I’ve just taken Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations survey. Haidt is an academic psychologist who, along with his colleagues, has come up with a schematic for how humans come to their moral positions. Briefly, there are six moral foundations:

1. Care/harm

2. Fairness/cheating

3. Liberty/oppression

4. Loyalty/betrayal

5. Authority/subversion

6. Sanctity/degradation

Haidt has recently written a book about this, The Righteous Mind. On the website for the book he writes a blog. In one of the blog posts he rebuffs a critic of the book, Chris Hedges, who, according to Haidt, unfairly characterized Haidt as personally believing the following statements:

People who work hard should get to keep the fruits of their labor. People who are lazy and irresponsible should suffer the consequences.

Haidt protests, “I’ve never taken a journalism class, but I don’t think it was appropriate for Hedges to take that last sentence out of context and present it as though it was my personal belief.”

I got to thinking about this. I honestly can say that I cannot think of a single person, including Haidt, who does not believe this statement insofar as it concerns him/herself. Let’s consider Haidt: he has worked hard, earned a Ph.D., published books, and is becoming famous. I cannot believe that he rejects the proposition that he has worked hard and deserves to keep the fruits of his labors. Note that the proposition he putatively rejects does not include the word all as a modifier of “fruits.” Thus one can, for example, happily pay a portion of those “fruits” as taxes, and still keep [most of] the fruits of his/her labors.

Bear in mind that Haidt’s labors have brought him other “fruits” besides monetary remuneration. They have brought him a modicum of fame, a secure academic post and all the perks of power and privilege that accrues to such a post. Am I to believe that he does not believe that he deserves, by virtue of his labor, to keep these, that they might just as morally be commandeered by someone else?

How about the second half of the statement he professes not to believe: “People who are lazy and irresponsible should suffer the consequences.” Note that the sufferers here are not the unfortunate, the poor, the sick, the intellectually incapable, or anyone else but those who are “lazy and irresponsible.” Does Haidt perhaps believe that lazy and irresponsible persons should be awarded Ph.D.’s, academic tenure, and book contracts in the absence of hard work? Of course not. It is inconceivable that anyone should think so.

Haidt’s problem here is that he identifies himself as a liberal democrat, and in his book (which I have not yet read but intend to buy on Monday), he says he was trying to understand and articulate the values of Republican critics of his work, and so far as I can tell, in this instance he has correctly identified at least a portion of those values. But as a self-identified liberal democrat living and working among people of like mind, whom he is trying to teach how to defeat said Republicans in political debate, he cannot appear to identify with their values. so he rhetorically rejects them.

As is often the case in human discourse, I suspect that Haidt has not really articulated what he meant. I suspect that what he means to say is that he thinks Republicans imagine that anyone who is “suffering the consequences,” i.e., not successful in measurable ways, is “lazy and irresponsible.” Perhaps there are some Republicans who believe this, but I don’t personally know of any. But as I have said above, I also can’t think of anyone who doesn’t believe about him/herself that they have the right to keep the fruits of their own hard work and that they may very well rightly suffer consequences should they behave lazily and irresponsibly. I do know persons who, although they recognize their right to keep the fruits of their labors, nevertheless freely give them away. but that is an entirely different proposition.

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