Are lib and con Yin and Yang?
In ch. 12 of The Righteous Mind I argue that left and right are like Yin and Yang — both see different threats, push in different directions, and protect different things that matter, and that are at risk of getting trampled by the other side.
There’s an extraordinarily good and civil debate going on about my claim in the reviews of my book at Amazon.com.
It starts with a review by a conservative reader, The Independent Whig, who loves the book but argues that conservatism is already balanced — among all 6 foundations — so they don’t need liberals to provide more balance. (See Independent Whig’s full blog here.)
Two other readers–James Wagner (liberal) and SanPete (center-left?)–then go on to discuss and debate the question. This is one of the most thoughtful, respectful, and helpful discussions I’ve seen about political psychology anywhere on the internet. I’ll just post my responses to the discussion below, but please do see the discussion to see how the arguments develop.
[Response from Haidt]:
This is among the best, most constructive and civil discussions of politics I’ve ever seen on the internet. In briefest form, my responses to the discussion are:
1)Yin/Yang: I do mean it exactly as SanPete puts it, and I got the idea from the yin/yang nature of the openness dimension. It’s the idea expressed in the Mill quote in ch. 12: “A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.” Independent-Whig is right that conservatism is, in theory, more balanced. And this is why Jesse Graham and I have found that liberals have more difficulty understanding conservatives than vice versa. But in practice, no side can be so balanced that it is able to push both ways and get the balance right. As long as there is partisan conflict, each side is going to circle the wagons and push against the other side. And that is generally good: it’s like a cybernetic control system where you need a force pushing both ways. If all you ever have is Buckley’s conservatives standing athawart history yelling “stop,” then conservatives don’t end up making the changes that are needed to respond to changing circumstances, and to address the needs of the powerless, who generally to get shut out and shut down unless someone is looking out for them.
2) On why I focus my message mostly on liberals: SanPete got it exactly right: “this book is largely based on Haidt’s own experience and reflections, and since he was a liberal reacting against his own mistakes, and the mistakes he see in his profession dominated by liberals, that’s the primary perspective of the book.” This is exactly right. This is what I’ve been thinking and arguing for years. I hardly ever get the chance to meet or talk to conservatives.
3) On what liberals should do: I agree with James Wagner that liberals can “change their spots.” I think it’s hard for any particular individual to do so. But I do hope that American liberals, as a tribe, will do so. Indeed, the reason I seem so hard on liberals is that I think they changed their spots in the 1960s and 1970s in a bad way – the turn to the “New Left” led the left away from the morality of most Americans and into some positions that I think are hard to justify, morally. If we think of liberalism as a tradition stretching back to the 18th century, then I am a liberal. I want liberals to change their spots BACK to a configuration more in harmony with their grand tradition. I am confident that this will happen as the baby boomers age out of the population. I think that libertarians and conservatives all have a piece of the grand liberal tradition, and the left needs to read writers from these groups to re-discover many great ideas that they lost touch with in the 1960s.
4) On whether there is some best or correct balance: No. When nations or tribes face constant threats of attack, the liberal configuration would lead a group to get wiped out pretty quickly, so in those environments, more “binding” moralities are more adaptive. But in times of peace and prosperity, I do think human flourishing is best served by a shift in the liberal direction – thinning out the reliance on the binding foundations. I see societies as being like ecosystems, constantly in flux. There’s no obvious best setting, and we argue, as a society, over what our morals should be in each era. This is good and healthy – no one side can simply think about it and get the answer right, because each side is so limited by its confirmation biases. It can become unhealthy when we begin to demonize each other. My highest hope for the book is that it will facilitate healthier, less demonizing debates, such as this one.