The "Conservative" Moral Sentiments: Do We Need Them?

Via this week’s Science Saturday on Bloggingheads TV, I find Jonathan Haidt’s TED Talk (embedded below) on the difference between liberals and conservatives, and the synergy between the conservative and liberal dimensions of the moral sense. As Jon notes, many liberals wonder why the in-group, authority, and purity dimensions of the moral sense count as moral at all. Why doesn’t harm/care and fairness/reciprocity just exhaust the moral field? With characteristic ecumenism, Jon cautions us against underestimating the function of the conservative sentiments in a successful society. “The great conservative insight,” Jon says, “is that order is really hard to achieve, it’s really precious, and really ready to lose.” The conservative and liberal dimensions of the moral sense create a balanced unity, like Yin and Yang. Our conservative impulses secure stability and order in the face of liberal change. 

Frankly, I find this extremely unconvincing, and I daresay even pernicious. The lesson, it seems to me, is that it is dangerous to become too thoroughly liberal, for that way chaos lies. What Jon needs to show is that there is a threshold on the conservative channels of the moral equalizer below which social stability is threatened. In the talk, he barely gestures toward evidence to this effect. (He does metion the results of an experimental game demonstrating how the willingness to punish can help solve collective action problems, and he seems to characterize the disposition to punish as “conservative,” but what in the experiment points to more than a well-honed sense of reciprocity?)  Indeed, my sense is that the societies in which the space between high liberal settings and low conservative settings is the greatest–that is, the most imbalanced–are by and large the best places for human beings to live. 

My own view is that there is a distinctive form of liberal order achieved by extended market societies. As Hayek noted, the decisive shift in human history was the shift (in some places) between personal to impersonal exchange. And part of this is a shift from personal to impersonal mechanisms for achieving order. If the conservative dimensions are so important, Jon needs to explain why the people of the advanced market democracies are so much more liberal than they used to be, so much less conservative, and yet so much less disordered (i.e., less violence, less war, etc.) 

I think the answer is that in Hayek’s “extended order,” the conservative sentiments play a relatively small and decreasing role. A more thoroughly liberal moral culture evidently not only sustains order, but sustains an order that leaves us healthier, happier, and orders of magnitude wealthier. If cranked-up conservative sentiments were necessary to sustain that order, then their decline would indeed endanger us, and could not constitute moral progress. But insofar as they have become superfluous, the failure to further suppress them is a failure of further moral progress. This is not a story of liberal/conservative Yin and Yang. This is a story of Yin devouring Yang. 

I admire Jon’s anthropologist’s impulse to take the variety of moral cultures seriously, and to take our own society’s mostly intra-liberal moral pluralism seriously. But I think he’s making a mistake if he think his work points toward the importance of the conservative sentiments. It’s pointing me toward a clearer grasp of the ecological conditions under which those sentiments are functional and adaptive. And we aren’t in them. When we recognize that, in the advanced world, those conditions have largely vanished–when we recognize that is partly what makes it the advanced world “advanced”–the question cannot be “Why do we need to respect tribalism, subordination, and moralized disgust?” The question is what to do with impulses that now hurt more than help, but are written into us anyway.      

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center