Why I Am A Social Conservative

Everybody's talking - Andrew, Rod, Will (who got there first), the Times - about Jonathan Haidt, his theory of moral instincts, and how it applies to American politics. I thought I'd jump in, starting with a long quote from Haidt's recent critique of the Dawkins-Hitchens-Harris tribe of neo-atheists.

In my research I have found that there are two common ways that cultures suppress and regulate selfishness, two visions of what society is and how it ought to work. I'll call them the contractual approach and the beehive approach.

The contractual approach takes the individual as the fundamental unit of value. The fundamental problem of social life is that individuals often hurt each other, and so we create implicit social contracts and explicit laws to foster a fair, free, and safe society in which individuals can pursue their interests and develop themselves and their relationships as they choose.

Morality is about happiness and suffering (as [Sam] Harris says, and as John Stuart Mill said before him), and so contractualists are endlessly trying to fine-tune laws, reinvent institutions, and extend new rights as circumstances change in order to maximize happiness and minimize suffering. To build a contractual morality, all you need are the two individualizing foundations: harm/care, and fairness/reciprocity. The other three foundations, and any religion that builds on them, run afoul of the prime directive: let people make their own choices, as long as they harm nobody else.
The beehive approach, in contrast, takes the group and its territory as fundamental sources of value. Individual bees are born and die by the thousands, but the hive lives for a long time, and each individual has a role to play in fostering its success.The two fundamental problems of social life are attacks from outside and subversion from within. Either one can lead to the death of the hive, so all must pull together, do their duty, and be willing to make sacrifices for the group. Bees don't have to learn how to behave in this way but human children do, and this is why cultural conservatives are so heavily focused on what happens in schools, families, and the media.

Conservatives generally have a more pessimistic view of human nature than do liberals. They are more likely to believe that if you stand back and give kids space to grow as they please, they'll grow into shallow, self-centered, undisciplined pleasure seekers. Cultural conservatives work hard to cultivate moral virtues based on the three binding foundations: ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity, as well as on the universally employed foundations of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity. The beehive ideal is not a world of maximum freedom, it is a world of order and tradition in which people are united by a shared moral code that is effectively enforced, which enables people to trust each other to play their interdependent roles. It is a world of very high social capital and low anomie.

It might seem obvious to you that contractual societies are good, modern, creative and free, whereas beehive societies reek of feudalism, fascism, and patriarchy. And, as a secular liberal I agree that contractual societies such as those of Western Europe offer the best hope for living peacefully together in our increasingly diverse modern nations (although it remains to be seen if Europe can solve its current diversity problems).

I just want to make one point, however, that should give contractualists pause: surveys have long shown that religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people. Most of these effects have been documented in Europe too. If you believe that morality is about happiness and suffering, then I think you are obligated to take a close look at the way religious people actually live and ask what they are doing right.

I wouldn't endorse everything Haidt says here: I'm not sure, for instance, that contractualism (the belief that political life should be organized around a social contract that takes the individual as the fundamental unit of value) and utilitarianism (the belief that morality is about happiness and suffering) are quite so easily conflated. But I'm sympathetic to the broad outlines of his thesis, and I think the contract and the beehive aren't bad ways to look at the competing modes of social organization that one finds in America today.

A while back, I did a bloggingheads with Henry Farrell, in which he asked me to describe and defend my ideal society. I wasn't expecting the question, and since we were talking about Catholicism I launched into a rambling discussion of how I'd like to see religious issues debated in the public square. But if he asked me again now, I might say something like this: I think the contractual and the beehive models of human society both have qualities that recommend them, because both contribute to human flourishing in meaningful but radically different ways. Some types of people, perhaps the majority, are happier in a beehive, but many others are happier in a more deracinated, individualized, unrestricted form of social and political organization. This is a point suggested recently by Rod Dreher, who quoted Alan Ehrenhalt's The Lost City, a medititation on the urban social order of the 1950s:

There is no point in pretending that the 1950s were a happy time for everyone in America. For many, the price of the limited life was impossibly high. To have been an independent-minded alderman in the Daley machine, a professional baseball player treated unfairly by his team, a suburban housewife who yearned for a professional career, a black high school student dreaming of possibilities that were closed to him, a gay man or woman forced to conduct a charade in public -- to have been any of these things in the 1950s was to live a life that was difficult at best, and tragic at worst. That is why so many of us still respond to the memory of those indignities by saying that nothing in the world could justify them.

It is a powerful indictment, but it is also a selective one ... Our collective indignation makes little room for the millions of people who took the rules seriously and tried to live up to them, within the profound limits of human weakness. They are still around, the true believers of the 1950s, in small towns and suburbs and big-city neighborhoods all over the country, reading the papers, watching television, and wondering in old age what has happened to America in the last thirty years. If you visit middle-class American suburbs today, and talk to the elderly women who have lived out their adult years in these places, they do not tell you how constricted and demeaning their lives in the 1950s were. They tell you those were the best years they can remember. And if you visit a working-class Catholic parish in a big city, and ask the older parishioners what they think of the church in the days before Vatican II, they don't tell you that it was tyrannical or that it destroyed their individuality. They tell you they wish they cold have it back. For them, the erosion of both community and authority in the last generation is not a matter of intellectual debate. It is something they can feel in their bones, and the feeling makes them shiver.

One of the central questions of our time, to my mind, comes down to balance: How far do we want to go in the contractual direction, and to what extent do we want to preserve and shore up the beehives? To what extent do we need to provide space for the dissenters to breathe, and to what extent do we want a society where the conformists can flourish? My preference would be to inhabit a society that's formally contractualist, that protects the rights of minorities and provides opportunities for dissenters and free spirits to find their way in the world, but that is undergirded by sturdy beehives - by rooted communities that are, as Haidt puts it, high on social capital and low on anomie. This is the American model, I would argue, from Tocqueville's time down to our own: a nation balanced between contractualism and community. And the question becomes, for those who think this model has been a great success, where do you strike the balance? And which side of the equation needs shoring up?

This answer will vary depending on where and when you live. So, for instance, I probably would have been a liberal, in some sense, had I been alive, writing and voting at mid-century, since the America of that era seems to me to have erred too far on the side of in-group prerogatives, authority and (yes) patriarchy. But the America of this era seems to me to have become unbalanced in the opposite direction, requiring a different, more culturally-conservative approach to social reform than the United States of, say, 1952. This take on our current predicament doesn't require one to be on the political right, of course, and indeed I have a great deal of sympathy for communitarians and "left-conservatives," from Michael Sandel and Robert Putnam to Christopher Lasch and Russell Arben Fox. I incline away from them on questions of economic policy not out of any delusion that unfettered capitalism hasn't played a significant role in the cultural trends that I find worrying, but because I think that economic freedom was one of the freedoms that the 1950s order went too far in stifling - and more importantly, because the most likely alternative to Reaganism and Rubinomics wasn't some low-growth crunchy-communitarian utopia, but rather a steady expansion in government power that would have crowded out the "little platoons" even more quickly than free-market capitalism undercuts them. Traditional forms of social organization are weaker in today's America than they were fifty years ago, but they're still much, much stronger than in Europe, where the economic left has held the whip for decades.

Of course, it's possible to believe that this balancing act is pure folly, and that the traditional patterns of life deserve to largely perish. See, for instance, Will Wilkinson:

The American culture war is about how thoroughly the liberal sentiments will be allowed to dominate. If a thoroughly liberal society is worth having, liberals will have to spot the points of conflict between the liberal and illiberal dimensions of the moral sense, drive in the wedge, and pull out all the rhetorical stops--including playing on feelings of quasi-religious elevation and indignant moral disgust--to make Americans feel the moral primacy of harm, autonomy, and rights. When the pattern of feeling is in place, the argument is easy to accept.

... Perhaps Haidt's most significant contribution is helping liberals of all stripes see that liberalism is not a mere intellectual commitment, but a condition of the soul, a condition to be proud of--one that puts us at a far remove from tribalism, caste, and theocracy.

Obviously, this is pretty far from my own take on the matter. I would suggest, briefly, that Will ought to give more credence to the notion that he can't have his cake and eat it too: That what he terms "tribalism, caste, and theocracy" - and what a more sympathetic observer might call "family, community, and religion" - play a stabilizing role in society that would otherwise be filled, almost inevitably, by an ever-expanding state. You can have the kind of economic liberty that Will wants, or you can have the kind of personal liberty, but you can't necessarily have both. This is the old fusionist argument, of course, and while it's taken something of a beating of late, I don't think it's all that easily dismissed.

Update: In the original version of this post, I repeatedly misspelled Haidt as "Haight." Sorry about that.