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Conservatism, Liberalism & Conservatism

Haidt’s Mixed Message: The Strength of “The Righteous Mind” is Also Its Weakness



In spite of the great insights that are offered by Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion and by his team of researchers at YourMorals.org there’s still a tendency for them to think like liberals, which means that they sometimes fail, in my opinion, to see some of the nuance that is perceived from the perspective of the six-foundation matrix; nuance that can have a profound effect on understanding what’s really going on within and between the psychological dynamics of the six-foundation and three-foundation psyches.  We can’t expect to decrease demonization or shrink the political divide unless and until we face up to their true nature.


I once read a book titled “The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands.”  I’d never before read a book that “gets” men so well.  And a great thing about it, in my view, is that it was written by a woman.    The upshot is that simply because it was written by a woman I would venture that there is a much greater chance that a woman will pick it up and read it, and also a greater chance that she’ll take seriously what it says.


The same sort of thing applies, in my view, to The Righteous Mind, and the work of the team at YourMorals.org.   It is fabulous that this work is being done by liberals, that it displays such great insights into conservatism, and that it goes to such great lengths to avoid taking sides.   Because of this I suspect the work is much more likely to be read by liberals, and much more likely to be taken seriously and believed by them.


But, I think, some of these strengths are also weaknesses.  It just seems to me that the liberal tendency to think analytically and be more rider-rational, in combination with the generally reductivist approach of the scientific method, and the team’s dogged insistence on not taking sides, limits the team’s thinking  and thus its findings and conclusions.   I don’t know, it just seems to me that the focus on data, statistics, and graphs ends up putting bounds on imagination and limiting the view of the “big picture.”


All of Haidt’s work, culminating with The Righteous Mind, tells a rich, detailed, backed up by research  story which proves that liberalism and conservatism are anything but equivalent-yet-different in a Yin/Yang sort of way.


in The Righteous Mind he argues that human nature and morality have more dimensions than just “care,” that the reason natural selection gave us those dimensions is so that we can form ultra social communities, and that the conservative moral mind perceives and thinks with all of the dimensions and the liberal mind does not.


He argues that the six-foundation morality understands the three-foundation morality better than the other way around; that the six-foundation morality understands human nature better than the three-foundation morality does; that the miracle of human ultra-sociality requires all the tools in the moral foundations toolbox; that societies built on all the tools last longer than societies that aren’t , and he points to real-world examples which prove it.


His entire body of work supports the argument that the best metaphor for describing liberalism and conservatism is that of Flatland and Spaceland, where liberals are two dimensional “square” Flatlanders and conservatives are three dimensional “sphere” Spacelanders.  Here’s his summary of Flatland from page 182 of his book The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom

“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 plain-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 stilI finds the idea of moving “up” out of the plane of Flatland ridiculous.

But then, with his characterization of liberalism and conservatism as that of Yin/Yang, and with it the connotation that the two are equivalent-yet-different in the vein of Dr. Doolittle’s pushmepullyou, he yanks the rug out from under his own argument.

The Pushmepullyou from the movie “Dr. Doolittle”

It’s a mixed message.   Are the liberal and conservative psyches fundamentally different, perceiving the social-moral world differently as if from Flatland and Spaceland, as his evidence shows and he explicitly argues, or are they fundamentally equivalent as if they’re both from Flatland but happen to see the world differently in a half-full/half-empty, pushmepullyou, Yin/Yang sort of way as he ALSO explicitly argues?  Which is it?

I suggest that the mixed message results from the fact that the diagnosis is being performed from within the three-foundation moral matrix, which brings with it a reductivist, “shopping,” examine-the-trees-yet-still-draw-conclusions-about-the-forest, morally relative, style of analytical thinking.


Now, at this point I want to state clearly and unequivocally that I think Haidt really does “get” conservatives.  In fact, I think Haidt understands the true nature of liberals and conservatives as well or better than anyone.  So please, reader, do not construe otherwise, and instead consider this a critique of the presentation approach Haidt uses rather than of his expertise in his chosen field.  I know, you may think that I am sending a mixed message myself.  Well, so be it.

If the societal symptom Haidt wants to relieve is the runny nose of demonization then the treatment depends on whether the cause is Flatland/Spaceland viral or Yin/Yang bacterial.   Which is it, the flu or a sinus infection?


The diagnosis matters because it determines the treatment.  It has to be either viral or bacterial but it can’t be both.


It seems that often times when I make a comment here, or even on free-wheeling anonymous discussion boards that can sometimes be more like cage matches, in which I try to illustrate what I see as the next logical step in the argument laid out in The Righteous Mind; whenever I try to make a point along the lines of “Given everything in The Righteous Mind, here are some of the real-world consequences,”   the response from liberals seems consistent and predictable:  “Things aren’t as black and white as you apparently think they are.  It’s really not as bad as you say.  Conservatives and liberals do and say just as many stupid things.  The distinction you point out does not lead do the difference you apparently see.”


There’s that liberal moral relativism again.  There’s that reductivist-style analysis of morality and of world views.   There’s that insistence that clear distinctions in moral foundations and thus morality, style of thought, personality traits, grasp of human nature, and the facts of history, in the end really don’t make the differences I think they make and try to point out.  The responses seem to say, “Liberals and conservatives are really not as different as you seem to think they are.   At bottom they’re really alike.   They’re equally subject to the foibles of “reason.”  They both circle the wagons around their sacred values in the same way.  They both believe equally strongly that they’re right.  So come on, get with the program.  Get off your high horse.  Compromise.   Meet us in the middle.  Stop trying to show how we’re different when we’re really not.  Stop imagining distinctions where there’s really no difference.  Imagine, instead, there’s no countries.   It isn’t hard to do.  Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too.”


OK, I admit that that last bit is a little glib, but I think it helps to make my point.  Even though The Righteous Mind is a Rosetta Stone for understanding the political divide, its tone, and the tone at YourMorals, still seem to have an overriding flavor of the moral relativism of liberalism, and that tone  tends to dilute and even undermine the message.  It’s as if the team found its own way to the water of moral and political insight, but it just can bring itself to drink fully because it is afraid the insight contains too many flavors from the six-foundation cuisine to be satisfying to its palette.


Instead of calling a spade a spade and diagnosing the disease of demonization as being caused by a Flatland/Spaceland dichotomy of perceiving and reacting to human nature, the team seems to insist instead on calling it something it’s not, which is Yin/Yang, and diagnosing it as little more than the difference between glass is half empty vs. half full, equivalent-yet-different, pushmepullyou,  world views.


Either conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives or they don’t and instead each understands the other equally badly, albeit from the different perspectives of Yin and Yang.


Either conservatives understand human nature better than liberals do or they don’t, and instead the two understandings are equally flawed and equally insightful, just in different ways, like Yin and Yang.


Either communities built on all the moral foundations last longer than communities built on half of them or they don’t, and instead  it’s just that some communities are more Yin and some are more Yang but other than that subtle distinction there’s really no practical difference between the two.


Either the research and findings of Haidt and the rest of the YourMorals team proves that conservatives are Spacelanders who see all the dimensions of the moral universe and liberals are Flatlanders who see only half of them or it doesn’t, and instead conservatives see only Yang and liberals see only Yin.


But it can’t be both.


Why spend years trying to understand what morality is and where it comes from, and then upon achieving that understanding using it to discover and then prove that the liberal and conservative psyches are like those of Flatlanders and Spacelanders and are therefore anything but “equivalent yet different,” only to then try to force fit the square peg you just discovered into the round hole of a Yin/Yang metaphorical model which fits neatly into the liberal meme of moral relativism and thus explicitly claims that they indeed are equivalent yet different?


There’s much more to conservative frustration than simple resistance to change.  In my view, even the first chapter of the book “Conservatism” by Jerry Muller which “floored” Haidt with the concept that conservatism might actually be a reasoned and rational formulation aimed at doing the most good for the most people, in my opinion, does not get conservatism completely right.  (And by the way, the fact that it does not get conservatism completely right is a large part of the reasoning behind my recommended solution of teaching MFT in our public schools:  Conservatives as well as liberals do not have a complete grasp of what conservatism is really all about.)  With all due respect to folks like Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, and other conservative intellectuals who may have at some point argue that conservatism is about resistance to change and preservations of institutions (Muller uses the word “institution” 141 times in that chapter) I strongly disagree.


Conservatism is not about “resistance to” anything at all.  Conservatism is about “respect for” the lessons learned directly from human experience, not the least of which are the moral foundations.   Those lessons are manifested in the institutions, customs, traditions, and laws, of the local culture, but those things are only the secondary effects.     Respect for lessons learned is the primary cause behind the secondary effect of preserving institutions.  This also explains, by the way, why conservatism is seemingly inconsistent, supporting, as it sometimes does, different things in different places and times.  It’s not the things themselves that conservatism defends, it is the lessons learned that they represent.  In this way conservatism is perfectly consistent across time and place.  There’s a huge difference between “resistance to” and “respect for.”


The problem, from the conservative perspective of Spaceland,  is not, per se, that too much change is coming too fast through the various redistributive policies like stimulus packages and more generally Keynesian economics, but in fact that it is the mentality behind those changes – the world view, the psyche, which results in those “solutions” – which is the root cause of many of the problems.   The conservative Spacelanders are desperately trying to say “Look!  The universe is not just two dimensional like you think it is.  There are more dimensions, and they matter!”  But it’s not working, and the liberal reaction is, to react in horror at the ability to see “inside” their world and themselves.


Unless and until we face up to the fact that Yin/Yang is not what’s really going on, and that it is instead the Spaceland/Flatland difference between policies which are based on a solid grasp of fundamental human nature and those which are not, we’re pretty much resigning ourselves to stay on the current path toward greater dependency on government largesse at the expense of the nation’s producers – with all of the social side effects that come with it – not the least of which is increasing debt and insolvency – and an ever increasing political divide.


Taking the red pill and setting aside the “comforting delusion” of Flatland, if only for a moment, can’t hurt in the battle against the disease of demoniztion, but it’s not enough of a treatment to have a significant impact on it.

The need to teach the Rider and the Elephant, the fallacy of reason, and MFT, and to show the linkages between them and economic theory, the events of history, and their consequences, is great, and unless and until we do those things liberals will continue to believe in their hearts that “flyover country” is “dumb f***istan,” (TED talk) and “care” is a virtue not only above all others but practically to the exclusion of all others, and the more they will insist on increasing it through ever more redistribution, and as a result, the more conservatives will try to maintain the balance between the individualizing and binding foundations by pulling farther and harder to the right.

I’ll say it again, I would have a much greater confidence that the leaders of our future generations will make the right choices if they had a better understanding of the true nature of human nature.

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