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An essay by Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys:

Morality and Obedience

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I have finished reading Jonathan Haidt’s book "The Righteous Mind, Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion." 1

I voiced my problems  with the first part of the book in an earlier essay. I said that I would address the last part in this essay.

  • My main objection is that I think he has failed to get at what really underlies the differences between Conservatives and Liberals. I think that the six moral foundations that he cites are covers for, or are hiding, something that is the driving force behind those principles.

This force is the differences that Conservatives and Liberals have towards the concept of obedience.

For the Conservative, obedience to tradition is what preserves the moral order and what is best for society. For the Liberal, blind obedience without question or challenge is simply immoral -- especially when it supports policies that actually harm others.

There are several places in Haidt's book where I think that the author misses what is actually going on. For example, on page 340 he says that Conservatives:

"... believe that people need external structures or constraints in order to behave well, cooperate and thrive. These external constraints include laws, institutions, customs, traditions, nations, and religions."

This doesn’t account for what is happening right now. Conservatives are working to undermine where they can’t outright remove laws and constraints (regulations) and the government agencies that administer them. This is happening with environmental regulations, banking regulations, gun control, health care, vehicle emissions, etc.  

On page 337 he quotes an historian: Jerry Muller:

"But Muller asserted that modern conservatism is really about creating the best possible society, the one that brings about the greatest happiness given local circumstances."

This implies Liberals aren’t concerned about creating the best possible society. I think both Haidt and Muller miss the fact that that Conservatives and Liberals simply have very different ideas about what creates the best possible society. For Conservatives it is about Obedience: to Authority, tradition and the social order. For Liberals it is about helping each individual reach their fullest potential that can then be put to use to benefit society.

On pages 332 and 333 he discusses Ronald Reagan’s narrative about the Conservative social order. If you read between the lines and look under the surface words you can see that he is calling for Obedience to traditional social order. For him, this was Obedience to the white patriarchal society.

Haidt concludes this page with this comment:

"If the left builds its moral matrices on a smaller number of moral foundations, then there is no foundation used by the left that is not also used by the right."

Again I don’t think Haidt comprehends that there is ONE moral matrix underlying Conservative choices and that is OBEDIENCE: to authority, the social order and tradition. The left builds its matrix on three points:

  • Care and Fairness (as Haidt has pointed out);

  • The premise that Blind Obedience -- Obedience without question or challenge -- is immoral.

In other words, I think Haidt’s interpretation of his findings is wrong because he fails to understand the underlying motivation that is at work here.

  • My second objection is that what worked for our ancestors is not necessarily what is best for our multi-cultural, multi-religious, 21st century world. Global communication, transportation, educational systems, and networks have erased man made boundaries. Global supply chains for both goods and raw materials bind us together. Pollution, Global Climate Change, Disease, Wars -- and the problems they spawn -- don’t respect walls or national boundaries. Globalization is here to stay whether some like it or not. Somehow, we have to figure out how to make it work for us rather than trying to fight that which is a fate accompli.

  • My third objection is that he downplays the negative side of many of his points.  One of religions strengths and purposes is that it helps build communities. I discussed the purposes of religion in an earlier essay) It provides a narrative and rules that help a group of people live together for the benefit of all in the group. The downside is that it leads to tribalism and nationalism, to the demonization of the "other" -- all of those that aren’t like the members of the "group/church" -- and to the justification and sanctification of some of the actions taken against those "others". I don’t think this downside outweighs the positive side especially since there are other kinds of groups that also build community. For example: Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, The Center for Compassiona & Global Health, and Habitat for Humanity, to name a few.

In his conclusion he states:

"Beware of anyone who insists that there is one true morality for all people, times, and places -- particularly if that morality is founded upon a single moral foundation."

Here I think he is spot on. EXCEPT he still thinks that Conservatives build their moral foundation on the six moral matrices he has identified. I think there is one moral concept that underlies those matrices. That is the lens through which those matrices are viewed by the Conservative, That is OBEDIENCE.  Obedience to authority, to moral order, to tradition. Loyalty to that authority, order, and tradition, and the sanctity of that authority order and tradition. Care and Fairness -- what preserves the social order -- are also viewed through the same lens.

I think we have witnessed this at work with the blind obedience many Conservatives are showing President Trump.  This is so clear in their claim that God has chosen Trump -- and if you are a good person and a good Christian you don’t challenge or question God’s motives or his plans!

I think we witnessed this at work in the Kavanaugh/Ford hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee to install Judge Kavanaugh as a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Kavanaugh was incensed that anyone would challenge him. Some call it white male entitlement which is all about Obedience to white male Authority -- the social order where women know their place, -- and tradition. It was also visible during Senator Lindsey Graham's (R) rant telling his compatriots to get in line and vote the party line.

Haidt is spot-on with his comment: "Morality binds and blinds." I just happen to think that he doesn’t spot his own blindness.

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  1. book cover Jonathan Haidt, "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion," Vintage (2012). Read reviews or order this book safely from online

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Original posting: 2018-NOV-18
Author: Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys

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