The Abundant Nonsense of Liberal Moral Scarcity

I’ve written about this subject before, but I want to revisit it here for the sake of this month of posts on the theme of abundance. I especially wanted to publish this post today, as people are once again taking to the polls to vote in Midterm elections. 

Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt is famous for his “moral foundations theory.” A descriptive, academic theory of the nature and functioning of moral systems around the globe, Haidt’s conception is designed to capture in the broadest possible, true generalization the diversity and variety of moral ideas in human cultures around the world. 

As anyone in his field would, Haidt spent a great deal of time early in his education reading and learning from ethnographies about the varied and nuanced moral systems that exist in cultures of many different levels of complexity and in many different ecological niches. Though moral principles compared across cultures can quickly begin to look almost entirely arbitrary and unprincipled, Haidt recognized common threads running through them all and theorized that human morality rests upon six basic moral foundations: 

  1. Care/harm
  2. Fairness/cheating 
  3. Loyalty/betrayal
  4. Authority/subversion
  5. Sanctity/degradation
  6. Liberty/oppression 

Haidt likens his foundations to taste receptors on the tongue and argues that the conservative edge over self-identified and much decried “liberals” consists in the fact that conservatives value and indulge in their rhetoric all six foundations, while liberals tend to pare the list down to the principal three of care/harm, fairness/cheating, and liberty/oppression. That is: in Haidt’s view, liberals represent an artificial and fundamentally deficient scarcity of concern for the full panoply of moral foundations, declaring concern for respecting authority and avoiding subversion, for prizing loyalty and punishing betrayal, and for preserving sanctity in the face of the threat of degradation largely irrelevant—or at least as secondary, or maybe even tertiary. In this way, we could regard liberals as flawed or defective in their failure to appreciate (and appeal to) all six basic moral “tastes.” Haidt has presented this idea at numerous conferences and speaking engagements over the years. 

Now, I find Haidt’s argument about the alleged deficiency or defectiveness of “liberal” moral foundations highly arguable and debatable. See, e.g., this post in which the author suggests that famous “liberal” concern for the environment is actually all about sanctity/degradation. Personally, while I have no difficulty believing that some self-described “liberals” definitely do think about protecting the environment in terms of sanctity/degradation, I can also see that many liberals’ (and some conservatives’) concern for environmental activism and conservation (my own included) stems perhaps more from their preoccupation with the care/harm foundation. 

Yet my point in this post is to try on the idea that “liberal” morality really does represent a paring down of concern when compared with more conservative values and to run with it in an effort to argue that the seeming artificial scarcity of liberal moral concern over the apparent abundance of the full conservative cohort of six moral foundations actually represents a desire to ensure a greater abundance of human freedom to act in the world, a freedom that is curtailed by privileging concern for the loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation foundations. I maintain that the preponderance of conservative concern for these three foundations actually attempts to limit individuals’ ability to enjoy greater abundance of personal experience in their lives in two chief ways.

First, the loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation foundations limit individuals’ ability to prove themselves fully capable moral actors. All three of these foundations usually find themselves leveraged by conservative social forces toward the end of enforcing adherence to delayed-return religiosity and worldview. They thus act to ensure that individuals stick closely to the party lines of their communities of knowledge, conforming their personal behavioral choices to those of the larger societies in which they live, and thus curtailing their freedom to choose. 

Second, conservatives often privilege these three moral foundations over the care/harm, fairness/cheating, and liberty/oppression foundations, thus allowing overriding concern for these three to interfere with or even outright supplant concern to avoid unfair competition with those whose views differ from their society, harm to such individuals through coercive and physically punitive practices, and oppression of such folks at the hands of the majority.

By relegating concern for loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation to the status of irrelevant or at least entirely secondary, more “liberal” moral thinkers actually free themselves and others up to reject the essential arbitrariness of moral pronouncements regarding such things as with whom and how you choose to have sex, what (ir)religious views you entertain, whether you handle conformity well as opposed to constantly charting your own unique course, and the like, and to concentrate instead on living a personally fulfilling life while not simultaneously cheating others, attempting to coerce or imprison them, or (worse!) seeking to do them bodily harm, all in an effort to achieve your aims while blithely using your “moral foundations” to ignore the moral reality of others.

The pathology currently on full, obnoxious display in this country under Trump (and other parts of the world under their own current glut of autocratic and authoritarian nationalist leaders) is one of social conservatives seeming to place loyalty to their ideology, the supposed sanctity of their religious views, and their sheer, naked exercise of authority all higher in value and worthiness than simple fairness, freedom, and care for all. There is absolutely nothing abundant or fulsome in any of this. Far to the contrary, it is petty and small and mean. 

From a purely descriptive point of view, I would agree with Haidt that many putatively “moral” values and systems around the world have placed—and continue to place—a premium on loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. That’s true. Yet from the prescriptive point of view more natural to moral theorizing, I would strongly argue that the best path forward for humanity as a whole is to jettison these concerns, or at least to relegate them to the museum of human social evolution as curiosities and stern warnings to be reviewed, puzzled over, and wondered at: that we could ever, as a species, have allowed such empty and arbitrary preoccupations to eclipse genuine concern for the actual welfare of others who may simply not worship the same gods, stick as closely to the same party politics, or value the same unquestioning acceptance of authority as others of us. There is absolutely nothing moral in that abhorrent practice, nothing at all. I choose the path of real abundance. You might consider doing so too.    


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