Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Time Horizons: Back To Cognition Edition

Not too long ago FLG referenced Jonathan Haidt's theory about the five foundations of morality and FLG wrote:


Today, FLG was reading Will Wilkinson's thought on this topic. Wilkinson writes:
Among Haidt’s most provocative findings is that American liberals and conservative differ systematically in the calibration of their moral equalizers. Liberals have harm and fairness (Haidt calls these the “individualizing foundations”) pushed way up and in-group, authority, and purity (the “binding foundations”) pushed way down. In contrast, conservatives have all the slides pushed up, though their individualizing settings are not set as high as are liberals’.
Haidt has tended to characterize conservative morality, resting on as it does on all five moral foundations, as more complex or in some sense full-bodied than liberal morality, which rests almost entirely on just the two individualizing foundations.

Will contrasts this with another theory:
Wright and Baril argue, drawing on an array of evidence that conservatives are more averse to threat, instability, and uncertainty, that a sense of threat tends to activate the binding foundations, producing more conservative moralities. In the absence of a sense of threat, or when exhausted from the effort of keeping our conservative moral emotions inflamed, we default to the relatively effortless liberal, individualizing foundations.

This is interesting, but I’m not sold on the idea that the liberal setting on the moral equalizer is the default–that we are, as their title says, “all liberals at heart.” What it sounds to me Wright and Baril are saying is that the liberal setting is the one we tend toward when our defenses are down. That is, liberal morality is the morality of comfortable security.

FLG must admit that this perplexed him upon first reading. FLG's intuition would be that threat, instability, and uncertain would prompt more short-term, empirical focus. Basically, bad stuff is happening right now, can't worry about the future or theories. Have to deal with what is happening RIGHT NOW. And since his time horizons theory says that liberals are more short-term and empirically oriented and conservatives relatively long-term and theoretically oriented, this seems contrary to his theory.

Will sums up like this:
In other words, as the threat of economic insecurity and its concomitant zero-sum conflict over resources recedes with the rise of material prosperity, the defensive binding foundations also recede, leaving the rising generation with a moral equalizer on which in-group, authority, and purity have never been turned up, making fairness and harm relatively more salient. Now, toss in Inglehart’s Maslovianism. As our material needs are met, higher-order needs of consciousness become more pressing. So, at the point in development in which a generation is struck by the “postmaterialist” impulse to seek meaning through moral activity, it finds itself with a historically relatively liberal morality preoccupied with distributive fairness, the reduction of suffering (and, I think, autonomy). In the quest for meaning-making, postmaterialist generations latch onto and refine these moral sensibilities, further raising their salience relative to the binding foundations. Haidt’s “great narrowing” follows from the “great cushioning” of rising prosperity. Of course, as soon as, say, a recession hits, the defensive binding foundations kick in a bit, and a bunch of us buy bald-eagle t-shirts and get mad at about immigrants stealing our jobs.

Again, zero-sum conflict over resources, .i.e short-term focus, is associated with the conservative moral foundations.

Look, FLG might be fighting vainly to keep his theory intact, but FLG thinks that last sentence of Will's is, while a bit overwrought, key. In fact, it reminded FLG of Aesop's fable about the ants and grasshopper. That seems the long view to FLG, the insight that there will always be a winter where resources are scarce. Better to take some precautions for that now.

Moreover, human beings will always have infinite wants and finite resources. So, to some extent, the idea that there can always be plenty for all time is a bit of an illusion. Sure, our productive capacity might be sufficient to produce some basic amount of necessities for all human beings at some point in time, but then invariably our definition of what is a necessity expands. Such that it is questionable whether, over the long run, we can satisify everything defined as a need even with certain and continuous economic expansion greater than population growth.

But FLG must admit, as he did above, that he might just be trying to rationalize his theory in light of these arguments.

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