Reciprocity and Moral Palates

I recently came across some writing that described the differing “moral palates” of conservatives and liberals. Based on Jonathan Haidt’s book, this theory essentially divides up morality into several occasionally competing moral compass points (here stated as care for others, justice/fairness, loyalty to the in-group, authority and respect for the sacred.) Conservatives, he says, have a more complex moral “taste” because they give more weight to each of these points – liberals generally only care about the first two, but conservatives weight the other three more-or-less equally.

In one of her Bloomberg articles, Megan McArdle argues that conservatives sometimes get frustrated by this division, because conservatives care about fairness too. But to a conservative, “fairness” means reciprocity, while the same term means equality to a liberal. These terms are worth parsing: fairness, she says, is a freighted term with multiple facets. Reciprocity is a scheme in which what’s “fair” is based on what’s earned and justly delivered, while equality is (maybe obviously) the equal treatment of all members of a group.

But I don’t want to let this conversation go automatically to the conservatives, because I’m bothered both by the equal weighting of the moral dispositions, and the division of fairness.

For one thing, it doesn’t seem to me like the moral points merit equal weight. For one thing, respect for “the sacred” is meaningless to almost everyone – sacredness is defined by narrow groups, and at its core, the term means almost nothing. The sacred, or holy, is merely the untouchable, the uncriticizeable. That, absent a specific deity as a context, means nothing: cows are not sacred to Christians, the True Cross is not sacred to Muslims, and, generally speaking, respect for a narrow uncritiqueable object or concept is not a healthy or useful trait of a civilization. Inside a clearly defined religious context, the sacred matters: it binds a group together, establishes goals for that group, and then requires codes of action for group members. But broad groups do not share a single sacred object – and so respect for a sacred thing merely causes divisions and unnecessary conflict.

Similarly, respect for authority can easily become unthinking obedience, and loyalty to the in-group is almost exactly the same as exclusion of the out-group. That is, these “moral” points can all become thinly veiled descriptions of prejudice, exclusion, and conflict. At the least, they can provide a feeling of “righteousness” to cover these seeming “wrongs”.

But perhaps more frustrating, reciprocity as a definition of fairness is far more problematic than equality is. Though “equality” can lead to political persuasions that run free-rider risks, reciprocity leads to ones that lead to people falling through the cracks. Worse, reciprocity implies a value judgment: who has “earned” what, and who is making that decisions? What is more valuable work than other work? Who has earned the right to use healthcare, and who has earned the right to Apple smartphones? Conservatives frequently state their belief that others “haven’t earned” these things to justify their opposition to healthcare expansions and food stamps and other social welfare programs. But just because a person hasn’t done anything for an individual conservative doesn’t mean that they aren’t valuable to society – and many people do valuable work that has no inherent dollar value (this is one definition of a bureaucrat, in fact, which might explain why conservatives hate them).

Indeed, reciprocity suffers from an inherent informational problem: one might never know enough to determine others’ true worth in a society, and so your gut feeling isn’t enough to determine who gets which rewards. And market distortions are common enough to almost invalidate the idea that the market’s invisible hand will lead to some optimum division of resources in which people are truly compensated for their worth.

In fact, a critique of reciprocity as a moral guiding light need not even rest on value judgments: it need only come down to a numerical question. Do we think a society that risks free-ridership is more or less stable than one that accepts the accidental or systematic destruction of its members? In a reciprocity-based society, the weakest members are the ones most likely to be destroyed through a failure of resource access. A free-rider society risks being dragged down by the weight of nonproductive members.

I happen to believe that people will generally work rather than leech, for reasons of social pressure and reliability (when one is subsisting on transfers, the instability of such a system is ever-present). That’s why I favor a system that assumes equality and seeks to maximize that potential rather than assuming laziness or destructiveness or parasitism and thus threatens the weakest with destitution. Furthermore, I find such a system unnecessary in an increasingly wealthy world. Not to mention morally unappetizing to my particular palate.

Further, related reading:



  1. marczak34 · · Reply

    I do agree with your interpretation. I also appreciate you breaking down the articles you linked to. While you showed how easy it is to cross the line from positive interpretations of loyalty, authority, and sacred I don’t see how it is possible to cross the line in both caring for others and justice. I guess if you pick and choose who you care for and if you decide to use street justice or Judge Joe Brown instead of actual justice. I digress. And I’m not sure what my point is exactly either.

    On a tangent though, I found myself in a football argument tonight where I presented facts, stats, video evidence, and quotes to prove a point. And yet, I still could not convince this woman that my point was correct because she had more trust in her gut feeling than my facts. I got frustrated but tried to stay level-headed. I don’t know this woman at all. She followed me on Facebook after I went viral a couple weeks ago with a Husker fan post. One of my thoughts out frustration was that she must be a Republican. I thought this in a derogative manner.

    But essentially that’s when I realized that not everybody actually processes thoughts in the same way. I base my thoughts on facts (or at least I’d like to most of the time). I felt bad for this person though because basing your thoughts on gut feelings would lead you to make statistically wrong choices more often and lead you to judge others based on nothing they could control. (e.g. She has a gut feeling that all poor people are bad people without knowing them personally and getting any facts about them specifically).

    But as I write this, I think of my trouble with people. I have my own prejudices based on statistics. Girls I have been close to have hurt me so therefore I conclude that most girls are mean and avoid them. Or in a more superficial sense, I want to know a girl more because of the fact that I am attracted to her than I would a girl I am not attracted to.

    Anyway, I feel like Democrats are stat and fact based while Republicans are gut feeling based. Does this help with the discussion at all?

  2. As usual, an edifying post! I love thinking about how language influences debate and politics and how it represents the core message of either party. I’m feeling there should be a pox on both their houses right now.

    1. Agreed. It’s pretty frustrating to see 800,000 people out of work, suffering, so that the great ones can make a point.

  3. I had the same thoughts when I first saw this study. How can “loyalty to the in-group, authority and respect for the sacred” possibly be on the same level as justice/fairness or compassion/empathy for others. Of course, I would say this, I suppose; I am a liberal.

    I also have trouble sometimes with recognizing rationality on the other side, and irrationality on mine. I know there must be some of each on all sides, but it can be difficult to see. I don’t know if this is simply confirmation bias at work, or if I have made a rational decision based on facts. The point here really, is that most of the morality here purports to be objective, yet rarely if ever is resolved. Almost exclusively these moral points, especially in politics, are debated by carefully selecting facts and statistics that conform to a preconceived worldview. Identifying these differing values, just underscores the subjectivity of moral proclamations.

    With our crippled ability to resolve these things objectively, all we are left with seems to be one side saying “I value these things” and the other side saying “I do not.”

    I think the way out is to recognize our morality not in solutions, but rather in problems. Not, “I won’t support welfare because ‘unbalanced reciprocity,'” nor “I support welfare because compassion and fairness”, but rather “poverty is an affront to my morality.” Both liberals and conservatives see this as a problem (in arguably all spheres – care for others, justice/fairness, loyalty to the in-group, authority and respect for the sacred), but have different (and opposed) solutions. So if we agree upon the problem, and the goal (I take it this would be the elimination of poverty starting at the poorest and working our way up), we can distance ourselves from morality and find the most effective solution. If the solution that would help the most people is to disband the government and allow free market forces to cure everything then so be it. If creating a socialist state achieves the goals we agreed upon, it is the best choice. (Obviously we might want to weigh other moral problems before we go full-on anarchy or communism.)

    So: divorce moral arguments (i.e. purportedly objective but in fact subjective arguments) from any discussion of solutions. Instead, use these moral evaluations to identify common problems and mutually acceptable goals.

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