With all apologies to Marcus Tullius Cicero, which is why I posted that poem just now, and to the rest of you for the very juvenile pun in the title, but something stinks in the state of our discussion of morality in America. It seems we are bending over backwards to allow people at the debate table that do not deserve to be taken seriously. We confuse their right to speak with their right to be heard and quite frankly we are doing more harm than good by doing so.
It is not entirely Mr. Kristof’s fault. He himself says he is not concerned with the conservative “morals.” Still he allows them to be called morals. I think perhaps Dr. Haidt has ventured into territory still best left to philosophers. He defines six values, the first three of which are the only ones important to liberals and the latter three that conservatives as well as the first three. These values are (as seen in the article linked above): caring for the weak, fairness, liberty, loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity.
The first three are pretty straight forward and I am glad that everyone cares about them. It is hard to argue that caring for the weak is not a moral value though some folks certainly do their best to try. We all want to be treated fairly, which is itself no not a moral value but again, hard to argue that treating others fairly is not moral. Liberty is much the same as fairness in that regard, we all want freedom but to want it for others is a truly good impulse.
The others, though, that is a much harder sell. Loyalty is all well and good, but is it a moral value? One is loyal to ones friends and family but really that’s kind of self-serving and most loyalty is based on conditional relationships, we are loyal to those that are loyal to us. Things fare worse for obedience to authority. I fail to see at all how that is moral. It is strictly prudent. One is obedient to authority because one does not want to be on authority’s shit list. As for sanctity, well that’s just silly. That is saying precisely that being good is being good. I don’t even know if that is rational enough to qualify as a being circular logic.
What’s more, while the first three are certainly capable of being in conflict with each other, it is hard to think of any circumstance where they can be used, without serious manipulation to further unjust ends. Each of the “conservative” values can be, easily, and have in the past. As my friend Taylor Yu explains each of those were the most important values in Nazi Germany. It is a very hard sell indeed to claim moral high ground when your most cherished values are shared with a group whose name has become synonymous with evil.
Not that I am saying the conservatives in America are Nazi’s. I think many of them just have really not done much in the way of thinking about what their morality is. Which gets to the rub of what ultimately bothers me about the so-called “moral values” that Haidt ascribes to conservatives. They rely on a certain degree of intellectual and ethical laziness. Caring for the weak, keeping things fair, deciding how much liberty is important to us, those require serious consideration. The other three don’t require question, indeed they proscribe it. Maybe I’m just too nostalgic about ancient Greek philosophers, but as Socrates said “the life unexamined is one not worth living.” Which is exactly the kind of life conservatives, according to Haidt, want.