face value. As he writes quite succinctly early in the book:

If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense. Keep your eye on the intuitions, and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.

So far so good. The basic idea resonates with me. But when Haidt tries to apply this insight to political ideologies, his analysis falls victim to the very myopia he so skillfully elucidates. In particular he classifies his own left-liberal tribe almost entirely with regard to its face-value, discursive narrative about itself. Left-liberals are all about fairness and caring (to which he later adds liberty and freedom from oppression), whereas conservatives spread their moral thinking across a broader range of concerns, specializing in in-group loyalty, authority, respect, purity and sanctity. Left-liberals don’t operate as much in these latter categories which is why they fail to understand conservatives.

But this is suspiciously close to what left-liberals tell themselves. Isn’t Haidt trying to sort out the differences between surface narrative and underlying motivation?

My view is that these days left-liberals are more deeply rooted in the in-group loyalty, authority, and sanctity foundations than either libertarians or conservatives. As Bryan Caplan says in his blog post about Haidt’s claim that left-liberals are less groupish than conservatives, “The liberal-conservative difference… is largely about which group they identify with, which leaders they respect, and what they consider sacred.” For left-liberals, the out-group is not so much foreigners or people of different races, but conservatives and libertarians.

Left-liberals operate more than any other group in foundations that Haidt believes to be the near exclusive preserve of conservatives. In particular, in-group thinking of left-liberals is especially apparent in their role as defenders of corporatism. In addition to the practical point the prominence of sanctity in left-liberal thinking becomes apparent if you take a closer look at the role disgust plays, perhaps surprisingly but critically, in the liberty foundation.

Apologists for in-group corporatism

In most parts of the world, left-liberal ideology serves as a fig leaf intended to make atavistic defenses of traditional corporatist arrangements look modern. For instance in Mexico, where I have lived on and off for 30 years people actually debate whether teachers should be allowed to buy, sell and bequeath teaching positions. When the current government tried to stop the practice, teachers poured into the streets to riot. Left-liberal leaders like López Obrador took up their cause, and continues to make public statements that focus criticism on other aspects of the education reform, such as teacher evaluations. What opponents of reform like Obrador studiously ignore is the real impetus behind teacher anger: teachers view their positions as a property right.

The most interesting aspect of the controversy is the liberal vocabulary corporatists use to defend this spoils system. They accuse reformers of being corrupt. Thus any left-liberal who wants to continue believing his own discursive lullaby has a ready-made narrative that allows him to align himself at a practical level with a corporatist movement that makes teaching jobs a hereditary prerogative of a labor union yet continue to congratulate himself for his liberal values, such as respect for the impartial application of the rule of law. After all, according to the left-liberal narrative, it is left-liberals who carry the liberal mantle, so by definition it is their opponents who are corrupt. Certainly not the left-liberals.

Left-liberals have been breathing in the intellectual air of liberalism for several centuries and have internalized liberal values of fair play, rules over discretion and impartial competition over kinship favoritism. As a result, they are adept at framing post hoc justifications of absolutely any system in liberal vocabulary. If you doubt it, take a closer look at the rather impressive rhetorical backflips López Obrador does to justify the current teaching system in Mexico. A test suggestion for Mr. Haidt to use in his empirical research: recruit some left-liberals who don’t know about this Mexican controversy. First ask them cold which side is likely right. Next, give them articles on both sides of the issue, and ask again. How determined are they to take Obrador’s narrative at face value? Do not ask them whether selling teaching positions is o.k. Ask them if this controversy is really about something else, like trying to bust the union, or the venal motives of corrupt pseudo-reformers. Meanwhile, keep in mind, teachers continue to buy, sell and bequeath, yes that’s right, bequeath teaching positions in Mexico with the full throated support of the left. It’s medieval, except for the rhetoric. This story could be repeated throughout the 3rd world, and guess who is always on the side of the corporatists. Hint: it’s not the free-market liberals.

Corporatism is an in-group agenda and its values are loyalty, not impartiality towards outsiders. So by what psychological alchemy do corporatists confuse their in-group agenda with universal principle? I’ve mentioned one way: they simply re-conceptualize their position in liberal terms as a struggle against corruption. But there is a deeper kind of psychological alchemy at work, let’s call it an imperialist belief: what’s good for my group is good for everyone, because my group is everyone, like the Indian tribe in the Dustin Hoffman movie that called itself the “human beings”. The benefits we have carved out for ourselves will be available to everyone someday once we are victorious. We envisage a “rainbow coalition” of government sanctioned monopolies in which no one must endure the anxiety of competition and the destruction of wealth this implies is financed by expropriating the surplus wealth of rapacious capitalists.

Thus zero-sum tribal narratives universalize their program by imagining unreal futures which would be attainable were it not for the obstructionism of their tribal enemies, and this exempts them from confronting and acknowledging the zero-sum nature of their program.

Role of disgust in the liberty foundation

Never mind that Haidt cherry picks examples of disgust that allow him to associate visceral morality with conservatives. He could have asked participants how they felt about someone urinating on a picture of Martin Luther King or Gandhi or John Kerry or Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, then armed with this “empirical” data, made the case that left-liberals are a bunch of pious, unreasoning Neanderthals, who object to showing disrespect to simple pieces of paper with images on them, unlike enlightened conservatives who can urinate on Barack Obama’s picture without any such primitive scruples.

But the more interesting point is methodological. There’s a problem with Haidt’s method. If you start your analysis by completely decoupling disgust reactions from reason, you miss many interesting nuances concerning the way disgust is put in the service of moral judgment generally, and political judgment in particular. A vastly richer analysis of the role that disgust reactions play in political judgment can be found in William Ian Miller’s Anatomy of Disgust. Miller, like Haidt, is a man of the political left, but his psychological account is richer because it is steeped in the humanities.

Miller’s analysis suggests that disgust might be at work in the liberty foundation, because disgust is one of the emotional linchpins of the impulse to calibrate dominance hierarchies rather than simply submit to them. William Miller writes “Some emotions, among which disgust and its close cousin contempt are the most prominent, have intensely political significance. They work to hierarchize our political order: in some settings they do the work of maintaining hierarchy; in other settings they constitute righteously presented claims for superiority [my emphasis] …”. Both contempt and disgust are likely operative in any context in which dominance is asserted, and not just the dominance of brute strength, but also dominance hierarchies of many other kinds, such as professional dominance (artistic, academic, athletic, scientific, etc.) and moral dominance.

This gives us a clue as to why disgust might affect left-liberals more than conservatives. If left-liberals are prone to specious rhetorical universalizations, as I am suggesting in this article, they will naturally come to think of themselves as perched at the top of a moral dominance hierarchy.

Haidt acknowledges that the “the urge to band together to oppose oppression and replace it with political equality” (the liberty foundation) is not simply a matter of fairness but a gut instinct, and it “seems to be at least as prevalent on the left” as it is on the right. He then offers this quote from one of his left-liberal readers by way of illustration:

The enemy of society to a Liberal is someone who abuses their power (Authority) and still demands, and in some cases forces, others to “respect” them anyway.… A Liberal authority is someone or something that earns society’s respect through making things happen that unify society and suppress its enemy.

Notice that there is no mention of “equality” here. That’s Haidt’s interpolation. Haidt’s reader simply wishes to concede that left-liberals are not without reverence for authority. The difference, the reader explains, is that left-liberals respect legitimately-earned authority, whereas conservatives expect respect for people who do not merit it.

We do not usually rebel because we are dreaming of equality. We rebel because someone presumptuously assumes a dominance role that they have not earned. If a doctor claims to know more about medicine than I do, I do not feel that he is oppressing me (unless he assumes that I owe him even more deference than that to which his special status entitles him in my eyes). But if my eccentric next door neighbor, the car mechanic, aggressively asserts his half-baked ideas about alternative medical remedies and presumes to impose them on me in a pushy way, it will likely anger me, because he is assuming a dominance role that he has not earned. Thus Haidt’s identification of the urge to rebel with a simple reactance reflex is reductive in the extreme and overlooks most of what is actually going on.

Haidt’s liberal reader is especially offended that any conservative would presume to demand his respect, because he believes the left-liberal tribe is infused with a superior moral essence. Moral excellence is its special competence. It is in the left-liberal genetic code, and so the presumption of the conservative who demands respect provokes anger, and if the left-liberal feels that his moral hegemony is threatened, anger will be accompanied by disgust, because the contempt that the high has for the low morphs into disgust the minute the high feels threatened by the low. As Miller puts it, “when the high are securely high the low are objects of contempt of pity. Once the low rattle their chains or are granted political equality the high’s complacent contempt gives way to a disgust prompted by a horror of the low.”

Lest you think I go too far in adding disgust to the anger we feel when our moral inferiors presume to tell us that they are our betters, consider this courtroom photo of the murderers of the 1960s civil rights workers:

The photo contains elements that are capable of disgusting quite aside from the moral outrage we feel towards the crime of murder: the chewing tobacco, the defiant slouch, the snickering contempt for the legal proceeding which we view to be a civilizing force. Even the lesser elements have conceptual content which we barely notice, because it has become so second nature to us: both bad posture and chewing tobacco offend our middle class propriety (but this sense of propriety we now take for granted was not common historically – see Elias and Orwell).

What’s interesting for purposes of this discussion is the way our disgust for the defendant’s bad manners seems so congruent with the disgust we feel for their crime. These people presume to upend the social norms of our society at every level. They have contempt for our racial tolerance, contempt for our prohibition of murder, contempt for our legal system, contempt for our ideas of proper courtroom decorum and contempt for our abhorrence of sticky mixtures of tobacco snuff and saliva, and all these various contempts seem to belong to one seamless continuum, in no small measure because we view these individuals as threatening. They are not just low; they have contaminating powers.

But surely, then, the capacity to feel disgust is in fact a sign of moral superiority, is it not? Not necessarily. Isn’t that one of the (perhaps unstated) points of Haidt’s narrative? I will point out just two ways that left-liberal disgust does not display moral superiority, although left-liberals are prone to think that it does.


The first way is of secondary significance, because it is specific to the left-liberal academic tribe of which Haidt is a member. Academics are our superiors in their elected specialties, and every specialist must come to terms with the fact that the general public cannot possibly fully understand what he does. Worse: the specialist usually receives a salary from his professional inferiors and, in the case of taxpayers, he receives his salary from people who often feel they have been coerced.

Moreover, taxpayers have the gall to assert their democratic prerogative of what William Miller calls “upward contempt” (similar to Boehm’s reverse dominance), the view that academics, while clearly superior in their respective fields, nevertheless overestimate their own value and worth at everyone else’s expense. In an age in which students sometimes incur a debt comparable to a home mortgage to obtain a college education, middle class families are starting to wonder whether the academic dominance hierarchy is skewed, i.e. out of proportion to its merits. This questioning represents a threat for the academic establishment, and in the presence of a genuine threat from one’s inferiors, contempt morphs into disgust.

The second way that left-liberal disgust fails to indicate genuine moral excellence is the more important one and a key point of interest in this article: left-liberals overestimate their own goodness, because they are prone to _over_-universalize in an effort to enhance the rhetorical power of their arguments. This is true of political narratives generally, but especially egregious in the case of left-liberals, because politics is more likely to be their moral center of gravity than it is for conservatives whose moral rudder is defined by systems of moral norms outside of politics, like religion. Conservatives are more of a mixed bag than leftists, not just because they are stuck in some older, less evolved gut-level moral foundations, as Haidt would have it, but because they are juggling a larger variety of discursive narratives than leftists are.

Specious universalization by left-liberals

Haidt writes in The Righteous Mind,

The hatred of oppression is found on both sides of the political spectrum. The difference seems to be that for liberals— who are more universalistic and who rely more heavily upon the Care/harm foundation—the Liberty/oppression foundation is employed in the service of underdogs, victims, and powerless groups everywhere … Conservatives, in contrast, are more parochial —concerned about their groups, rather than all of humanity. [italics = my emphasis]

And on Bryan Caplan’s blog, Haidt states: “Liberals in particular are universalists; they are morally opposed to tribalism, although they can kinda do liberal tribalism. So yes, liberals would consider voting for a republican as a kind of treason.”

We’ve already seen how left-liberals engage in specious universalizations in their defense of the corporatist programs of labor unions and other professional groups. I’d like to argue now that left-liberals conflate the broader category of harm with the more specific harms adjudicated in the struggle against oppression in order to use victims as ideological or symbolic proxies when they are settling more personal grievances.

We all feel the temptation to use proxies for our personal sense of injury. We use alleged injustices to proxies to add moral force to our indignation, even when the real source of our indignation is a feeling of personal oppression. The strength of our moral sentiment rests on the liberty / oppression foundation, but our discursive narrative rests on the harm foundation.

In Nixon’s famous “Checkers” speech, he countered the criticism that he had misappropriated campaign funds by saying that one gift he would never disavow was the gift of his dog Checkers. He seemed to accuse his critics of being a mean-spirited lot that wanted to leave poor Checkers homeless! But most of us are too smart to take Nixon’s complaint at face value. Checkers was just his alter ego, a persecuted but innocent animal that was above reproach (as far as we know). Nixon’s complaint was just a ham-fisted attempt to universalize a private sense of injury.

Likewise, a lot of what passes for concern for outsiders among leftists is really just a backhanded expression of resentment for dominant individuals within the group. The outsider becomes a proxy and symbol of the left-liberal’s oppressed status. In some cases, anyway, when people complain about someone who has committed an injustice against the “poor” what they really mean is: that business man who lords it over me, my boss who tyrannizes me, that frat rat or sorority girl who shunned me in college or that jock who tormented me in high school.

But isn’t it a good and valid thing that the oppression we suffer teaches us to feel indignation when we see the oppression of others, and the pain we experience to feel compassion for those who suffer? Yes, obviously, especially the latter. But the point is that when it comes to vicariously experiencing oppression, we are not truly identifying with another oppressed person if we use them as a proxy to vent resentment at those who have oppressed us.

This psychological confusion is important in the political domain, because it distorts the sort of policy prescriptions we recommend. We may sincerely hate another’s oppression, because it reminds us of something we ourselves have suffered, but if we insist on a remedy that punishes our (perceived) oppressor then we may be ineffective advocates of the other whom we profess to defend. What if the best possible remedy for them leaves our personal oppressors unpunished? Will we have the objectivity necessary to choose the remedy that does not punish over some alternative remedy that gives us the vengeful satisfaction and schadenfreude we seek but offers sterile “remedies” for our moral proxies?

This is why left-liberals often shun free-market solutions, even when they are the most effective at helping the poor. Effectiveness is not enough; the remedy must also punish the villains left-liberals dislike. Left-liberals claim to be more rational than conservatives, but their resentments darken their intellects and prevent them from making objective judgments about what truly harms and what truly helps.

In summary:

  • Left-liberals falsely universalize the interests of corporatists by conflating private interest with public and resting their moral logic on unreal futures in which all somehow benefit from their particular version of zero-sum rent-seeking
  • Left-liberals are engaged in struggles within numerous dominance hierarchies that appear to be invisible to Haidt, and both contempt and disgust play critical roles in the moral psychology of the struggle. Haidt’s methodology of decoupling disgust reactions from discursive reason prevents him from detecting this.
  • Left-liberals falsely universalize struggles within dominance hierarchies as matters of protecting others from harm

In closing, however, let me add a huge qualifier to what I have said in this article. Although I strongly agree with Haidt that much moral reasoning is really post hoc justification, and I am thankful to him for popularizing this and for launching this discussion, it is also true that discursive narratives have a life of their own. Most people, whether left and right, have sincerely internalized their discursive narrative, even though their passions deceive them into believing themselves more objective than they really are at times. And that is why unusual individuals with unusual commitments to discursive moral positions can sometimes arrive at similar conclusions independently, even when they have very different starting points. On rare occasions, such individuals can come together to effect real change.

The most notable example of this in my lifetime was in the 1970s, when the left-liberal narrative about “regulatory capture” developed primarily by Ralph Nader converged with the free-market liberal narrative about Public Choice developed by economist James Buchanan and led to a coalition between Democrats and Republicans that dismantled the regulatory support for both business and labor monopolies in trucking, airlines and telecommunications. None of those reforms would have succeeded had it not been for a tiny handful of individuals who were willing to stubbornly follow their discursive beliefs to their logical conclusion.


John Strong

John Strong has degrees in physics from U. of Tennessee, computer science from U. of Texas, and also studied classical letters at the Sorbonne in Paris. He is an armchair economist, moral philosopher and linguist. He lives with his family in Orizaba, Veracruz, Mexico where he manages a small nearshore software development company.?