Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has a message for the Occupy Wall Street protesters: Keep focusing on gross inequality of outcomes and you’ll get nowhere.
Haidt and his colleagues have developed a theory about how people make moral judgments. He argues that moral judgment is intuitive. "We know what is right and wrong in much the same way we know what is beautiful", says Haidt. "When called on to explain ourselves we make up reasons after the fact."
This intuitive ethics rests on five foundations: Care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. In the US, liberals focus on the first two foundations while conservatives rely on all five. In itself, inequality doesn’t offend against any of these foundational intuitions. As a result, the OWS protesters needs to spell out exactly what’s wrong with inequality. In a recent article for Reason magazine Haidt writes:
Fairness means proportionality, and if Americans generally think that the rich got rich by working harder or by providing goods and services that were valued in a free market, then they won’t be angry, and they won’t support redistributionist policies. But if the OWS protesters can better articulate their case that the “1 percent” got its riches by cheating, rather than by providing something valuable, or that the 1 percent abuses its power and oppresses the 99 percent, then Occupy Wall Street will find itself standing on a very secure pair of moral foundations.
In making their case, Haidt argues that the protesters need to avoid "acts of violence, flag desecration, destruction of private property, or anything else that makes them seem subversive or anti-American." These would offend against the foundations of loyalty, authority and sanctity.
As in Australia, people disagree about whether inequality of wealth and income is a bad thing. Haidt’s analysis suggests that these disagreements may grounded in differences of opinion about the causes of inequality rather than differences in moral principle.
Leftists are often accused of supporting the principle of equality of outcomes as if it were a moral principle. But as Haidt argues there is no equality foundation in intuitive ethics. So could it be that this is a straw man argument? Perhaps the real debate should be over the causes and effects of inequality?
I suspect, however, that judgments about causation are fused with judgments about moral responsibility and blame. It seems impossible to restrict debate over the causes of wealth and poverty to empirical issues. For example, if you suggest that some individual characteristic plays a causal role in explaining a person’s poverty, you’ll be accused of ‘blaming the victim’. I wonder whether causal judgments are also mostly intuitive with reasons made up after the fact.