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

Protecting the Weak

Conventional wisdom says that liberalism protects the weak better than conservatism does. 
I submit that this conventional wisdom is unwise, and in fact, the wrong way around.

Haidt explains in his TED talk that the most successful attempts at creating human societies have come when people used “all the tools in the toolbox.”  I submit that the most successful protection of the weak happens the same way.   A society which rests on an equal balance of all of the moral foundations does a better job of protecting the weak than does a society which rests on only the individualizing foundations.    

Who are “the weak?” In a word; children.  Human young are born helpless, and they must be protected and nurtured until they reach maturity and can take care of themselves.  But more broadly, the weak are anyone who is vulnerable, and at some point in our lives that’s all of us.  

Recall from the post How to Train an Elephant, that Chip Heath and Dan Heath explained in their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard that “people are incredibly sensitive to the environment and the culture – the norms and expectations of the communities they are in.”  The Heaths say that “our habits are essentially stitched into our environment,” and that they are our “behavioral autopilot.” The environment – the collection of “emergent norms” – in other words, trains, or “Nudges,” the elephant to follow a certain path; a certain pattern of behavior.     

I submit that the best environment – the best “behavioral autopilot;” the best “habits …stitched into” our collective culture – for protecting the weak, is the environment made of all of the moral foundations in equal balance; in other words, conservatism.

The best description of such a synergistic, all foundations in equal balance, society I’ve encountered to date is “The Mike Romano Story,” in Chapter 9 of the Heath’s book SwitchMike Romano was vulnerable due to the horrible social environment he experienced in Viet Nam, where he became addicted to drugs.  Upon his return to Milwaukee he was able to kick his habit, due in no small part to the social environment that surrounded him.  The Heaths explain how the social environment helped him do it:

Imagine that your job was to design an environment that would extinguish drug addiction. You could take drug-addicted U.S soldiers, drop them into this environment, and feel confident that the forces within it would act powerfully to help them beat their habits. Think of this environment as an antidrug theme park, and assume that you can spend as much as you want to construct it. What would your theme park look like?

It might look a whole lot like Romano’s neighborhood in Milwaukee.

You’d want to surround the former soldiers with people who love them and care about them – and who treat them as the drug-free persons they once were. You’d give them interesting work to do – perhaps designing posters for rock bands – so that their minds would be distracted from the joys of opium. You’d create well-publicized sanctions against drug use. You’d keep the drug economy underground, making the former soldiers sneak around to obtain and use drugs. You’d make sure their girlfriends gave them a hard time about their drug use. You’d set up social taboos so that the soldiers would feel derelict, even pathetic, if they kept using. You’d remove the contagious drug-using behavior from the environment – no more addicted soldiers around – and replace it with contagious drug-free behavior. And you would provide rich environmental cues – sights, songs, food, clothes, and homes – that remind the former soldiers of their prewar, drug-free identities.

The Milwaukee Theme Park: That’s exactly why Mike Romano became a former addict. When Romano relocated to Milwaukee, his environment changed, and the new environment changed him.

As the Romano story shows, one of the subtle ways in which our environment acts on us is by reinforcing (or deterring) our habits.

When we think about habits, most of the time we’re thinking about the bad ones: biting our fingernails, procrastinating, eating sweets when we’re anxious, and so on. But of course we also have plenty of good habits: jogging, praying, brushing our teeth. Why are habits so important? They are, in essence, behavioral autopilot. They allow lots of good behaviors to happen without the Rider taking charge. Remember that the Rider’s self-control is exhaustible, so it’s a huge plus if some positive things can happen “free” on autopilot.

To change yourself or other people, you’ve got to change habits, and what we see with Romano is that his habits shifted when his environment shifted. This makes sense – our habits are essentially stitched into our environment.

The weak are represented in some of Haidt’s presentations by an image of two daughters and their parents. If I’m one of the parents, and if I want to protect my daughters and provide the best possible opportunity for them to flourish, then I want to raise them in the Milwaukee Theme Park.

The three-foundation morality, or culture, is missing three of the six building blocks of the Milwaukee Theme Park. It is focused almost solely on the individual. A central element of this culture is the notion that everyone is free to do as they please as long as nobody else is harmed. This notion of “no harm, no foul” more or less rolls all three of the individualizing foundations of care/harm, fairness/cheating, and liberty/oppression into single phrase. This culture is represented in Haidt’s presentations as a series of images surrounding the image of the daughters and their parents. One of which is a bumper sticker that says “Your body may be a temple but mine is an amusement park.” Another is a photo of a young person with piercings and a split tongue. You get the picture.

In what “subtle ways” is an environment which not only allows, but embraces these kinds of behaviors going to act on the people who live in it? What kinds of habits, what kinds of “behavioral autopilot” will it promote or deter? How can such an environment be construed as protecting the weak? It can’t. In fact such a morality is a threat to the weak, and indeed preys on them. A teenager who has her tongue split has been preyed upon by this morality, no matter how much she, or anyone else, makes the plea of “no harm” (to anyone else) “no foul.” If I’m the parent of the two girls I do not want them anywhere near that culture, in fact, I want to protect them from it.

Another way the three-foundation morality does more net harm to the weak than it does good for them is through what Barbary Oakley calls Pathological Altruism in her book by that title. I submit that pathological altruism is a characteristic pattern of thought which results from the single-minded focus on the individual that is inherent to that morality. I think that pattern of thought is illustrated in these excerpts from two different interviews of Oakley:

For my fellow liberals, empathy, altruism and caring for others have become a kind of secular religion that is actually harmful, because it can be used as a cover for nefarious, corrupt and self-serving action. People can be blinded by their caring into doing things that hurt those they hope to help.” Like communism, altruism is often only “seemingly beneficent”.

More concretely and controversially, Oakley suggests that we hear rather too much about the self-serving nature of corporations, given that “many other organisations behave in precisely the same way.

“Feminism can be thought of as like a corporation. It’s interested in its constituents. Well-meaning feminists are often trained only to see a certain way, only to support their constituents. That is partly what underlies the spurious research on battered-woman syndrome. Anyone who questions whether battered women are only simple victims is put in the pillory and crucified.

“There are young, inexperienced women who fall in love with a man and are put in a battering situation, but there is nothing wrong with them more than simple bad luck. That’s absolutely possible and my heart goes out to them. But there’s also a sizeable group – perhaps 40 to 50 per cent of battered women – who are themselves as much involved in the battering as the man. That simply isn’t discussed; it’s considered to be ‘blaming the victim’. But in fact it’s being more perceptive about the difference between real victims and those who portray themselves as victims.

“We need to take off the ideological blinders if we are to forge the intelligent interventions that can make a dramatic difference in these women’s lives. We need more scientifically based research in this area to help tease out what is actually going on.” (1)

In the United States, we’ve gone so overboard with a one-dimensional idea that altruism is always good that it is creating real problems for society. For example, an ideology has evolved among certain well-meaning people that business is always predatory, and academia and unions are always on the right side in helping people. But can we afford to have unions that block reform in places like Detroit, where only 25% of students graduate from high school? Or unions that force taxpayers to pay millions to try to get rid of proven child molesters and absurdly incompetent teachers? The state of Georgia is turning out to be the Enron of K-12 education. From my personal experience here in Michigan working with corrupt K-12 school systems, Georgia is just the tip of the iceberg.

The reality is that unions and academics can be, and often are, as predatory and self-serving as businesses. Yet they fly under our radar, because they pretend to serve “the people” instead of just their constituents—and themselves. I’m reminded of Jimmy Hoffa, who inserted into his union’s contract that he had to receive his million dollar salary even when he was in prison. Hoffa was a grifter who got away with his con on a massive scale because he said he was helping people.

In many places, public unions are bankrupting cities and states. It sounds great to pay people commensurate with their skills. But the reality is, policies that sound wonderfully altruistic are often simply Ponzi schemes. We’re turning into a large scale version of Greece, where people can claim big bucks by being seen as victims. And anyone who contradicts this is labeled a bad guy. But in the long run, all of society suffers as the economy sinks into a depression. (2)

I am aware of the conventional wisdom that says liberalism protects the weak, that conservatism is too authoritarian, and that if it weren’t for liberalism’s counter-balance of conservatism then the “whole shop” of protecting the weak would be given away (as Haidt said in his talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival talk, which I wrote about here.) The conventional wisdom is unwise, I argue, because it implies that care, fairness, and liberty are absent from the six-foundation morality, which must therefore be “balanced” by liberalism. But the fact is that those foundations are not absent from conservatism, they’re part of it, and so conservatism does not need to be “balanced” by the three-foundation morality. Further, I submit that the three-foundation morality, in fact, upsets the balance, and with its pathological altruism and “no harm, no foul” culture, tends to put society onto a “behavioral autopilot” which, in the long run, in the name of protecting the weak, actually does more to hurt them than to help them.


(1) Times Higher Education, 1 September 2011, The Violence of the Lambs

(2) Oakley was interviewd on a blog called “Trending Sideways.”  The blog entry is titled Barbara Oakley Thinks Altruism Can Work Against Us.


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