Loyalty vs Justice

When should loyalty trump justice? Never? Always?

My answer: never! Unless it involves my family. Then I say: always!

Justice is supposed to be blind. The same standards apply to everyone. “All men are created equal”, at least before the law. To use more lenient rules for donors, allies, friends and cronies is the essence of injustice.

In his influential 2012 book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, argues that liberals fail to recognize the importance of loyalty as a moral value. Liberals are WEIRD—western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic—and as such, out of touch with most of the rest of humanity. Haidt proposes that there are six moral modules: fairness, care, sanctity, authority, loyalty, and liberty. Liberals focus too much on fairness and care, and so miss the full range of the human moral experience.  Haidt compares liberals to people with deficient taste buds, who can’t taste the full range of flavors. Conservatives value sanctity, authority, and loyalty more than liberals, and so are more in touch with the mass of humanity. Liberty is a late arriving wildcard, valued by all. Haidt thinks that morality can be composed of many (any?) combinations among the various modules. Taste them all! 

Does this mean red-staters can crank up the loyalty module as much as they please and still have a perfectly valid moral system? 

During the Trump era, many conservatives seem to think loyalty is everything, much more valuable than abstract notions of justice. They have been willing to overlook transgressions by Trump, which would surely outrage them if committed by Democrats. Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker yesterday “How Donald Trump Taught Conservatives to Defend Roy Moore”:

He talked on tape about sexually assaulting women and won the general election. He fired the F.B.I. director, who was investigating him and his campaign for potentially criminal conduct, and Republicans yawned. He has used Twitter to escalate a standoff with a renegade nuclear state, and his supporters have defended it as a brilliant strategy. It has become a journalistic cliché to point out that Trump survives scandals and outrages that would sink other politicians. https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/how-donald-trump-taught-conservatives-to-defend-roy-moore?

The conservatives who support Trump do not evaluate his conduct by the same standards they would use on, say, Hillary Clinton, just to pick a Democratic politician at random. That’s what loyalty gets you.  As Lizza points out, last year Trump bragged that he could shoot someone and not lose voters.

The most severe test yet of Republican loyalty is the Roy Moore situation in Alabama, as reported by the Washington Post on Thursday. https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/woman-says-roy-moore-initiated-sexual-encounter-when-she-was-14-he-was-32/2017/11/09/1f495878-c293-11e7-afe9-4f60b5a6c4a0_story.html?utm_term=.ff9c99665018

Moore is accused of sexually molesting a 14 year old girl when he was an assistant district attorney in 1979. The evidence against Moore is detailed and corroborated. He found the victim and her mother outside a courtroom. He convinced the mother to leave him alone with the victim. He got her phone number, and…

Days later, she says, he picked her up around the corner from her house in Gadsden, drove her about 30 minutes to his home in the woods, told her how pretty she was and kissed her. On a second visit, she says, he took off her shirt and pants and removed his clothes. He touched her over her bra and underpants, she says, and guided her hand to touch him over his underwear. “I wanted it over with — I wanted out,” she remembers thinking. “Please just get this over with. Whatever this is, just get it over.”

This goes beyond sexual harassment—this is criminal conduct. The type of evidence collected by the Post would support serious felony charges (at least under current California law; see Penal Code section 288(c)(1))

No Democratic candidate could survive this. (Anthony Weiner is in prison for sexting a 15 year old, which is not as serious a crime.) However, Republicans are made of sterner stuff.  Moore called the allegations a “completely false and a desperate political attack.” Republicans recognize Moore is a big problem, but only few have called unequivocally for him to leave the race.

The reactions to the allegation that Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore initiated sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl when he was a 32-year-old assistant district attorney have highlighted deep divisions within the Republican Party and underscored the growing tribalism that has infected the nation’s politics… Jonathan P. Gray, a Republican consultant in Alabama who is not working with any of the Senate candidates this year: “I think it was already perfectly well stated that no one in Alabama gives a shit what Mitch McConnell or John McCain thinks we should do.”

The most remarkable pushback came from Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler, who dismissed the allegations by saying that there was also an age gap between the biblical Joseph and Mary. “Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus,” he told The Washington Examiner. “There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual.”

The Republican National Committeeman from Alabama, Paul Reynolds, said that he trusts Vladimir Putin more than Moore’s accusers. “My gosh, it’s The Washington Post. If I’ve got a choice of putting my welfare into the hands of Putin or The Washington Post, Putin wins every time,” he told The Hill. “This is going to make Roy Moore supporters step up to the plate and give more, work more and pray more.”  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/paloma/daily-202/2017/11/10/daily-202-as-roy-moore-declines-to-step-aside-a-tale-of-two-republican-parties-emerges/5a04e1dd30fb045a2e002f77/?utm_term=.7a7e5fab5b88

Lizza: “These defenses are shocking, but they square with Trump’s when it comes to the extremes to which partisanship now pushes people… Americans identify with a party the way they do with a sports team or tribe. Often, one’s hatred of an opposing tribe—what political scientists call “negative partisanship”—is enough to overcome any doubts about one’s own.”

What would these Republicans be saying if these allegations had been made against Doug Jones, the Democratic candidate running against Moore in Alabama’s Dec. 12 Senate election? Would they be saying “There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual”? Of course not. They would be yelling, “Lock him up!”

Where does the Moore debacle leave Haidt’s theory about morality? For his insight into red-state psychology, Haidt is thoroughly confirmed. Loyalty uber alles, they apparently believe. But this cannot be justice or fairness or morality, can it? And does that mean that the Loyalty module is not part of morality, whatever role it might play in values? Maximizing fairness as a value will not lead to injustice. So are liberals right about morality after all? 

Maybe Haidt himself will publish something on Moore.


  1. Each of the moral modules that Haidt has identified evolved for its own purposes rather than to necessarily square with each other, and this is the case with all human values. And this independence is what makes it often impossible to coordinate between different starting points. They work provisionally, but the full blown context of a human life or society make it very difficult to extend into all reaches. The lines need to be drawn somewhere, and even fairness for some may seem like injustice to others on the wrong side of it.

    But loyalty is perhaps especially pernicious. This is because the line dividing who is included and who is not gets drawn so boldly and often unconditionally. Loyalty as the basis of morality simply means as narrow a focus as is necessary. And the ideal of justice being ‘blind’ is anything but that. So we have to say that there is a conflict between morality that is inherently exclusive and morality that aspires to inclusivity.

    But this is human life. We can’t always have our cake and eat it too. We are drawn in so many opposing directions that the dream of things working out harmoniously and consistently is just one of those fables we tell ourselves. We sleep better at night with such dreams. So they are worth striving for even if by definition it could never come to pass in the messiness that defines human lives.

    Sometimes the purity and ideality of our justice and morality aim us in directions that appear to be superhuman and even inhuman. That is, we find so little evidence for them perfectly realized in our own imperfect lives. But this seeming unattainability is possibly also necessary if the point is for us to attempt to be better than we naturally are. We need examples that transcend us. They are corrections on our more primitive inclinations. And whatever means we can grapple with to drag us from our lesser nature often has to be good enough. And if these means are misused and appropriated for other ends it is only a very human thing to do. There is nothing as unjust as justice in the wrong hands……

    Moral progress may simply mean shedding the parts of our moral modules that we have outgrown, or which living in broader societies has taught us no longer function adaptively. But these are human choices, and the rules for deciding between them have not been drawn up in advance. They need to be negotiated, as every other instance of progress will teach us. Welcome to the human drama!

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  2. A Comment by Rick Lenon

    Family higher than distant strangers? Laid off coal miners in West Virginia, against starving children in South Sudan? We certainly understand the coal miners’ situation better. It has happened that wheat sent to Africa has been captured buy officials at the docks, resold into international market. That tends to amplify civil wars. Or it gets where it’s supposed to go, and puts local farmers out of business. And here at home, it tells the coal miners that we care more about those black kids 10,000 miles away, than we do about them.

    The tribal identity/loyalty uber alles stuff has clearly gotten worse in recent years, and I think it’s MERITOCRACY that’s done it. Globalism vs Nationalism, around the world, same thing. It’s us against them. A lot of what they’re saying is just for the joy of poking us in the eye with a stick. And who does own moral authority anyway? Who gets to say what’s true and what isn’t? It’s those same pinhead geeks that replaced me with a robot, that are now telling me I can’t drive my pickup, or the planet will go up 3 degrees in 50 years, instead of just 2? They’re worried about gay rights and affirmative action for blacks and illegal immigrants… notice they’re not so worried about fair admission standards for Asians, who are smarter than their kids. (Harvard, Stanford, low 20’s; Berkeley, UCLA, low 40’s). They’re not so worried that half of my high school’s football team from last hear is either addicted to opiate, or dead from it.

    Then there’s that wise ass who says the only solution to the stricken parts of this country is U-Haul. My neighbors, this town, my people… we should just kiss each other goodbye and come be just like you. Maybe my kids could get into Foothill, get some tattoos, and be baristas.

    I’d bet that a a goodly proportion of abortion foes are against it because we’re for it.

    Lots of people liked what Trump said about Charlottesville, and probably most of them just because they knew how much it would shock us. The joy of trolling.

    Meritocracy is worse than aristocracy, because with the latter, if’s clearly just fate. With meritocracy, the assholes think they earned it, and we didn’t.

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  3. BQTA is not really about politics or sex, but before returning to higher philosophical ground, it’s worth mentioning a piece this morning by Nate Silver at 538, “Would Republicans Be Better Off If The Democrat Won In Alabama?” https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/would-republicans-be-better-off-if-the-democrat-won-in-alabama/?ex_cid=SigDig

    Roy Moore presents Republicans with a bad set of options, all of which Silver calls “really bad”. Remaining loyal to Moore maintains unity and honors the Loyalty Module, but it risks loosing a lot of support nationally (if not in Alabama, possibly the reddest of red states). Most Republicans in Washington have abandoned Moore to one extent or another for the sake of the brand.

    Does that mean they will move to expell Moore if he wins? That would seem to require an ugly set of hearings involving Moore’s accusers, which could damage the Republican brand even more. Silver thinks that a successful expulsion could require another special election: “So the worst-case scenario for Republicans is that Moore is expelled after an extremely contentious process that further poisons the relationship between the GOP base and GOP leadership — and then Moore (or Jones) wins the next special election anyway.”

    A victory by Democrat Doug Jones gets rid of Moore, but puts the Republican majority in the senate at risk.

    The Washington Republicans would like some other Republican—any other— to win in Alabama, which is why they supported the not-so-popular Luther Strange in the first place. A write-in campaign might accomplish nothing other than splitting the Republican vote and aiding Jones.

    Democrats have remained silent.

    “National Democratic groups have not spent a dollar on their own television or radio commercials promoting Mr. Jones, a former federal prosecutor. The party’s most popular campaigners, such as former President Barack Obama and Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, have not set foot in the state. As Republicans in Washington pressure Mr. Moore to leave the race — with the Republican National Committee pulling its financing on Tuesday — Democratic leaders convey a stark public message to Mr. Jones: You’re on your own.

    “It’s an Alabama race,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, said at a news conference on Monday, repeating the phrase three times for emphasis.

    “But the national Democrats’ ostensibly arm’s-length treatment of Mr. Jones belies a far deeper investment in the race. Senate Democrats covet Alabama’s Senate seat, passionately, but, as Mr. Schumer demonstrated, they are acutely aware of the risk of being seen as orchestrating the race from afar.” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/14/us/politics/alabama-doug-jones-roy-moore-democrats.html?

    Such is the strength of tribalism in Alabama. Any push by outside Democrats risks a backlash that would only hurt Jones.

    Nate Silver ends up wondering if Republicans can simply weather the Roy Moore storm: “it wasn’t so long ago that another Republican was credibly accused of sexually assaulting multiple women just a month or so before a major election. Many Republicans legislators called for the candidate to drop out. Instead the candidate stayed in the race and won — and the claims are rarely discussed today. As was the case with Trump, Republicans may decide that the only thing worse than living with Roy Moore is living without him.”


  4. One way to look at Haidt is that while he has identified interesting factors in the red staters’ value system he has not identified new kinds of morality. Not every value is a moral value. That authority tells you to do something is a reason to do it, all other things being equal, but it stills makes sense to ask if the act required is moral. What authority requires of you is one thing, what morality requires is another. They may overlap, they may not. Ramping up the authority module at the expense of fairness or care leads to fascism, as Haidt himself acknowledges.

    The loyalty module is the most clearly tribal. It may be useful in overcoming individual selfishness, but it is easy to imagine loyalty conflicting with morality. The gang wants you to kill a rival gang member. You value loyalty, but the poor slob you’re supposed to kill does not deserve it. What to do? The loyal thing or the moral thing?

    So while sanctity, authority and loyalty—what Haidt calls the ‘binding foundations’ – are important values, they can clearly conflict with morality and therefore are not moral values. I don’t mean they are immoral values, I mean that they deserve respect but operate in different dimensions. Most of the things we value don’t necessarily or automatically trigger moral considerations. If they do, the moral considerations must be weighed against the other values.

    Haidt may have a theory of red state psychology, or the values of values voters, but not of morality.

    Joshua Greene says that Haidt puts the blame on moral philosophers and other children of the enlightenment. (Even Thomas Jefferson?) In a nice passage, Greene responds: “The great philosophers of the enlightenment wrote at a time when the world was rapidly shrinking, forcing them to wonder whether their own laws, the own traditions, and their own God(s) were any better than anyone else’s…Natural science was making the world comprehensible in secular terms, revealing universal natural laws and overturning ancient religious doctrines. Philosophers wondered whether there might also be universal moral laws that, like Newton’s law of gravitation, applied to members of all tribes, whether they knew it or not. Thus the Enlightenment philosophers were not arbitrarily shedding moral taste buds. They were looking for deeper, universal moral truths, and for good reason. They were looking for moral truths beyond the teaching of any particular religion and beyond the will of any earthly king. They were looking for what I’ve called a metamorality… One might say, as Haidt does, that liberals have narrow moral tastes. But when it comes to moral foundations, less may be more. Liberals’ moral tastes, rather than being narrow, may instead be more refined… American social consevatives are not best described as people who place special value on authority, sanctity and loyalty, but rather as tribal loyalists—loyal to their own authorities, their own religion and themselves.” Moral Tribes pp 338-340.

    Loyalty to one’s tribe is what gets in the way of solving the problem of us vs. them, what Greene calls the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality.

    Haidt ends up endorsing utilitarianism, which Greene says “is both paradoxical and instructive… When faced with the ultimate question—what should we do?—it seems the autistic philosopher was right all along.” When resolving moral disputes, understanding the other tribe is a good first step. “But that’s not enough. We need a common moral standard, a metamorality, to help us get along.” 344-5. For Greene, that’s utilitarianism. Apparently, Haidt agrees, but then what’s the point of his Moral Foundation Theory?

    It would be interesting to hear Haidt’s response to Greene. In the acknowledgments, Haidt is listed among those who read and commented on complete drafts of Greene’s book. 

    So the moral values still come down to fairness (deontology) and care (consequentialism). The key to both is respecting others as much as we respect ourselves. Deontology focuses on trying to explain why we are morally compelled to value everyone equally; consequentialism focuses on maximizing welfare, with the crucial proviso that everyone’s welfare gets valued equally.

    Greene makes a good case for utilitarianism, which tends to be favored by social scientists. It’s hard to imagine organizing a modern society without giving considerable thought to maximizing human welfare. Greene sees happiness as what gets maximized. He opposes seeing the utility solely in terms of resources or money. Happiness means what people actually experience, so we’re maximizing the quality of their conscious experience. We’re supposed to imagine happiness being quantified in some way. If the guy in the expensive suit can easily save the drowning child, he is morally obligated to do so, even if getting the suit wet will ruin it.

    This would seem to have the consequence that if I can increase one person’s happiness without affecting anyone else’s, I should do it.

    Imagine I can come up with a plan to shave $0.0001 (one hundredth of one cent) off of 10 billion worldwide electronic financial transactions over the next year. That would net me one million dollars, which would make me very happy. Imagine that the participants in those financial transactions will not miss the $0.0001 they unknowingly send to me. This has two important consequences. First, the lost cannot be detected and so I cannot get caught. Second, the happiness of my victims is not affected by the missing $0.0001. Note, however, this plan cannot be universalized. If lots of guys worked this shaving scam, it would get noticed, the victims would get unhappy and we perpetrators would get caught. Since the scam cannot be universalized, it violates the categorical imperative and is immoral. The shaving scam is still theft, even if the lack of noticeable harm makes it easy to rationalize.

    Greene’s utilitarian happiness calculation functions strangely in this case. The scam increases my happiness greatly; everyone else’s happiness stays the same, even for the victims of the scam. So we have a big gain with no offsetting loses. Therefore, in Greene’s utilitarianism, not only is the scam permissible, it’s morally required. Hackers rejoice! That seems like the wrong result.

    Utilitarians have a way of dealing with this kind of case: rule utilitarianism. We would be evaluating rules not individual acts. But this ends up sounding more like the deontology it was meant to replace.

    Greene would probably argue that his kind of utilitarianism is meant to function in the real world, not with crazy hypotheticals.


  5. One of the things you seem to claim is that when stuff like loyalty and authority conflict with what you see as ‘the right thing to do’, loyalty and authority cannot, therefor, be moral. I think that is a mistake, not simply because it sets you up as the final arbiter of what counts as moral (when clearly others might disagree), but because it seems to promote the idea that morality is something we discover about the world rather than a thing that humans place there. In other words, do we discover what morality is or do we invent it?

    My thought is that the work Haidt did was less about discovering what morality is than discovering how humans invented it. Not consciously invented, of course, but as the manifestation of individuals living in groups. The natural history of morality is a tale of human social invention.

    An interesting aside is that we live in an age where morality seems unbounded. EVERYTHING can be taken as having a moral dimension. Dan Kaufman wrote an essay exploring this, and it seems a point worth making: There is a pervasive moral scrutiny directed at almost anything and everything in our lives. I wrote a comment you will have heard before that this amped up moral gaze is just one of many symptoms where we feel the need to judge and to justify. The compulsion to measure everything plays out in how prolifically we apply our moral yardsticks as well…..

    Dan’s post is here:


    For me the only conclusion seems to be that morality is a species of judgment that has evolved and continues to evolve. Not from extrahuman causes necessarily, but for and from the reasons humans arrive at to do one thing rather than something else. Which makes it a contested battlefield at best. There is no metamoral victory deciding which version wins out. If one version of morality ends up taking the day, it won’t be because the morality itself proved superior (to whom, one would even need to ask) but that the humans expounding it carried the field.

    In the end, we will be rid of racism and sexism and all the other (to you and I) disagreeable human temptations not when we figure out which morality is best but by becoming the sorts of people for whom those things are objectionable. Which will undoubtedly still mean that it will be a mixture of the basic modules that Haidt uncovered but perhaps also something new. Who can tell? Humans and human society are not yet done evolving. If we live long enough we may see something. Certainly we live in an age unrecognizable to out grandparents and their grandparents. How different is a world where slavery is taken as the rule rather than an exception?

    The reason morality isn’t finished yet is that there are no fixed lines for what gets included and what is excluded? And maybe loyalty retains its place simply because you can’t have morality that didn’t aim at moral subjects and moral objects. For example, do we have a moral duty to farm animals? Where is it inscribed that we either do or we do not? Are meat eaters immoral? Either we are the kind of people who eat meat and don’t consider it an issue, or we are the kind of people who refuse to eat meat and make it an issue. Every moral dispute plays out in exactly the same way.

    The appeal to a metamorality is pure invention, and as such is liable to be invented differently by different people. There is nothing in the world that indicates either we could all agree on morality or that we should. Consider that for a moment. There is no evidence that morality is something that is not simply provisionally agreed upon. In every circumstance. There is no evidence that morality will ‘add up’ in some meta calculus. At best we merely replace one version with another.

    The moral to the story? Humans decide what is and what is not moral. End of story.

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  6. Dan Kaufman’s piece “Morality Everywhere” is very good and might merit a separate discussion. His problem, however, is not so much “excessive moral appeals”, as excessive utilitarianism. “As Shelly Kagan says, “Given the parameters of the actual world, there is no question that …(maximally)… promoting the good would require a life of hardship, self-denial, and austerity…a life spent promoting the good would be a severe one indeed.” (wikipedia). Haidt would give the remedy as more emphasis on the Loyalty Module.

    Carter Gillies says, “Humans decide what is and what is not moral. End of story.” In a way this is clearly true, since there is no morality in the natural world. But does this mean that humans can decide anything at all to be moral? If everyone decides—as they once did—that slavery is moral, does that eliminate the moral objection to slavery? It would seem so, if the only morality is what humans decide.

    Compare mathematics. “Humans decide what is and what is not mathematics.” Well, the birds and the bees are not making any mathematical judgements. Still, human decision making in mathematics is constrained by mathematical reality.

    The idea would be that moral decision making is similarly constrained. No amount consensus will make slavery OK. If everyone were to decide that slavery is OK, everyone would be wrong.

    Carter seems to be arguing for some form of moral relativism or irrealism. “The appeal to a metamorality is pure invention, and as such is liable to be invented differently by different people.” Different people “invent” different morality? So what’s moral for one group is not moral for another, and there are no objective moral standards, not even in theory? Then why “ought” I to follow any of these inventions if I find them inconvenient?

    If there is no objective morality, there is no “ought.” There is only assorted human customs and practices, assorted taboos. Social psychology endeavors to describe these practices. It’s generally agreed that these descriptions of what people call “morality” do not create an obligation on anyone to do anything.


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