Hope for Liberaltarians


I've been away trying to convince some college students of the moral rightness of selling off their body parts, so I'm a bit late to the blogospheric Haidt discussion. If you've yet to read moral philosopher Will Wilkinson's essay on Haidt, you should check it out:

Haidt's studies, which involve confronting subjects with often bizarre moral scenarios (there is plenty of material about incest and dead animals) and evaluating their responses, suggest that while Democrat-leaning liberals draw almost exclusively from harm and reciprocity, Republican-leaning conservatives draw more from the whole range of moral emotion. "Conservatives have many moral concerns that liberals simply do not recognize as moral concerns," Haidt and collaborator Jesse Graham write in a forthcoming paper for Social Justice Research. "When conservatives talk about virtues and policies based on the ingroup, hierarchy, and purity foundations, liberals hear talk about theta waves," Haidt and Graham's term for imaginary transmissions from space.

Most intriguing is the possibility of systematic left-right differences on the purity dimension, which Haidt pegs as the source of religious emotion. In a fascinating chapter in his illuminating recent book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt explains how a primal biological system—the disgust system—designed to keep us clear of rotten meat, expanded over our evolutionary history to encompass sexual norms, physical deformations, and much more. Haidt asks us to "Imagine visiting a town where people wear no clothes, never bathe, have sex 'doggy-style' in public, and eat raw meat by biting off pieces directly from the carcass." Disgusting? No doubt. Immoral? If your thought is, "Well, they're not violating anyone's rights," then, Haidt predicts, you probably didn't vote for Bush.

I'm just finishing Haidt's book, but I've been especially struck by how unstable any conservative/libertarian alliance ought to be from a psychological perspective. At yourmorals.org, I score 0 out of 5 on the purity dimension, .3 on the authority dimension, and .3 on the loyalty dimension, all sentiments conservatives seem to hold dear; my moral sentiments are almost entirely calibrated toward harm and fairness, averse to tribalism and tradition. Wilkinson scores very similarly; our responses out us as extreme liberals. (Ron Bailey doesn't seem too worried about purity or authority either.) Extrapolating from your own scores is never a great idea, but it doesn't seem like a great leap to expect that libertarians will be less concerned with respect for authority than avoidance of harm. Self-described libertarians aren't charted on the results page, so commenters should post their scores.

The purity/disgust dimension, which I'm apparently deaf to, is highly relevant to pieces I've done on organ and tissue markets–markets most decent people probably find impure and disgusting. Haidt has done heaps of research on the evolution of disgust as a moral emotion, and morally relevant disgust responses emerge as quite culturally malleable, subject to rapid change. One study Haidt cites shows a rapid increase in disgust attitudes toward smokers in the recent past, for example, which suggests a certain sensitivity to argument and reason.

The fluidity of this emotion should be obvious from a historical perspective, since few of us would find interracial marriage, gay sex, and life insurance as repugnant as our 19th century counterparts; we now find racists disgusting, not miscegenation. This is good news for anyone facing a future of kidney failure, simply because the disgust some feel toward a market might be recast as disgust at letting thousands of people die kidneyless. Wilkinson quotes Leon Kass as saying, "Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder," a sentence as lovely as it is entirely beside the point. The interesting question is: Shudder at what, and the what seems to be highly culturally contingent.