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Thesis of The Independent Whig, Part One – Introduction: Why Moral Foundations and Cognitive Style Matter

A vast majority of the psychological and social factors that underlie partisan rancor and divisiveness are aspects of fundamental human nature that are common to everyone regardless of ideology.  I propose that the number of factors that actually differentiate liberals, conservatives, and libertarians is two; Moral Foundations and Cognitive Style. Most people are unaware of all of this. And since we tend to fear and demonize what we don’t understand, that lack of awareness exacerbates the partisan divide.  We can reduce the size of the divide and the amount of demonization that flows back and forth across it by increasing awareness, which in turn will increase empathy and common ground, through education.   

Examples of common factors include:

  1. Intuition comes first, strategic reasoning follows, in every sense of the word “follow.” i.e.,  reason is chronologically after, and is intellectually and conceptually led by, intuition.
  2. Morality binds and blinds
  3. Reason evolved to help us win arguments, not find truth.
  4. Humans evolved to form into groups of like minded individuals which then compete with other groups for scarce resources and political power.
  5. “Like minded” means the individuals in the group share a set of values, or an outlook.
  6. Value sets or outlooks go by names like “ideology,” “morality,” “religion,” and “narrative.”  These are different words that all describe the same underlying aspect of human nature.
  7. Ideologies, moralities, religions, and narratives vary in the degree to which they employ a set of “evolved psychological mechanisms” that were pre-wired into the human brain by natural selection as we became The Social Animal.
  8. Some values become “sacred” in the sense that they are held to be inviolable, unquestionable, ground truth.
  9. We can develop irrational commitments to our sacred values.  When they are challenged or threatened the first thing we throw under the bus in their defense tends to be truth, evidence.
  10. Reason is influenced by a slew of cognitive biases like confirmation bias, reason-based choice, fundamental attribution error, and on and on.
  11. Items from a similar set of logical fallacies and rhetorical tricks also tend to find their way into our arguments.  (There’s overlap between this list and the list of cognitive biases, but there are some unique items in each too.)
  12. We humans are quite skilled at seeing the speck in the eye of those with whom we disagree, and quite incompetent at seeing the log in our own.
  13. Most people are generally unaware, regardless of ideology, of the items in this list and of the items in the much shorter list below, and their consequences in our every-day lives.   

The trick, then, in getting to the bottom of partisan divisiveness and rancor is to tease out from all the things liberals and conservatives think, say, and do, the aspects that are truly unique to each.  Those factors seem to boil down to:  

  1. Cognitive Style
  2. Moral foundations (referred to in item 7 in the above list.)

In Part Two I attempt to pick up where The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion left off, and illustrate more completely how the differences in moral foundations manifest in the real world and influence partisan rancor.  

In Part Three (upcoming, as of 5/27/16, to be posted in the next few weeks) I attempt to tease out some of the differences in Cognitive Style.

Based on these, in Part Four I offer some concrete suggestions as to how we can use this information to answer “Yes” to the following modified version of Rodney King’s question “Can we all get along [better]”?

This thesis is a work in progress.  I may add, delete, or change parts of it as I continue to learn and refine my ideas.  But, I think it’s safe to say that my main themes are well established and will not change a great deal. 

Some amount of divisiveness is inevitable and healthy.  We need each other and rely upon one another to find the specks in our eyes and, eventually, work our way to the truth.  Evolution was clever in “designing” this feature into our psyche.

But we humans have a strong tendency to demonize and vilify that which we don’t understand, and there’s a whole hell of a lot about what makes us think, say, and do the things we do that we don’t understand.   Increasing our understanding of those things will help to shrink, but not eliminate, the size of the partisan divide and the amount of demonization that flows back and forth across it.


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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.

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