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Conservatism, Liberalism

Why Rep. Carson Thinks the Tea Party is Racist

Democratic Rep. Andre Carson told a Miami crowd last week that the Tea Party movement would “love” to see black Americans “hanging on a tree.” (1)

He is not alone among liberals in depicting the Tea Party as racist.  Janeane Garofalo attributed the Tea Party to “racism, straight up,” (2) and Keith Olberman agreed with her, saying “it is impossible to imagine any other reason other than racism inspiring the Tea Party.” (3)   

Olberman is right, though not in the way he thinks. 

The breadth of the liberal morality relative to the breadth of human nature is so exceedingly narrow that liberals truly don’t “get” much of what they see in the world, (4) (5).  For them, it literally is “impossible to imagine” any views different from their own, and so they have no alternative but to ascribe those views to some sort of dysfunction, like racism.   

Morality – our sense of right and wrong – stems from the fact that we’re social animals and must cooperate to survive and to thrive.  Either from hundreds of millions of years of evolution, or from God, we each have within us six  innate psychological tendencies, or predispositions, which help us do that.  Together these tendencies create within us our instant, visceral, gut feelings to like or dislike something; to approach or avoid, to fight or flee, and ultimately, of right and wrong.   In other words, these six innate psychological tendencies, or predisposition, form our morality.

Morality, rightly understood, can therefore be defined like this:

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, practices, institutions, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible.(6)

Extensive scientific study (7) has shown that the liberal morality is built almost entirely on only one of the six foundations.  That foundation is care.  Humans are mammals, and as such we spend a great deal of our lives rearing and caring for our young.  We have an innate predisposition to care for others and to prevent one another from coming to harm.  This, essentially, is the entirety of the liberal morality.  It is focused almost exclusively on the individual.

The same studies show that the conservative morality is built on an equal balance of all six moral foundations.  It starts with care, just as the liberal morality does, but it does not end there.  A healthy, thriving, society depends on much more than the simple “no harm, no foul” philosophy of liberalism.   It also depends on the existence of a sense of proportionality – in one sense, “fairness” – where the benefits of being a member of the group or society are rightfully enjoyed in proportion to the contribution one makes to it.  People don’t like it when other people reap the benefits of the group but don’t contribute to it in relatively equal proportions (i.e. free riders.)  It also depends on a sense of loyalty to the group.  People expect all members of the group to work for, defend, or otherwise support, the success of the group.  It also depends on a sense of structure, or authority, because the entire boat will sink if too many people try to rock it.  It also depends on a sense of sanctity, a sense of esteem and respect for the physical health and well being of each member of the group, and thus of the group as a whole.  It also depends on a sense of autonomy.  People hate bullies.  They tend to gang up to fight bullies, particularly when the bully is the “powers that be.”  In contrast to the liberal morality, the conservative morality is focused not just on the individual, but on the society as well. 

In other words, the conservative morality is a system of “interlocking sets of values, practices, institutions, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible.”

Metaphorically speaking, if humans were bees in a hive, the liberal morality would focus almost exclusively on the bees, and the conservative morality would focus on the bees AND the hive, because without a healthy hive it is literally impossible for the bees to survive, let alone thrive.    

In sum, the conservative morality is everything that liberal one is, and much more.  A Venn diagram of liberal and conservative morality would be a small circle (liberalism) completely contained within a much a larger circle (conservatism.)   The moral universe of conservatism INCLUDES the moral universe of liberalism, but it’s not the other way around.  Most of the moral universe of conservatism is outside of, external to, the moral universe of liberalism, leading many liberals to believe that the beliefs and practices which follow from the non-liberal moral foundations are immoral.      

This explains, for example, why liberal author Sam Harris said:

If, as I believe, morality is a system of thinking about ( and maximizing ) the well being of conscious creatures like ourselves, many people’s moral concerns are frankly immoral.(8)

Harris points to religious practices, and even religions, as examples of things that are “frankly immoral”

But I believe moral foundations explain even more than that.  I believe they determine not only what we think, but also what we perceive, and importantly, how we think.  Moral foundations are not only the building blocks of our moral framework, they are also the color-receptors of our moral eye, and they are the cognitive tools we use to construct the arguments with which we defend our ideas and attack the ideas of the other side.  And finally, through all of these things, moral foundations define the scope of our reality, and by extension, of the possible.  In short, moral foundations define our moral and cognitive “vision” in every sense of the word. 

And because the liberal moral and cognitive construct is so much smaller than that of conservatism, conservatism is, literally, beyond the comprehension of the moral imagination of liberalism.  And in fact, psychological studies have shown this to be true, presenting data which shows not only that, “Political liberals have moral intuitions primarily based upon the first two foundations, and therefore misunderstand the moral motivations of political conservatives, who generally rely upon all five foundations” (4), but also “that liberals misunderstand the explicit moral concerns of conservatives more than conservatives misunderstand liberals.”  (5)  I’ve said this next bit before, but it bears repeating here.  It’s almost as if liberals are from a two-dimensional world (Flatland) and conservatives are from a three dimensional world (Spaceland.) People from Spaceland can perceive and grasp concepts from Flatland, but it doesn’t work the other way around. Flatlanders don’t have the cognitive or conceptual framework necessary for them to grasp what the heck Spacelanders are talking about.

Which brings me back to liberals Rep. Andre Carson, Janeane Garofalo, and Keith Olberman.

Since conservative morality is so much broader and deeper than theirs they have no way to comprehend it.    They’re like Flatlanders trying to understand Space land; it’s just not possible from within their moral and cognitive universe.  The tools, the capability, to grasp the concepts, simply don’t exist in their world.   They don’t even know what they’re looking at. 

The only possible explanation, therefore, from within the moral matrix of liberalism, for the views and policies of conservatism, is that conservatives must be, can only be, in some way mentally or morally dysfunctional. 

Olberman was right, it is, literally, impossible for him “to imagine any other reason other than” some sort of dysfunction to explain the Tea Party.  The problem is, the dysfunction is in his head, and not in the heads of the members of the Tea Party.



(1)  Rep. Andre Carson: Tea Party Wants To See Black Americans ‘Hanging From A Tree’  

(2) Liberal Actress Says Tea Parties Were Racist

(3) Garofalo: Tea Party racist, liberal media ‘a myth,’ Justice Thomas suffering Stockholm syndrome

(4) When Morality Opposes Justice:  Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions that Liberals may not Recognize. 

(5) Planet of the Durkheimians, Where Community, Authority, and Sacredness are Foundations of Morality.  

(6) Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion

(7) See the many papers on this topic in scientific journals and elsewhere, compiled here:  Jonathan Haidt’s Home Page

(8) Brain Science and Human Values


5 thoughts on “Why Rep. Carson Thinks the Tea Party is Racist

  1. To your point about attribution of evil to one’s opponents when one is unable to understand their morality, this is the fourth results when you google “GOP”:


    What an excellent introductory paragraph!


    Posted by machalot | October 12, 2011, 4:02 am
  2. How does the sixth category score between conservatives and liberals? I haven’t had a chance to watch the video yet.


    Posted by machalot | September 3, 2011, 10:30 pm
    • Haidt does not give the liberal and conservative “scores” in the video in terms of statistics from his research. He doesn’t show any graphs like he does with some of the other foundations.

      If I were to guess, however, I’d guess that, since liberalism is all about protecting the individual from harm, and since liberals, generally speaking, see forms of authority such as traditions, customs, and institutions as tools of oppression, I’d guess that liberals might score higher on this than conservatives, much as they do with “care.”

      However, just as with terms like “equality,” and “fairness,” (and even “care,” in my view, but that’s a topic for another blog entry) I think liberals and conservatives have very different ideas about exactly what liberty is. Haidt talks about this in the video, here are some quotes I transcribed from it:

      “A crucial distinction here is negative liberty, that is, well, the kind of American “Give me liberty or give me death.” This is “Don’t tread on me,” don’t hem me in, don’t tell me what to do, don’t force me to obey your rules. This is a very deep very powerful sentiment. But the trick here is to understand that there are two kinds of liberty at play in our political discourse. There’s negative liberty which is the absence of obstacles which block human action. This is the common sense understanding of liberty. And then there’s a new notion that developed in the twentieth century, especially in Europe called positive liberty, which is, well, it’s all well and good to say that people should have a right to do as the please but if you can’t get an education then you don’t really have a right to do as you please. And if you can’t get health care, well, you’re not healthy enough to take advantage of the opportunities of our society. Sooo, we have to give people, as rights, education, welfare, food, a right to a job, all these rights that they enshrine in Europe. And that is known as positive liberty. It’s really crucial to recognize that the top one [negative liberty] is deep, emotional, obvious, everyone gets it, the bottom one [positive liberty] is a cerebral concept developed by philosophers gradually, has very little emotional resonance. You probably understood my description but it doesn’t rankle. Violations of it don’t rankle in the way that violations of negative liberty do.

      So what happens is the right, what we now call conservatives, we also can sometimes call classical liberals. They stand for liberty, that is, negative liberty. Give me liberty. Don’t tread on me. Just as they said in the 18th century, it’s the government which is the threat. Whereas liberals gave up liberty, basically. Liberals embraced positive liberty and now act in ways that actually violate negative liberty. So if, as I say, you sacrilize victim groups then you try to increase positive liberty for those sacrilized groups, you then push laws that will violate the negative liberty of others, such as the ‘nanny state.’”


      Posted by TheIndependentWhig | September 4, 2011, 1:20 pm
  3. Mr. Whig,

    In the fourth paragraph you say there are “six innate psychological tendencies”, but later on you revert to the five moral foundations. Are those referring to different things? I know Haidt was considering to add a sixth moral foundation.


    Posted by machalot | September 2, 2011, 1:11 pm
    • Good catch. My mistake. Haidt did add a sixth foundation, Liberty/Oppression. He also refined his definitions of some of the others, and in my view improved them. He describes all of them in a talk he gave at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) entitled “When Compassion Leads to Sacrilege.” The video is over 90 minutes, including introduction and some post-talk questions and answers, but Haidt is entertaining so the time goes by quickly. He offers anecdotal as well as statistical evidence from his own research for each foundation. Here’s the link:

      Eventually I’ll add a blog entry to summarize them, but for now here’s the current list:

      1. Care/Harm
      2. Proportionality/Cheating (formerly Fairness/Reciprocity)
      3. Loyalty/Betrayal (formerly Ingroup/Loyalty)
      4. Authority/Subversion (formerly Authority/Respect)
      5. Sanctity/Degradation (formerly Purity/Sanctity)
      6. Liberty/Oppression


      Posted by TheIndependentWhig | September 2, 2011, 2:48 pm

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