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The Root of the Political Divide

Two liberal fish are swimming along. A conservative fish coming the other way says “Mornin’ boys! How’s the water?” The liberal fish swim on for a bit, and then one of them turns to the other and says, “What the hell is water?”

This is a perfect metaphor for what’s happening in Western Civilization today.  It explains the Brexit and Trump votes, and the stunned reactions to them.  It’s also a great intro to my main critique of Heterodox Academy and psychological social science. Explaining it’s root cause requires some nuance.

Western Civilization is the water.  It is, itself, a mega moral matrix in its own right, within which all the other moral matrices swim like schools of fish.  It is a consensual hallucination; a closed epistemic world that “defines what’s true and not true” and “has within it everything in needs to prove itself.”  It is our behavioral autopilot. 

The schools of fish, liberals and conservatives, battle with each other seemingly unaware of the water.

Social science swims in that water and studies the schools of fish, seemingly unaware of the water.

Heterodox Academy promotes viewpoint diversity among the fish, and says practically nothing about the water or its influence on those viewpoints. 

The Water is Polluted

The grand narrative, the consensual hallucination, the moral matrix, of Western Civilization, within which the fish swim, and within which all politics, social science, and punditry is done, rests on a set of  “entrenched yet questionable orthodoxies

These include:

  1. The signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and/or Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” or something, made the conservative Democrats leave the Democratic Party in the south and join the Republican Party.
  2. Liberals are more open minded and/or enlightened than conservatives. 
  3. Democrat is the party of Civil Rights, Social Justice, enlightened thinking, and progress. Republican is the party of bigotry, status quo, irrational dogmatic faith, and resistance to change.
  4. Liberalism is the ideology of progress and reform, and conservatism is the ideology of order and stability.

The water is owned and operated by the government-industrial complex of politics, media, entertainment, and academia.  Those industries are the megaphones of our culture. They are the means and the method through which we communicate and share with one another our consensual hallucination about who and what we are, can be, and should be. 

The industries themselves are owned and operated almost exclusively by liberals/progressives, who for the most part live in the geographic enclaves of Charles Murray’s Super Zips.

Popular Western Culture is an insular bubble, unmoored from the reality of life in all the other, non “super,” zips. The best post-election analysis by far is Revenge of the Forgotten Class by Alec Mac Gillis in Pro Publica.

We Need To Study The Water 

If humans evolved to be groupish then shouldn’t we also study the groups; the cultures; the water, and not just the fish?

And if it’s polluted shouldn’t we clean it?

I suggest yes.

Moralities (aka ideologies, moral matrices, grand narratives, consensual hallucinations)  are emergent complex systems full of relationships. They are not worlds full of objects, some of which happen to be moral foundations.

The intuitions – the moral tastes – that emerge from them are not the same as the moral foundations from which they are constructed. The taste of cake is not the same as the taste of eggs, flour, water, sugar, and salt.

Moral Foundations Theory conflates the cake with the ingredients; the emergent intuitions with the foundations from which they are constructed.

For example:

The emergent conservative intuition of care is to teach a man to fish.

The liberal intuition is to give a man a fish.

These are separate, distinct, intuitions. One is process-based, the other is outcome-based.

But the moral foundation of care is defined as only the liberal version.

It’s no wonder, then, that liberals measure higher on “care.”

Problems of definition exist with fairness and liberty too. The conservative intuitions are process-based and the liberal intuitions are outcome-based, but this is never made clear, and so even after learning about Moral Foundations Theory the two sides STILL talk past each other.

The conservative intuition of fairness has two distinct sub aspects, both of which are process-based. The first aspect is that fairness means one set of rules that applies, and is applied, the same to everyone.  The second aspect is that fairness is value, or merit, based: Those who contribute the most rightfully reap the most rewards.

The liberal intuition of fairness, on the other hand, is outcome-based: everyone should have a relatively equal chance of a positive result. If I play in a weekly poker game and lose every time the game is, by definition, unfair. I should be able to win at least some of the time.

The conservative intuition of liberty is ALSO process-based. It is the concept of negative liberty; freedom from.

The liberal intuition of liberty is outcome-based. It is the concept of positive liberty; freedom to.

Left and right seem to be, more than anything else, psychological dispositions – operating systems, like iOS and Windows – that process more or less the same inputs but arrive at different outputs.

To think of them primarily in terms of their outputs – the moral foundations, intuitions, or the ideologies they happen to exhibit in any particular time and place – rather than as algorithms, is to put the cart before the horse; to conflate the effect with the cause.

The operating systems are described in the book The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization, by Arthur Herman.   Plato and Aristotle serve as metaphors that sum up the two operating systems.

In the Platonic, progressive, operating system, the social world and everything in it is but a poor imitation of its potential ideal self, and it is the role of the “enlightened” among us to show us that ideal and to help steer us toward achieving it. This is RFK’s “I dream things that never were and ask why not?,” John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and Obama’s “Fundamentally Transform.” It is Plato’s “Light.”

Digging a little deeper, this operating system incorporates the notion that the mind is a blank slate at birth, which means that everything we know about right and wrong is learned from formal education and from direct experience. It also means that differences among groups result solely from social constructs. The “good society” and the “new man” would be achievable if only the right social constructs could be crated and the right ideas could be taught.   This operating system tends to seek radical, revolutionary change – throw out the entire existing system and create a whole new system – based on “reason.” It puts mankind in the godlike position of “designing” social reality. It’s chief characteristic is epistemic confidence, even arrogance.  It is, in short, social creationism, where man is the creator.

Contrary to the consensual hallucination of Western Culture, the Aristotelian conservative operating system ALSO wants to improve the human condition, but this operating system is tempered, “constrained,” by reality. It sees the social world as an emergent complex system of nearly infinite size, and the capacities and capabilities of the human mind as limited.  It is impossible for any single mind or group of minds to know all the facts (capacity), and even if it could, it does not have the processing power (capability) to sort out and reliably predict which inputs to the emergent complex system will create what outputs from it. It’s chief characteristic is epistemic humility.

For this operating system, experience is the surest guide. It tends to seek gradual, incremental, change, achieving ever higher quality of life slowly but surely, one small step at a time, by standing on the shoulders of all who came before.

The Platonic, progressive operating system, through its supreme epistemic confidence – its “unconstrained” faith – in the power of the human mind to solve problems and overcome obstacles the left tends to be coercive. It tends to try to MAKE “progress” by stretching mankind via social engineering to fit it into the procrustean bed of whatever happens to be the current version of Plato’s light. Last week it was gay marriage. This week it is transgender rights.  It has no limiting principle. As soon as one new “right” is created it seeks to impose the next.  Progressivism is social creationism, in which mankind places itself in the godlike position of creator.  

Through its epistemic humility – its perception of the “constrained” nature of human thought – the approach of the right tends to be more like that of tending a garden. It seeks to promote the conditions that are known to ALLOW human happiness and quality of life to flourish.

The Moral Root of the Culture War

It is wrong to think of the two sides in the culture wars as liberal and conservative.  We can talk about those things, and grand narratives, personality traits and their aspects, process-based thinking and outcome-based thinking, positive liberty and negative liberty, and everything else we’ve always talked about all day long and never really get to the nut of the problem.

The nut of the problem boils down to a single psychological aspect:  How each side scores on the scale of epistemic humility.  

The best single discriminator between the two operating systems appears to be their relative locations on the scale of epistemic confidence. This, more than anything else drives the political divide. It determines the moral foundations, the ideologies, the sacred values, and the grand narrative. All of them follow from either epistemic arrogance or epistemic humility.


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