Libertarians, Republicans, and Democrats: New Findings on Morality, Empathy, and Sympathy

Will Wilkinson returns me to a subject of fascination to me — the different moral weightings employed by Republicans and Democrats — and points out new findings about the moral weightings of Libertarians.

To recap a previous post on research by Jonathan Haidt, as recounted in an article by Steven Pinker:

Republicans care equally about five spheres of morality: avoiding harm, fairness, group loyalty, respect for authority, and purity.

Democrats mostly care about only two: avoiding harm and fairness.

(I point out in that post that the Democrats’ two favorites basically characterize the gold standard of morality: The Golden Rule. Three of the Republicans’ favored tenets have nothing to do with — are often or mostly antithetical to — that rule.)

Now Haidt’s latest research gives us insights into Libertarians: they care less about all five. Will shares it in his post, and Haidt adds even more in a comment.

Will characterizes these findings by saying “libertarians are liberals who like markets.” I took him to task for his best-possible-light characterization, saying “A libertarian is a liberal without compassion or empathy.” Will quite rightly slapped me down: “I think Jon would insist that ‘less’ means something very different from ‘without.’” To which I — chastened — immediately agreed.

But the “lesser” fact remains–supported in spades by Haidt’s latest work, sneak-peeked in his comment:

Libertarians look much more like liberals than like conservatives on most measures, EXCEPT those that have anything to do with compassion, on which libertarians are lower than liberals AND conservatives.

But here’s where it gets even more interesting (for me at least). A commenter suggests that “libertarianism essentially amounts to is the political expression of autism.” Viewed with best-light beneficience, this is presumably not a pejorative statement but an insight into the autistic cognitive style and its emphasis on rationalism over empathy.

Will responds by suggesting “you should check out Tyler Cowen’s chapter on ‘autistic politics’ in his book Create Your Own Economy.”

Now it just so happens that that book was open on my desk at the time, open to that very chapter. This because I just referred to it in a post the other day. (Quite embarassingly, in fact.)

That book, as I said, is something of a paean to the autistic cognitive style, and that chapter suggests that the world would be a better place–there would be less wars, in particular–if we had more people thinking in that style.

By invoking Tyler’s book Will is essentially importing Tyler’s arguments into the present discussion. So it might serve to directly import some of what Tyler says in the referenced chapter — here with some comments in reply. (I’ve cherry-picked these as springboards for the ensuing discussion. If you want more you can buy the damn book yourself, like I did.) You can skip this section if you want to jump to the meat of the argument.

There is good evidence that people along the autism spectrum are in some measurable ways more objective than non-autistics.

This “in some ways” is I think crucial. It reveals some confusion about one rather paradoxical aspect of the autistic cognitive style: while autistics and some autistic-ish types tend to perceive the world in a “rawer,” less-mentally-mediated form (viz, Temple Grandin’s ability to notice bare facts about a stockyard environment that others miss, and–courtesy of Tyler’s book–Dugdate Stewart’s characterization of Adam Smith as having “a remarkably accurate memory for ‘trifling particulars.’”), there is also a predilection for abstracted structures and rule-based systems, systems that are far removed from those immediate perceptions. Unlike the perceptions, these systems cannot make any a priori claim to “objectivity.”

On the offensively ridiculous and adolescent notion of “objectivism,” I can only point here.

Autistics are attracted to simple and straightforward codes of ethics, applied universally to all human beings.

The implied approbation might be misplaced. Vis-a-vis “a priori,” above, there is nothing to demonstrate that these simplistic codes are more efficacious, or preferable, aside from the usual cop-out “common sense” defense.

Hayek argued that a rich and largely unplanned order can blossom when society is governed by a relatively small set of abstract rules, and, ideally, a constitution; you don’t have to share Hayek’s libertarian and conservative version of this blend to find this an appealing vision.

I would suggest that you do have to do so if you want to carry this maxim to an extreme logical conclusion.

Different kinds of human minds often have difficulty appreciating each other’s virtues, so social arrangements, and personal individual judgments, should be robust to this fact. That is still an argument for social and economic decentralization.

I don’t see a necessary connection between these two statements. There is some presumption suggesting that the latter follows from the former, but I have no idea what that presumption is. It’s easy to come up with reasonable arguments to the contrary.

What has gone wrong in many of the non-free societiies in today’s world is a lack of adherence to abstract rules of behavior and a lack of understanding of such rules as benefiical abstract mechanisms.

Putting aside my knee-jerk annoyance at this kind of “kids these days” class of pontificating: Tyler notably does not suggest that this shortage of autistic-style thinking is what has gone wrong in free societies such as, say, Western Europe.

But he doesn’t take long to imply it:

A list of the most successful societies in the world usually would include the United Kingdom, the Nordic countries, Japan, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

It’s not surprising to find most of the countries of Western Europe missing from this list, even though they are undeniably among “the most successful societies in the world.” (I mean really: Germany?)

Tyler ends the chapter by pointing to Russia as his negative example. It serves nicely as a phony proxy for the Western European countries that otherwise go so conspicuously unmentioned.

It is revealing that in a book centered around autistic characteristics, “empathy” does not appear in the index, and the only instance of “sympathy” refers to his two-page discussion of Adam Smith as possibly being on the autistic spectrum. As Tyler points out, the book Smith was most proud of was his Theory of Moral Sentiments — which book builds a spectacular abstract structure that “starts with the idea of sympathy.” It is in fact obsessed with the idea — the first two chapter titles take sympathy as their subject, and the word appears 182 times in the work. Wrestling with angels?

So what does this all have to do with “lesser empathy” and markets? Haidt speculates that they are related in the way that Will implies:

The lower levels of compassion, and higher levels of need for cognition and tendency to “systemize” rather than empathize, are probably related to the love of markets.

This makes sense to me as well. The abstract concept of markets holds more attraction for the autistic cognitive style than does empathy.

Which leads me to ask several admittedly rhetorical questions:

Does this fondness for abstractions explain Libertarians’ enthusiasm for a form of government based on abstract beliefs that is unexampled among large, thriving, prosperous countries on this planet — an enthusiasm that continues even though no country operating on Libertarian principles has emerged, much less surged ahead of the others?

Does it — combined with the lesser levels of empathy that Haidt demonstrates — explain the movement’s aversion to redistribution, even though every large, thriving, prosperous country engages in massive doses of redistribution? (There are no exceptions.)

Does it explain the continued predictions of disaster for those countries that the more extreme Libertarians have been warning us of for so long — even though those sky-is-falling scenarios have not occurred? (Over the long run — as libertarians will happily point out when it serves their rhetorical turns — things keep getting better.)

Does it, in short, explain an ideology that can only be described as utopian (lacking in any real-world exemplars), but that continues even though its leading proponents are painfully aware of the long, sad history of such utopian belief systems?

Do the lesser quantities of empathy that characterize the autistic and libertarian cognitive and moral styles (almost complete absence, in extreme cases) result in an almost autistic mind-blindness to the reality of successful societies and economies: that all those societies and economies employ policies rooted in empathy, policies that history has demonstrated to be the most economically efficient?

Demonstrably, because those are the societies that have thrived and prospered.

To ask it in terms of abstract theories: since empathy is clearly at the heart of humans’ ability to cooperate, and since humans’ ability to cooperate is what has put us at the top of the food chain (competition just makes that cooperation more efficient, overall), would it be surprising if policies that systematize and efficiently channel that empathy were also successful?



, ,




10 responses to “Libertarians, Republicans, and Democrats: New Findings on Morality, Empathy, and Sympathy”

  1. Curt Gardner Avatar

    Many interesting questions raised here. I would just like to comment on one aspect you raise here:

    “Does it explain the continued predictions of disaster for those countries that the more extreme Libertarians have been warning us of for so long — even though those sky-is-falling scenarios have not occurred? (Over the long run — as libertarians will happily point out when it serves their rhetorical turns — things keep getting better.)”

    I think that this selective use of arguments is especially noticeable in economics – as you say, the frequent message that ‘all is getting better’ is tossed aside as needed. Likewise, I think economics of all studies should remind us that we gain great benefits from cooperation, yet I find Bryan Caplan writing just a few days back this gem:

    “Ever heard of Darwin? People are selfish because of billions of years of evolution, not capitalism. End of story.”

    Not to say that people are never selfish, or that capitalism causes selfishness – but I think evolution shows us a lot of cooperation as well as selfishness.

    Anything to bash ‘socialism’ I suppose… but it does strike me that we’ve done awfully well using such supposedly compromised solutions. The utopian dreams are always with us… and I suspect usually lead to highly unanticipated results when actually implemented.

  2. Asymptosis Avatar

    Yeah. Was just reading a Pinker interview, and in his view cooperation with non-kin is one of the three primary attributes–along with language and tool/technology use–that distinguish our species.

    Again (I was rather pleased with this) competition’s virtue is a secondary one–it makes cooperation more efficient overall (though at considerable countervailing cost). Human selfishness is a given–and competition addresses that–but it’s not a virtue.

    I’m not sure that the results of extreme libertarianism are so hard to anticipate: concentration of wealth, oligopoly, widespread poverty…

  3. Joshua Avatar

    “”Different kinds of human minds often have difficulty appreciating each other’s virtues, so social arrangements, and personal individual judgments, should be robust to this fact. That is still an argument for social and economic decentralization.”

    I don’t see a necessary connection between these two statements.”

    Maybe I’m just autistic, but I understood this instantly – I think. So imagine there’s a lot of O people and alot of Y people and a few S people. If you accept the first statement in the quote, then O people don’t appreciate Y or S virtues, etc.

    So if you imagine that O people are in power, they may arrange things where S people and Y people are unhappy, and the converse could also be true. However, if you have Cowen’s “decentralization” no one group has a huge amount of power over any other, and it matters less that they don’t appreciate each others’ virtues.

  4. Asymptosis Avatar

    But we’ve seen quite clearly that centralized government can be far more effective at protecting S and Y’s rights and freedoms–even though O is in power–than decentralized government.

    cf Brown vs Board of Education.

    I’m not saying this always true. That would be dumb. But it’s certainly sometimes or often true.

    You’ll notice we’re arguing abstract theory here vs. facts on the ground.

  5. Chris Avatar

    Neither competition or cooperation should probably be defined as values. They’re behaviors, means to an end. Which one is preferred depends on the current social and economic dynamics at the time.

    Attempting to force either one is likely to end with very negative results.

  6. David Harmon Avatar
    David Harmon

    About the autistic thing, “Bzzt!” What you’re considering as autistics’ “lack of empathy” is actually a difficulty with visually perceiving, and socially inferring, the emotional states of other humans. They are entirely capable of feeling empathy for others… as you can see on any number of online forums!

    About libertarianism, I’d point out that many autistics, especially if young or sheltered, can be strikingly naive…. (Speaking for myself, What made the point against libertarianism for me was… actual experience with a couple of Rainbow Gatherings. 😉 )

  7. David Harmon Avatar
    David Harmon

    PS: Actual lack of empathy is a different disorder entirely. The word you’re looking for there is “sociopathy”. (Q.v. Ayn Rand and the neocon insurgency).

  8. Asymptosis Avatar

    @David Harmon

    That actually clarifies for me why I’ve always been uncomfortable with Baron-Cohen’s use of the term empathy. He includes both your definition, *and the ability to mirror/personally experience* those perceived emotional states, in his definition. I didn’t like that from the first time I read it. Should have listened to those thoughts here.

    One can have the latter without (much of) the former–deducing the emotional state of others through other, and/or limited, means.

    Which means that my loosy-goosy discussion of autistic cognitive styles vis-a-vis libertarians’ “empathy” needs clarification at least.

  9. Jeremy Avatar

    The basic premise of libertarian philosophy is pretty simple: don’t hit people, and don’t take their stuff. We all learn this by the time we are 6 years old. However, politics enters the arena and we are taught that there is a myriad of exceptions to the rule. Sometimes we have to hit people and take their stuff in order to make society better. Fail. People get too bogged down in the details and forget that the basic rules for interacting with other humans are simple. People don’t like to be aggressed against, and they don’t like being stolen from. You don’t have to label libertarians as autistic, unempathetic retards to understand that. Consider the mere possibility that we can all get our needs met in a win-win way without screwing someone else over.

  10. […] totally in keeping with Jonathan Haidt’s findings: on measures that “have anything to do with compassion,” libertarians are at the very […]