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Other Brief Thoughts: Haidt’s Yin/Yang, Moral Thinking, and Advice to Democrats



I disagree somewhat with Haidt’s characterization of the relationship between liberalism and conservatism as that of Yin/Yang. 
I think yin/yang, rightly understood, is the check and balance between the three individualizing foundations and the three binding foundations that is inherent to the six-foundation morality, and is exemplified by the concept of the Milwaukee Theme Park (described in this post, and also part of Protecting the Weak.)  Yin/Yang cannot be “balanced” by the Yin of liberalism.  I think the “extra helping” of yin from the three-foundation morality upsets the balance and places society onto the well intentioned yet ultimately tragic path toward Pathological Altruism. 

But with that said, I can also see that there is some truth to it. Further, I see value in the way Haidt uses it.  The yin/yang symbol, the Shiva/Vishnu statue image, and the concepts they convey, are powerful and very helpful to his overall message.  Also, my objections to yin/yang are not without flaws of their own. For example, even though I think there’s truth to my idea that the real source of the tension is between individualizing foundations and binding foundations, the push-me pull-you tension between liberalism and conservatism in the real world does not fit neatly within the yin/yang construct I’ve outlined here.

Fortunately, I’ve stumbled across a still-better metaphor for understanding the political divide.  Not surprisingly, it too comes from Jonathan Haidt.  I’ll address it in the next post: The Root Cause of the Political Divide.

One of Haidt’s principles of the new synthesis of moral psychology is that “moral thinking is for social doing.”  He says that when it comes to moral or emotional issues, “Your reasoning abilities are pressed into service generating arguments to defend your side and attack the other.” (1) Haidt argues that New Atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins use moral thinking in their arguments against religion.  I respectfully submit that Haidt commits a subtle form of moral thinking with his “whole shop” implication, with his evenhandedness, and with the “equivalent but different” implication of his yin/yang and “let go of the for and against” admonitions.  Haidt grew up as a liberal but more recently, and admittedly as a result of what he’s learned through his research, has been characterizing himself as a centrist.  But, I submit, that every once in a while some of his original roots sneak into his analysis.  

Haidt suggest that if liberals wish to do better in presidential elections they should frame their arguments in a way that uses the binding foundations.  I think this suggestion is not realistic, and may be subtle example of moral thinking. I think it is unrealistic for two reasons.  First, because liberal positions generally do not rest on the binding foundations so it would be disingenuous, or maybe a transparent political gambit, if liberals framed them as if they do; and second, because if liberals actually did embrace the binding foundations then they would not be liberals, they’d be conservatives.

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

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