Where the Magic Happens

A quick follow-up Q&A to some comments received (both publicly and directly) on this post. The comments and questions have been heavily paraphrased.

But what actually is moral capital? That doesn’t seem to be what those words mean.

I’m using it per Haidt, and I agree the definition he gives isn’t quite in line with what you’d maybe intuit based on the words “moral” and “capital”. In The Righteous Mind he defines it fairly precisely but also fairly technically. I won’t quote it here, but this link has the relevant pages. Better yet, the New York Times has a decent paraphrase: “norms, prac­tices and institutions, like religion and family values, that facilitate cooperation by constraining individualism”. Between the two of them those links do a pretty decent job sketching out the full idea.

But is it really true that societies with more moral capital are healthier, happier, more efficient etc? What specific claims are you making?

I am unfortunately running off of intuition and some half-remembered bits of Haidt’s book (now returned to the library), but I can at least gesture in the right direction. There’s lots of work showing that belonging to a tightly-knit social community is good for happiness and mental health. Think religious communities, or very small towns; the most stereotypical examples in my mind (combining both religion and small town) are an Israeli kibbutz, or an Amish village. If I remember correctly, Lost Connections by Johann Hari has a good summary of a bunch of this research and related arguments.

Similarly, there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence in the business world (it’s a more recent phenomenon there so I don’t know if it’s been formally studied yet) that the most competitive and efficient businesses are the ones that can foster this kind of belonging in their employees. It’s certainly working for Netflix and Shopify.

Being highly aligned and high in moral capital doesn’t prevent conflict or “bad politics” though?

It definitely doesn’t prevent conflict. It definitely does help prevent bad politics. In a high-moral-capital political environment, the conflicts that arise will be about means, not ends. It might be instructive to look at, for example, progressive and conservative opinions on safe injection sites. Progressives tend to believe in reducing harm. As such, two progressives debating safe injection sites will be able to have a well-reasoned and fairly trust-based debate about whether safe injection sites, or harsher penalties for possession, or this, or that, will have the best effect of reducing harm. They have different means, but the same end, so they ultimately feel like they’re on the same side.

Conservatives, on the other hand, are worried not just about the individual harm of drug use, but also its effect on moral capital. To a conservative, safe injection sites are likely a non-starter because while they do reduce harm, they have the net effect of enabling drug use and the concomitant erosion of moral capital. A conservative and a progressive debating safe injection sites are looking for fundamentally different things, a gap which is much harder to bridge with social trust.

Isn’t there a middle ground between a perfectly aligned but un-free society, and one that devolves into anarchy?

Of course there is, and I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. We are, quite literally, living it. But since I was writing for a primarily progressive audience who wants to move towards more personal freedom, I tried to emphasize the conservative side of the argument more. There are dangers in too much personal freedom, and advantages in requiring some conformity from a group.

How exactly is this a utilitarian argument for conservative politics? Your argument missed a step somewhere.

Yup, sorry, I over-summarized. To be a bit more explicit:

  • Societies with more moral capital tend to be happier, healthier, more efficient, etc. than their counterparts with less. This is what utilitarians want.
  • Conservative policies tend to focus on creating moral capital, at the expense of personal freedoms and preventing harm.
  • Progressive policies tend to focus on personal freedoms and preventing harm, at the cost of destroying moral capital.

(Obviously utilitarians tend to want to boost personal freedom and prevent harm too. As I mentioned in the previous post, it’s a matter more of priorities than of absolute preference.)

Progressives want as few people to suffer as possible even if it inconveniences the majority, while Conservatives want to promote sameness and fairness as much as possible even if some people slip through the cracks.

Not actually a question, but a really good paraphrase of part of the argument I’m presenting here, and part of the argument Haidt makes in his book. It misses some dimensions (e.g. weighing personal freedom of choice into the mix for progressives, not just the avoidance of suffering), but very broadly Haidt is pointing out this distinction and then saying roughly “either side is terrible when taken to its ultimate extreme; we must find a balance”.

The Needs of the Many

This post is the third of what will likely be a series growing out of my thoughts on Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”. Here are the first and the second.

Spock: The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Kirk: Or the one.

–  Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Ah, Star Trek. Remember when Star Trek used to be considered progressive? I do, or at least the tail end of that era. Nowadays quotes like this feel oddly conservative in certain contexts. Today’s progressive viewpoint is all about the tyranny of the majority, breaking down power structures, and ensuring that everybody is free and valued equally in all of their diversity.

Most days, without thinking too hard, I manage to believe in both of these viewpoints. I believe in fighting for a world where people are treated equally without regard for their race, their gender, their religion, their culture. And I believe that when given no other choice, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. If one must suffer to save the village, then so be it.

But there is a conflict here.

It’s one thing to believe in the needs of the many from a personal perspective, and to freely make that personal sacrifice for the greater good. It is quite another to believe in it absolutely, and to therefore bless the tyranny of the majority as a net utilitarian positive. It’s actually kinda funny, since I tend to think of progressives as the more utilitarian, while conservatives are more deontological, but in this case it’s the progressive camp that clings to the right of personal freedom and the conservatives arguing for utilitarianism. Further proof, I suppose, of Haidt’s claim that neither moral theory is particularly well-aligned with human moral instincts.

In contrast with the quote from Star Trek, here’s a quote from a modern progressive TV show:

Tan: What’s wrong with wanting something that you just want, not that you need?

Joey: The way I grew up, I got it in the back of my head that that was selfish, you know, and so maybe that’s something I need to unlearn.

– Queer Eye: Season 3 Episode 2 (2019)

Thirty-seven years later, the progressive viewpoint is no longer “for the greater good”. Instead it’s become “for the personal good”. I want to be clear here that regardless of politics, basically nobody regards “the greater good” or “the personal good” as fundamentally bad. It’s just a matter of priorities: where before the greater good was seen as more important than the personal (when they even conflicted), now it is the reverse.

This raises another more interesting point though: when do the greater good and the personal good conflict in real life? Opponents of utilitarianism have lots of thought experiments they like to trot out at this point (for example, killing one healthy person against their will in order to harvest their organs and save five others). But these scenarios are oddly empty of the practical, day-to-day moral decisions that people tend to make in real life.

One of Haidt’s principle goals in The Righteous Mind is to clearly articulate the value systems of both progressives and conservatives in a way that is, if not precisely “objective”, at least fair and understandable to both sides of that debate. It is this articulation which brings him to the idea of a society’s “moral capital”, which is itself the linchpin of this conflict between the greater and the personal good. Interestingly I accidentally hit upon a very rough definition of “moral capital” myself in an off-hand comment a few years ago, so here’s me quoting myself:

[S]ocio-cultural conformance is a powerful force multiplier because it builds trust and lets people work towards implicit common goals. Society can afford and absorb some people who break the mold, but eventually the system decoheres.

Another way this sometimes gets talked about is through the phrase “Highly Aligned and Loosely Coupled”, which (I believe?) started out in Netflix’s culture document and has now made its way into a bunch of other corporate cultures. A group of people, whether a tribe or a company or a country, who are closely aligned on their long-term goals as a group, can afford much less internal communication and “bad politics”, and end up both more efficient and happier. Now, “alignment” and “conformance” have fairly different connotations in terms of amount of freedom, but practically they end up meaning the same thing: everybody believes the same thing and has the same shared vision of the future.


I admit to wandering around between a couple of different concepts so far, but here’s where we tie it all together. Haidt’s “moral capital” is in a very real sense “the greater good”. A highly aligned, highly conformant society is generally happier, healthier, and more efficient than one in which every social interaction has to start from first principles and deal with the risk of the unknown. The cost of this greater good is, of course, the personal good: a highly conformant society sucks for people who don’t want to conform, either because they have a specific different set of values or just because they’re generally non-conformist. Conversely though, a totally free society where personal good is king becomes anarchy, which ends up being bad for everybody. It’s a very weird kind of prisoner’s dilemma game we’re playing with each other.

At its heart this whole essay has been a strong utilitarian argument for conservative politics. Since I have a lot of friends who are both utilitarian and fairly progressive, I’m curious to see the hot water this gets me in 🙂

P.S. I realize this never really tied back into culturism like I promised in that post. It’ll bubble to the top of my brain again, I think.

This post sparked a bunch of confusion and good questions; a follow-up post addressing some of that is here.