Thesis Part Three – Cognitive Style is a Moral Foundation

Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) seems insufficient to explain everything we see in the social world around us. It does not explain, for example, the stark differences between the liberal left – exemplified by groups like Heterodox Academy and The Village Square – and the illiberal left exemplified by protesters who shout down public speakers, disrupt political rallies, and otherwise attempt to protect themselves and society from views unlike their own. It does not fully explain the cognitive distortions described in The Coddling of the American Mind. Nor does it fully explain Victimhood Culture.

A comprehensive theory of morality should be able to explain all of those things.

I suggest there might be an additional component or dimension of morality that, like the moral foundations and the principles of moral psychology, helps us to understand and explain social thought and behavior more completely and accurately than is possible through MFT alone as it currently stands.

I propose that the missing dimension is Cognitive Style.

I further propose that Cognitive Style works synergistically with the moral foundations and other factors to create the emergent systems we call moralities or ideologies which are greater than the sum of their parts.

This essay is Part Three of my four-part thesis. In this essay I describe why I think Cognitive Style is an evolved psychological mechanism that influences morality and ideology, and offer some real-world examples of how I think the two cognitive styles manifest in politics and social thinking. In Part Two I picked up where The Righteous Mind left off and pulled the thread of Moral Foundations Theory to describe how I think our general lack of understanding about what REALLY motivates ourselves and others to do and say the things we do exacerbates the divisiveness and rancor that flows back and forth across the political divide. In Part Four I prescribe my remedy for ameliorating those problems.

Ever since Edmund Burke wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France it has been clear that the thought patterns of left and right are distinctly different yet remarkably consistent within themselves. In The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization, Arthur Herman traces those patterns back through time for at least 2400 years.

The two main patterns of thought seem to be universal and timeless. This suggests that they, like the Big Five personality traits and the moral foundations, are evolved psychological mechanisms” of human thought, action, and morality.

Through the years the two cognitive styles have been observed and described with depth, nuance, and insight by various scholars, philosophers, and social scientists. No two descriptions are exactly alike. Each has its own perspective and terminology. But at bottom they all appear to be saying the same thing; that human thought is characterized by two very different ways of processing information. Tomas Sowell describes them in Chapter 3, Visions of Knowledge and Reason, of A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. Michael Oakeshott describes them in Rationalism in Politics and other essays. Jonathan Haidt reveals them in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Yuval Levin overviews them in The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. Jerry Z Muller, in Conservatism offers a good picture of the rightist style. I’ve yet to find a Muller equivalent on the left.

Each pairing in the following numbered list represents one of the ways the two cognitive styles have been compared. Each pairing is a piece of a much larger puzzle. Each piece complements the others, AND each one fills in holes that the others leave empty. All together, in the aggregated, they combine to create a comprehensive picture of the emergent – greater than the sum of its parts – phenomena I’m calling the cognitive styles of left and right. A passage from the book Happy Accidents: Serendipity in Major Medical Breakthroughs in the Twentieth Century by Morton A. Meyers helps to make my point about the list:

Illustrative of this phenomenon are poet John Godfrey Saxe’s six blind men (from his poem “The Blind Men and the Elephant”) observing different parts of an elephant and coming to very different but equally erroneous conclusions about it. The first fell against the elephant’s side and concluded that it was a wall. The second felt the smooth, sharp tusk and mistook it for a spear. The third held the squirming trunk and knew it was a snake. The fourth took the knee to be a tree. The fifth touched the ear and declared it a fan. And the sixth seized the tail and thought he had a rope. One of the poem’s lessons: “Each was partly in the right, And all were in the wrong!”12

Collectively, all together, as a whole, the items in the following list paint a fairly complete picture of the elephant that I’m calling Cognitive Style. The source of each paring is linked or noted:

  1. Platonic v Aristotelian [The Cave and the Light by Herman]
  2. Idealism v Empiricism [Herman, and philosophy]
  3. Technical Knowledge v Practical Knowledge [Oakeshott]
  4. WEIRD v Holistic [ The Righteous Mind by Haidt]
  5. Rationalism v Intuitionism [Haidt, and Rationalism in Politics by Oakeshott]
  6. Unconstrained v Constrained* [A Conflict of Visions, by Sowell]
  7. Liberal v Conservative*
  8. Reason v Experience [Herman, and The Independent Whig]
  9. Trees v Forest [layman’s description]
  10. Paine v Burke [The Great Debate by Levin]
  11. Naïve Realism (Epistemic arrogance) v Epistemic Humility [Naïve realism is described by Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis, epistemic humility is described by Muller in Conservatism.]
  12. Pedantic v Sagacious
  13. Exception seeking v big picture viewing
  14. Solutions v Tradeoffs
  15. No limiting principle, never done, always wants more v perfect is the enemy of the possible

* The pairings that are underlined draw attention to the fact that they ALSO denote modern ideologies. This naming is unfortunate because it can cause us to conflate and interchange cognitive style with ideology as if they were one and the same when in fact the two are very different things. The reader is asked to try to keep in mind that the unconstrained, constrained, liberal, and conservative cognitive styles are different phenomena from the ideologies that bear the same names.

Based on all of this it seems clear that cognitive style is much more than simple personal preference. It seems to be not merely a matter of “taste” for certain intellectual “cuisines,” but rather a specific way our brains connect the dots of the bits and bytes of information they receive in any moment in time, and cumulatively throughout our lives.

Just as there are different physical body types (i.e., ectomorph, endomorph, and mesomorph), so too, it seems, are there different brain types; different configurations of logical wiring that interpret the facts and evidence of the social world in starkly different ways, leading to sometimes starkly different conclusions. Liberal, conservative, and libertarian, I propose, are not just different combinations of moral foundations, but also are distinctly different logical processors; different types of brains.

For the purposes of discussion I’m referring to the Cognitive Style represented by the left side of the list above as Cognitive Style One. The style represented by the right side of the list is Cognitive Style Two.

Cognitive Style One tends toward the Platonic idealism of reason and technical knowledge based WEIRD rationalism.

Cognitive Style Two tends toward the Aristotelian empiricism of experience and practical knowledge based holistic intuitionism.

By any name these two cognitive styles have dominated human thought and have been seeds of human discord for millennia. I suggest that brain type, or cognitive style, is an additional “evolved psychological mechanism” of morality that, like the moral foundations and the principles of moral psychology, helps us to understand social thought and behavior more completely and accurately than is possible through moral foundations theory alone.

William James Stole My Idea (100 Years Before I Had It)

James called it personality type, I call it cognitive style, but we’re talking about the same thing. We might be able to nitpick James’ list (below) or mine above, but I think the general idea of both is on the same track. The following quote is from The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization (p. 528):

[James’] gift for putting abstruse problems in ordinary language also allowed him to redefine the old battle between rationalism and empiricism—or ideas versus facts—as essentially a clash between two types of human personality, the “tough-minded” and the “tender-minded.” “Empiricist,” he wrote in 1907, “means your lover of facts in all their crude variety, rationalist means your devotee to abstract and eternal principles.… The individual rationalist is what is called a man of feeling, [while] the individual empiricist prides himself on being hardheaded.” He drew up their character in two contrasting columns:


  • Rationalistic (going by principles), Empiricist (going by facts)
  • Intellectualistic, Sensationalistic
  • Idealistic, Materialistic
  • Optimistic, Pessimistic
  • Religious, Irreligious
  • Freewillist, Fatalistic
  • Monistic, Pluralistic
  • Dogmatical, Skeptical

The two philosophers James saw as epitomizing the tender-minded versus tough-minded split were probably Hegel and John Stuart Mill. 28 Still, with the exception of optimism and pessimism (and here James was thinking of the optimism of Hegelians and Marxists in believing history has a final purpose), it’s clear he was really talking about the perennial split between Platonists and Aristotelians in a distinctly American guise.”

Regarding Generalizations

Any statement about a large group of people is necessarily a generalization. For the purposes of this discussion generalizations are statistically significant trends and tendencies, aggregates and averages. Individuals or situations within any group seldom fit perfectly the generalizations associated with the group to which they belong.

I’m not saying that any particular person, viewpoint, or ideology always exhibits all the characteristics of any particular Cognitive Style. There can be, and I’m sure are, liberals who use Cognitive Style Two and conservatives who use Cognitive Style One.

Nonetheless, generalizations can be useful, enlightening, and informative, and can add nuance and depth to discussions like this

A Statistically Impossible Result

Any number of cognitive styles could theoretically result from the six moral foundations, similar to the many possible combinations of numbers in six digit lotteries. But only one style of thought actually does consistently predominate on the left, and a different one on the right. Are moral foundations alone sufficient to explain that? I just don’t see it. It seems to me that Moral Foundations Theory can take us part way there, but not all the way. There’s something missing. Some other factor or dimension is necessary in order for us to complete the journey to full understanding of our righteous minds. I think the dimension that’s missing is style of thought; brain type, or cognitive style.

A counter argument to the one I’m making might be that since liberalism is weighted most heavily on the moral foundation of “care” it’s only natural for liberals to be angry and vindictive when they perceive a lack of it. Who doesn’t feel at least a touch of anger at the sight of wanton suffering? But by that logic libertarians, whose moral matrix is weighted almost entirely on the liberty foundation, should have just as big of a chip on their shoulder against the world as do liberals, if not an even bigger one, in response to wanton oppression. But Libertarians as a group seem positively cheerful; they’re “happy warriors” relative to liberals. The culture of victimhood is unique to liberalism, or maybe more appropriately to progressivism, and does not follow from moral foundations alone. There’s something else going on.

I suggest that the something else is cognitive style. It might even be the case that cognitive style is the ingredient, the dimension, the catalyst that determines the essential differences between left and right similar to the way changing just one ingredient makes the essential difference between bread and cake. Flour, water, sugar, salt, and yeast make bread. Flour, water, sugar, salt, and eggs make cake. The difference between bread and cake is determined by just one ingredient, either yeast or eggs, which acts as the catalyst that binds the other ingredients together into the emergent whole – either bread or cake – that is greater than the sum of its parts. Could different styles of thought, different logical wirings or processes, be the psychological yeast or eggs that determines which combination of moral foundations resonates with us, and whether our elephants and riders lean left or right? I suggest that the answer to this question might be yes. And even if it is not the determining factor, it I suggest that style of thought is at least an essential ingredient of our righteous minds that helps us to understand and explain what MFT cannot, and that therefore MFT is incomplete without it.

What is ‘Cognitive Style’?

For the purposes of this discussion Cognitive style can be thought of as a collection of mental algorithms, formulas, or modules that operate on sensory and informational inputs to produce meaningful, actionable, comprehension.

It’s important to remember, however, that the human brain is a story processor, not a logic processor as might be deduced from the above description of cognitive style. Rather it is a collection of independent, semi-independent, and interrelated parallel processes that sometimes work in concert with each other and sometimes work at cross purposes to create in our minds an overall picture or understanding of the social world and our part in it.

Cognitive style creates reality; it sorts through the electronic signals that flash through our brains and constructs an awareness of our selves, others, our surroundings, and the dynamic cause-and-effect, action-and-reaction, interplay among all of them. Cogito Ergo Sum. Cognitive style, I suggest, is a major determinant of ideological narratives.

Cognitive style is much more than simple personal preference. It is not merely a matter of “taste,” but rather a specific way our brains connect the dots of the bits and bytes of information they receive in any moment in time and cumulatively throughout our lives.

Cognitive styles are not infinite. They are limited by the capabilities, capacities, and predispositions pre-wired into our brains by hundreds of millions of years of evolution.

Within their natural evolved limits, cognitive styles are flexible and adaptable. The things we learn in formal education and from every-day real-life experiences continue to shape and refine the way we think. Our brains can, and do, change, learn, and grow.

Redefining ‘Moral Foundation’?

Cognitive Style probably does not meet all of the official criteria for foundationhood and therefore technically can not be moral foundation.

That’s part of my point.

I think Moral Foundations Theory as it currently stands has not identified all of the cognitive processes or mechanisms that determine morality. Moral foundations are various flavors of the same basic mechanism. Cognitive style is an entirely different mechanism. BOTH mechanisms have a role in determining our morality. I propose that the mechanism of cognitive style is as much, and possibly more, determinative of morality and ideology than are the moral foundations.

Imagine it this way: The moral space might be described by a two dimensional X-Y graph, where the ends of the X axis are the individualizing and binding foundations, and the ends of the Y axis are the two cognitive styles. Moral foundations are one dimension of the moral space. Cognitive style is another dimension of the moral space.

In this hypothetical example, The liberal left and the illiberal left occupy approximately the same position on the X axis because both lean toward the individualizing foundations of care, fairness, and liberty. But they’re at widely different places on the Y axis. The illiberal left is almost pure Cognitive Style One. The liberal left is stronger in Cognitive Style Two.

Cognitive Style is one of my Eight Challenges to Moral Foundations Theory.

The Cognitive Styles

The following sections quote extensively from source materials to provide a richer and more detailed grasp of each of the pairings in the list above and of the emergent phenomena I’m calling cognitive styles.

Platonic and Aristotelian

The two distinctly different styles of thought are recognizable in human history as far back as the rivalry between Aristotle (384-322 BCE) and Plato (428-348 BCE) almost two and a half millennia ago. This suggests that they are universal and timeless, and thus candidates for consideration as some of the chief evolved psychological mechanisms of morality.

The crux of my suggestion about cognitive styles is this:  It is NOT TRUE that Plato and Aristotle invented different epistemic systems. Rather, it IS TRUE that each of them articulated the “organized ahead of experience” algorithmic processes of their own brains. 

Arthur Herman describes them in his book The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization. The following summary is from Amazon (emphasis added):

The Cave and the Light is a magisterial account of how the two greatest thinkers of the ancient world, Plato and Aristotle, laid the foundations of Western culture—and how their rivalry shaped the essential features of our culture down to the present day.

Plato came from a wealthy, connected Athenian family and lived a comfortable upper-class lifestyle until he met an odd little man named Socrates, who showed him a new world of ideas and ideals. Socrates taught Plato that a man must use reason to attain wisdom, and that the life of a lover of wisdom, a philosopher, was the pinnacle of achievement. Plato dedicated himself to living that ideal and went on to create a school, his famed Academy, to teach others the path to enlightenment through contemplation. However, the same Academy that spread Plato’s teachings also fostered his greatest rival. Born to a family of Greek physicians, Aristotle had learned early on the value of observation and hands-on experience. Rather than rely on pure contemplation, he insisted that the truest path to knowledge is through empirical discovery and exploration of the world around us. Aristotle, Plato’s most brilliant pupil, thus settled on a philosophy very different from his instructor’s and launched a rivalry with profound effects on Western culture.

The two men disagreed on the fundamental purpose of the philosophy. For Plato, the image of the cave summed up man’s destined path, emerging from the darkness of material existence to the light of a higher and more spiritual truth. Aristotle thought otherwise. Instead of rising above mundane reality, he insisted, the philosopher’s job is to explain how the real world works, and how we can find our place in it. Aristotle set up a school in Athens to rival Plato’s Academy: the Lyceum. The competition that ensued between the two schools, and between Plato and Aristotle, set the world on an intellectual adventure that lasted through the Middle Ages and Renaissance and that still continues today.

From Martin Luther (who named Aristotle the third great enemy of true religion, after the devil and the Pope) to Karl Marx (whose utopian views rival Plato’s), heroes and villains of history have been inspired and incensed by these two master philosophers—but never outside their influence.

Accessible, riveting, and eloquently written, The Cave and the Light provides a stunning new perspective on the Western world, certain to open eyes and stir debate.

The first few paragraphs of Chapter 5 of The Cave and the Light summarize the world views of Plato and Aristotle:

There will be no end to the troubles of states, or indeed, my dear Glaucon, of humanity itself, until philosophers become kings in this world. —Plato, Republic

It is not the nature of the polis to be a unity as some thinkers say that it is, [and] what is said to be the supreme good of the polis is actually its ruin. —Aristotle, Politics

Despite their differences, Plato and Aristotle agreed on many things.

They both stressed the importance of reason as our guide for understanding and shaping the world. Both believed that our physical world is shaped by certain eternal forms that are more real than matter. The difference was that Plato’s Forms existed outside matter, whereas Aristotle’s forms were unrealizable without it.

Both shared the typical Greek chauvinism about non-Greeks, treating them as barbarians and unfit for serious study. Both condoned the pedophilia prevalent in upper-class Greek circles and the subordinate role of women. And neither uttered a word of condemnation of slavery. Later Western intellectuals would specifically quote Aristotle in its support.*

But they did clash bitterly over how men should be governed.

Aristotle’s politics is like his ethics. It is rooted in real life, the Greek polis as he knew it, especially Athens, for which he wrote a description of its constitution that we still have. Aristotle believed that the goal of political institutions was man’s improvement rather than his perfection. He believed the way to do this was by encouraging each individual to realize his potential, rather than force him to submit to a collective order.

By contrast, the most famous Platonic dialogue, the Republic, is all about raising that collective order to the highest-pitched perfection. Plato explicitly made the individual’s health and happiness dependent on the larger political community. 1 Whereas Aristotle looked to Athens as his basic political model, Plato preferred Sparta, Athens’s great rival.

Plato’s outspoken admiration for Sparta reveals a lot about his ultimate political agenda. That state’s regimented and austere values (Sparta was more of a collection of agricultural villages than an urban city) stood in sharp contrast with sophisticated, freewheeling, commercial Athens. However, Spartans could beat any opponent on the field of battle, even when outnumbered, and no one questioned a Spartan’s courage or his word—or dared to.

Spartan citizens were not allowed to use money, practice a trade, make a statue, or write a poem. Neither are Plato’s Guardians in the Republic. For all its limitations, in his Republic and the Laws, Sparta was proof to Plato that freedom was a function of solidarity and unity of purpose. 2 Aristotle, by contrast, saw Athens as proof that men can be free only if they are individuals and are allowed to live their lives as they, not others, see fit. “Freedom from any interference of government,” rather than submitting to its dictates, no matter how just, is one of Aristotle’s hallmarksf of a democratic society. 3

Over the centuries, Aristotle’s politics will lead the way for Western advocates of individualism and democracy, including America’s Founding Fathers. Plato’s communitarian vision points very much in the other direction, with ugly consequences. Yet curiously, both drew their arguments from the same vision of freedom in the Greek polis. Their disagreement arose over how to fulfill that ideal—and Western political thinking has been split down the middle ever since.

The reason-based global idealism of Plato and the experience-based local parochialism of Aristotle are characteristic traits of the two main cognitive styles that have been consistent throughout the centuries.

Idealism and Empiricism

Idealism is a Platonic vision of the way things SHOULD be. That vision was called the “Light” by Plato (in contrast with the “Cave” of reality in which we live), and the “General Will,” by Rousseau. It was expressed by RFK when he said “I dream things that never were and ask Why Not?” In this vision, everything in the real world is but a flawed and imperfect shadow of its ideal self, and it is the job of enlightened thinkers and leaders to use the power of reason and the power of the state to help human civilization move ever closer to the idealized “good society,” and to convince the individuals within it move toward the idealized “new man.”

Empiricism starts with blunt observations about how humans actually act and live in the real world. A good description of it starts on page 336 of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion:

…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).

Technical and Practical

The two styles of thought were described again in 1947 by Michael Oakeshott in Rationalism in Politics and other essays. Oakeshott’s focus was on Rationalism. One deduces empiricism as the counterpoint to his rationalism from “between the lines” of his writing, and from the parallel between Oakeshott’s ideas and the comparison of Rationalism vs. Empiricism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It is worthwhile to quote at length from the opening of the first essay in Oakeshott’s collection which begins on page 5:

The object of this essay is to consider the character and pedigree of the most remarkable intellectual fashion of post-Renaissance Europe. The Rationalism with which I am concerned is modern Rationalism. No doubt its surface reflects the light of rationalisms of a more distant past, but in its depth there is a quality exclusively its own, and it is this quality that I propose to consider, and to consider mainly in its impact upon European politics. What I call Rationalism in politics is not, of course, the only (and it is certainly not the most fruitful) fashion in modern European political thinking. But it is a strong and a lively manner of thinking which, finding support in its filiation with so much else that is strong in the intellectual composition of contemporary Europe, has come to colour the ideas, not merely of one, but of all political persuasions, and to flow over every party line. By one road or another, by conviction, by its supposed inevitability, by its alleged success, or even quite unreflectively, almost all politics today have become Rationalist or near-Rationalist.

The general character and disposition of the Rationalist are, I think, difficult to identify. At bottom he stands (he always stands) for independence of mind on all occasions, for thought free from obligation to any authority save the authority of reason. His circumstances in the modern world have made him contentious: he is the enemy of authority, of prejudice, of the merely traditional, customary or habitual. His mental attitude is at once sceptical and optimistic: sceptical, because there is no opinion, no habit, no belief, nothing so firmly rooted or so widely held that he hesitates to question it and to judge it by what he calls his ‘reason’; optimistic, because the Rationalist never doubts the power of his ‘reason (when properly applied) to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action. Moreover, he is fortified by a belief in a reason’ common to all mankind, a common power of rational consideration, which is the ground and inspiration of argument: set up on his door is the precept of Parmenides–judge by rational argument. But besides this, which gives the Rationalist a touch of intellectual equalitarianism, he is something also of an individualist, finding it difficult to believe that anyone who can think honestly and clearly will think differently from himself.

But it is an error to attribute to him an excessive concern with a priori argument. He does not neglect experience, but he often appears to do so because he insists always upon it being his own experience (wanting to begin everything de novo), and because of the rapidity with which he reduces the tangle and variety of experience to a set of principles which he will then attack or defend only upon rational grounds. He has no sense of the cumulation of experience, only of the readiness of experience when it has been converted into a formula: the past is significant to him only as an encumbrance He has none of that negative capability (which Keats attributed to Shakespeare), the power of accepting the mysteries and uncertainties of experience without any irritable search for order and distinctness, only the capability of subjugating experience; he has no aptitude for that close and detailed appreciation of what actually presents itself which Lichtenberg called negative enthusiasm, but only the power of recognizing the large outline which a general theory imposes upon events. His cast of mind is gnostic, and the sagacity of Ruhnken’s rule, Oportet quaedam nescire, is lost upon him. There are some minds which give us the sense that they have passed through an elaborate education which was designed to initiate them into the traditions and achievements of their civilization; the immediate impression we have of them is an impression of cultivation, of the enjoyment of an inheritance. But this is not so with the mind of the Rationalist, which impresses us as, at best, a finely tempered, neutral instrument, as a well-trained rather than as an educated mind. Intellectually, his ambition is not so much to share the experience of the race as to be demonstrably a self-made man. And this gives to his intellectual and practical activities an almost preternatural deliberateness and self-consciousness, depriving them of any element of passivity, removing from them all sense of rhythm and continuity and dissolving them into a succession of climacterics, each to be surmounted by a tour de raison. His mind has no atmosphere, no changes of season and temperature; his intellectual processes, so far as possible, are insulated from all external influence and go on in the void. And having cut himself off from the traditional knowledge of his society, and denied the value of any education more extensive than a training in a technique of analysis, he is apt to attribute to mankind a necessary inexperience in all the critical moments of life, and if he were more self-critical he might begin to wonder how the race had ever succeeded in surviving. With an almost poetic fancy, he strives to live each day as if it were his first, and he believes that to form a habit is to fail. And if, with as yet no thought of analysis, we glance below the surface, we may, perhaps, see in the temperament, if not in the character, of the Rationalist, a deep distrust of time, an impatient hunger for eternity and an irritable nervousness in the face of everything topical and transitory.

Now, of all worlds, the world of politics might seem the least amenable to rationalist treatment–politics, always so deeply veined with both the traditional, the circumstantial and the transitory. And, indeed, some convinced Rationalists have admitted defeat here: Clemenceau, intellectually a child of the modern Rationalist tradition (in his treatment of morals and religion, for example), was anything but a Rationalist in politics. But not all have admitted defeat. If we except religion, the greatest apparent victories of Rationalism have been in politics: it is not to be expected that whoever is prepared to carry his rationalism into the conduct of life will hesitate to carry it into the conduct of public affairs. [1]

But what is important to observe in such a man (for it is characteristic) is not the decisions and actions he is inspired to make, but the source of his inspiration, his idea (and with him it will be a deliberate and conscious idea) of political activity. He believes, of course, in the open mind, the mind free from prejudice and its relic, habit. He believes that the unhindered human ‘reason’ (if only it can be brought to bear) is an infallible guide in political activity. Further, he believes in argument as the technique and operation of reason’; the truth of an opinion and the ‘rational’ ground (not the use) of an institution is all that matters to him. Consequently, much of his political activity consists in bringing the social, political, legal and institutional inheritance of his society before the tribunal of his intellect; and the rest is rational administration, ‘reason’ exercising an uncontrolled jurisdiction over the circumstances of the case. To the Rationalist, nothing is of value merely because it exists (and certainly not because it has existed for many generations), familiarity has no worth, and nothing is to be left standing for want of scrutiny. And his disposition makes both destruction and creation easier for him to understand and engage in, than acceptance or reform. To patch up, to repair (that is, to do anything which requires a patient knowledge of the material), he regards as waste of time: and he always prefers the invention of a new device to making use of a current and well-tried expedient. He does not recognize change unless it is a self-consciously induced change, and consequently he falls easily into the error of identifying the customary and the traditional with the changeless. This is aptly illustrated by the rationalist attitude towards a tradition of ideas. There is, of course, no question either of retaining or improving such a tradition, for both these involve an attitude of submission. It must be destroyed. And to fill its place the Rationalist puts something of his own making–an ideology, the formalized abridgment of the supposed substratum of rational truth contained in the tradition.

The conduct of affairs, for the Rationalist, is a matter of solving problems, and in this no man can hope to be successful whose reason has become inflexible by surrender to habit or is clouded by the fumes of tradition. In this activity the character which the Rationalist claims for himself is the character of the engineer, whose mind (it is supposed) is controlled throughout by the appropriate technique and whose first step is to dismiss from his attention everything not directly related to his specific intentions. This assimilation of politics to engineering is, indeed, what may be called the myth of rationalist politics. And it is, of course, a recurring theme in the literature of Rationalism. The politics it inspires may be called the politics of the felt need; for the Rationalist, politics are always charged with the feeling of the moment. He waits upon circumstance to provide him with his problems, but rejects its aid in their solution. That anything should be allowed to stand between a society and the satisfaction of the felt needs of each moment in its history must appear to the Rationalist a piece of mysticism and nonsense. And his politics are, in fact, the rational solution of those practical conundrums which the recognition of the sovereignty of the felt need perpetually creates in the life of a society. Thus, political life is resolved into a succession of crises, each to be surmounted by the application of reason’. Each generation, indeed, each administration, should see unrolled before it the blank sheet of infinite possibility. And if by chance this tabula rasa has been defaced by the irrational scribblings of tradition-ridden ancestors, then the first task of the Rationalist must be to scrub it clean; as Voltaire remarked, the only way to have good laws is to burn all existing laws and to start afresh. [2]

Two other general characteristics of rationalist politics may be observed. They are the politics of perfection, and they are the politics of uniformity; either of these characteristics without the other denotes a different style of politics. The essence of rationalism is their combination. The evanescence of imperfection may be said to be the first item of the creed of the Rationalist. He is not devoid of humility; he can imagine a problem which would remain impervious to the onslaught of his own reason. But what he cannot imagine is politics which do not consist in solving problems, or a political problem of which there is no ‘rational’ solution at all. Such a problem must be counterfeit. And the ‘rational’ solution of any problem is, in its nature, the perfect solution. There is no place in his scheme for a ‘best in the circumstances’, only a place for ‘the best’; because the function of reason is precisely to surmount circumstances. Of course, the Rationalist is not always a perfectionist in general, his mind governed in each occasion by a comprehensive Utopia; but invariably he is a perfectionist in detail. And from this politics of perfection springs the politics of uniformity; a scheme which does not recognize circumstance can have no place for variety. ‘There must in the nature of things be one best form of government which all intellects, sufficiently roused from the slumber of savage ignorance, will be irresistibly incited to approve,’ writes Godwin. This intrepid Rationalist states in general what a more modest believer might prefer to assert only in detail; but the principle holds –there may not be one universal remedy for all political ills, but the remedy for any particular ill is as universal in its application as it is rational in its conception. If the rational solution for one of the problems of a society has been determined, to permit any relevant part of the society to escape from the solution is, ex hypothesis, to countenance irrationality. There can be no place for preferences that is not rational preference, and all rational preferences necessarily coincide. Political activity is recognized as the imposition of a uniform condition of perfection upon human conduct.

The modern history of Europe is littered with the projects of the politics of Rationalism. The most sublime of these is, perhaps, that of Robert Owen for ‘a world convention to emancipate the human race from ignorance, poverty, division, sin and misery’–so sublime that even a Rationalist (but without much justification) might think it eccentric. But not less characteristic are the diligent search of the present generation for an innocuous power which may safely be made so great as to be able to control all other powers in the human world, and the common disposition to believe that political machinery can take the place of moral and political education. The notion of founding a society, whether of individuals or of States, upon a Declaration of the Rights of Man is a creature of the rationalist brain, so also are ‘national’ or racial self-determination when elevated into universal principles.

Later in his opening essay Oakeshott describes two types of knowledge – Technical and Practical – that correlate with abstract Platonic reason-based thinking and parochial experience-based Aristotelian thinking, respectively (emphasis added):

The first sort of knowledge I will call technical knowledge or knowledge of technique. In every art and science, and in every practical activity, a technique is involved. In many activities this technical knowledge is formulated into rules which are, or may be, deliberately learned, remembered, and, as we say, put into practice; but whether or not it is, or has been, precisely formulated, its chief characteristic is that it is susceptible of precise formulation, although special skill and insight may be required to give it that formulation. [3] The technique (or part of it) of driving a motor car on English roads is to be found in the Highway Code, the technique of cookery is contained in the cookery book, and the technique of discovery in natural science or in history is in their rules of research, of observation and verification. The second sort of knowledge I will call practical, because it exists only in use, is not reflective and (unlike technique) cannot be formulated in rules. This does not mean, however, that it is an esoteric sort of knowledge. It means only that the method by which it may be shared and becomes common knowledge is not the method of formulated doctrine. And if we consider it from this point of view, it would not, I think, be misleading to speak of it as traditional knowledge. In every activity this sort of knowledge is also involved; the mastery of any skill, the pursuit of any concrete activity is impossible without it.

These two sorts of knowledge, then, distinguishable but inseparable, are the twin components of the knowledge involved in every concrete human activity. In a practical art, such as cookery, nobody supposes that the knowledge that belongs to the good cook is confined to what is or may be written down in the cookery book; technique and what I have called practical knowledge combine to make skill in cookery wherever it exists. And the same is true of the fine arts, of painting, of music, of poetry; a high degree of technical knowledge, even where it is both subtle and ready, is one thing; the ability to create a work of art, the ability to compose something with real music qualities, the ability to write a great sonnet, is another, and requires, in addition to technique, this other sort of knowledge. Again, these two sorts of knowledge are involved in any genuinely scientific activity. [4] The natural scientist will certainly make use of the rules of observation and verification that belong to his technique, but these rules remain only one of the components of his knowledge; advance in scientific discovery was never achieved merely by following the rules. [5] The same situation may be observed also in religion. It would, I think, be excessively liberal to call a man a Christian who was wholly ignorant of the technical side of Christianity, who knew nothing of creed or formulary, but it would be even more absurd to maintain that even the readiest knowledge of creed and catechism ever constituted the whole of the knowledge that belongs to a Christian. And what is true of cookery, of painting, of natural science and of religion, is no less true of politics: the knowledge involved in political activity is both technical and practica1. [6] Indeed, as in all arts which have men as their plastic material, arts such as medicine, industrial management, diplomacy, and the art of military command, the knowledge involved in political activity is pre-eminently of this dual character. Nor, in these arts, is it correct to say that whereas technique will tell a man (for example, a doctor) what to do, it is practice which tells him how to do it–the ‘bed-side manner’, the appreciation of the individual with whom he has to deal.

Even in the what, and above all in diagnosis, there lies already this dualism of technique and practice: there is no knowledge which is not ‘know how’. Nor, again, does the distinction between technical and practical knowledge coincide with the distinction between a knowledge of means and a knowledge of ends, though on occasion it may appear to do so. In short, nowhere, and pre-eminently not in political activity, can technical knowledge be separated from practical knowledge, and nowhere can they be considered identical with one another or able to take the place of one another. [7]

WEIRD and Holistic

The two styles of thought were described in 2012 by Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Quoting at length again, beginning on page 112:

I got my Ph.D. at McDonald’s. Part of it, anyway, given the hours I spent standing outside of a McDonald’s restaurant in West Philadelphia trying to recruit working-class adults to talk. with me for my dissertation research. When someone agreed, we’d sit down together at the restaurant’s outdoor seating area, and I’d ask them what they thought about the family that ate its dog, the woman who used her flag as a rag, and all the rest. I got some odd looks as the interviews progressed, and also plenty of laughter-particularly when I told people about the guy and the chicken. I was expecting that, because I had written the stories to surprise and even shock people.

But what I didn’t expect was that these working-class subjects would sometimes find my request for justifications so perplexing. Each time someone said that the people in a story had done something wrong, I asked, “Can you tell me why that was wrong?” When I had interviewed college students on the Penn campus a month earlier, this question brought forth their moral justifications quite smoothly. But a few blocks west, this same question often led to long pauses and disbelieving stares. Those pauses and stares seemed to say, You mean you don’t know why it’s wrong to do that to a chicken? I have to explain this to you? What planet are you from?

These subjects were right to wonder about me because I really was weird. I came from a strange and different moral world-the University of Pennsylvania. Penn students were the most unusual of all twelve groups in my study. They were unique in their unwavering devotion to the “harm principle,” which John Stuart Mill had put forth in 1859: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”‘ As one Penn student said: “It’s his chicken, he’s eating it, nobody is getting hurt.”

The Penn students were just as likely as people in the other eleven groups to say that it would bother them to witness the taboo violations, but they were the only group that frequently ignored their own feelings of disgust and said that an action that bothered them was nonetheless morally permissible. And they were the only group in which a majority (73 percent) were able to tolerate the chicken story. As one Penn student said, “It’s perverted, but if it’s done in private, it’s his right.”

I and my fellow Penn students were weird in a second way too. In 2010, the cultural psychologists Joe Henrich, Steve Heine, and Ara Norenzayan published a profoundly important article titled “The Weirdest People in the World?”‘ The authors pointed out that nearly all research in psychology is conducted on a very small subset of the human population: people from cultures that are Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (forming the acronym WEIRD). They then reviewed dozens of studies showing that WEIRD people are statistical outliers; they are the least typical, least representative people you could study if you want to make generalizations about human nature. Even within the West, Americans are more extreme outliers than Europeans, and within the United States, the educated upper middle class (like my Penn sample) is the most unusual of all.

Several of the peculiarities of WEIRD culture can be captured in this simple generalization: The WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships. It has long been reported that Westerners have a more independent and autonomous concept of the self than do East Asians} For example, when asked to write twenty statements beginning with the words “I am … ,” Americans are likely to list their own internal psychological characteristics (happy, outgoing, interested in jazz), whereas East Asians are more likely to list their roles and relationships (a son, a husband, an employee of Fujitsu).

The differences run deep; even visual perception is affected. In what’s known as the framed-line task, you are shown a square with a line drawn inside it. You then tum the page and see an empty square that is larger or smaller than the original square. Your task is to draw a line that is the same as the line you saw on the previous page, either in absolute terms (same number of centimeters; ignore the new frame) or in relative terms (same proportion relative to the frame). Westerners, and particularly Americans, excel at the absolute task, because they saw the line as an independent object in the first place and stored it separately in memory. East Asians, in contrast, outperform Americans at the relative task, because they automatically perceived and remembered the relationship among the parts.4

Related to this difference in perception is a difference in thinking style. Most people think holistically (seeing the whole context and the relationships among parts), but WEIRD people think more analytically (detaching the focal object from its context, assigning it to a category, and then assuming that what’s true about the category is true about the object).5 Putting this all together, it makes sense that WEIRD philosophers since Kant and Mill have mostly generated moral systems that are individualistic, rule-based, and universalist. That’s the morality you need to govern a society of autonomous individuals.

But when holistic thinkers in a non-WEIRD culture write about morality, we get something more like the Analects of Confucius, a collection of aphorisms and anecdotes that can’t be reduced to a single rule.6 Confucius talks about a variety of relationship-specific duties and virtues (such as filial piety and the proper treatment of one’s subordinates).

If WEIRD and non-WEIRD people think differently and see the world differently, then it stands to reason that they’d have different moral concerns. If you see a world full of individuals, then you’ll want the morality of Kohlberg and Turiel-a morality that protects those individuals and their individual rights. You’ll emphasize concerns about harm and fairness.

But if you live in a non-WEIRD society in which people are more likely to see relationships, contexts, groups, and institutions, then you won’t be so focused on protecting individuals. You’ll have a more sociocentric morality, which means (as Shweder described it back in chapter 1) that you place the needs of groups and institutions first, often ahead of the needs of individuals. If you do that, then a morality based on concerns about harm and fairness won’t be sufficient. You’ll have additional concerns, and you’ll need additional virtues to bind people together.

Part II of this book is about those additional concerns and virtues. It’s about the second principle of moral psychology: There’s more to morality than harm and fairness. I’m going to try to convince you that this principle is true descriptively that is, as a portrait of the moralities we see when we look around the world. I’ll set aside the question of whether any of these alternative moralities are really good, true, or justifiable. As an intuitionist, I believe it is a mistake to even raise that emotionally powerful question until we’ve calmed our elephants and cultivated some understanding of what such moralities are trying to accomplish. It’s just too easy for our riders to build a case against every morality, political party, and religion that we don’t like} So let’s try to understand moral diversity first, before we judge other moralities.

Rationalism and Intuitionism

Another way to describe the two main cognitive styles is in Haidt’s discussion of Rationalism and Intuitionism. The excerpt starts on page 103 of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion


Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines delusion as “a false conception and persistent belief unconquerable by reason in something that has no existence in fact.”45 As an intuitionist, I’d say that the worship of reason is itself an illustration of one of the most long-lived delusions in Western history: the rationalist delusion. It’s the idea that reasoning is our most noble attribute, one that makes us like the gods (for Plato) or that brings us beyond the “delusion” of believing in gods (for the New Atheists).46 The rationalist delusion is not just a claim about human nature. It’s also a claim that the rational caste (philosophers or scientists) should have more power, and it usually comes along with a utopian program for raising more rational children.47

From Plato through Kant and Kohlberg, many rationalists have asserted that the ability to reason well about ethical issues causes good behavior. They believe that reasoning is the royal road to moral truth, and they believe that people who reason well are more likely to act morally.

But if that were the case, then moral philosophers-who reason about ethical principles all day long-should be more virtuous than other people. Are they? The philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel tried to find out. He used surveys and more surreptitious methods to measure how often moral philosophers give to charity, vote, call their mothers, donate blood, donate organs, clean up after themselves at philosophy conferences, and respond to emails purportedly from students.48 And in none of these ways are moral philosophers better than other philosophers or professors in other fields.

Schwitzgebel even scrounged up the missing-book lists from dozens of libraries and found that academic books on ethics, which are presumably borrowed mostly by ethicists, are more likely to be stolen or just never returned than books in other areas of philosophy.49 In other words, expertise in moral reasoning does not seem to improve moral behavior, and it might even make it worse (perhaps by making the rider more skilled at post hoc justification). Schwitzgebel still has yet to find a single measure on which moral philosophers behave better than other philosophers.

Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is. The French cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber recently reviewed the vast research literature on motivated reasoning (in social psychology) and on the biases and errors of reasoning (in cognitive psychology). They concluded that most of the bizarre and depressing research findings make perfect sense once you see reasoning as having evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people. As they put it, “skilled arguers… are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views.”so This explains why the confirmation bias is so powerful, and so ineradicable. How hard could it be to teach students to look on the other side, to look for evidence against their favored view? Yet, in fact, it’s very hard, and nobody has yet found a way to do itY It’s hard because the confirmation bias is a built-in feature (of an argumentative mind), not a bug that can be removed (from a platonic mind).

I’m not saying we should all stop reasoning and go with our gut feelings. Gut feelings are sometimes better guides than reasoning for making consumer choices and interpersonal judgments, S’ but they are often disastrous as a basis for public policy, science, and law.53 Rather, what I’m saying is that we must be wary of any individual’s ability to reason. We should see each individual as being limited, like a neuron. A neuron is really good at one thing: summing up the stimulation coIning into its dendrites to “decide” whether to fire a pulse along its axon. A neuron by itself isn’t very smart. But if you put neurons together in the right way you get a brain; you get an emergent system that is much smarter and more flexible than a single neuron.

In the same way, each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).

And if our goal is to produce good behavior, not just good thinking, then it’s even more important to reject rationalism and embrace intuitionism. Nobody is ever going to invent an ethics class that makes people behave ethically after they step out of the classroom. Classes are for riders, and riders are just going to use their new knowledge to serve their elephants more effectively. If you want to make people behave more ethically, there are two ways you can go. You can change the elephant, which takes a long time and is hard to do. Or, to borrow an idea from the book Switch, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath,54 you can change the path that the elephant and rider find themselves traveling on. You can make minorand inexpensive tweaks to the environment, which can produce big increases in ethical behavior.55 You can hire Glaucon as a consultant and ask him how to design institutions in which real human beings, always concerned about their reputations, will behave more ethically.

Unconstrained and Constrained

In his book A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, Thomas Sowell describes the two main styles of thought as the “unconstrained” vision, and the “constrained” vision. In Chapter 3 he describes the “Visions of Knowledge and Reason” of each (pp 36-49):

Chapter 3

Visions of Knowledge and Reason

The constrained and the unconstrained visions tend to differ in their very definition of knowledge, as well as in their conceptions of its quantity, concentration, or dispersal, and its role in the social process. Reason likewise takes on entirely different meanings in the two visions.


The Constrained Vision

In the constrained vision, any individual’s own knowledge alone is grossly inadequate for social decision-making, and often even for his own personal decisions. A complex society and its progress are therefore possible only because of numerous social arrangements which transmit and coordinate knowledge from a tremendous range of contemporaries, as well as from the even more vast numbers of those from generations past. Knowledge as conceived in the constrained vision is predominantly experience—transmitted socially in largely inarticulate forms, from prices which indicate costs, scarcities, and preferences, to traditions which evolve from the day-to-day experiences of millions in each generation, winnowing out in Darwinian competition what works from what does not work. Friedrich A. Hayek expressed this view when he said:

The growth of knowledge and the growth of civilization are the same only if we interpret knowledge to include all the human adaptations to environment in which past experience has been incorporated. Not all knowledge in this sense is part of our intellect, nor is our intellect the whole of our knowledge. Our habits and skills, our emotional attitudes, our tools, and our institutions—all are in this sense adaptations to past experience which have grown up by selective elimination of less suitable conduct. They are as much an indispensable foundation of successful action as is our conscious knowledge.1

In this vision, it is not simply that individuals rationally choose what works from what does not work, but also—and more fundamentally—that the competition of institutions and whole societies leads to a general survival of more effective collections of cultural traits, even if neither the winners nor the losers rationally understand what was better or worse about one set or the other. Values which may be effective at the tribal level will tend to be overwhelmed by values that permit or promote the functioning of larger aggregations of people. From this perspective, “man has certainly more often learnt to do the right thing without comprehending why it was the right thing, and he still is better served by custom than understanding.” There is thus “more ‘intelligence’ incorporated in the system of rules of conduct than in man’s thoughts about his surroundings.”2

Knowledge is thus the social experience of the many, as embodied in behavior, sentiments, and habits, rather than the specially articulated reason of the few, however talented or gifted those few might be. When knowledge is conceived as social experience rather than solitary excogitation, then “a very small part is gained in the closet,” according to Hamilton.3

In Burke’s words: “We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.”4 By reason, Burke did not mean simply the written words of notable individuals but the whole experience of peoples, summarized in the feelings, formalities, and even prejudices embodied in their culture and behavior. These cultural distillations of knowledge were not considered infallible or immutable—which would have been a solution instead of a trade-off—but rather as a tested body of experience that worked, and which was to be changed only after the most circumspect, and perhaps even reluctant, examination. We should attend to the defects of the social order, according to Burke, with the same trepidation with which we would tend the wounds of our father.5 They are not to be ignored, but neither are they a mandate for experiment or hasty inspiration. With no examination whatever, there would be no evolutionary process, and therefore, in this vision, no basis for the confidence in tradition and enduring institutions which was the hallmark of Burke, and to varying degrees of other believers in a constrained vision.

The trade-off perspective of the constrained vision treats defects as inevitable, and therefore not in themselves reason for change, unless their magnitudes merit the inevitable costs entailed by change. “Preserving my principles unshaken,” Burke said, “I reserve my activity for rational endeavours.”6 On another occasion, he said: “I must bear with infirmities until they fester into crimes.”7 This was not a mere verbal patina on apathetic drift, as shown by Burke’s own relentless prosecution of Warren Hastings for alleged misconduct in his governance of India, or Burke’s unpopular stand in Parliament for freeing the rebellious American colonies, or his anti-slavery proposals.8 Adam Smith likewise urged the freeing of the American colonies—and other colonies as well—in addition to suggesting a number of domestic reforms and being opposed to slavery.9 In America, the men who wrote The Federalist Papers—Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay—first came to public notice as leaders in the revolt against British rule. The constrained vision was not synonymous with (or camouflage for) acceptance of the status quo.

The Unconstrained Vision

The unconstrained vision had no such limited view of human knowledge or of its application through reason. It was the eighteenth-century exemplars of the unconstrained vision who created “the age of reason,” as expressed in the title of Thomas Paine’s famous book of that era. Reason was as paramount in their vision as experience was in the constrained vision. According to Godwin, experience was greatly overrated—“unreasonably magnified,” in his words—compared to reason or to “the general power of a cultivated mind.”10 Therefore the wisdom of the ages was seen by Godwin as largely the illusions of the ignorant. The age of a belief or practice did not exempt it from the crucial test of validation in specifically articulated terms. In Godwin’s words, “we must bring everything to the standard of reason.” He added:

Nothing must be sustained, because it is ancient, because we have been accustomed to regard it as sacred, or because it has been unusual to bring its validity into question.11 Similarly, according to Condorcet, “everything that bears the imprint of time must inspire distrust more than respect.”12 It was “only by meditation,” Condorcet said, “that we can arrive at any general truths in the science of man.”13

Given the ability of a “cultivated mind” to apply reason directly to the facts at hand, there was no necessity to defer to the unarticulated systemic processes of the constrained vision, as expressed in the collective wisdom derived from the past. “The pretense of collective wisdom is the most palpable of all impostures,” according to Godwin.14 Validation was not to be indirect, collective, and systemic but direct, individual, and intentional. Articulated rationality was to be the mode of validation, not general acceptance based on pragmatic experience. According to Godwin, “persons of narrow views and observation” readily accept whatever happens to prevail in their society.15 Therefore, this cannot be the method by which to decide issues.

Implicit in the unconstrained vision is a profound inequality between the conclusions of “persons of narrow views” and those with “cultivated” minds. From this it follows that progress involves raising the level of the former to that of the latter. According to Godwin:

Real intellectual improvement demands, that mind should, as speedily as possible, be advanced to the height of knowledge already existing among the enlightened members of the community, and start from thence in pursuit of further acquisitions.16

Also implicit in the unconstrained vision is the view that the relevant comparison is between the beliefs of one sort of person and another—between x and y, rather than between (1) systemic processes working through successive generations of individuals a through x, as expressed through the living generation x, versus (2) the articulated rationality of y in isolation. The rejection of the concept of collective wisdom leaves individual comparisons as the standard of judgment. Since the experiences of a through w no longer count, the issue reduces to the articulated rationality of x versus that of y. Therefore, the unconstrained vision necessarily favors the “cultivated mind” y, while the constrained vision necessarily favors the views expressed through x, seen as representative of the unarticulated experience of many others (a through w). The two visions thus lead to opposite conclusions as to which opinion should prevail, and why.

Burke clearly saw himself in the role of x rather than y:

I give you opinions which have been accepted amongst us, from very early times to this moment, with a continued and general approbation, and which indeed are so worked into my mind, that I am unable to distinguish what I have learned from others from the results of my own meditations.17

The kind of knowledge or understanding referred to by Burke was conceived as a common fund in which he participated. That of Godwin was the knowledge or understanding of “cultivated minds”—a knowledge which, by its nature, was concentrated in a few rather than dispersed among the many. The very meaning of knowledge was also different, which is why it was distributed so differently in the two visions. In the constrained vision, where knowledge was a multiplicity of experience too complex for explicit articulation, it was distilled over the generations in cultural processes and traits so deeply embedded as to be virtually unconscious reflexes—widely shared. This was, in Burke’s words, “wisdom without reflection.”18

Wisdom without reflection was a concept utterly foreign to the unconstrained vision, in which human beings have both the capacity and the obligation to exercise explicit reason on all issues. “Reason,” according to Godwin, “is the proper instrument, and the sufficient instrument for regulating the actions of mankind.”19 Passions and biases may exist, but “if we employ our rational faculties, we cannot fail of thus conquering our erroneous propensities.”20

Given that explicitly articulated knowledge is special and concentrated, in the unconstrained vision, the best conduct of social activities depends upon the special knowledge of the few being used to guide the actions of the many. What is needed is to infuse “just views of society” into “the liberally educated and reflecting members” of society, who in turn will be “to the people guides and instructors,” according to Godwin.21 This idea was by no means peculiar to Godwin but rather has been a central and enduring theme of the unconstrained vision. Along with it has often gone a vision of intellectuals as disinterested advisors. Voltaire declared, “the philosophers having no particular interest to defend, can only speak up in favor of reason and the public interest.”22 Condorcet likewise referred to “truly enlightened philosophers, strangers to ambition.”23 Rousseau considered it “the best and most natural arrangement for the wisest to govern the multitude.”24 Even if non-intellectuals run the actual machinery of government, according to D’Alembert, “the greatest happiness of a nation is realized when those who govern agree with those who instruct it.”25

These eighteenth-century themes were repeated, with at least equal vigor, by John Stuart Mill in the nineteenth century. To Mill a special role was reserved for “the most cultivated intellects in the country,”26 for “thinking minds,”27 for “the best and the wisest,”28 for “the really superior intellects and characters.”29 Much could be accomplished “if the superior spirits would but join with each other,”30 if the universities would send forth “a succession of minds, not the creatures of their age, but capable of being its improvers and regenerators.”31 Similar prescriptions remain common today. In short, the special role of “thinking people” or of “the brightest and the best” has for centuries been a central theme of the unconstrained vision.

For those with the constrained vision, however, a special role for intellectuals in the running of society has long been seen as a grave danger. In Burke’s words:

Happy if learning, not debauched by ambition, had been satisfied to continue the instructor and not aspired to be the master!32

John Randolph was likewise repelled by the idea of “professors in a university turned statesmen.”33 In a similar vein, Hobbes regarded universities as places where fashionable but insignificant words flourished34 and added that “there is nothing so absurd, but may be found in the books of Philosophers.”35

The central danger, as seen by those with the constrained vision, is the intellectuals’ narrow conception of what constitutes knowledge and wisdom. They are, in Burke’s words, “endeavouring to confine the reputation of sense, learning, and taste to themselves or their following,” and are capable of “carrying the intolerance of the tongue and of the pen into a persecution” of others.36 Adam Smith spoke of the doctrinaire “man of system” who is “wise in his own conceit” and who “seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board.”37 The whole notion of a philosopher-king was abhorrent to Smith, who declared that “of all political speculators sovereign princes are by far the most dangerous.”38

The superiority of experts within a narrow slice of the vast spectrum of human understanding was not denied. What was denied was that this expertise conferred a general superiority which should supersede more widely dispersed kinds of knowledge. “It may be admitted that, as far as scientific knowledge is concerned, a body of suitably chosen experts may be in the best position to command all the best knowledge available,” according to Hayek. But, he added, with respect to other kinds of knowledge, “practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active cooperation.”39 With knowledge conceived of as both fragmented and widely dispersed, systemic coordination among the many supersedes the special wisdom of the few.

Nor was this systemic coordination to be planned or imposed by the wise few. It was an evolved natural order, in the phrase of one of the eighteenth-century Physiocrats,40 the group who coined the expression laissez-faire. The same kind of reasoning was found in Adam Smith, the most famous exponent of this doctrine:

The statesman who should attempt to direct people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals, would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.41

The marketplace was only one of a number of evolved systemic processes for making decisions. The family, languages, and traditions are other examples, among many. Believers in the constrained vision rely heavily on such processes to make better decisions than any given individual could make, however talented or knowledgeable compared to other individuals.

In short, starting from different conceptions of how much a given individual can know and understand, the constrained and the unconstrained visions arrive at opposite conclusions as to whether the best social decisions are to be made by those with the most individual knowledge of a special kind or by systemic processes that mobilize and coordinate knowledge scattered among the many, in individually unimpressive amounts.

Liberal and Conservative

By any name – Platonic or Aristotelian, technical or practical, WEIRD or holistic, Rationalism or Empiricism, Rationalist or Intuitionist – these two styles of thought correlate with Liberalism and Conservatism so closely that they are practically de facto defining characteristics of those two ideologies.

Science Daily published an article titled American liberals and conservatives think as if from different cultures, which summarized a study by Talhelm, Haidt, and others which showed that Liberals think more WEIRD, more analytically, than conservatives. Science Daily said (emphasis added):

“We found in our study that liberals and conservatives think as if they were from completely different cultures — almost as different as East and West,” said study leader Thomas Talhelm, a U.Va. doctoral candidate in cultural psychology. “Liberals and conservatives categorize and perceive things differently, just as East Asians and Westerners look differently at the world.”

According to Talhelm, political conservatives in the United States, generally, and East Asians, particularly, are intuitive or “holistic” thinkers, while Westerners, generally, and American liberals, in particular, are more analytical thinkers.

The so-called “culture war,” he said, is an accurate if dramatic way to state that there are clear cultural differences in the thought processes of liberals and conservatives.

“On psychological tests, Westerners tend to view scenes, explain behavior and categorize objects analytically,” Talhelm said. “But the vast majority of people around the world — about 85 percent — more often think intuitively — what psychologists call holistic thought, and we found that’s how conservative Americans tend to think.”

Holistic thought more often uses intention and the perception of whole objects or situations, rather than breaking them down to their parts — such as having a general feeling about a situation involving intuition or tact.

Analytic thinking styles tend to look at the parts of a situation, and how they work together toward the whole. This involves “slicing up the world and analyzing objects individually, divorced from context,” Talhelm said.

Studies show that analytical thinkers predominate in Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic societies (termed “WEIRD” societies in 2010 by a team of cultural psychologists at the University of British Columbia). But they make up only about 15 percent of the world’s population.

So in a WEIRD society, such as the United States, analytically thinking liberals are “extreme Americans,” Talhelm said, in the sense that they are particularly disinclined to think in the style of a vast majority of the rest of the world, including their holistic-thinking conservative countrymen.

There is value in both ways of thinking, Talhelm said. Intuitive thinking likely is the “default” style most people are born with, while analytical thinking generally must be learned, usually through training, such as in Western-style school systems.

Reason and Experience

I graduated from college in 1982 with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and no clue as to the differences between Democrats and Republicans, or between liberals and conservatives.

But what I did have, partly because of my education and partly because it’s just the way my brain happens to operate (Q: Do we choose our majors to fit the way we think, or does our choice of major shape the way we think? A: The former, I think.) was a tendency to try to identify first principles, or core tenets, that can then serve as guide stars for understanding and decision making.

At the time of my graduation a radio advertisement for a local car dealer included the following statement:

Once you decide to be the best, all the other decisions are easy.

First principles work the same way. Once you figure out which ones work for you, the day-to-day sorting out of social issues and decision-making become much easier.

And so, I figured, I should probably dig in and find out for myself the core differences between political parties and ideologies. Was I a Democrat or a Republican, conservative or liberal, and importantly, why? After all, I was officially now an “adult” who would be voting in local and national elections. I ought to have some inkling of what I was doing, n’est-ce pas?

It just so happened that my first “real” job after college was in the Washington, D.C. area. So naturally, I spent my first few weekends visiting the National Mall and the Smithsonian Museums that line its flanks.

In the gift shop of the National Archives was a rotating stand full of paperback books. As I spun through the books one caught my eye. I bought it and read it. I didn’t know it at the time but it turned out to be the starting point in my nearly life-long deep dive into discerning the differences between political ideologies. The book was Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas 1st (first) Edition by Becker, Carl L. published by Vintage (1958)
by Carl L. Becker.

Becker’s book whetted my appetite but it didn’t fully answer all of my questions. I hadn’t yet found the guide stars I could use to plot my trajectory through the space of citizenship. So I kept looking for similar books, and through the years, in between getting married and raising two kids I managed to squeeze in a few more, including:

After the long process of gradually assimilating into my mental processing ideas from books like the above and others it was becoming ever clearer to me that guide stars of liberalism and conservatism – the core concepts that set the tone all that follows from each – are reason and experience, respectively.

And then my officemate at work showed me this video: The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives.

It was perfect.

Everything I’d read to that point seemed to fit Haidt’s description. Haidt’s talk was such an Aha! moment for me that I looked up his email address and sent him a note in which I tried to explain what I saw as a clear connection between his work and my own reading. Here’s what I said:

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.

Importantly, knowledge gained through deductive means is no less valid than knowledge gained through inductive means.

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

Dr. Haidt’s email reply to me included the following:

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 one 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.

That moment sent me into a whole new area of inquiry; that of the psychological underpinnings of political views. Since then my library has expanded to include the following books, in no particular order, about the history AND the psychology of political thinking. I can’t say that I’ve read every single book listed here, but I do use all of them for research and reference as might a student writing a research paper or dissertation:

Cognitive Styles In the Real World

French and American Revolutions

With all of the above as background a comparison of the cognitive styles behind the French and American Revolutions becomes fairly straightforward. Thomas Sowell handles it with aplomb in A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles.

The two great revolutions in the eighteenth century—in France and in America—can be viewed as applications of these differing visions, though with all the reservations necessary whenever the flesh and blood of complex historical events are compared to skeletal theoretical models. The underlying premises of the French Revolution more clearly reflected the unconstrained vision of man which prevailed among its leaders. The intellectual foundations of the American Revolution were more mixed, including men like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, whose thinking was similar in many ways to that in France, but also including as a dominant influence on the Constitution, the classic constrained vision of man expressed in The Federalist Papers. Where Robespierre looked forward to the end of revolutionary bloodshed, “when all people will have become equally devoted to their country and its laws,”55 Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist Papers regarded the idea of individual actions “unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good” as a prospect “more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected.”56 Robespierre sought a solution, Hamilton a trade-off.

The Constitution of the United States, with its elaborate checks and balances, clearly reflected the view that no one was ever to be completely trusted with power. This was in sharp contrast to the French Revolution, which gave sweeping powers, including the power of life and death, to those who spoke in the name of “the people,” expressing the Rousseauean “general will.” Even when bitterly disappointed with particular leaders, who were then deposed and executed, believers in this vision did not substantially change their political systems or beliefs, viewing the evil as localized in individuals who had betrayed the revolution.

The writers of The Federalist Papers were quite conscious of the vision of man that underlay the Constitution of checks and balances which they espoused:

It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?57

To the Federalists, the evil was inherent in man, and institutions were simply ways of trying to cope with it. Adam Smith likewise saw government as “an imperfect remedy” for the deficiency of “wisdom and virtue” in man.58 The Federalist Papers said:

Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint.59

To those without this constrained vision of man, the whole elaborate system of constitutional checks and balances was a needless complication and impediment. Condorcet condemned such “counterweights” for creating an “overcomplicated” political machine “to weigh upon the people.”60 He saw no need for society to be “jostled between opposing powers”61 or held back by the “inertia” of constitutional checks and balances.62

The constrained vision is a tragic vision of the human condition. The unconstrained vision is a moral vision of human intentions, which are viewed as ultimately decisive. The unconstrained vision promotes pursuit of the highest ideals and the best solutions. By contrast, the constrained vision sees the best as the enemy of the good—a vain attempt to reach the unattainable being seen as not only futile but often counterproductive, while the same efforts could have produced a more viable and beneficial trade-off. Adam Smith applied this reasoning not only to economics but also to morality and politics: The prudent reformer, according to Smith, will respect “the confirmed habits and prejudices of the people,” and when he cannot establish what is right, “he will not disdain to ameliorate the wrong.” His goal is not to create the ideal but to “establish the best that the people can bear.”63

But Condorcet, expressing the unconstrained vision, rejected any notion that laws should “change with the temperature and adapt to the forms of government, to the practices that superstition has consecrated, and even to the stupidities adopted by each people. . . .”64 Thus he found the French Revolution superior to the American Revolution, for “the principles from which the constitution and laws of France were derived were purer” and allowed “the people to exercise their sovereign right” without constraint.65 Related to this is the question whether the institutions of one society can be transferred to another, or particular blueprints for better societies be applied to very different countries. Jeremy Bentham was noted for producing both specific reforms and general principles intended to apply in very different societies. Yet to Hamilton, “What may be good at Philadelphia may be bad at Paris and ridiculous at Petersburgh.”66 Each of these conclusions is consistent with the respective vision from which it came.

While the constrained vision sees human nature as essentially unchanged across the ages and around the world, the particular cultural expressions of human needs peculiar to specific societies are not seen as being readily and beneficially changeable by forcible intervention. By contrast, those with the unconstrained vision tend to view human nature as beneficially changeable and social customs as expendable holdovers from the ast.

Ideals are weighed against the cost of achieving them, in the constrained vision. But in the unconstrained vision, every closer approximation to the ideal should be preferred. Costs are regrettable, but by no means decisive. Thomas Jefferson’s reply to those who turned against the French Revolution, because of the innocent people it had killed, exemplified this point:

My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated.67

Belief in the irrelevance of process costs in the pursuit of social justice could hardly have been expressed more clearly or categorically. Yet, in the end, Jefferson too turned against the French Revolution, as its human cost increased beyond what he could continue to accept. Jefferson was not completely or irrevocably committed to the unconstrained vision.

The relative importance of process costs has continued, over the centuries, to distinguish the constrained and the unconstrained visions. Modern defenders of legal technicalities which allow criminals to escape punishment who declare, “That is the price we pay for freedom,” or defenders of revolutions who say, “You can’t make omelettes without breaking eggs,” are contemporary exemplars of an unconstrained vision which has historically treated process costs as secondary. At the other end of the philosophical spectrum are those who in essence repeat Adam Smith’s view of process costs: “The peace and order of society is of more importance than even the relief of the miserable.”68 The continuing battle between ideals and the costs of achieving them is only one part of the ongoing conflict of visions.

In a talk entitled When Compassion Leads to Sacrilege that Dr. Haidt gave at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) he summarized the French Revolution this way (I’ve done some minor editing on the original transcript for readability):

The unconstrained vision, I believe, has the worst track record in the history of ideas. This is a terrible and really dangerous idea, quite frankly. In the French Revolution I’ve been stunned to read this, for the book that I’m writing, to read on the French Revolution. My beef with them is that they’re rationalists, they think that reason is a reliable way to find truth. It’s great in the natural sciences, but once you care about something, if you have passions, if it’s a moral issue, as David Hume said: “Reasoning is the slave of the passions and can pretend to no other office but to serve and obey them.” I think Hume was right. So I’m really concerned about rationalists. What I discovered is that in one of the few places on earth where the rationalists got control of an entire country and were able to do with it what they wanted, they created a cult of reason, they banned the clergy, they killed the nobles, ah, and what we had wasn’t oh, let’s get rid of nations and religion and then people will be one. A lot of people didn’t want to go along with the revolution, and of course they’re wrong because we know we’re right; we have reason on our side. They called themselves the party of reason, also the party of humanity. The French Revolutionaries ended up murdering hundreds of thousands of people. They committed a genocide in the Vendee region lining people against the walls and shooting them, putting them out into boats and sinking the boats. The French Revolutionaries committed genocide. Anybody who was accused of anything, rounded up, pronounced guilty, guillotined. We don’t usually say, “Well yeah they committed genocide but other than that oh the French Revolution was great.” So the French Revolution was based on the most extreme unconstrained view, the philosophes, Condorcet, Sam Harris (gesture, admitting the joke), people like that.

Capitalism Versus Socialism: A Clash of Cognitive Styles

Theories of economics seem to be but offshoots of the two dominant cognitive styles of human thought.

Below in italics are the final few paragraphs of Chapter 21 (about David Hume and Adam Smith) and the heading of Chapter 22 ( about Rousseau) of “The Cave and the Light.”

Today we tend to think of Wealth of Nations as a work on economics. It is in fact a treatise on the history of civil society and on the driving principles that give commercial society its dynamism and affluence. People usually identify that driving engine as the division of labor. In truth, the division itself springs from Hume’s power of self-interest, the desire of some (but not everyone) to so dramatically improve their lives materially that they focus entirely on that skill or trade that brings the greatest return. This in turn generates a surplus so abundant, so far in excess of that possible in other previous stages of society, that these entrepreneurs enrich not only themselves, but the rest of society—even the politicians and intellectuals who scorn the business class on whom their own prosperity ultimately rests.

Smith tells us not everyone can be Steve Jobs or Dave Thomas or Richard Branson. But under capitalism, not everyone has to. A handful of such persons will be sufficient, provided their creativity and egos are given plenty of room, which is precisely what the free marketplace does.

Smith had to agree with Hume: commerce and self-interest feed on each other. The more freedom we give to both, as happened in western Europe after the Middle Ages, the faster society grows and improves. Free markets free men’s minds, their bodies (Smith delighted in pointing out that slavery was not only unjust but less profitable than free labor), and their individual spirits, even as they fill their pocketbooks with the fruits of natural liberty unleashed.

“All systems of preference or of restraint, therefore, being completely taken away,” Smith wrote, “the obvious and simple system of natural liberty establishes itself of its own accord. Every man, as long as he does not violate the laws of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest his own way.” The result is “so great a quantity of everything is produced, that there is enough to gratify the slothful and oppressive profusion of the great, and at the same time abundantly to supply the wants” of even the poorest and most despised member of society, to a degree that would boggle the minds of even the rulers of a barbarous society. 39

Smith recognized that not everything would be sunny in a society geared around the unleashing of self-interest and economic growth, what we call capitalism. Some people would inevitably be left out of society’s benefits—not its material ones (what welfare recipient doesn’t own both a TV and a cell phone?), but its cultural ones, as the grind of making a living deprives them of leisure and opportunity for enrichment of the spirit. Preventing this kind of “mental mutilation,” Smith wrote, deserved “the most serious attention of the government.” 40

Hume, too, worried that commercial society’s increasing reliance on the need for credit, coupled with a mounting national debt, would require massive tax hikes that might eventually consume everything in sight. “Either the nation must destroy public credit,” he wrote toward the end of his life, “or public credit must destroy the nation.” And as Scotsmen who could remember when armed Highlanders had roamed the streets of Edinburgh, Smith and Hume sensed the fragility of civilization in the face of barbarism, in ways some of their successors and admirers did and do not. Still, on the whole there was every reason to be hopeful. Commercial society would grow, and social and political institutions would grow with them. The system of modern liberty unleashed by capitalism would succeed in freeing men from tyranny, just as it freed them from material want. The American Revolution and then the Declaration of Independence in 1776 (ironically, the same year Smith’s Wealth of Nations appeared), which Smith and Hume both applauded, d seemed to prove their point. Everywhere, it seemed, the empirical hopeful spirit of Aristotle’s Enlightenment was winning out. Yet at that same moment, the new disciples of Plato were plotting their revenge.

Chapter 22

You must make your choice between the individual and the citizen, you cannot be both. —Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1762

O Liberty, what crimes are commited in your name! —Madame Roland, 1793

The Differences Between Being Nice and Being Good

I think one of the consequences of the idealism of the WEIRD Platonic cognitive style is that it tends to conflate two very different concepts of being nice to other people and being good for other people.  People who tend toward that cognitive style tend to interchange nice with good.  They think that when they are being nice they are also doing good.  As Charles Murray explains in his book his book The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life. that’s not always the case. 

27. Come to grips with the difference between being nice and being good.

Just as the words vulgar, unseemly, and dishonorable are not ordinarily used in conversation today, neither is virtue. The disuse of virtue is part of today’s nonjudgmentalism. It’s acceptable for people to have values, which will differ across people (and who is to say that one set of values is better than another?), but the word virtue carries with it connotations of invariance and objectivity. And rightly so. Let me make a brief case for the objective, universal applicability of the cardinal virtues in our quest to become not just nice, but good.

Nice and good are different. Being nice involves immediate actions and immediate consequences—you give water to the thirsty and comfort to the afflicted right here, right now. Being good involves living in the world so that you contribute to the welfare of your fellow human beings. Sometimes the immediate and long-term consequences are consistent with being nice; sometimes they are in conflict. That’s where the importance of the cardinal virtues comes in.

The four cardinal virtues were originated by the Greeks. They subsequently got their label from the Latin cardo, meaning “hinge,” because they are pivotal: All the other virtues, and the living of a virtuous life, depend on them. If you took an introductory philosophy course in college, they were probably translated from the Greek as courage, justice, temperance, and prudence.

Courage, meaning not just physical but also moral courage, is pivotal because no virtue is sustained in the face of adversity without it.

Justice—as defined by Aristotle, giving everyone his rightful due—is pivotal because it is a precondition for behaving in other virtuous ways (for example, the virtue of compassion rightly takes different forms for people in different circumstances).

Temperance is, to modern ears, an unfortunate label. It sounds insipid. Aren’t we supposed to live life to the fullest? Haven’t we decided, along with Mae West and Liberace, that too much of a good thing can be wonderful? But when you stop to think about it, too much of a good thing isn’t wonderful. It cloys. Satiates. The pleasure ends. If you still are unhappy with the idea of being temperate, think in terms of self-restraint and knowing oneself, both of which are part of the meaning of sophrosyne, the word Plato used for this virtue. Temperance is pivotal because, without it, any subsidiary virtue will be ignored when it competes with natural appetites.

That leaves prudence, the cardinal virtue that requires the most work and time for you to acquire. It is also the virtue with the most unappealing label of all, with its connotation of timidity. The idea of other people saying of me, “Charles is very prudent,” is mortifying. But this is a function of evolving language. Prudence has acquired negative connotations that it did not formerly possess. Let’s go back to the original Greek word for this cardinal virtue, phronesis, which I introduced in tip #21.

Aristotle talks about two kinds of wisdom. One is the ability to apprehend reality and make the pieces fit together—roughly, the kind of wisdom that underlies science. Phronesis is the word Aristotle used for the other kind of wisdom, better translated in the twenty-first century as practical wisdom. Phronesis is harder to come by than scientific knowledge. Studying reality is not enough. Practical wisdom means the ability to rightly assess the consequences of a course of action. Knowledge is necessary, but so is experience. You might want to be compassionate, for example, but without practical wisdom you might behave in ways that cause suffering rather than relieve it. Balancing all the considerations that go into rightly assessing long-term consequences is difficult, and it requires both thoughtfulness and a deep understanding of human life. Thus the cardinal virtue of practical wisdom is pivotal because it is the precondition for behaving in other virtuous ways.

Hence my proposition: The cardinal virtues are indispensable to being good. I don’t mean that theoretically, but in the course of going about your daily life. You really, truly, must be courageous, just, temperate, and possess practical wisdom if you also wish to be dependably kind, merciful, compassionate, tolerant, patient, or to practice any of the other virtues. Lacking the cardinal virtues, you can act in those other virtuous ways haphazardly, and occasionally have the effect you wish, but you cannot consistently have the effect you wish, nor will you be able to bring yourself to behave in those other virtuous ways when the going gets tough. You will still mean well. You will still be nice. You won’t be good.

You don’t need to be an Aristotelian to be good. For two millennia, the world’s other most influential ethical system was Confucianism. The central virtue in Confucianism is ren, the summation of all subsidiary virtues. Ren translates as humaneness or benevolence, but the Confucian conception of ren is richer than either word conveys. Ren incorporates the idea of reciprocity (a form of the Golden Rule), which overlaps with Aristotle’s concept of justice. Ren incorporates courage. Confucianism is emphatic about the need for temperance and self-control. And one of the chief components of ren is the considered, accurate appraisal of consequences that Aristotle described as practical wisdom. If you are a good Confucian, you will be practicing the cardinal virtues.

Whether you find inspiration in the Western or the Eastern tradition is a minor issue. What is unacceptable is to go through life thinking that being nice is enough. You must come to grips with the requirements for being good.

Other Topics Related to Cognitive Styles

The Consciousness Bias

Consciousness itself seems to be a form of cognitive bias in which we prefer our own thoughts, of which we are consciously aware in the present moment, to sources of knowledge and understanding external to that realm. [This essay is adapted from my longer essay An Open Letter to Heterodox Academy]

Consciousness seems like a not invented here syndrome of the mind in which we place disproportionately high trust and faith in thoughts that we “feel” because they originate in our selves and disproportionately low faith in ideas that originate outside of ourselves that we therefore do not feel. Ideas we come up with ourselves feel right, normal, natural, but we have to be convinced of ideas thought of by others including, and often especially, from the past. (Here’s a different description of this idea).

Or, we tend to prefer a logical sounding rationale to our own intuitive judgment. We can be persuaded by seemingly solid conscious reasoning to say and do things that don’t intuitively feel right and that we otherwise might not do. The urge to trust conscious thought more than intuition sometimes even allows us to override The Gift of Fear that was wired into our minds by millions of years evolution to help us survive, such that we end up willingly walking into situations that somewhere deep inside we know might put us at risk.

We use whichever of these seemingly contradictory tools that best fits the current circumstance. But either way, conscious reason and technical knowledge seem to always get the benefit of the doubt, and all other sources of knowledge, like practical knowledge, Ancient Wisdom in its many forms – like customs, traditions, and institutions – gets only doubt.

What Is Learning?

Learning is the process of internalizing and assimilating into our selves information, concepts, and mental processes that originated outside of our selves. The objective of learning is to expand, refine, or enhance the range and depth of our internalized repertoire of and ideas, concepts, and mental process such that they become a natural and integral part of how we perceive, think about, and react to the world.

But the consciousness bias is so strong that we’re naturally resistant to learning. It can take repeated and prolonged exposure to ideas for them to become internalized. The process of learning can be thought of as training our inner elephant. This concept is central to the book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell. I’d add, however, that the phrasing of the book’s title is misleading. The objective of learning as I’m describing it here is not to help us think without thinking, but rather it is to make our thinking more capable, robust, encompassing, holistic.

The Consciousness Bias Thwarts Learning

We humans have been around long enough and are seemingly smart enough to have learned from the school of hard knocks that some things work and other things don’t work, even if we can’t quite put our finger on why; and to have learned that no single human brain has the capacity to contain all of the facts nor, even if it did, has the capability to sort them all out; and to have come to the realization that human society itself, in which each individual brain – past AND present – is like a neuron of the collective brain of humanity, actually has figured out some things.

But do we trust lessons like these, collectively learned the hard way by our ancestors and by ourselves? Do we stand on the shoulders of giants?

No. Our lifetimes are so short and our bias for the here and now of conscious awareness is so strong that we’re blind to most of it. In the arrogance of our own consciousness, and the naïve realism, reason-based choice, and other biases that flow from it, every new generation seems to think that it and it alone has found the “real” key to, or the “actual” truth of, human nature and tries to reinvent the wheel almost from scratch. Some of us actually have the audacity to think that “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for..”

Supremely arrogant, short sighted, and small minded creatures, are we not?

In another post I called this form of bias The Reason Delusion. A better name for it might be The Consciousness Delusion. I see it as a distinctly different phenomenon from The Rationalist Delusion. The rationalist delusion would not be possible without first presuming that our own conscious awareness and thoughts provide more and better information than that of our “common” sense (e.g., the evolved psychological predispositions that make it easier for us to like butterflies than spiders and snakes, i.e., the moral foundations) and the collected knowledge of society itself (sometimes called “corporate” knowledge in the business world). The Consciousness Delusion is a prerequisite for The Rationalist Delusion.

Possible Origins of The Consciousness Bias

I suggest that we crossed the Rubicon to the consciousness bias around the same time that we crossed the Rubicon to shared intent. Because of this cognitive bias there’s a strong, natural, feel-it-in-your-bones, sort of appeal to the abstract-reason-based WEIRD rationalist, idealist, cognitive style. There’s something deeply satisfying about being immersed in one’s own thoughts:

Logic is, to borrow William Blake’s phrase, self-delighting. The experience can be so exhilarating that we fail to notice where it is headed. – Arthur Herman, The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle and the Strugle for the Soul of Western Civilization, p. 198

It’s what makes naïve realism and reason-based choice feel so good.

This appeal and its consequences seem to be mitigated sometimes but not always, and somewhat but not completely, by the “intuitions” of the binding foundations, which tend to pull one’s thinking toward the experience-based holistic intuitionist, empiricist, epistemologically more humble cognitive style. Thinking from the three-foundation moral matrix seems to have a greater tendency toward the consciousness bias than does that of the all-foundation matrix, which seems to have greater faith and trust in intuition and ancient wisdom.

Consequences of the Consciousness Bias

Through the cognitive bias of The Consciousness Delusion, and contrary to the lessons of brain science, the rider really does, in a way, seem to control the elephant. The bias for consciousness is an intuition, a flash of affect, that can change the path our elephants follow.

Because of The Consciousness Delusion Western culture to this day is still deeply, blindingly, entrenched in the two-hundred-year tangent” of the rationalist delusion. It is the consciousness delusion and its sister syndrome the rationalist delusion, possibly more than but at least equal to, moral foundations and local culture of time and place, which explains cognitive distortions, Victimhood Culture, and the mindset of Social Justice Warriors like screaming Yale girl. It is the root cause of “Dead White Men” mindset, in which we eschew all sources of knowledge and wisdom in favor of our own reasoning

The abstract-reason-based rationalist, idealist, Platonic, WEIRD, technical knowledge trusting, pedantic tending, Cognitive Style is a great analytical tool that has helped to advance mankind’s knowledge and understanding of itself.

But….it is an utter disaster as a guiding spirit of political ideology and policy. This cognitive style “has the worst track record in the history of ideas.”

The reason for this is that abstract reason tends to be less connected with the realities of human nature – for example the three principles of moral psychology (and my fourth principle – another of my challenges) – than is the experience based intuitionist, empiricist, Aristotelian, holistic practical knowledge trusting cognitive style.

For these reasons the abstract-reason-based WEIRD Platonic cognitive style might ALSO be an utter disaster for the research and understanding of human nature. The Platonic style correlates with liberalism, and social science is almost purely liberal. It follows then that the Platonic style and all of its associated tendencies will tend to dominate the research and analysis, and the knowledge and insights that might be gained from the experience and reason based holistic Aristotelian cognitive style might be diminished or even lost.

I want to be as clear as possible with my next point:

THIS IS ABOUT COGNITIVE STYLE AND NOTHING ELSE. It’s especially not about ideology!!!!

The best exemplars I can think of to help emphasize this very important point are the following people who to the best of my knowledge are all liberal, but who in my estimation lean toward the experience based, holistic, Aristotelian cognitive style:

On the other hand, people who are Social Justice Warriors, current campus protesters, and members of the Victimhood Culture generally, who seem to be also liberal, seem to lean heavily toward, if not think exclusively with, the reason-based WEIRD Platonic style of thought.

I think its unfair to lump Social Justice Warriors with the other liberals listed above. What separates the two groups, both on the left, is cognitive style. As a conservative I find it not only easy, but enjoyable and productive to engage in conversation with Aristotelian liberals like the individuals listed above. I imagine I’d have a similar experience were I to converse with any of the folks at Heterodox Academy who also happen to lean left. But through the conversations I have had with Aristotelian leftists I’ve learned that even they often find it next to impossible to deal with the “logic” of social justice warriors, or have meaningful conversations with them.

Does not reason and evidence lead inevitably to the conclusion that BOTH cognitive styles yield insight, and also to the conclusion that of the two styles holistic Aristotelian empiricism is more connected with reality and more likely to find truth than is WEIRD Platonic idealism?

And yet, the biases of conscious reason, including reason-based choice, naïve realism, and the naïve idealism and delusional rationalism of the abstract-reason-based WEIRD Platonic style of thought cause us to ignore or eschew wide swaths human knowledge and understanding and their sources.

Cognitive Styles Yield Different Insights. Eschewing A Style Deprives Us of its Insights, Decreases Viewpoint Diversity, and Exacerbates the Coming Apart

The amazing 1969 prophecy that racial preferences would cause the exact grievances of protesters today by Jonathan Haidt at Heterodox Academy helps to illustrate my theory.

I propose that the analyses by Haidt, Jussim, and Macklin are examples of the intuitionist, Aristotelian, holistic, empiricist cognitive style of the non-WEIRD majority of human beings. I’m calling this Cognitive Style Two.

I further propose that the Social Justice Warriors, campus protesters, and others described by Haidt, Jussim, and Macklin are thinkers of the rationalist, Platonic, WEIRD, idealist cognitive style of the minority of humans. This is what I called Cognitive Style One.

One of the main reasons for the “Coming Apart” seems to be that Western Culture has become thoroughly dominated by Cognitive Style One. It is seen as the only legitimate and valid path to truth, to the point that Cognitive Style Two is more likely than not to be thought of as “superstition” or “blind faith,” and eschewed as an invalid source of knowledge and truth.

When we deny or deny the possible fruits of one cognitive style we deny ourselves access to a potentially rich and fertile source of knowledge, understanding, and insight.

By denying intuitionist thought as “superstition” or “faith” we effectively deny ourselves access to hundreds of millions of years of hard earned wisdom programed into our brains by the ruthless hard knocks of evolution.

If we really, truly, want to learn everything we can about human nature then we owe it to ourselves to use ALL of its tools.

Rather than eschewing and vilifying intuitionist thinking we should be finding ways to become more attuned to our intuitions and the clues they give us about ourselves, and we should be finding ways to leverage those clues to our advantage.

Colin Barnes makes this point in “The Liberal Arts & the Limits of Social Science” by at ‘The Imaginative Conservative.’ Below is an excerpt. I added the emphasis of the all caps text because it is an important aspect of the program of education that is my recommendation for ameliorating the Coming Apart:

“Insistence that the experimental method is needed to sort out the truth or falsity of propositions like “bad company corrupts good character” under different conditions denies to us our intelligence as veteran participants in life together as social beings. Surely we are not that inane. Of course, this does not mean we are always right when we say that Y follows X in society, but it does credit us with the capacity to get around to seeing situations properly through our informal (and sometimes non-conscious) strategies for testing our social beliefs.

Now if I am right, and only unmindful persons ignore the conditional truth of folk wisdom, THE QUESTION FOR AN INSTRUCTOR BECOMES HOW TO HELP STUDENTS BECOME RESPONSIBE WIELDERS OF THE INTUITIONS they have been brought up with, not how to supplant these intuitions with a method that only indoctrination into a scientistic viewpoint would lead them to recognize as the golden road to true social knowledge. Imagine, for instance, students who saw experimentation not as the starting point of inquiry about social facts, but as one of many tools to put to the task—a tool that should be used with limited questions and with a dose of reluctance. I myself imagine this at times, and it leads me to think that successful students of social psychology trained in this vein would not be dispassionate objectifiers of social situations and persons but sensitive perceivers of them.


We’d all be so much better off if we could do even a slightly better job of experience-based holistic Aristotelian thinking, which in turn would help us retain and apply the collected wisdom of our predecessors.

It’s precisely this that I believe the founders had in mind when they expressed the idea that an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.

And it’s precisely this, arguably its most important job, that the education system fails at most profoundly.

If Heterdox Academy is to achieve its goals then among its recommended solutions should be a strong campaign to teach…

  1. methods of critical thinking (1) like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, rules of evidence and argumentation, and the traps of common logical fallacies and how to avoid them,
  2. the existence, applicability, and proper use of both major cognitive styles, and
  3. the principles of moral psychology and moral foundations theory (i.e., human nature),

…so that our children can think clearly in ways that allow them to see the trees AND the forest, and so they are equipped with a realistic grasp of fundamental human nature, such that we can finally escape from the two hundred year tangent in which we’re still tragically mired.


(1) I’m aware that “critical thinking” might be a loaded phrase that has a negative connotation for some. The reason for the negative connotation seems to be the fallacious notion that through teaching people to think critically we can de-bias them; turn them into logic machines like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock. In this sense, trying to teach critical thinking is similar to Haidt’s description in The Righteous Mind of trying to teach ethical behavior. He says “Nobody is ever going to invent an ethics class that makes people behave ethically after they step out of the classroom. Classes are for riders, and riders are just going to use their new knowledge to server their elephants more effectively.” (The Righteous Mind, page 95) I’m under no illusion that after receiving training in critical thinking people will be like Mr. Spock when they step out of the classroom; able to use pure unbiased logic to see the truth. But we do know that a great number of cognitive biases and logical fallacies are built-in to human thinking. And disciplined methods or processes of organized thinking like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and training in proper argumentation, identification and use of evidence, and the most common logical fallacies and how to avoid them, can go a long way to avoiding some of the worst and most typical traps of the cognitive biases we humans typically fall into.

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I Support Viewpoint Diversity


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.

An Interpretation of Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory

This sidebar lists a series of posts which together make up an essay relating Moral Foundations Theory to today's politics, and even a little history, as viewed through The Independent Whig's six-foundation moral lens.


Venn Diagram of Liberal and Conservative Traits and Moral Foundations and

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