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Reason and Experience, The Moral Mind In Action, Themes

Liberal and Conservative – Reason and Experience

Before stumbling upon the work of
Jonathan Haidt I had developed my own ideas about the roots of liberalism and conservatism, and how the two sides seem to think differently. Even though I approached the topic from a perspective that is entirely different from his I think my own conclusions are compatible with his findings.

My perspective was to read about the history of political ideas and try to trace them back to their origins to see if I could discover different patterns of thinking (i.e., visions, or moralities) that are characteristic of liberals and conservatives. I read books like Bernard Bailyn’s “The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution,” Forrest McDonald’s “Novus Ordo Seclorum,” Carl Becker’s “Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas,” as well as other sources. Haidt’s perspective seems to be to try to understand morality first, and then to discover the differences between how liberals and conservatives “apply” it (for lack of a better term.)

What I concluded was that at bottom, liberalism rests on the foundation of reason; the power of the human mind to overcome just about any obstacle or solve any problem through logical thought.

Conservatism, on the other hand, rests on the foundation of experience. The lessons learned through the hard knocks of every-day life are the surest guide in any attempt to overcome obstacles or solve problems.

Reason alone is sufficient to understand and internalize the moral foundations of liberalism: Care/harm, fairness/cheating, and liberty/oppression. The argument in their favor essentially boils down to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is the “reciprocal altruism” of fairness/cheating and the “ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others” of care/harm. The “do unto others” argument just makes sense on its face. It is direct, uncomplicated, and powerful. It is not a great stretch of the imagination to understand why some might see reason alone, and its logical extension through “do unto others” to the first three moral foundations as sufficient in and of itself to form the basis of a political philosophy, even to the point of being dismissive of, or at least finding unnecessary, the three remaining moral foundations.

Experience, on the other hand, is manifested – to varying degrees – in the notions of loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation that are embraced, equally along with the first three foundations, by conservatism. The argument in favor of all three of them boils down to “these have been shown to work.” Group behavior, for example, exhibits the collected wisdom of all persons within the group over the entire duration of its existence, possibly spanning multiple generations or even centuries. To be a part of a group, then, is to stand on the shoulders, so to speak, of all who came before, and to band together in defense of the group when a threat to it is perceived – thus the “one for all, all for one” sensibility of loyalty/betrayal. The “respect for traditions” and social systems of authority/subversion, and even the value placed on the clean living of sanctity/degradation, I believe similarly reflect, on the part of conservatives, an instinctive, intuitive, possibly even subconscious, respect for, and internalization of, the collected wisdom of experience.

At bottom, every viewpoint rests on a faith in something, as the ultimate arbiter of truth.

The liberal faith is reason. The conservative faith is experience.

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