Discover more from Notes from the Middleground
What Liberals Can Learn from Conservatives About Moral Pluralism
With a little help from Jonathan Haidt and Isaiah Berlin
I mentioned in my inaugural post that my liberalism is informed in complicated ways by ideas and assumptions usually associated with the right. I’ll explain and explore what I meant by that claim in several posts over the coming weeks and months, but I’d like to begin that process today by looking at one small piece of it—through a discussion of what I learned about liberalism, conservatism, and pluralism from reading one of the most illuminating examples of social science published over the past decade: The Righteous Mind by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt.
In the book, Haidt uses experimental research to develop what he dubs a theory of moral foundations, though I prefer the term moral ideals. (I’ll use that alternative throughout this post.) Haidt found that people expressed attachment to as many as six of these ideals:
Care—the desire to help those in need and avoid inflicting harm
Liberty—the drive to seek liberation from constraints and to fight oppression
Fairness—the impulse to impose rules that apply equally to all and avoid cheating
Loyalty—the instinct to affirm the good of the group and punish those who betray it
Authority—the urge to uphold hierarchical relationships and avoid subverting them
Sanctity—the tendency to admire purity and experience disgust at degradation
Haidt then examines which moral ideals line up with different political commitments. As one might expect, doctrinaire libertarians are strongly devoted to liberty, pay a modest amount of attention to fairness, and display indifference to the other moral ideals. Liberals, by contrast, tend to emphasize the first three ideals in descending order of intensity—care, liberty, and fairness—and express little concern about the others. Social conservatives, meanwhile, affirm the goodness of all six moral ideals.
Now, before I go on to explain why I think this last finding about social conservatives is important, I want to clarify something about Haidt’s treatment of liberals. I don’t doubt that the liberals who participated in his research expressed an attachment to care, liberty, and fairness and displayed relative indifference to loyalty, authority, and sanctity. But I think this says more about their self-understanding than it does about their true moral commitments.
Liberal Blind Spots
It’s true that many liberals are skeptical about loyalty to the nation, for example. But it’s also the case that they regularly express solidarity with fellow liberals and progressives of every culture or country.
It’s true that many liberals are often likewise disinclined to defer to the authority of political and religious leaders. But they readily recognize and affirm the authority of scientists, doctors, activists, artists, writers, professors, and intellectuals, especially when they seek to advance liberal moral and political ideals.
And it’s true that many liberals are less likely than others to revere religious institutions and received traditions. Yet they also sometimes treat their own political leaders and moral heroes with a reverence bordering on sanctity, just as many also view Donald Trump and other prominent Republicans with something approaching outright disgust, judging them harshly for despoiling American democracy and desecrating its liberal institutions and traditions.
So there’s reason to think both liberals and social conservatives affirm versions of all six of Haidt’s moral ideals. But it’s also significant that, unlike social conservatives, liberals apparently don’t understand themselves to be affirming the goodness of loyalty, authority, and sanctity. It’s significant because it’s a blind spot—an area of moral reasoning and reflection from which liberals opt to exclude themselves.
I suspect they do so because loyalty, authority, and sanctity all involve either drawing lines of exclusion or elevating some people and actions over others. These three moral ideals therefore cut across, complicate, and sometimes even contradict the universalistic and egalitarian aspirations of liberalism, which are more compatible with care, liberty, and fairness. So committed liberals often ignore the other, problematic ideals, discounting their significance, denigrating them as archaic holdovers from pre-liberal or illiberal forms of life that we’re better off jettisoning from moral consideration, and denying the role they play in their own moral experiences and judgments.
I think this is a mistake—because it risks making liberalism less open to moral pluralism than it can and should be.
Pluralism and Liberalism
To my mind, the liberal thinker who thought most deeply about moral pluralism is Isaiah Berlin. The foundational observation of Berlin’s thought is that there are many intrinsically valuable moral ideals and that they stand in permanent and irresolvable tension with one another. This tension exists between political values (like freedom and equality) but also between political values (like democracy) and nonpolitical values (like various forms of aesthetic excellence).
So, for example, liberty is a great good, but if you follow libertarians in pursuing it to the exclusion of other moral considerations, or even affirm one of its several meanings to the exclusion of other senses of the term, you’ll end up displaying indifference to other valuable ideals, like care, loyalty, and sanctity. Loyalty to a group (solidarity) can likewise be a great good, but when affirmed to the exclusion of other ideals, it can lead members of a collective to set up rules to benefit themselves at the expense of outsiders, thereby transgressing the ideal of fairness. Upholding authority can also be an important part of a moral and spiritual life, but not if it’s pursued exclusively, thereby ignoring worthwhile concerns for care and fairness.
For Berlin, political theories could be divided between monistic ones, which consistently seek to advance one ideal while denying the intrinsic worth of other ideals, and pluralistic ones that acknowledge the intrinsic worth of many moral ideals and attempt, as much as possible, to give each their due, accepting that this will often produce agonistic conflict between ideals that entails real losses, when policy choices end up advancing one ideal over the others.
Berlin believed that liberalism, at least at its best, was the preeminent political theory of pluralism—because it creates a large private sphere in which individuals and groups can pursue various and divergent moral ideals, while in the public sphere of democratic politics, an array of laws, norms, and institutions enable and encourage compromise, trade-offs, and conciliation between different classes, interests, ideologies, and ways of life devoted to myriad moral ideals. Liberalism does this in full awareness that no final settlement of these tensions will ever be possible—because they are woven into the tangled fabric of human moral experience.
Monistic Liberals and Pluralistic Conservatives?
What does this (admittedly idealized) account of pluralistic liberalism have to do with what Jonathan Haidt’s research reveals about liberals and social conservatives?
Well, if Haidt’s findings are correct, they indicate that liberals today are somewhat less pluralistic than they might be—again, not necessarily in the sense that they consistently deny the value of loyalty, authority, and sanctity in favor of singularly affirming the value of care, liberty, and fairness. As we’ve seen, liberals do sometimes show that they value loyalty, authority, and sanctity. But they appear not to recognize their own attachment to these ideals or incorporate reflection about potential conflicts among them into their political thinking.
That doesn’t exactly make today’s liberals monists—valuing three moral ideals is obviously more pluralistic than focusing monomaniacally on just one—but it does make them less fully open to the conflictual reality of moral experience than one might hope. Becoming more open to this reality might help them to appreciate the real moral losses endured by non-liberals when policies that advance care, liberty, and fairness are enacted, forcing the political retreat of other ideals.
As for Haidt’s social conservatives, there is something surprising about contemplating the possibility that they might appreciate a fuller range of moral ideals than many contemporary liberals do. It’s surprising because it cuts against the widespread presumption among many liberals and progressives that conservatism is entirely an expression of bigotry and closed-mindedness. Now, to be clear, I don’t think Haidt’s findings necessarily mean that all or even most social conservatives are more tolerant or open-minded than all or even most liberals. But it might mean that your average social conservative tends to be more aware than your average liberal of the full range of conflicting ideals that make up the moral life.
And that might mean that today’s liberals would be more open to pluralism if they looked at the world a little bit more like social conservatives do—as filled with conflicting and clashing calls to loyalty, authority, and sanctity as well as care, liberty, and fairness.
What I’m advocating here isn’t that liberals become more like social conservatives at the level of substantive views. I’m suggesting liberals should strive for greater self-awareness about the moral commitments they already hold—and about the multitude of ineradicable conflicts and tensions among them.
If liberals did more of that, I’m convinced they’d not only understand themselves and the moral texture of reality a little better than they currently do. I think they’d also end up waging their battles with the antiliberal right from a position of greater strength.
Eyes on the Right is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.