Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

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Use the Force: On Ideological Bias in Social Psychology

In Collective and Chosen Trauma, Domestic Politics, Intellectual History on February 9, 2011 at 10:00 am

When I read the New York Times yesterday, I couldn’t decide if I should be excited or disturbed. The occasion was  the otherwise fascinating article by John Tierney on the way that moral arguments have introduced political bias into the field of social psychology. Haidt is one of my favorite social psychologists and I think his work on intuitive primacy and social intuition is as helpful as social science can be. I did not attend the meetings in which his talk was delivered,  so I decided to check his own site to see what was there and found a reproduction of his talk called “The Bright Future of Post-Partisan Social Psychology.” I would recommend that anyone with an interest in political misunderstandings take a look at it.  The upshot is that our moral worldviews are shaped by sacred values that act like a moral force field. Haidt is a real Durkheimian and has learned much from sociology (think for a second about why there is a journal called Social Forces). This is part of what makes his work so compelling.

If the Haidt talk goes somewhat astray, it is not in being wrong but in presenting an incomplete picture. One can walk away from the talk (and certainly from Tierney’s article) with the view that only the moral systems dedicated to fighting ascriptive causes like racism and sexism act as blinding moral force fields. The larger point that Haidt knows (and often says) is that all moral systems work that way. This is what it means to have a vision and to have values. You believe in something because it appeals to your conscience. You believe in it because you feel deeply that it is right and that things that work against it are wrong. If you are to be a moral person (which you can’t really opt out of anyway), you cannot escape this condition. But the Haidt talk (but certainly not his broader research) can be read as misleading in that it restricts the scope of blinding moral force to the fight against racism. Of course the struggle against what Rogers Smith has called “Ascriptive Americanism” has taken on the binding and blinding form it has : that is what a moral worldview does for us. The same is true of beliefs in the rule of law, freedom of expression, consent of the governed and even the sacredness of property. These are all elements of binding and blinding moral force fields as well.  What is distinctive about these is that they are often held to be sacred on the right as well as on the left. You have to bear this in mind while listening to Haidt’s talk or it could seem like he is attacking the civil rights movement rather than making a far more general and radical argument.

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