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Ian I. Mitroff Headshot

The Moral Contemptibility of the Conservative Mind

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Jonathan Haidt's new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, is highly admirable. It deserves all the good reviews it has garnered. Nonetheless, I want to take exception with it because I believe it fundamentally violates one of its own main theses.

As someone who has taught ethics for more than 45 years, I agree strongly with Haidt that virtually all of the great traditional ethicists profoundly missed the boat, especially when it comes to morality. For instance, the great Immanuel Kant, whom I admire enormously as an epistemologist, leaves me utterly cold when it comes to ethics. This is not because I think Kant is totally wrong. Kant is supreme in his rational approach to ethics. If only rationality were enough to settle the matter. Reason is certainly necessary, but it is hardly sufficient.

(Simply stated, Kant's central principle regarding whether a proposition should be admitted as an ethical precept is to test whether it is generalizable without contradiction in the sense that it can be applied universally without harm to all persons. Thus, for Kant, suicide fails as a general ethical precept because it cannot be generalized without contradiction, i.e., without the extinction of the entire human race. Needless to say, not all ethicists have agreed with this line of reasoning.)

Haidt's major criticism is that all of this is far too cerebral for the great body of humankind. And he is right. Traditional ethics fail to grab the emotions, hearts and, most of all, the souls of people because it's not how people fundamentally experience ethics, and certainly not how they experience morality, which is vastly more personal. In his and the studies of other Social Psychologists, people experience morality in terms of six basic emotional or feeling-based principles: Caring/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, Sanctity, and Liberty/Oppression.

Interestingly enough, as well as very important, only the first two principles -- Caring/Harm and Fairness/Cheating -- essentially capture the moral precepts of liberals while conservatives generally subscribe to all six. I agree that this puts liberals at a distinct disadvantage in appealing to the general mass of voters. For instance, liberals often mock values, such as loyalty, without which no society could long endure. For this reason, Haidt enjoins liberals to make a sincere attempt to listen to conservatives and appreciate sincerely the values they hold dear, and even more, to see that that they are generally necessary for any society to hang together.

Again, I'm in strong agreement.

I part company over the fact that all of this sounds too rational, the very thing of which Haidt is so critical. If morality is grounded basically in emotions and feelings, then morality cannot be decoupled from the person or persons giving voice to those precepts and how they are expressed with a person's entire being, e.g., idiosyncrasies, smirks, etc. This is precisely where things break down. This is precisely why there is an undeclared culture war going on in America.

As a general rule, I agree with Haidt's list of moral precepts. But when conservatives and Republicans use them to insult women (e.g., women are not caterpillars and not to be compared to insects in any sense), then I am filled with moral revulsion to the very fiber of my soul. In the end we are left with the same moral quandary with which we began: a moral mess of unparalleled dimensions. We yearn for a leader or leaders who can speak civilly both to liberals and conservatives alike on the great issues of the day. Whether we know it or not, we are waiting for a Moral Godot.

Ian I. Mitroff is a crisis expert and an Adjunct Professor at UC Berkeley. His most recent book is Swans, Swine, and Swindlers: Coping with the Growing Threat of Mega Crises and Mega Messes, Stanford, 2011. He is the co-author of the forthcoming book with Murat Alpaslan, A Prefect Mess: Why Everything Is A Mess And How To Cope With It, University of Pennsylvania Press. His PhD is in Engineering Science and the Philosophy of Social Systems Science from UC Berkeley.