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Asteroids, Liberalism & Conservatism, The Moral Mind In Action

The Elephant in the Room

I think The Asteroids Club, and more broadly Haidt’s Yin/Yang metaphor of the relationship between liberalism and conservatism scrupulously, though possibly not intentionally, avoid discussing the elephant in the room and strongly steer discussions toward liberal thought patterns and conclusions.

I made a suggestion on the Club’s web site for some reading materials about the Asteroid of Entitlement Spending.  I included the following comment in my suggestion:

I propose that entitlement spending is the effect of a deeper cause.  The deeper cause is the mentality behind notions such as “social justice” and “positive liberty” which are characteristic of the three-foundation morality of liberalism, which emphasizes the moral foundation of “care” above all others.

The response from the Club was as follows:

“We probably won’t look at the deeper causes/philosophical underpinning because our goal is to get people to agree on the factual nature of the asteroid coming toward us – that’s a big enough lift in the current political environment.  Anyone having been told that broadly their philosophy is flawed becomes more defensive and less likely to listen.”

It is not my intention to disrupt the proceedings of The Asteroids Club.  But upon reading that response and then thinking things through a little, I can’t help wondering…..

If not for the “deeper causes/philosophical underpinning[s]” then wouldn’t there be no such thing as “conservative” and “liberal” asteroids?  Wouldn’t everyone see the same asteroids?

Isn’t the deeper cause/philosophical underpinning of an asteroid therefore the single most important aspect of its “factual nature?”


Isn’t the refusal to “look at the deeper causes/philosophical underpinning” of an asteroid the logical equivalent of refusing to look at a recent drought when considering the “factual nature” of dead grass; or refusing to look at the flame under a pot when considering the “factual nature” of the water boiling inside it?


In  Liberals Think More Analytically (More “WEIRD”) than Conservatives Haidt (et al) observed that “liberals seem to prefer analytic reasoning more than conservatives,” tending to “see the world as made up of singular, distinct objects that can be separated from their context.” Whereas “social conservatives tended to be more holistic, spreading their attention to include more of the context and the relationships between items.(1)

Isn’t the refusal to “look at the deeper causes/philosophical underpinning because our goal is to get people to agree on the factual nature of the asteroid coming toward us,” an examplar of WEIRD thought in practice?  

Doesn’t the refusal to “to look at the deeper causes/philosophical underpinning because our goal is to get people to agree on the factual nature of the asteroid”, effectively allow only WEIRD thought and eliminate by definition the possibility of discussing a world of relationships? Doesn’t it eliminate by definition any discussion about the holistic, emergent nature of the complex systems that moralities are, and the effect that nature has on society and the people in it?


Isn’t it true that strength of belief does not equate to strength of position?  In other words, isn’t it true that the simple fact that two people (or two moralities) believe equally strongly in different things does not mean that those things, or those moralities, are equally valid?

Isn’t it also true that the fact that different moralities offer valuable insights does not mean that those moralities impart equal net benefit or cost to society?

Isn’t it therefore a logical fallacy to presume the opposite?  Isn’t it a fallacy to presume that just because people or moralities see things differently but equally strongly, or that different moralities offer valid insights, that those moralities are, overall, equally beneficial to society in a Yin/Yang sort of way?

Isn’t that presumption moral relativism?  Isn’t the presumption of moral relativism, therefore, a logical fallacy?

And yet, isn’t that exact presumption a prerequisite, a ” philosophical underpinning,” for The Asteroids Club motto, “I’ll help you deflect your asteroid if you’ll help me deflect mine?”  And if it’s not, then why refuse to talk about the causes/philosophical underpinning of an asteroid?


Haven’t WEIRD thought and moral relativism been hallmarks of liberalism since the philosophes?


In “Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion” Haidt says, “The new atheists treat religions as sets of beliefs about the world, many of which are demonstrably false. Yet anthropologists and sociologists who study religion stress the role of ritual and community much more than of factual beliefs about the creation of the world or life after death.”


“If we want to stage a fair fight between religious and secular moralities, we can’t eliminate one by definition before the match begins.”

But isn’t The Asteroids Club doing exactly that?  Doesn’t the club’s insistence on allowing only WEIRD thought and its presumption of moral relativism essentially eliminate non-liberal thought and morality from the conversation by definition before discussions about how to deflect asteroids even begins?

Doesn’t that make The Asteroids Club a Trojan horse for liberalism?


Doesn’t the deeper cause/philosophical underpinning of a person’s viewpoint act as the filter, perspective, and framework – the moral matrix, the moral lens – through which they perceive and react to the world of human sociality?  Isn’t that, in fact, the root cause of why “the other side may see some real threats more clearly?”

Isn’t it equally possible that that filter can cloud one’s vision?  Isn’t it equally possible that the other side may see real threats less clearly, or possibly not at all, or see threats that aren’t really there, or at least aren’t as dangerous as they’re perceived to be?

Isn’t that, in fact, the point of “morality binds and blinds?”


Isn’t it possible that a morality which perceives and thinks about the world with only half of the “evolved psychological mechanisms” that “make cooperative societies possible” might tend to see and understand only a portion of the “factual nature” of human sociality, or of human nature itself?  Isn’t that, in actual fact, exactly what Haidt’s findings demonstrate?

Isn’t it also possible that, since one’s vision, one’s perception, is clouded in this way, that one’s reactions to that vision may be less effective than reactions based on a clearer, more complete, view, and may even be harmful?

Isn’t it possible that the “values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, beliefs, practices, traditions, customs, and especially the government policies, which result from a clouded, partial vision of human sociality might actually be the true root cause of an asteroid?

Isn’t it possible that the myopia of the morality of “care” and the “reason” of WEIRD thought may, in fact, be the root cause of some of today’s asteroids, just as it was the root cause of the “The Terror” and the genocide of the French Revolution, as Dr. Haidt described in his “When Compassion Leads to Sacrilege” talk at CCARE?

Isn’t the most effective way to deflect an asteroid, or to solve almost any problem at all, to address its root cause rather than just its symptoms?

Doesn’t the refusal “to look at the deeper causes/underpinning” of asteroids, by definition, eliminate discussions of root causes from the proceedings of The Asteroids Club?


Isn’t it possible that a morality which uses all of the “evolved psychological mechanisms” that “make cooperative societies possible” will tend to have a less clouded vision?  Isn’t the evaluation of a social phenomenon more likely to be accurate and true when that phenomenon is perceived and analyzed through the lens of ALL the moral foundations rather than just half of them?  Don’t Haidt’s findings in fact show this to be true?  Hasn’t he in fact said, on multiple occasions in multiple venues, that the all-foundation morality has a better understanding of human nature than does the three-foundation morality?

Aren’t the resulting policy prescriptions intended to address that phenomenon more likely to be effective in a positive way when they’re based on a more complete grasp then when they’re not?

Isn’t it possible that the asteroids of Entitlement Spending and the Dissolution of the Family are caused by the deeper cause/philosophical underpinning of the morality which is fixated on “care” above all the other moral foundations?

Isn’t it possible that the perception that Income Inequality and Global Warming are asteroids might say more about the morality that has those perceptions than it does about the asteroids themselves?

More broadly, isn’t it possible that the lens of the three-foundation morality of “care,” without the attenuation of the three cohering foundations, might tend to have a one-sided view of things?   Don’t the works of historians like Beard and Zinn demonstrate this?   

Isn’t it possible that the three foundation morality, with its fixation on “care,” its failure to grasp the full spectrum of fundamental human nature, its tendency toward a one-sided understanding of history, its faith in WEIRD “reason,” and its tendency toward moral relativism, are the “causes/philosophical underpinnings” of myriad events throughout human history from the terror and genocide of the French Revolution to the bankrupting of this country through entitlement spending and the dissolution of the family and the devaluing of life itself through the “care” of the Welfare State to the chaos and anarchy of Occupy Wall Street?

Isn’t it possible that a “real threat” –  a real, valid, dangerous, Asteroid – is the three-foundation morality of “care” itself?  And isn’t it also possible that that threat is only visible through the lens of all the moral foundations?  

Isn’t that the elephant in the room?   

Isn’t it possible that, out of some sense of “fairness” or politeness or decorum or denial or “can we all get along,” or fear of “offending” someone, or fear that they’ll become “defensive and less likely to listen,” or…….something, today’s political discourse refuses to acknowledge the elephant in the room?

And further, aren’t efforts like The Asteroids Club’s refusal to “look at the deeper causes/philosophical underpinning” and its goal of getting people to agree only “on the factual nature” of asteroids, and in a broader way the WEIRD thought and moral relativism of liberalism in general, and of Haidt’s Yin/Yang metaphor of the relationship between liberalism and conservatism, really just scrupulously clever (but possibly not intentional) ways of eliminating the elephant in the room from the discussion “by definition before the [discussion] begins?” 


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

Some quotes:

Henrich, Heine, and Norensayan (2010) recently reviewed decades of cross-cultural research and concluded that Westerners are WEIRD. People in Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic societies are frequent psychological outliers, even though they form the basis of our theories of human nature. Henrich argued that this 15% is really different from the other 85% of the world. In this study, we find that liberals are an even WEIRDer part of that 15%. Our studies demonstrate that if Americans are WEIRD, the American liberals are WEIRDer. So in addition to the five attributes of WEIRD cultures, we have found a sixth: liberalism.

WEIRD, Analytic Thought

How are WEIRD people outliers? WEIRD people are different in their economic behavior, trust, moral judgements, ad self-concepts. But in these studies we focused on WEIRD thought.

WEIRD people are cognitive outliers because thay are analytic on a list of cognitive and perceptual measures (Henrich et al., 2010). Analytic thinkers use logical rules of non-contradction. X and not X connot both be true. Analytic thinkers see the world as made up of singular, distinct objects that can be separated from their context. For examle, on memory tasks, Americans who see apicture of a wolf in a forest are good at later remembering having seen that wolf, even when it appears against a new background, such as a desert (Masuda & Nisbett, 2001). And analytic thinkers use properties of objects to predict their bhavior, such as using a personality traint to bredict behavior (e.g., predicting that an impatient person will honk at a slow driver; Morris & Peng, 1994).

The non-WEIRD 85% of the world thinks more holistically or intuitively. They are more likely to think that X and not X can both be true. The see objects as indivisibly bound up with contexts and relationships, so they are more confused when that wolf appears against a desert background. And they more often use situations to predict behavior (e.g., people will honk more during rush hour).

Some psycholgists call the 85% way of processing the world “holistic” because it emphasizes seeing scenes as a whole and seeing peole as a product of situations (Nisbett, Pen, Choi, and Norensayan, 2001). And the call the 15% WAY “analytic” because it emphasizes slicing up the world and analyzing objects individually, divorced drom context – much like scientific analysis requires thinkers to separate complex phenomena into separate parts.

On the triad task, social liberals categorized objects more analytically, pairing objects together based on abstract categories, like people in WEIRD cultures.  In contrast, social conservatives categorized objects more relationally and intuitively, in a style more typical of East Asia dn non-WEIRD cultures. Liberals paired items at a more abstract level, while conservatives paired items on more intuitive, functional relationships.

On a theoretical level, our behavioral finding that liberals think more analyitcally fits with previous survey findings that liberals score higher on the Need for Cognition scale (Hawkins & Haidt, 2010) and that they score higher on integrative complexity and cognitive complexity (Jost et al., 2003).  This study has implications for political psychology by linking it to cultural psychology.  In sum, liberals seem to prefer analytic reasoning more than conservatives.

In contrast, social conservatves tended to be more holistic, spreading their attention to include more of the context and the relationships betweeen items. Cultural psychologists have called the East Asian holistic categorization style more automatic and ‘intuitive” (Norensayan, Smith, Kim,& Nesbit, 2002). This certaily fits with popular conceptions of American conservatives as people who trust their gut.


4 thoughts on “The Elephant in the Room

  1. “Isn’t it possible that a morality which uses all of the “evolved psychological mechanisms” that “make cooperative societies possible” will tend to have a less clouded vision?…that the all-foundation morality has a better understanding of human nature than does the three-foundation morality?”

    At least it has many distinct advantages- about 200 pages’ worth in Haidt’s most recent book. I would contend that it’s tough to proclaim that employing a broader moral foundation will result in a priori superior actions at every circumstance in life- but the argument needn’t be taken that far. Liberals should take a cue from conservatives to broaden their moral foundations: they will apprehend the world better, improve their envisioned policies, the execution of those policies, be happier– for all kind of important reasons.

    As you know, I do a lot of work trying to get this idea across to liberals with entries such as http://www.reachtheright.com/2013/01/23/the-unintended-consequences-of-morals/ . I find some limited success by talking about impacts on happiness (conservatives are happier, statistically speaking, than liberals). But otherwise, each foundation they’re weaker at- authority, sanctity, loyalty, and a certain kind of liberty- has to be dealt with in detail and in isolation to make any headway. I’m not sure if my arguments sound conservative, but I don’t think so. I don’t think Haidt’s sound conservative either. I could be wrong about both, but I don’t get feedback that I sound conservative except from the very far left. I do get the impression that my arguments get through a fair amount with individuals, sometimes rather dramatically. That doesn’t seem to make them conservative, per se, though they do seem to sometimes be more open to conservative influence and some incorporation of conservative ideas in their world view. No- I think the main effect is that they become more thoughtful liberals, who have a better sense of what battles to fight and which to avoid. And how to fight them best. That’s what I want- liberals who use a broader set of moral foundations to accomplish what’s important to them, so that liberal advantages, if they exist, can be married up with a more accurate moral approach.

    Jon Haidt himself is probably an example of this kind of liberal. You will have strong disagreements with such people, but they won’t seem quite as unhealthy to either you or me as, say, the liberals of the Occupy movement, who seem to go so far as to explicitly oppose moral values along the sanctity, authority, and negative liberty lines.


    Posted by jswagner | March 4, 2013, 10:56 pm
    • The world needs more liberals like you and Haidt. The two of you are open to new ideas in the true sense of that phrase. You “get” conservatives and conservatism. You’re native speakers in the language of liberalism. You do a good job of explaining conservatism to liberals without turning them off. And as liberals you have the distinct advantage over conservatives of not turning off a liberal audience before you say a word due to the simple fact that you’re one of them.

      There’s one more advantage over conservatives that you have as liberals. You’re not ensnared in the “Catch 22” that conservatives find themselves in (post on this coming soon.)

      But I have to ask, what’s wrong with sounding like a conservative?


      Posted by The Independent Whig | March 19, 2013, 9:57 pm
      • Thanks for being so kind about Haidt’s approach and mine, and for taking such a detailed look at morality all the time, Gordon.

        > I have to ask, what’s wrong with sounding like a conservative?

        Absolutely nothing, in the right setting. It’s essential, to communicate clearly and quickly with your own about things. It’s just a completely different language than the one liberals can understand, a kind of a cognitive opposite. One has to get into communication theory to understand that well, where they’ve been dealing with this a very long time in a broad variety of settings. It has to do with communication and abstraction, which are much more slippery concepts than we give them credit for. I can’t sound like a conservative if I want to “do a good job of explaining conservatism to liberals without turning them off.”

        Any abstraction like freedom, authority, charity, and so on has a large subconscious set of images, symbols, experiences, etc. that are assumed and built on by saying that single word. Conservatives of similar backgrounds and personalities usually have similar subconscious grab bags of related elements behind their notion of, say, freedom, so “sounding like a conservative” means having an effective shorthand that’s accurate and complete enough, as you each reach into your grab bags together and use helpful symbols, images, etc. Across ideologies, though, our sets of experiences, symbols, etc are so different that each side’s abstraction has to be dealt with separately, carefully, one at a time- yours first, say. I have to listen to the other person well. Once I’ve spent the time and energy to understand what you actually mean in that situation by the term loyalty, say, I can see what is and (importantly) what isn’t in your set of related symbols, etc. Then I can restate your version of loyalty- strengths, weaknesses, stories, where it comes up, confusing aspects, etc.- in a way that tries to avoid the conflict it would otherwise have with common subconscious elements of the liberal idea of loyalty.

        This came up the other day with shaming. A conservative might say “sometimes we must shame a child into doing the right thing, so they’ll learn an important lesson.” Completely accurate, right? Easy. The problem is that somewhere near the top of that liberal pile of subconscious elements encompassed by the abstraction “Shaming”, there is almost always an image of some innocent kid who’s getting yelled at by an inattentive or mean or careless parent, maybe even for something the kid didn’t do. Or there’s a personal experience, say, of being miserable or angry or held back because one was inappropriately shamed by classmates, or a teacher. If I want to talk to a liberal about shaming, I can’t ignore that that negative element is almost always tightly bound to the liberal abstraction of “Shaming”. I can acknowledge inappropriate shaming as a possibility, call it a tragedy, say it has to be considered- I can do all sorts of things, but I can’t leave it out of the discussion like a conservative might.


        Posted by Scott Wagner | March 24, 2013, 3:01 am
      • We’re in agreement on this. I’ve written about it in the post called “Liberty, Equality, Justice, and Fairness Mean Different Things in Different Moral Matrices.” My take was mostly about different definitions to the same words. Your take adds some nuance and richness to the idea. I like that, as it goes to one of my themes, which is that morality is emergent, greater than the sum of its parts. Haidt’s second principle of moral psychology is “Morality is about more than care/harm and fairness/cheating.” The emergent nature of a morality which rests essentially on only those two foundations is going to be significantly less than the nature of morality that rests on all the foundations. A lot of the subtlety and nuance that “emerges” from the latter is just not going to be present in the former. More than that, it’s going to be lost on adherents of it. I’ve discussed this notion in other posts. Specifically, “Why Framing Liberal Positions With Binding Foundations Often Fails“, “Protecting the Weak“, and “The Four Principles of Moral Psychology.”


        Posted by The Independent Whig | March 24, 2013, 1:27 pm

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