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What Heterodox Academy Gets Wrong

Heterodox Academy is my favorite organization fighting for free speech and intellectual honesty but I think it doesn’t see the elephant in the room and therefore represents a huge missed opportunity. 

I think with Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (TRM) social science was on the right track. Where by “the right track,” I mean endeavoring to understand “why good people are divided by politics and religion” through attempting to identify the “evolved psychological mechanisms” with which our righteous minds are predisposed; i.e., by pulling the thread all the way back to the evolutionary adaptations that are the true root causes of social thought and action rather than stopping short of them at their effects.

I think HxA, through some combination of missteps of either its choice of mission and/or its choices of topics to highlight and write about on its web site has wandered away from that track.

I think the job of identifying the psychological foundations of morality and ideology is not done. There are more foundations to be discovered, and more nuance to be gleaned from the ones that have been discovered. I think that without the yet-to-be-discovered psychological building blocks of social thought MFT and TRM as they currently stand do not and cannot fully explain 1) everything we see happening today, AND 2) many of the things that already happened throughout history.  Elsewhere I’ve offered my suggestions as to what’s missing, but that’s beside the point of this post.

I think that because of the missing pieces, much, if not most, current analysis is prone to backsliding into the “entrenched yet questionable orthodoxies” – the myths – with which left and right incorrectly paint themselves and each other, and through THAT, despite the best of intentions of groups like HxA, partisan divisiveness is actually exacerbated rather than ameliorated.

Examples of backsliding into “truths” that are in fact fictions include 1) describing the Trump and Brexit wins, or conservatism in general, in terms of authoritarianism, populism, nationalism, etc., and 2) conflating the trait of openness with the trait of open mindedness, as if the two were one and the same, rather than as the distinctly different and separate phenomena they actually are.

I think analyses that backslide into those and other myths veer off the right track and onto an unfortunate wrong track of polemics; of asking “can I believe it?” and answering “Yes,” to the destructive fictions we believe about ourselves and about each other (e.g., that the left is more open minded than the right, and that the right is more authoritarian than the left.)

In many ways, it seems to me, even within HxA, the same old partisan lines are still being staked out and defended, but in a more underground, surreptitious, congenial, “polite,” “academic,” “scientific,” and therefore insidious, way.

I think a corrective to this is to get back onto the right track, which entails the realization that left and right are, first and foremost, psychological profiles of evolved cognitive mechanisms that differ along at least the two dimensions of 1) Cognitive style, and 2) Moral matrix, and that even when left and right both use some of the same moral foundations the differences in cognitive styles mean that the WAY the foundations are implemented and applied is markedly different, to the point of being for all intents and purposes mutually exclusive.

Psychological profiles, in other words, are the primary determinants of social thought and behavior.  They are the horse from which the cart of secondary attributes like authoritarianism, openness, open mindedness, etc., follows, which is then also followed in turn by tertiary attributes like the ideologies that we (unfortunately) ALSO label as left and right, which in turn are followed later still by proposed and actual public policies.

I think almost all analyses focus on the cart and ignore the horse.  With apologies for mixing metaphors, this is the elephant in the room that HxA misses. 

The failure to separate horse from cart – psychological profiles from traits which follow from them – makes things worse, not better, because it facilitates backsliding.

In a perfect world the following would be true:

  1. The work of identifying ALL of the foundations of morality would have continued apace, as would have…
  2. the equally important work of identifying AND MOST IMPORTANTLY DEBUNKING the entrenched yet questionable orthodoxies, such that…
  3. analyses of current and historical events were to be traced back to the horse of “evolved psychological mechanisms” rather than to the cart of traits, ideologies, and policies which follow from it.

I think this three-part suggestion is not only not too much to ask, but also affords the biggest bang for the buck in helping to move us toward being able to answer “Yes” to Rodney King’s “Can we all get along?”


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