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: http://www.stanford.edu/~jdlevin/Econ%20286/Fairness.pdf