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This Is Absolutely Stunning

Here’s a passage from The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt, that is absolutely stunning:

To learn about political psychology, I decided to teach a graduate seminar on the topic in the spring of 2005. Knowing that I’d be teaching this new class, I was on the lookout for good readings. So when I was visiting friends in New York a month after the Kerry defeat, I went to a used-book store to browse its political science section. As I scanned the shelves, one book jumped out at me-a thick brown book with one word on its spine: Conservatism. It was a volume of readings edited by the historian Jerry Muller. I started reading Muller’s introduction while standing in the aisle, but by the third page I had to sit down on the floor. I didn’t realize it until years later, but Muller’s essay was my second turning point.

Muller began by distinguishing conservatism from orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is the view that there exists a “transcendent moral order, to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society.” Christians who look to the Bible as a guide for legislation, like Muslims who want to live under sharia, are examples of orthodoxy. They want their society to match an externally ordained moral order, so they advocate change, sometimes radical change. This can put them at odds with true conservatives, who see radical change as dangerous.

Muller next distinguished conservatism from the counter-Enlightenment. It is true that most resistance to the Enlightenment can be said to have been conservative, by definition (i.e., clerics and aristocrats were trying to conserve the old order). But modern conservatism, Muller asserts, finds its origins within the main currents of Enlightenment thinking, when men such as David Hume and Edmund Burke tried to develop a reasoned, pragmatic, and essentially utilitarian critique of the Enlightenment project. Here’s the line that quite literally floored me:

What makes social and political arguments conservative as opposed to orthodox is that the critique of liberal or progressive arguments takes place on the enlightened grounds of the search for human happiness based on the use of reason.

As a lifelong liberal, I had assumed that conservatism = orthodoxy = religion = faith = rejection of science. It followed, therefore, that as an atheist and a scientist, I was obligated to be a liberal. But Muller asserted that modern conservatism is really about creating the best possible society, the one that brings about the greatest happiness given local circumstances. Could it be? Was there a kind of conservatism that could compete against liberalism in the court of social science? Might conservatives have a better formula for how to create a healthy, happy society?

Do you see why it’s stunning?  Take a moment and absorb what you just read.  Think about it.  I’ll wait.

<Jeopardy Music>

Did you figure it out?  Do you see why it’s so unfathomably, flabbergastingly, dumbfoundingly, shockingly, stunning?

How is it possible that an approximately forty year old, Ivy League educated, PhD (in the social sciences no less!), who was a member of the political party that prides itself on being the party of facts, evidence, science, and reason, and which castigates non-members for being “anti-science,” reach that point in his life, in a country that is supposedly educated and enlightened,  apparently without ever having read serious, thoughtful, writing about conservatism written by a conservative?

And to make matters worse, how is it possible that what he did “know” about conservatism at that “second turning point” of his intellectual life, i.e., that “conservatism = orthodoxy = religion = faith = rejection of science,” was, and still is, as Muller (and many others) eloquently illustrate, flat-out wrong (as, to his credit, he finally discovered). 

And we wonder why the political divide is so bad.

Now. I have to be fair. The passage quoted above is a story Haidt tells about the very early days of his personal journey to where he is today.  These days Haidt and his work, including The Righteous Mind, represent the tip of the spear of the effort to rectify the problem of ignorance regarding social behavior. He has an amazing ability to speak truth to power, and to do so in a way that the power understands and appreciates his message (three examples of him doing this are here, here, and here).

Another endeavor that seems to be tackling the same problem in a different way is The Village Square. I write this blog because I largely share the sentiment expressed in The Village Square’s Mission Statement

The Village Square is a non-partisan public educational forum on matters of local, state and national importance. We are dedicated to maintaining factual accuracy in civic and political debate by growing civil dialog on divisive issues, and recalling the history and principles at the foundation of our democracy.


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