As he began his tenure as president of The Heritage Foundation Jim DeMint said that “Conservatives need to better articulate their message if they are to prevail in the war of ideas.” (1)
In The Washington Post he wrote, “Conservative policies have proved their worth time and time again. If we’re not communicating in a way that makes that clear, we are doing a disservice to our fellow citizens. We need to test the market and our message to communicate more effectively. (2)
The essay below contains some thoughts as to why I think conservatism struggles to articulate its message, and some suggestions on how it might do better.
1.1 The Problem With Conservatism
The problem with Conservatism is that it defies a short, easy to understand definition which captures its true essence. The lack of a clear definition causes problems not only within conservatism, but also from without.
Within conservatism the lack of a clear definition results in a lack of focus and direction. It causes conservatives to argue with one another over what conservatism is and what its goals should be rather than over how to achieve them. It is one of the main reasons conservatism has always struggled with stating what it is for, and has therefore had to settle for muddling along through the centuries able only to say what it is against.(e.g., Standing athwart history yelling Stop!). It is an impediment to conservative “messaging” in general and in election campaigns specifically. As my former professor George Odiorne used to say, “If you don’t know where you’re going any road will get you there.”
External to conservatism the lack of a clear definition leaves the door open for liberals to define it in a way that fits it neatly into the liberal grand narrative. Namely, conservatives are racist, homophobic, misogynistic, selfish, greedy, uncaring about the less fortunate, resistant to change for the sake of resistance, superstitious, which is a euphemism for religious, which in turn is a euphemism for anti-intellectual and anti-science, and on and on, all of which combine to form an ideology/morality that is, in a word, “unenlightened” about the world. The perceived small mindedness of conservatism is seen as the ultimate root cause of practically all oppression and evil throughout the entirety human history. Without an easy to understand definition of conservatism liberals have for generations gotten away with defining it as something it is not and then demonizing it for being that something, which it’s not.
Conservatism has defied a simple definition by even some of the greatest conservative minds since its inception. The best Russell Kirk could offer in “The Conservative Mind” was a list of tenets. The best Jerry Z. Muller could offer in Conservatism is a series of traits. Kieran O’Hara, in her book Conservatism echoes a view held by many that conservatism is very difficult to define.
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1.2 The Benefits of a Clear Definition
A succinct definition can act as a guide star; a vision. It can provide a central principle upon which practically all judgments can be made, and all decisions can be based. It can offer insight into where conservatism came from, what it currently is, and where it is (or at least should be) going. It can allow conservatism to state what it is FOR, and it can give conservatism a tool with which to counter and correct the liberal mythology about it.
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1.3 The Cause of the Problem
Every person, no matter their ideology, has an innate, instinctual, gut reaction to like or dislike, approach or avoid, fight or flee, the things they perceive in the social world around them.
Conservatives (and liberals too, but for now I’m talking about conservatives) don’t know the underlying psychological reasons for their gut reactions. And since they don’t know why they have those reactions they do a lot of unnecessary casting about in their attempts to defend their positions. The floundering often harms rather than helps their cause.
From the aforementioned Kirk, Muller, and O’Hara to others like Burke, Hume, Sowell, and more, countless authors have described the intuitive gut reaction of the conservative mind. Some have defended the conservative mind in terms of an intuitive grasp of fundamental human nature (Hume and Burke), or in terms of respect for traditions, institutions, customs, etc., (Burke and Muller), but nobody says WHAT IT ACTUALLY IS!
It’s as if medical science were able to define diseases only by their symptoms but was unable to identify the pathogen(s) which cause them.
What are the “pathogen(s)” that results in conservatism? If we can find them then we can truly, finally, define conservatism.
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1.4 A Solution is Now Possible
Thanks to Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) a clear understanding, and therefore a clear definition, or conservatism are now possible. And since MFT describes the human condition, and not just the conservative human condition, it can also be used to define liberalism simply and clearly.
Haidt finds that evolution has equipped the human mind with at least six psychological mechanisms that help us to operate in the social world. He calls these mechanisms Moral Foundations because they are the common ingredients of every morality. Moralities vary only in the weight that is given to each foundation.
The Moral Foundations are care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.
Haidt calls the first three of these the “individualizing” foundations because their aim is to maximize the autonomy and well being of each individual person within society. The last three foundations are the “binding” foundations because they are the glue which makes it possible for individuals to cohere into cooperative societies.
[NOTE: I dislike the term “binding.” It sounds too much like “constricting,” or “oppressing,” and it therefore is an implicit confirmation of the liberal grand narrative (i.e., mythology) of conservatism. I think “grouping” or “cohering” are better, more accurate, terms.]
Moral Foundations Theory allows us, finally, to understand the “pathogens,” the psychological root causes, for conservatism and liberalism, and with that understanding, to define each morality in clear, simple, terms.
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1.5 Conservatism Defined (Finally)
The individualizing and cohering foundations seem to operate at cross purposes. The individualizing foundations create gut reactions of dislike against perceived violations of an individual’s free will and well being. The cohering foundations seem to create similar reactions against violations of our groupishness; of our sense of community.
Sacred values that rest on the individualizing foundations can be violated by the exercise of the cohering foundations, and vice versa. It seems as if the individualizing and grouping foundations should be natural enemies.
It seems likely, therefore, that if two distinct moralities were to develop from moral foundations, that one of those moralities would be focused on the individual and the other would be focused on the group. (3)
Similarly, it seems unlikely that a morality which combines all the foundations would develop at all because such a morality might self destruct through irresolvable internal conflict. At first blush it even seems unlikely that all the foundations would, or could, exist at the same time within the psyche of a single individual because their opposition to each other might result in a lack of decisiveness, or even sort of a perpetual dumbfounding, on the part of the individual.
But that speculation overlooks the human “ability to hold opposing ideas in the mind and still retain the ability to function.” (4) It also overlooks the possibility that moral foundations can work together synergistically as a coherent team, or at least as a confederation of foundations which in combination yield the single result of the “gut reaction” of like or dislike that an individual experiences in reaction to what he or she perceives in the social world. If, as Haidt describes, the human brain operates as “a confederation of modules capable of working independently and even, sometimes, at cross-purposes” (5) then it should not be a stretch to imagine that moral foundations can work the same way.
And finally, but importantly, it also overlooks the possibility that that exact synergy or gut reaction – that innate, intuitive grasp of the necessity to balance individualizing with cohering – might itself be an evolved adaptation of the human brain. Human ultra sociality requires “all the tools in the tool box” of moral foundations. Human ultra sociality would not, could never have, happened without a natural balance between our innate desire for individualizing AND our innate need for grouping.
According to Haidt’s findings, conservatism is exactly sort of synergy.
Conservatism is the psychology, morality, and ideology of balance among all the moral foundations. It is the constant search for the sweet spot between the “individualizing” foundations and the “binding” foundations; between the desire for autonomy on the part of each individual, and the responsibility each individual shares for the health of the community.
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1.5.1 The Psychological Traits and the Morality of Conservatism Follow From the Definition
I propose that the collection of human traits that are associated with conservatism in a statistically significant way – in other words the psychology of the conservative mind – follows from the above definition in at least a correlative, if not a direct cause-and-effect, way.
The experience-based, conceptual-minded, community-focused, holistic thinking, epistemologically modest, parochially altruistic, threat sensitive, Constrained Vision of conservatism, as well as the innate intuitions (i.e., the gut reactions and subconscious cognition of the conservative elephant) and the argumentative constructs (the logical arguments and conscious cognition of the conservative rider), are all attributable to the conscious and subconscious tradeoffs that result from the opposing priorities and objectives of the individualizing and grouping foundations, and to the synergistic whole of the interplay among all the foundations.
Morality is not just external to us in the form of “practices, institutions, technologies,” it is also an integral part of the innermost workings of our brains – of our riders AND of our elephants – in the form of the “interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, … and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together.” (6) That being the case, I believe that moral foundations are the “evolved psychological mechanisms” that at least correlate with, if not actually cause, the “interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms” that are characteristic of the conservative mind, and thus of its morality and its ideology.
The rider and the elephant of an individual human being who is conservative – that is, a person with a psyche that incorporates all the foundations – is “tuned” to the idea of the evolved psychological adaptation of balance. He/she grasps at an intuitive level, with no reason-based explanation or justification required the value and importance, the necessity of the tradeoff of some restrictions on the total free will of the bees in exchange for the survival and well being of the hive. The conservative rider and elephant just know in their bones, without it having to be explained, that human survival and well being depends on “all the tools in the tool box” in equal measure. The value embedded in the habits, traditions, customs, institutions and religions that evolve within a culture is something that the conservative mind just “gets” in the deepest regions of the brain.
Moral Foundations really, truly, are foundations, not just of morality, but of the human psyche itself.
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1.5.2 Conservative Ideology Follows From the Real World Operation of Conservative Minds Throughout the Centuries
I propose that the morality/ideology of conservatism that is so exhaustively described by the likes of Hume, Burke, Kirk, Buckley, Muller, Sowell, et al naturally follows from the operation in the real world of many such minds over the course of centuries.
Haidt argued against a similar claim I made about the relationship between moral foundations and one particular trait, openness, in my “Openness To New Ides Is Not A Moral Foundation” blog post. He said that Openness/Threat Sensitivity is not …
“…a result of a configuration of foundations, or as resulting from a lack of reliance on some foundations. Openness is one of the big-5 traits, most of which can be identified in other animals. In any group of dogs, sheep, or even octopuses, some will explore more, others less. This is in large part because some individual brains are set to be more threat sensitive.”
I see what Haidt is saying. One or more of the big-5 traits exist in other animals. Such traits can’t be caused by something those other animals don’t have and the human animal does, like moral foundations.
But those other animals aren’t ultra-social like humans are. They didn’t cross the Rubicon of shared intent, they did not develop language, they did not develop massive cooperative societies of the type humans developed, they did not develop gossip as a societal defense against free riders, they did not develop the ability to use reason to attempt to persuade others, etc.
So what we probably can say, therefore, is that beginning at the point when humans crossed the Rubicon and began developing language the trait of Openness/Threat Sensitivity continued to evolve ALONG WITH the moral foundations. Maybe openness/threat sensitivity came first and moral foundations came later, but from the moment they both existed in the same brain it is reasonable to expect that each one influenced the other as they both continued to evolve; that they are “evolved psychological mechanisms that work together.”
If, as Haidt claims, moral foundations are products of natural selection then it is likely that they are threat detectors in the world of human ultra sociality. It follows that people who employ a greater suite of threat detectors are more threat sensitive, and vice versa (i.e., people who are more threat sensitive tend employ a greater suite of moral foundations.) It only makes sense that there’s a very real and measurable correlation between the moral foundations and openness/threat sensitivity.
The uniquely human manifestation of the trait of openness/threat sensitivity is therefore no longer the same one that exists in dogs, sheep, octopuses, or whatever. It is more complex, more sophisticated than those others. There’s more cognitive processing involved in it. Moral foundations are an inherent inseparable part of it. In that sense, at least, moral foundations did indeed cause the uniquely human manifestation of openness/threat sensitivity.
The same can probably be said about every other human that correlates with conservatism and liberalism in a statistically significant way.
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1.5.3 Liberalism Defined
Liberalism is the psychology, morality, and ideology of the individualizing foundations, and of those, mostly care.
The reason-based, literal-minded, individual-focused, WEIRD thinking, epistemologically immodest, globally altruistic, threat insensitive (aka, open to experience), Unconstrained Vision, intuitions, and cognitive styles liberalism and liberals is a consequence of its practically exclusive focus on only the individualizing foundations, and of them mostly Care/Harm.
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1.5.4 These Definitions Are Universal Across Time, Place, and Culture
Culture and the psyche make each other up. Different cultures arise at different times throughout history and in different locations around the world and different institutions, traditions, customs, etc., arise out of those differing circumstances.
I submit that if a thorough study could be done, what it would find at the core of conservatism in any and all times and places where conservatism is found would be, 1) all the foundations in relatively equal balance; 2) the search for balance between individualizing and cohering; and 3) most, if not all, of the personality traits and characteristics of conservatism I list above.
The same applies for liberalism. In all times and places liberalism is found, along with it will also be found 1) the individualizing foundation, and of those mostly care, 2) a lack of balance with the cohering foundations, and 3) the traits and characteristics associated with the liberal psyche.
I submit that that the proposals and claims I make here would stand up to professional peer review.
In an email to Haidt I made the claim that two traits which are characteristic of liberalism and conservatism respectively are faith in reason and faith in experience. In his response he said I had…
“…nailed one of the few best candidates for being a single principle that characterizes the lib-con dimension. (No one principle gets 70% of it, but this one, and the openness-to-experience one, are good candidates). I think that the five foundations are like taste buds, everyone’s got them, but your reason/experience split may help explain why some people then construct a morality from logic, for which tradition is irrelevant; others, like Burke, see wisdom in accumulated experience.
As you know, Sowell makes a very compatible case, about why liberals are so prone to dangerous abstractions unmoored from reality. (and i’m a liberal, but a somewhat anti-rationalist one).”
I accept and agree that “no one principle gets 70%,” including each of the traits and characteristics I list in this essay. I don’t necessarily claim that there is a one-for-one, cause-and-effect style relationship between the collection of foundations of each morality and the traits exhibited by those who ascribe to that morality. That is why I use phrases like “statistically significant” and “correlative.” But in the absence of all the research and peer review that would be necessary to either prove or disprove the existence of a one-to-one relationship I don’t disclaim it either.
I followed through with my reason/experience split in a critique of the first chapter of Jerry Z. Muller’s boo, “Conservatism,” saying:
The conservative propensity to preserve institutions is the EFFECT of a deeper core value. It is not THE core value. Muller doesn’t see this, so the article seems to be a lot of casting about, as if talking about as many different effects of the core value as possible will somehow reveal the core value. It doesn’t. He spends the entire 28 pages groping for some way to explain why conservatives defend institutions. He uses the word “institution” (or institutions, or institutionally) 141 times! It’s not about institutions!
The core value is a faith in the collected wisdom of the ages (i.e., Experience!) AS REPRESENTED BY institutions, including religion. Conservatism is not about preserving institutions; it’s about preserving the wisdom they represent. This is why conservatism can seek to preserve different institutions at different times or in different places. It’s perfectly consistent.
To which Haidt responded:
This is really cool. I like this idea. what you’d want to show, if you write about this, is how these two can come apart, e.g., find cases where some long-standing institution contradicted the wisdom, so cons disliked it for generations, and when they finally had a chance to dismantle it they did.
To which my reply is:
The American Revolution and Founding is the definitive example of exactly what he describes.
The wisdom was the English Constitution; the collection of ideas, concepts, and written laws that made up “the path” of English culture, tradition, sense of self, sense of country, and sense of the place in the world. The wisdom had collected over the centuries, notably including The Magna Carta, The Glorious Revolution, and the English Bill of Rights. The founders considered themselves to be English citizens, no different than the citizens of London or any other English city or town, entitled to all the same rights and obligated by all the same responsibilities like paying taxes and following the laws.
The long-standing institution which contradicted the wisdom was English Parliament itself, and the Crown. The contradictions came through Parliamentary actions like the Molasses Act, the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, etc. (7)
The psychology, morality, and ideology of the American Colonists rested on all the moral foundations and sought to achieve balance between individualizing and cohering. I am certain that if study like the one Haidt performed on sermons from conservative and liberal churches were performed on the pamphlets and other writings of that era, , would prove this to be true. The Americans were, by (my) definition, conservative. The American Revolution and Founding are the definitive, founding movements of American conservatism.
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I honestly believe that the above definitions of conservatism and liberalism, as well as all the items in my list of distinguishing features of conservatism and liberalism are at least as defendable, on the basis of Moral Foundations Theory, as the experience/reason characterization Haidt praised. I also believe that many, if not most, if not all, events in human history can be better interpreted, understood, and explained through the lens of MFT. I believe this is especially true of the histories of what we call liberalism and conservatism.
If conservatism were more self aware through the above succinct, easily understood definition of itself it would be better equipped to recognize its own irrational commitments. It would do a better job of resisting the urge to circle the wagons. It would be better able to keep its eye on the balance, and, since the individualizing foundations are half of conservatism it would be more open to ideas stemming from them. It would have a clearer vision of, and focus on, its message, and on the real problem it is trying to solve (i.e., balance), and it would be able to communicate that message more clearly during election campaigns.
Non-conservatives would be less able to paint conservatism and conservatives with the broad brush of the mythology about them that makes up a large portion of the liberal grand narrative and which contributes so greatly to the political divide.
Acceptance and adoption by the American culture of the definitions of conservatism and liberalism that I propose here – definitions which are based on the scientific evidence and peer reviewed findings of Haidt’s work, and which are supported by the facts of history – would, in my humble opinion, be a powerful antidote to the demonization Haidt decries, and an equally powerful force in the reduction of the political divide.
Acceptance and adoption of these definitions would go a long way toward accomplishing the goal Haidt set for The Righteous Mind:
My goal in this book is to drain some of the heat, anger, and divisiveness out of these topics and replace them with a mixture of awe, wonder, and curiosity.
They are also the key, the Rosetta Stone, to achieving Jim DeMint’s goal of better articulating conservatism.
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2.0 Notes and References
(1) The Heritage Foundation
(2) The Washington Post, Januray 10, 2012
(3) This, I believe, is how the political divide is perceived and depicted by many. It is a fundamental presupposition which underlies a great majority of political discourse. It is reinforced by your Yin/Yang characterization of liberalism and conservatism. And it’s wrong.
(4) Quote attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald
(5) The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt
(6) From Jonathan Haidt’s definition of morality, on page 274 of his book, “TheRighteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.” That definition is:
a.“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.”
(7) These are facts of history. Here’s an excerpt from a lecture by Daniel N. Robinson, Ph. D. as part of the “Founding a ‘Republic of Virtue’” course published by “The Great Courses,” Chantilly, VA. These excerpts reflect many of the themes in this essay.
Patrick Henry actually crafted a set of resolutions to be considered b the Virginia House of Burgesses. Listen to these resolutions:
Resolved that the first adventurers and settlers of His Majesty’s colony and dominion of Virginia brought with them and transmitted to their posterity all the liberties, privileges, franchise, and immunities that have at any time been held, enjoyed, and possessed by the people of Great Britain.
In other words, what the Virginia House is saying is geography here is irrelevant. Those who came here as Englishmen came here with all the rights, liberties, and privileges that they would have enjoyed had they stayed in the homeland, in the Mother Country, and who better than such people knew the price that had been paid for these, for these liberties, do you see? Tracing back to the Magna Charta (sic) early in the 13th century, going through wars of revolution, Glorious Revolutions, Puritan Revolutions, Parliamentary wars against the Crown. With all that in the background merely taking a ship and coming to Virginia could not possibly strip you of those things for which your own relatives had lived and died. So, the first thing Virginia wants to make clear is it’s not a war of independence, but look, we are British subjects, we came here with these rights and liberties. They cannot be abrogated merely because we moved someplace else.
Second, “Resolved, that by two royal charters granted by King James I,” you know, to his suitors, do you see? “Granted by King James I, the colonists of foresaid are declared entitled to all liberties, privileges, and immunities of denizens and natural subjects, to all intents and purposes, as if they had been abiding and born within the realm of England.” It is the case, by the way, that the royal charters (going back very early in the 17th century) made no distinction with respect to rights and liberties, between those who remained in England and those who had come to the New World. So, in this, the House of Burgesses, we’ll be relying on documents that were already printed documents, signed by the king, signed by a king, signed by James I.
Resolved, that the taxation of the people by themselves, or by persons chosen by themselves to represent them, who can only know what taxes the people are able to bear, or the easiest method of raising them, and must themselves be affected by every tax laid on the people, is the only security against a burdensome taxation and the distinguishing characteristic of British freedom, without which the ancient constitution cannot exist.
Now, this resolution is saying that if you accept the principle on which Parliament is acting, you can’t even preserve the British constitution. Who knows better what the people can bear by way of taxation than their representatives living with them and among them. P.S., whatever scheme of taxation their representatives pass, their representatives are subject to. They will end up bearing the same burdens, and there is, indeed, a healthy degree of selfishness such that if I’m putting together a stream of taxation that, of course, is going to take money out of my pocket too, in addition with being fair to everybody else I might tend to be, perhaps, excessively fair to myself, or at least as fair to myself. What this resolution is saying is you people are nearly 4,000 miles away, and whatever it is you do over there you don’t’ pay for, we pay for. You have no idea what local conditions are that we are facing, what our needs are, what the traffic will bear. Indeed, if the principle that you’re asserting is that you are doing this by right so that, indeed, you could do it against Norfolk by right, and you could do it to Oxfordshire, by right. Well, the British constitution itself couldn’t survive a rationale of this sort.
Resolved, therefore, that the general assembly of this colony have the only and sole exclusive right and power to lay taxes and impositions upon the inhabitants of this colony, and that every attempt to vest such power in any person or persons whatsoever, other than the general assembly aforesaid, has a manifest tendency to destroy British as well as American freedom.
This is a theme that will be repeated often. It will be developed by John Adams, for example. It will be developed by other leading writers in the late colonial experience, the pre-Revolutionary period, and it will be repeated by Edmund Burke. That is to say, the principles being advanced and defended by the colonists are the principles that ground the British constitution itself. You subvert the British constitution by promulgating laws like this and taxes like that at that great distance.