The Moral Divide Between Progressives and Traditionalists

A recent account of moral sentiments, proposed by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon, 2012), has attracted attention for its explanation of the difference between progressives and traditionalists.

According to the account, moral judgments typically have to do with six dimensions of concern: care versus harm, fairness versus cheating, liberty versus oppression, loyalty versus betrayal, authority versus subversion, and sanctity versus degradation. Surveys show that progressives, by and large, are concerned with the care, fairness, and liberty dimensions, while traditionalists are concerned with all six. So it appears that the “culture wars” have to do with the moral status of loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Traditionally minded people accept them as morally important, while their more progressive fellows do not.

But why the difference? It appears, although Haidt’s concerns lie elsewhere, that the difference lines up with the opposition between the modern tendency to view man as radically free and the world as technological, and the traditional, classical, and religious view of man as social, and the world as pervaded by intrinsic meanings, natural ways of functioning, and natural ends.

The difference is a difference in basic understandings of man, society, and the world. Progressives tend to think of the world as a sort of blank slate that is meaningless in itself. On that view man becomes the creator of values, society becomes a system set up to bring about whatever goals people want it to serve, and it seems most sensible to design the system to help people attain whatever purposes they have, without playing favorites or interfering more than necessary with what they want to do.

So the progressive view makes care, fairness, and liberty seem the right basic standards, with “care” understood from the standpoint of the concerns of the person cared for. Authority, loyalty, and sanctity interfere with people doing and getting what they want, so on such a view they make no sense as standards. They seem dangerous, since they give an advantage to those in charge of the system, who in the absence of a higher good shared with others can be expected to use the advantage for their private ends. So it’s not surprising that “question authority” has been an axiom for progressives, rebellion a virtue, and transgression a desirable form of liberation.

In contrast, traditionalists view society and morality as natural rather than constructed. Since man is naturally social, society and morality are necessary to the world he inhabits and needed to make him what he truly is. That world is considered good in itself as well as productive of good, and to act socially and morally is to realize one’s own nature by participating in it. So the loyalty and authority that create a social world and make us part of it are natural to man and necessary for a good life.

The attitude toward sanctity is perhaps the greatest distinction between the two approaches. The practical necessity of loyalty and authority for a stable and functional social order leads progressives to accept them somewhat, at least as subordinate principles, but sanctity seems entirely baseless to them. What function can it play if man is radically free and the world is understood technologically? Further, purity is an aspect of sanctity, and to say A is pure is to say not-A is impure. That makes sanctity and purity, on a progressive view, look very much like high-toned rationalizations for atavistic exclusionary impulses.

For traditionalists, in contrast, sanctity plays a necessary role as a principle of reverence for the moral and cosmic order toward which social practices and institutions must orient themselves if they are to be worthy of humanity. Sanctity tells us that some concerns trump questions of advantage. If we reject that, everything becomes a matter of usefulness—to ourselves first of all. On that view we will either reject personal sacrifice as a possible obligation, which every society must rely on in times of stress, or accept it even though there are no transcendent concerns in play that make it reasonable to do so. So we will deny either our social or our rational nature.

But what is the relation between these various dimensions of moral concern and the truth or falsity of moral judgments? Haidt himself treats moral judgments as a matter of feeling, with rational justifications tacked on afterwards. Still, the question of truth is unavoidable for a rational being, so we must deal with it.

Moral judgments normally have two aspects: the moral feelings that lie behind them and give them their immediate practical force, and the view of the world that makes those feelings seem appropriate and gives them reflective justification. The latter is if anything more fundamental. Both aspects are present in all areas of moral concern, with regard to sanctity and degradation as much as care and harm.

When people speak of sexual purity, for example, many people today view that as simply an emotional or aesthetic concern, or perhaps a matter of arbitrary religious dogma. That view leads progressives, with their utilitarian and rights-oriented understanding of morality, to dismiss the issue as not moral at all. Traditionalists of course disagree. They consider sexual purity part of personal sanctity, but somewhat surprisingly rarely refer to it when offering reflective justifications for traditional sexual morality. They are far more likely to refer to teleology, to specific consequences of sexual misconduct or the moral need for actions to align with the normal and beneficial functioning of the system of human life as a whole.

In fact, the purity-based and teleological perspectives are closely connected. Traditionalists tend to understand the world organically, by reference to systems that function in a way that brings about particular states of affairs. A philosophical way of describing their view is to say that they rely heavily on formal and final cause, where the word “cause” is understood broadly to mean “explanatory principle.” Formal cause is the arrangement of features that makes a system the kind of system it is, while final cause is the state of affairs the system tends to bring about. Thus, the formal cause of a bicycle is the assemblage of design features that make it a bicycle, while the final cause is availability of fast and efficient man-powered transportation.

Formal cause is easier to recognize immediately and intuitively—we look at a bicycle and see it’s a bicycle. Further, it has aesthetic qualities that give rise to ideals of purity. Thus, the fixed-gear bicycle seems a purer design than the 12-speed, let alone the motorized bicycle or the bicycle with training wheels, because it realizes the fundamental conception of a bicycle more simply, directly, and cleanly.

Final cause, the state of affairs the system brings about through its functioning, is easier to discuss analytically. We can talk about what it is, whether it’s a good thing, what interferes with it, how it relates to other goals, and so on. With those points in mind, it’s not surprising that for traditionalists’ immediate reactions to sexual immorality have to do with purity or formal cause, while arguments are almost always based on final cause, or considerations relating to function and intrinsic goal. The same is true with regard to almost any moral issue: our immediate reaction to dishonesty is that it’s a sort of stain or violation, but when we discuss what’s wrong with it we are more likely to talk about its effect on the system of human life.

The modern technological outlook rejects a view of the world as a complex of functional systems serving implicit goods in favor of one based on consciously chosen goals and immediate mechanical causation. One consequence is that progressives, who tend toward that outlook, don’t understand formal cause and purity. The idea simply makes no sense to them except as a childish “eww, gross” sort of thing. (It’s worth noting, however, that they aren’t consistent on the point. They are likely, for example, to consider inclusiveness a sacred cause, Matthew Shepard a holy martyr, racists, sexists, and homophobes unclean and disgusting, and so on.)

So it seems that which understanding of morality is better depends on which understanding of reality is more adequate: one that wants to rely exclusively on immediate mechanical causation or one that places more emphasis on functional systems with implicit goals. That question, though, must be left for another discussion.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared August 07, 2014 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission. Pictured above is “The Denial of Peter” painted by Caravaggio in 1610.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

  • Myshkin

    Thank you for spot-lighting this book, but Haidt’s thesis is hardly original. The value of such a book, I suppose, is to frame the contest between progressives and traditionalists in terms whose “social psychologist” clinical language might foster civil discourse.

    “Progressives tend to think of the world as a sort of blank slate that is meaningless in itself” — is this not, truly, a matter of what the Church highlights as “positivism”? Is this not, then, nothing more than the debate between materialists and theists? Between a view of existence itself as impersonal, or personal? And, in the latter case, a matter of believing in God? Not just a pantheistic, “neutered” ‘god’, but One Who is knowable by His creatures?

    • All the issues in your last paragraph are indeed very closely related to the theme of the piece.

    • Catholic pilgrim

      Yes I agree the labels (progressive, moralist conservative) in the article are inadequate. A piece that shows the failures of Progressivism would look quite different.

      • DE-173

        “A piece that shows the failures of Progressivism would look quite different.”

        But it would require more paper than the Code of Federal Regulations.

  • Mary

    The assertion that nontraditionalists do not believe in authority as something that is important seems to be the opposite of many policies insigated by the left as they are selective in what authority they look to and seem very big on legislating regulations and applying penalties to those who do not obey them. They simply do not like authorioty when it counters their goals or ideology. If anything they are anti-tradition and do not like to look at history thinking they can rewrite it. All that points to pride, hypocrosy and little care for investigation of facts in regard to their policies. Perhaps the missing three ingredients are the difference between sanity and insanity.

    • Fred

      I was formulating my thoughts when I read your reply and concluded, well said. I struggle with labels because I know they are divisive but there is just no getting around differences. I think you are spot on about pride even though many would argue that they’re not prideful while happily telling you that you are nuts for not seeing things their way. As tempting as it is to say it, perhaps sanity and insanity isn’t the right description. I’m often tempted to say adolescent vs. developed myself when I try to understand what makes people different, and by developed I mean as a whole person including spirituality – not a developed mind of a one-dimensional pseudo-intellectual. Liberals often strike me as people who have a narrow capacity to act spontaneously based on feelings of the moment who have difficult contemplating consequences. Overly generalized, of course, but more seems to fit than don’t. I get the criticism too that traditionalists can be quick to criticize and condemn sinners without lending a hand to help in personal ways and in being honest in acknowledging their own abilities to sin. In my experience those who seem to be most attendant in administering to the needy have a liberal bent (not in the progressive political context who are largely atheists) and we of course are thankful for them. Truly I say if Christ was first in our life and the object of our love then we’d be all much better off.
      Sounds like an interesting book Jim, even if I’m dubious about some of the assertions based on my own experiences from your review.

    • They accept it as necessary in fact but don’t like it in principle. That’s why they downplay and rebrand it in various ways by presenting it as democratic, as a matter of giving people their rights, standing up against oppression, and protecting the weak, as an exercise of neutral impersonal expertise, and so on.

      • Fred

        Isn’t that part of the rationalization process one goes through to be able to justify actions, finding a way to make it fit the preconceived notion of what is just for a clear conscience to feel good?

  • What then do we do with progressive saints, examples of those persons who held the same views the author describes as progressive and yet these persons achieved the highest honors the Church can bestow? It seems a narrow view of all that theology, in the Catholic church, teach and hold dear. The likes of Dorothy Day, St Thomas Moore and St Giles just do not fit into the neat separation of moral theists and progressive divide. Neither does Fr Gregor Mendel, a genetics architect upon whose work the entire genetic field comfortably rests. These examples show persons who were both. The political examples exclude progressive theologists in the Democrats for Life wing of the progressive movement, a purely pro-life group that is against capital punishment as well while traditionally leaning pro-life groups on the right are not. Maybe it would have been better to call one group not progressive, but atheists as it seems to be implied. It is a mistake to think progressive thought excludes traditional religious teaching.

    • What views do I describe as progressive that were shared by those figures?

      • From the article above, “One consequence is that progressives, who tend toward that outlook, don’t understand formal cause and purity.”

        • You’re saying that Saint Thomas More etc. tended toward a view based on consciously chosen goals and immediate mechanical causation and therefore didn’t understand either (1) the idea of purity, or (ii) the idea of the essential arrangement of components that make something the sort of thing that it is?

    • fredx2


    • DE-173

      “It is a mistake to think progressive thought excludes traditional religious teaching.”

      No. Progressivism, or more accurately atavism, Is a religion. People who believe it accomodative of traditional theism are syncretists or afflicted with a particularly virulent form of cognitive dissonance.

      Atavism believes in the temporal perfection of humanity, and the state as a god. Their god is a jealous god, which is why it seeks to remove all institutions that mediate between the individual and the rest of the world. They have been on a centuries long quest to destroy the Church, the family, voluntary associations, private businesses, even local, state and provincial governments, they seek to habituate bad habits and vices that create disorder. all so the individuals stand alone against the gales of sin and the vissisitudes of fortune and cries “save me”.

      As for “Democrats for Life”, that’s laughable.

      • “As for “Democrats for Life”, that’s laughable.”

        I wouldn’t consider them to be progressives- they’re very much for family- but they do exist.

        • DE-173

          Not in any office above County Commissioner.

          They are the equivalent of an open soource advocate working at Microsoft.

          • I knew one who was in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. I know a few locally here in Oregon, but they keep a low key alright. At least most of the time. They show up at every national convention to protest, and lose, the vote on “Reproductive Rights” being a plank in the National Democratic Party. And in Salem, OR, they show up at the penitentiary for every execution.

            Just because they are ineffective should not make them invisible, however. Then again, as I remember, I’m supposed to believe in the invisible, I say it every Sunday.

            • DE-173

              Ineffective or invisible, they are utterly insignificant. Abortion is the Democrat party’s sacrament.

      • Fred

        Not so funny when read in the context of habitual voting habits, not the dignity of life. I often tell my wife that the current occupant of the WH could probably shoot an innocent man in the oval office on live TV and still have 35% or more vote to re-elect him. Of course, with the help of the ministry of paparazzi propaganda press spinning yarns and posting bail.

        • DE-173

          I used to say he could club a baby seal on live TV, but I like your scenario better.

    • Funny, I’d say they all do.

      All of those you call progressives, I’d call “reluctant traditionalists”, especially the Democrats for Life.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    “The modern technological outlook rejects a view of the world as a complex of functional systems serving implicit goods in favor of one based on consciously chosen goals and immediate mechanical causation.”

    I fancy it goes deeper than that. An axiom of modern management is that one cannot manage what one cannot measure, so attention is focused, not on things, but on their common measurable qualities. The aim of this is not explanation but prediction and this is founded on functional relationships between variables, not causal relationships of any kindl.

    Thus, thousands who have never heard of Comte spontaneously adopt his philosophy: as Maritain put it, “it is impossible for a science merely occupied with phenomena to be observed, and with their laws to be constructed [by “laws” he means invariable relation between phenomena, expressed in differential equations, e.g. E = MC2], to furnish an ethics by itself alone, and one will content oneself with the facts and laws of sociology, holding as vain all search for a moral knowledge suited to direct conduct; one will content oneself with studying as variables dependent on the successive states of the various societies and cultural areas, the various moralities in which men have believed or believe”

  • What if both sides fail consistently and produce the same results.

    The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected. – G.K. Chesterton

    Living life from the mind seems to produce robots.

  • Rhoda Penmark

    The author lost credibility with me in the fifth paragraph when he declared that progressives consider “transgression a desirable form of liberation.” That generalization is a gross leap in logic.

    Taking shots at the enemy through oversimplification doesn’t help your argument that traditionalists are morally superior.

    • Art Deco

      That generalization is a gross leap in logic.

      Nope. You would be hard put to find a soi-disant progressive who did not adhere to that viewpoint.

    • It has indeed been a theme. Stick “transgressive” and “liberation” into Google. And the piece doesn’t present an argument that traditionalists are morally superior. See the last paragraph. It tries to explain the differences in world-view behind the differences in attitude a liberal social psychologist has written about.

    • DE-173

      Your comment history is instructive “gross leaps of logic”.

      “So you’re saying you have a malicious desire to see women punished for enjoying sex and succeeding financially.”

    • And yet, protests and looting are seen as so desirable that there have been people arrested in Ferguson that normally live as far away as California and New York- having traveled well over 1000 miles to get to Ferguson for civil unrest.

      • ColdStanding

        Oh! that’s a much better icon! Thanks for making the change. Good on you.

        • I stole it.:-). I’ve seen one better since, but that person disappeared from any of my feeds before I could steal the one with a full color crucifix overlayed with the Nun.

          Been thinking about our conversation- I think even better would be a crucifix but replacing the INRI with a nun. After all, He is the reason we are defiant!

      • DE-173

        The real question is whose transporting, lodging and feeding them.. follow the money. My bet is on some appendage of the Soros machinery.

  • Robert Whitten

    “Progressives” tend to think in “linear” terms (systems with no “feedback”, i.e., no complexity whereas “traditionalists” tend to think in terms of complexity (in its technical sense). Complexity in “natural”, i.e. God-given.

  • redfish

    I see it a little bit simpler. There have always been two aspects to spirituality, whether in Christianity or any other religion: the internal and the external. The internal is about what seem like purely personal virtues, like temperance, patience, and chastity. The external are what can be deemed social virtues, like compassion and tolerance.

    My experience with a lot of progressives is they reduce morality to the social virtues and diminish personal virtues as subjective. They reduce spirituality to the Golden Rule, that we should all treat each other like we want to be treated.. which misses the mark. Because, if you can’t be patient, you can’t be kind, compassionate, or tolerant, either, because you’ll begin to develop wrath, arrogance, and pride. Someone who doesn’t believe in temperance or chastity will also lack the right temperament to be compassionate. Which doesn’t mean those progressives don’t think there are problems with vices, they just think they can dealt with consequentially, by preaching ‘responsibility.’ As long as everyone is responsible, people will be okay. Otherwise, don’t judge.

    I there is any problem with traditionalists, its that some reduce morality to the personal virtues and diminish the social virtues. This isn’t necessarily Catholics, but some conservatives see pronouncing judgment on people and shaming them as always the right moral course.

    • DE-173

      “pronouncing judgment on people and shaming them as always the right moral course.”

      Where is there any shame today?

      • redfish

        Yep its true.. far from just not shaming people, what a lot of people on the left have sought to do is remove any sense of shame whatsoever, and convince people that they shouldn’t feel shame.. that shame is just social ‘stigma’.

        But in a sane society, shaming people would just be piling onto shame that they would naturally feel anyway and shouldn’t be necessary.

        • DE-173

          I’m not suggesting the affixation of Scarlet Letters on people, but if people aren’t feeling the shame they should, then a little social opprobrium could serve as fraternal correction.

          • redfish

            I just think setting the right standards and expectations is more important, and we don’t even have that.

            I’ve been on forums before where people have said things like “if only fat people were shamed they’d lose weight.” First, people shouldn’t be doing things to avoid social approbation they should do things for their own betterment. Its a really bad idea to inculcate that notion that its about others and not yourself. But also, I think it underestimates the degree people might feel shame already and are just masking it defensively to avoid being hurt by others.

            • DE-173

              “I just think setting the right standards and expectations is more important, and we don’t even have that.”

  • ColdStanding

    They, those that claim to be good people, are divided because their first principle is that they, themselves, are good.

    But we are not good.

    Only God is good.

    If we think we are good, then we think we are God. This blasphemy, and blasphemy is to injure the glory of God, is punished by confusion of mind. Hence today.

  • montanajack1948

    Jonathan Haidt didn’t cover everything that distinguishes liberals/progressives from conservatives/traditionalists. For instance, Jonathan Chait writes on his blog today that “one of the sturdiest findings of political psychology holds that conservatives have stronger feelings of disgust than do liberals. As John Hibbing points out, ‘Conservatives are more likely to have a physiological response and to devote more attention to disgusting things (which can carry pathogens) and to threatening things.’ People more sensitive to disgust are more likely to have right-wing views, and triggering reactions of disgust makes people more right wing. The bedrooms of conservative college students are more likely to contain cleaning supplies.” I’m not sure what, if anything, this explains; I just think it’s interesting what ingenious social scientists can come up with.

    • ColdStanding

      You say “sensitive to disgust” about conservatives, I say “deficient reaction of disgust” about lefties.

      • montanajack1948

        I did not say “sensitive to disgust”. I quoted Jonathan Chait who was citing John Hibbing. Nor did I indicate agreement or disagreement (I haven’t studied the issue). I tend to distrust these kinds of social science generalizations, which was why I posted it. As for “sensitive to” vs. “deficient reaction of”: sure, phrase it however you like–I say potayto and you, for all I know, may say potahto…

        • ColdStanding

          You authored the sentence: People more sensitive to disgust are more likely to have right-wing views, and triggering reactions of disgust makes people more right wing.

          That is like saying in my books. Meh, it is of no account. I’m more potaytoe.

          • montanajack1948

            We can go around about this all day if you like. I did not author the sentence; I very clearly and explicitly quoted it from Jonathan Chait. Quoting is not authoring. Quoting does not indicate agreement. Why are you assigning me authorship when all I did was quote someone else?

            • ColdStanding

              Grrumph! Stupid quotation marks! Must wear glasses.

              • montanajack1948

                I’m on bifocals myself, and I hate them…I don’t think human eyes were designed for this much screen time.

                • ColdStanding

                  Just started wearing them. Not in the habit yet. Sorry for the confusion.

    • These findings seem consistent with what Haidt says and what I say here.

      How you understand and respond to the world is going to show up on the emotional and even physiological level. So the technological outlook, which I associate with progressives, tends toward the clinical, while a view of the world as an organic system suggests greater reliance on instinctive reactions. And a concern with loyalty and authority seems to go with sensitivity to threats, while disgust likely has something to do with the sanctity/degradation axis of concern.

      The question of course is where the balance should be struck and how we should put all this together.

      • montanajack1948

        I think Leon Kass referred to this business of “disgust” as “the wisdom of repugnance” or “the ‘yuck’ factor”. In any case, you’re right that it all comes down to balance, which is why I don’t put that much stock in Haidt or other social scientists who want to pigeonhole people on some arbitrary scale they’ve devised. We can all identify with, and champion, various traits under particular circumstances; liberals surely wish that conservatives would respect the authority–as they see it–of the federal government and honor the tradition of New Deal programs. No assignment of personality traits or preferences will answer for us such questions as whose wisdom? whose authority? which traditions? and loyalty to what?

        • Ways of thinking tend toward coherence, so they’re not simply a range of multidimensional individual possibilities that can go either way on every point. In practical terms, your position on A is very likely to go with your position on B and C, even though B and C relate to quite different things. So to my mind it makes a great deal to explore the major possibilities as Haidt does.

          Liberals care much less about the authority of government and the tradition of social programs than the effectiveness of government in bringing about certain ends. The distinction may seem minor but as Haidt’s research shows it matters.

          • montanajack1948

            I concede your point: for liberals (like me), it’s not the authority of government per se but “the effectiveness of government in bringing about certain ends”. Are you sure that conservatives are any different? It seems to me that, when government works towards ends which conservatives disapprove, they aren’t all that much impressed with or respectful of government’s authority.

            • Haidt’s claim, with which I agree, is that respect for authority simply as such plays a role with conservatives much more than progressives. There are always other concerns, his theory mentions five of them, and at some point those take over.

              The claim that conservatives are “authoritarian” has been standard on the left. Do you think it’s simply baseless?

              • montanajack1948

                Pretty much, yes, I think it’s baseless. I assume it’s a rhetorical shorthand for “conservatives tend to have more respect for certain kinds of authority in certain situations regarding certain issues and behaviors than those of us on the Left do”. When it comes to describing, or engaging with, conservatives, most liberals of my acquaintance don’t do nuance.

  • hombre111

    I think the biggest difference between liberals and conservatives flows from the Enlightenment, a conundrum never resolved, even centuries later. The conservative perspective that dominated up to the time of Francis Bacon was based on unchangeable realities whose implications could be demonstrated in a deductive fashion, and on the voice of authority. The Enlightenment championed reason over faith and challenged unchangeable realities for a sake of a more historical view of life as an open-ended unfolding. When the scholars of that era adopted the scientific method, they also adopted the idea that every generation knows less than the generation that will follow. This was a mortal blow to authority, as the Church ably proved in the Galileo affair.

    Perhaps more than anything, the Enlightenment opened the way to individualism. Somewhere along the way, there was a grand reversal. Now it is the conservative who follows the individualist route, while the liberals have a vlew of community and a society in which we all participate. But this does not end the irony. Liberals remain utter individualists when it comes to sexuality and “personal” habits, while they demand accountability to society on economic issues. Conservatives preach individualism in the economic world, and demand an accountability to society when it comes to sexual and “personal” habits..

    What amuses me most of all is this: Conservatives are as much part of the Enlightenment as any liberal. Capitalism with its woeful consequences was born of the Enlightenment. So was our American democracy, with its Bill of Rights and its Constitution.

    • But “the triumph of reason over faith” and “the triumph of open-ended historical unfolding over demonstration based on unchangeable realities” aren’t at all the same thing.

      It seems to me modernity has really been about something else, a new conception of reason oriented toward use and dominion rather than contemplation (Bacon) and emphasizing demonstrative rigor based on immediate unquestionable experience (Descartes). That conception has led to a much narrower conception of reality that excludes things modern natural science can’t deal with. It’s also led to individualism, a conception of the human world as a bunch of separate independent wills all trying to get their way by intelligently manipulating the world around them.

      I don’t think liberals are non-individualistic on economic issues. Their standard is individual satisfaction but they don’t want some individuals and satisfactions to override others. Hence the need from their perspective for a rational neutral overall structure to keep that from happening as well as promote productivity, safety, stability, etc. The standard is individualistic but from the point of view of overall control.

      The more vocal “conservatives” in politics today are basically liberal individualists who emphasize effectiveness and particular assertiveness more than overall rational order. That emphasis means they have to emphasize individual discipline and particular connections like family more than liberals so that particular individuals can be independent and effective. Like those to their left the standard is the individual though.

      The people I call “traditionalists” in the piece (and Haidt calls “conservatives”) have very little representation in public life. Politicians on the right make a few mostly veiled references to the importance of authority, loyalty, and sanctity but the discussion, and the concern among politically influential people, is all about care (prosperity, security, etc.), fairness, and liberty.

      • hombre111

        Excellent. When you mentioned Descartes, I suddenly realized I had failed to add a true hallmark of our day: The turn to the subject, which I think reached its high point with Kant. Anyway, the idea as I understand it is: We are not guided by objective reality, but by our subjective understanding of something. Kant tried to provide us with some kind of internal structure common to us all which enables us to communicate. But “it is your truth, not mine, but still your truth and ergo valid for you” is something that really makes modern life what it is. The Church offers clear criteria, which is largely rejected by many moderns.

        • Yeah. My interpretation is that Kant tried to restore in virtual form the stuff the new conception of reason seemed to have abolished or at least put out of reach (God, the Good, Beautiful, and True, an objectively ordered world).

          That may have worked for him but it doesn’t seem to have worked for anyone else so we’re left in this situation in which we have technology and modern physics on the one side and rampant subjectivity on the other. That ought to put the Church in a position ultimately to pick up the pieces and restore reason and other good things but “ultimately” doesn’t come very fast.

          • hombre111

            Well said. The insanity of the 60’s was only a symptom, or maybe the reductio ad absurdum, of what reason without God has wrought.

  • Angie

    Jonathan Haidt gave a talk about this book (I believe it was on BookTV) and the interview was excellent.

  • Howard

    First of all, I used to use the word “traditionalist” in the same sense you do. Unfortunately, the word has been so thoroughly co-opted by those opposed to the Ordinary Form of the Mass that this only causes confusion.

    Secondly, you are oversimplifying when you say, “Progressives tend to think of the world as a sort of blank slate that is meaningless in itself. On that view man becomes the creator of values….” Progressives are simply not that consistent. One minute they’ll say that man is the creator of values, the next they’ll say Cortes was certainly wrong to impose his values on the Aztecs (who had been happily imposing *their* values on their subjects and defeated enemies, but we’re not supposed to notice that). One minute the Progressive will “think of the world as a sort of blank slate that is meaningless in itself”, the next he will insist that humans are a cancer on the face of the otherwise immaculate goddess Gaia.

    • Every word with political associations can cause confusion. Haidt uses “liberal” and “conservative.” I decided “progressive” and “traditionalist” were probably more descriptive. If there’s some nomenclature you think is better do suggest it.

      I don’t see how “tend” oversimplifies. A functional society, and a political tendency identifiable as such, will always have some reasonably coherent set of principles that generally determines who wins arguments. That doesn’t mean that people are always completely satisfied with those principles or that they don’t sometimes say contradictory things.

      If you don’t like “tend,” what word would you use to describe that situation?

      • Howard

        “Traditionalist” certainly works better than “conservative”, which has come to mean merely “Republican”. I have to admit that I don’t have a word that would include all you mean to include and exclude all you mean to exclude, but since you are the one setting those limits, that’s really your problem, not mine. Maybe you could make your distinction between “the anchored” and “the adrift” (probably Latinized or Grecized). One way or another, Crisis is a Catholic publication, and within Catholic circles, “traditionalist” already has a meaning that is different than the one you use. This is a mistake, just as using a private definition of “energy” in a physics publication is a mistake.

        Regarding your second question, the problem is not with the word “tend”, any more than the problem is with “tend” in the statement, “Drunk drivers tend to kill women.” Drunk drivers kill the women and men, the young and the old, whites and blacks — they do not show the implied preference. In the same way, “progressives” are not steadily marching in one direction, be it right, wrong, or indifferent; they are “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men,and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive.”

        • Haidt believes his research shows that those usually considered liberals and conservatives each have definite tendencies with regard to how they respond to moral issues. It seems you contest that point at least as to the people he calls liberals and I call progressives. I’ll let the social scientists and their critics argue it.

  • Surely this is painted with too broad of stroke, aside from being needlessly exclusive in language. Consider the work of Alasdair MacIntyre or Charles Taylor, who combine progressivism with traditionalism. In both cases, you have thinkers who take seriously sanctity and authority but who also embrace subversion (consider, e.g., MacIntyre’s “Natural Law as Subversive). Or you might turn your head toward someone like Max Horkheimer, head of the Frankfurt School, very much aware of the threats to sanctity but who also knew the threats from authority. You could find a comparison of MacIntyre and Taylor’s work with Horkheimer and the Frankfurt School in my Reason, Tradition, and the Good (UNDP 2012).

    But I imagine you won’t. People who use exclusivist language like “man” (instead of humanity, which costs them nothing and is more clear) do not tend to consider the other side of the argument.

    • You should direct the comment in your first paragraph to the liberal social scientist Jonathan Haidt, whose research findings I was commenting on and attempting to explain. You should also consider that a 1400 word column discussing broad tendencies can’t deal with every possible sense and application of words such as progressivism, traditionalism, and subversion. (Is it really your opinion that MacIntyre embraces subversion?)

      As to your second, I find that political language prigs have very little interest in views basically at odds with their own.

  • WSquared

    “So it’s not surprising that “question authority” has been an axiom for
    progressives, rebellion a virtue, and transgression a desirable form of

    …except that progressives scream foul and bl**dy murder when that axiom is turned back on them: why should anyone accept THEIR rebellion, transgression, and liberation as any form of authority?

    “Question authority”?

    Yeah. Let’s!