Our nation is in an intense political and cultural struggle where neither side can emerge as an unequivocal victor. Internal strife leaves us vulnerable to external threats from those aspiring to replace our global dominance. Understanding the deeper underlying forces at work as we grapple with the political tension may help forge a way forward. In my reading and research to understand our division better two books stood out to provide a compelling lens to understand the deepening polarization rooted in the fabric of our minds.
Jonathan Haidt’s, The
Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
provides a study of the profound disparities in the political values of liberal
and conservative-leaning individuals. As a summary, I recommend this twenty-minute video TED Talk by
Haidt: “The moral roots of liberals and conservatives.”
I previously wrote the blog post, “Isour political division biological?” about Oxford scholar Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. The book offers warnings about the collective potential of the divided brain to destroy civilizations. As a summary, I recommend this twelve-minute animated summary of McGilchrist’s ideas: The Divided Brain.
Haidt's six moral foundations framework posits that human morality is built upon distinct pillars: Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity, and Liberty. Liberal-leaning individuals prioritize Care and Fairness, focusing on protecting vulnerable individuals and ensuring equitable treatment. Conservative-leaning individuals share these values but additionally emphasize Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity, and Liberty, prioritizing the preservation of social order, respect for authority, and the sanctity of traditions.
The table below provides a short description of Haidt’s moral foundations, the reason they evolved in human beings, and some of the characteristics of each of the foundations:
The graphic below shows the priority given to each moral foundation by the spectrum of political groupings in our country:
The divergence has profound implications, as indicated in my 2017 blog post, Brotherhoodand Borders. That post emphasized that both caring for individual immigrants and ensuring responsibility to protect the common good through appropriate immigration policy are essential, rejecting an either-or proposition.
Very liberal individuals prioritize immigrant care,
emphasizing the unfairness immigrants face compared to the abundance in the
United States. They may overlook border control, the rule of law, and the
potential harmful incentives their focus may create. On the other end, very
conservative individuals value immigrant humanity but focus on border security
and law enforcement, sometimes advocating for an end to all immigration without
recognizing its economic significance. In the center are those who advocate for
orderly immigration, a secure border, and humane treatment of migrants.
Understanding these psychological underpinnings helps us
appreciate the intractable nature of political polarization. It is not just
about policy disagreements; it's about fundamentally different worldviews
shaped by our neurological wiring and environment. This realization calls for
approaching political discourse with newfound empathy, recognizing that the
moral priorities of our counterparts are inherent in their cognitive makeup.
Recognizing the interconnectedness of moral foundations and
cognitive processes does not imply one side is inherently superior to the
other. Both liberal and conservative-leaning perspectives contribute valuable
insights to the societal dialogue. Liberal-leaning individuals bring attention
to issues of social justice and equality, pushing for a more inclusive and
compassionate society. Meanwhile, conservative-leaning individuals share those
values but also emphasize the importance of tradition, order, and authority in
maintaining a stable and cohesive community.
Haidt established that liberals and conservatives have
different sets of moral foundations that are a spectrum with individuals having
diverse mixtures of each of the six specific moral foundations. This is a
strength in human social development when these moral foundations are in
Iaian McGhilcrist’s studies provide insight into the
competing nature of the two hemispheres of the brain. The left hemisphere has a
limited view of the world. It organizes and categorizes, focusing on detail and
analysis, while the right hemisphere is creative, intuitive, and holistic. The
dominance of the left hemisphere, both in individuals and societies, can lead
to destructive outcomes.
Applying this insight to contemporary politics, a hypothesis
emerges: Extreme liberal and conservative individuals, dominated by
left-brained societal tendencies, may veer toward totalitarianism.
Bureaucracy, totalitarianism, and mechanistic emphasis are
the extension of the left brain’s modeling, categorizing, and controlling at
the societal level. In the ancient world, the written language and money were
the technologies that enabled Greece and Rome to flourish and create empires.
These technologies served as tools of command, communication, and trade. Think
of how these technologies served the Roman Empire’s administrative bureaucracy
to conduct a census of conquered lands or impose taxes. In time, the left brain
is refining and extending the bureaucracy and its control as it does with the
individual. Eventually, both the individual and society fall subject to the
excess of the left hemisphere and bureaucracy to their detriment.
McGilchrist provides as a cautionary tale, urging vigilance
against the potential pitfalls of unchecked dominance of left brain tendencies
in the activism and leadership of both liberals and conservatives. Both sides
are equally vulnerable to these forces, and a Marxist or fascist totalitarian
regime is equally undesirable.
In a time where political discourse often descends into
acrimony, understanding the biological and psychological roots of our division
offers a pathway to constructive engagement. Recognizing that our differences
are deeply rooted in our cognitive architectures is crucial. Bridging the gap
requires appreciating the validity of alternative moral perspectives and
acknowledging that a harmonious society must balance the values encapsulated in
both liberal and conservative-leaning worldviews.
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