Tuesday, January 9, 2024

The Biological and Psychological Foundations of our Division

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 harmony societally.

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.

If you are interested in learning more about your own personality and hemispheric tendencies, you can take the following self-tests: Moral Foundations Test    Left – RightBrain Test

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