Are Liberals homeless exiles in their brave new world?

Here’s an idea that I first encountered some two years ago in a review of Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by George Scialabba. For me it was at the time a persuasive explanation, and still is, for that which most separates us, at least the “thinking us,” into left and right political camps.

The idea is that the Left, Liberals (and now also Progressives) are more sensitive to, more concerned about the wishes and needs of individuals, whereas the Right, Conservatives, are more concerned about the cohesiveness and stability of groups, be it all the way from families and social clubs at one end of the scale to religions and local governments at the other, although not going as far as the federal government, the irony being that at this end of the scale you find the Liberals.

But from what, from where do these beliefs and resulting judgments that we know as Left and Right come from? Not from any inherent superiority of the one camp over the other. Furthermore, as Haidt points out, experiments have been run that repeatedly show rather that we all believe what we want, regardless of the superior truth, or greater falsehood, of the belief we may hold.

In way of explanation of the long standing differences among the “thinking us” Haidt introduces his theory of moral foundations for our beliefs. There are six of these and on one or more of them nearly all our intuitions and opinions, usually meaning our political positions, are based, these foundations being:


1) Help those in need and minimize suffering everywhere.
2) Reward people according to what they contribute.
3) Advance the fortunes of your group.
4) Defer to legitimate superiors and protect subordinates.
5) Resist domination by illegitimate authority.
6) Respect your group’s totems and taboos.


Liberals, Haidt says, probably focus too narrowly on number one, as well as on a special version of number two, making compassion the supreme liberal virtue supplemented by egalitarianism. Conservatives, by contrast, are more “balanced,” with their views, basing them more or less equally on all six foundations, all six being their moral capital so to speak.

Whereas Conservatives may allow individuals to suffer while their basic needs are not being met, Liberals rarely consider the effect on the conservative moral capital of their own proposals and actions, this being a kind of liberal “blind spot“ as it were, and this, of course, resulting in the all too familiar, furious and fruitless word battles between the two camps.

While the Liberals may very well see individuals in need, and try to address if not meet those needs, they do not enough see admittedly inadequate social structures as being somehow necessary, and what’s most important being put at risk by their, the Liberals’ proposals. Think religion and the family as cases in point.

Haidt says, that

“religions help groups to cohere, solve free rider problems, and win the competition for group-level survival; and they make individuals less selfish and more loving. Gods and religions are tools that let people bind themselves together, or, in the language of evolutionary psychology, group-level adaptations for producing cohesiveness and trust.”

[And one might say pretty much the same thing about the family.] In any case Haidt claims that,

“the data strongly suggest that religious people are happier, more generous, more productve, and better behaved than the non-religious. And at the very least, that unbelievers should keep their skepticism to themselves.” 

“Asking people to give up all forms of sacralized belonging and live in a world of purely ‘rational’ beliefs might be like asking people to give up the Earth and live in colonies orbiting the moon. It can be done, but it would take a great deal of careful engineering, and even after ten generations, the descendants of those colonists might find themselves with inchoate longings for gravity and greenery.”

Should we conclude from all this that Liberals, those that place reason above feeling, the head over the heart, and with both family and religion losing their own centuries old influence on us, are now in fact homeless, exiles in their own brave new world?


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