Brother’s keeper

BrothersKeeperThe social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has argued that all humans share, with greater or lesser intensity, these five innate moral principles:

  • Caring
  • Fairness
  • Group loyalty
  • Authority
  • Purity

Haidt has admitted that there might be other virtues, such as liberty, but these are the five that he routinely discusses and the ones he addressed in his famous TED talk.

Haidt and a couple of his colleagues posted a questionnaire at  Based on these survey results he created a clothesline plot, one line for each of these five virtues. On the left side of the plot were the tabulated results from liberals. On the right were the tabulated results from conservatives.

In his TED talk on this subject, Haidt illustrated the virtue of caring by showing a slide of mothers holding children. His slide for fairness depicted the Goddess of Justice. Haidt explained in his lecture that the first two virtues on his list, caring and fairness, are shared roughly equally by all people. Liberals, he said, may exhibit these virtues a tad more than do conservatives, but the difference isn’t great.

In contrast, substantial differences between liberals and conservatives are detectable in the levels of the other virtues: group loyalty, authority, and purity. All these virtues are, according to Haidt, expressed much more strongly by conservatives.

Both liberals and conservatives have interpreted Haidt as arguing that liberals are firing on only two of the five available moral cylinders. Haidt’s books and videos have, as you might expect, found favor among conservative pundits.

Let’s take a closer look at the conservative virtues.

Haidt provided three slides for the virtue of group loyalty: a prowling wolf pack, soldiers standing for review, and celebratory sports fans with painted bodies. Haidt’s slide for loyalty showed an Asian man prostrating himself before the Dali Lama.

Haidt’s clothesline plots for the moral principles of loyalty and authority lie almost on top of one another, suggesting that they might be measuring the same thing. And that is precisely what I think they are doing. In every case where group loyalty comes into play, there is some powerful authority enforcing the loyalty. And where we find a powerful authority, we discover that strict loyalty is invariably demanded. At several points in his lecture Haidt described group loyalty as tribalism. That is the term under which I would combine both loyalty and authority.

We are now down to the following four virtues:

  • Caring
  • Fairness
  • Tribalism
  • Purity

You may have noticed the problem we just introduced into this list of virtues. Tribalism does not sound like much of a virtue. It sounds suspiciously like a vice.

Indeed, I think that tribalism is roughly the opposite of fairness. By fairness we mean that each individual is granted equal rights, which no mob, no collective, no tribe, and no powerful authority can abrogate. Fairness is, in its essence, the rejection of the overbearing tendency of tribes to smother individuality.

Tribalism may not, however, be viewed entirely as a vice. The positive aspects of tribalism might be expressed as social cohesion. Groups can unite for their common welfare and defense. Social groups can provide a safety net for their members. This positive aspect of tribalism reflects the virtue of caring.

So we can place the negative aspects of tribalism under fairness and the positive aspects of tribalism under caring. Then we can rewrite our list of virtues as follows:

  • Caring
  • Fairness
  • Purity

The first two virtues on this list are easy to understand. Purity is, however, a bit more esoteric. In his TED talk, Haidt displayed two slides to represent purity: a religiously-themed painting of a virgin and a photo of a brand of natural beverage that “elitist” liberals presumably consume. What do a virgin and a high-prestige beverage have in common?

Consider the virgin. Suppose we ask a feminist to discuss virginity as a social virtue. This feminist might arch her eyebrow and say, quite sternly, that virginity is not so much a moral virtue as a focal point of the historical domination of women by masculine authority.

The feminist would have a point. Virginity, when treated as a socially-ordained virtue, must be discussed in the context of the fairness-tribalism moral continuum.

What do I mean by that? Fairness requires that we let women decide for themselves on sexual matters, whereas authority has historically imposed the group interest of a powerful subset of the males in the tribe on women, treating women as second class citizens or commodities. The debate over female chastity is a debate over how much authority society should have over the sexual conduct of women. It reflects the tension between fairness and tribalism.

Let’s now consider Haidt’s second example of purity, the purity of beverages. Haidt isn’t talking solely about the beverage itself being pure of contaminants. The concern isn’t limited to hygienic purity. Nor is it limited to the virtue of respecting the body as a temple. Haidt is also including a general concern over environmental degradation and respect for posterity. Leftists and rightists alike would agree that pumping pesticides and other toxic agricultural chemicals into toddlers qualifies as a significant moral issue.

Haidt’s beverage example fits much more easily under the principle of caring than under the principle of purity. So we are left with the following two values:

  • Caring
  • Fairness

At this point you are no doubt expecting me to argue that these are really the same virtue. They do, after all, have a lot in common. Moreover, the two lines plotted for these virtues on Haidt’s graph seem to track remarkably similar routes, gently sloping downward as they travel from the liberal side of the graph to the conservative side of the graph. Both caring and fairness involve showing regard for individuals. We often say that we should be fair to each person because each person is inherently valuable. When we say that we value someone we are essentially saying that we care about the person. So this raises the question as to whether we can combine the two virtues of caring and fairness into a single virtue.

John Stewart Mill’s essay On Liberty argued for liberty, justice, and fairness on the basis that it these social virtues ultimately reflect the compassion we feel for others.  Although caring and fairness are not precisely the same virtue, they nevertheless can be encompassed by a single over-arching virtue, encapsulated by the dictum that all people are to be treated with equal love and respect.

Like physicists who combined light, electricity, and magnetism into something that can be expressed by a single entity, we have distilled Haidt’s five moral virtues into a single underlying virtue, one that the authors of the New Testament recognized. It all comes down to loving your neighbor as yourself. In secular terms, we would simply call it unconditional love, untainted by bias or circumstance.

Haidt’s contrived set of virtues fostered intense partisan wrangling over whether liberals or conservative can claim to rack up a higher score. But resolving all Haidt’s virtues down to a single virtue won’t bring the debate to a halt. We might still ask which end of the political spectrum—liberal or conservative—does a better job of living by the dictum that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. The answer you give to that question probably hinges on your definition of neighbor.

If you interpret “neighbor” as encompassing every human being on the planet, then you probably think liberals do a better job. If you interpret “neighbor” in a more restricted sense as, say, your family, religious group, or nation, then you probably think conservatives do a better job.

The difference between liberals and conservatives is to be found in the different diameters of their respective moral circles. Liberals and conservatives are seriously committed to what they view as the right moral circle. Any politician or religious leader who advocates a moral circle of a diameter at odds with that favored by his party or sect will lose prestige and possibly his next election.

A telling example of this was when the Democratic Party (with tepid support from some moderate Republicans) pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Civil Rights Act expanded the nation’s moral circle to better encompass black citizens. In the wake of these reforms, President Lyndon Johnson confided to White House Press Secretary Bill Moyers that the Democratic Party’s embrace of civil rights would hand the South over to the Republican Party for a generation or two. And that is precisely what happened. Extending rights to women, gays, and religious minorities—increasing the diameter of the moral circle—has further alienated the Democratic Party from the religiously-conservative South.

According to Genesis 4:9, “Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ ‘I don’t know,’ Cain replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’”

Most people, religious or not, would reply that we are our brother’s keeper. The question we must each ask ourselves is this: Who is my brother?

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