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A Grave Error of Intellect and Imagination

Possibly the worst mistake we make in our attempts to understand the political divide is our unquestioning dogmatic insistence on seeing it as a tug of war between opposing equals when, on the contrary, evidence strongly suggests that it’s actually a struggle between Flatland and Spaceland.   

Moral foundations and cognitive styles are primary dimensions of shape and depth that define the ideological spaces we call moralities, ideologies, and religions.   

Moral foundations are the color receptors of the moral mind.  They really, truly, are moral senses. Current social science findings show that one side of the partisan divide uses about half of the moral foundations and the other side uses all of them in relative balance.  There’s no foundation on the first side that’s not also on the other side, but half the foundations on the other side are either missing or significantly diminished on the first side. The notion that the culture war is in essence a competition between the individualizing foundations on one side and the binding foundations on the other is empirically false.  The reality is that it is a struggle between the morally colorblind and the morally fully sighted; between the Flatland of individualizing-only and the Spaceland of a balance of individualizing AND binding.

Cognitive styles are the mental algorithms that connect the dots of the information provided to our brains by the moral and other senses.  The notion that the two thousand four hundred year competition between the cognitive styles of WEIRD idealistic Platonic rationalism and holistic empiricist Aristotelian intuitionism (summarized here and here) is a Yin/Yang struggle between reason and experience or between change and stability is also empirically false.  The reality is that it is a struggle between two very different ways of thinking about and affecting change; the first through the Platonic concept that the task of man’s consciousness is to create reality out of the reason-based ideal unconstrained vision of the “good society,” also known as the “General Will,” and the second through the Aristotelian concept that there is only one objective reality and the task of consciousness is to perceive it as it is and to affect change through working within its constraints.  Both sides use evidence to some degree, but it’s not unfair to characterize the two approaches as the Yin of reason versus the Yin/Yang balance of reason AND experience.  See, for example, The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization, by Arthur Herman.

The ever increasing collection of evidence from social science research indicates that the best metaphor for describing the shape and depth of the two main ideological spaces is that of Flatland and Spaceland, in which the reason-based Platonic side is represented by a two dimensional square character from Flatland and the reason-and-experience based Aristotelian side by a three dimensional spherical character from Spaceland.  The story of Flatland is summarized starting on page 181 of The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom:

The metaphor that has most helped me to understand morality, religion, and the human quest for meaning is Flatland, a charming little book written in 1884 by the English novelist and mathematician Edwin Abbot.  Flatland is a two-dimensional world whose inhabitants are geometric figures.  The protagonist is a square.  One day, the square is visited by a sphere from a three-dimensional world called Spaceland. When a sphere visits Flatland, however, all that is visible to Flatlanders is the part of the sphere that lies in their plain-in other words, a circle. The square is astonished that the circle is able to grow or shrink at will (by rising or sinking into the plane of Flatland) and even to disappear and reappear in a different place (by leaving the plane, and then reentering it). The sphere tries to explain the concept of the third dimension to the two-dimensional square, but the square, though skilled at two-dimensional geometry, doesn’t get it. He cannot understand what it means to have thickness in addition to height and breadth, nor can he understand that the circle came from up above him, where “up” does not mean from the north. The sphere presents analogies and geometrical demonstrations of how to move from one dimension to two, and then from two to three, but the square stilI finds the idea of moving “up” out of the plane of Flatland ridiculous.

This does not mean that fully sighted Aristotelians are always right or are not susceptible to the cognitive biases and groupish behaviors that are common to all humans. Nor does it mean that colorblind Platonists don’t sometimes offer valuable insights.

What it does mean is that depicting moral foundations as taste buds, moralities as cuisines, and cognitive styles as opposing equals hides the Flatland/Spaceland reality of the nature of the partisan divide behind a gauzy veil of Yin/Yang moral and cognitive relative equivalence; moral relativism.  It makes the culture wars seem like merely a matter of “taste” or personal preference and little more, and it thus leaves all parties free to remain entrenched in their conviction that their own side “gets it” and the other side does not.   

David Foster Wallace wrote:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

If you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude – but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance.

One of the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities that’s as invisible to us as the water was to Wallace’s young fish is the Flatland-Spaceland nature of the political divide.  So certain are we in our unquestioned religion-like faith in moral and cognitive relative equivalence between the two sides that it never even occurs to us to wonder whether it’s actually true.  Instead we swim along, happily ignorant of its very existence, spouting banal yet demonstrably false platitudes like “your side does it too so what’s your point?” and “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” that effectively shut down conversations and prevent any further discussion, investigation, exploration, or exchange of ideas.  The ubiquitous yet false presumption of moral and cognitive equivalence stops dead in its tracks any further development of knowledge about, and deeper understanding of, our righteous minds, without which any hope of ameliorating the partisan divide is near zero.  Jonah Goldberg was right to call this sort of thing The Tyranny of Clichés.   


Evidence-Based Venn Diagram of Ideologies

Evidence-Based Venn Diagram of Ideologies

Presumed Venn Diagram of Ideologies

Presumed Venn Diagram of Ideologies


4 thoughts on “A Grave Error of Intellect and Imagination

  1. You might be on to something, but I would be careful about presuming that progressives do not have the same moral foundations as conservatives. As much as I appreciate Haidt’s research, I think he has missed a few things: the irrational hatred of genetically modified foods by many progressives looks a lot like a value of sanctity to me, the claims upon a false “consensus” about climate change looks an awful lot like an appeal to authority, and the hatred of conservative blacks or Hispanics looks an awful lot like an expectation of group loyalty. Perhaps conservatives have these values to a greater degree than progressives, or perhaps Haidt simply asked the wrong questions to determine this. We have already seen that while progressives may proclaim greater racial diversity, they are frequently opposed to ideological diversity – so that their lack of loyalty to race may simply be in comparison to their loyalty to ideological peers.

    Personally, I find the majority of people of all political persuasions to be illogical and motivated by self-interest most of the time, with *possibly* the libertarians being slightly better than average. It’s not really encouraging.


    Posted by Baldur Odensen | May 10, 2016, 7:19 pm
    • I agree with your second paragraph. Moral Foundations Theory aside, our education system seems to be failing at providing our citizens with even the most basic information about human nature – why we humans think, say, and do the silly things we do – and about rudimentary rules and tenets of evidence and argumentation.

      You’re not the first to critique Haidt’s work as you do in your first paragraph. He’s well aware of this criticism and is adjusting his surveys and research to account for it.

      But still, there’s clearly a fundamental difference in the way liberals and conservatives think, and even with criticisms like yours Moral Foundations Theory seems to be the best explanation of it to date.


      Posted by The Independent Whig | May 11, 2016, 9:31 am


  1. Pingback: The Emperor Has No Clothes! The Small Minded Bigotry of “Care” is a Cognitive Disorder that is Tearing Us Apart | The Independent Whig - September 2, 2016

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I Support Viewpoint Diversity


A politically diverse group of social scientists, natural scientists, humanists, and other scholars who want to improve our academic disciplines and universities. We share a concern about a growing problem: the loss or lack of “viewpoint diversity.” When nearly everyone in a field shares the same political orientation, certain ideas become orthodoxy, dissent is discouraged, and errors can go unchallenged.

An Interpretation of Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory

This sidebar lists a series of posts which together make up an essay relating Moral Foundations Theory to today's politics, and even a little history, as viewed through The Independent Whig's six-foundation moral lens.


Venn Diagram of Liberal and Conservative Traits and Moral Foundations and

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