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Why Does Liberalism Exist?

I’m reading Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World, by Daniel Hannan.

There’s a discussion in it that goes to one of my long standing questions: Why are there liberals and conservatives? Or, more specifically, what evolutionary process(es) created those two particular wirings of the human brain?

The discussion resonates with my idea that lib v. con boils down roughly to reason vs. experience. A selection from the discussion is farther below. I don’t know that the dots between it and my longstanding question connect, but it surely is one of those things that make me go “Hmmm…..”

Here’s my rationale:

If moral foundations are evolved psychological mechanisms then presumably their existences helped The Social Animal that is the human being to survive and to thrive in the ultra-social communities it created for the mutual benefit of all members. Moral foundations are naturally selected threat detection and avoidance modules.

The existence of moralities/ideologies that employ all the foundations – that is, conservative moralities –  follows from this.

What does not follow is the existence of moralities/ideologies that consciously eschew half of the naturally-selected threat detectors that make cooperative society, and thus human survival, possible?   

In other words, why or how would (or could) evolution create the liberal wiring?

One theory of mine is the natural progression from Gemeinschaft to Geselleschaft that human societies seem to follow.

Here’s another theory: The Argumentative Theory.

Could liberalism have evolved because the “features,” that are built-in to reason resulted in humans favoring reason above all else, to the point that even morality/ideology can result from the bias (discussed in many references including here, in this article, and in many other places listed here) known as reason-based choice?

Reason-based ideologies evolved on the European continent. The experience-based ideology upon which America is based evolved in the Galapagos-like cultural isolation of the island of Great Britain.  If evolution is fast, as discussed here and here, could the evolutions of these ideas have caused the reason/experience split, and thus liberalism and conservatism themselves?

Here’s the passage, bold emphasis added (interestingly, and possibly related, it also touches on moral dumbfounding*):

Almost a third of the human race now lives, wholly or partly, under a common-law system.  Along with the English language, the common law is the main unifier of the Anglosphere. It applies in most former British territories-though not in Quebec nor yet, curiously enough, in Scotland.  It is used, too, in Israel.  A variant of it, which grew up alongside its English counsin from common ancestry, can be found in Scandinavia.

What distinguishes the common law [of England] from the Roman law that predominates in Continental Europe and its colonial offshoots? Chiefly this. The Continental legal model is deductive. A law is written down from first principles, and then those principles are applied to a particular case. Common law, to the astonishment of those raised in the Roman or Napoleonic systems, does the reverse. It builds up, case by case, with each decision serving as the starting point for the next dispute. It applies a doctrine known to lawyers as stare decises: previous judgments should stand unaltered, serving as precedent. Common law is thus empirical rather than conceptual.

It is therefore sometimes known as “judge-made law,” but, as the philosopher Roger Scruton, who himself trained as a barrister, points out, “the common law is no more made by the judge than the moral law is made by the causist.” It is more useful to think of the law being discovered in stages. Just as a good man is not necessarily a skilled philosopher, so the common law recognizes that doint the right thing is not necessarily the same as explaining the principles that make it right. We often know what is the correct way to behave without being able to put our reasons into words. The same is true of legal disputes. An individual case might have an obviously just remedy, one that conforms to everyone’s idea of fairness, and yet whose resolution doesn’t translate neatly into a general principle. The pragmatic nature of the Anglosphere peoples, their dislike of purely theoretical reasoning, was built from the first into the way they made – or, rather, discovered – their laws. The law didn’t realize an abstract principle; rather, the principle was pieced together instages from actual rulings.


* As Jonathan Haidt describes in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, moral dumbfounding is when a person is “rendered speechless by their inability to explain verbally what they knew intuitively.” (page 29)


3 thoughts on “Why Does Liberalism Exist?

  1. Reason seems mostly used to further subconscious ends, not as an alternative to it: that’s the problem I see with trying to posit reason vs comfort with instinct/intuition as contrasting organizing principles for the ideologies. To the extent that tradition is aligned with intuition and instinct, and to the extent that liberalism is confident in using reason to reengineer all the time, it sounds compelling. The problem I see is both ideologies are actually driven by differing subconscious impulses, and they both use reason to justify them. There is a way that reason holds a special place in the heart of liberals, and we may well reason our way to things inappropriately more than conservatives do, but I don’t see reason in those situations as anything other than working for the subconscious mind. At the same time, reasoning is quite useful in many contexts, and the line between them for a proper human being is and should be vague and variable. If anything, I’d think we could agree that our instincts probably get us in at least as much trouble as our reasoning flaws. The term reasoning covers a wide swath of goods and bads, yes, but so do the terms intuition and instinct. There’s something to the notion that liberals discount instinct and intuition, which may be why we seem more comfortable talking about the basic goodness of man, vs. conservatism’s more fundamentally mixed view of our natures. And perhaps we can agree that liberals might favor reasoning their way to a solution more than a conservative, who might be able to more comfortably stick with ‘it was ever thus’, or ‘we can’t fix everything’. But I think I’m troubled because we should all want to quite often favor reasoning over instinct, and even intuition; it’s flawed or partial reasoning we’re not in favor of, or supplanting good intuition with poor reasoning, but I’m not sure you’re getting at that properly by talking about how much we emphasize reasoning.

    It seems a stretch to call reason-based choice a bias, as it seems more of a methodology, at worst a grouping of heuristics with advantages and disadvantages. It was nice to read an Amos Tversky paper you led me to somehow, though, as I always enjoy how he’s able to show us as flawed machines.

    The problem I see with trying to find an evolutionary purpose of liberalism as we know it now is that moderrn liberalism isn’t very old, and the forces of evolution of late are tough to tie back to the usual procreative optimalities that drive evolutionary thinking. My own view on the subject is pretty simple: that there is a swinging between ever-changing liberal and conservative impulses around a kind of center thread of history, a thread that provides a kind of optimal (survival) path for society, and individuals can be successful having either of those ideological orientations on a given side of an issue of the day. I believe that makes me a moderate in an important sense, which is fine; I identify as liberal, but believe strongly in the need to get useful conservative input for a healthy society. In contrast, you seem to have the unenviable task of trying to figure out why the heck there’s all these damn liberals around, with their partial moralities, grave misunderstandings, and argumentative leanings. In that framing, I suppose a decent answer was provided by Mr. r/K in our comparisons of liberals to rabbits a couple of years back; his logic seems better than trying to get to our numbers through our overemphasis on reason.

    Sorry to be so contrary on everything. I should say that the argument work of evolutionary theory is compelling and useful, and I agree with you that liberals have a special tendency to rely on reason, and to even reject considerations that can’t be arrived at through our version of reasoning. I sincerely wish that we could sum that tendency up as a cognitive bias, but there’s a way that tendency is fundamentally human first, as the argument work purports to demonstrate. The ev psych people like to point out that idea confirmation is a characteristic of reason, not a bias, per se. To that point, the misuse of reason is not monopolized by liberals; many of us feel small fry compared to the misuse of reason by the right. I do think you’re on to something with regard to liberals relying too much on a certain kind of reason, and reasoning valuation (recall Kerry’s protestations about his IQ being higher than represented, while GW Bush’s was actually careful to hide that his IQ was actually higher than Kerry’s. I see that kind of overemphasis on reasoning ability all the time among liberals, and almost never among conservatives, I’d also extend the argument to a symmetrical overemphasis on instinct and intuition by the right. But I don’t think we’ve specified the characteristics correctly yet.

    I do look forward to more of your thoughts on the subject, as it’s quite important for me, and you’ve a better perspective from which to view it. I suspect I deal with this problem much more than you, as I’m surrounded by liberals constantly, so it has a real bite for me.


    Posted by jswagner | March 31, 2014, 10:03 pm
    • You’re right that reason is used mostly to further subconscious ends, and that everyone uses reason to do that.

      I don’t think that trust in reason vs. trust in intuition are organizing principles in the sense that they’re held to be fundamental truths upon which ideologies are then constructed. Rather, I think they’re consequences that follow from the relative employment of moral foundations by left and right.

      Moral foundations are some of the tools of subconscious cognition. The mind uses them to make sense of the signals it receives from the senses.

      Liberal subconscious cognition employs only half of the moral foundations. It doesn’t know what to do with sensory signals related to the other half.

      Therefore, reason has to take up the slack.

      I offer a more complete description of my rational for the reason/experience split between left and right in my post Reason and Experience and in my post Moral Foundations Theory Explains Cognitive Complexity.

      It is in the sense of all of the above that I say that liberalism is biased in favor of reason.

      The Reason and Experience post is essentially the text of an email I sent to Jonathan Haidt years ago to which he responded:

      “i get a lot of emails and I rarely find that they fit with so much else that I am reading and thinking as yours has. I think you have 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).”


      Posted by The Independent Whig | April 13, 2014, 8:28 am


  1. Pingback: The Hole in Moral Foundations Theory and a Speculation On How To Fix It | The Independent Whig - March 21, 2015

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