This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
You may have heard about this. It’s been in the news and the blogosphere, and has been making the rounds at the nerdier water coolers and cocktail parties. A number of researchers are coming to the conclusion that ethics and values aren’t entirely relative, and aren’t solely derived from particular cultures. Human beings, across cultures and throughout history, seem to share a few core ethical values, hard-wired into our brains by millions of years of evolution as a social species. Those values: Fairness, harm and the avoidance thereof, loyalty, authority, and purity. (Some think there may be one or two others, including liberty and honesty; but those aren’t yet as well-substantiated, or as well-studied.)
Different people prioritize different values over others, of course. And of course, different individuals and different cultures come to different conclusions about the right ethical choice in any particular situation: based on our cultural biases, as well as on our own personal observations and experiences. But according to this research, these basic values — fairness, harm, loyalty, authority, and purity — exist in all of us, at least to some degree, in every non-sociopathic human being.
“Fascinating,” I hear you cry. “But what does that have to do with politics?” Well, what researchers are finding is that liberals prioritize very different values from conservatives. When asked a series of questions about different ethical situations, self-described liberals strongly tend to prioritize fairness and harm as the most important of these core values — while self-described conservatives are more likely to prioritize authority, loyalty, and purity.
As a dyed-in-the-wool liberal — the offspring of a union organizer and an early-adopter feminist, taken to peace marches and McGovern rallies at a tender age — this idea instantly made sense to me. It illuminates a lot of weird dark corners about politics… particularly the rancorous and apparently unsolvable nature of many political conflicts. When liberals and conservatives debate the burning issues of the day — whether it’s immigration or marriage equality, global warming or health care reform — we often wind up talking at cross-purposes, and the conversations go around in increasingly belligerent circles… because we’re not starting with the same ethical foundations. We assume that we have the same core values, and are simply debating the best way to apply those values in the world. We’re not. We’re debating — not very effectively or coherently most of the time — the core values themselves.
And of course, when I heard about this research, my instant reaction was to say, “But fairness and harm ARE more important! We were right all along! This proves it — liberal values ARE better!”
But — being someone who places a strong ethical value on fairness — I realize that of course I’m going to say that. After all… those are my values. Of course I think they’re better. And — again, being someone who highly values fairness — I realize that conservatives are going to say the exact same thing. “But authority and loyalty ARE more important! This proves it! Conservative values ARE better!”
So I’ve been asking myself: Is there a way to distinguish between these values?
If these are core values, fundamental axioms of human ethics… how do we distinguish between them? I mean — they’re axioms. They’re our ethical starting points. When they come into conflict, as they often do, how do we step back from them, and decide which ones we should prioritize?
I’ve been chewing over this question ever since I heard about this research. In other words, for at least a couple of years. And then, at an atheist conference I spoke at recently, the answer was dropped into my lap, so clearly and succinctly that I kicked myself for not having thought of it myself, by the conference’s keynote speaker, philosopher and MacArthur genius Rebecca Goldstein. (From whom I am stealing this idea shamelessly. Hey, I’m an ethical person, with the good liberal value of fairness. When I steal an idea, I give credit.)
Here’s the idea.
Fairness and harm are better values — because they can be universalized.
Goldstein’s argument is this. The basic philosophical underpinning of ethics (as opposed to its psychological and evolutionary underpinnings) are:
(a) the starting axiom that we, ourselves, matter;
and (b) the understanding that, if we step back from ourselves and view life from an outside perspective, we have to acknowledge that we don’t, cosmically speaking, matter more than anyone else; that other people matter to themselves as much as we matter to ourselves; and that any rules of ethics ought to apply to other people as much as they do to ourselves. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and all that. (Some version of the Golden Rule seems to exist in every society.)
In other words, the philosophical underpinning of ethics are that they ought to be applicable to everyone. They ought to be universalizable.
And liberal values — fairness and harm — are universalizable.
In fact, it’s inherent in the very nature of these values that they are universalizable.
Fairness is the most obvious example of this. I mean, the whole freaking idea of fairness is that it be ought to be applied universally. Tit for tat. What’s sauce for the goose is what’s sauce for the gander. Yada, yada, yada. The whole idea of fairness is that everyone ought to be treated, not identically, but as if they matter equally.
And the value of harm, and the avoidance thereof, can easily be universalized as well. It can be applied to everybody. In fact, the history of the evolution of human ethics can be seen as the history of this principle being expanded to a wider and wider population: to people from other countries, to people of color, to women, etc. etc. etc. It can even be universalized further, and applied to non-humans. (It may well be that, in 200 years, people will look back on the way we treat animals with the same bewildered, “How on earth could they do that?” horror that we now view slavery with.) There’s nothing in the principle of avoiding harm that prevents it from being applied to any creature with the capacity to experience suffering. It is an easily universalizable value.
Conservative values, on the other hand, are not universalizable.
Quite the contrary.
It is in the very nature of conservative values — authority, loyalty, and purity — that they are applied differently to different people. It is in the very nature of conservative values that some animals are, and ought to be, more equal than others.
The conservative value of authority has, at its very core, the idea that certain special people — i.e., authority figures — ought to be respected and obeyed more than others, and ought to have the right to tell other people what to do, and ought to have the power to enforce those dictums. The conservative value of loyalty has, at its very core, the idea that certain special people — i.e., people inside the in-group, the family or country or faith or what have you — ought to be valued more than others. And the conservative value of purity… well, purity is a weird one, since it applies more to how people treat their own bodies, and less to how people treat one another. (Making it a pretty baffling ethical principle, in my opinion.) But when it does apply to how people treat other people (the notion of “untouchables,” for instance), it has, at its very core, the idea that certain special people — i.e., people who are considered pure — ought to be treated as fully human… and that people who are considered impure need not be.
Conservative values — authority, loyalty, and purity — can’t be universalized. They actively resist universalization.
So if you accept the idea that the philosophical foundation of ethics is that other people matter as much as we ourselves do, and that any principles of ethics ought to apply to other people as much as they do to ourselves, then that makes liberal values… well, better. Closer to that philosophical foundation.
I will say very quickly here: I’m not arguing that liberals, as people, are inherently the moral superiors of conservatives. Again, I’m a good liberal/ progressive/ whatever, and my innate sense of fairness makes me flinch in revulsion from saying anything of that nature.
And I’m not going to say that the conservative values of loyalty and authority and purity are irrelevant. Loyalty especially. Prioritizing the people we love over total strangers… that’s a huge part of what it means to love people in the first place. If someone had such a powerful sense of fairness that they didn’t prioritize the people they loved, I’d think there was something profoundly wrong with them.
As for authority… well even Little Miss Dyed-in-the-Wool Pinko can’t imagine a world entirely governed by consensus. The thought of a world population of almost seven billion being operated as a consensus collective makes me shudder with dread and want to move to the Moon immediately. I’ve been in consensus collectives. The meetings alone would take a lifetime. As much as I hate to admit it, some sort of authority — assigned democratically and with the consent of the governed and with some seriously powerful checks and balances and oversight, obviously — is probably necessary for human society to function smoothly, or indeed at all. Even the most progressive pinko societies (I’m looking at you, Sweden) haven’t abandoned the idea of authority and law. We probably need to have laws against murder and theft and running red lights and so on… and we probably need people whose job it is to enforce those laws. (If for no other reason, our wonderful universal liberal values of fairness and harm don’t mean a lot if there aren’t any consequences to violating them.) As I always say to libertarian extremists who want a world with no government: Move to Somalia. That’s what a world with no functioning government looks like.
And as for purity… well, while I find the idea of purity as a moral value rather baffling, it certainly makes sense from a practical viewpoint. The principle of purity has to do with the idea that the body ought to be pure and holy, not desecrated by that which is contaminated or evil… and among other things, an innate revulsion over that which is impure is what keeps us from eating things that can kill us.
So I’m not saying that typically conservative values have no place in a human ethical system, or that thoughtful, non-teabag-loony conservatives don’t have a valid voice in conversations and decisions about ethics, and how ethics should be applied in policy and law.
I’m saying that, when we debate political issues, we can do more than just go around in circles, assuming that we’re talking about the same values when we’re clearly not. I think that, when we debate political issues, it will be much more productive to look, not only at the specific issue, but at the broader differences in our core values, and how we’re applying them to the issue at hand. And I’m saying that we can actually distinguish between different core values, and prioritize some over others — and that, unless there’s a specific compelling reason to prioritize the “some animals are more equal than others” values of authority or loyalty or purity, we ought to prioritize the universalizable values of fairness and the avoidance of harm.
And you know what? I’ll go even further.
I’m saying that any moral progress humanity has made over the centuries and millennia has been made, not in the direction of greater adherence to authority or purity or tribal/group loyalty, but in the direction of expanding our understanding and application of fairness and the avoidance of harm. I’m saying that, in every example I can think of where our morality is a clear improvement over the morality of the past — democracy, banning slavery, religious freedom, women’s suffrage, etc. etc. etc. — the core values being strengthened have been the values of fairness and the avoidance of harm: the liberal values, the ones that can be applied to everyone.
I’ve been a proud liberal since I was old enough to make a choice. And now I’m prouder than ever. Because humanity’s moral evolution has, in every instance I can think of, been in the direction of humanity becoming more liberal.