Hope in Haidt
When someone begins a sentence with ‘I’m telling you this as a friend’ you know it’s not going to be an easy conversation. So it was last night as Jonathan Haidt, the US academic, moral psychologist, set out the thesis of his new book to a packed out audience at the British Academy. There are longer reviews of the book available here and here, but the overriding message is a challenging one for liberals: according to Haidt, Conservatives seem to be more attuned to our moral senses. (Haidt describes himself as a ‘frustrated Democrat’).
The term liberal, of course needs some definition (and there is something lost in translation half way across the Atlantic) but more on that later. Haidt argues that human beings have developed five broad moral dispositions: care for others, justice/fairness, loyalty to the in-group, authority and respect for the sacred.
Put simply, Haidt’s advice to Liberals is to broaden their moral palate, learning to appreciate the value of loyalty, authority and the sacred. These are not only valuable things for a society, when channelled in the right way, but they also have deep emotional appeal. Conservatism’s ability to speak to this broader set of moral instincts explains its historical success.
Brian Eno started his response by saying that Haidt's book had changed his mind more than anything else in years, but not everyone on the panel was so sure.
David Aaronovitch offered a much more sceptical take. First, morality itself has evolved over time, he argued, so we make a mistake in pinning too much on innate moral predispositions – and we can all stop reading books about monkeys and bees. Second, he wasn’t ready to cede ground to the Right as easily as Haidt seemed to be suggesting.
This, I think gets to the crux of the discussion about where politics on the left – or more parochially in the Labour party – goes next. As Rowenna Davis pointed out, Haidt’s thesis provides as much opportunity as challenge for the left. It is a challenge to reconnect with the particular, not just the universal: this is the essence of loyalty to your family, your neighbourhood or your country. But it is also an opportunity to insist that these ideas apply in the economic sphere too.
The labour movement does have a story about the sacred, for example – it is that people are sacred and ought not to be treated as commodities to be traded for the lowest price. Similarly, it has always argued for in-group loyalty, this is why comparisons between the wages of the company CEO and the office cleaner strike a chord. The same tradition is not opposed to authority – every workplace has a boss – it is against arbitrary or unchecked authority.
This, I think is where the ‘post-liberal’ discussion challenges both left and right – or economic and social liberals, to get back to the point on definitions. On the Left, it asks whether social liberalism has sufficient resources to motivate people not just to avoid harming one another, but to positively do good for and with one another.
On the right, it draws out the tension between economic liberalism and social conservatism, questioning whether unchecked markets are capable of preserving some of the things societies hold most dear – from green spaces to decent work and time with your family.
For me at least, these are the really interesting implications of Haidt’s work – and the sort of ‘post-liberal’ questions we’ll be exploring at Demos.