This blog takes its name from a series of essays written in 1720 by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, whose later work was serialized in The London Journal, and then later in book form, as Cato’s Letters. Through The Independent Whig and Cato’s Letters these two men were foremost among a group of writers which, more than any other, shaped the mind of the American Revolutionary generation. They synthesized disparate ideas from multiple sources and formed them into a coherent whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.(1)
Recent advances in social science research are offering us a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the human mind and how we construct our moral systems. This understanding sheds new light on how and why each of us arrives at our own particular political world view.
It is time for a new synthesis.
It is the intent of this blog to continue in the spirit of Trenchard and Gordon by shining that new light onto some of our old ideas about conservatism and liberalism in the hope of synthesizing ideas from multiple sources to form a fresh interpretation of both.
In so doing, this blog will challenge many ideas about politics that are currently taken for granted by liberals and by conservatives. Statements that might start with “Everybody knows that…” will be treated with suspicion. This blog will argue that much of today’s “conventional wisdom” about liberalism and conservatism – wisdom that often serves as the presupposition behind many of our political arguments on both sides – is in fact unwise.
This blog will develop a series of ideas that, taken together, attempt to replace that unwise conventional wisdom with an understanding of liberalism and conservatism, and liberals and conservatives, that is more congruous with what we now know about the workings of the human mind and the behaviors that result. Some of these ideas are summarized in the following paragraphs.
The Rider and the Elephant: We humans are not the logical, rational, objective beings we like to think we are. When it comes to moral issues, including politics, the majority of what we think and say and do is determined not by reason, but by our subconscious mind; by our emotions, and by our instincts and intuitions. Far from being in control, the conscious mind is more like a rider on the back of an elephant, thinking it is in charge but mostly just along for the ride. The chief role of the rider is more like that of a lawyer, arguing after the fact on behalf of the path the instinctual elephant has already taken. (2)
The Fallacy of Reason: Reason functions quite poorly as a determiner of rational beliefs. That’s because our ability to reason did not evolve in us so that we might find the truth, it evolved so that we might win arguments against others and persuade them to adopt our way of thinking. We use reason largely to justify our beliefs and actions after the fact. (3) We’re superbly talented at calling out the faults of others, and almost blind to the faults of our own. (4)
The Moral Mind: The nature of each of our intuitive elephants is defined by our morality. Our morality is determined by the degree to which each of us employs six core moral foundations. These foundations act as the color receptors of our moral eye, and as the cognitive tools through which we make sense of what we see. We – which is to say, our riders/lawyers – use these tools to construct the rationales we use to describe and defend out political views, and to attempt to persuade others that our views are correct.
Reason and Experience: Ultimately every political philosophy, every morality, boils down to a matter of faith. Liberalism is a faith in reason; the power of the human mind to solve problems and overcome obstacles. Conservatism is a faith in experience; the collected wisdom of the ages, tempered by reason, as represented by customs, traditions, and institutions.
The Bees and the Hive: Humanity is groupish by nature. We’re like bees in hives. Liberal morality focuses on the bees. It seeks to help them thrive through policies intended to care for them, prevent harm from coming to them, and afford them the greatest possible individual autonomy and expression. Conservative morality focuses on the hive. It seeks to help it thrive through a process which constantly adjusts to the moving target of a relatively equal balance between the autonomy of the bees and the needs of the community of the hive, because without a healthy hive the bees can’t thrive.
The Position of The Independent Whig:
The Problem: This blog will argue that while the reason-based, bee-focused morality of liberalism is great at perceiving logical inconsistencies in the world at large, and in the arguments and positions of those with whom it disagrees, it is terrible at seeing and understanding the broader picture and potential benefits of the experience-based, hive-focused morality. Further, its fixation on bee-focused policies tends to foul the hive, whereupon it points to the fouled hive as the reason for ever more fixation on the bees. It is a self-fulfilling prophesy, and a slippery slope toward statism and planned societies, which in the end diminishes, if not destroys, the very autonomy it seeks to protect.
The Solution: The solution is education and enlightenment through open minded discussion, combining the newest findings from social science research with longstanding ideas about conservatism and liberalism to form a fresh interpretation of both. This blog will attempt to highlight the differences between, and the consequences of, the historical patterns of thoughts and behaviors of the two moralities; to promote the idea that morality is about more than just harm and care – it is also about binding groups together into healthy communities, or hives; and to encourage public policies and educational programs that incorporate this more comprehensive and inclusive understanding of human nature.
Specifically, we can reduce demonization and shrink the political divide by reinforcing the virtues and ethics of all the moral foundations, and by teaching the lessons of The Righteous Mind, in age appropriate modules in practically every subject – from literature to history to civics to health to economics – in our public schools from K through 12 and beyond. The Whig is confident that if our children understand how Moral Foundations influence the way people think in all walks of life and how they affect the way people relate with one another in the social world then future generations will have a deeper grasp of human nature and will thus be better equipped to get along; leaders who emerge will make better decisions through an increased empathy for how our righteous minds really work. We cannot possibly expect future generations to get along unless we “change the path” in a way that gives them a truer grasp of why getting along can be so hard to do.
A Final Thought and a Note About Tone:
Our intuitive elephants don’t just change their minds. They can’t be convinced to switch to a different path or adopt a new set of beliefs. But through patient, persistent, respectful conversation among our rational riders, they sometimes can and do, of their own accord, make adjustments to the paths they are on. It is the modest hope of this blog that maybe a few elephants will at least consider adjusting their paths in a way that accepts the notion that morality, and thus politics, is about more than just caring for the bees; it is about caring for the bees AND for the hive because it is only through a healthy hive that the bees CAN thrive.
(1) See chapter 2 of The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn.
Also see Modern Historians Confront the American Revolution, by Murray Rothbard. Here’s Rothbard describing Trenchard and Gordon:
These writers carried forward the ideals of natural rights and individual liberty. In the course of editing a volume of Revolutionary pamphlets, Bailyn discovered that Americans were indeed influenced, on a massive scale, by these libertarian articles and pamphlets. Many of these publications were reprinted widely in the American colonies, and clearly influenced the revolutionary leaders. The most important shaper of this libertarian viewpoint was Cato’s Letters, a series of newspaper articles in England in the early 1720s written by John Trenchard and his young disciple Thomas Gordon. The collected Cato’s Letters were republished many times in eighteenth century England and America.
Trenchard and Gordon, and the other libertarian writers, transmuted John Locke’s abstract and often guarded political philosophy into a trenchant, hard-hitting, and radical libertarian creed. Not only did men have natural rights of life, liberty, and property, which governments must not invade, but “Cato” and the other writers declared that government — power — was always and ever the great enemy of liberty, and stood ready to aggress against it. Hence, power must always be diminished as far as possible. Men must watch it continually with utmost hostility and vigilance, lest it break its bonds, and destroy the rights of the individual. “Cato” particularly denounced the propensity for tyranny of the British government of the day. This message found an eager reception in the American colonies.
(3) See The Argumentative Theory, A Conversation with Hugo Mercier at Edge.org, or go to Dr. Mercier’s home page for more.