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Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Ideology


I reread, closely, the introductory chapter of Conservatism, by Jerry Z. Muller, the book that “literally floored” Jonathan Haidt as he researched the moral psychology of conservatism.

As great as Muller’s insights are, he still tends to conceive of conservatism in terms of its content. He says as much: “The conception of conservatism as adopted here – as a collection of recurrent assumptions, themes, and images…

I think the content-based conception of ideologies limits our thinking about them in the same way the conception that reason is for truth finding limits our thinking about it. Muller goes on for a whole page about the difficulty of defining conservatism since it seems to vary so much across time, place, and circumstance. Indeed, the entire chapter, for that matter the entire book, is a struggle with that difficulty.

In both cases – reason and conservatism – the difficulty in understanding them is due to an incorrect initial conception of each. But if we change the initial conception suddenly both make sense.

The correct initial conception of ideologies is that they are ways of thinking – operating systems like macOS and Windows – cognitive styles, psychological profiles, from which content follows; Including, for example, Muller’s assumptions, themes, and images; Sowell’s visions; Kirk’s canons; and arguably even the weighting of Haidt’s moral foundations (moral foundations are the content of ideologies as bricks are the content of a wall.)

A succinct statement of the correct initial conception can be had by replacing “Plato” and “Aristotle” with left and right in the following two quotes from The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization, by Arthur Herman:

Despite their differences, Plato and Aristotle agreed on many things. They both stressed the importance of reason as our guide for understanding and shaping the world. Both believed that our physical world is shaped by certain eternal forms that are more real than matter. The difference was that Plato’s forms existed outside matter, whereas Aristotle’s forms were unrealiziable without out it. (p. 61)

The twentieth century’s greatest ideological conflicts do mark the violent unfolding of a Platonist versus Aristotelian view of what it means to be free and how reason and knowledge ultimately fit into our lives (p.539-540)

Cover of The Cave and the Light

With this conception the struggle to understand how conservatism varies across time, place, and circumstance disappears, as does the struggle to understand the true nature of the Coming Apart that is currently playing out in Western Culture.

It is NOT TRUE that, deep down inside, we are all the same. It IS TRUE that we are fundamentally different; almost as if we’re two different species – Homo Platonist and Homo Aristotelianist – coexisting in the same time and place.

It is NOT TRUE that Plato and Aristotle, Rousseau and Burke, Keynes and Hayek, or other prominent thinkers on left and right invented new epistemic systems out of thin air. It IS TRUE that all any of them did was articulate the way their minds already worked.

The book The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America by Kevin Phillips makes it clear. It is NOT TRUE that the British Glorious Revolution, the American Founding, and the American Civil War were different struggles in different times and places over different issues. It IS TRUE that those events, and today’s Coming Apart as well, are merely separate battles in the centuries-long war between Homo Platonist and Homo Aristotelianist.

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