Conservatism judges individuals’ decisions as if each individual can choose equally. Progressives recognize that people make choices within social and political systems. (More)

Good and Evil, Part III: Beyond Personal Choices (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature unpacks Evan Sayet’s 2007 Heritage Foundation speech Regurgitating the Apple: How Modern Liberals “Think”. Thursday we explored Sayet’s central thesis: that by refusing to discriminate progressives invariably choose Evil over Good. Yesterday we saw what Sayet’s speech reveals about conservative moral reasoning. Today we conclude with how progressive moral reasoning focuses includes systemic factors and questions of practical efficacy that conservatives prefer to ignore.

Who ‘chooses’ substance abuse?

Psychologists and social commentators have offered at least eight models for alcoholism, ranging from moral deficiency to disease. So-called “dry” moralists hold that alcoholism is the natural penalty for drinking, while “wet” moralists hold that alcoholics violate the rules of socially acceptable drinking. Some argue that alcohol abuse is a learned behavior, while others discuss it as self-medication of other emotional issues, and still others attribute it to genetic predisposition.

Obviously, how we attempt to prevent and treat alcoholism and other substance abuse depends in part on whether we frame it as a moral failure or a medical disease. So what should we conclude from a study that found blacks in the U.S. and Caribbean who report the highest levels of racial discrimination are also the most likely to be chronic substance abusers? One common response, of course, is the derision we find in this famous scene from West Side Story:

The morality of personal morality

Such dismissals usually include the obligatory counterexample: the child from a crime-riddled ghetto who grows up to be an intellectual or political leader or – less often – the child of an idyllic suburban family who becomes a serial killer. Conservatives use such stories to ‘prove’ that everyone has the same opportunities and that success or failure is a product of personal morality.

Indeed, new research shows that framing a question as ‘moral’ influences how we make decisions. The researchers found that almost any question could be framed in moral (“is this right?”) or practical (“will this work?”) terms, and that subjects tended to make ‘moral’ decisions faster, be more certain they were correct, and more likely to believe others should make the same choice.

If we believe more deliberate, cautious, fact-specific decisions are more likely to produce good outcomes, does this study suggest we should avoid moral framing? What should progressives make of research by George Lakoff or Jonathan Haidt, who argue that all decisions are rooted in moral judgments? Should progressives make explicitly appeals to moral values, as Dr. Lakoff urges? Or should we recognize, as Dr. Haidt writes:

Sharing moral commitments helps teams to function cohesively, but it also blinds them to reality. They select arguments and narratives that support their preferred policies while denying facts that threaten or contradict their commitments. They sometimes vote for symbolism over substance, even when it harms their material interests or long-term goals. High-stakes negotiations are hard enough, but when sacred values are in play, the odds of success go way down. (Just ask the Israelis and Palestinians.)

And if progressives make practical, data-driven while conservatives frame their positions as moral absolutes, does that make it harder for us to build support with independents like archetypal Fred when the most effective ‘Fred Whispering’ builds on shared moral values?

Beyond personal morality

First an admission: I framed those questions in a conservative, either/or model. The questions presumed that policy issues, solutions, and the arguments we make must be either moral or practical.

In fact, progressive ideas should be both moral and practical, because progressive morality extends beyond personal choices. Progressive morality recognizes that we make decisions within cultures. We use mental shortcuts and make common mistakes. And how a decision is offered influences the choices we make.

Although Sayet and many other conservatives criticize progressives as childish or utopian, in fact their arguments show a shocking naïveté. When the Governor of Mississippi says “the problem is teenagers do not care enough” about birth control, without questioning how his state’s abstinence-only sex education programs influence that decision, one is left to wonder whether he has ever read research on adolescent brain development, or indeed whether he’s ever heard the phrase “peer pressure.”

Denying teens access to accurate medical information about birth control and blaming them for ignoring billboards showing a stretch-marked belly with the caption A baby is FOREVER – while ignoring evidence that shows states with abstinence-only sex education have the highest teen pregnancy rates – manifests a childish belief in the efficacy of moralistic dogma.

Progressives recognize the limits of personal morality. We do make moral arguments, but we also advocate for systemic changes that make better decisions easier and better outcomes more likely for more people. Yes, that flies in the face of Sayet’s conservative cult of discrimination, which favors a riskier society where more will fail and the few that succeed can congratulate each other on their presumed moral superiority …

… but we progressives think more people living longer, happier, more productive lives is better – more moral – than tens of millions needlessly suffering the sneering glances of the One Percent Mutual Admiration Society.


Happy Saturday!