Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Where Liberals Lurk

And if you gaze for long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.


I got to thinking about political dispositions in the mental health professions when I read a recent post by D. G. Myers in A Commonplace Blog. He tries to account for the great preponderance of political liberals in academia, particularly in humanities and social science departments, which is well-documented and has apparently been the case for a long time. I'm not sure I quite agree with his claims, but they are worth reading here (plus a couple of comments from yours truly).

Another group that is predominantly liberal-leaning is mental health professionals. I have remarked about this before and am quite sure that I have seen surveys supporting it, but with limited time and database access I am unable at the moment to summon citations (I welcome suggestions by anyone who knows of any, even if they don't support my supposition). I am not saying that this professional political bias is obviously either good or bad (and certainly not that a liberal therapist is better than a conservative one), but I'm curious as to why it may be. I am not aware of this kind of trend in health care professionals in general (if anything, physicians are popularly associated with more conservate viewpoints on average, although I don't have data for that either--after all, this is a hobby, not a job).

In thinking about this I was reminded for some reason of Jonathan Haidt's work on morality and political worldviews (links to which can be found here). Haidt, a psychologist who has also written extensively on happiness, has argued that both liberals and conservatives place high value on moral and ethical considerations, but that they tend to appeal to different sources of moral significance.

Briefly, Haidt maintains that moral considerations can be divided into five domains, which he describes as: harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity (and he postulates evolutionary roots for each of these). In general meaning these terms are fairly self-explanatory. His central point is that modern ethical thought in the West (which has been the foundation of liberal politics) has focused, disproportionately perhaps, on the first two domains, which pertain to issues of individual autonomy, the well-being of the self, and particularly justice.

According to Haidt, conservative thought does not disregard the domains of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity, but it tends to give equal weight to the other three domains, which relate to the need for collective restraint and clear boundaries of appropriate behavior. For example, political dissent even in tense wartime conditions, which is a basic value of liberalism, is suspect from a conservative point of view due to appeals to loyalty and respect. Liberals and conservatives often cannot agree on a particular issue not because one group is more ethical or even more clear-thinking than the other, but because their moral foundations are different. As a psychologist Haidt is just trying to explain, not to justify; I don't know if he is right, but the categories make intuitive sense to me.

So why would mental health professionals lean toward the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity domains? A possibility that comes to mind is that we tend, on average, to work with people who have been socially marginalized as a result not only of direct illness effects but also of often very powerful social stigma. Autonomy and self-determination are precisely what they struggle with; too little self and not too much (in the true sense of the term) is the issue.

We keep seeing the David half of countless David and Goliath confrontations, so perhaps it is natural for us to be critical of prevailing trends and to stick up for the little guy. Somewhere I read once that the mad are the absolute poor, for they have lost even their minds. And as Myers points out with respect to academia, once a political slant gains ground in a subculture, it often grows more marked with time as members tend to recruit more of their own into the discipline.

Of course, most liberal therapist-types are liberal well before they become therapists. And with respect to the five moral domains, we still have a lot to learn about how people, through whatever vagaries of biology and culture, develop the "courage of their convictions." And these five factors presumably interact with five other factors, those commonly used for psychological profiles (OCEAN: opennness (vs. conventionality); conscientiousness (vs. laxity); extraversion (vs. introversion); agreeability (vs. contentiousness); neuroticism (vs. lack thereof)).

For instance, I have always had a strong aversion to violence, whether toward animals or human beings. What seemed squeamish or even weak to a 13-year-old has become an attribute that I do not apologize for (although I would be a really pathetic Marine). And I have long had a regard for authority that is not, so to speak, excessive. So presumably both psychological and moral factors account for what I do for a living.


vanderleun said...

I note for the record that there are many psychiatrists that do not or refuse to take on conservative or Republican clients.

How crazy is that?

Novalis said...

In this economy? Ha ha.

vanderleun said...

Don't laugh. Even shriks gotta have SOME standards.

vanderleun said...

Shrinks as well as the small tufted Shriks.

And why is my verification word the dreaded "spinsin?"

Novalis said...

It's part of my premium Liberal Blogger platform, for your enjoyment.

Seriously, though, I've never heard of the absurd practice of screening out conservative clients, and I can't say I'd recommend it.

Anonymous said...

Conservatives are driven by fear, liberals by acceptance; so each group's moral considerations will be biased towards preserving those intuitive responses.

Conservatives are more insular and seek to preserve the safety, purity, sanctity of their own group first; and if there is a surplus of goodwill (and provided its secondary allocation does not interfere with their own self-perceived sanctity and status), it will be distributed according to their second tier system of moral considerations applicable to outgroups -- almost as a throwaway afterthought; each valued and favoured in proportion to their likeness to the ingroup.

Liberals are more socially evolved in that their moral considerations are more inclusive of the other.

COnservatives -- whether religious or not -- seem to be propelled by a primal revulsion of anything that presumes the authority of 'God'/nature. Hence the shalllow rejection of biotechnology and its spawn that spoils and supercedes a supposed naturalness of being. I think we all lost any claim to naturalness the day we were born.

Conservatives suffer from a faulty idealism that rejects compromise. Liberals administer to the practical considerations of any given situation, continually adapting and modifying their approach in light of new insights.

Having said that, I'm evolved enough to love and respect my conservative fellow beings as they are entitled to their own personal intuitions and genetic expressions as the next hotheaded liberal who is saving the human race, one soul at a time...maybe 'love' and 'respect' are too strong...tolerate is more appropriate.

Should we tolerate everyone? ...oh god! (if I had one)...maybe I have a demon conservative streak that just wants to lash out and create absolute ideals for living and dying for everyone!

vanderleun said...

Dear Anonymous --

You're nuts.

vanderleun said...

"Seriously, though, I've never heard of the absurd practice of screening out conservative clients, and I can't say I'd recommend it."

I wouldn't recommend it either. And I'd never heard of it or even thought it would happen, when I had a conversation with a therapist on the East Coast who had actually asked around the profession -- and found it a super-majority who professed that they couldn't treat a conservative or a Republican.

Not a statistical sample to be sure, but a broad enough anecdotal base to conclude the syndrome is not, at least, rare.

Novalis said...

Re: "Dear Anonymous -- You're nuts."

Now, now, let's be nice. No ad hominem aspersions please.

As a great liberal once said, "Can't we all just get along?" (Wait, I guess that was Rodney King).

Seriously, the point of the post after all is to suggest that conservatives and liberals are both driven by moral considerations, but arrive at moral conceptions by different routes.

Some of my best friends and closest family are conservatives. The world would be a much less interesting place without conservatives. Okay, here it is: I'm a conservative! (Well, in some respects, and compared to some people, I am).

Seriously again, in psychotherapy there is the real issue of therapist-patient fit. They needn't be demographic clones, but at times a woman or a young person respectively, for instance, might reasonably prefer a female or youngish therapist in hopes of being better understood. Not every mental health professional is a virtuous/bleeding-heart (choose your adjective) liberal, and a good thing too, so one can imagine better or worse matches with respect to political worldview as well.

Novalis said...

Well, as I reread your comment, Anonymous--you might have asked for that one.

I appreciate comments, but please no demonization of persons or groups. As Hamlet said, it out-Herods Herod; pray avoid it.

Still, "nuts" carries special implications in this business, which is full of double-entendres. Not long ago I was talking to someone with chronic schizophrenia who was ambivalent about taking his oral medications, and I wasn't sure I could trust him to do so. "Give me a shot," he pleaded. My reply was "Be careful what you ask for" (he got the joke).

D. G. Myers said...

Thanks for the link to my poor book blog, Novalis.

Whether or not Anonymous is “nuts,” doesn’t he lend some validity to my thesis about the academic Left? What is the upshot of his comment, after all, but that liberals are better than conservatives? (And liberal academics are better than conservative businessman, etc.) You get the picture.

Novalis said...


This is a tough issue, sincerely and passionately believing that one's point of view is objectively superior (as "objectively" as we can manage in this world) without giving in to self-righteousness with respect to those who disagree.

I suppose it may help to appeal to the two senses of respecting another and/or his views. In the strong sense of "respect," one admires another in a sense of emulation and agreement, whereas in another (slightly weaker) sense one "respects" another's legitimate and honorable advocacy of a point of view while disagreeing with its content.

I think that both liberals and conservatives, being, after all, human beings, are equally tempted by smug superiority, which is regrettable.

(My "word verification" for this comment is "heist"--is Blogger trying to tell me something?).

Your Correspondent said...

It is emotionally very difficult to avoid ad hominem comments or analyses.

Stalin's Soviet Union would put people with unacceptable political views into mental hospitals until they had absorbed the right Marxist-Leninist thought.

Not unlike the dismissal form of argument: 'You're nuts!', or 'He's crazy!'. Satisfying, but not logical.

If somebody perceives something differently, it can be natural to ask if they are looking at the same reality, or if something is wrong with their perceptual apparatus.

How different is all that from saying somebody is sexist? Isn't it really a statement about their mental life and an inability to evaluate situations realistically instead of superficially? Likewise for the term racist. Usually, a statement about having impermissible beliefs rather than impermissible behavior.

It should matter whether one's ideas are congruent to reality, rather than commenting on the mental faculties of the speaker.

And aren't people who have homophobia people who have something wrong with them? Is pseudo-diagnosis really an acceptable form of political argument?

It's tough to make a good case for something, when being vicious is so much easier, and feels so good.

D. G. Myers said...

I am not sure, Novalis, that superior is the word you want. You say, “This is a tough issue, sincerely and passionately believing that one's point of view is objectively superior . . . without giving in to self-righteousness with respect to those who disagree.” But I can believe that my argument (about Leftists in academe, for example) is valid without thinking that it is superior to yours.

Mistaken views might even be described as “superior” to mine. More epistemically advanced, better informed—but still mistaken.

Feelings of superiority are a kind of political narcissism. I look upon myself as the kind of person who should be anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic. Isn’t it obvious, after all, that “people who have homophobia . . . have something wrong with them”—so obvious I don’t need to make the argument. (And as I commented elsewhere on my own blog, moralism is a category mistake in political discussion.) I am not saying that I do not really care about women, blacks, and gays; merely that they are supporting players in my own personal drama where I rationalize my own lack of status and influence by caring for others beside myself.

vanderleun said...

In the spirit of Richard Nixon, I would like to make one thing perfectly clear.

My comment, "You're nuts." was not meant as "ad hominem aspersion." It was a passionless and non-judgmental diagnosis.

Rest assured that when it comes to ad hominem aspersions I stand second to none. But scanning over the response by "Anon" (as these cut and paste commenters so often style themselves) I perceived the usual strawmen waiting soaked in gasoline to be ignited... and I thought, "Why bother? The fellows concepts and 'ideas' are so obviously a danger to others and himself that commitment is the only possible solution." Hence a diagnosis in order to speed the day.

Regarding the "Haidt domains" I did make some notes on those and may have something more to say as time allows. I only note, in brief, that the pairings proposed are 1) A bit too pat when it comes to discussing the human psyche in the poltical world, and 2) It is possible to see each pairing as operating in a beneficial or perverse way. It is, as most would agree, possible to show care for someone by taking an action that causes harm, It is also possible to harm someone by caring.

Novalis said...

Well, I suppose there are two basic components of political questions: what is the nature of the good life, and how best to get there? The first is a matter of values and ends, the second a matter of means and mechanisms.

So liberals and conservatives can agree on certain aspects of financial well-being but disagree about whether, say, welfare is conducive or detrimental to that well-being (we know who won that argument, and it wasn't liberals). I think that's what you mean by harming by caring.

But other ends and values issues are far harder to decide. Is a world in which women control their reproductive freedom better or worse than one in which no unborn child is aborted? Tough to say.

Just an example--let's not discuss abortion!

dienw said...

Your post returns me to yesteryear, back to the late seventies and the eighties, wherein I had many a conversation at an off campus coffee shop with psychology faculty and graduate students.

Two conversations stand out at the moment: the first was when a professor expressed his astonishment that I, despite being an artist and poor, would support free enterprise instead of being, as he was, a Marxist; the second conversation was when I discussed the concept of ambiguity with a long term graduate student. The latter conversation lasted about an hour or so; and afterward, in response, so I was later told, he walked across the street to the bar and got dead drunk.

vanderleun said...

"I suppose there are two basic components of political questions: what is the nature of the good life, and how best to get there? "

That's two "nice" components to political life, but there is a third, more constant, component as referenced by Lewis Carroll:

`The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master -- that's all.'

Power is, after all, an end in itself.

As for: "Is a world in which women control their reproductive freedom better or worse than one in which no unborn child is aborted? "

I'd argue from the third way which is neither liberal nor conservative: "Abortion should be legal and yet seen as wrong."

Which is pretty much where that discussion is coming to rest.

As to the basic dichotomy of liberal/conservative, I more and more feel that this is outmoded and unproductive. That there needs to be, and indeed is, a third way. Not a third party, but a third way. Which is, among the two parties, pretty much what the Republican party is waiting for as it dissolves.

vanderleun said...

For NJArtist, I would point you towards

Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?

by Robert Nozick

A fragment:

"Wordsmith intellectuals fare well in capitalist society; there they have great freedom to formulate, encounter, and propagate new ideas, to read and discuss them. Their occupational skills are in demand, their income much above average. Why then do they disproportionately oppose capitalism? Indeed, some data suggest that the more prosperous and successful the intellectual, the more likely he is to oppose capitalism. This opposition to capitalism is mainly "from the left" but not solely so. Yeats, Eliot, and Pound opposed market society from the right."

Anonymous said...

May I clear the air before I choke on Gerard's self-righteousness?

For the record, merely outlining a set of propensities that define (on average, give or take the occasional aberration) the motivations behind conservative/liberal thought does not -- by implication -- constitute a self-characterisation of smug superiority. It is just a statement of facts/opinions/observations; an elaboration of concepts susceptible to cultural, religious, or political interpretation as either positive or negative.

The colour green is not inherently bad or good, it's just a function of reflective physical laws and our photoreceptors. Similarly, being driven by fear is not necessarily interpretative of negativity; nor is it fundamentally a good thing. Fear is evolutionarily adaptive; and as a function of conservative motivation (just a side note: conservative brains show more of a startle response as compared to liberal brains, when subject to a fear stimulus) it promotes preservation of oneself and safety of kin. So by that definition, one could define it as a positive attribute.

On the other hand, acceptance could be perceived and interpreted as a negative if it leads a hapless liberal into being hoodwinked by a conniving sociopath.

I did in fact make a concession to respecting/tolerating others' viewpoints and modes of being -- this is decidedly not self-righteous.

Oh, and thanks for the diagnosis Gerard...
You do realise I'm not just a martyr to the liberal cause but in actual fact the second incarnation of God?... and ye will be judged and found wanting when the bowels of your ideology splinter and crucify your heathen soul along with all your other reprobate kin...light my fire !...ha ha ha

I like free speech; we are truly blessed to be able to suffer the vagaries of intolerance in all its tongue lashing beauty!

And all this on the safety of a psychiatrist's couch.

Look after us Novalis, lest we stray too far on the side of irreason..

vanderleun said...

"May I clear the air before I choke on Gerard's self-righteousness?"

No you may not. I'm sorry but your time is up.

Anonymous said...


I understand, accept, and am tolerant of you and your pollution.

While I'm waiting for the men in white coats to bundle me into the back of their van, I'll bide my time by adding my own brand of pollution to the lacking ideological atmosphere.

Let's see who chokes first...

Novalis said...

And on that note, thanks everyeone for coming. Do tune in next time!