Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “Jonathan Haidt”

Will the real maverick please stand up

American political terminology is sometimes lost in translation, and perhaps sometimes lost even in American English.

New York City News Service: Mavericks Lost in Translation:

Both Senator McCain and Governor Palin also routinely describe themselves as mavericks – a term said to have originated from 19th Century Texas statesman Samuel Augustus Maverick, who refused to brand his cattle.

Katz defined maverick as “a quintessentially made-in-America word for someone who often goes his own way.”

But John McCain and Sarah Palin still seem, to most observers, to be branded Republican, unlike Colin Powell, the true maverick, who felt free to follow a different herd. And after being forced to destroy his own reputation by lying publicly for the party cause, who can blame him?

Colin Powell – The Real Republican Maverick : Clips & Comment:

What did Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell do when Dick Cheney and George Tenet fed him bad information and sent him to the United Nations a la Adlai Stevenson? He waited an appropriate amount of time because he’s a gentleman, he packed up Dick Armitage, and left the Administration that stabbed him in the back and left him out there hanging. Now that was Mavericky. Not relying on the broken down Republican Party, Powell took his own counsel this weekend and endorsed Barack Obama for president.

Someone in the alt.usage.english newsgroup remarked that terms like “maverick” and “renegade” seemed to have favourable connotations in the USA, at least among some sections of the population, whereas in other parts of the world they were viewed more negatively, with their implications of disloyalty.

It also casts more doubt on the research findings of Jonathan Haidt, who said that conservatives placed more value on loyalty as a moral value than liberals do (see Notes from underground: The moral high ground — or is it?), because it seems that in the US it is people who like to portray themselves as conservative who have a positive view of terms like “maverick” and “renegade”, where the former means someone with no particular loyalty, and the latter means a turncoat — someone who is positively disloyal.

The moral high ground — or is it?

After a long description of a Sarah Palin rally, Judith Warner closes her piece with

No Laughing Matter – Judith Warner – Domestic Disturbances – Opinion – New York Times Blog:

Jonathan Haidt, an associate professor of moral psychology at the University of Virginia, argues in an essay this month, “What Makes People Vote Republican?”, that it’s liberals, in fact, who are dangerously blind.

Haidt has conducted research in which liberals and conservatives were asked to project themselves into the minds of their opponents and answer questions about their moral reasoning. Conservatives, he said, prove quite adept at thinking like liberals, but liberals are consistently incapable of understanding the conservative point of view. “Liberals feel contempt for the conservative moral view, and that is very, very angering. Republicans are good at exploiting that anger,” he told me in a phone interview.

This has been picked up by several people who have blogged about it. or written about it on Usenet, and have quoted passages such as the following:

In several large internet surveys, my collaborators Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek and I have found that people who call themselves strongly liberal endorse statements related to the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity foundations, and they largely reject statements related to ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. People who call themselves strongly conservative, in contrast, endorse statements related to all five foundations more or less equally. (You can test yourself at We think of the moral mind as being like an audio equalizer, with five slider switches for different parts of the moral spectrum. Democrats generally use a much smaller part of the spectrum than do Republicans. The resulting music may sound beautiful to other Democrats, but it sounds thin and incomplete to many of the swing voters that left the party in the 1980s, and whom the Democrats must recapture if they want to produce a lasting political realignment

So I went to the web site and did a couple of the tests.

I took the basic test to see what they were talking about, and I concluded that
their reasoning is dangerously flawed.

Their theory is that in all cultures morality is based on five factors:

Harm, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority and Purity

Their finding was that self-described liberals tended to rate the first two higher, and self-described conservatives tended to rate the last three higher.

My own score (I’m a self-described liberal) was somewhere in between on all points except the last (purity) where my score was higher than the average for both liberals and conservatives.

I disagree with the conclusion that the results show that conservatives have more empathy for liberals than liberals have for conservatives. I believe that is a false inference, because the test questions did not test for that kind of empathy.

A more valid inference would be that conservatives are more likely to be suckered into supporting totalitarian governments, like Communist and Nazi ones, because of the higher value placed on loyalty and authority. And that has been shown by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report in South Africa.

If you regard respect for authority as very important in determining morality, and more important than not harming or fairness, then when deciding on whether or not it is right to exterminate Jews or Kulaks would depend on whether it was ordered by those in authority. One of the questions in the test was whether one thought it right to kill others if ordered to do so by someone in authority, so it is precisely this kind of thing that is being tested, and not empathy for supporters of the US Republican Party.

Fr Alexander Schmemann in his book For the Life of the world makes the same point, when he shows that obedience is not a virtue, because Adolf Eichmann, who sent a million Jews to their deaths in Nazi Germany, claimed as his justification that he was simply obeying orders. Fr Alexander pointed out that obedience is not a virtue, only obedience in love. I noticed that the morals test said nothing whatever about love.

The set of questions I answered appeared to be measuring how far people thought something was good because it was backed by authority.

Of course there are many different ways of looking at authority.

Jesus spoke with authority and not as the scribes. I take that to mean that his teaching was authoritative rather than authoritarian.

It is the same with a holy spiritual father who speaks with wisdom from above.

But it seemed to me that that was not what the questions were testing. Perhaps I misunderstood the questions, but if the questions are so easily misunderstood, it seems to put the validity of the test into question.

Not only do the conclusions not seem to be warranted by the data, but the data themselves are flawed, because the assumptions underlying the collection of data appear to be incomplete. Morality and its foundations are a lot more complex than Haidt and his colleagues seem to assume. The analogy with an audio equaliser is fundamentally flawed. It is not simply a matter of mixing five ingredients in the right proportions to achieve a good morality. As Fr Alexander Schmemann points out, obedience in itself is not a virtue. Obedience in love can be. I can’t speak for others, but for Christians, love is the foundation of morality. Without it, I’m a clanging brass of a clashing cymbal. Bang goes the audio mix.

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