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The Moral Mind In Action

The Root Cause of the Political Divide

Liberals and conservatives literally live in different worlds with different dimensions.    

It is not enough to describe moral foundations merely as taste buds as Haidt does in one of the metaphors he uses to help us understand his theory.  And it is not even enough to describe moral foundations as the color receptors of the moral mind, and the tools of the moral imagination and reasoning as I have done thus far in this essay.

To truly understand the root cause of the culture war we need a better metaphor, because, as Haidt says in his book The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom

Our life is the creation of our minds, and we do much of that creating with metaphor.  We see new things in terms of things we already understand: Life is a journey, an argument is a war, the mind is a rider on an elephant.  With the wrong metaphor we are deluded; with no metaphor we are blind. 

We have to understand the concept of moral foundations as forming a synergistic system of checks and balances where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  We can’t just measure, on a scale of one to ten, how important each moral foundation is to each person.  We can’t just look at graphs with liberals at the left of the X axis and conservatives on the right, where the Y axis shows how important the moral foundations are.  That’s a little bit like measuring the quality of a wall made of bricks and mortar by examining the characteristics of the bricks and the mortar and deducing how strong the wall is likely to be. It does not tell the whole story. To get a true understanding, we have to look at the wall itself.  We have to understand the net effect of the system as a whole.   

The best metaphor for understanding the relationship between the three-foundation morality and the six-foundation morality is the metaphor of Flatland and Spaceland, also in Haidt’s book “The Happiness Hypothesis.”

The metaphor that has most helped me to understand morality, religion, and the human quest for meaning is Flatland, a charming little book written in 1884 by the English novelist and mathematician Edward Abbot.  Flatland is a two-dimensional world whose inhabitants are geometric figures.  The protagonist is a square.  One day, the square is visited by a sphere from a three-dimensional world called Spaceland.  When a sphere visits Flatland, however, all that is visible to Flatlanders is the part of the sphere that lies in their plane – in other words, a circle.  The square is astonished that the circle is able to grow or shrink at will (by rising or sinking into the plane of Flatland) and even to disappear and reappear in a different place (by leaving the plane, and then reentering it).  The sphere tries to explain the concept of the third dimension to the two-dimensional square, but the square, though skilled at two-dimensional geometry, doesn’t get it.  He cannot understand what it means to have thickness in addition to height and breadth, nor can he understand that the circle came from up above him, where “up” does not mean from the north.   The sphere presents analogies and geometrical demonstrations of how to move from one dimension to two, and then from two to three, but the square still finds the idea of moving “up” out of the plane of Flatland ridiculous. 

The reason for the political divide is that liberals and conservatives talk past each other as if we were Flatlanders and Spacelanders.  To a conservative, talking with a liberal about moral issues – and politics is morality in action; moral thinking for social doing – is like the Spacelander trying to explain thickness and height and breadth to a Flatlander. 

To a liberal, talking with a conservative is like talking to a being from another dimension; they seem foreign, or “alien.”   As Haidt describes in When Morality Opposes Justice, “The principles of principled conservatism go beyond fairness to include principles that liberals do not acknowledge to be moral principles.”  Since half of the moral spectrum is essentially invisible to liberals they are dumbfounded in their attempts to understand conservatives, and are left with practically no other option but to attribute conservative views to some sort of mental or moral dysfunction, like racism, homophobia, religious zealotry, “climate of hate,” “paranoid style,” etc., etc., etc.

As Haidt says in his TED talk:

When the liberal team loses, as it did in 2004, and as it almost did in 2000, we comfort ourselves. (Laughter) We try to explain why half of America voted for the other team. We think they must be blinded by religion, or by simple stupidity. (Laughter) (Applause) So, if you think that half of America votes Republican because they are blinded in this way, then my message to you is that you’re trapped in a moral matrix, in a particular moral matrix. And by the matrix, I mean literally the matrix, like the movie “The Matrix.” But I’m here today to give you a choice. You can either take the blue pill and stick to your comforting delusions, or you can take the red pill, learn some moral psychology and step outside the moral matrix.

Haidt has shown that conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives.(1)  The conservative Spacelanders, with their six-foundation perception of the full spectrum of human nature can see and understand the liberal Flatlanders.  But the Flatlanders, with their three-foundation partial spectrum “color blind” perception of human nature have a difficult time comprehending what the heck the conservative Spacelanders are talking about.  If there is to be any hope of bridging the political divide, the “vision” of the liberal Flatlanders must be improved. 



(1) “Political conservatives are more accurate than political liberals in characterizing the explicit moral beliefs of the other side.” 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.  Page 3.  Available at MoralFoundations.org


2 thoughts on “The Root Cause of the Political Divide

  1. it is interesting that you consider conservatives to have much broader dimensions as compared to liberals with limited dimensions. I think the problem lies in defining what is conservative and liberal.

    Growing up in India, when I first read Rand, her protagonists seemed liberal, willing to make changes away from tradition to fulfill what seemed reasonable for self. In India it was considered liberal, in USA it is considered conservative.

    Our problem is that we consider us to be perfect, and hence who disagrees with us is imperfect.


    Posted by mody | October 9, 2013, 1:40 pm
    • Thanks very much for reading and commenting.

      You might enjoy reading the book that is the basis for many of the ideas expressed in this blog, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion,” by Jonathan Haidt.

      Haidt, who grew up as a liberal disliking conservatives, had his eyes opened to the possibility that other ideologies might be grounded in something real and meaningful rather than by blind faith and superstition when he traveled to India, lived with a local family, and tried to understand the local culture with the open mind of an anthropologist/scientist.

      You’re right about what our problem is, I’d venture. The principle that morality blinds us to the views other than our own is a central theme of the book.

      It’s difficult to define liberalism, conservatism, and any other morality by the policies they pursue because policies morph across times and cultures. I think Haidt is on the right track in his search for the evolved cognitive foundational building blocks that are common to all ideologies and vary only by the degree to which each is embraced by that ideology. Haidt has so far settled on six such foundations, but is open to critiques of the current ones and suggestions for others.

      Based on Haidt’s findings, here are my definitions of conservatism and liberalism:

      Conservatism is the morality that uses all six foundations in equal balance.

      Liberalism is the morality that uses only have of them, and of those heavily weights “care” above the others.


      Posted by The Independent Whig | October 9, 2013, 2:10 pm

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A politically diverse group of social scientists, natural scientists, humanists, and other scholars who want to improve our academic disciplines and universities. We share a concern about a growing problem: the loss or lack of “viewpoint diversity.” When nearly everyone in a field shares the same political orientation, certain ideas become orthodoxy, dissent is discouraged, and errors can go unchallenged.

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