Do we make our children liberal or conservative by the way we raise them -- even before we ever discuss politics with them expicitly?
I would argue that we do give them an outlook on the world which likely predisposes them one way or the other.
But there are too many dimensions to politics, too many values informing our positions, for our children's political views, once they emerge, to conform perfectly to our own. Thank golly.
Into this teeming mix of values and lessons and clashing political views -- familiar to parents with teenagers, I imagine -- comes a new theory. It is worth examining from a parenting perspective.
Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist, has proposed a theory of morality which involves 5 "moral axes." They are: harm, fairness, loyalty, authority and purity. His ideas were discussed in the New York Times's Science section a few weeks ago, and the article generated a storm of commentary on the internet.
Haidt claims that liberals and conservatives, answering the same questions (you can do the test yourself to see where you come down) will find that their results cluster around different axes. Liberals will, according to Haidt, put far more emphasis on avoiding harm and ensuring fairness. Conservatives will add to these concerns a strong feeling for ingroup loyalty, a respect for authority and an interest in preserving sacredness/purity.
So Haidt would suggest that we are influencing our children's politics by the values we teach them.
"Of course," I wanted to say when I first read this. "Values inform politics, what else is new?"
But something about Haidt's approach continued to nag at me in the week after I read about it. Then I finally realized why. He suggests that conservatives have more moral axes, more resources for decision-making, than liberals -- five rather than the stunted two that I favor.
Here's how I counter Haidt's theory:
A dear friend of mine had a birthday recently, and I was thinking about his great qualities. One of his qualities is his deep loyalty and steadfastness towards his close friends. Suddenly, I remembered the Haidt moral axes. And so I asked myself, "Does this loyalty that my friend shows make him more moral in my view?" My answer was no. I realized from this that I do not consider loyalty to be a moral quality, merely an admirable personality trait.
With this thought-experiment in mind, the three "conservative" axes, (loyalty, authority, and purity) seem to me more tied to personality traits than they are a sense of morality.
Haidt (and cultural conservatives) would argue of course that I am so steeped in the contractual model of morality that I simply can't see these for what they are -- axes of moral decision. But the burden is not on me. It is on Haidt to demonstrate that his "5 axes" matrix is truly an exhaustive list of moral axes. Otherwise it's just a cute exercise.
Has he done that? I don't think so.
Why not add a few more "moral" axes, such as flexibility/rigidness, or openness to difference/desire for homogeneity? These two suggestions have a bias towards recognizing culturallly "liberal" acts of generosity and kindness as opposed to the Haidt axes of purity and authority and loyalty, which are biased towards recognizing conservative virues. But aren't they just as legitimate?
I would bet that we could generate a list of some 20 or 30 axes which would be borne out in studies as distinguishing liberal vs. conservative inclinations about morality. In short, the whole thing reeks of the typical weakness of psychology: mistaking labeling for insight.
Certainly, by encouraging, say, "openness to difference" rather than "ingroup loyalty," I am predisposing my children to political views on the liberal side of the spectrum. On that we can agree. But I am not making them morally deficient. They have the two crucial "moral axes" covered: minimize harm and try to be fair. The rest are a matter of taste. And some, like the cult of sacredness/purity, are not to my taste at all.