The Moral Foundations of the Presidential Primaries

Posted by in 2016 US Presidential Campaign, Moral Foundations in Action, Moral psychology research, Politics

We recently published an essay at Vox titled The Moral Foundations of the 2016 Presidential Primaries. That essay was written for a non-academic audience. In this post we expand on our analyses, detail our methodology, and present expanded graphs and data. Please read that essay first, and see the appendix at the end, which lists the 15 questions we used to assess the various moral foundations.

In this post we present:

1) An expanded Figure 1 for all candidates who received support from more than 35 respondents in the sample[1]

2) An expanded analysis of the Democratic race, showing a version of figure 1 for Democratic voters only, which breaks out Authority, Loyalty, and Sanctity as separate bars (Figure 1-D)

3) An expanded analysis of the Republican race, showing a version of figure 1 for Republican voters only, which breaks out Authority, Loyalty, and Sanctity as separate bars (Figure 1-R)

4) Details about our LOGIT regressions (Table 1-D and Table 1-R)

5) Responses to any questions that come up in response to the Vox essay.

1) Expanded Figure 1 for all candidates

Figure 1(a) shows the top Democratic and Republican candidate vote getters, ordered from left to right according to their supporters’ average reported ideology.

Figure 1(a)


Note: Figure 1(a) reports standardized responses (z-scores), which show how each candidates’ supporters responded to questions about each moral foundation compared to the average American. Y-axis is in standard deviations from the mean. Error bars show 95 percent confidence intervals around the means.

Figure 1(b) shows the 2nd tier candidates also ordered from left to right according to their supporters average reported ideology.

Figure 1(b)

Note: This chart reports standardized responses (z-scores), which show how each candidates’ supporters responded to questions about each moral foundation compared to the average American. Y-axis is in standard deviations from the mean. Error bars show 95 percent confidence intervals around the means.

Note: Figure 1(b) reports standardized responses (z-scores), which show how each candidates’ supporters responded to questions about each moral foundation compared to the average American. Y-axis is in standard deviations from the mean. Error bars show 95 percent confidence intervals around the means.

2) An expanded analysis of the Democratic race

The analyses we presented in our Vox essay examined each candidate’s supporters compared to the average American. But these candidates are competing to win over their respective parties’ median voters in the primaries and caucuses. So in this post we zoom in on each party separately. How do each candidate’s supporters compare to the average Republican or average Democrat?

Here we re-standardized each foundation scale among just Democrats. Thus each foundation scale has a mean of 0 and a standard deviation of 1, in which 0 represents the average Democrat in our sample. Then for each Democratic candidate’s supporters, we graphed the average standardized response for each of the six moral foundations.

In Figure 1-D below we show how each Democratic candidate’s supporters prioritize the moral foundations compared to the average Democrat. This means that bars above (or below) zero indicate that Sanders or Clinton supporters place more (or less) emphasis on that moral foundation compared to the average Democrat. Here we break out the Authority, Loyalty, and Sanctity foundations separately to get a more granular picture.

Figure 1-D

Note: This chart reports standardized responses (z-scores), which show how each candidates’ supporters responded to questions about each moral foundation compared to the average Democrat. Y-axis is in standard deviations from the mean. Error bars show 95 percent confidence intervals around the means.

Note: This chart reports standardized responses (z-scores), which show how each candidates’ supporters responded to questions about each moral foundation compared to the average Democrat. Y-axis is in standard deviations from the mean. Error bars show 95 percent confidence intervals around the means.

Supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders do not differ on the Care foundation. Both candidates are progressives who prioritize concerns over those who are suffering. Beyond that Sanders and Clinton supporters diverge.

Sanders draws those with a more libertarian profile, prioritizing concerns about personal freedom and eschewing the socially conservative foundations. Clinton supporters tend to draw from a (relatively speaking) more conservative profile. In some ways, 2016 looks a lot like 2008. Political scientists Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler found that while Clinton and Obama’s voting records were essentially “ideologically indistinguishable,” Clinton managed to attract more authoritarian-leaning Democrats while Obama attracted liberals concerned with individual autonomy. In both the 2008 and 2016 campaigns, Clinton has exuded an image of toughness, often characterizing herself as a “fighter.” She voted for the Iraq War in 2003, has supported greater US involvement fighting ISIS and training Syrian rebels, and keeping troops in Afghanistan, while Sanders opposed the war and these interventions. In fact, Terry Michael writing for the libertarian Reason magazine even declared that compared to Hillary Clinton, “Sanders looks downright Ayn Rand-ish.”

Sanders supporters also stands apart from Clinton’s supporters (and libertarians), in rating proportionality much less relevant to their moral judgments. This aligns with Sanders’ proposing greater expansions of government social welfare programs and higher taxes on the wealthy in comparison to Clinton.

3) An expanded analysis of the Republican race

Next we turn to the top four vote getters in the Republican primaries: Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Ben Carson. How do their supporters compare with the average Republican voter?

To examine this, we re-standardized each foundation scale among just Republicans. Thus each foundation scale has a mean of 0 and a standard deviation of 1, in which 0 represents the average Republican in our sample. Then for each Republican candidate’s supporters, we graphed the average standardized response for each of the six moral foundations.

In Figure 1-R below we show how each Republican candidate’s supporters prioritize each of the moral foundations compared to the average Republican. This means that bars above (or below) zero indicate the candidate’s supporters place more (or less) emphasis on that moral foundation compared to the average Republican. Here we also break out the Authority, Loyalty, and Sanctity foundations.

Figure 1-R

Note: This chart reports standardized responses (z-scores), which show how each candidates’ supporters responded to questions about each moral foundation compared to the average Republican. Y-axis is in standard deviations from the mean. Error bars show 95 percent confidence intervals around the means.

Note: This chart reports standardized responses (z-scores), which show how each candidates’ supporters responded to questions about each moral foundation compared to the average Republican. Y-axis is in standard deviations from the mean. Error bars show 95 percent confidence intervals around the means.

Notably, the two candidates catapulted to public office by the tea party movement—Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz—stand out because of their supporters’ high endorsement of proportionality. These candidates have drawn in the fiscally conservative wing of the GOP that wants people to be rewarded in prorportion of their achievements, and punished in proportion to their failings. Both sets of supporters also score relatively low on on the Care foundation. When it comes to government adjudicating between justice and mercy, these voters opt for justice. This may be why David Brooks has called Cruz “brutal” while Rush Limbaugh described him as principled and consistent.

These results also highlight the rift between Rubio and the remaining top contenders. Rubio draws the more secular or centrist supporters (indicated by lower purple and grey bars on Loyalty and Sanctity) while Cruz, and Trump attract more religious and culturally conservative supporters. While both Cruz and Rubio have heavily courted key evangelicals for endorsements, Cruz has taken the lead, as some religious leaders express skepticism of Rubio’s financial backers who support gay rights.

These moral differences among supporters also map onto to policy differences of the candidates: For instance, Marco Rubio has sought to liberalize immigration rules while Ted Cruz has promised to oppose a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants “today, tomorrow, forever” and Donald Trump has gone even further promising to deport every undocumented immigrant.

Ben Carson stands out as the candidate with more empathetic voters, those who score higher on the Care foundation. This may reflect Carson’s warmer style and refusal to engage his opponents in what he calls the “politics of personal destruction.”

One of the biggest surprises in our dataset was that Donald Trump’s supporters did not appear particularly unusual. Part of this is due to the fact that his higher vote share means his supporters are closer to average. However, his supporters do significantly deviate from the average Republican voter in placing greater weight on the Authority/Loyalty/Sanctity composite variable.

4) Details about our LOGIT regressions

To find out if moral foundations improves predicting vote choice we performed a series of regression analyses, one for each presidential candidate. We carried out Logit regressions separately for the Democratic candidates among Democratic respondents, and Republican candidates among Republican respondents.

In order to see if adding the moral foundations improved prediction above and beyond the demographic factors that are usually used, we ran three different models per candidate:

  • Model 1 (Column A): This model examines how well self-reported ideology (liberal to conservative) and the standard set of demographic variables predict vote choice.
  • Model 2: (Column B): This model examines how well each moral foundation[2] predicts voting for each candidate, while controlling for the effects of the other moral foundations, but without accounting for the effects of demographics and self-reported ideology.
  • Model 3: (Column C): This model combines Model 1 and 2 to examine how well each moral foundation predicts vote choice, while also accounting for the effects of demographics, self-described ideology, as well as the other moral foundations.

First we report results that predict voting for a Democratic candidate among Democrats in Table 1-D:

Democratic Primary

Table 1-D

Note: Logit regression conducted among Democrats only, t statistics in parentheses, clustered standard errors by state.

Note: Logit regression conducted among Democrats only, results report standardized betas, t statistics in parentheses, clustered standard errors by state.

Before controlling for demographic factors, the Liberty foundation significantly predicts a vote for Sanders and a vote against Clinton among Democrats. However, young white civil libertarians seem to largely be driving this effect. Once age and race are included in the analysis, the Liberty foundation no longer predicts voting for Bernie Sanders. When accounting for demographics, Sanders is negatively predicted by Proportionality and Authority/Loyalty/Sanctity. The moral foundations do not significantly predict a vote for Hillary Clinton, after controlling for background and ideology among Democrats.

Second we report results that predict voting for a Republican candidate among Republicans. We first present logit regression results for the top four Republican vote getters shown in Table 1-R(a). Candidates are ordered from left to right according to their respondents’ average reported ideology.

Republican Primary

Table 1-R(a)

Note: Logit regression conducted among Republicans only, t statistics in parentheses, clustered standard errors by state.

Note: Logit regression conducted among Republicans only, results report standardized betas, t statistics in parentheses, clustered standard errors by state.

Next we present logit regression results for the remaining Republican candidates shown in Table 1-R(b). Candidates are ordered from left to right according to their respondents’ average reported ideology.

Table 1-R(b)

Note: Logit regression conducted among Republicans only, results report standardized betas, t statistics in parentheses, clustered standard errors by state.

Note: Logit regression conducted among Republicans only, results report standardized betas, t statistics in parentheses, clustered standard errors by state.

Among Republicans, the moral foundations significantly predicted vote choice for Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Rand Paul, but not for Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, or Chris Christie.

We find the Authority/Loyalty/Sanctity foundation is significantly predictive of voting for Donald Trump, but none of the other GOP candidates. The Care foundation significantly predicts voting against Trump. This pattern is consistent with claims that Trump attracts authoritarians. Proportionality significantly predicts support for Cruz and Rubio even when controlling for ideology and demographics. These candidates draw the fiscal conservatives who want society to reward people according to what they have earned, not according to their needs. However, in contrast to Cruz and Rubio, Proportionality predicts voting against Jeb Bush. Instead Bush attracts Republicans who are less focused on enforcing proportional fairness in society. High ratings on the Liberty foundation significantly predict a vote for Rand Paul while the Authority/Loyalty/Sanctity foundation negatively predicts it. Rand Paul draws the libertarian vote but has projected a rather narrow moral appeal.

4) Responses to any questions that come up in response to the Vox essay.

[We will post responses here as questions or criticisms arise. Please send questions to eekins at]



[1] The survey included oversamples of African-Americans, Hispanics, and Tea Party supporters. We apply weights throughout our analyses.

[2] Since Authority, Loyalty, and Sanctity are moderately intercorrelated, we included the composite variable in the regression.

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Bring the Cultural Revolution to America!

Posted by in Capitalism

No, I don’t mean that we should have shame circles and ruinous economic policies. I mean that I hope someone will find a way to bring the extraordinary collection of the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center to America in time for the 50th anniversary of the cultural revolution, this June. I spent four months traveling across Asia last year, and one of the high points was my visit to this small museum, tucked away in the basement of an apartment building in Shanghai’s Former French Concession neighborhood.

Shanghai Propaganda Poster Arts Center

I was in China to do research for my next book, on capitalism and morality, and wanted to learn how China made the transition from demonizing capitalism to embracing it. Just look at this poster from 1951 – it’s a “super-stimulus” for all the bad things ever said about capitalism. The caption reads: “America is a rotten imperialist country, and the camp of such people around the world.” The fat banker drops money down to the “running dogs” of American imperialism — President Truman (holding The Bomb), Dean Acheson, and Douglas MacArthur.


Anti-capitalism, 1952. Photo by Jon Haidt, with permission of Shanghai Propaganda Poster Arts Center

At the bottom of the scene.. well, the racism, violence, and moral degradation that are thought to flow inevitably from capitalism could not be clearer.

At the PPAC, you can follow the evolution of Chinese history, economics, and aesthetics, from the “Shanghai girl” posters of the 1930s through the early post-revolutionary optimism, the cold war, and the madness of the cultural revolution, in which young people were urged to band together to destroy large parts of China’s cultural and philosophical heritage, to make way for a fresh start, as in the poster below:


“Start the people’s war to criticize Lin Biao and Confucius well”. 1974

You can feel the calmness return after the death of Mao, when Deng Xiaoping allows the first sprouts of economic freedom, and prosperity begins to rise. Contrast the anti-capitalist poster above with this poster from 1982, which in a sense is just a return to the ancient Chinese value of prosperity. The caption reads “getting better each year.” Boy was that prophetic.

“Getting better each year. Photo by Jon Haidt, of poster from Shanghai Propaganda Poster Arts Center

During my visit, I struck up a conversation with the quiet, gentle proprietor and owner of the collection, Mr. Yang Pei Ming. He was born in 1945,  in the desperate last months of the Japanese occupation. His father was murdered in an early wave of anti-capitalist fervor in the early 1950s. Yang lived through the famine of 1960 and was in college in 1966 when the cultural revolution broke out, first among college students in Beijing. He was sent to the countryside and never finished college. (You can read a profile of Mr. Yang here).


He began collecting propaganda posters on a whim in 1995 and he now has what appears to be the world’s largest collection of such posters. It is his personal collection, part of which he puts on display in a few basement rooms of an ordinary apartment building. The rooms are barely heated — the museum earns so little money from admission fees that he can’t afford to pay for heat (hence the parka in the photo above). The “museum” is not climate controlled, and the posters will decay over time from fluctuations in temperature and humidity.

And this is why I hope that we can “bring the cultural revolution to America.” I hope somebody reading this post knows somebody who is connected to an art museum. Mr. Yang needs help to preserve the best parts of his collection. I’m hoping that the curator of an art museum will take an interest, visit the collection, and work with Mr. Yang to bring the best pieces to America or Europe. He has done several shows before. But he needs much more financial support, and 2016 would be the perfect time for a major show. It’s the 50th anniversary of the cultural revolution, and interest in China and Chinese history has never been higher in the West. In particular, there has never been an exhibit outside China of the Dazibao — the giant calligraphed political statements and street art that were put up by students in Beijing, which launched the cultural revolution in 1966. Mr. Yang has preserved many of the originals of these fragile artifacts:


Dazibao (Big Character Posters). The large black characters say: “Thoroughly expose the reactionary crimes of Li Hongzhen!” From the collection of the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Arts Center

You can learn more about the PPAC at it’s home page, or in this recent article at US News.

If you are interested in supporting Mr. Yang, or bringing his collection to an art museum, please contact him directly: pmyang999 [at] or else contact me: haidt [at]


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The Key to Trump is Stenner’s Authoritarianism

Posted by in Moral Foundations in Action, Moral psychology research, Politics, Social trends

Tom Edsall has an excellent column in today’s NYT titled: Purity, Disgust, and Donald Trump. He begins with the work that I and my colleagues at have done on the role of disgust in political life. How else can we explain Trump’s twin obsessions with bodily fluids and closing the borders to keep out human contaminants (see Bruni’s “Blood, Sweat, and Trump.” You can also read more about our empirical work in Donald Trump and the Politics of Disgust).

But even more important than purity and disgust, I believe, is the psychology of authoritarianism. That term is somewhat contested, but it’s striking that most of the experts Edsall interviewed agreed that that however you define it, Trump exhibits and exploits it. In this blog post I just want to point readers to what I think is the best treatment of authoritarianism out there: Karen Stenner’s 2008 book The Authoritarian Dynamic.

Here’s the full quote I sent to Edsall, trying to steer him to Stenner’s work;

I’d say the key to understanding Trump’s appeal is to look beyond values. We’re all accustomed to thinking about a range of conservative and progressive values, and Trump’s phenomenal success can’t be understood just by re-arranging values into a new recipe. The key is to be found in the work of political scientist Karen Stenner, whose research showed that there are three very different psychological types of people who have been supporting the Republican party since the 1980s: the “laissez faire” conservatives, who are not conservative at all, they are classical liberals who oppose government intervention in markets (like Rand Paul); the “status quo” conservatives, who are the classic Burkean conservatives, cautious about change, and highly responsible and conscientious (Jeb Bush and John Kasich); and the authoritarians, who are the most malleable or changeable depending on the political environment (Trump).
In times of low moral threat, when they perceive that the country is relatively unified and the moral order is not being subverted, they are not particularly intolerant (Stenner finds). But, when they perceive that the moral order is falling apart, the country is losing its coherence and cohesiveness, diversity is rising, and our leadership seems (to them) to be suspect or not up to the needs of the hour, its as though a button is pushed on their forehead that says “in case of moral threat, lock down the borders, kick out those who are different, and punish those who are morally deviant.” So its not just rising immigration and diversity that has activated American authoritarians — it may be our rising political polarization itself, which has activated and energized a subset of the electorate that is now lionizing Trump as the first major candidate in a long time who has spoken to their fears and desires. In short, Trump is not a conservative, and is not appealing to classical conservative ideas. He is an authoritarian, who is profiting from the chaos in Washington, Syria, Paris, San Bernardino, and even the chaos on campuses, which are creating a more authoritarian electorate in the Republican primaries.

Stenner’s book is long, but she has produced a much shorter synopsis in a 2009 article titled Three Kinds of Conservatism. It is behind a paywall, but I’ll see if I can contact Stenner to get her to post a manuscript version.

The only slight correction I’d like to add to Edsall’s column is that he goes from my claim that Trump is not a conservative to my older writings about social conservatives and disgust, including my attempts to make sense of the widespread focus in ancient moral texts on food, sex, and bodily functions. I actually don’t know whether disgust is really characteristic of “status quo conservatives.” It’s possible that it is the authoritarians who drive the general correlation of disgust and self-declared conservatism. Given Hitler’s obsessive focus on disgust and vermin in Mein Kampf, and the general absence of such talk in classical conservative writings, I would guess that it is most characteristic of authoritarian psychology. I will have to look into this in the YourMorals dataset, and I hope other researchers can address that question.

I close by emphatically agreeing with Edsall’s concluding lines:

Whatever happens next, he has remade the landscape on which these conflicts will be fought — for better, or, more likely, for worse.


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Coddle U vs. Strengthen U: What a Great University Should Be

Posted by in Coddling and Victimhood, Education, Social trends, Videos

One of the things that most bothers me about the modern “victimhood culture” of microaggressions, trigger warnings,  and safe spaces is how directly it flies in the face of the world’s greatest wisdom, which I reviewed in The Happiness Hypothesis. For example, chapter 7 is about the uses of adversity: “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” as Nietszche put it. Mencius explained the idea more fully in the 3rd century BCE:

When heaven is about to confer a great responsibility on any man, it will exercise his mind with suffering, subject his sinews and bones to hard work, […and] place obstacles in the paths of his deeds, so as to stimulate his mind, harden his nature, and improve wherever he is incompetent

Nasim Taleb nailed the idea with his recent book “Anti-Fragile.” A carton of eggs is fragile, so you’d better handle it with care. But many things in our world are anti-fragile: they are systems that increase in capability, resilience, or robustness as a result of mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures. The immune system is anti-fragile: If you protect your kids from dirt and germs, you’ll weaken their immune system and set them up for more autoimmune diseases. Similarly children and teenagers are anti-fragile. If you protect their feelings with trigger warnings, safe spaces, and micro-aggression training for everyone in the community, you weaken them, you make them fragile.

I was making a list in my mind of all the ways that victimhood culture violates ancient wisdom when I was invited to give a talk at the William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale. In my talk, I run through three sets of ancient ideas that many modern “coddling” universities (and high schools) violate, and I imagined what a university would look like if it was built on ancient wisdom instead. I called this mythical university “Strengthen U.” In the video, I pretend to be admissions officers from the two universities, trying to recruit high school students to apply.

Here is the video (30 minutes)

Here is a link to a condensed transcript of the talk, including most of the slides.

Incidentally, I thought the Buckley program was terrific. It’s a student organization for conservatives, but in my visit I found that it has some real political diversity in it. The audience at my talk was roughly a third right of center, a third left, and a third libertarian — this is the most political diversity I have ever seen when speaking at a university. These students are engaging with arguments from all sides, and doing it civilly. They will emerge stronger and smarter. Progressive Yale students who don’t get involved with Buckley have few other chances to be exposed to conservative ideas or conservative faculty. (That’s what happened to me when I was at Yale in the 1980s.) If they go on to careers in law, politics, or business, where they must engage with conservative ideas and arguments, they will not know what to say, and will fall back on the kinds of Marcusian rhetorical devices that I describe in the video, and which you can see in action in the Twitter exchange at the bottom of this post. For more on the benefits of political diversity at universities, please see

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Trigger Warnings Cause Non Sequiturs

Posted by in Coddling and Victimhood, Education, Social trends

Below is the letter to the editor that Greg Lukianoff and I submitted to the New York Times in response to an op-ed by Cornell philosophy professor Kate Manne, which defended the use of trigger warnings.
The Times did not respond to our submission, so here it is:

To the Editor:

Re: “Why I use trigger warnings” (Opinion, Sept. 19): Kate Manne’s efforts to alert her philosophy students about potentially upsetting course content shows her to be a caring teacher. But her critique of our essay condemning trigger warnings begins with a non sequitur. She is surely right that “the evidence suggests” that some of her students “are likely to have suffered some sort of trauma.” But that does not logically imply that “the benefits of trigger warnings can be significant.” We have not found any empirical evidence that trigger warnings yield any psychological benefits, whereas there is empirical evidence suggesting that they might be harmful. So it is more logical to conclude that if trauma is common, then the harms caused by trigger warnings might be significant.

Manne then offers an analogy: “Exposing students to triggering material without warning seems more akin to occasionally throwing a spider at an arachnophobe.” This is not a valid analogy. Asking students to read novels or Greek myths that include sexual assault is like saying the word spider in the presence of an arachnophobe, which anxiety experts tell us is a good way to reduce the long-term emotional power of spiders. If well-meaning teachers and friends work together to help an arachnophobe avoid exposure to the word spider, or to pictures of spiders, spider webs, and Spiderman, they will strengthen the arachnophobe’s conviction that mere reminders of spiders are dangerous. This is how a temporary and reversible phobia can be hardened into a lifelong and debilitating identity.

Manne also asserts that “there seems to be very little reason not to give these warnings.” It’s simple courtesy, no? Trigger warnings are like “advisory notices given before films and TV shows.” But those warnings are given so that parents can keep their children safe from material for which they are not yet emotionally mature enough. This is why the American Association of University Professors has condemned the use of trigger warnings as being “at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual.”

Furthermore, once a few professors start giving these warnings, students will begin to request them from their other professors, and this may lead to a cascade of caution among the rest of the faculty. Last year, seven humanities professors from seven colleges penned an Inside Higher Ed article stating that “this movement is already having a chilling effect on [their] teaching and pedagogy.” The professors reported receiving “phone calls from deans and other administrators investigating student complaints that they have included ‘triggering’ material in their courses, with or without warnings.”

There is a more subtle harm caused to students when professors use trigger warnings. One of us (Haidt) teaches in New York City. Suppose Haidt took his students on field trips all over the city, but every time he took the class to the Bronx, Haidt took additional steps: he gave the class a warning, weeks in advance, and he hired a paramedic to ride with them in the bus. Just in case. What effect will this have on the students, and on their future willingness to visit The Bronx on their own?

Do we really want to tell our students that some of their fellow students could end up in emergency care if they were to read certain novels without being properly steeled for the task? This message would reflect and strengthen the “culture of victimhood” that sociologists have identified as emerging on our most egalitarian college campuses. It could weaken students to the point where we might, someday, really need paramedics in our classrooms.


For the record, below is the Twitter exchange I had with Manne as a result of this blog post. Note that Brad Wilcox’s tweet was not part of this exchange — it just happened to be posted during my exchange with Manne.





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Campbell and Manning Respond to Readers’ Comments

Posted by in Civility, Politics, Social trends

[Below is a guest post from Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, in response to my previous blog post on their article]


Jonathan Haidt’s discussion on this blog of our article “Microaggression and Moral Cultures” led to a number of comments here and elsewhere. We are grateful for everyone’s insights and observations, and especially for those that have directed us to some very useful resources (commenter D.M. Ryan was especially helpful, as were the blog posts of Ronald Bailey and Alan Jacobs). Many of the commenters brought up important objections and questions that we’d like to address more thoroughly.

1) Is the culture changing? What’s your evidence? 

Some have questioned whether the changes we discuss have actually occurred. These questions tend to deal with our conception of moral culture, our evidence, or both. Commenter Sarah, for example, asks about whether all three cultures we discuss are actually distinct moral cultures, and Steve Ruble wonders “what the objective evidence for an actual shift in the cultural moral code would look like.”

One thing to keep in mind is that our concept of moral culture is just shorthand for identifying clusters of traits that are more prevalent in one setting than another. The “moral cultures” we identify are in that sense both a simplification and a matter of degree. This is true of the honor and dignity cultures identified by previous scholars as well as the victimhood culture we view as divergent from each of these. When we talk about a new moral culture arising, we mean that a cluster of traits has become frequent and prominent enough that we think it ought to be distinguished from the others.

What we are interested in is what people have conflicts about and how they handle them. Certainly many of the things we identify as characteristic of victimhood culture can be seen in the past. Just about every society in history has had people complaining and appealing to third parties. For that matter, just about every society has had violent aggression, direct negotiation, tolerance, avoidance, and so forth. And one can still see honor conflicts and violent retribution in the contemporary United States. But we doubt college students today are as likely to worry about maintaining a reputation for toughness and pugnacity as young men in the antebellum South, and they’re certainly less likely to fight duels. Similarly, we think they are more likely than young people 50 or 60 years ago to complain to the public or to authorities about being hurt by offensive remarks.

These are empirical matters, and perhaps someone will find evidence to counter or to support our claims.  In science, a single paper is rarely the last word on any subject, all the more so when the paper involves general theoretical ideas like the principles of conflict and social control employed in our paper.

But for now the evidence we do present – the microaggression complaints, the calls for trigger warnings and safe spaces – seems to us to illustrate well enough the emergence of a fairly distinct kind of moral thinking. Consider too that some very stark examples are too new even to have made it into our article, published just nine months ago. Since then university administrators have begun to heed the cries of the microaggression complainants. The University of California system, for instance, has issued a set of guidelines for faculty listing a number of statements that might be microaggressions, and its regents are now considering a policy guaranteeing the right of everyone in the university community to be free from “expressions of intolerance.” There seems to be a change in social control and moral life afoot.

2) Don’t people other than campus activists complain about microaggressions?

 The term “microaggression” comes from the campus left, and it is there that we see victimhood culture at its peak. But we certainly see manifestations of it elsewhere, and many of our readers have, in person or online, pointed to various examples of conservatives, evangelical Christians, or others complaining about minor slights, portraying themselves as oppressed, or in some other way claiming victim status. This is something we point out in our article – that if victimhood confers status, then all sorts of people will want to claim it. But the extent of this is something worth investigating. As Conor Friedersdorf, writing in The Atlantic, asks, “To what extent are non-collegians engaged in policing microaggressions by another name? How are their actions the same as and distinct from Oberlin Microaggressions [a microaggression website he discusses] and its analogs at other campuses?”

One reason microaggression complaints illustrate so well the cultural change from a dignity- to a victimhood-based morality is the name itself. Microaggression complainants differ from others who complain about often unintentional slights or other verbal offenses in that they label these offenses as a kind of “aggression.” Someone asking you a normal question, perhaps inappropriate for the occasion, like “Where are you from?” is thus not friendly and well intentioned, or even awkward and ignorant, but an “aggressor” who has victimized you. It is this terminology, in part, that makes these kinds of complaints so appealing to the complainants and their supporters and at the same time so outrageous to others. What might otherwise be understood as the rudeness or cluelessness of individuals is now cast as a way in which dominant collectivities marginalize and oppress minority groups.

Still, as Alan Jacobs notes, “Friedersdorf’s post encourages us to consider whether these habits of mind are characteristic of society as a whole.” We think they are to some degree, and this is likely to increase. True, there may be a backlash. And yes, it’s always possible social conditions will change in ways that send the course of moral evolution down some other path. We cannot see the future in a crystal ball. But what we do see is that the conditions we claim give rise to a full blown victimhood culture among circles of campus activists are present to lesser degrees elsewhere and show few signs of abating. And it seems that victimhood begets victimhood, as those accused of oppression and privilege find it easiest to defend against such accusations by claiming victimhood themselves. For instance, someone taken to task for being blinded by privilege might be able to silence a critic by labeling his criticism an instance of mansplaining or some other microaggressive offense. And even those most opposed to the morality of victimhood might become similar to their opponents in the course of the conflict, as they increasingly focus on minor and verbal offenses. A complaint about a microaggression complaint is, like the microaggression complaint itself, a complaint about a matter most people would see as trivial.

Under the right social conditions, social behaviors reproduce themselves like a seed crystal dropped into solution. Introduce one violent gang into a lawless setting, and it won’t be long before other gangs form to defend or compete against it. Victimhood culture might self-replicate in similar ways, with the clash of victimhood and dignity giving way to clashes between competing victims.

3) Is the term “victimhood culture” appropriate?

The supporters of microaggression complaints, trigger warnings, and safe spaces commonly object to the term “victimhood culture.” As commenter Andrew puts it, “I don’t think anyone in this emerging set of norms, frameworks, and models for reactivity to speech would describe it as a culture of ‘victimhood.’” Is our use of the term therefore pejorative rather than descriptive? We think it is not, though the question is a fair one. Elsewhere we have noted our own moral preference for dignity culture and commitment to academic freedom, but we don’t find the moral assessment of moral cultures nearly as interesting as the descriptive sociology of moral cultures. As sociologists we are fascinated by alternative moralities such as those of honor and victimhood. Honor is interesting because it is such a peculiar type of status, one associated with a reputation for bravery. So is victimhood, which involves the conferral of a kind of moral status on those designated as victims of oppression. Since this is what best distinguishes this emerging morality from others, we see “victimhood culture” as the most appropriate name.

We do understand why some might see the term as pejorative, though. There is an asymmetry between this term and the terms honor and dignity: People in honor cultures openly refer to their honor and judge it a good thing, people in dignity cultures openly refer to their dignity and judge it a good thing, but people in victimhood cultures would not likewise openly refer to victimhood as a kind of status and judge it a good thing.

We believe this could not be any other way, as there is an inherent tension – a cultural contradiction if you will – in demonizing the privileged and valorizing the oppressed. Supporting one side in a conflict – judging it as virtuous and throwing your weight behind the cause – accords that side a kind of status. The contradiction is that support goes to those who lack privilege, but the ability to attract support is a kind of privilege. It is perhaps then quite difficult – a source of what psychologists call cognitive dissonance – to openly acknowledge this: that a reduction in oppression – however limited in context and extent – comes from being recognized as oppressed. If this is the case, it is not really the term “victimhood culture” that people are objecting to, but the very idea that victimization is increasingly valorized, or that anyone might find it attractive to gain recognition as a victim or member of a disadvantaged group.

It is likewise difficult to admit that privilege can ever be a liability. What Lukianoff and Haidt call “vindictive protectiveness” creates “a culture in which everyone must think twice before they speak up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.” But the advocates of this type of morality seldom acknowledge they are harming anyone at all. This is especially so since, while everyone can have dignity, not everyone can be a victim. As commenter Andrew puts it, the culture “seems to separate people into those-who-harm, those-who-are-harmed, and those-who-protect-from-harm.” And as Jake Was Here adds, in response to Andrew, “Those Who Harm can NEVER become Those Who Are Harmed, and Those Who Are Harmed can NEVER become Those Who Harmed.”

Designating one group as protected implicitly designates others as unprotected. While some advocates justify this inequality as serving the purpose of counterbalancing other systemic inequities, such as the continuing effects of historic oppression, it seems that others have difficulty recognizing that the distinction creates any inequality at all. For example, recall the policy the regents of the University of California are considering – to guarantee a right to be free from verbal expressions of intolerance. The policy also says that it “does not apply to the free exchange of ideas in keeping with the principles of academic freedom and free speech.” But obviously these two things cannot both be true. To say someone has a right to be free from some type of speech means someone else is prohibited from speaking. Which groups fall into which category is the only question. They do not answer that question explicitly, of course, since, as Megan McArdle points out, it’s “hard to establish a rule that only some groups are entitled to be free from offense.” The groups on the losing end “will not take this lying down.” They might even start complaining of their victimization and launching campaigns to sway authority figures and the public to their cause.

Owing to these contradictions, we believe, any accurate description of this moral milieu is bound to offend. As sociologists of morality, though, we must discuss these things as clearly as we can. Others can choose whatever terminology they like, so long as they too try to be clear and descriptively accurate as well. Again, our main purpose is neither to make ethical arguments nor to quibble over terminology. Our concern is with the grievances that people have, how those grievances are handled, and how these things vary across different social settings. It’s an endlessly fascinating topic, and we invite others to join us in exploring it.

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Obama speaks out against coddling campuses

Posted by in Civility, Politics, Social trends

President Obama spoke out forcefully yesterday on the purpose of college and the perils of the new political correctness. (See coverage at Vox.) At a forum on college access and affordability, in Des Moines, Iowa, a high school student asked him about Ben Carson’s proposal that government cut funding for “politically biased colleges.” This gave the President an opportunity to talk about recent trends on college campuses, and how intellectual and political diversity in his own college days broadened his mind and changed some of his assumptions.  Here’s the key section on trigger warnings, safe spaces, and “coddling:”

It’s not just sometimes folks who are mad that colleges are too liberal that have a problem. Sometimes there are folks on college campuses who are liberal, and maybe even agree with me on a bunch of issues, who sometimes aren’t listening to the other side, and that’s a problem too. I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. I gotta tell you, I don’t agree with that either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. I think you should be able to — anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with ‘em. But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, “You can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.” That’s not the way we learn either.

His whole response is a beautiful statement on the value of a liberal arts education — including exposure to political diversity — for creating thoughtful and open-minded citizens.

You can watch the whole interaction here. Drag the slider to 1:22:32

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