The Necessity of Social Consensus



After the demonstrations and deaths in Charlottesville, Virginia the excited 8/15/17 CNN political commentators started yelling at each other. Why has the U.S. political dialogue broken down?


In modern societies, the economic assets of land, labor and capital are valued and embedded in impersonal markets, which coordinate self-interested economic activity. Adam Smith described this then emerging English economic system in The Wealth of Nations (1776). But Smith also valued equally The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), which described more general social behaviors,. On the first page he writes, “As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation.” In doing so, he attributed broader social behaviors to his famous (first-order) sympathy principle.


The global success of the modern economic system now requires a re-think in some developed liberal societies of how the market system can better benefit the broader society.


In 2007, the social psychologists Haidt and Graham of the University of Virginia published an article titled, “When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives have Moral Intuitions that Liberals may not Recognize.” They write, “…the moral domain is usually much broader, encompassing many more aspects of social life and valuing institutions as much or more than individuals….there are five psychological systems that provide the foundations for the world’s many moralities.” *


All societies have moral ideas of what is right, just or proper. For instance, in ancient Greece, justice meant fair social judgment  - a motivating idea carried through the U.S. legal system. Professor Haidt suggests that any particular notion of morality, in turn, rests upon five psychological foundations that enable them to detect and react emotionally to “…(produce) …reactions of liking or disliking when certain patterns are perceived in the social world. Cultures then vary in the degree to which they construct, value, and teach virtues based on the five intuitive foundations.” ** These are care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect and purity/sanctity; the first three can be taken as specific examples of Smith’s sympathy principle.


The authors asked 1,613 people to rate the relevance of these intuitive foundations to their moral judgements of right or wrong. They found the results can be placed upon a continuum. By comparing the responses of the most self-described liberals with the most self-described conservatives, they found that the most liberal rated concerns of care and fairness (to individuals) the most important when deciding whether something was right or wrong. In contrast, the most conservative rated also important community issues such as ingroup standards, authority and not being ruled by the passions. Liberals value most individual autonomy, and conservatives value most the community. The following graph reproduces the first in the study:


The above finding is also the conclusion of contemporary political philosopher, Yuval Levin. ***


The reestablishment of a political dialogue in Washington requires knowing and respecting the assumptions of your opponent. Liberals do not entirely reject the communitarian aspects of the United States. Conservatives do not reject the ideas of broadened individual opportunities and that government beyond defense is necessary. Normal social discourse has some balance because there are practical problems to be solved by invoking various considerations.


Cooperation will be necessary to meet the large-scale challenges of globalization, automation and demographics. Only a social consensus can result in programs that build infrastructure, conduct R&D, provide affordable healthcare…and help individual states develop prosperous and diversified economies. Hate, violence and extremism makes these impossible. Extremism is the result of wounded communities; the Mideast is an example.




* Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham; “When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions that Liberals may not Recognize”; Social Justice Research; Vol. 20; No. 1; March, 2007; p. 98.


** Ibid, p. 104.


*** Yuval Levin; “The Great Debate” (between Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke); Basic Books; New York, N.Y.; 2014; p. 220.