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Asteroids

Moral Relativism is an Asteroid



The Asteroids Club is a concept and a web site developed by Jonathan Haidt to foster civil discussion among people who disagree about politics.


A few quotes selected from around the web site give an idea of what it’s about:

The concept grew out of the field of moral psychology, which tells us that people are more likely to find common ground when they unite to fight common threats. We hope you will join in our adventure and help us grow this new idea by starting an Asteroids Club in your hometown. There are so many asteroids and so little time.

An asteroid is something that – if not addressed – inevitably will get worse/closer/bigger/more dangerous. For example, as someone who has formed an organization to combat the deepening partisan divide, I consider growing partisanship and political tribalism an asteroid. In fact, it might be such a big one that it keeps us from deflecting the other incoming ones.

But, enough about our asteroids. We want to hear about your asteroids. Please post in the comment thread to suggest asteroids. We might just add your asteroid, along with a little asteroid-deflecting research, to our official asteroids-coming-straight-at-us priority list.


I agree that the asteroid of partisanship might be so big that it prevents us from deflecting other asteroids.  Along those lines, I wrote the following asteroid suggestion, but as of the original publishing date of this blog post (1/27/2013) I haven’t (yet) submitted it.  I did submit a different one, which you can read on this blog here or  at The Asteroids Club site here.   


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It does not follow from the fact that two people feel equally strongly about their respective moralities, sacred values, or asteroids that those things are in fact equally valid, or important, or that deflecting them will yield equal benefit or incur equal cost. Nor does it follow from the fact that different moralities offer valuable insights into the human condition that those moralities offer overall equal net benefit to society.


Moralities, Sacred Values, and Asteroids and their possible solutions, are not relative.


And yet, it seems, The Asteroids Club and the Yin/Yang metaphor of the relationship between liberalism and conservatism (1) both rest on the exact opposite premise. It seems that the fundamental presupposition behind both of those ideas is that moralities and asteroids are all relatively equal in terms of costs and benefits to society. It also assumes that if some people think something is an asteroid then it actually is one. It eliminates by definition the possibility that some other people might think it is NOT an asteroid at all. Moral relativism among asteroids is the only way to arrive at the motto “I’ll help you deflect your asteroid, if you help me deflect mine.” It’s a concept straight out of the liberal moral matrix of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and straight out of the “pragmatism” of NoLabels.org. With apologies to John Lennon:


Imagine there’s [no labels]
It Isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too.


NoLabels.org claims to be “a movement of Democrats, Republicans and everything in between dedicated to the politics of problem-solving. We stand united behind a simple proposition: we want our government to stop fighting and start fixing.”


OK, great. Sounds wonderful. But tell me this, what are the “problems” and how, exactly, do we “fix” them? How do we know whether one person’s “problem” (i.e., asteroid) is really just a symptom of a deeper underlying cause, and whether that cause is another person’s “problem”?


I imagine the response to those questions might be something like, “Well, there are a few things we know of that everyone can agree are problems that need to be fixed; things like climate change, rising inequality, entitlement spending, and the dissolution of the family.”

Great again. Now what? How do we “fix” those problems? What’s the “correct” solution?


Take entitlement spending, for example. What if I happen to think, and I do, that entitlement spending is really just a symptom of a much deeper problem, and that deeper problem is the notion that it is the proper role of government to “care” for people, rather than to protect rights? Those two notions, the dichotomy between caring for people and protecting rights – the contradictory notions of positive liberty and negative liberty – come straight out of the liberal and conservative moral matrices, respectively.


So now we’re back to the ages-old question of what’s the proper role of government, and why? What’s better for mankind in the long run, positive liberty or negative liberty? But we’ve had to do the work of pushing aside the cobwebs of moral relativism to get here. How does that help?


The moral relativism of The Asteroids Club and of the Yin/Yang metaphor and of NoLabels.org obstructs our ability to see and to understand what is really going on in political debate. If we really want to reduce demonization and shrink the political divide then shouldn’t we try to get past the obstruction and address what’s actually happening?


Not everything is relative. Not everything is in the eye of the beholder. Some things really are true, and some things really are false. Some things really are better and some things really are worse. Given fundamental human nature, including things like; a) intuitive primacy but not dictatorship, b) reason is for winning and not for truth finding, c) the enemy of liberty is consolidated, centralized power, and d) people tend to circle the wagons around their sacred beliefs, some approaches, some philosophies, some moralities really do offer better, more practical, more effective solutions to the problems faced by society than others. Pretending that this is not the case, and instead clinging to the notion that every morality is the moral and pragmatic equal to every other because it happens to offer valuable insights is, itself, an asteroid.


Haidt’s Work is part of the Proof


I think human understanding has reached the point at which we can say with confidence that we know what those principles – those foundations – which make the greater contribution are, and that we can prove it through a combination of social science and historical research and assessment.


I believe that the essence of that proof is hidden within the work of Jonathan Haidt. In fact, I believe that one of the best arguments that has ever been made on behalf of those principles – an argument on par with the arguments of Hume or Burke – is within the pages of The Righteous Mind, The Happiness Hypothesis, and his other work.


That proof goes something like this:


Human flourishing and happiness come from the between. The between comes from social and moral capital. Social and moral capital come from the synergy of all the moral foundations working together in balance. Human flourishing and happiness are degraded and/or fail to reach their maximum potential whenever a culture upsets the balance by emphasizing one or more foundations more than the others. When the imbalance is bad enough anomie or chaos, or both, can ensue. In cases of extreme imbalance societies can fail completely, and sometimes even fall into genocide.


Haidt’s data and findings show that conservatism is the morality of balance between the Yin of the individualizing foundations and the Yang of the cohering foundations. (I use “cohering” rather than “binding” because it seems more accurate, and because “binding,” with its implication of “oppressing,” fits too neatly into the liberal grand narrative about conservatism. A narrative which I believe to be demonstrably false through the latest findings of social science and through looking at history through the lens of those findings.) The essential goal of conservatism is to find the sweet spot in the pushmepullyou tradeoff between the desire of each individual for autonomy and the need, “to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative society possible.” Haidt’s findings show that the concept of Yin/Yang is practically the definition of Conservatism.


Haidt’s findings also show that, for all practical purposes, liberalism is focused entirely on the individualizing foundations. The essential goal of liberalism is to maximize the autonomy, safety, and well being of the individual. Liberalism is Yin, by itself.


Conservatism seeks to achieve balance between Yin and Yang. Conservatism is Yin/Yang.


Liberalism seeks to maximize Yin. Liberalism is Yin.


The characterization of the relationship between liberalism and conservatism as that of Yin/Yang is therefore incorrect.


The Moral Relativism of Yin/Yang and The Asteroids Club hurts more than it helps.


I appreciate the spirit and intent of Haidt’s Yin/Yang metaphor and of The Asteroids Club. I really do. It goes all the way back to the red pill, blue pill metaphor of his 2008 TED talk, where he said:


We try to explain why half of America voted for the other team. We think they must be blinded by religion, or by simple stupidity. (Laughter) (Applause) So, if you think that half of America votes Republican because they are blinded in this way, then my message to you is that you’re trapped in a moral matrix, in a particular moral matrix.And by the matrix, I mean literally the matrix, like the movie “The Matrix.”


But I’m here today to give you a choice. You can either take the blue pill and stick to your comforting delusions, or you can take the red pill, learn some moral psychology and step outside the moral matrix.


I think Haidt’s aim is laudable. I think he’s mostly on the right track. He’s my favorite author on the topic of the political divide. I second the idea, expressed by others, that his work constitutes a Rosetta Stone for deciphering it.


But in the long run I think the moral relativism which undergirds The Asteroids Club and the incorrect characterization of liberalism and conservatism through the Yin/Yang metaphor creates several problems; problems which ultimately contribute to demonization and the political divide, rather than reduce them.


It implies that the almost pure “individualizing” of liberalism is “balanced” by an almost equally pure “binding” of conservatism. That implication is a misrepresentation of conservative psychology, morality, and ideology. It misrepresents what is going on in the conservative mind, it misrepresents the origins of and reasons for conservative sacred values, it misrepresents the goals and objectives of conservative policies offered in Congress, and it misrepresents the “messaging” of conservative political campaigns.


It implies that conservatism is on the right side of the political spectrum, equidistant with liberalism in relation to the center. I submit that this is not the case. I submit that conservatism, rightly understood, by virtue of its innate, inherent balance between the Yin of individualizing and the Yang of “binding” is, in fact, in the center of the political spectrum. I submit that Haidt’s data proves this to be true. I know this idea may be controversial, even heretical, but I stand by it, and firmly. I explain it in greater detail here: Toward A More Accurate Political Spectrum


It helps to make the political divide worse in at least two ways. First, it plays directly into, and reinforces, the (false) liberal grand narrative that conservatism, by virtue of its supposed focus on “binding” is the main reason throughout history for the oppression of “the little guy.” Second, it provides Haidt’s mostly liberal audiences an argumentative escape clause which allows them to answer “No” to the question “Must I believe it?” if they do happen to grasp the essence of the proof about moral principles I offered earlier in this essay.


It obscures the real reasons for the dynamic that exists between liberals and conservatives, and between Democrats and Republicans. In other words, it misrepresents the true nature of the political divide itself. This is a sad irony given that one of Haidt’s goals seems to be to get people to drop their “comforting delusions” about each other.


It contradicts Haidt’s findings. He wrote an entire book explaining that liberalism is about “individualizing” and conservatism is about “individualizing” AND “binding” in equal proportions, only to throw the baby out with the bathwater at the end of it through the Yin/Yang implication that conservatism is mostly about “binding.” That implication places a mask of moral relativism over Haidt’s work which prevents the full light of reason and understanding from shining on it. It implies relative equivalence between things that Haidt went to great lengths to prove are unequal.


In conclusion, I submit that the moral relativism of Yin/Yang equivalence between liberalism and conservatism is simply not what is going on in the psychology of liberal and conservative minds, nor is it what is going on in the ideologies of liberalism and conservatism, nor is it what is going on in the political debate between the two sides, nor is it what is going on in “the between” of the dynamic of human interaction between the two sides.


I think the suggestion of moral equivalence between liberalism and conservatism created by the Yin/and by The Asteroids Club motto of “I’ll help you deflect your asteroid, if you help me deflect mine” mischaracterize the nature of the political divide and therefore, in the long run, hurts rather than helps attempts to shrink it.


I think we have little chance of solving problems associated with the divide if our characterization, and thus our understanding, of it is incorrect. If we really want to reduce demonization across the political aisle and shrink the depth and width of the political divide, then shouldn’t we remove the mask of Yin/Yang moral relativism between the two sides and diagnose the problem for what it really is?


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(1) This theme recurs throughought Haidt’s work, including the final chapter of his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. A great introduction to it can be seen in the video of his 2008 TED talk, The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives

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