QotD: Across the Pond Edition

I mentioned Jonathan Haidt some time ago — he’s the social psychologist who argues, among other things, that conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives, not least because conservatives consider factors in their moral choices to which liberals may be (willfully or otherwise) blind. At the Daily Telegraph, Tom Chivers, who leans left, has been reading Haidt’s book. He mentions that gulf of understanding:

They asked two thousand Americans to describe their political leanings (liberal, moderate, conservative) and fill out a questionnaire about morality, one-third of the time as themselves, one-third of the time as a “typical liberal”, and one-third of the time as a “typical conservative”. The clear answer was: self-described conservatives and moderates were much better at predicting what other people would believe. Liberals, especially the “very liberal”, were by far the worst at guessing what people would say, and especially bad at guessing what conservatives would say about issues of care or fairness. For example, most thought that conservatives would disagree with statements like “One of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenceless animal” or “Justice is the most important requirement for a society”.

But that’s not the QotD. That comes later in the essay, where he says:

My fellow liberals, in particular, should remember that conservativism is not necessarily cruel and selfish, or dogmatically anti-Enlightenment, but an alternative theory about the best way to provide the best for society. It believes that some institutions are worth keeping in place, because institutions (including religions and nation states) build social cohesion; that people require some constraints and accountability to prevent them acting badly; that we should emphasise what is similar about people, not what is different, if we want our group to rub along. Whether or not those statements are correct, they are not evil.

If Haidt’s book can accomplish that much, perhaps more people should read it.

H/T: Jim Geraghty’s Morning Jolt e-newsletter.

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About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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3 Responses to QotD: Across the Pond Edition

  1. Huck says:

    Let me start with two points: (1) I agree with Chiver’s take on conservatives in your QotD. (2) I haven’t read Haidt’s book.

    That said, as someone who regularly visits the most prominent conservative blogs, who regularly reads conservative pundits and intellectuals, and who keeps tabs on other forms of conservative media such as talk radio, it is a very common trope that liberalism is a mental illness. So, though I can understand how liberals would guess incorrectly about conservatives, I am skeptical of the claim that conservatives are better at guessing correctly about liberals. It presumes that there is a “correct” liberal or conservative way, and I am also reluctant to buy into such claims of some notion of conservative orthodoxy as distinct from liberal orthodoxy when it comes to moral choices.

    Even still, if I were to embrace the argument and accept the conclusion, I wouldn’t agree with the explanation that “guessing correctly” (or incorrectly) is a product of blindness to factors among liberals and superior perception skills among conservatives. Rather, I would simply think that conservatives, being conservative, would tend to hold their cards much closer to their chest and would be less disposed to proclaim their views as often and as publicly as liberals. In my experience, conservatives tend to be much more reserved. Liberals, on the other hand, strike me as much more inclined to proclaim their positions loudly and often (and sometimes brashly). In other words, liberals tend to lay their cards out on the table. This would make it easier for anyone, much less conservatives, to guess where liberals stand and what they believe; and it would make it harder for anyone (other than conservatives holding the cards themselves) to discern where conservatives stand and what they believe.

    • profmondo says:

      Hmmm. First off, on the political views as mental illness trope, I offer this, and this, and also this, all of which I found with almost no effort. I suspect that, as is generally the case, there’s enough blame to go around on that one.

      As for your take on the relative transparency of libs and cons, I think you’re right that liberals tend to be more vociferous than conservatives, but I’d like to add to that the notion that some of this is inherent to the positions. A key part of conservatism as I understand it is that (as Jonah Goldberg notes), it is only a partial philosophy — part of being conservative (and I think this is particularly true of libertarians) is that not everything is political. Because conservatives tend to esteem culture and history, they may see more realms of life as being outside the proper purview of the State, and therefore of the political agon. Put another way, because conservatives may not believe that X is public domain, they may not be as concerned with bringing it to public attention.

      Of course, at this point, we have to wonder about the so-called religious rightists like Santorum and Huckabee, and other manifestations of the “big government conservative.” That’s part of the problem with the fact that American conservatism (at least since Buckley) has been something of a fusionist movement between the anti-Statists (ahem) and the social cons. In many respects, I suppose I’m that sort of a fusion — I think many of the choices the social cons espouse would make for a better place, but I don’t think it’s the place of the government to impose those choices — or even to give a Sunnsteinian nudge towards them. That’s why I tend to oppose the Santorums and Huckabees.

      As always, Huck, thanks for your thoughtful response; drop by anytime!

      • Huck says:

        True that liberals can be crass in diagnosing conservative ideology in unpleasant ways. I wasn’t claiming otherwise. In fact, that just confirms the notion that liberals don’t get conservatives in the way that Haidt presumably argues. But what I was trying to do in bringing up the notion that conservatives think of liberalism as a mental illness is simply to say that I don’t really believe conservatives understand liberals any better than liberals understand conservatives. Anyone who claims that my belief system, whether moral or ideological, is akin to a mental illness simply doesn’t know squat about me or about liberalism as I define and understand it.

        As to your other point, I would like to note that there is also a strong liberal tradition of anti-statism that I tend to be partial towards myself. In fact, one might say the whole anti-establishment hippie tradition of liberalism, what I might call the anti-statist “communal” legacy of liberalism. This liberalism is very much ingrained in my thinking and that of just about any other liberal I know. But I find that conservatives conveniently ignore this profound and longstanding foundation of liberalism.

        Do liberals believe in an involved role for the state? Of course we do. But our belief in the proper role of the state is not to constrain liberty, but to guarantee a playing field and the necessary conditions for liberty and equality of opportunity to be a functional reality for all Americans. Many conservatives see liberal advocacy for state mandated and enforced Affirmative Action, or for Social Security or Medicare or Food Stamps, or for Public Education, etc., as allowing for the exercise of the fullness of liberty for those hampered by environmental, historical, or structural conditions over which they exercise little to no control or influence.

        I don’t know of any liberal who thinks that everything is political in every day living. And I don’t see at all the expression of liberalism in American culture in any remote way as approaching what Jonah Goldberg (since you bring him up) calls “liberal fascism.” (How God-awful offensive and misrepresentative of everything that I am and believe is THAT?!?!). We liberals also esteem culture and history. In fact, we esteem it so much that we want to unearth the uncharted histories of marginalized groups to add to the pantheon of history. We esteem culture so much that we want to add and celebrate more culture to the mix of American identity (hence the notion of liberals as multi-culturalists, a word which has become vilified within modern conservatism, I’d say).

        There’s more I have to say on this, but I have to skedaddle for an appointment I’m already making myself late for, but at least these are some thoughts to continue the conversation.

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