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.

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

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