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Morals as a Tool for Ideologues

Portrait of the Marquess of Pombal, who led the reconstruction of Lisbon after the earthquake of 1755, and broke the power of the Inquisition

Last week I wrote that there is no common ground between me and the gun crowd, and by extension, with the entire conservative movement. There has been a lot of research into the different values of conservatives and liberals; Thomas Edsall has a good summary here. Edsall discusses the work of Jonathan Haidt, who claims that certain value structures are the result of evolution. These values helped people control their behavior and emotions so that self-interest would be subordinated to the interests of the group. As a result, the group had a better chance of survival, even when it meant death or suffering for the individual. Haidt thinks people don’t reach moral decisions through reason, but rather from instantaneous application of these structures to moral dilemmas. The role of reason is limited to finding explanations after the decision has been made. The six structures are as follows:

1. Care/harm for others, protecting them from harm.

2. Fairness/cheating, Justice, treating others in proportion to their actions, giving them their “just desserts”. (He has also referred to this dimension as Proportionality.)

3. Liberty/oppression, characterizes judgments in terms of whether subjects are tyrannized.

4. Loyalty/betrayal to your group, family, nation. (He has also referred to this dimension as Ingroup.)

5. Authority/subversion for tradition and legitimate authority. (He has also connected this foundation to a notion of Respect.).

6. Sanctity/degradation, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions. (He has also referred to this as Purity.)
(Footnotes omitted.)

The point of the opposition in these categories is that responses to moral dilemmas fall on a sliding scale. According to Haidt, liberals emphasize care and equality to the near exclusion of other values, while conservatives have a more complex reaction to situations. Edsall offers a good description of what this means in practice. Here’s an excerpt:

On key questions and statements in this category, liberals scored high, conservatives low: “I believe peace is extremely important”; “Understanding, appreciation, and protection for the welfare of all people and for nature”; “One of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal”; “How close do you feel to people all over the world?”

?On other key questions in this area, conservatives scored high, and liberals low: “War is sometimes the best way to solve a conflict”; “There is nothing wrong in getting back at someone who has hurt you.”

The outcomes of the application of these responses to social issues become hardened into rigid stances that brook no disagreement. Here is how Abraham Lincoln (H/T Digby) answered in his Coopers Union Address the question of the day: What would it take to satisfy Slave State politicians and their fire-eating partisans.

This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly – done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated – we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas’ new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.

Wayne LaPierre has made it clear that we all must completely arm and armor ourselves to persuade him and his members that Barack Obama doesn’t intend to seize all guns and lock up their owners in a penal farm in Nevada.

In the same way, the Republican Party has taken one idea, that rewards should be proportional to contributions, and pushed it to such insane limits that a minor increase in taxation on the richest 2% of the population is unimaginable. The anti-abortion crowd knows no limits to its demands, including death of the mother. The rich believe that any effort to help Americans, such as Social Security, is evil, because it is a drain on the almighty economy. The conservatives fetishize the Founding Fathers as ultimate authority figures.

It isn’t that liberals don’t see the value of rewarding people for effort. John Rawls in his A Theory of Justice recognizes the importance of this principle, which he states this way:

Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that
(a) they are to be of the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society, consistent with the just savings principle (the difference principle).

It isn’t that liberals don’t see the moral ambiguities of abortion. It isn’t that liberals don’t see why hunters and skeet shooters want their guns. It isn’t that Liberals don’t read the Founding Fathers looking for guidance.

The problem is that the demands of conservatives are out of control. They utterly reject the power of the mind to reason to a plausible understanding of moral values and their application to complex circumstances. Conservatives only use reason to extend by remorseless logic the demands of their primal moral feelings. They do not see that their views, when pushed to their logical limits, are incoherent.

The Newtown murders are a perfect demonstration of that incoherence. LaPierre’s solution is to put armed guards in every school at a cost of billions, no matter the fiscal cliff or the loss of liberty that this would represent. Boehner’s failure to enact Plan B is another, deficits be damned, no taxes on the richest. I don’t have common ground with these ideologues and their slavish adherents. It is pointless to look for it.

Lincoln faced down the South. It was his only choice if he wanted to preserve the Union. I’d appreciate it if the spineless and ideologically ungrounded Democrats would consult the Coopers Union Address and their own sense of morality before caving into an incoherent and irrelevant minority who find inspiration in the Inquisition.

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