Proper treatment of a disease requires proper diagnosis of its cause. Much of what we think we know about the reasons for the political divide is wrong, which means that many of the remedies we might suggest for ameliorating it are likely to be ineffective. New advances in social science research are lifting the veil of ignorance we have about ourselves and those with whom we disagree, and giving us the opportunity to finally take some practical steps to shrink the size of the divide and reduce the amount of demonization that flows back and forth across it. The remedies won’t be easy; far from it. And they definitely won’t be quick. But they’re available to us should we have the courage and the long term vision to use them.
The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor, and every ideology has its own story in the form of “grand narrative” that describes the social world from the perspective of that ideology. The liberal and conservative grand narratives go something like this:
The Liberal Grand Narrative
Once upon a time, the vast majority of human persons suffered in societies and social institutions that were unjust, unhealthy, repressive, and oppressive. These traditional societies were reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation, and irrational traditionalism …. But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality, and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression, and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies. While modern social conditions hold the potential to maximize the individual freedom and pleasure of all, there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation, and repression. This struggle for the good society in which individuals are equal and free to pursue their self-defined happiness is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving. (The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt, p 331)
The Conservative Grand Narrative
Once upon a time, America was a shining beacon. Then liberals came along and erected an enormous federal bureaucracy that handcuffed the invisible hand of the free market. They subverted our traditional American values and opposed God and faith at every step of the way …. Instead of requiring that people work for a living, they siphoned money from hardworking Americans and gave it to Cadillac-driving drug addicts and welfare queens. Instead of punishing criminals, they tried to “understand” them. Instead of worrying about the victims of crime, they worried about the rights of criminals …. Instead of adhering to traditional American values of family, fidelity, and personal responsibility, they preached promiscuity, premarital sex, and the gay lifestyle … and they encouraged a feminist agenda that undermined traditional family roles …. Instead of projecting strength to those who would do evil around the world, they cut military budgets, disrespected our soldiers in uniform, burned our flag, and chose negotiation and multilateralism …. Then Americans decided to take their country back from those who sought to undermine it. (The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt,pp 332-333).
I propose that there’s a third Grand Narrative. The third grand narrative is a single overarching story that describes the relationship among all the other grand narratives, but chiefly between liberalism and conservatism. The third grand narrative is captured conceptually in books like Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, and Arthur Herman’s The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization and Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. I call the third grand narrative the GRAND Grand Narrative. It goes something like this:
Both of the two major Grand Narratives get some things right and some things wrong, in relatively equal amounts, but in different areas of concern. Societies do best when they can find a way to maximize the right things and minimize the wrong things from both sides. Politics is the process of working that out.
I suggest that the third narrative is the foundational presumption from which all political debate proceeds. It’s the current conventional wisdom about politics that “everybody knows,” and it’s the basis of the popular notion that if only the two sides could meet in the middle through compromise then we might actually make some progress toward solving the problems in Washington.
And, I suggest, it’s wrong. It’s simply not true that the political divide is symmetrical in this way.
In July of 2010 a group of pioneering thinkers in the social sciences assembled for a seminar to discuss The New Science of Morality. The participants were Roy F. Baumeister, Paul Bloom, Joshua D. Greene, Jonathan Haidt, Sam Harris, Joshua Knobe, Elizabeth Phelps, and David Pizarro. Here’s the opening paragraph of the web page for the seminar:
Something radically new is in the air: new ways of understanding physical systems, new ways of thinking about thinking that call into question many of our basic assumptions. A realistic biology of the mind, advances in evolutionary biology, physics, information technology, genetics, neurobiology, psychology, engineering, the chemistry of materials: all are questions of critical importance with respect to what it means to be human. For the first time, we have the tools and the will to undertake the scientific study of human nature.
Jonathan Haidt later wrote The Righteous Mind in which he describes his findings in detail. I’m one of the “three conservative readers” mentioned in the acknowledgements on page 375. I write under the pen name of The Independent Whig to try to keep my personal avocation of studying and writing essays like this one separate from my professional vocation.
In this essay I offer what I think is the correct diagnosis and a treatment plan that is based on it.
We truly are The Social Animal. Humans are the only species that evolved to form into large cooperative groups of individuals who are not blood relatives. Groups then often compete with other groups for things like scarce resources and political power because those things help to ensure the health and longevity of the group.
The human psyche contains at least six evolved psychological mechanisms that help us to maintain the health and integrity of the groups to which we belong, and to manage our own reputations so we can remain in good standing within those groups and thus ensure our own survival and well-being. These mechanisms operate like little radars, constantly scanning the social environment for patterns of behaviors and situations that represented opportunities and threats to our genetic ancestors. They are some of the main reasons we feel subconscious intuitions of like or dislike, approach or avoid, and fight or flee in response to the patterns we see in the social world around us. The six foundations of subconscious social intuition are care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, authority/subversion, loyalty/betrayal, and sanctity/degradation. These are what Haidt calls the moral foundations.
These foundations are also some of the constructs of conscious reason that we use to describe and defend our intuitions, and to develop arguments to convince others that our own intuitions are the right ones. The latest research into human reason suggests that this is the true purpose for which it evolved; reason is for winning arguments, not for finding truth. In this light common flaws of reason like the confirmation bias and reason-based choice suddenly make sense. They’re not flaws at all, they’re features of reason that help it do exactly what evolution designed it to do: win.
This point bears further explanation. In 1739 David Hume observed that “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office but to serve and obey them.” In the 276 years since then social science researchers have amassed mountains of evidence that show he was right. Daniel Kahneman describes this phenomenon in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Malcolm Gladwell popularized it in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Briefly, it works something like this. Imagine that you’re in a museum with a friend and almost immediately upon laying your eyes on a work of art you exclaim “Oh I like that!” Your friend asks why you like it. Then, and only then, do you construct a rationale for your instantaneous impression. In his book The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom Haidt explains it this way.
The Roman poet Ovid captured [this] situation perfectly. In Metamorphoses, Medea is torn between her love for Jason and her duty to her father. She laments:
I am dragged along by a strange new force. Desire and reason are pulling in different directions. I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong.
Modern theories about rational choice and information processing don’t adequately explain weakness of the will. The older metaphors about controlling animals work beautifully. The image that I came up with for myself, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him. (p, 4)
Building on these ideas, Haidt’s second principle of moral psychology is “intuitions come first, strategic thinking second.” Ninety nine percent of what we think, say, and do in the social realm is driven by our “passions,” and reason exists to defend and promote them. In this realm reason is always, and can only ever be, a post-hoc rationalization of feelings already felt, and decisions already made. William Saleton’s review of The Righteous Mind succinctly summarizes this central concept as follows:
Reason doesn’t work like a judge or teacher, impartially weighing evidence or guiding us to wisdom. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgments to others.
Haidt’s moral foundations comprise a significant portion of the subconscious elephant, and of the logical constructs of the rider press secretary of conscious reason.
Groups form around belief systems that their members have in common. People like to be with other people who think like they do. Like-mindedness helps to maintain the strength of the group. Belief systems include ideologies, moralities, and religions, all of which are instances of the underlying uniquely human trait of groupishness.
Belief systems vary in the degree to which the six psychological mechanisms are involved in the subconscious intuitions and the conscious reasoning of the individuals who adhere to them. Haidt calls each formulation of moral foundations a moral matrix, which can be thought of like the performance envelope of an aircraft. It describes the extent, and the limits, of the capabilities of the system it represents. Belief systems are closed epistemic system beyond which it becomes impossible to think.
The conservative system employs all six of the moral foundations in roughly equal balance. The liberal system employs only care, fairness, and liberty, and of those mostly just care. Here’s an image Haidt often uses when he speaks to audiences about his findings (from this lecture, at about 45:48).
Each year Edge.org asks a “big” question, gathers responses to it from some of today’s most important thinkers, and publishes the results in a book. In this section I propose one idea, in two parts, in response to three recent annual questions.
The annual question for 2014 was What scientific idea is ready for retirement?
Science advances by discovering new things and developing new ideas. Few truly new ideas are developed without abandoning old ones first. As theoretical physicist Max Planck (1858-1947) noted, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” In other words, science advances by a series of funerals. Why wait that long?
WHAT SCIENTIFIC IDEA IS READY FOR RETIREMENT?
Ideas change, and the times we live in change. Perhaps the biggest change today is the rate of change. What established scientific idea is ready to be moved aside so that science can advance?
The 2012 question was What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?
Scientists’ greatest pleasure comes from theories that derive the solution to some deep puzzle from a small set of simple principles in a surprising way. These explanations are called “beautiful” or “elegant”. Historical examples are Kepler’s explanation of complex planetary motions as simple ellipses, Bohr’s explanation of the periodic table of the elements in terms of electron shells, and Watson and Crick’s double helix. Einstein famously said that he did not need experimental confirmation of his general theory of relativity because it “was so beautiful it had to be true.”
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DEEP, ELEGANT, OR BEAUTIFUL EXPLANATION?
Since this question is about explanation, answers may embrace scientific thinking in the broadest sense: as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, including other fields of inquiry such as philosophy, mathematics, economics, history, political theory, literary theory, or the human spirit. The only requirement is that some simple and non-obvious idea explain some diverse and complicated set of phenomena.
In 2009 Edge.org asked What will change everything?
Through science we create technology and in using our new tools we recreate ourselves. But until very recently in our history, no democratic populace, no legislative body, ever indicated by choice, by vote, how this process should play out.
Nobody ever voted for printing. Nobody ever voted for electricity. Nobody ever voted for radio, the telephone, the automobile, the airplane, television. Nobody ever voted for penicillin, antibiotics, the pill. Nobody ever voted for space travel, massively parallel computing, nuclear power, the personal computer, the Internet, email, cell phones, the Web, Google, cloning, sequencing the entire human genome. We are moving towards the redefinition of life, to the edge of creating life itself. While science may or may not be the only news, it is the news that stays news.
And our politicians, our governments? Always years behind, the best they can do is play catch up.
Nobel laureate James Watson, who discovered the DNA double helix, and genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter, recently were awarded Double Helix Awards from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory for being the founding fathers of human genome sequencing. They are the first two human beings to have their complete genetic information decoded.
Watson noted during his acceptance speech that he doesn’t want government involved in decisions concerning how people choose to handle information about their personal genomes.
Venter is on the brink of creating the first artificial life form on Earth. He has already announced transplanting the information from one genome into another. In other words, your dog becomes your cat. He has privately alluded to important scientific progress in his lab, the result of which, if and when realized, will change everything.
WHAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING?
“What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?”
Part one of my idea responds to the 2014 question: What scientific idea is ready for retirement?
The idea that should be retired and abandoned is the notion that the following images offer a scientifically correct representation of the dynamic between liberal and conservative psyches and patterns of thought:
In short, the idea that should be retired is the GRAND Grand Narrative.
Starting on page 337 of The Righteous Mind Haidt describes an epiphany that literally floored him when he was researching conservative morality:
As a lifelong liberal, I had assumed that conservatism = orthodoxy = religion = faith = rejection of science. It followed, therefore, that as an atheist and a scientist, I was obligated to be a liberal. But Muller asserted that modern conservatism is really about creating the best possible society, the one that brings about the greatest happiness given local circumstances. Could it be? Was there a kind of conservatism that could compete against liberalism in the court of social science? Might conservatives have a better formula for how to create a healthy, happy society?
I kept reading. Muller went through a series of claims about human nature and nstitutions, which he said are the core beliefs of conservatism. Conservatives believe that people are inherently imperfect and are prone to act badly when all constraints and accountability are removed (yes, I thought; see Glaucon, Tetlock, and Ariely in chapter 4). Our reasoning is flawed and prone to overconfidence, so it’s dangerous to construct theories based on pure reason, unconstrained by intuition and historical experience (yes; see Hume in chapter 2 and Baron-Cohen on systemizing in chapter 6). Institutions emerge gradually as social facts, which we then respect and even sacralize, but if we strip these institutions of authority and treat them as arbitrary contrivances that exist only for our benefit, we render them less effective. We then expose ourselves to increased anomie and social disorder (yes; see Durkheim in chapters 8 and 11).
Based on my own research, I had no choice but to agree with these conservative claims. As I continued to read the writings of conservative intellectuals, from Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century through Friedrich Hayek and Thomas Sowell in the twentieth, I began to see that they had attained a crucial insight into the sociology of morality that I had never encountered before. They understood the importance of what I’ll call moral capital.
In interviews with Bill Moyers and Steven Colbert Haidt said conservatives have a better grasp of human nature than do liberals. He even dedicates Chapter 8 of The Righteous Mind to describing what he calls “The Conservative Advantage,” which he summaries as follows:
Moral psychology can help to explain why the Democratic Party has had so much difficulty connecting with voters since 1980. Republicans understand the social intuitionist model better than do Democrats. Republicans speak more directly to the elephant. They also have a better grasp of Moral Foundations Theory; they trigger every single taste receptor.
I presented the Durkheirnian vision of society, favored by social conservatives, in which the basic social unit is the family, rather than the individual, and in which order, hierarchy, and tradition are highly valued. I contrasted this vision with the liberal Millian vision, which is more open and individualistic. I noted that a Millian society has difficulty binding pluribus into unum. Democrats often pursue policies that promote pluribus at the expense of unum, policies that leave them open to charges of treason, subversion, and sacrilege.
How can this be? If “everybody knows” that the GRAND Grand Narrative is correct then how is it that conservatives have an advantage? How is it that conservatives understand human nature better than liberals do?
The answers to these questions are important because in the realm of politics, human behavior, and setting public policy, having an accurate understanding of human nature is everything. There’s nothing else TO understand.
Part two of this idea answers these questions, and responds to both of the other two Edge.org annual questions: What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?, and What will change everything?
Haidt’s small set of simple principles solve much of the deep puzzle of the political divide. His findingsshow that, in contrast to the GRAND Grand Narrative and the first set of images above, the correct picture is more like this:
There is no part of liberalism that is not also a part of conservatism, but half of conservatism is external to the closed epistemic system of liberalism. The smaller circle is shown as a dotted line because there is sometimes a small amount of leakage of one or more of the the binding foundations into the liberal realm. This diagram is little more than a different way to show Haidt’s data, which he depicts with the “American Culture War” graph shown above, and in the following images:
It is scientifically incorrect to depict the political left and right with the first set of pictures further above. It is scientifically correct to depict it with the circle-in-a-circle Venn diagram. The incorrect depiction suggests that liberals are from Mars and conservatives are from Venus. The correct depiction suggests that the relationship between the two is more like that of Flatland and Spaceland, where liberals are two dimensional “square” Flatlanders and conservatives are three dimensional “sphere” Spacelanders. Here’s his summary of Flatland from page 182 of his book The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom:
“One day, the square is visited by a sphere from a three-dimensional world called Spaceland. When a sphere visits Flatland, however, all that is visible to Flatlanders is the part of the sphere that lies in their plain-in other words, a circle. The square is astonished that the circle is able to grow or shrink at will (by rising or sinking into the plane of Flatland) and even to disappear and reappear in a different place (by leaving the plane, and then reentering it). The sphere tries to explain the concept of the third dimension to the two-dimensional square, but the square, though skilled at two-dimensional geometry, doesn’t get it. He cannot understand what it means to have thickness in addition to height and breadth, nor can he understand that the circle came from up above him, where “up” does not mean from the north. The sphere presents analogies and geometrical demonstrations of how to move from one dimension to two, and then from two to three, but the square stilI finds the idea of moving “up” out of the plane of Flatland ridiculous.”
THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING! And PROFOUNDLY SO! It changes ALL the presumptions and ALL the assumptions that “everybody knows,” upon which ALL political debate rests!! Practically every presumption about the differences between liberals and conservatives can be, and should be, reexamined and reinterpreted through the lens of Haidt’s findings. It’s not what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you know for sure, but just ain’t so.
The correct paradigm explains not only why conservatives have a better grasp of human nature, but also why conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives, as Haidt describes beginning on page 334 of The Righteous Mind (emphasis added):
In a study I did with Jesse Graham and Brian Nosek, we tested how well liberals and conservatives could understand each other. We asked more than two thousand American visitors to fill out the Moral Foundations Qyestionnaire. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out normally, answering as themselves. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out as they think a “typical liberal” would respond. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out as a “typical conservative” would respond. This design allowed us to examine the stereotypes that each side held about the other. More important, it allowed us to assess how accurate they were by comparing people’s expectations about “typical” partisans to the actual responses from partisans on the left and the right)’ Who was best able to pretend to be the other?
The results were clear and consistent. Moderates and conservatives were most accurate in their predictions, whether they were pretending to be liberals or conservatives. Liberals were the least accurate, especially those who described themselves as “very liberal.” The biggest errors in the whole study came when liberals answered the Care and Fairness questions while pretending to be conservatives. When faced with questions such as “One of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal” or ”Justice is the most important requirement for a society,” liberals assumed that conservatives would disagree. If you have a moral matrix built primarily on intuitions about care and fairness (as equality), and you listen to the Reagan [i.e., conservative] narrative, what else could you think?
The correct paradigm explains the truism that conservatives think liberals are good people with bad ideas, but liberals think conservatives are bad people. When half of the evolved psychological mechanisms of social perception and understanding are essentially unavailable to one’s subconscious intuitions and conscious reasoning one is left with no cognitive alternative for understanding people who think differently but to conclude that they’re afflicted with some sort of mental dysfunction. A conversation about social issues between a liberal and a conservative is like a conversation about rainbows between a color blind person and a fully sighted one in which the color blind liberal “knows” that the sighted conservative is an extremist nut case because he sees moral colors that “everybody knows” are just not there, and conservative think liberals are misinformed because they DON’T see moral colors that everybody knows ARE there. What else could you think? Haidt continues:
You might even go as far as Michael Feingold, a theater critic for the liberal newspaper the Village Voice, when he wrote:
Republicans don’t believe in the imagination, partly because so few of them have one, but mostly because it gets in the way of their chosen work, which is to destroy the human race and the planet. Human beings, who have imaginations, can see a recipe for disaster in the making; Republicans, whose goal in life is to profit from disaster and who don’t give a hoot about human beings, either can’t or won’t. Which is why I personally think they should be exterminated before they cause any more harm)
One of the many ironies in this quotation is that it shows the inability of a theater critic-who skillfully enters fantastical imaginary worlds for a living-to imagine that Republicans act within a moral matrix that differs from his own.
Thomas Sowell observes that this phenomenon has been characteristic of small circle thought since its beginnings in the eighteenth century:
From the 18th century to today, many leading thinkers on the left have regarded those who disagree with them as being not merely factually wrong but morally repugnant. And again, this pattern is far less often found among those on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum.
The visceral hostility toward Sarah Palin by present day liberals, and the gutter level to which some descend in expressing it, is just one sign of a mindset on the left that goes back more than two centuries.
T.R. Malthus was the target of such hostility in the 18th and early 19th centuries. When replying to his critics, Malthus said, “I cannot doubt the talents of such men as Godwin and Condorcet. I am unwilling to doubt their candor.”
But William Godwin’s vision of Malthus was very different. He called Malthus “malignant,” questioned “the humanity of the man,” and said “I profess myself at a loss to conceive of what earth the man was made.”
This asymmetry in responses to people with different opinions has been too persistent, for too many years, to be just a matter of individual personality differences.
Thus the profound problem we face. Liberalism is blind in one eye, yet it insists on the superiority of its vision and its supreme right to rule. It cannot see half the things a governing philosophy must see, and claims that those who see both halves are thereby unqualified to govern.
The correct paradigm also explains, for example, the thinking of the Philosophes and the basis of the French Revolution (small circle), and the thinking of the American Founding generation and Revolution(large circle); of Jean Jacques Rousseau (small circle), and of Edmund Burke (large circle); of the occupy movement and the Ferguson protesters (small circle), and of the Tea Party movement (large circle); of John Maynard Keynes (small circle), and of Friedrich Hayek and Adam Smith (large circle);
The correct paradigm explains disinvitation season (small circle); it explains the psychologies behind the liberal and conservative grand narratives, and behind what Thomas Sowell describes in his books A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles and The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy.
The correct paradigm explains the rash of politically correct thought control on college campuses that Steven F. Hayward and Jonathan Chait recently described, and Haidt Tweeted about on 2/21/15 and 1/30/15 respectively. When it is self-evident that the other side is mentally deficient, one feels not only completely justified but also duty bound to ensure that its ideas never see the light of day.
If the disease is the political divide and the entrenched positions on each side of it and the animosity and vitriol that seem to dominate politics then the symmetry of the GRAND Grand Narrative is NOT the correct diagnosis.
And since the diagnosis is incorrect, prescriptions to treat it, like The Asteroids Club and concepts like No Labels, seem (to me) to be the social equivalent of putting band-aids on bullet wounds. They address the surface appearances (e.g., “a party of tradition and stability vs a party of change”, as if they’re Yin and Yang) but they ignore the real damage underneath (e.g., the insidious effects of cognitive distortions and the absence of moral facts,the tribal moral communities of academia and the media, the resulting virtual absence of intellectual diversity, and the emerging phenomenon of conservatism as counter culture. And in so doing they do little more than kick the can of the current status quo of misinformed flat-earth thinking about psychologies of left and right a little further down the road, and therefore actually prevent us from thinking with a more enlightened and scientifically accurate understanding of fundamental human nature.