Even though we’ve shown that LnO advocates are really ethical subjectivists of some sort, it’s clear that they have a very different self-perception. They are the most vocal critics of both moral and cultural relativism. (Libertarians are generally opposed to both kinds of relativism as well, but it’s easy for non-libertarians to miss this because there is such a wide gap between what libertarians consider immoral and what they think should be unlawful. So, libertarians can look like moral relativists to those who see little or no gap between those two categories.) They have no problem criticizing other cultures and expressing grave concern that their own national culture will become contaminated or perverted by excessive tolerance for differing views and values.
But a funny thing happens when asked about their own national history. Suddenly, things don’t sound so convincing. Is slavery bad today? Sure, obviously. Was it bad that George Washington not only owned slaves but actively sent out bounty hunters to catch and retrieve runaway slaves? Well, that was a different time, and you need to realize the context, and he did a lot of great things, and you really show your ignorance when you… blah, blah, blah. Suddenly, the conservative sounds exactly like the stereotype of the typical relativist liberal, making excuses for the practices of a different culture or refusing to pass judgment on anyone except those interested in passing judgment.
But is it simply a bias regarding the past? Not really. To see this, compare the assessment of the Holocaust and of the Japanese internment camps in the US during World War II. In general, you will find very few Holocaust apologists in the LnO crowd. (And those who are will probably identify as explicit racists or race-realists or something similar, so it has little to do with the LnO mindset itself.) Nor would they defend the idea of simply locking people up because they’re Jewish, homosexual, atheist, or some other similar trait. But when they examine the Japanese internment, we get a very similar tale as in the slavery case. “You have to understand the context of those times. They were acting based on the information that they had. It was credible that there was a threat, and this was a reasonable and humane way of dealing with it. Even if it turned out later to be incorrect, we weren’t there. It’s too easy to pass judgment on people when you know more than they did.” And so on.
So, it seems that there’s something else going on besides some irrational bias in favor of the past. It also seems to align with geography and national identity. (For example, abortion is almost always wrong and inexcusable, but killing the unborn is unproblematic if they happened to be living in Hiroshima or Nagasaki or Tokyo at certain specific dates in history.) Is there some logic to this? Not strictly, but it’s not entirely random, either. What it reflects is mostly unspoken commitments that most LnO advocates either take for granted or don’t even consciously acknowledge as the basis for their beliefs.
Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has proposed a 6-base model for moral decisions that he believes provides the best explanation for the disconnect between conservatives and liberals when they discuss political matters.
Briefly, the 6 bases are: 1) Care/Harm; 2) Liberty/Oppression; 3) Fairness/Cheating; 4) Loyalty/Betrayal; 5) Authority/Subversion; 6) Sanctity/Degradation
Haidt believes that liberals value (1) and (2) primarily, with relatively little regard for the others, while conservatives value all of them more equally. (And he sees libertarians as valuing only (2), with almost no regard for the other five.) I think that Haidt’s interpretation is somewhat inaccurate, but I won’t spend a lot of time on that here. The main point is that LnO advocates tend to be persuaded by the conservative biases, and this helps to explain their apparent inconsistency in evaluating the morality of various policies across time and geography.
For example, the conservative concern for Care/Harm is informed by their commitment to Loyalty, a sense of the value of the in-group as opposed to the out-group (with conservatives typically viewing the in-group in terms of national heritage and patriotism), and also by their commitment to the value of Authority, which we’ve clearly seen in earlier parts of this series leads them to view authority figures as semi-divine. Thus, their understanding of what counts as a harm is almost always weighted by these other value commitments. And so, they can be appalled if a foreign national beats one of their countrymen, but be not at all disturbed if a domestic authority figure beats a belligerent citizen to death. The Harm assessed in each case is very dependent on the perception of who is part of the in-group and who has legitimate authority. If you make the foreign national a police officer, then they end up having to decide which moral consideration trumps the other, but this just shows how flexible their understanding of Harm can be.
Another interesting example is how they view Liberty/Oppression. In general, their commitment to Liberty is in tension with their commitment to Authority, and it is also biased by Loyalty, similarly to how they view Harm. So, they give a lot of lip service to Liberty, especially as a reflection of how they perceive America as a land of freedom and overthrowing Oppression, but it’s very easy for Authority concerns to trump any particular expression of Liberty. The biggest struggle should be in their attempts to justify the founding of the United States. The colonists engaged in extremely disruptive acts that directly challenged Authority and made it nearly impossible to establish order, as conservatives would typically define it. Smugglers were considered heroic, and public officials were terrorized, or even killed, by the irate colonists. Yet, we typically hear the most praise for early Americans from conservatives because their commitment to national Loyalty is so strong, it is impossible for them to mount any serious critique of that history.
Finally, their strong commitment to Sanctity tends to make it difficult for conservatives to recognize the tremendous differences between current social institutions and those of the past. For example, the myth that marriage as a social institution existed pretty much unchanging for thousands of years, right up until about a decade ago when suddenly, out of nowhere, same-sex marriage became a serious proposal. The reality of how dramatically different current marriages are from even a century ago seems inconceivable to them. The idea that a stable social arrangement, one that has some presumed blessing from God even, is actually rather malleable and changeable over time is a shocking claim. Yet, we’ve already shown that they have no such qualms about embracing laws as they change repeatedly over time. So, here we see that other commitments can actually trump their views on Authority, in the right context.
(I should note here that liberals actually have strong commitments to the various bases, and Haidt seems to not recognize this as clearly as I think he should. For example, liberals are actually quite strongly focused on Sanctity. It just takes a different form, usually related to the environment and nature or to certain social concepts like Equality. They also have their own conception of the In-Group, but it tends to be more intellectual or class-based, rather than restricted by geography. And they tend to invest Authority in experts, particularly scientists and doctors, rather than law enforcement, though they do view entities like the UN and the ICC as particularly important, too.)
So, what’s the upshot of all this? We understand the LnO mentality a bit better by seeing that it’s driven by a lot of complex commitments, many of which are not explicitly acknowledged or recognized by those who have this view. And we can see that there is going to be a lot of inconsistency, both in terms of application to specific events and in terms of consistency across individuals holding this view, as each person has to make those judgments about what commitment trumps what or what commitment reinforces/weakens another one.
I think that most LnO advocates would ideally view themselves as moral realists. They would resist any suggestion that they engage in “situational ethics,” which is one of the worst things they can accuse someone else of doing. So, here is where I want to show that they don’t have to give up their basic moral commitments in order to embrace moral realism. Or, to put it another way, since they probably already believe they’re embracing it, here’s a better way of understanding the relationship between your commitments so that you don’t end up looking like the relativists you constantly accuse others of being.
There are really three commitments in (potential) conflict here: Liberty, Authority, and Loyalty. As a libertarian, it’s not going to be any great surprise when I suggest that Liberty take priority. But I don’t think this is that hard a case to make. The founding of the United States was really a story of placing Liberty above both of the other two: the colonists actively defied British authority (in the name of a Higher Authority, whether you want to cash that out as God or as inalienable human rights or something else), and they rejected claims by British officials that they remain ‘loyal’ to King George and to the commonwealth that they were citizens of, instead choosing loyalty to their respective colonies or other relevant groups.
So, this is not some strange idea. It’s just one that gets conveniently set aside as a historical exception or extreme circumstance rather than any kind of guide to future action. There are indications that these ideas have sticking power, though, as the TEA Party explicitly references an act of anti-corporate-state violence, something that was clearly not lawful and not promoting “Order” or “Authority” or “Loyalty” as it was understood at the time. The key may be tapping into that sentiment and asking people to view that rebellious attitude as more than a temporary excess or a kind of ‘lifeboat’/emergency response, but rather a mindset that should inform how they view government authority vs individual authority.
There is a natural appeal in a consistent moral framework, so it’s not difficult to convince people that consistency is good. It’s difficult when they feel that they must have some kind of balancing mechanism to decide between multiple valid, but inconsistent, commitments. They would be happy to find some consistency between them. But failing that, they aren’t necessarily ready to jettison any of them. The key is presenting a way to accommodate those concerns, not to tell them that those concerns are invalid.
I will go into more detail in the next and final portion of this series, where I’ll talk about what kinds of strategies might be most effective at convincing LnO advocates to re-assess their position and find a more consistent way of understanding (and embracing) Liberty as a primary value rather than a derivative one.