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Back in 2010 and 2011 I was honored to be asked by Jonathan Haidt to review a manuscript of his then upcoming book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Since that time we’ve maintained our correspondence.

I’ve asked for and received his permission to publish his responses to three ideas I offered.  For the reader’s convenience his responses are in red font.  The ideas I offered are in regular font.

I’ve chosen these three examples from the many I’ve received because they pertain to my overall thesis and as such are particularly meaningful to me.  

Email 1 is the very first one I ever sent to him back in 2010. I was inspired to write after watching his TED Talk The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives. It was this email that moved him to invite me to review his book. In it are my first musings of what eventually became my Cognitive Theory of Politics.

Email 2 is an observation of mine that gradually formed during the intervening years based on my readings and on my interactions with academic social scientists other than Haidt.   

Email 3 is the first bit of Haidt’s thoughts about my Cognitive Theory of Politics. It’s an overview. He included in his email further comments about specific statements within my essay, but they all relate to his overview so I’ve left them out of this blog post.  As I’ve thought about this topic since receiving Haidt’s email I’ve been leaning strongly toward agreeing with his suggestion that it’s not really brain types that I’m talking about, but rather that I’m “just trying to describe the temperamental difference in more detail than I or Hibbing did? It seems you are identifying two psychological types, not two brain types.”

     ========== Email 1 ==========

On Fri, Apr 2, 2010 The Independent Whig wrote:

Professor Haidt,

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.  http://mises.org/daily/4192  

The way I read these excerpts, the difference between deductive reasoning and inductive reasoning is very close, if not the same, as the difference I describe between the deductive “reason” of liberalism and the inductive “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 “a priori” approach of deductive reasoning, and conservatism favors the more empirical approach of inductive 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 deductive/inductive, 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?


The Independent Whig

P.S. Regarding your main contender for a 6th foundation, liberty/constraint:

“Liberty” is a loaded word. Liberals and conservatives alike, I’m sure, would say that they believe in the concepts of liberty, equality, and justice. But the two sides have entirely different understandings of what those words mean. That is to say, the two sides seek different ends. And the difference is stark; arguably mutually exclusive. In my view, debates between the two sides on how best to achieve those things break down the way they do because the proposed solutions of each side not only make no sense to the other, but are seen as counterproductive, and even counter-intuitive, to their different ends. So, even if you were to define “liberty” clearly, people might still primarily rely on their own interpretation of it when responding to your surveys or reading your work, and that might confuse matters. A better wording, and possibly a more encompassing conceptualization of what I think you may be trying to get at with liberty/constraint might be found in the constrained/unconstrained dichotomy of Thomas Sowell’s “A Conflict of Visions.”

At any rate, whether it is called liberty/constraint, constrained/unconstrained, or something else, the idea seems to look outward from the person toward how we view society and treat others. But could how we view ourselves also be a foundation of morality? For example, if I see myself as the unencumbered self, then the last three foundations are unnecessary, but if I see myself as the situated self, then they are essential to who I am.

Haidt replied:

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 on 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. (and i’m a liberal, but a somewhat anti-rationalist one).

I’m also pleased that you have read my work so closely, and apply it so deftly.

May i ask what your own political leanings are?

========== Email 2 ==========

On Tue, Apr 11, 2017 The Independent Whig  wrote:

If I stand back and look at the overall trajectory of your work it seems that the literature survey that eventually led to MFT actually  started with Happiness Hypothesis. You may not have recognized it as such at the time, but I bet in retrospect you’d agree.

This leads me to the point I’d like to make.

The more I read the more I see patterns, or trends, emerging.

In my quest to get a handle on ideologies I read history, for years, BEFORE I stumbled upon your TED Talk and a whole new avenue of study, psychology, opened up for me.

Your work confirmed patterns I’d already seen; corroborated conclusions I’d already made.

But I get the sense that the path I’m on is NOT a two way street.

I have the feeling that psychological social scientists don’t read much history.

And by not doing so they might be missing some very important emergent patterns.

Sure, you read Hume, Mill, Adam Smith, etc., bit that’s not the type of history I’m talking about.

I’m talking about books by historians like Forrest McDonald, Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood. I could send a list.

I think by NOT reading much history psychological social science denies itself access to great swaths of empirical evidence about about human thought and behavior, and importantly it denies itself the opportunity to see patterns that could shed great insights, even epiphanies.

The insight I’ve had is the topic of cognitive style that I think is missing from MFT.  It’s one of my main critiques, challenges, to the theory. https://www.google.com/amp/s/theindependentwhig.com/2016/01/27/five-challenges-to-moral-foundations-theory/amp/

My point here is not to argue for my ideas.

My point is to wonder aloud to you if psychological social science might be too narrowly focused in its literature research and thinking about the moral roots of liberalism and conservatism, and if it broadened its scope our collective understanding of ourselves would improve.

I think you’re the exception to this.

I think your Three Stories About Capitalism proves this.

I think a similar approach, but aimed at government, could be an epiphanous watershed moment for the advancement of psychological social science.

Three Stories About Government could be a game changer.

Haidt replied:

You are right;

my field is not very scholarly. We are focused on experiments and methods. We are not even scholarly about the experiments and methods used 30 years ago; we are too caught up in the present.

This was what I came to see when i did a post doc at Chicago, in cultural psych; the anthropologists lived in a world of books and ideas. The psychologists lived in relatively recent journal articles

========== Email 3 ==========

On August 26, 2017 Haidt wrote:

I finally read your cognitive theory. It’s a fantastic integration of so many books and thinkers and ideas. I do see how these types recur, all the way back.

To really develop your theory, I think you’ll need to be able to answer a few questions, especially:

1) why is it called the cognitive theory? What does cognitive mean here? Is it about different types of information processing?

2) why do you talk about brain types? Is there any evidence that the brains of left and right differ [yes there is] in the ways that you need for your theory to be about brain types [not clear to me]. In the righteous mind I take a nativist developmental view, just like you; I say that temperament is heritable, and some temperaments predispose people to left or right; as does Hibbing. What exactly is the claim you make beyond this? Why do you say that it is brain type, rather than just trying to describe the temperamental difference in more detail than I or Hibbing did? It seems you are identifying two psychological types, not two brain types.

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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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