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Reason vs Experience

I graduated from college in 1982 with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and no clue as to the differences between Democrats and Republicans, or between liberals and conservatives.

But what I did have, partly because of my education and partly because it’s just the way my brain happens to operate [Q: Do we choose our majors to fit the way we think, or does our choice of major shape the way we think? A: The former, I think.] was a tendency to try to identify first principles, or core tenets, that can then serve as guide stars for understanding and decision making.

[This essay is an update and expansion of an earlier essay of mine by the same title, here.  It is extracted from Part III of my Thesis.]

At the time of my graduation a radio advertisement for a local car dealer included the following statement:

Once you decide to be the best, all the other decisions are easy.

First principles work the same way. Once you figure out which ones work for you, the day-to-day sorting out of social issues and decision-making become much easier.

And so, I figured, I should probably dig in and find out for myself the core differences between political parties and ideologies. Was I a Democrat or a Republican, conservative or liberal, and importantly, why? After all, I was officially now an “adult” who would be voting in local and national elections. I ought to have some inkling of what I was doing, n’est-ce pas?

It just so happened that my first “real” job after college was in the Washington, D.C. area. So naturally, I spent my first few weekends visiting the National Mall and the Smithsonian Museums that line its flanks.

In the gift shop of the National Archives was a rotating stand full of paperback books. As I spun through the books one caught my eye. I bought it and read it. I didn’t know it at the time but it turned out to be the starting point in my nearly life-long deep dive into discerning the differences between political ideologies. The book was Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas 1st (first) Edition by Becker, Carl L. published by Vintage (1958)
by Carl L. Becker.

Becker’s book whetted my appetite but it didn’t fully answer all of my questions. I hadn’t yet found the guide stars I could use to plot my trajectory through the space of citizenship. So I kept looking for similar books, and through the years, in between getting married and raising two kids I managed to squeeze in a few more, including:

After the long process of gradually assimilating into my mental processing ideas from books like the above and others it was becoming ever clearer to me that guide stars of liberalism and conservatism – the core concepts that set the tone all that follows from each – are reason and experience, respectively.

And then my officemate at work showed me this video: The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives.

It was perfect.

Everything I’d read to that point seemed to fit Haidt’s description. Haidt’s talk was such an Aha! moment for me that I looked up his email address and sent him a note in which I tried to explain the clear connection I saw between his work and my own reading. Here’s what I said:

For years I have been fascinated with the history of political ideas and thought. When reading for pleasure I am more likely to pick up a copy of Bernard Bailyn’s “Ideological Origins of the American Revolution” than the latest best seller.

Before stumbling upon your research I had developed my own ideas about the roots of liberalism and conservatism, and how the two sides seem to think differently. For whatever they’re worth, I offer them in this note.

I am a true amateur. I’m just an average guy who likes to read about this stuff. I am nowhere near to being a scientist or a sociologist or any other “ist.” And I am certainly not a great writer. So as you read this note, please forgive my generalizations, simplifications, or just plain bad writing, and try to “get” the fundamental ideas I am attempting to express. I may be flattering myself, but I believe they have merit.

I decided to write to you because even though I approached the topic from a perspective that is entirely different from yours I think my conclusions are compatible with yours. My perspective was to look at political ideas first and try to trace them back to their origins to see if I could discover different patterns of thinking (i.e., visions, or moralities) between liberals and conservatives. Your perspective seems to be to look at morality first, and then to discover the differences between how liberals and conservatives “apply” it (for lack of a better term.).

At bottom, liberalism rests on the foundation of reason; the power of the human mind to overcome just about any obstacle or solve any problem through logical thought.

Conservatism, on the other hand, rests on the foundation of experience; the lessons learned through the hard knocks of every-day life are the surest guide in any attempt to overcome obstacles or solve problems.

The foundations of reason vs. experiences go a long way toward helping me understanding why liberalism places greater weight on the first two moral foundations and conservatism places approximately equal weight on all five of them.

Reason alone is sufficient to understand and internalize the first two moral foundations. The argument in their favor essentially boils down to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is the “reciprocal altruism” of fairness/reciprocity and the “ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others” of harm/care. The “do unto others” argument just makes sense on its face. It is direct, uncomplicated, and powerful. It is not a great stretch of the imagination for me to understand why some might see reason alone, and its logical extension through “do unto others” to the first two moral foundations as sufficient in and of itself to form the basis of a political philosophy, even to the point of being dismissive of, or at least finding unnecessary, the three remaining moral foundations.

Experience, on the other hand, is manifested – to varying degrees – in the notions of ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. The argument in favor of all three of them boils down to “these have been shown to work.” Group behavior, for example, exhibits the collected wisdom of all persons within the group over the entire duration of its existence, possibly spanning multiple generations or even centuries. To be a part of a group, then, is to stand on the shoulders, so to speak, of all who came before, and to band together in defense of the group when a threat to it is perceived – thus the “one for all, all for one” sensibility of ingroup/loyalty. The “respect for traditions” and social systems of authority/respect, and even the value placed on the clean living of purity/sanctity, I believe similarly reflect, on the part of conservatives, an instinctive, intuitive, possibly even subconscious, respect for, and internalization of, the collected wisdom of experience.

Just the other day I came across a different way, possibly, to describe the foundational difference I see between liberalism and conservatism (i.e., reason vs. experience). I found it in an article about economics, that said:

What is knowledge? How is knowledge acquired? What do we know? How do we know what we know? These questions seem most fitting for a philosophy class in epistemology — however, they are also essential in the world of economics.

The discovery of knowledge can be broken down into two main approaches (excluding the category of divine revelation): inductive reasoning and deductive reasoning. Simply put, inductive reasoning is the discovery of knowledge through observation (as in the scientific method). Conversely, deductive reasoning is the discovery of knowledge done through logic. Or, said differently, deductive knowledge is gained in an a priori (knowledge before experience) fashion that follows naturally from stated axioms.

Importantly, knowledge gained through deductive means is no less valid than knowledge gained through inductive means.

The way I read these excerpts, the difference between inductive reasoning and deductive reasoning is very close, if not the same, as the difference I describe between the “reason” of liberalism and the “experience” of conservatism. Could it be that a fundamental difference between liberalism and conservatism is in the way each views knowledge and how it is acquired, and the value each places on one type vs. the other? Could it be that fundamental differences exist between the two visions not only in what they think, but also in how they think? Could it be that liberalism favors the “scientific method” of inductive reasoning, and conservatism favors the more empirical approach of deductive reasoning?

As I said at the beginning of this note, I’m just an average schmo who likes to read about this stuff. So I have no idea about everything that goes into the “psychological systems that are the foundations of “intuitive ethics.””

But (you knew that was coming) what strikes me about the five foundations you describe is that they can be thought of as the “what” of morality; they are the building blocks that people use to construct their own unique moralities. But I also wonder about the “how.” That is, could it be that the reason liberals and conservatives build their moralities using widely different amounts, or weightings, of the five foundations, is that they use entirely different mental processes, or types of reasoning to arrive at their respective visions? Could it be that the reason/experience, or inductive/deductive, difference between liberals and conservatives is similar to the Mars/Venus difference between men and women? Could it be that the liberal brain and the conservative brain are just “wired” differently (thus coining a new interpretation of “left brain/right brain”), such that each perceives the world and reacts to it in fundamentally different ways that cause the different weightings of the five foundations? And if they do think differently, then why? How is the “initial draft” of the brain of each side trained to process information so differently from the other?

Dr. Haidt’s email reply to me included the following:

I get a lot of emails from “amateurs”, 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 poeple 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.

That moment sent me into a whole new area of inquiry; that of the psychological underpinnings of political views. Since then my library has expanded to include the following books, in no particular order, about the history AND the psychology of political thinking. Readings like these seem to corroborate my initial  sense that a fundamental difference between left and right is the thing in which each puts the most faith as the ultimate source of truth.  For the left it’s abstract reason, and for the right it’s the collected wisdom of human experience.  



5 thoughts on “Reason vs Experience

  1. Whig how do “reason and experience” explain differences in policy between the Left/Right? For example, how do reason and experience correlate with pro-abortion vs anti-abortion? Or pro-death penalty vs anti-death penalty?


    Posted by ManipulatingLiberals (@alinskyrocks) | July 18, 2016, 7:33 am


  1. Pingback: The Consciousness Bias | The Independent Whig - July 17, 2016

  2. Pingback: Guest Post: Reason Versus Experience, by The Prudential Liberal | The Independent Whig - September 3, 2016

  3. Pingback: Guest Post: Reason Versus Experience, by The Prudential Liberal | The Independent Whig - September 3, 2016

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