Are Liberals the Real Authoritarians?

2014-09-12 che_guevara_tshirt

I’ve been very influenced by Jonathan Haidt’s work on moral foundations theory which, in a nutshell, postulates that there are 6 components to intuitive moral reasoning, and that conservatives tend to apply them all but liberals only use a narrow set. The foundations are:

  1. Care/harm for others, protecting them from harm.
  2. Fairness/cheating, Justice, treating others in proportion to their actions (He has also referred to this dimension as Proportionality.)
  3. Liberty/oppression, characterizes judgments in terms of whether subjects are tyrannized.
  4. Loyalty/betrayal to your group, family, nation. (He has also referred to this dimension as Ingroup.)
  5. Authority/subversion for tradition and legitimate authority. (He has also connected this foundation to a notion of Respect.)
  6. Sanctity/degradation, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions. (He has also referred to this as Purity.)

According to Haidt, liberals consider chiefly care/harm and  liberty/oppression, leaving the rest (including authority/subversion) to conservatives. But is that really true? Are liberals so anti-authoritarian? Or do they just have different authorities in mind? Megan McArdle has her doubts:

In the ultra-liberal enclave I grew up in, the liberals were at least as fiercely tribal as any small-town Republican, though to be sure, the targets were different. Many of them knew no more about the nuts and bolts of evolution and other hot-button issues than your average creationist; they believed it on authority. And when it threatened to conflict with some sacred value, such as their beliefs about gender differences, many found evolutionary principles as easy to ignore as those creationists did. It is clearly true that liberals profess a moral code that excludes concerns about loyalty, honor, purity and obedience — but over the millennia, man has professed many ideals that are mostly honored in the breach.

And, as it turns out, McArdle’s instincts are on to something. She points to an article by Jeremy Frimer for the HuffPo: How Do Liberal and Conservative Attitudes About Obedience to Authority Differ? The Surprising Result of My Study. After coming across extreme reverence for Che Guevara in Brazil, Frimer reconsidered the stereotype that conservatives are uniquely authoritarian:

Past psychology studies had found that conservatives have the more favorable attitudes toward statements such as, “If I were a soldier and disagreed with my commanding officer’s orders, I would obey anyway because that is my duty.” Did conservatives have a good feeling about this statement because they think that people ought to obey (in general), or because they support the military and its agenda? I suspected it was the latter.

Subsequent studies bore Frimer’s (and McArdle’s) suspicions out. If you ask about liberal authorities (e.g. “an environmentalist”) then suddenly you get anti-authoritarian conservatives and authoritarian liberals, leading Frimer to conclude: “Rather than thinking of liberals and conservatives as being fundamentally different psychological breeds, I now think of them as competing teams.” Frimer goes on to speculate that the reason we associate conservatives with authoritarianism is that, over time, authorities become conservative. But I think that depends on conflating two separate notions of conservatism: the literal one (e.g. those that maintain traditions) and the more common one (the right-wing of American politics, which is a blend of traditionalism and classical liberal philosophy). Authorities probably become traditionalist over time for obvious reasons. Once you control the institution, you have a vested interest in the institution. But there’s no reason why the institution should correspond to classical liberal philosophy vs any other philosophy other than historical accident.

For me there’s one more big question: where does this leave Haidt’s moral foundations theory? I think it’s plausible that Haidt is right about the 6 dimensions, but wrong about the divide between liberals and conservatives. It might not be that liberals don’t care about authority or sanctity. It might simply be that they don’t recognize their own innate moral drivers because, in American politics, the authority and sanctity considerations of the left are covert. We think of the military and police as authorities. We don’t think of academic as authorities, but they are. We think of purity as a religious concept, but it’s no different in function from the kind of purity that drives orthorexia (aka “Whole Foods syndrome”).

I would further speculate–just speculation at this point–that being cognizant of moral drivers allows them to be better moderated. Conservatives are self-conscious about their respect for authority, which permits critique of that authoritarianism. Liberals, however, are in denial of their authoritarian tendencies and so they are basically unchecked, which is dangerous.

2 thoughts on “Are Liberals the Real Authoritarians?”

  1. In the spring of 2011, I worked closely in a Senior Practicum with a professor who was a staunch defender of science. He taught a Psychology course titled: Science, Psuedo-Science and Religion. He was generally respectful toward religious belief, but was scathing any time someone attempted to conflate belief with “science.” He would explain that science was fact, not belief. Empirical evidence was in many ways his God.

    One example stands out to me. A visiting professor was giving a lecture on her experiences living with and helping others overcome a developmental disability. She made the comment that she only had anecdotal evidence to support a particular technique, but after so many anecdotes, it was basically empirical. I turned to watch him, expecting to see some fireworks, a bursting gasket, or at the very least some twitching. He was the model of calmness. However, as soon as we got to class, he let it out. He reminded us that no amount of anecdotal evidence can ever accumulate into empirical data. Experiments! Controls! Statistical analysis!

    And over the course of my program, I was pretty much converted. But every now and then I would ask myself how these principles affected my faith. He would often dismiss any religious argument or defense as an appeal to authority. However, I couldn’t help but think that while I did often give preference to authority, I did so based on the personal experience I could only describe as spiritual. So in one sense I did defer to authority, but only after experiencing personally a spiritual manifestation that doing so was congruent with my own spiritual nature. My faith was based on the belief that my experience was what I interpreted it to be-personal knowledge.delivered to me from God through His Spirit.

    As I grew to better understand the scientific method, especially as practiced in contemporary academia, I saw that is really wasn’t a qualitatively separate way of interpreting data from my own faith-centered paradigm. Individual experiments are designed and conducted by humans. These experimental designs come from within, and are thus shaped by, a prevailing paradigm. The results from these studies, of variable validity and reliability, are subjected to a plethora of statistical analysis until some “statistically significant” relationships are confirmed. (Or, depending on the paradigm and the researcher’s biases, a few statistical analyses to propose no evidence of significant relationships. Researchers send manuscripts to peer-reviewed journals. Peer reviewers are usually anonymous, the decisions of which manuscripts to publish and which to reject, far from transparent. Subscribers to these journals read those articles which interest them, anywhere from a cursory reading to a thorough critique. And then they usually summarize the results they perceived to students, or through the media. All along the way people take various studies to support their own pre-conceived biases, and a single study may be used to argue the truthfulness of several contradictory claims.

    Throughout this process virtually no one ever doubts the integrity of the data reported. Even fewer think to verify the reported results of a statistical analysis. (Let alone to question the actual validity of a statistical method to interpret data). Few people ask what research has been denied publication. And where every serious academic is compelled to perform new, interesting work, the crucible of empirical reasoning, the real backbone of scientific progress, the tedious and unpopular *replication*–nearly universally recommended and encouraged in professional journals,–goes largely undone.

    The more I pondered this process and its similarities and stark contrasts between my own faith, the more I am convinced that individuals who proclaim the folly of religion and praise the enlightenment of Science, are defending their own faith. That’s not to belittle or criticize their worldview. It is one way of perceiving and interpreting the world. But it is also built on faith. No scientist has personally performed all of the experiments that comprise our scientific literature. We take those reports on faith. We collectively “believe in” the peer review process to screen out flawed research. To pretend that the academic pursuit of knowledge is free from faith and reliance on authority, is naive at best and often dishonest.

  2. Kevin L.

    The more I pondered this process and its similarities and stark contrasts between my own faith, the more I am convinced that individuals who proclaim the folly of religion and praise the enlightenment of Science, are defending their own faith.

    I think you’re absolutely right in your conclusion. In addition to your point, which is that no scientist individually undertakes all the experiments, you’re also quite astute to point out the problems of the peer-review process. Positive results get published. Negative ones do not. Combine this with naive interpretations of the concept of statistical significance, and it’s easy to see why some researchers believe that as many as 1/2 of the articles published in peer-reviewed journals are flatly wrong.

    I’d go even farther, however, and apply Hume’s critique of causality. In a nutshell, he pointed out that we can see x happening and we can see y happening immediately thereafter, but we can never, ever, ever see the causation itself. Even with statistical controls, we never get directly at causation. This is what prompted Popper to come along with non-falsifiability criteria. Which, at best, means that science has to be restricted only to falsifiable hypotheses and scientists can only disprove, never prove those hypotheses. This is something that scientists almost never restrict themselves too, in part because busy lab researchers don’t have time for studying epistemology or the philosophy of science. Or, you could just stick with Hume’s actual statement that believe in a force of gravity is equivalent to believe in invisible magical pixies who pull like to drag things towards the center of the earth given the chance.

    Most people react quite negatively to Hume’s argument, but not because it’s weak. In addition to influencing Popper, he was the primary motivation behind much of Kant’s greatest work. His critique is so serious that both Popper and Kant effectively react by circumventing it rather than attempting to dismantle it. At a minimum, however, you have to say that things like believe in causality are a form of faith rather than empirically derived knowledge.

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