Justice vs Nationalism

Not so long ago, calling any right-wing personality or group “fascist” would have sounded over-the-top hysterical, entirely too alarmist. Not any more. 36 occurrences of the word in the NYT in the last 30 days; just today, in stories about Italy and Poland. “Neo-fascist and white-supremacist groups have become more visible and assertive in Europe and the United States as a sense of alienation in a globalized world has taken hold… the words from an old Polish nationalist song that were the march’s slogan — “We want God” — were cited by President Trump to huge applause on his visit to Warsaw in July.” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/14/opinion/torches-hate-march-poland.html

The United States was founded with this sentence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Has Thomas Jefferson’s Enlightenment ideal run out of gas in the face of “alienation in a globalized world”? Whatever “all men are created equal” might mean, it includes the idea that all humans the world over have equal moral and human rights. So you and I have moral obligations not just to each other, not just to our fellow Americans, but to people around the world. Globalization puts that principle to the test.

In a 2016 essay, “Nationalism Rising: When and Why Nationalism Beats Globalism” https://www.the-american-interest.com/2016/07/10/when-and-why-nationalism-beats-globalism/, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that the Left has drifted too far from the core values of most people, putting them in conflict with even the most innocuous nationalism.

For example, in 2007, former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave a speech that included the phrase, “British jobs for British workers.” The phrase provoked anger and scorn from many of Brown’s colleagues in the Labour party.

Haidt quotes a reporter who pointed out that

In most other places in the world today, and indeed probably in Britain itself until about 25 years ago, such a statement about a job preference for national citizens would have seemed so banal as to be hardly worth uttering. Now the language of liberal universalism has ruled it beyond the pale.

Internationalism…tells us that someone living in Kinshasa is of no less worth than someone living in Kensington…. Patriotism, if it means anything, tells us we should favour the interests of British people [before the Congolese]. How do you reconcile this choice with liberalism? How…do you distinguish it from racism?

How indeed? For that matter, how do you reconcile patriotism with the Declaration of Independence? Haidt traces the problem not to Jefferson’s ideal, but to a post-Beatles song:

John Lennon wrote the globalist anthem in 1971. After asking us to imagine that there’s no heaven, and before asking us to imagine no possessions, Lennon asks us to:

Imagine there’s no countries; it isn’t hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too

Imagine all the people living life in peace.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

I hope some day you’ll join us, and the world will be one.

This is a vision of heaven for multicultural globalists. But it’s naiveté, sacrilege, and treason for nationalists.

And apparently for Haidt too. Lennon did not include “all people [not just men] are created equal” but he could have. Would that phrase have also been “naiveté, sacrilege, and treason for nationalists”? Wasn’t Lennon just working out some further implications of “all people are created equal”? Maybe Thomas Jefferson didn’t see all those implications, but he would not have taken kindly to being called naive, sacrilegious and treasonous, which he probably was by Brits and their reactionary sympathizers.

Haidt argues that nationalists have legitimate concerns neglected by globalists.

Nationalists feel a bond with their country, and they believe that this bond imposes moral obligations both ways: Citizens have a duty to love and serve their country, and governments are duty bound to protect their own people. Governments should place their citizens interests above the interests of people in other countries. There is nothing necessarily racist or base about this arrangement or social contract.

All that sounds reasonable, but we still don’t have a theory that explains how to reconcile nationalism with morality and human rights.

That’s where Haidt’s 2012 book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion comes in. There he explains Moral Foundation Theory, which posits six foundations of morality (see http://moralfoundations.org/):

1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.

3) Loyalty/betrayal: underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. 4) Authority/subversion: deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

5) Sanctity/degradation: underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions). 

We think there are several other very good candidates for “foundationhood,” especially:

6) Liberty/oppression

Differences in moral intuitions among cultures and political groups can be explained by different weights placed on each of the Foundations. “Each culture constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world, and conflicting within nations too.” The implication is that any mix (or at least many mixes) of the Foundations is valid and equally moral.

He argues that liberals focus morality only on Care (roughly corresponding to utilitarianism, the greatest good for the greatest number) and Fairness (roughly corresponding to deontology, the Golden Rule). Conservatives tap into all six foundations and so are more in touch with human nature. Put bluntly “Republicans understand moral psychology. Democrats don’t…. Republicans trigger the full range of intuitions described by Moral Foundations Theory.” (Righteous p 181)

Nationalism can be seen to be drawing heavily on the Loyalty Module. And since Loyalty is one of the valid foundations of morality, nationalism makes a legitimate moral claim. Globalism and “all men are created equal” concern only the Fairness Module, missing the big picture. Globalists should respect nationalism. Where does that leave Jefferson and Lennon?

What makes Haidt’s Foundations moral values, rather than just a list of values on which there is room for many more. What about LOVE? After all, All You Need is Love (John Lennon 1967 “Nothing you can do, but you can learn how to be you in time, It’s easy.) or a similar sentiment in “An Open Letter of Love to Kim Jong-un”: “Our aim is to meet you in the spirit of a resolute conviction that you are a human being who is worthy of being loved by us and that we are human beings worthy of being loved by you. It is quite simple, really” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/13/opinion/open-letter-kim-jongun.html?

Haidt spends a lot of time in The Righteous Mind attacking philosophers who tried to figure out how there can be actions people ought to do or ought not to do—objective morality. His Moral Foundation Theory seems like his answer to the problem. But near the end of his book (p 313) he says his job is merely descriptive.

You’re nearly done reading a book on morality and I have not yet given you a definition of morality…

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions , technologies , and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.

Moral systems include anything that fosters cooperation. But can’t a cooperative society be dedicated to an immoral purpose? The Nazi SS had plenty of members committed to hard work, self-sacrifice, and dedication to the goals of the organization. But since the goals of the organization were genocidal, all that cooperation and regulation of self-interest only served to make the evil worse. Does Haidt think the Nazi SS counts as a “moral system” because its members cooperated with each other?   

Philosophers typically distinguish between descriptive definitions of morality (which simply describe what people happen to think is moral) and normative definitions (which specify what is really and truly right, regardless of what anyone thinks). So far in this book I have been entirely descriptive.

So Moral Foundation Theory has nothing whatever to do with what anybody ought to do. It’s just a description of assorted cooperative behavior. Maybe Haidt should rename his theory Social Foundation Theory, but that does not sound as exciting.

Is Loyalty really as important a moral foundation as Fairness? No. If you were to emphasize the Fairness Module to the exclusion of all else—disregarding Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity— you might end up with a tough life to live. But how could too much fairness lead to immorality? By contrast, the too much Loyalty—disregarding Care and Fairness— leads straight to fascism. Haidt leans on the normative/descriptive distinction to downplay this problem with his theory:

My definition of morality was designed to be a descriptive definition; it cannot stand alone as a normative definition. (As a normative definition, it would give high marks to fascist and communist societies as well as to cults, so long as they they achieved high levels of cooperation by creating a shared moral order.)  p 316.

Amazing that this crucial point is near the end of the book and parenthetical to boot. Haidt’s system would give high marks to fascist societies by cranking too hard on the Authority and Loyalty Modules. That cannot be a good thing. A “meta-moral theory” is needed to explain how values like authority and loyalty can be reconciled with morality.  A society ought not to overdose on Authority and Loyalty, as conservatives are inclined to do. That’s the philosophical problem of moral theory—or meta-ethics.

Moral Foundation Theory is not a theory about the foundations of morality at all. It’s a description of values that shows how groups depart from morality by over-emphasizing the wrong values. It describes the modern Republican Party well, especially the Trump version.

Liberals turn out to be right about morality. The strange sounding statement,“someone living in Kinshasa is of no less worth than someone living in Kensington,” is true because all people are created equal. The requirements of morality are tough for most people to accept because of the tribalism built into our genes over millions of years.

And yet… expecting any government of the U.S. or Britain—no matter how liberal— to concern itself with residents of Kinshasa as much as their own seems entirely unreasonable. To expect you or me to care about people we don’t know as much as our own families is nuts. Now I’m a Liberal to a degree and all that, but I’ve got too much Loyalty Module and I refuse to give it up!


Now, I’m liberal, to a degree

I want ev’rybody to be free.

But if you think I’ll let Barry Goldwater

Move in next door and marry my daughter,

You must think I’m crazy!

I wouldn’t do it for all the farms in Cuba.

                           —Bob Dylan 1964

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