Liberals and Conservatives

It often feels that these two sides of the political spectrum are from completely different realities. So great is the disparity between their worldview, and so entrenched are their ideological positions, that many folks on the left and the right have almost reflexively taken to accusing the other of simply being crazy or delusional.

I often wonder where these sorts of views stem from. What exactly makes a person conservative or liberal? What shapes their ideas about the role of government, the morality of abortion, or their affinity towards either assimilation or multiculturalism? Furthermore, what makes a person a centrist, pragmatist, anarchist, or a subscriber to any number of variable or peripheral ideologies? Why have many people, like myself, been prone to changes in our worldview over periods of time, whereas others have remained almost consistently unchanging?

While I do broadly lean left on many issues (albeit with some exceptions and nuances from mainstream leftism), I nonetheless identify myself primarily as pragmatic and centrist. As I established ad nasuem in a previous post, I find such labels unhelpful since they are often subjective and prone to being incorrectly preconceived by others. If I call myself  a liberal, others will subsequently put together what I believe based on their own pre-determined notions of liberalism, and when they realize my views don’t fit this understanding, I’m challenged for really being what I claim. Hence my reluctance to claim any one label definitively .

But I digress. The overall point of this post is to explore the following: what exactly makes someone liberal, conservative, or something in between, and how do these different groups really see the world and determine what is right and wrong? What is the origin of political beliefs? Are their biological, genetic, or neurological factors? Is it life experiences, socioeconomic status, or how we were raised? Is it the form of education, or the substance of it? As it may turn out, there are probably innate and deterministic factors forming our ideological perspectives.

Psychologist Jonathan Haight recently presented a pretty interesting and level-headed approach to tackling these questions on TED Talks (which, like RSA Animate, is a great source for diverse ideas spanning all sorts of topics. The link to his lecture is here, since WordPress is being a bit uncooperative about allowing me to embed the video in my post.

Haight is hardly the first to discuss the nature of this increasingly significant divide, but he does it with far more neutrality and scientific objectivity than most others I’ve seen. His entire point is that every side within the political spectrum has different moral presuppositions about the world, and that moral and political viewpoints emerge from a complex combination of nature and nurture, and different understandings of what constitutes right and wrong.

The video even challenges the commonly held notion of a “blank state” in which we’re all born, and argues that there are indeed innate origins to our view of the world. In addition to the main topic, it deals a lot with the nature of the human brain and morality, which raises all sorts of questions about what makes us who we are or why we do the things we do.

Basically, Haight’s research yielded five universal foundations of morality that form the basis of all belief systems regardless of their differences. They’re as follows.

The first one is harm-care. We’re all mammals here, we all have a lot of neural and hormonal programmingthat makes us really bond with others, care for others,feel compassion for others, especially the weak and vulnerable.It gives us very strong feelings about those who cause harm.This moral foundation underlies about 70 percent of the moral statements I’ve heard here at TED.

The second foundation is fairness-reciprocity.There’s actually ambiguous evidenceas to whether you find reciprocity in other animals,but the evidence for people could not be clearer.This Norman Rockwell painting is called “The Golden Rule,”and we heard about this from Karen Armstrong, of course,as the foundation of so many religions. That second foundation underlies the other 30 percent of the moral statements I’ve heard here at TED.

The third foundation is in-group loyalty.You do find groups in the animal kingdom –you do find cooperative groups –but these groups are always either very small or they’re all siblings.It’s only among humans that you find very large groups of peoplewho are able to cooperate, join together into groups –but in this case, groups that are united to fight other groups.This probably comes from our long history of tribal living, of tribal psychology. And this tribal psychology is so deeply pleasurable that even when we don’t have tribes,we go ahead and make them because it’s fun.(Laughter)Sports is to war as pornography is to sex.We get to exercise some ancient, ancient drives.

The fourth foundation is authority-respect.Here you see submissive gestures from two members of very closely related species –but authority in humans is not so closely based on power and brutality,as it is in other primates. It’s based on more voluntary deference,and even elements of love, at times.

The fifth foundation is purity-sanctity. This painting is called “The Allegory Of Chastity,”but purity’s not just about suppressing female sexuality. It’s about any kind of ideology, any kind of ideathat tells you that you can attain virtueby controlling what you do with your body,by controlling what you put into your body. And while the political right may moralize sex much more,the political left is really doing a lot of it with food. Food is becoming extremely moralized nowadays,and a lot of it is ideas about purity,about what you’re willing to touch or put into your body.

If you watch the whole video, you’ll find how studies found that conservatives and liberals give different priorities to different moral foundations in this list. In other words, much of the conflict between political and ideological positions stem from a disagreement about which is most important to the well-being of the individual and society. We’re coming from different sides, but not as much as we may think. What’s most illuminating is what Haight takes away from all this:

And now we get to the crux of the disagreementbetween liberals and conservatives. Because liberals reject three of these foundations: they say “No, let’s celebrate diversity, not common in-group membership.”They say, “Let’s question authority.”And they say, “Keep your laws off my body.

Liberals have very noble motives for doing this.Traditional authority, traditional morality, can be quite repressive, and restrictive to those at the bottom, to women, to people that don’t fit in. So liberals speak for the weak and oppressed. They want change and justice, even at the risk of chaos.This guy’s shirt says, “Stop bitching, start a revolution.” If you’re high in openness to experience, revolution is good, it’s change, it’s fun.

Conservatives, on the other hand, speak for institutions and traditions. They want order, even at some cost to those at the bottom. The great conservative insight is that order is really hard to achieve. It’s really precious, and it’s really easy to lose. So as Edmund Burke said, “The restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights.” This was after the chaos of the French revolution. So once you see this — once you see that liberals and conservatives both have something to contribute, that they form a balance on change versus stability — then I think the way is open to step outside the moral matrix.

In other words, both sides in a sense complement each other. A government or society that operates based on just one of these positions neglect crucial moral and ethical considerations that would otherwise be provided by the other. As the excerpt shows, liberals and conservatives can easily be blinded to the serious flaws of their ideology by absolutism, which will in turn open up abusive and detrimental consequences. Hence, ideally, both sides keep one another’s extreme proclivities in check and temper the more ideological factions within each worldview.

I find this conclusion is empirically validated too. When one looks at nations that have become the most successful in terms of freedom, good governance, high living standards, and well-developed legal and economic systems, they tend to be those somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. One would be hard-pressed to find a successful country that could be broadly categorized as either far-left or far-right. Freer societies, by definition, allow all sorts of views and positions to be put on the table – a marketplace  of ideas as it’s known. In doing so, the best and most proven combinations end up shaping society and government for the better, albeit through long and difficult slogs of trial and error.

It’s for this reason that I consider myself to be pragmatic. The more I read about politics, philosophy, social theory, the more I find myself exposed to so many different and seemingly valid concepts from all over the place. As a result, I’ve resigned myself to tying to base my ideological positions on what seems logically, ethically, and empirical more compelling. It’s easier said than done, but I personally find it to be satisfying, especially as it allows me to reach all sorts of truths I’d otherwise be oblivious too if I were more close-minded.

Needless to say, all this has big ramifications for this country at this moment. Politics and public discourse is at it’s most tribal and polarized in some time (some argue more so than ever). We’re being paralyzed by our lack of empathy and understanding of the other side, parochialism and partisanship, and by  a lack of constructive, dialectical dialogue between different ideological and political groups. Without having one another at the table to temper and challenge our extreme inclinations or factions, we run the serious risk of blindly pursuing narrow policies that don’t account for all moral and social considerations.

Granted, I’m not going to suggest that every idea deserves equal weight and consideration. Certain beliefs are clearly wrong or immoral based on established evidence, reason, or research (Nazism, killing people for infidelity, absolute monarchy, etc) . And not every side deserves the legitimacy of an equal voice if it’s prescriptions are found to violate ethics or reason – we shouldn’t give equal time and respect to people who think homosexuals are demons or segregation should be reinstated).

I also refuse to make any false equivalences between different factions with respect to who is most responsible for factionalism, misinformation, or polarization. Some groups are demonstrably more guilty in this regard than others, and it’s far less fair to accord equal blame in this regard than to identify who’s responsible – and to do so with constructive intention of engaging with this issue, rather than to just scapegoat.

In short, this all comes down to the central tenets of this blog, and my life for that matter: that we must establish empathy and open-dialogue with those who may be different in their persuasions but nonetheless well-intentioned, sincere, and rational. In doing so, we create a proper exchange of ideas and perspectives that may be valuable in attaining truth, determining what is best and most effective for societal well-being, and implementing the proper policies in question.

Of course, this requires an appreciation for science, logic, reason, and philosophy, which raises all sorts of issues about our literacy in these subjects. Pursuing this sort of high-minded dialogue is also far easier said than done, and I have no delusions about the ignorance and stubbornness that pervades our society (and my own tendencies to display those qualities too).  But at the very least, the well-meaning and level-headed of us must at least try. The world is full of problems that will never be solved otherwise.


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