Yesterday we explored psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s research on how progressives and conservatives use different equations – different weights on moral principles – to guide our moral decision-making.  Today I’d like to continue that discussion through the lens of some of President Obama’s (seeming) decisions and actions, and how we progressives respond.

Is President Obama entitled to the benefit of the doubt if we’re unsure whether he’s making a right decision, and when we wouldn’t have given the same benefit of the doubt to former President Bush?

Moral Equations and Benefit of the Doubt

In yesterday’s Morning Feature we explored psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s research on the biological bases of moral reasoning, and how our moral equations map to our political leanings.  I say “we explored” because it was a wonderful discussion.  Thank you all.  Haidt’s research was a “light bulb moment” for me, and apparently I wasn’t alone in that.

Today I’d like to continue that discussion, through the lens of how we progressives respond to President Obama’s apparent decisions and actions.  I say “apparent” because a lot of the time we’re not entirely sure whether President Obama has made a decision or taken an action, nor exactly what the decision or action is.  That’s not because President Obama operates in some black box of secrecy, but simply because we’re often responding to incomplete media reporting, sometimes about decisions or actions that have not happened yet.  Or President Obama has given a statement that allows multiple interpretations, or has made a decision or taken an action that might have several possible rationales and intentions.

In short, a lot of the time, we’re in doubt.  That’s common in human experience.  In fact, you could fairly say that wrestling with doubt and uncertainty is central to the human experience.  So when do we give the benefit of the doubt?  Should we give President Obama the benefit of the doubt if we would not also have given former President Bush the same benefit of the doubt?  If we do, are we merely saying “It’s OK if You’re In My Group?”

Haidt’s thesis – a brief review:

Jonathan Haidt has identified what he considers the five most likely candidates for the biological bases of moral reasoning, based on his observations of moral norms among humans of varied cultures, including very young children, and also among other social mammals.  These are, Haidt argues, evolution’s “first draft” of moral reasoning, hardwired into our brains.  It’s important to note that these moral principles are not about seeking “truth;” they are about helping us to cooperate and survive as a social species.  We rewrite them with life experience, and the ways we rewrite them seem to map closely to political leanings of progressivism or conservatism.

The five principles are: (1) avoid harm and care for others; (2) fairness and reciprocity; (3) group identity and loyalty; (4) obedience to authority; and, (5) personal purity.

Note: I didn’t explain what Haidt means by personal purity in yesterday’s diary, though I did in comments.  In brief, it’s self-denial.  In its most basic form, it is the disgust response that steers us away from tainted food, water, and other toxins; it’s why we don’t eat our own feces.  We layer other behaviors onto that by social custom, such as sexuality, diet and exercise norms, and aspects of social etiquette.  At a surface level, the purity impulse steers us away from sheer hedonism, doing whatever feels best in any instant, encouraging us to defer some personal pleasures, at least in time, place, or manner, for the greater benefit of society.  At a deeper level, the purity impulse serves as a buffer against cognitive dissonance when we do the right things and get bad outcomes, as happens often in life.  The purity impulse gives us one way to rationalize those outcomes – “I was being selfish anyway” – so we’re not quite as resentful of a universe that is not inherently fair.

Haidt’s research shows that progressives tend to weigh the first two principles – avoid harm and care for others, and fairness/reciprocity – more highly than we weigh the other three.  In contrast, conservatives tend to weigh all five principles about equally.  That difference has profound moral implications.

Specifically, conservatives treat group identity and loyalty as a cardinal virtue alongside harm/care, fairness, and the rest.  This means conservatives will more often judge an action morally correct if they share a group identity with the actor: “It’s OK if You’re In My Group.”  In contrast, progressives are more likely to value fairness over group identity and loyalty, and thus apply the same moral judgment even if that judgment would disadvantage a member of “our group.”

But do we really?

Hardly a day passes without President Obama reportedly considering or making a decision or action that disappoints at least some progressives.  Hardly a day passes without someone expressing that disappointment here on DKos.  And no sooner do such diaries get posted than others rush to President Obama’s defense.  No sooner do their comments get posted than the diarist or another commenter invokes some language of hero worship: “Obamabot” or other words to that effect.

In Haidt’s principles, the critic is suggesting that group identity and loyalty shouldn’t matter.  If we would criticize a reported decision or action made by former President Bush, then we should criticize the same reported decision or action made by President Obama.  Haidt’s research suggests that is the more progressive outlook.  And while Haidt is not normative – his emphasis is on moral principles that help us cooperate and survive as a social species, and not on what yields a “better” or “more virtuous” society – almost every religion and ethical philosophy does include a principle of universality.  In that principle, one’s group identity should not matter; the same rules should apply to everyone.

So whether by the descriptive construct of Haidt, or by the normative construct of universality, when progressives defend President Obama – where we would almost certainly have criticized former President Bush given the same information – aren’t we placing group identity and loyalty over fairness and equity?

Aren’t we being “conservative” in defending President Obama because he’s “one of us?”  Maybe.  But not necessarily.

The benefit of the doubt.

I’ve tried to be careful in using words like “apparent,” “reported,” and “considering” in referring to President Obama’s decisions and actions.  A lot of the time we’re not sure, for the reasons I described above: the media are reporting on incomplete information, sometimes about decisions or actions that haven’t yet happened, or we’re responding to statements or actions that allow multiple interpretations or intentions.  We’re in doubt, as is so common in human experience.  Is it ‘fair’ to give President Obama the benefit of the doubt, where we wouldn’t have given former President Bush the benefit of the doubt?  I think it can be … so far.

I don’t recall the issue, but in mid-2006 a pundit was discussing some alleged mistake of the Bush administration.  The pundit said “I think we owe the president the benefit of the doubt here.”  I turned to Herself and replied, “He lost the benefit of the doubt about six lies ago.”

In general, I do tend to give people the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re being honest and reasonable.  I may disagree, but I usually don’t infer dishonesty or unreasonableness in the other person.  A lot of the time, reasonable people can reasonably disagree because we have different information, make different estimates of inexact information, or we’re simply applying different values.  I try not to infer dishonesty or unreasonableness unless I have some specific reason to do so.  I’m not saying that’s the best approach, but it’s my approach.

And I tried that approach with former President Bush.  But by mid-2006 I treated anything the Bush administration said with deep suspicion.  It wasn’t partisan, or I’d like to think it wasn’t, but because they’d been caught in lies or misjudgments so often that it seemed foolish to give them the benefit of the doubt.  Thus, “He lost the benefit of the doubt about six lies ago.”

Has President Obama “lost the benefit of the doubt” yet?  For me, no.  To me, it would be a mistake to attribute former President Bush’s dishonesty and unreasonableness to President Obama.  Not because of group identity, but simply because they’re not the same person.  For me, the inference of honesty and reasonableness is personal.  I’ve know conservatives who are honest and reasonable, and progressives whom I’ve caught in lies or very serious misjudgments.  My default is to assume everyone – regardless of political leaning – is honest and reasonable until and unless I have some reason to infer otherwise.  And I don’t yet have a reason to infer that President Obama is not honest and reasonable, so he still gets my default assumption on both.

But that’s merely my own approach.  Yours may differ.  You may assume everyone – or at least every politician – is dishonest or unreasonable unless they prove otherwise.  Or you may treat everyone with skepticism until they prove themselves honest or dishonest, reasonable or unreasonable.  Which default status you choose, and your standards of evidence for changing from that default status, will color your views of every action President Obama or anyone else takes.

So what’s your default on benefit of the doubt?  Does it change by group affiliation?  Has it changed for President Obama?  What would or would not change it?


Happy Thursday!