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Liberalism is an Asteroid

The Asteroids Club is a concept and a web site developed by Jonathan Haidt to foster civil discussion among people who disagree about politics.

A few quotes selected from around the web site give an idea of what it’s about:

1. a unique non-debate on America’s biggest problems, which are hurtling toward us through space and time at an alarming rate of speed 2. a gathering convened by two people who disagree politically but are willing to mutually acknowledge that the other side may see some real threats more clearly than does one’s own side 3. offering more entertainment value than you can possibly have if you only talk to people you agree with 4. asteroid club motto: “I’ll help you deflect your asteroid, if you help me deflect mine.”

The Asteroids Club is a new approach to communicating about the civic problems that polarize – and paralyze – us. The concept grew out of the field of moral psychology, which tells us that people are more likely to find common ground when they unite to fight common threats. We hope you will join in our adventure and help us grow this new idea by starting an Asteroids Club in your hometown. There are so many asteroids and so little time.

An asteroid is something that – if not addressed – inevitably will get worse/closer/bigger/more dangerous. For example, as someone who has formed an organization to combat the deepening partisan divide, I consider growing partisanship and political tribalism an asteroid. In fact, it might be such a big one that it keeps us from deflecting the other incoming ones.

But, enough about our asteroids. We want to hear about your asteroids. Please post in the comment thread to suggest asteroids. We might just add your asteroid, along with a little asteroid-deflecting research, to our official asteroids-coming-straight-at-us priority list.

I posted the following asteroid suggestion on the web site.


For me personally, the biggest asteroid of all is liberalism. Jonathan Haidt’s work and the facts of history are two main pillars of support for my assertion.
The following is a brief synopsis of my rationale.

  • A) If moral foundations really are products of natural selection (1) then it is likely that their purpose is to allow us to perceive and react to real world threats to our survival and well being in the social world. Moral foundations are the source of our instinctive gut reaction to like or dislike, approach or avoid, and fight or flee the things we perceive in the social world around us. They are threat detection modules which help humans achieve a level of ultra sociality that is unique in the animal kingdom. (2) Moral foundations are fundamental elements of human nature.

It is unreasonable to expect that a morality which relies on only half of our naturally selected threat detectors of social interaction and which openly and actively demonizes the “values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms” (3) surrounding moralities which rely on the full spectrum of human nature (i.e., all the foundations working together in concert) to have a complete and accurate intuitive grasp fundamental human nature or of the real world threats to human society or to respond to those threats in ways that produce positive results.

Haidt’s work supports this assertion. He has concluded that conservatives have a better grasp of human nature than do liberals. (4) Specific studies of his show that conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives. (5)

  • B) Moral foundations are not only the basis for our instinctive reactions, they are also the cognitive tools of reason we use to explain and defend those reactions. (6)

It is highly likely, therefore, that rational thought by a mind and/or a morality which derives its intuitions almost exclusively from only the individualizing foundations will tend to see and think and analyze human sociality in terms of “a world full of separate objects rather than relationships.”

It is also highly likely that rational thought by a mind and/or a morality which derives its intuitions from all of the foundations in equal balance will have the ability to think not only in terms of objects but also in terms of the relationships among them, and in terms of people being part of something larger than themselves.

This is in fact the case, as Haidt describes in “The New Science of Morality” (7) and in “Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion.” (8)

  • C) “Happiness comes from the between. Happiness is not something that you can find, acquire, or achieve directly. You have to get the conditions right and then wait. Some of those conditions are within you, such as coherence among the parts and levels of your personality. Other conditions require relationships to things beyond you: Just as plants need sun, water, and good soil to thrive, people need love, work, and connection to something larger. It is worth striving to get the right relationships between yourself and something larger than yourself. If you get the relationships right, a sense of purpose and meaning will emerge.” (9)

The “between” is social and moral capital. As Dr. Haidt explains, “We can define moral capital as the resources that sustain a moral community. More specifically, moral capital refers to “the degree to which a community possesses interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that mesh well with evolved psychological mechanisms and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.” (10)

Social and moral capital come from all the foundations working in concert. Social and moral capital are not possible without an equal helping of all the foundations, balancing the desires of the individual “bees” within a society against the needs of the “hive” of society itself. Civil society, civilization itself, requires “all the tools in the tool box” (11) of moral foundations, and is indeed not possible without them.

Liberalism, because it sees, feels, thinks, and rationalizes with only the individualizing foundations not only fails to perceive and understand the value of social and moral capital, but also undermines and destroys it. Conservatism, because it uses all the foundations does understand, and does a better job of creating and protecting social and moral capital, and thus the between, and thus human happiness.

I submit that the facts of history support these assertions.

It is because liberalism rests on a partial grasp of human nature at both the intuitive and the cognitive levels that its entire history – from the genocide of the French revolution (12) to the dissolution of the family via the mentality of entitlements and the nanny state, to the hostile environment that exists on college campuses for non-liberals (13) to the multiple damages of affirmative action (14) to the mob mentality of OWS, to the New Atheist style WEIRD thinking (7) that misunderstands and misinterprets religion (8) – is one of continued destruction of the between of moral and social capital and the continued increase of chaos and anomie.

As R. R. Reno said in the June 1, 2012 edition of First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, “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.”

The righteous mind (the phenomenon, not the book) is an integral part of the history of mankind, and certainly of politics. For example, I submit that analyses and formal studies of history would reveal that the liberal and conservative righteous minds – and the grasp of human nature that come with each – provided the intellectual underpinnings of the French and American Revolutions respectively, and more recently of the Occupy and Tea Party movements in America (the “manifesto,” of the Tea Party is The Constitution of the United States and the principles on which it stands).

The two outlooks are also reflected, I submit, in the economic visions of Keynes and Hayek. I submit that Moral foundations are evident in the stories and fables we tell our preschoolers, and in the literature our teenagers read in high school English.

In the introduction to The Righteous Mind Haidt sets the tone of his book by quoting Rodney King, saying “Please, we can get along here. We can all get along. I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s try to work it out.” (15)

If we really do want to reduce demonization and shrink the political divide then we MUST understand why people think and say and do the things they do, and we MUST make the connections between that understanding and events, past and current, in the real world, and we MUST teach all of those things to our children.

Without that understanding and those connections social science and The Asteroids Club and our leadership in government and business, all, are operating in the dark, seeing and reacting only to effects, ignorant of their underlying causes. If medical science operated that way it would treat only symptoms, and it would never wonder why those symptoms occur. The patients might feel better, for a while, and the doctors might feel good about themselves, thinking they’re making a contribution, but in the long run the all that really does is allow the underlying pathogens to continue to do their damage unabated.

I propose that the best solution is to teach Moral Foundations Theory and the other workings of the human mind – like intuitive primacy but not dictatorship and The Argumentative Theory (16)- that Haidt describes in The Righteous Mind and in the rest of his work in age appropriate modules at every level of our school system.

Practically every subject could include a module which explicitly identifies and reinforces the ideas of The Righteous Mind and shows how those ideas are brought to bear on that subject; Even, or possibly especially, “Health” classes, where our kids might be taught how moral foundations can sometimes make it difficult to see eye to eye, and how understanding where others are “coming from” can help them to get past that problem.

We cannot possibly expect future generations to get along, or to come to some sort of consensus on issues like climate change, rising inequality, entitlement spending, or dissolution of the family, or to pass legislation that is in the best interests of everyone, unless and until we “change the path” (17) in a way that gives them a truer grasp of fundamental human nature, and of why getting along can be so hard to do. Until that time the political divide will only, CAN only, continue to widen and deepen.


(1) This concept is described at length in “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion,” by Jonathan Haidt.

(2) The concepts of intuitive primacy and human ultra sociality are central to Haidt’s work and appear throughout it. An entertaining and accessible example is his 2008 TED Talk, here.

(3) The definition of morality, or moral systems, on page 274 of The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt reads: “Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.”

(4) Haidt has made this claim more than once, including

a. In an interview by Bill Moyers. Transcript here.

b. Quoted by Marc Parry in “The Chronicle of Higher Education”, January 29, 2012, in an article entitled Jonathan Haidt Decodes the Tribal Psychology of Politics

(5) The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt

(6) The metaphor of the relationship between reason and intuition in the human mind as that of a rational rider on the back of an intuitive element is described by Haidt early in his book “The Happiness Hypothesis.

(7) Haidt describes WEIRD thought at an Edge conference called The New Science of Morality.  

(8) See Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion

(9) The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt, page 239.

(10) From an article by Jonathan Haidt on the Physicians for a National Health Program web site

(11) From Jonathan Haidt’s 2008 TED talk entitled The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives.

(12) The genocide of the French Revolution, and more broadly a discussion of what happened when the liberal morality had complete control of a country, is described by Haidt in a presentation he made to The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University entitled When Compassion Leads to Sacrilege.

a. I personally typed a transcript of that lecture and posted it here.

(13) See Jonathan Haidt’s presentation The Bright Future of Post-Partisan Social Psychology

a. I submit that the phenomenon he describes is prevalent throughout all of academia, rather than in just the narrow realm of academic social science as he describes. See The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, here.

b. Also see the book “Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate,” by Greg Lukianoff, here.

(14) See books like “Wounds That Will Not Heal: Affirmative Action and Our Continuing Racial Divide,” by Russell K. Nieli, “Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study (Yale Nota Bene),” by Thomas Sowell, and “Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It,” by Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor.

(15) Rodney King, quoted by Jonathan Haidt, in the introduction to “The Righteous Mind.”

(16) The findings of social scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber suggest that reason evolved for the purpose of winning arguments, it did not evolve for the purpose of finding the truth. See “The Argumentative Theory,” here

(17) “Change the path” is a concept endorsed by Jonathan Haidt which was introduced by Chip Heath and Dan Heath in their book “Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard.”


3 thoughts on “Liberalism is an Asteroid

  1. In my last comment “ready” should be “read”. I r bad speller.


    Posted by George Smith | January 25, 2013, 7:45 pm
  2. Do you have a link to where you put your comment? I’d like to ready any replies that come through.


    Posted by George Smith | January 25, 2013, 7:44 pm

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