Yuval Levin on Haidt

I have a lot of objections to Yuval Levin's Haidt post at NRO. Both Ross and Andrew Sullivan seemed to have been impressed. So let's look closer:

I think Haidt's thesis and book are fascinating, but suffer from the general tendency of modern science to turn the study of the nature of something into a study of the history of that thing.

Hmm…. This sounds to me like Levin thinks Haidt's work suffers from studying its subject in the right way. Post-Darwin, we understand that the nature of an animal is the consequence of the history of its lineage. Humans are animals and the human moral sense is a part of our evolved nature. Studying the natural history of the moral sense is almost the only truly illuminating way to study it. It's a whole lot better than simply trying to tease out the implications of our moral judgments from the first-person perspective — from the “inside” — and I say that as someone who has spent a huge amount of time employed in the process of reflective equilibration. I'd say Levin's post suffers from the general tendency of conservatives to do a lot of handwaving about what's wrong with real science in the attempt to preserve a sense of the authority of our moral judgments — and a sense of the legitimacy of the social order built around them — in the face of the scientific evidence for their biological and cultural contingency.

Not everything about our moral life can be rationalized, because important pieces of it derive from (and serve) the complicated set of moral obligations that arise out of our unchosen social relations. No one chooses to be born into the world, and no one chooses into which family and country to be born, but these unchosen relations nonetheless impose inescapable moral obligations on us.

This straightforwardly begs the question. Haidt's whole program has to do with explaining cultural variations regarding which perceived obligations arise from our unchosen social relations. Levin seems to want to think that there is some external fact about what the obligations of our social relations are. But the theory under discussion is precisely that both (a) social structure and (b) the sense of moral obligation experienced by those embedded within it depends on the culturally variable settings on the five posited dimensions of the moral sense. These settings not only change from place to place, but also change over time. That's part of the theory. So what's wrong with the theory?
My sense is that there has been a huge shift in the cultural consensus in the West about, say, the autonomy parents owe their grown and even adolescent children, and, conversely, the obedience and material assistance grown children owe their parents. You probably wouldn't be a conservative if you witnessed such a change in norms and failed to diagnose it as a failure of people to meet the “inescapable obligations” that arise from their unchosen social relations. If you were to accept the mutability of these obligations, it would be pretty hard to characterized them as inescapable. Once we no longer feel an obligation's normative gravity, we stop believing that it has any. And an obligation whose normative pull no one feels stop being considered an obligation. When it stops being considered an obligation, the pattern of individual behavior changes, and, ipso facto, the society is changed. For conservatives, this kind of social change comes as one moral crisis after another. When we in fact arrive at a better place after the change, as we generally do, the conservative mostly just makes peace with it while insisting that we all panic about the next moral shift, which will surely bring down all of society along with it.
Part of what it means to have a thoroughly liberal moral sense, in Haidt's terms, is to see the claims of ingroup solidarity as weak and easily defeated by competing considerations. For example, this liberal finds the claim, implicit in much of the immigration debate, that I ought to heavily discount the welfare gains to non-citizens simply because they belong to a different national coalition morally abhorrent. I don't doubt that many people take themselves to have an “inescapable” moral obligation to treat outsiders unfairly, or to even positively harm them (even kill them!), if it redounds to the benefits insiders. But I deny that there is any such obligation to escape in the first place. Haidt's theory is extremely illuminating because it explains in part how heated cultural and political conflict can flow from opinions that evidently incompatible, but all of which are distinctively “moral” in character. Many of Levin's claims, such as the claim that “some of our most important obligations—particularly those in the family—remain unchosen yet binding and essential” fail entirely to engage Haidt's thesis about the underpinnings of variation in moral judgment and sound like little more than hollow, if pious, exhortation.

This means we have one way of moralizing—the contractual way—which makes for more freedom and justice but has nothing to say to the deepest truths of our human experience (and therefore can dangerously distort our society); and we have another—the one grounded in continuity and generation—that helps us make sense of our place in the world but cares too little about avoidable injustices. The first is highly artificial, and so is also better suited to highly rational and verbal defenses. The second is highly sentimental—it is geared to those areas of our life about which we have the least explicit knowledge and so can say the least—so it sometimes expresses itself in unspoken shudders more than organized arguments. This leaves it at a great disadvantage in our time, of course.

No. The “contractual way” of moralizing is no less (or more) sentimental, nor is it more (or less) artificial. That is one of Haidt's central points. All the calibrations of the moral sentiments are calibrations of the moral sentiments. All the dimensions of sentiment naturally evolved. All the calibrations of those setting are conventional and culture-bound. I'm not surprised that Levin, who worked under Leon Kass at the President's Council on Bioethics, wants to defend the normative authority of our “unspoken shudders.” But I do think Levin is right that the liberal dimensions of the moral sense are uniquely amenable to defense by rational argument, which is no doubt why liberalism is part of our rationalist Enlightenment heritage — why the societies that most value reason are also liberal societies and contain the least suffering and oppression. Levin wants to defend the shudder when it comes to, say, cloning, but (I trust) not when it comes to the subhuman treatment of the Dalits. So, those of us armed with reason inevitably ask: “What's the difference?” And he doesn't have a good answer. Which is why, once we hit a certain threshold of sensitivity to harm and injustice, we just keep on getting more and more liberal, despite the best efforts of folks like Levin to get us to see our prejudices as “inescapable” and “essential.”

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center