Too Soon To Tell

I've written before about Jonathan Haidt's view that our moral impulses can be grouped into five categories, two "liberal" (harm/care, and fairness/reciprocity) and three "conservative" (ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity) - and I've argued before with Will Wilkinson about whether it's possible to envision a successful society in which the liberal impulses dominate completely, and the conservative impulses are stigmatized and/or essentially disappear. Haidt, for his part, thinks that it probably isn't; here's Will arguing with him:

Frankly, I find this extremely unconvincing, and I daresay even pernicious ... What Jon needs to show is that there is a threshold on the conservative channels of the moral equalizer below which social stability is threatened. In the talk, he barely gestures toward evidence to this effect ... Indeed, my sense is that the societies in which the space between high liberal settings and low conservative settings is the greatest-that is, the most imbalanced-are by and large the best places for human beings to live. 

My own view is that there is a distinctive form of liberal order achieved by extended market societies. As Hayek noted, the decisive shift in human history was the shift (in some places) between personal to impersonal exchange. And part of this is a shift from personal to impersonal mechanisms for achieving order. If the conservative dimensions are so important, Jon needs to explain why the people of the advanced market democracies are so much more liberal than they used to be, so much less conservative, and yet so much less disordered (i.e., less violence, less war, etc.) 

I think the answer is that in Hayek's "extended order," the conservative sentiments play a relatively small and decreasing role. A more thoroughly liberal moral culture evidently not only sustains order, but sustains an order that leaves us healthier, happier, and orders of magnitude wealthier. If cranked-up conservative sentiments were necessary to sustain that order, then their decline would indeed endanger us, and could not constitute moral progress. But insofar as they have become superfluous, the failure to further suppress them is a failure of further moral progress. This is not a story of liberal/conservative Yin and Yang. This is a story of Yin devouring Yang. 

I admire Jon's anthropologist's impulse to take the variety of moral cultures seriously, and to take our own society's mostly intra-liberal moral pluralism seriously. But I think he's making a mistake if he think his work points toward the importance of the conservative sentiments. It's pointing me toward a clearer grasp of the ecological conditions under which those sentiments are functional and adaptive. And we aren't in them. When we recognize that, in the advanced world, those conditions have largely vanished-when we recognize that is partly what makes it the advanced world "advanced"-the question cannot be "Why do we need to respect tribalism, subordination, and moralized disgust?" The question is what to do with impulses that now hurt more than help, but are written into us anyway. 

I have a Fukuyaman streak that thinks Will might be be proven right about this in the long run - that the levels of wealth generated by market capitalism will rise and rise, cushioning away the impact of any negative externalities that the "conservative" moral instincts may be evolved/designed to guard against. But I also think that it's way too soon for the partisans of a purely liberal order to get cocky. The liberal impulses have been gaining ground against the conservatives ones ever since Christianity came on the scene, but they started from a pretty weak position: It took them the better part of two thousand years to reach parity, and only in the twentieth century did they really gain the upper hand, making it possible for Will and others to fantasize about a world in which the non-liberal sentiments can be ignored and/or discarded. Today, the world's most liberal societies are still only a couple generations deep into a massive experiment in the kind of social organization that Will favors, and I'm not sure that results to date are a guarantor of future returns.

Take the Sexual Revolution in the United States, for instance - which represented a massive ratcheting down of the "purity/sanctity" index, to borrow Haidt's terms, and a ratcheting up of a more "liberal" approach to sexuality. If you'd freeze-framed America in 1991 or so, a generation into this particular experiment in a more liberalized morality, it wouldn't have been hard to make the case that the costs were exceeding the benefits: Alongside the increase in sexual freedom, you had skyrocketing divorce, teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock birth rates, rising rates of STDs alongside the then-uncontainable plague of AIDS, a thirty-year crime wave that many social scientists believed would be compounded by a new generation of "super-predators," and various other stark indicators of social decline. Flash forward fifteen years, of course, and things look much better on many of these fronts, which has prompted various people to argue that we've passed through what Francis Fukuyama terms a "Great Disruption" (and then through what Tom Wolfe famously called a "Great Relearning") and reached a stable post-Sixties equilibrium. But there are still reasons - some of which are detailed in Grand New Party - to be pessimistic, or at least not completely optimistic, about the long-term consequences of the Sexual Revolution. Yes, there's much more reason for optimism today than there was in 1991. But I don't think the trends that produced a great deal of early-1990s declinism are quite far enough in the rearview mirror to be dismissed as just a temporary pit stop on the road to the broad sunlit uplands of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the European version of the liberal experiment currently involves the intersection of a post-Sexual Revolution birth dearth with immigration policies seemingly designed without much input from Haidt's "conservative" moral impulses - particularly the whole "ingroup/loyalty" business. Now maybe this experiment, despite some hiccups along the way, will work out to the long-term benefit of the all the peoples involved. I know that Will assumes it will, and it's quite possible he's right. But there, I think, it's definitely too soon to tell for sure. The indicators point in a lot of directions at once, and it's by no means absurd to suspect that we'll look back from the vantage point of 2100 or so and say that Europe would have been better off if the conservative moral impulses hadn't ceded the floor quite so completely to the liberal ones in the latter part of the twentieth century.

It's also worth pointing out that we don't really have any idea how Will's "distinctive form of liberal order achieved by extended market societies" would handle a severe and extended economic shock of the sort that (God willing) we've just narrowly avoided. The last time the liberal West endured such a shock, the results were extremely ugly, and it was touch-and-go for a while whether democracy would survive at all, or whether the Wilkinsons and Douthats of the future would be competing for blogging licenses in a world divvied up between competing totalitarianisms.

Of course, maybe the totalitarian moment was only made possible because the liberal weltanschauung hadn't advanced far enough, and there was still enough conservative atavism left for fascists and communists to batten on. Maybe we've advanced past all that: Maybe we won't have to find out how Will's Yang-less order bears up under severe stress; maybe we will, and it'll bear up fine.

But I tend to think that the liberal as well as the conservative moral impulses off Haidt's list went into the forging of totalitarianism, and that conservative as well as liberal impulses served as bulwarks against the worst crimes and excesses of that era. And with that in mind, the fact that rising liberal sentiments and declining conservative ones have correlated, to date with greater human flourishing overall seems somewhat short of dispositive proof that we can do without the latter entirely.   

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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