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Conventional Wisdom, Liberalism & Conservatism, The Moral Mind In Action

Liberty, Equality, Justice, and Fairness Mean Different Things in Different Moral Matrices

The moral matrix we live in shapes our perceptions of the world, and even our understanding of the meanings of words.
  For example, Haidt introduced the Liberty/Oppression moral foundation in the talk he gave at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.  He discussed how the six-foundation and three-foundation moralities attach different connotations to the word “Liberty.” 

Here’s an excerpt from the transcript I created from that video.  I’ve done some minor editing for readability.  The verbatim transcript is in this page:

The very last foundation, the very newest one that we’ve been really forced by the data to add is that there are very strong deep concerns about liberty. But it took us a while to understand this. The key was coming upon this work by the anthropologist Chris Boehm called Hierarchy in the Forest, and his point is that chimpanzees and most other primates are really despotic, hierarchical, the ones that are closest to us generally, bonobos less but even still they’re hierarchical. Yet hunter-gatherers are always egalitarian.Yet as soon as agriculture comes in they’re all really hierarchical. So what’s human nature? And his answer is; hierarchal. Absolutely, hierarchical.

But, we also hate alpha males. We hate being dominated by abusive alpha males. So we have this ability to gang up to take down bullies. We hate bullies. We are hierarchical, even despotic creatures, Boehm’s [idea] is that it’s not that we all want equality. There’s not a deep human desire to live equal. There’s a deep human desire to not be dominated, bullied, or oppressed. And we get together to take down those bullies.

And it’s so obvious once you see it. I couldn’t believe this was in front of my face every day of my life. Here is the flag of my state. [showing a picture of the Virginia state flag] It has a murder on it. My flag has a murder. Here is virtue standing on the chest of a tyrant. You can see his crown has been knocked off, “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” Thus Always to Tyrants, who else said that? (pause) John Wilkes Booth, Sic Semper Tyrannis. Who else had that on his T-shirt, when he blew up the Murrah federal building? (pause) McVeigh. So, people who commit violence often believe they are taking down bullies. So murder, this kind of murder is ethical. My state flag celebrates moral murder because it’s in the service of liberty; fighting oppression.

A crucial distinction here is negative liberty, that is, well, the kind of American “Give me liberty or give me death.” This is “Don’t tread on me,” don’t hem me in, don’t tell me what to do, don’t force me to obey your rules. This is a very deep very powerful sentiment.

But the trick here is to understand that there are two kinds of liberty at play in our political discourse. There’s negative liberty which is the absence of obstacles which block human action. This is the common sense understanding of liberty. And then there’s a new notion that developed in the twentieth century, especially in Europe called positive liberty, which is, well, it’s all well and good to say that people should have a right to do as they please but if you can’t get an education then you don’t really have a right to do as you please. And if you can’t get health care, well, you’re not healthy enough to take advantage of the opportunities of our society. So we have to give people, as rights, education, welfare, food, a right to a job, all these rights that they enshrine in Europe. And that is known as positive liberty. It’s really crucial to recognize that the top one [negative liberty] is deep, emotional, obvious, everyone gets it, the bottom one [positive liberty] is a cerebral concept developed by philosophers gradually, has very little emotional resonance. You probably understood my description but it doesn’t rankle. Violations of it don’t rankle in the way that violations of negative liberty do.

So what happens is the right, what we now call conservatives, we also can sometimes call classical liberals.They stand for liberty, that is, negative liberty. Give me liberty. Don’t tread on me. Just as they said in the 18th century, it’s the government which is the threat. Whereas liberals gave up liberty, basically. Liberals embraced positive liberty and now act in ways that actually violate negative liberty. So if, as I say, you sacrilize victim groups then you try to increase positive liberty for those sacrilized groups, you then push laws that will violate the negative liberty of others, such as the “nanny state.”

So, conservatives and liberals have different things in mind when they think of “Liberty.”

Similarly, the two sides have different things in mind when they use words like equality, justice, and fairness.  I believe that the notion “positive” and “negative” connotations extends to those words as well.

Positive and negative liberty are concepts. But how do you actually implement them? There has to be a set of rules, or laws, on the books, which, if followed, will achieve either positive or negative liberty. And there also has to be a process, a legal system, through which those laws are implemented.

Negative equality is equality under the law. It is one set of laws that applies, and is applied, to all people the same. It is equality that is blind to the race, religion, social status, etc. of the individual. It is the set of “rules” so to speak, for implementing the concept of negative liberty.

Positive equality is compensatory laws to make up for perceived inequality of sacrilized groups. (e.g., affirmative action and hate crime laws.) It is different laws for different types of people. It is not blind to the status the individual. It is the set of “rules” for implementing the concept of positive liberty.

Negative justice is the process of executing the laws blindly. There’s one set of rules that applies to everybody, and everybody follows that one set of laws the same, regardless of outcome. Negative justice is a process. Walter Williams illustrated this idea in a commentary on World Net Daily title Poker Justice: 

Let’s look at it. Suppose Tom, Dick and Harry play a weekly game of poker. Tom wins 75 percent of the time. Dick and Harry, respectively, win 15 percent and 10 percent of the time. Knowing only the poker game’s result permits us to say absolutely nothing as to whether there has been poker justice. Tom’s disproportionate winnings are consistent with his being either an astute player or a clever cheater.

To determine whether there has been poker justice, the game’s process must be examined. Some process questions we might ask are: Were Hoyle’s Rules obeyed, were the cards unmarked, were the cards dealt from the top of the deck, and did the players play voluntarily? If these questions yield affirmative answers, there was poker justice regardless of the game’s result, with Tom winning 75 percent of the time.

Positive justice is social justice. It is manipulating the poker game through interpreting and executing the laws so that every player has a roughly equal chance of a positive outcome.  Positive justice is an outcome.

The same idea applies to fairness as well.  Negative fairness would mean that if everyone follows the rules of the poker game and nobody cheats then the game is fair.  Positive fairness would mean that if one player is so much better than all the others that he wins the majority of the hands, then the game is NOT fair. 

Generally speaking, the six-foundation morality believes in negative liberty, negative equality, negative justice, and negative fairness, as I’ve used those terms here.  And the three-foundation morality believes in the positive versions of all of them.   

Is it any wonder, then, that there’s a political divide?  The two sides are talking past each other.  Everyone thinks they’re working for the same thing, “Liberty,” but in actuality they’re working at cross purposes.


15 thoughts on “Liberty, Equality, Justice, and Fairness Mean Different Things in Different Moral Matrices

  1. There are actually multiple definitions of equality on the left.

    goes over a common one they associate with ‘the equality agenda’ “working to dismantle existing power structures as a way to redress privilege”
    ^ this and variations of it are also common in feminist circles.
    ^^ note most of those words also have their own special feminist/equality-agenda definitions.


    Posted by tearfang | August 14, 2018, 6:01 am


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