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Liberalism & Conservatism, Literal and Conceptual, The Moral Mind In Action

Liberal and Conservative – Literal and Conceptual

The limited employment of moral foundations in the liberal moral matrix and cognitive tool kit, and the liberal faith in reason as the arbiter of truth, together tend to lead liberals to interpret things literally. Their positions tend to center on objective analysis of discreet facts. 
The liberal view on religion is an example of such thought.  Haidt observes that “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, tend to “treat religions as sets of beliefs about the world, many of which are demonstrably false,” (1) and they dismiss religion “as a foolish and virulent delusion.” (2)

In What Makes People Vote Republican? Haidt observes that when the three binding foundations of loyalty, authority, and sanctity “are banished entirely from political life, what remains is a nation of individuals striving to maximize utility while respecting the rules. What remains is a cold but fair social contract, which can easily degenerate into a nation of shoppers.”  When Haidt was interviewed by Bill Moyers on the show Moyers & Company in February of this year Haidt explained further, saying:

“This is where I think again, the Democrats have not fully understood moral psychology. I listen to them in election after election, especially 2000, 2004, saying, ‘We’ve got this policy for you. We’re going to give you more support,’ as though politics is shopping.

As though, ‘Come, you know, buy from us. We’ve got a better deal for you.’ The Democrats, I find, have not been as good at understanding that politics is really religion. Politics is about sacredness. Politics is about offering a vision that will bind the nation together to pursue greatness. And Republicans since Ronald Reagan have been really good at that.

The three-foundation morality tends to bring a reason-based, cost-benefit approach to the analysis of political issues, where benefits are measured in terms of providing care and protection for the individual.  Since liberal thought is literal minded – focusing on what it sees as objective facts and rational analysis – the logic of liberalism tends to be linear.  The “politics is shopping” approach seems to assume a direct cause and effect relationship between current conditions, planned actions, and the desired end state.  In this way, the law of unintended consequences plays a smaller part in the world view of liberalism than it does with conservatism. 

Conservative thought, on the other hand, tends to be more conceptual.  Conceptual thinking more naturally follows from the six-foundation morality in which the foundations check and balance each other, and tradeoffs must be made among them.  This practically forces one, while not discounting “facts” or reason, to take a step back and look at the big picture.  For example, again regarding religion, Haidt observes  that “anthropologists and sociologists who study religion stress the role of ritual and community much more than of factual beliefs about the creation of the world or life after death” (1) and see religious beliefs as the surface manifestations of something deeper.  

The January/February 2012 edition of Scientific American Mind magazine contains a short review by Brian Mossop of Haidt’s upcoming book, “The Righteous Mind.”  The review alludes to the contrast between the literal thinking of liberalism and the conceptual thinking of conservatism, saying:

“Democrats [liberals] care more about harm and fairness when making moral decisions than loyalty, authority or sanctity.  Republicans [conservatives], on the other hand, are better able to interweave these moral threads.” … “As for spirituality, Haidt argues that religions are ultimately less about believing in a higher power than about forming bonds with others and being part of something larger than oneself.” 

Conceptual thinking is required to “interweave these moral threads” and is therefore more characteristic of conservatism than it is of liberalism which rests more on “reason” and straightforward “factual” analysis.  The six-foundation morality seems to have a better inherent sense that “politics is really religion. Politics is about sacredness. Politics is about offering a vision that will bind the nation together to pursue greatness.” 

If I could sum up the conservative view on religion it might be that – notwithstanding the “factual” incongruities that liberals like to point out – there’s more truth about human nature in the Bible than in any library full of science books.  Similarly, conservative thought tends toward balancing the desire for liberty and autonomy within each of us against the duties and responsibilities each individual bears as members of cooperative societies. 

Conservatism tends to bring an experience-based, relatively more holistic, synergistic approach to its perspective on political issues.   The law of unintended consequences is “built-in” to the lessons learned from human experience, and so for conservatism experience – tempered with reason – is the surest guide.

In short, liberal thought tends to focus on the trees and therefore tends to be relatively more literal-minded, whereas conservative thought tends to focus on the forest and therefore tends to be relatively more conceptual minded.



(1) Haidt, J. (2007) Moral psychology and the misunderstanding of religion. Published on http://www.edge.org, 9/9/07.  Here.

(2) Haidt,  J., & Graham, J. (2009). Planet of the Durkheimians, Where Community, Authority, and Sacredness are Foundations of Morality. In J. Jost, A. C. Kay, & H. Thorisdottir (Eds.), Social and Psychological Bases  of Ideology and System Justification. Available here.

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