What is the fundamental problem all societies try to solve?
The fundamental problem is the resolution of the natural tension that exists between human desire for individual autonomy and the limits that must necessarily be placed on that autonomy in order for cooperative society to exist. It is finding the proper balance between the individualizing foundations and the binding(1) foundations.
A NEW SPECTRUM
With that in mind, I propose that every society, every morality, can be mapped on a continuum between individualizing and binding that looks something like this;
-5 0 +5
Individualizing Balanced Binding
MAPPING MORALITIES TO THE NEW SPECTRUM:
Haidt assigns numerical scores to each foundation based on answers given by study participants on questionnaires. The results of some of those socres are shown in graphs in The Righteous Mind. I found a paper online by Ravi Iyer, Spassena Koleva, Jess Graham, Peter Ditto, and Jonathan Haidt which contains some of the actual numbers. That paper is Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Dispositions of Self-Identified Libertarians. A set of scores for Liberalism, Conservatism, and Libertarianism is included in the paper. Those scores are listed below, with one small difference. I changed the numbers assigned to the individualizing foundations to negative values. If an individualizing foundation had a score of, say 3.5 in the paper, I changed that number to -3.5. The paper splits “Liberty” into two types; Lifestyle Liberty and Economic Liberty. For convenience I averaged the two numbers as a way to represent the single foundation of Liberty/Oppression. I think that average is probably sufficiently accurate for my purpose here. Here are the numbers.
|Average of Liberty||-3.105||-3.695||-4.37|
Plotting those scores, we get something like the following, where “L” represents Liberalism, “C” represents conservatism, and “N” represents Libertarianism.
-5 0 +5
Individualizing Balanced Binding
Notice that liberalism is on the left, Libertarianism is a little to the right of that, and conservatism, represented by the C, is a little bit to the left of dead center.
MAPPING FORMS OF GOVERNMENT TO THE NEW SPECTRUM:
To do the analysis of forms of government I would scrutinize their writings the same way Haidt did with liberal and conservative church Sermons. I have not done such a study, but I believe that if one were to be performed on ideologies that are generally not part of modern day discussions about politics then the right side of the spectrum would fill in. For example, I would think that dictatorships (D), Italian Fascism (F), Soviet Communism (U), German National Socialism (Z), and Muslim Fundamentalism (M), would all place heavy emphasis on Authority and Loyalty. And in the case of Nazism (Z) and Muslim Fundamentalism probably also on Purity. There would probably be little emphasis on liberty by any of them. (I’m talking about actual liberty, not lip service to it). They might all make appeals to Care, but those might be focused more on Loyalty to the tribe than actual care for the individuals within it. Careful analysis would be requred, I believe, of claims of Care. If Fairness is emphasized it is probably only Positive Fairness. If we “ran the numbers” on those ideologies the spectrum might look something like the following. The ideologies might be more spread out, not as bunched together, as I show them here, but I think they’d all be somewhere on on the right side of the spectrum:
-5 0 +5
Individualizing Balanced Binding
I submit that this scale is capable of representing the whole story of human political ideology. That is, every morality, community, society, or governmental system – present, past, and future – will fall somewhere on this scale.
THREE REASONS WHY THE CURRENT SPECTRUM FAILS
Reason One: It Tells Only Half The Story
I submit that the currently accepted conventional wisdom of a political spectrum which extends from liberalism on the left to conservatism on the right tells just half the story of human morality and politics. It fails to provide an accurate representation of what happens in the real world.
I submit that the current spectrum depicts only the “Individualizing” half of the full spectrum, and in so doing it tilts all political discussion heavily in favor of liberalism.
Haidt says that it is difficult to talk directly about concepts. He says it’s just not easy to use facts and figures and measurable quantities to convey big ideas. The way we talk about big ideas is through metaphor.
Exhibit A in the pantheon of metaphors is The Rider and The Elephant.
Exhibit B in the pantheon of metaphors is the political spectrum.
The metaphor of the political spectrum is the essential framework upon which practically all political discussion rests. It is the fundamental presumption, the implicit and unspoken “ground rules,” the “given,” the box, the framework, that constrains and defines the limits and extent of practially every discussion we have about morality and politics.
And it’s wrong. It leaves out half the story, and by implication it sends the messag that anything having to do with the other half of the story is outside the box of what is considered “normal” and “acceptable,” and is therefore “extremist,” or is somehow not valid.
How can we possibly expect to have reasonable and informed discussions about politics, morality, and ideology if the central metaphor upon which all of our discussions rest is wrong?
The answer is, we can’t. And yet, here we are, in The Righteous Mind, on the major network news stations, on the legitimate cable news stations, on Comedy Central, and in countless newspapers and magazines, doing exactly that.
Some might argue that the current scale does not fail because it is indeed capable of telling the whole story. The argument of that perspective might be that ideologies of dictatorships, Fascism, Communism, and Nazism are simply examples of extremist, far right, conservatism.
Well, even if that’s true (and it’s not) then modern conservatism still belongs in the center and the conventional wisdom of the currently accepted political spectrum with liberalism on the left and conservatism on the right therefore is tells only half the story, and it’s therefore still wrong.
Think about it. Conservatism is in the middle of the political spectrum. It’s not on the right. What that means is that the “center” of the political spectrum in this country is actually at the 1/4 mark of the full spectrum, well into the range of what might otherwise be considered “liberal.”
But that’s not the only reason the current spectrum is wrong. Another reason is that it connects things that aren’t really connected.
Here’s what I mean.
Reason Two: It Connects Things That Aren’t Connected
The liberal left of the currently accepted political spectrum is generally connected with notions that are less groupish, less “binding” – and sometimes even anti-groupish and anti-binding – and have a strong tendency toward concepts of Positive Fairness and collectivism, and is generally associated with the desire for change and progress. The conservative right of the current spectrum is generally connected with notions that are more groupish, more “binding,” and have a strong tendency toward concepts of Negative Fairness and anti-collectivism, and is generally associated with resistance to change and maintenance of the staut quo.
But this doesn’t square with reality. Those connections don’t ring true. Things that are commonly assumed to “go together” sometimes don’t. For example, some of the most extremist applications of the binding foundations; some of the most oppressive, murderous regimes that have ever existed – the aforementioned Communism, Fascism, and Nazism, for example – have been dedicated to notions of positive fairness and collectivism. And some of the moralities and governments that have been the most resistant to change have been based on ideas of positive fairness and collectivism. Examples of these include Comunist Cuba and Communist China.
And the most centrist application of the individualizing foundations; and probably the least oppressive, most open, most freeing, most egalitarian, most “progressive” form of government that has ever been created, a form of government which, possibly more than any other before or since, represents change, the American Government, has been dedicated to notions of negative fairness and anti-collectivism.
“But wait,” you might say. “How can that be?” you may ask. “I thought liberal = individualizing = anti-groupish = positive fairness = collectivist = freeing, and I thought conservative = binding = groupish = negative fairness = anti-collectivist = oppressive. But if what you’re saying is correct, and those connections aren’t true, and things can be switched around so that sometimes positive fairness = collectivist = binding = oppressive (as in Soviet Communism, for example), and sometimes negative fairness = anti-collectivist = individualizing = freeing (as in America’s founding principles, for example), then some of the most basic, most fundamental, most bedrock assumptions upon which all of our arguments and discussions about ideology and politics have been based for generations are wrong; and not just wrong, but sometimes completely backwards. My goodness! What have we done?”
The commonly presumed connection of oppressive “binding” to anti-collectivist conservatism, and the commonly presumed connection of freeing “individualizing” to collectivist liberalism are not supported by the facts of history. Those connections are not always true, and the assumption that they almost always are, to the point that “oppressive” is practically a de-facto definition of conservatism, and “feeing” is practically a de-facto definition of liberalism, is wrong. (Imagine a word-association game with a liberal. I think it’s not a stretch to imagine a response to “conservative” might be “oppressive.”)
One of the most fundamental presumptions behind the central metaphor of the left/right political spectrum – the connection between right and oppression, and the connection between left and freeing – upon which all of our discussions and arguments about morality, ideology, and politics are based, is false. “Oppressive” and “conservative” do not go together, and “Freeing” and “Liberal” do not go together. These things don’t correlate the way conventional wisdom presumes they do. In a statisitcially significant way the left is sometimes extremely oppressive, and the right is sometimes extremely freeing.
In order for any political spectrum to accurately represent what is going on in the real world then the implicit connection between consevatism and oppression, and the implicit connection between liberalism and freeing must be disconnected. If the central metaphor upon which practially all political descussion rests is to be accurate then the commonly presumed associations between oppression and the right, and between freedom from oppression and the left, must be disassociated.
Let me be clear: This does not mean that conservatism can’t be oppressive or that liberalism can’t be freeing. All it means is that conservatism and liberalism are not defined by those things – and in fact they both can and do contradict those things, and not infrequently, and not in a small way – and any suggestion that they are is wrong
Reason Three: It Presents a False Choice
The implication of the currently accepted conventional wisdom of a political spectrum defined by liberalism on the left and conservatism on the right is that Liberalism=Individualizing and Conservatism=Binding.
Haidt’s data shows that implication is incorrect. Conservatism does not equate to the binding foundations. Conservatism equates to a balance among ALL the foundations.
Yet because the current political spectrum is constructed the way it is the incorrect implication persists. This implication frames all political discussion as a choice between the freedom of liberal individualizing and the oppression of conservative binding. This is a false choice.
The debate between liberals and conservatives is not a debate between the individualizing foundations on the left of the spectrum and the binding foundations on the right. It is a debate between the individualizing foundations on the left and a balanced view of all the foundations in the center. It is a debate between the two boundaries of the left half – the liberal half – of the full political spectrum.
HOW THE CURRENT SPECTRUM HURTS US
The combined effect of the all the different incorrect assumptions and false choices that are built in to the currently accepted political spectrum have a devastating effect on political discourse.
The metaphor of a political spectrum with liberalism on the left and conservatism on the right puts a box around political discussion in a way that forces it into an either/or type of choice between the freedom of “individualizing” liberalism and the oppression of “binding” conservatism. Fully half of what happens in the real world, the half on the right side of the proposed new spectrum, where in humanity is often at its oppresive worst and freedom is actually crushed, is outside the box. It is simply squeezed out of the discussion as if it doesn’t exist; it’s out of sight and out of mind; it’s not part of the equation.
By depicting the political divide as an either/or battle between liberalism on the left and conservatism on the right – when in fact conservatism, rightly understood, is in the center of the spectrum and extremist, oppressive collectivism is on the far right and ignored by the current spectrum – the conventional wisdom skews all political discussion heavily toward the world view of the left.
The playing field of political debate starts out tilted so far toward the left that liberalism has a three touchdown lead before conservatism even takes the field. The world view is so skewed to the left that what is actually the center, as the calculations, their representations on the spectrum above, and the arguments presented here show, is assumed to be the extremist right. And what is considered to be centrist in American politics is actually solidly on the left, it’s just not quite as far to the extreme left as liberalism is.
And Haidt, even with all his highly commendable and often successful efforts to be descriptive and not normative propagates and promotes this false choice throughout all of his work, both explicitly, through his Yin/Yang formulation, and implicitly.
I’ve talked at length elsewhere about Yin/Yang. Here I’ll talk a little about how he propagate this notion implicitly.
When Haidt talk about the benefits and insights of the six foundation morality he often weakens the value of the benefit or insight by adding a caveat, saying something to the effect of “I am not saying conservatism is better, in fact, too much of it can be too restricting, too stifling to the human spirit.”
By taking this approach he implicitly supports the idea that the bottom line is an either/or choice between two “pure” moralities; a liberal/individualizing one and a conservative/binding one. By doing so he supports the view that conservatism is on the extremist right, void of any of the individualizing foundations, rather than in the moderate center where it actually is, and he throws life rings to liberals which let them answer “must I believe there is some good in conservatism?” with an easy “no” and sigh of relief.
In this way the currently accepted conventional wisdom of a political spectrum defined by liberalism on the right and conservatism on the right is a denigration of conservatism, and an unfounded one at that. It mischaracterizes conservatism as something it is not, which forces conservatism, and conservatives, into the position of having to debunk the false impression about itself that holds sway. This handicaps conservatism in any discussion by placing it “behind the eight ball” of false presumptions about it before any discussion even starts. How fair can a political discussion be when one side bases its arguments on an impression of the other side and its views that is flat out wrong? Not very, I’d venture.
In his paper Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion Haidt says “If we want to stage a fair fight between religious and secular moralities, we can’t eliminate one by definition before the match begins.” And of course, he’s right.
If he’s right about the match between religion and secularism then he’s also right about the match between liberalism and conservatism. But, for all practical purposes the currently accepted conventional wisdom of a political spectrum defined by “individualizing” liberalism on the left and “binding” conservatism on the right does exactly what Haidt says should not be done. By defining conservatism as something it’s not, and then proceeding with the match between it and liberalism, the real conservatism – conservatism rightly understood – is eliminated from the match by definition before the match begins.
Example: The American Revolution
The American Revolution was a conservative movement. Even a cursory read of the federalist papers and the pamphlets of the american revolution (the eighteenth century version of todays bloggers) reveals that all six foundations (and a seventh; rightful ownership, or dominion over that which is rightfully earned)(2) in equal balance were instrumental to our founding. That balance is, practically speaking, the definition of conservatism. I submit that if an analysis were perfomed on The Federalist like the one Haidt did on the liberal and conservative church sermons The Federalist would plot very close to the exact center of the spectrum I present above.
Liberals may criticize this interpretation of the revolution by pointing to the presence of the individualizing foundations as proof of the liberalness of it. This overlooks or ignores the fact that the individualizing foundations are half of conservatism! What defines conservatism is the balance between them and the binding foundations. That’s what puts conservatism at the center of the political spectrum I am proposing here. On the other hand, what defines liberalism is the absence of balance. But it is balance – “all the tools in the tool box” – which suppresses selfishness and makes cooperative civilization possible; it is the source of the “greatest miracle” Haidt talked about in his 2008 TED Talk. It is the souce of social capital, which in turn is the source of “the between,” which is where happiness comes from. That exact balance, placing it at the center of the political spectrum rather than on the right, is a hallmark of America’s founding, and of conservatism.
CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS
I propose that it political spectrum I offer in this essay presents a fair, honest, and accurate metaphor which can be used to accurately depict every morality, every ideology, every form of government that ever has or will exist. It offers a metaphor which is capable of telling the whole story, and telling it in a way that is free from the false presumptions, free of false choices, and free of the untrue associations which plague the conventional wisdom of the currently accepted political spectrum and by extension practially all political discourse.
The political divide is not, as is popularly perceived, an either/or choice between too much liberal individualizing and too much conservative binding. The currently accepted spectrum of liberal left and conservative right increases the depth and breadth of the political divide and exacerbates associated problems like demonization. This is part of the reason for my recommended solution, which I describe in The Bottom Line and Imagine.
(1) By the way, I don’t like the word “binding.” It sounds too much like handcuffing; tying up; restraining; oppressing. It sounds too much like the liberal view of conservatism (which, according to Haidt’s findings is wrong. ) I’d prefer a different word, like cohering. But I digress.
(2)Ownership includes some component of “earning,” or “rightful” or “justifiable” ownership.