August 23, 2014


The Moral Divide Between Progressives and Traditionalists (JAMES KALB, 8/21/14, Crisis)

A recent account of moral sentiments, proposed by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon, 2012), has attracted attention for its explanation of the difference between progressives and traditionalists.

According to the account, moral judgments typically have to do with six dimensions of concern: care versus harm, fairness versus cheating, liberty versus oppression, loyalty versus betrayal, authority versus subversion, and sanctity versus degradation. Surveys show that progressives, by and large, are concerned with the care, fairness, and liberty dimensions, while traditionalists are concerned with all six. So it appears that the "culture wars" have to do with the moral status of loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Traditionally minded people accept them as morally important, while their more progressive fellows do not.

But why the difference? It appears, although Haidt's concerns lie elsewhere, that the difference lines up with the opposition between the modern tendency to view man as radically free and the world as technological, and the traditional, classical, and religious view of man as social, and the world as pervaded by intrinsic meanings, natural ways of functioning, and natural ends.

The difference is a difference in basic understandings of man, society, and the world. Progressives tend to think of the world as a sort of blank slate that is meaningless in itself. On that view man becomes the creator of values, society becomes a system set up to bring about whatever goals people want it to serve, and it seems most sensible to design the system to help people attain whatever purposes they have, without playing favorites or interfering more than necessary with what they want to do.

So the progressive view makes care, fairness, and liberty seem the right basic standards, with "care" understood from the standpoint of the concerns of the person cared for. Authority, loyalty, and sanctity interfere with people doing and getting what they want, so on such a view they make no sense as standards. They seem dangerous, since they give an advantage to those in charge of the system, who in the absence of a higher good shared with others can be expected to use the advantage for their private ends. So it's not surprising that "question authority" has been an axiom for progressives, rebellion a virtue, and transgression a desirable form of liberation.

In contrast, traditionalists view society and morality as natural rather than constructed. Since man is naturally social, society and morality are necessary to the world he inhabits and needed to make him what he truly is. That world is considered good in itself as well as productive of good, and to act socially and morally is to realize one's own nature by participating in it. So the loyalty and authority that create a social world and make us part of it are natural to man and necessary for a good life.

Posted by at August 23, 2014 7:36 AM

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