Friday, October 19, 2012

Autistic libertarians?

Emily Esfahani Smith, associate editor at The New Criterion, wrote a provocative article for the Washington Times, in which she pored over data and conclusions from the "largest study of libertarians to date, 'Understanding Libertarian Morality,' published recently in the scientific journal PLOS ONE." One of the study's authors was Jonathan Haidt, whose work has been noted on Montana Headlines before.

The study identified six core moral principles: care, liberty, fairness, sanctity, loyalty and authority. Liberals "relied on the first three" in Haidt's study, conservatives relied on all six, and libertarians really only used liberty as a guiding light.

Smith has some choice quotes from Ayn Rand that indicate she is not surprised at the findings, especially those involving Rand's view of the fundamental immorality of altruism. (I wrote only once using Rand in the title of the post, and found that doing so attracts argumentative Randians like manure attracts flies -- dropping her name will attract plenty of folks to the comments thread of Smith's article, to be sure...)

The entire article is worth reading because of the nice summary of Haidt's data, but the most interesting part was this:

According to the study, libertarians showed lower than other groups on levels of loving feelings toward their families, friends, romantic partners and generic others...

The libertarian style of thinking can even verge, in extreme cases, on autism.

The University of Cambridge-based psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, a leading autism researcher, famously has shown that people with autism exhibit two critical features: They test exceptionally low on empathizing scales and exceptionally high on systemizing ones. Empathizing governs social relationships — Are you able to relate to other people? — while systemizing governs understanding and analysis of the outside world. Everyone falls somewhere on the empathizing-systemizing scale.

Libertarians score very low on the empathizing scale and very high on the systemizing scale. In other words, they are highly rational moral thinkers, less emotional than both conservatives and liberals. Two of the leading moral thinkers of Western history — utilitarian Jeremy Bentham and deontologist Immanuel Kant — were also incredibly gifted systemizers but deficient empathizers. Today, Bentham and arguably Kant might be diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.

Smith notes that some have (unsurprisingly) objected to the conclusions. The final paragraph contains this:

Legal scholar Richard Epstein, Mr. Haidt’s colleague at New York University, agrees, noting that libertarians make a distinction between the political and personal world when responding to such questionnaires.

This is an important point, because it complements something that the lead author of the study said:

Any ideology or philosophy, taken to an extreme, likely resembles some pathology or another...


Ed Kemmick said...

How dare you traduce the memory of Ayn Rand, one of the most brilliant, prescient, trenchant, perspicacious, penetrating, ingenious thinkers in the whole history of the world. I am sending a link to your hated-filled diatribe to 2 million of my closest Libertarian friends.

Brad Anderson said...

You know how I can tell you aren't a real Randian? You said "one of." OK, so maybe they think John Galt is even more brilliant, but he's a cartoon character and doesn't really count