Affirmative action for conservative academics?

Back in 2016, some students at Emory University were so traumatized by the appearance of pro-Trump slogans, written in chalk on various sidewalks on campus, that they called upon the administration to investigate the incident as one of “hate speech.” The thought that an entire university campus should constitute a safe space, in which students might be insulated from any expression of support for one of the two major U.S. political parties, struck many as being in tension with the ideal of the university as a forum for the open exchange of ideas. At the same time, the fact that the existence of Trump supporters in their midst could have so alarmed these students shows how unusual or rare the expression of political disagreement has already become at certain U.S. colleges. The fact is, you can search far and wide in American academia, without finding a single Trump supporter, or even a political conservative.

Now that Trump is president, many U.S. academics have found themselves in a peculiar situation, of wanting to fulminate against Trump, but having no real interlocutors – there is simply no one around to debate any of the issues, because no one is willing to defend Trump (and in many cases, no one is willing to defend the Republican party, or the conservative movement more generally). Small colleges in particular risk becoming left-wing echo chambers, in which people sit around complaining about neoliberalism, and everyone just nods their head in agreement, or else engages in the usual game of competitive left-wing oneupmanship. Apart from being intellectually stultifying, this also gets boring rather quickly, as well as generating a heightened sense of uselessness.

It has also provoked a certain amount of soul-searching, about how universities got to be this way. Naturally, this being the United States, the suggestion that springs most readily to mind is that it is a consequence of discrimination against conservatives. And of course, this being the United States, this has led to the call in some quarters for an affirmative action policy, aimed at increasing the representation of political conservatives in American academia. The most prominent advocate of this view has been the psychologist Jonathan Haidt.

My own view is that the “left-wing echo chamber” problem is real, particularly in the United States, although to a lesser degree in Canada, and that something should be done about it, but that the affirmative action model is a bad way of approaching things. The core problem, I think, is conservative anti-rationalism (often billed as “common sense” conservatism), which long predates Donald Trump. Rational conservative ideologies, such as libertarianism, are not underrepresented in the academy – on the contrary, they are probably over-represented, relative to their actual support in the population. What is underrepresented in the academy, for obvious reasons, is the version of conservatism that scorns expertise in all forms and takes political positions that are only sustainable if one discounts both empirical evidence and rational argument.

First though a comment on Haidt’s proposal. I wasn’t surprised to hear this, coming from him. When evaluating any proposal, it is important always to consider the source. The problem with Haidt is that 1. he is a moral noncognitivist, and 2. he is a moralist about politics. According to Haidt, all of our moral convictions are fundamentally irrational, a consequence of a set of emotional dispositions. He claims that evolution has endowed us with a set of six basic reactive dispositions (or primitive “intuitions” about social interaction): care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and purity. He compares these to the six different tastes that we experience from food. There is, however, variation with respect to these six moral tastes, with different people naturally tending to experience them with different intensity levels, as well as developing in social environments in which some are privileged at the expense of others. The political convictions that one winds up holding, he claims, are a consequence of the particular configuration of moral tastes that one has. In particular, he claims that “liberalism” is a consequence of a lopsided emphasis on just two, care/harm and fairness, while “conservatism” involves a more even-handed consideration of all six.

When you think through the consequences of this view, it’s easy to see why Haidt wants to see an affirmative action program for conservatives. On his view, “being a conservative” is a personal trait not all that different from race – it is a consequence of an inherited biological disposition. Thus conservatives can take comfort from the assurance that, as Lady Gaga put it, “I’m on the right track baby, I was born this way.” Furthermore, on this view there is essentially no connection between academic study, or rational inquiry, and the sort of political positions that individuals take. On Haidt’s view, normative discourse is essentially confabulatory. This rules out the possibility that becoming more educated might make a person more liberal – on the contrary, “liberal” theories, such as the political philosophy of John Rawls (say), are just made-up stories, which liberals tell themselves in order to rationalize their prior moral convictions, which are ultimately grounded in a set of pre-rational sentiments (or “intuitions”). As a result, the only explanation for the fact that more educated people tend to be more liberal must be the existence of systematic discrimination against conservatives in the education system.

Thus it is important to see that Haidt’s view on conservatives in academia follows rather directly from two quite radical positions that he takes, the first being an extreme form of moral noncognitivism (claiming that there is no rational basis for anyone’s moral commitments), and the second a strong form of moralism about politics (claiming that one’s position on the liberal-conservative political spectrum is a consequence of one’s unchosen moral commitments). Both are claims that I disagree with. I wrote a rather long book trying to explain my own, contrary view, but the executive summary would go something like this. Consider the matter from the perspective of dual-process psychology (a view recently popularized by Daniel Kahneman, for which Haidt has some sympathy as well). Thanks to the influence of the “common sense” movement, contemporary conservatism often amounts to an endorsement of “intuition” (or “system 1”) outputs over “reason” (or “system 2”). And since education is primarily an exercise in the development of “system 2” resources, it tends naturally to crowd out conservatism. Despite all the blah-blah about postmodernism taking over the academy, the fact remains that universities are deeply committed to the Enlightenment project of advancing and promoting the exercise of reason – not just doctrinally, but in every aspect of their institutional structure – and as a result, they tend to crowd out various forms of antirationalism, not just by excluding people committed to it, but by “curing” them of it, by pointed out the various combinations of error and misery that it so often leads to.

(There are, I should note, a few important exceptions to this point about conservative antirationalism – cases where conservatives take unintuitive, “system 2” perspectives, and the left-wing tends to embrace the more intuitive, or “system 1” perspective. It is important to observe, however, that in such cases, the conservative view tends not to be underrepresented in academia. I’ll get to this in a bit.)

Let me provide just one example of the impact of the conservative commitment to “common sense,” which is the field of criminology, a field that tends to be skewed pretty far in a “liberal” direction. I pick this field in part because it is not a bad case, as far as being charitable to Haidt’s analysis, because a lot of our commitment to punishment is a consequence of a retributivist impulse, which has all the signs of being an evolutionary adaptation, and thus a non-rational, intuitive response. It also appears to be subject to some variance in the population, with different people appearing to experience it with different intensity levels. And finally, the strength of retributivist sentiment is associated with conservative political alignment.

And yet, the more educated people are, generally speaking, the less committed they become to retributive criminal justice policies. Why? Because the criminal justice system is not purely retributive, it also has to deal with broader policy issues, involving both deterrence and recidivism. Our goal is not to have a punishment system that satisfies our visceral desire for revenge, but also one that is effective at controlling crime. And when it comes to assessing the effectiveness of different crime control policies, our “intuitions” are subject to a very well-known and significant bug, which is that we vastly overestimate the power of punishment, relative to the motivational force of rewards. So if one starts to collect data and to develop “evidence-based” criminal justice policies, this will tend to encourage a shift away from “sticks” toward “carrots.” Many policies that, from an intuitive perspective, seem to involve “coddling” criminals, will turn out to be the most effective from a crime-control perspective. And thus one will wind endorsing a less punitive, which is to say, more “liberal,” criminal justice system. As a result, “liberal” views are often due not to a lopsided emphasis on one moral “taste” – as Haidt would have it – but rather on a rational evaluation of the evidence on crime deterrence. Education is therefore more likely to produce a shift toward more liberal views. People who have conservative views on crime and punishment need not be discriminated against by the education system, rather, the effect of education will be to attenuate their conservatism.

(Note that not everyone who holds liberal views on these questions will have adopted them as a consequence of an impartial evaluation of this evidence – some will adopt them in an unreasoning fashion, through essentially social mechanisms of belief propagation. Their irrationalism will tend to fly “under the radar,” however, because the conclusions they espouse are ones that are at least consistent with the views that one would be likely to hold after an impartial assessment of the evidence. Those who hold contrary views, by contrast, will tend to be exposed, and the force of evidence brought to bear upon them.)

This is, I should mention, not entirely a left vs. right thing. For instance, the right-wing commitment to free trade is a consequence of a rather counterintuitive, rational argument (what Paul Krugman calls “Ricardo’s difficult idea.”) The left, in this case, has the most intuitively accessible position (hence the popularity of left-wing anti-globalization). But note that, when it comes to free trade, the right-wing position is not underrepresented in the academy – the vast majority of economists support it in some form. The problem is with right-wing ideas that have no empirical or rational support. For instance, the common conservative conviction about the importance of “traditional family values” is largely unsupported by any sort of empirical evidence. On the contrary, family environment seems to be subject to a sort of minimum threshold of adequacy, beyond which it does not contribute much to social stability, law-abidingness, self-management, career success, etc.

Finally, it is worth noting that the rise of “populist” conservatism is inevitably going to exacerbate the problem of under-representation of conservatives in the academy, because the central feature of this populism, at least in its Trumpian variant, is that it jettisons all of the remaining rationalist components in contemporary conservatism. Most obviously, it rejects free trade, migration, and is even lukewarm on the rule of law. It also draws its primary basis of support from the uneducated. As a result, it is absurd to expect the university system to be neutral with respect to its proponents.

So all this is a way of explaining why I do not think the affirmative action model is a good way of thinking about the “left-wing echo chamber” problem. At the same time, it is important to recognize that it is a problem. Canada not quite as bad, partly just because universities all very large and thus inevitably more pluralistic – although there are some exceptions (Trent comes to mind). It is also because we hire so many Americans, who tend to be to the right of the Canadian population on many issues (keeping in mind that Barack Obama is slightly to the right of the political centre in Canada.) At the same time, there is genuine underrepresentation of conservatives. I can think of only three colleagues off-hand who self-identify as right-wing. (Because of this, I can’t tell you how often I find myself being the most right-wing person in the room, in what is supposed to be an academic seminar or research talk, but is essentially a left-wing kaffeeklatsch. Intellectually this is unhealthy, because it produces a situation in which people on the left have no idea how to argue with others who do not already substantially share their basic political views.)

So what is the solution? There is, I think, one general trend and one policy option, both of which can counteract the tendency. First, there is the simple fact that people become more conservative as they get older, and as a result, even left-wing professors are less left-wing than their own, earlier selves. As a result, they actually tend to be more effective at dislodging ultra-leftist students from their more dogmatic views. There tends to be an assumption, in Haidt’s approach, that exposure to conservative professors will have a moderating effect on left-wing students. This seems dubious to me. Explicitly conservative professors often provoke an oppositional mentality among students, and merely polarize debate. Formerly ultra-leftist but now moderately leftist professors, by contrast, are more likely to be trusted by left-wing students, and thus are more likely to broaden their perspectives. (Put it this way: which group of professors is more effective at curing students of a juvenile romance with Marxism, self-identified Austrians, or former Marxists but now social-democrats? The answer seems to me obvious, it’s the former Marxists, because they can sympathetically and non-polemically explain what is wrong with the view.)

The second suggestion is more of a policy. It seems to me that the teaching of intellectual history has an inherently conservative bias (in a good way!). The most effective antidote, in my view, to the latest version of contemporary ultraleftism is to teach the underlying source of the ideas, to show that current views are based on theories, which people have not always believed, and that may turn out to be wrong. Furthermore, teaching the historical origins of contemporary ideas invariably situates them in a field of contestation – when you read them as theories, instead of moral certainties propagated through Twitter, it is impossible not to notice that they are contested, that they are based on arguments, and that there are different ways of looking at things. One problem with many small U.S. colleges (I have noticed) is that they don’t teach enough history, they only teach the latest trendy theories.

So what I am saying, in brief, is that the solution to the underrepresentation of conservatives in academia is simply to redouble our commitment to traditional humanistic education. That is a response, I should note, that would satisfy any true conservative.


Affirmative action for conservative academics? — 12 Comments

  1. Much of the absence of conservatives from academia can be explained in terms of the Big 5 personality model:

    1. The main predictor of political conservatism is low Openness to Experience. People who are low in Openness to Experience are not interested in ideas. People who are low in Openness to Experience also tend to be lower in IQ. People who are low IQ and have little interest in ideas make for poor academics.
    2. The second biggest predictor of political conservatism is high Orderliness (a subfactor of Conscientiousness). Orderly people are dutiful and practical, and therefore tend to self-select out of academia.
    3. Due to 1 and 2, academia tends to skew left, creating an environment that is unwelcoming to conservative ideas.
    4. Finally, a minority of left wing academics actively discriminate against conservative graduate students.
    5. 3 and 4 accelerate 2.

    Libertarianism, incidentally, is a form of liberalism, and, psychologically, libertarians tend to be more like liberals than conservatives. What distinguishes them is that they tend to be less Agreeable and/or higher in IQ. Libertarians may be right wing in the sense that they are more tolerant of inequality than other kinds of liberals, but they aren’t conservatives. Their tendency towards social liberalism also makes them less unwelcome in academia.

    Academia might benefit from trying to recruit more high Openness, high Orderliness people (the two traits are completely orthogonal). But it is a fools errand trying to turn low Openness people into academics.

  2. “When evaluating any proposal, it is important always to consider the source.”

    No, actually, it isn’t. A proposal stands or falls on its own merits. To evaluate an argument or proposal, rather than mere testimony (in which the credibility of the speaker could be a factor) by reference to the source rather than the argument or proposal itself is to commit the ad hominem fallacy.

    If both sides were to play by this method, there would be no real critical discussion at all, and both sides could dismiss the other without listening to what is being said. In fact, sad to say, ignorance of this rudimentary fallacy is causing just that to happen.

  3. Joseph, all this talk of being able to sympathize but fundamentally disagree with others brings to mind previous comments you’ve made about Noam Chomsky. Please, as someone with some empathy for what Chomsky argues but disagrees with their form, post your critique of his worldview!

  4. Regarding “the simple fact that people become more conservative as they get older,” how does this jive with your identification of “the core problem [of] conservative anti-rationalism”? Do you really want to claim that older people are less rational?

    I admit that, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve tended towards greater intellectual humility. But I took this to be a sign of wisdom. Have I been fooling myself?

  5. I think you exaggerate how far a “rational examination of the evidence” can take us. Most policies have a multiplicity of effects, some good and some bad. Even if we’ve determined empirically what all those effects will be, we have to decide whether the good ones outweigh the bad ones or vice versa, e.g. does the greater promotion of the public good warrant this infringement of individual rights? No “examination of the evidence” will help with that; it calls for a moral/political judgement, a weighing of values or prima facie duties, which liberals and conservatives may make differently. In fact, they do that all the time.

    • I would like to echo Prof. Hurka’s excellent point. Although we should strive for “rational examination of evidence” as much as possible, it is far from a panacea. The whole process is not very useful unless people can agree on the goals/ends as well as their weighting. It is now already a trite saying that “reasonable people can disagree on a host of issues”. I think it would be dangerous to conceive the concept of “reasonable” too narrowly.

      Reading between the lines (or in the lines), I sense that you would like people’s political opinions to gravitate toward the centre—whatever that may be—and, in particular, contain the far left and far right. I am very sympathetic to that idea. But it does raise again the question of what is reasonable, and how should we balance political pluralism with political moderation. This is just one of many examples that shows the limits of “rational examination of evidence”.

  6. I think either Haidt changed his mind or has a more expansive “affirmative action” in mind which isn’t literally affirmative action but “anything that increases viewpoint diversity”, judging from recent comments. It also seems questionable to me that the motivation follows specifically from a his moral foundations theory considering many of the arguments he gives in favor of viewpoint diversity are either out of Mill or more recent “interactionist” views. Haidt has talked a lot less about confabulation recently and more about lawyering so either moral foundations theory is compatible with social coordination in his mind or he doesn’t feel as strongly as he once did about the deflationary consequences of the elephant and rider metaphor. We could also imagine a variety of reasons for convergence of viewpoints which have little connection with the scientific status of psychological traits that are connected to political disposition.

  7. Excellent piece. I do try my best in my classes to rehabilitate the burkean path of careful reforms while keeping in mind existing cultures and relationships. The danger of academia collapsing into constant outbidding for evermore radical and self-righteous views is real. If real-life right-wing ideology can no longer play this rational and moderating role, then I agree we are in need of such affirmative action in Universities.

  8. Trouble is that many academics are invested in framing the whole enterprise of the university to exclude any departures from left-wing dogma.

    For instance, when the University of Toronto recently held an event titled “Social Inequality: Is it a Real Problem? Can it be Solved?”, the event attracted some student protests. That would have been fair enough, except that in response the Chair of the Department of Political Science wrote to apologize for the whole event, suggesting that the title of the event was wrong, declaring her “regret” over the “hurt” that it caused, and implying that she saw her job as Chair to involve preventing such events from being organized in the future:

    At no point did the Chair ever suggest that she would work to protect research which concluded that in fact inequality (or some of its manifestations) might not necessarily be a problem, and never did she say that would-be protestors’ “hurt” is not a sufficient cause for shutting down any given set of arguments. (It’s true that such arguments can in fact still be found in academic research, and there are some great examples at UofT itself – although, notably, not any in the Department of Political Science, where the Chair’s statement can be presumed to have a substantial chilling effect over any potential wrongthink in the future.)

    So whether or not conservatives should be “represented” in academia is one question (I don’t see it as a pressing concern). But getting academics to admit that any form of dissent from left-wing dogma should even be permitted under any circumstances is another question. I don’t see how that problem is going to be fixed.

    Part of the problem here may be the extent to which academics have a kind of inflated sense of their own importance. Consider the recent controversy over the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College inviting a member of Germany’s far-right AfD party to speak:

    The academics who protested the invitation seem to think that inviting the speaker legitimizes the party. This is crazy. Academics have been stigmatizing parties like the AfD for decades. Bard College is not going to legitimize them. It’s millions of votes and sitting in the Bundestag that did that. But too many academics want to sit in conference rooms where a commitment to anything less than open borders is presumed to be racist, and therefore inadmissible, by everyone involved. The failure of that position to gain traction in the real world just leads to doubling-down on dogma.

  9. Do you have any recommended reading on the empirical import of a traditional family structure for the outcomes you mentioned?

  10. Great piece. Just a few concerns. You may be misrepresenting Haidt’s metaethical views. He calls himself (in “The Righteous Mind” at least) a Durkheimian utilitarian. Perhaps that is just a nuanced description of his moral tastes. But there may be a case to be made that his moral foundations theory aims merely to describe our pre-philosophical moral intuitions. (He is a psychologist, after all.) As you note, people tend to become more conservative with age, so it would be surprising if Haidt claimed that any individual’s taste remained wholly fixed. If moral judgments are no more than expressions of emotion, then there does not seem to be any reason to encourage diversity of moral perspectives in academia. So I don’t think your characterization is accurate; I also think there is a better way of explaining why he would support an affirmative action policy for conservative academics.

    To begin, I certainly agree with your point that particular conservative positions (e.g. a retributivist criminal justice policy) are favoured by system 1 thinking because they would have been adaptive in the environment in which we evolved. But evolutionary psychology doesn’t explain all of our moral or political intuitions. Obviously, many of these intuitions are shaped by culture, upbringing, etc.

    So I think you are right that system 1 thinking favours conservative positions. But, I would suggest, it favours not only those positions that would be adaptive in the environment of our evolutionary past, but also those positions that characterize the culture in which we are raised and educated. (For instance, there is a strong case to be made that a belief in private property rights would not have been particularly adaptive, and yet most conservatives care very much about this. Presumably this is because they are influenced by the conservative culture in which they live.)

    But liberals and conservatives in the US really do, in many ways, occupy different worlds–they live in different cities and states, they hold different occupations, they consume different news and entertainment. So I would suggest that for many liberals in the US, system 1 thinking actually favours liberal positions–maybe not any intuitions that would be adaptive in the evolutionary context, but at least those positions that would be dominant in a liberal cultural environment.

    These “system 1” liberals are the vast majority of liberals who check all the boxes (redistribution of wealth, protection of the environment, rejection of racism and sexism, etc.), but who mostly can’t articulate or defend their views. I think academics forget that, despite all the arguments and evidence for these views, most non-academic liberals have little or no idea about them. In fact, it’s easy to forget precisely because of all the work that liberal academics do.

    And because there are not many conservative academics in the humanities and social sciences (except in economics, law, political science, and history departments), we assume that there are no system 2 conservative positions (except sometimes on topics dealt with by those departments). And, unsurprisingly, conservatives do not complain about the underrepresentation of their views on issues tackled by these departments.

    Instead, they tend to focus their concerns on the underrepresentation of their views on issues pertaining to sex and gender, race and ethnicity, socioeconomic inequality, and education and character development–issues that are addressed almost exclusively in departments where conservatives are virtually never found (women and gender studies, sociology, psychology, education).

    The problem is that there really are compelling, empirically supported system 2 conservative perspectives on these issues. But they have a hard time getting attention because they either don’t get hired into these departments, or they do, and they don’t get a fair hearing (think of people like Charles Murray and Jordan Peterson). Given that these departments have had a strong left-wing bent from their beginnings (especially the “studies” departments), the relative shortage of conservative perspectives might also be due to the fact that conservatives simply have not had the opportunity to develop their arguments. And fewer conservative students enrolling in these departments means fewer prospective conservative professors in these departments.

    What I’m suggesting is that the conservative recourse to “common sense” is not a reflection of the antirational character of most conservative positions, but rather due to 1) the intuitiveness of conservative claims (which not only does not imply that those positions are false, but also makes a lot of sense politically, since, if you can appeal to either intuition or reason, why would you appeal to reason?) and 2) the relative shortage of high-quality academic research supporting those conclusions.

    In other words, you seem to claim that the antirational character of conservative positions explains the absence of academic work defending those positions; I am suggesting that it’s the other way around. Testing Haidt’s proposal would seem to be a good way of figuring out who’s right.