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Of Liberals, Conservatives, Rationalists, and Moral Foundations

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The world is pretty good; all we have to do is not ruin it.

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MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL I just finished reading The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. The book got attention mainly for its claim that political liberals recognize only two-and-a-half of the six foundations of morality: Protection from harm and freedom from oppression, plus justice in the sense of equality, while political conservatives recognize those plus justice in the sense of just desserts, and three more: Loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity.

What immediately struck me is that there is an obvious reason for this division. The history of the world prior to 1789 is dominated by horror stories inspired by the conservative moral principles. Loyalty to groups often led to killing or oppression of outsiders. The authorities that demanded respect could be reactionary, barbaric, and corrupt. Witch hunts and pogroms were common as ways to find impure, immoral, blaspheming, or otherwise offensive people, and subject them to terrible deaths.

On the other hand, before the modern era, it's harder to think of really bad things done by groups who were trying to protect or free people. You might come up with examples, but they are rare and debatable.

The split on justice reinforces the point. Liberals like equality of outcome. "Why is that man a slave and that man a master?" is a clearly positive question. Conservatives also like to be sure people get the rewards and punishments they have earned. Retribution has often been a terrible scourge that led to cycles of horrific violence.

The Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, took place in Europe and the future United States from about 1690 to 1789. During that century, it was easy for thinkers to conclude freedom, equality, and taking care of the poor and weak were the great goals of society, as the revolutionary French slogan "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" attests. The French Revolution is also where we get the modern political connotations of "left" and "right."
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