Key Ideas

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 five, possibly 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.


(2) See Chapter 1: The Divided Self, from The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt.

(3) See The Argumentative Theory, A Conversation with Hugo Mercier at Edge.org, or go to Dr. Mercier’s home page for more.

(4) See Chapter 4: The Faults of Others, from The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt.


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