Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

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.

Ultimately, I think that the talk (and again, not Haidt’s project or scientific approach!) then suffers from much the same problem that the Moynihan Report did back in 1965. The problem with the Moynihan report was that it was made public in an environment in which polarized perceptions, bigotry, race hatred and rampant biases were so entrenched that the fruits of Moynihan’s style of tough minded directness was likely to be abused.  Moynihan knew what he was doing, but wrote about “the Negro Family” and not the family in general.  He was thinking in quite progressive ways, but it was almost impossible to listen in that environment. In a big break for the story on Meet the Press in late 1965, an African American journalist confronted Moynihan for his exclusive focus that could be easily misread:

Booker: On page 30, while discussing the tangle of pathology, you state ‘it was by destroying the Negro family under slavery that white America broke the will of the Negro people.’ If this be true, how how do you account for the massive Negro revolution with demonstrations involving families of every income level, and why are more than two-thirds of Negro families boasting a father and mother.

Most African American leaders at the time had the same response to the report that Booker had. They felt that it was misleading and would be used by segregationists to affirm biases and stereotyping. They feared it would be used to derail the fight for racial equality and this was morally repugnant to them. Now it is morally repugnant to most Americans as well. It was not that Moynihan’s heart was in the wrong place; Civil Rights leaders simply feared that his argument was too easy to abuse. Moynihan, by failing to place his comments on the centrality of family and community in the meticulous contextual detail required at the time (that was only revealed by the violent reactions to his report), may have contributed to a situation in which the discussion became a flashpoint for misunderstanding for decades.

In affirming the Moynihan Report in his talk and by only focusing on one aspect of our driving moral system, Haidt runs the risk of being similarly labeled. If this happens it would be unfortunate but predictable.  Even forty-five years later, it is still not enough to simply be clear and correct when describing how our moral systems work, you also have to be sensitive and balanced. That is harder to do than it seems, especially when ideas become public.

There are important misunderstandings in our political discussions of difference that Haidt’s work helps us to see. Conservatives believe that difference sensitive moral systems set dangerous precedents. Liberals think that difference blind justice won’t allow us to see the problems we face. The point is that one can’t simply shut off the magnet of sacralized values. In moral life, one wouldn’t even want to. Haidt makes excellent points about how scientific psychology needs to engage this conversation to avoid being reduced to a “tribal moral community,” but I think one can say that it would have been wise to reiterate in the clear form he can that we all live in such tribes all the time and we can’t ever really get out of them. As scientists, we can do our best to try, but as human beings we will always be compelled to use the force.


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