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Literal and Conceptual

The Righteous Mind is Not Enough

There are a couple of  reasons I think The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt is not enough, but the good news is that its lessons can be used to address both of them.

One reason is that, in my opinion, the root of the political divide is deeper than The Righteous Mind exposes; there’s more to it than just the moral matrix or the moral “palette.”  The root also lies in the difference between the literal-minded rider-abstract cognitive style of the liberal mind and the concept-minded elephant-experiential style of the conservative mind. (1) The literal-minded style focuses more on the trees and the conceptual-minded style focuses more on the forest, so the two sides consistently talk past each other.

Another reason it is not enough is that a book alone, even supplemented Dr Haidt’s numerous talks, explanations, and illustrations (accessible through his web site for the book), is not enough to change behavior any more than a class in ethics is enough to cause people to behave ethically.  We can’t just inform people about the differences and suggest how they might behave better, we also have to “change the path” our elephants follow, as described in the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.  Dr. Haidt’s insights in The Righteous Mind can be used to help us do that. 

A matrix is two dimensional. Dr. Haidt’s metaphor of the matrix of moral foundations, therefore, suggests that liberals and conservatives both live in two-dimensional moral and cognitive universes, albeit of different sizes, with a lot of overlap. An implication, intended or not, of this metaphor is that the two sides are equivalent but different; relative equals on either end of a moral/political see-saw (or teeter-totter), keeping it balanced. I offer for consideration the suggestion that the metaphor of a matrix or even that of a palette, is incorrect. It does not capture the full and true essence of the two minds, and therefore of the divide.

What I suggest as an alternate, more correct, more accurate metaphor for describing the differences between conservative and liberal cognition is to say that the two live in entirely different dimensional spaces, like the spheres and rectangles in the story “Flatland,” which Dr. Haidt summarizes in his book The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom.  Unlike with a matrix, the realm of the former extends in directions that the realm of the latter is not even aware of. A rider-abstract, literal-minded, two-dimensional liberal “square” from Flatland can neither truly understand nor “balance” an elephant-experiential, conceptual-minded, three-dimensional “sphere” from Spaceland.   But the opposite is not true.  Spacelanders have little problem seeing and understanding the ideas expressed by Flatlanders, as Dr. Haidt’s research findings have shown.

The failure of Flatlanders to “see” the world of Spaceland is at the heart of the political divide.  There is, practically speaking, little hope of reducing demonization, shrinking the divide, and increasing civility unless and until Flatlanders learn to appreciate all of the dimensions of Spaceland.  As long as we continue to labor under the false impression that the two sides are both two-dimensional matrices which roughly represent Yin/Yang style equivalent-but-different opposites we will continue to be stymied in our efforts to bridge the divide. We may as well conclude equivalence between apples and kittens, and try to get them to get along better.

In my view, the literal thinking of the liberal psychology forms sort of an impregnable glass wall in the middle of the political divide. We tend to demonize that which we do not understand, and the literal cognitive style of liberalism, in my opinion, is what prevents liberals (on average, in the aggregate, in statistically significant numbers, as Haidt’s data shows) from grasping the essence of conservatism, (more so than the other way around, as Haidt’s data also shows) and leads to much, if not most, of the partisan demonization (as opposed to other types of demonization, like our tendency to circle the wagons around our sacred values, which is neither liberal nor conservative, but common to all humans) we see in the political arena.  It is this glass wall which must be overcome if Haidt’s goals of reducing demonization, shrinking the political divide, and increasing civility are to have any chance of being achieved.

I’ve been advocating this idea for some time now, here on this blog and elsewhere.  I’ve met with only limited success at conveying my thoughts.  Maybe that’s my fault.  Maybe I need some help getting my ideas across.  Maybe I’m a bad writer.  Maybe a better writer can say it better than I can. Yuval? Jonah? Thomas? George? A little help?


Then how about this.

R. R. Reno reviewed The Righteous Mind in the June 1 edition of “First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life.” In that review, entitled “Our One-Eyed Friends” Reno writes [bold emphasis added by The Independent Whig]:

Seeing with the social [i.e., the binding foundations] as well as with the individual [i.e., the individualizing foundations] eye, as it were, unites American conservatives with the vast majority of human beings who in all known cultures place a great deal of importance on the “binding” foundations. All known cultures, that is, except the subculture of people who grow up in Western, educated, industrial, rich, and democratic societies, WEIRD societies, as Haidt calls them.

This subculture, the liberal subculture that formed Haidt in his childhood and throughout most of his education, produces people like the Penn undergraduates who say that it’s alright to have sex with chickens as long as nobody is harmed. They are statistically weird, “outliers,” as social scientists say. Unlike the vast majority of humanity, they’ve been socialized to disregard their emotional responses when faced with offenses to loyalty, authority, and sanctity. They’re blinded in the moral eye that sees the social valences of moral situations.

Haidt’s research suggests an inconvenient truth about our divided country. The ill-tempered rancor stems in large part from the moral myopia of liberals. They have a great deal of difficulty grasping the “binding” moral concerns that engage American conservatives, especially when those concerns are heightened and given shape by religion. And their response to this difficulty has been to summarily dismiss those who see with two eyes. Those of us who are concerned about loyalty, authority, and sanctity are subject to rhetorical extermination: We’re denounced as “not mainstream.”

And not just American conservatives. Liberals tend to be unable to muster much respect for the moral outlook of billions and billions of people throughout the globe whose traditional societies train them to use both eyes. Hence, for example, the Obama administration’s desire to make the advancement of homosexual rights part of our foreign policy. It’s just the latest part of the WEIRD subculture’s effort to expand the influence of it’s individualistic ethic.

Thus the profound problem we face. Liberalism is blind in one eye–yet it insists on the superiority of its vision and its supreme right to rule. It cannot see half the things a governing philosophy must see, and claims that those who see both halves are thereby unqualified to govern.

If there is to be any hope of reducing demonization, shrinking the divide, or increasing civility then it is the liberal path that most needs to change, and it is the liberal path that needs to change the most. The liberal rider and elephant must learn how to see with both eyes.

The opposite proposition, that of changing the path of the conservative rider and elephant so they see with only one eye is a non sequitur, for at least two reasons (besides, of course, the obvious one of having to, metaphorically speaking, poke one eye out of every conservative). First, Dr. Haidt’s research has shown conservatives already do see out of the “individual” eye. Second, it would be the equivalent of asking conservatives to un-see what they have seen, unlearn what they have learned, and un-know what they know, from countless years of natural selection – the source of moral foundations – about the true depth and breadth of fundamental human nature.

This does not mean, not for an instant, that conservatives are above it all and don’t need some path changing of their own. I think it is safe to say that many conservatives don’t know about MFT, the rider and the elephant, or the argumentative theory either, and that if they did then they too might be a little less quick to demonize, a little more willing to entertain ideas from the other side, a little better equipped to suppress their own knee-jerk reactions (another trait that’s not liberal or conservative, but human), a little less prone to pull farther and harder to the right in reaction to liberals pulling so hard to the left, and a little more prone to seek balance among the individualizing and binding foundations, as is their natural predisposition absent the violation of their sacred values by others.  After all, liberalism is half of conservatism.

Elephants won’t just change their minds in response to a well-reasoned argument. But with consistent, reinforced over the long term, training and education their paths can be changed. The way we can do that is to teach MFT, Rider/Element, Argumentative Theory, and probably more, from the earliest grades onward in our public schools.  If we do that, then we’ll reach liberals and conservatives alike, and we can, I believe, begin to actually make real-world progress toward reaching Dr. Haidt’s goals.

We simply cannot reasonably expect our kids to learn how to get along better if they continue to be oblivious to the reasons it can be so hard to do.

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(1) Liberals Think More Analytically (More “WEIRD”) than Conservatives, by Thomas Talhelm, Jonathan Haidt, Shigehiro Oishi, Xuemin Zhang, Felicity Miao, and Shimin Chen


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