Republican Morality

September 20, 2011 | By | 7 Replies More

What is Republican morality? Such a provocative question! Before we get to an answer, though, what is morality? Jonathan Haidt has much to say about this in this 2008 Edge article. I have often mentioned Haidt in my posts.  I find him to be a first rate thinker and writer.   Now, back to the topic of morality. Here’s how Haidt defines morality:

Morality is any system of interlocking values, practices, institutions, and psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible. It turns out that human societies have found several radically different approaches to suppressing selfishness.

The first thing he teaches, then, is that “morality” is not an “it.” Rather, it is a set of (potentially conflicting) approaches that all aim for the same end: “making social life possible.”

Haidt sets forth the sort of society that passes as “moral” for many of us:

First, imagine society as a social contract invented for our mutual benefit. All individuals are equal, and all should be left as free as possible to move, develop talents, and form relationships as they please. The patron saint of a contractual society is John Stuart Mill, who wrote (in On Liberty) that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Mill’s vision appeals to many liberals and libertarians; a Millian society at its best would be a peaceful, open, and creative place where diverse individuals respect each other’s rights and band together voluntarily (as in Obama’s calls for “unity”) to help those in need or to change the laws for the common good.

Psychologists have done extensive research on the moral mechanisms that are presupposed in a Millian society, and there are two that appear to be partly innate. First, people in all cultures are emotionally responsive to suffering and harm, particularly violent harm, and so nearly all cultures have norms or laws to protect individuals and to encourage care for the most vulnerable. Second, people in all cultures are emotionally responsive to issues of fairness and reciprocity, which often expand into notions of rights and justice. Philosophical efforts to justify liberal democracies and egalitarian social contracts invariably rely heavily on intuitions about fairness and reciprocity.

I’ll call this Society #1.  Now consider a different social arrangement, Society #2:

But now imagine society not as an agreement among individuals but as something that emerged organically over time as people found ways of living together, binding themselves to each other, suppressing each other’s selfishness, and punishing the deviants and free-riders who eternally threaten to undermine cooperative groups. The basic social unit is not the individual, it is the hierarchically structured family, which serves as a model for other institutions. Individuals in such societies are born into strong and constraining relationships that profoundly limit their autonomy. The patron saint of this more binding moral system is the sociologist Emile Durkheim, who warned of the dangers of anomie (normlessness), and wrote, in 1897, that “Man cannot become attached to higher aims and submit to a rule if he sees nothing above him to which he belongs. To free himself from all social pressure is to abandon himself and demoralize him.” A Durkheimian society at its best would be a stable network composed of many nested and overlapping groups that socialize, reshape, and care for individuals who, if left to their own devices, would pursue shallow, carnal, and selfish pleasures. A Durkheimian society would value self-control over self-expression, duty over rights, and loyalty to one’s groups over concerns for outgroups.

Image by Jasonprince at dreamstime (with permission)

Society #2 is structured by much more than the principles found in Society #1 (harm/care and fairness/reciprocity). In fact, Haidt has observed that they are structured by three additional principles:

Ingroup/loyalty (involving mechanisms that evolved during the long human history of tribalism), authority/respect (involving ancient primate mechanisms for managing social rank, tempered by the obligation of superiors to protect and provide for subordinates), and purity/sanctity (a relatively new part of the moral mind, related to the evolution of disgust, that makes us see carnality as degrading and renunciation as noble). These three systems support moralities that bind people into intensely interdependent groups that work together to reach common goals.

The net result is that we have two major cultures clashing within the same set of borders:

Republicans have become the party of the sacred, appropriating not just the issues of God, faith, and religion, but also the sacred symbols of the nation such as the Flag and the military. The Democrats, in the process, have become the party of the profane—of secular life and material interests. Democrats often seem to think of voters as consumers; they rely on polls to choose a set of policy positions that will convince 51% of the electorate to buy. Most Democrats don’t understand that politics is more like religion than it is like shopping.

Haidt’s analysis demonstrates why conservatives are so ready to embrace religion and to conflate it with government:

Religion and political leadership are so intertwined across eras and cultures because they are about the same thing: performing the miracle of converting unrelated individuals into a group.

Haidt also explains why liberals are so often portrayed as immoral by conservatives, no matter how much they strive for equality or relief of suffering among the poor, sick and unemployed.

[Ingroup, authority, and purity] play a crucial role in most religions. When they are banished entirely from political life, what remains is a nation of individuals striving to maximize utility while respecting the rules. What remains is a cold but fair social contract, which can easily degenerate into a nation of shoppers.

Haidt notes that the use of “God” to knit the social fabric is sufficient but not necessary; the function of the knitting can be accomplished on other ways, if only liberals would take note:

The Democrats could close much of the gap if they simply learned to see society not just as a collection of individuals—each with a panoply of rights–but as an entity in itself, an entity that needs some tending and caring.

He proposes that liberals should expand their notion of the collective and to note that the three bases of morality that conservatives embrace can be appreciated by liberals, if only they would take a deep breath and give them a chance.

The ingroup/loyalty foundation supports virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice that can lead to dangerous nationalism, but in moderate doses a sense that “we are all one” is a recipe for high social capital and civic well-being . . . The purity/sanctity foundation is used heavily by the Christian right to condemn hedonism and sexual “deviance,” but it can also be harnessed for progressive causes. Sanctity does not have to come from God; the psychology of this system is about overcoming our lower, grasping, carnal selves in order to live in a way that is higher, nobler, and more spiritual. Many liberals criticize the crassness and ugliness that our unrestrained free-market society has created. There is a long tradition of liberal anti-materialism often linked to a reverence for nature. Environmental and animal welfare issues are easily promoted using the language of harm/care, but such appeals might be more effective when supplemented with hints of purity/sanctity.

That takes care of two out of three.  Respect for authority just doesn’t cut it as a basis for morality, not in my book.  But Haidt gives it a try anyway:  “Even as liberal bumper stickers urge us to “question authority” and assert that “dissent is patriotic,” Democrats can ask what needs this foundation serves, and then look for other ways to meet them. The authority foundation is all about maintaining social order.”

Haidt concludes that conservatives seek a way  to bind our nation together.   Haidt warns that these symbols of unity and authority (e.g., the flag and the military) are tools for conservatives, not necessarily ends in themselves.

He concludes by warning liberals that people don’t vote Republican because they are stupid:

The three Durkheimian foundations of ingroup, authority, and purity are powerful tools in that struggle. Until Democrats understand this point, they will be vulnerable to the seductive but false belief that Americans vote for Republicans primarily because they have been duped into doing so.

Haidt’s work invites an experiment you can run if you veer toward liberal.  There are two basic approaches to discussing politics with Republicans.  You can see how productive that conversation is if you get if you treat Republicans as though they were out to destroy America.  Or, you can see what sort of conversation results if you show and awareness and sensitivity toward the tree Durkeimian foundations, working (perhaps working really hard) to adapt those foundations (e.g., rampant consumerism or destruction of the environment as violations purity of purity).  I’ve done it both ways, and I can guarantee that Approach #1 results in a testy non-productive conversation, often a barking match.  Approach #2 will always result in at least a few connections being made, and perhaps a bit of progress.



Category: Good and Evil, Politics

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (7)

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  1. Xtech says:

    When Obama recently said “This is not class warfare — it’s the math” I immediately thought of Haidt’s contention that “Democrats often seem to think of voters as consumers; they rely on polls to choose a set of policy positions that will convince 51% of the electorate to buy … what remains is a cold but fair social contract… Most Democrats don’t understand that politics is more like religion than it is like shopping”

    Overblown rhetoric like “class warfare” certainly stirs feelings related to Ingroup/authority/purity which play a crucial role in religion. A whole lot more than an appeal to rationality (math! no less) does.

    When I marvel/shudder at the warm reception of the Republican party to potential presidential candidates who call for a Christian country, it occurs to me that an aspiration to a transcendant ideal is exactly what the Democratic party needs to do. Whether it is the conviction that our country can improve the lives of its citizens or some other higher calling, people are motivated by the heart much more than by the math.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Xtech: Well expressed. Yes, Republicans don’t have a copyright on inspiring crowds to that which is embraced by the in-group and that which is sacred. But I still stumble on calling something right because an authority figure announced it. That has never gone down with me, except, as Haidt suggests, authority figures of one sort or another, if legitimately elected, serve as our means for effecting what the in-group deems sacred (or even worthwhile or necessary!).

  2. Xtech says:

    Thank you, Erich. And to you too – another excellent and thought provoking essay – I really appreciate what you do here at DI.

    Though Haidt really seems to be on to something with his astute observations about the motivations of conservatives, it is really just a description of how conservatives are, and why. The history of how people who are deeply drawn to the ingroup/authority/sacred triad became the way they are is fun to speculate about. Evolutionary psychology can do a good job of that. However, it does not make for much of a plan for the future: we can continue being groupish, we can continue to be attracted to conflict and be warlike … or we can evolve to become more compassionate and rational. Or at least that is something we can strive for!

    If anyone here is interested in reading more about how not-so-rational we really are, Daniel Ariely is an Israeli psychologist who has some very compelling research on the subject, especially when it come to economic behavior.

  3. Xtech says:

    Ariely claims that we usually act on our intuitions, rather than rationally. And those intuitions are often wrong. We can look at the economic mess in our country and that of many American citizens and see just how badly we predict and act when it comes to economic decisions.

    He examines the cost/benefit analysis that goes on in the human mind with regard to cheating and stealing. Various factors influence one’s rationalization of dishonest behavior, such as social context (one is less likely to cheat a member of one’s in-group); priming (one reminded of an honor code will cheat less); and distance (lower levels of accountability with increasing remove from face-to-face interaction).

    This makes me wonder how much the now ubiquitous computer based transactions exacerbate this situation; how does it compare to a less abstract monetary system for transactions – one that encourages people to behave a little more responsibly?

    Ariely’s book is “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.” I’ve not yet read it. But it is on my Hold List at the library. I have heard him interviewed and seen his TED talk, and he is most engaging and worth a listen.

  4. Xtech says:

    Ariely has a great story about meeting with some Wall Street banker masters-of-the-universe types, who feel they are quite the exception to the rules everyone else must follow.

    “Haidt’s work invites an experiment … result in at least a few connections being made, and perhaps a bit of progress.”

    This has echoes of a “love thy neighbor sermon.” The key to success in a venture such as this is, as you suggest above, to focus on things in common, things that are shared. I sometimes think about Dolley Madison, a Quaker woman who did much to provide a place and context for civil dialogue between those who were bitter politcal rivals.

    I have engaged in these kinds of dialogues with Republicans, and they require good faith efforts from both parties. If one is intent on ‘winning’ or ‘othering,’ well the venture is doomed. Which brings me back around to my other theme in the post above which is distance. The farther one is from one’s opponent, the less our native compassion and empathy are in play; when we are driving, and the other person becomes just another car, another hunk of steel in the way of our commute. When we are emailing, the recipient becomes diminished, easier to lie to ( We need to see the other person’s eyes, to sense their tension, to breathe the same air, to sense their commonality and the humanity we share.

    There is much wisdom in those rituals and ceremonies that refer to breaking the bread with one another.

    By the way at my table we do have rules of civility ie sex, politics and religion are topics to be avoided, until and unless there is a level of trust in each other, of commitment to each other. In other words, when the father in law visits, sure we talk about the weather quite a bit, but afterwards, feet up on the coffee table, a bit of politics may be explored, gently 🙂

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