Two Views of Present Christianity

First, everyone can be skeptical of science, including of course scientists themselves — after all, scientists are skeptics by profession. But skepticism pushed toward extreme denialism is mostly limited to the political right, some scientific issues standing out (e.g., climate change). And general distrust of science is broadly and consistently found only among religious conservatives.

This is a point that was made by Chris Mooney in his research showing that there is no equivalent on the political left — as far as I know, not even among the religious left. For example, the smart idiot effect is primarily found on the political right, such that knowledge really does matter to those on the political left (research shows that liberals, unlike conservatives, will more likely change their mind when they learn new info).

The role religion plays is in magnifying this difference between ideological tendencies.

Not All Skepticism Is Equal: Exploring the Ideological Antecedents of Science Acceptance and Rejection
by Bastiaan T. Rutjens, Robbie M. Sutton, & Romy van der Lee

To sum up the current findings, in four studies, both political conservatism and religiosity independently predict science skepticism and rejection. Climate skepticism was consistently predicted by political conservatism, vaccine skepticism was consistently predicted by religiosity, and GM food skepticism was consistently predicted by low faith in science and knowledge of science. General low faith in science and unwillingness to support science in turn were primarily associated with religiosity, in particular religious conservatism. Thus, different forms of science acceptance and rejection have different ideological roots, although the case could be made that these are generally grounded in conservatism.

Study: Conservatives’ Trust In Science At Record Low
by Eyder Peralta

While trust in science has remained flat for most Americans, a new study finds that for those who identify as conservatives trust in science has plummeted to its lowest level since 1974.

Gordon Gauchat, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studied data from the General Social Survey and found that changes in confidence in science are not uniform across all groups.

“Moreover, conservatives clearly experienced group-specific declines in trust in science over the period,” Gauchat reports. “These declines appear to be long-term rather than abrupt.”

Just 35 percent of conservatives said they had a “great deal of trust in science” in 2010. That number was 48 percent in 1974. […]

Speaking to Gauchat, he said that what surprised him most about his study is that he ran statistical analysis on a host of different groups of people. He only saw significant change in conservatives and people who frequently attend church.

Gauchat said that even conservatives with bachelor’s degrees expressed distrust in science.

I asked him what could explain this and he offered two theories: First that science is now responsible for providing answers to questions that religion used to answer and secondly that conservatives seem to believe that science is now responsible for policy decisions. […]

Another bit of surprising news from the study, said Gauchat, is that trust in science for moderates has remained the same.

Here is the second point, which is more positive.

Religious conservatives are a shrinking and aging demographic, as liberal and left-wing views and labels continually take hold. So, as their numbers decrease and their influence lessens, we Americans might finally be able to have rational public debate about science that leads to pragmatic implementation of scientific knowledge.

The old guard of reactionaries are losing their grip on power, even within the once strong bastions of right-wing religiosity. But like an injured and dying wild animal, they will make a lot of noise and still can be dangerous. The reactionaries will become more reactionary, as we have recently seen. This moment of conflict shall pass, as it always does. Like it or not, change will happen and indeed it already is happening.

There is one possible explanation for this change. Science denialism is a hard attitude to maintain over time, even with the backfire effect. It turns out that even conservatives do change their opinions based on expert knowledge, even if it takes longer. So, despite the evidence showing no short term change with policies, we should expect that a political shift will continue happen across the generations.

Knowledge does matter. But it requires immense repetition and patience. Also, keep in mind that, as knowledge matters even more for the political left, the power of knowledge will increase as the general population moves further left. This might be related to the fact that the average American is increasingly better educated — admittedly, Americans aren’t all that well educated in comparison to some countries, but in comparison to the state of education in the past there has been a dramatic improvement.

However you wish to explain it, the religious and non-religious alike are becoming more liberal and progressive, even more open to social democracy and democratic socialism. There is no evidence that this shift has stopped or reversed. Conservatism will remain a movement in the future, but it will probably look more like the present Democratic Party than the present Republican Party. As the political parties have gone far right, the American public has moved so far left as to be outside of the mainstream spectrum of partisan politics.

We are beginning to see the results.

Pro-Life, Pro-Left
by Molly Worthen
(see Evangelicals Turn Left)

70 percent of evangelicals now tell pollsters they don’t identify with the religious right, and younger evangelicals often have more enthusiasm for social justice than for the culture wars

Trump Is Bringing Progressive Protestants Back to Church
by Emma Green

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, some conservative Christians have been reckoning with feelings of alienation from their peers, who generally voted for Trump in strong numbers. But at least some progressive Protestant churches are experiencing the opposite effect: People have been returning to the pews.

“The Sunday after the election was the size of an average Palm Sunday,” wrote Eric Folkerth, the senior pastor at Dallas’s Northaven United Methodist Church, in an email. More than 30 first-time visitors signed in that day, “which is more than double the average [across] three weeks of a typical year,” he added. “I sincerely don’t recall another time when it feels like there has been a sustained desire on people’s part to be together with other progressive Christians.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests other liberal churches from a variety of denominations have been experiencing a similar spike over the past month, with their higher-than-usual levels of attendance staying relatively constant for several weeks. It’s not at all clear that the Trump bump, as the writer Diana Butler Bass termed it in a conversation with me, will be sustained beyond the first few months of the new administration. But it suggests that some progressives are searching for a moral vocabulary in grappling with the president-elect—including ways of thinking about community that don’t have to do with electoral politics. […]

Even if Trump doesn’t bring about a membership revolution in the American mainline, which has been steadily shrinking for years, some of the conversations these Protestant pastors reported were fascinating—and suggest that this political environment might be theologically, morally, and intellectually generative for progressive religious traditions.

Southern Baptists Call Off the Culture War
by Jonathan Merritt

Indeed, disentangling the SBC from the GOP is central to the denomination’s makeover. For example, a motion to defund the ERLC in response to the agency’s full-throated opposition to Donald Trump failed miserably.

In years past, Republican politicians have spoken to messengers at the annual meeting. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush addressed the group, Vice President Dan Quayle spoke in 1992, and President George W. Bush did so in 2001 and 2002 (when my father, James Merritt, was SBC president). Neither President Bill Clinton nor President Barack Obama were invited to speak to Southern Baptists during their terms. Though Southern Baptists claim not to be affiliated with either major party, it’s not difficult to discern the pattern at play.

Vice President Mike Pence addressed the convention this year, which may seem like the same old song to outsiders. But there was widespread resistance to Pence’s participation. A motion to disinvite the vice president was proposed and debated, but was ultimately voted down. During his address, which hit some notes more typical of a campaign speech, a few Southern Baptists left the room out of protest. Others criticized the move to reporters or spoke out on Twitter. The newly elected Greear tweeted that the invitation “sent a terribly mixed signal” and reminded his fellow Baptists that “commissioned missionaries, not political platforms, are what we do.”

Though most Southern Baptists remain politically conservative, it seems that some are now less willing to have their denomination serve as a handmaiden to the GOP, especially in the current political moment. They appear to recognize that tethering themselves to Donald Trump—a thrice-married man who has bragged about committing adultery, lies with impunity, allegedly paid hush money to a porn star with whom he had an affair, and says he has never asked God for forgiveness—places the moral credibility of the Southern Baptist Convention at risk.

By elevating women and distancing themselves from partisan engagement, the members of the SBC appear to be signaling their determination to head in a different direction, out of a mix of pragmatism and principle.

For more than a decade, the denomination has been experiencing precipitous decline by almost every metric. Baptisms are at a 70-year low, and Sunday attendance is at a 20-year low. Southern Baptist churches lost almost 80,000 members from 2016 to 2017 and they have hemorrhaged a whopping one million members since 2003. For years, Southern Baptists have criticized more liberal denominations for their declines, but their own trends are now running parallel. The next crop of leaders knows something must be done.

“Southern Baptists thought that if they became more conservative, their growth would continue unabated. But they couldn’t outrun the demographics and hold the decline at bay,” said Leonard. “Classic fundamentalist old-guard churches are either dead or dying, and the younger generation is realizing that the old way of articulating the gospel is turning away more people than it is attracting. “

Regardless of their motivations, this shift away from a more culturally strident and politically partisan stance is significant.

As the late pastor Adrian Rogers said at the 2002 SBC annual meeting in St. Louis, “As the West goes, so goes the world. As America goes, so goes the West. As Christianity goes, so goes America. As evangelicals go, so goes Christianity. As Southern Baptists go, so go evangelicals.”

Rogers may have had an inflated sense of the denomination’s importance, but the fact remains that what happens in the SBC often ripples across culture. In Trump’s America, where the religious right wields outsized influence, the shifts among Southern Baptists could be a harbinger of broader change among evangelicals.

The divide between the religious and the rest of the population is smaller than it seems. That is because media likes to play up conflict. To demonstrate the actual views of the religious in the United States, consider a hot button issue like abortion:

  • “As an example of the complexity, data shows that there isn’t even an anti-abortion consensus among Christians, only one Christian demographic showing a strong majority [White Evangelical Protestants].” (Claims of US Becoming Pro-Life)
  • “[A]long with most doctors, most church-going Catholics support public option and so are in agreement with most Americans in general. Even more interesting is the fact that the church-going Catholics even support a national plan that includes funding for abortion.” (Health Reform & Public Option (polls & other info))
  • “[M]ost Americans identify as Christian and have done so for generations. Yet most Americans are pro-choice, supporting abortion in most or all situations, even as most Americans also support there being strong and clear regulations for where abortions shouldn’t be allowed. It’s complicated, specifically among Christians. The vast majority (70%) seeking abortions considered themselves Christians, including over 50% who attend church regularly having kept their abortions secret from their church community and 40% feeling that churches are not equipped to help them make decisions about unwanted pregnancies.” (American Christianity: History, Politics, & Social Issues)

Whatever ideological and political conflicts we might have in the future, it won’t be a continuation of the culture wars we have known up to this point. Nor will it likely conform to battle of ideologies as seen during the Cold War. The entire frame of debate will be different and, barring unforeseen events, most likely far to the left.

* * *

As an additional point, there is another shift that is happening. There is a reason why there feels to be a growing antagonism, even though it’s not ideological per se.

The fact of the matter is “religious nones” (atheists, agnostics, religiously non-identifying, religiously indifferent, etc) is growing faster than any religious group. Mainline Christians have been losing membership for decades and now so are Evangelicals. This is getting to the point where young Americans are evenly split between the religious and non-religious. That means the religious majority will quickly disappear.

This isn’t motivated by overt ideology or it doesn’t seem to be, since it is a shift happening in many other countries as well. But it puts pressure on ideology and can get expressed or manipulated through ideological rhetoric. So, we might see increasing conflict between ideologies, maybe in new forms that could create a new left vs right.

Younger people are less religious than older ones in many countries, especially in the U.S. and Europe
by Stephanie Kramer & Dalia Fahmy

In the U.S., the age gap is considerable: 43% of people under age 40 say religion is very important to them, compared with 60% of adults ages 40 and over.

If nothing else, this contributes to a generational conflict. There is a reason much of right-wing media has viewers that are on average older. This is why many older Americans are still fighting the culture wars, if only in their own minds.

But Americans in general, including most young Evangelicals, have lost interest in politicized religion. Christianity simply won’t play the same kind of central role in coming decades. Religion will remain an issue, but even Republicans will have to deal with the fact that even the young on the political right are less religious and less socially conservative.

Convoluted Conservative-Mindedness

The conservative-minded are a unique species with their high conscientiousness, thick boundaries, love of orderliness, and narrow focus; weakness for authority, submission to fear, and disgust toward impurity. They have a preference for the known, certain, familiar, and acceptable; although with an odd relationship to the larger world — their literalist beliefs often set against scientific facts and their simplistic nostalgia often set against any genuine historical accounting. That is a quick summary from a biased liberal perspective, but this isn’t far from their own self-descriptions.

From a study in 1980, conservative (and presumably W.E.I.R.D.) high school students “regarded themselves as more conventional, responsible, dependable, orderly, neat, organized, successful, and ambitious.” No doubt this self-assessment is fairly accurate, as many studies have shown in comparing conservatives with liberals. The trait conscientiousness is the hinge upon which the conservative mind swings, combined with the trait openness being locked down. When considered in the fuller context, this disposition can lead to mixed results as demonstrated by the sometimes convoluted thinking of the conservative mind. If there isn’t a rule, norm, guideline, direction, law, protocol, or authority to tell them what to do and not to do, the strongly conservative-minded can become confused and frozen in inaction. Helpless as little children.

The liberal, on the other hand, gets in trouble for not simply doing what told or expected to do with very real consequences such as higher rates of addiction. Because the law says not to use an addictive drug that might be all the more reason to try drugs to find out for oneself — Nancy Reagan’s message “Just Say No” sounds like a challenge. It’s similar to why, shortly after my mother told me as a child to not stick anything in outlets, I stuck a paperclip into an outlet. It was a shocking lesson about electricity that forever emblazoned on my young psyche the wisdom of maternal authority, not that it caused my foolhardy liberal personality to be any more obedient. This might explain why I’m such a liberal loser for surely I’d be more successful in life if I just could do what I was told.

Liberals learn from experience and sometimes suffer and die from experience. But at least liberals are more likely figure it out for themselves and maybe discover something new in the process. Not helpless children, although one might see high openness and low conscientiousness as being differently abled. Anyway, it’s more fun and exciting to learn through experience. When my young nephew asked my brother if he could shove a matchbox car up his butt, I like to think my nephew was just being a good liberal trying to think outside the box. It is a valid question he asked. When you start to think about it, there are all kinds of places a matchbox car could be shoved, limited only by the openness of one’s imagination. And who knows what might happen until you try. After all, speaking of butts, as Sarah Silverman asked, how is “the next milk” supposed to be discovered?

Conservatives simply take things on faith and act accordingly. They are less likely to do illegal drugs because they are illegal. They are less likely to stick something into an outlet (or into their butt) when told not to by a parent. Such thoughts would likely never cross their minds in the first place. They will be good citizens, good workers, good Christians, good Nazis, or whatever else is upheld by social norms. High conscientious conservatives will be effective and efficient, industrious and hard-working, ambitious and successful… that is within the constraints of the social order. Outside of those constraints, though, they are lost sheep looking for the herd.

At times, there can be a refreshing directness to conservative thought. But that isn’t always the case. Because of reactionary tendencies, the conservative mind can wind around in strange machinations and rationalizations, such as seen with conservative political correctness. It’s the “Faceless Men” aspect of the reactionary mind that never can be straightforward about what it is about, and I’ve come to suspect this exists within every conservative. Even in the more moderate variety, the conservative mind can go round and round. I must admit I find it fascinating.

One doesn’t have too look at the extreme examples such as evangelicals justifying their support of Donald Trump. Let me describe a situation involving my mother, an old school conservative who is no fan of Trump. But before I get to that, let me explain exactly what is represented by her conservatism.

My mother is conventional in thought and behavior, just wanting to go along to get along. Even if there was an authoritarian takeover of the country, she wouldn’t join the freedom fighters but instead would simply keep her head down, although she might also try to do the morally right thing in small ways as long as it didn’t bring her any negative scrutiny or otherwise threaten her life and lifesyle. She means well and genuinely acts accordingly, but it simply isn’t in her to defy authority or to act foolhardy, not aspiring to be the next Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The moral acts she does such as volunteering are motivated by their being part of a system of hierarchical authority, in this case a Christian church, telling her that is what she is supposed to do. I suppose that, if she belonged to an evangelical church instead of a mainline church and if everyone she knew including the preacher supported Trump, she likely would have gotten in line to vote for Trump no matter her personal opinion. After all, she strongly defended Sarah Palin and it is a small step from that to where the GOP is now.

My father, less traditionally conservative, almost voted for Trump just to spite Hillary Clinton. What ultimately stopped him from voting Trump and so maybe stopped him from swaying my mother to follow suit was the sense of social judgment that would follow, as most of his immediate family and many of his friends, church members, etc aren’t Trump supporters — even if that imagined social judgment was limited to the confines of his own mind. They now live in this liberal college town where the conservatives here are likewise more liberal-minded. But if they had remained in the conservative Deep South and had still been attending a highly conservative church, my parents might have voted for Trump because that is what so many people around them would have been doing.

Social situation means everything to the conservative sensibility, in their sensitivity to social pressure and persuasion. My parents achingly long to fit in, to belong, to be accepted, to conform. Because of this, they are highly malleable in their views, depending on the community they happen to be living in at any given period of their lives. When younger, they became surrounded by liberals and went through an extreme liberal phase (my father claims my mother used to be pro-life). This left a permanent imprint on their children, my brothers and I who span from liberal to left-wing, not having changed over our lifetimes. Yet my parents’ have swung back and forth from outwardly conservative to outwardly liberal, as their social group shifted. This happened multiple times for my parents as they moved to diverse kinds of communities.

That is perfectly normal behavior for the conservative-minded. If my parents had spent their entire lives in a liberal community, in submitting to local social order and conforming to the local social norms, they simply would have always identified as liberal and would have never known otherwise. I suspect many self-identified liberals (along with many self-identified ‘centrists’ and ‘moderates’), specifically partisan Clinton Democrats, would measure higher on conscientiousness and lower on openness (as compared to voters who are independents, third partiers, left-liberals, progressives, etc), which is how the Democrats have become the new conservative party since the GOP went full hog reactionary right-wing. Conservative-mindedness, like many psychological tendencies, is relative and context-dependent, existing as it does along a spectrum within a particular place and time. No one, however low they might measure, is entirely lacking in conscientiousness (or openness) without being severely dysfunctional. That is how most traits operate, in serving some necessary or useful function, typically being problematic only at the extremes of either end.

With that wordy introduction out of the way, let me get to the recent situation with my mother (for background, see two earlier examples: here & here). It really amused me because it was one of those moments I could see the gears moving in her conservative mind.

The context at present is this liberal college town where recycling for many liberals might be genuine environmental concern or might be mere virtue signalling but for my parents it is simply an act of conforming to local social standards. All of their neighbors weekly put out their recycling bins along the street and my parents might be embarrassed to be the only people in the neighborhood to not do so. Recycling is what good liberals do in a good liberal town and, to that extent, my parents play the locally expected social role of the good liberal. It’s the conservative-minded thing to do. But at times the socially expected behavior isn’t entirely clear, making the conservative uncomfortable and distressed.

The city government picks up some recyclable material but not all. Since Iowa has a five cent refund on cans, my parents collect those in separate bags to take back to the store. This past week, they took the cans with them when they went shopping. For some reason, the machine that takes returns wouldn’t take a certain brand and my mother couldn’t find on the label where it showed they have a refund value. This really bothered my mother and she didn’t know what to do. It didn’t seem so complicated to me. I honestly don’t care about the refund and, after all, they were mostly my cans that I paid for. I gave mother some suggestions, such as putting them by a dumpster and letting a homeless person take care of it, but she said that it was illegal to put things in a dumpster that isn’t yours. That is true and yet, to my liberal mind, irrelevant.

Here was this situation where the normal rules, processes, and laws didn’t allow a straightforward course of action. So, my mom brought the cans home and fretted over the situation. She was about ready to throw them in the trash because, to her conservative mind, that would be a more appropriate response than the less conventional options I suggested. I eventually solved the problem for her in a way that isn’t relevant for my telling this anecdote. The solution wasn’t complicated and the cans got recycled.

How my mother and I perceived this situation had everything to do with conservative-mindedness versus liberal-mindedness. The reason my mother has never stuck anything inappropriate in an outlet or in her butt, as far as I know, is the same reason she couldn’t resolve this seemingly minor conflict. To her conservative mind, this was about appropriate behavior and there were no guidelines to follow. But to my liberal mind, the possible options were multitudinous. I’ll worry about what is illegal when there is good reason to worry such as a cop driving by, no different than my only having been concerned about what happens by sticking something into an outlet after I got shocked.

There can be a simplicity about liberal-mindedness, not that it always lead to happy and beneficial results, as I can attest. In comparison, the obsessive and excessive worrying of conservatives can seem perplexing, at least to the liberal, but it makes perfect sense to the conservative mind.

Shadows of Moral Imagination

“Until the day breaks and the shadows flee…”
– Song of Solomon 2:17

“The moral imagination,” Russel Kirk wrote, “aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth.” He resurrected the Burkean moral imagination and maybe modernized it in the process. Jonathan Leamon Jones, similar to Gerald Russello and William F. Byrne, argues that Kirk’s moral imagination wasn’t modern but postmodern in its mistrust of metanarratives, including those of mainstream conservatives and radical right-wingers (others such as Peter Augustine Lawler go further in declaring that all of “conservative thought today is authentic postmodernism.”).

Modernity is always the frame of the reactionary mind, as conservatism in operating within the liberal paradigm can’t help but be an endless response to and borrowing from liberalism. The attempt to speak for the pre-modern inevitably leads to a post-modern attitude, even as modernity remains securely in place. There is no ‘pre-modern’ and ‘post-modern’ without the modern that defines and frames it all.

Such is the case with the development of moral imagination, but as a consciously articulated notion it took form in conjunction with the mature rise of modernity. The French Revolution symbolized the end of the ancien regime. Edmund Burke wasn’t postmodern, that is for sure, since modernity was only then taking hold. And moral imagination has its roots in the distant past. One important difference to keep in mind is that Kirk’s moral imagination, as opposed for example to the reactionary imagination of a conservative-minded classical liberal like Jordan Peterson, included the social or sociological imagination (Peterson is so post-post-modern that he is all the more modern for it). Burke did speak of the social, but of course he lived long before social science and social constructivism. “I contend that,” Jonathan Leamon Jones writes,

“Kirk, as a figure more concerned with culture than politics, attempted to negotiate his conservatism as a denial of the “autonomous self” and as an acceptance of the social construction of life (guided by, in his case, religious and socially traditionalist norms developed over extended periods of time). What is shared with Lyotard is that his postmodernism rejects the “grand narratives” of liberalism (such as “autonomy” and “progress”) as well as collectivism (such as fascism, socialism, and communism). Even so, Kirk is grounded in what might be termed a metaphysical master narrative, one of divine interaction with humanity. And because human beings are sinful and severely lacking in knowledge, their statements about the world can only be provisional, subject to revision and circumstance.”

Burke was a professional politician of a partisan variety. Kirk was not, as he was more wary of formal politics, it ironically being in part because of his own interpretation of Burkean moral imagination that he avoided following Burke’s political example. It was Kirk’s moral imagination as a conservative that actually allowed him to vote for those who didn’t identify as conservative, since his moral imagination allowed him to put moral character and personal concerns above both narrow ideological dogmas and lockstep political partisanship.

Where Kirk resonates with Burke is maybe along the line of the Burke’s denial of natural law as a human-imposed abstraction that risked idealism and radicalism. This is an attitude that he shared with John Dickinson’s worldview of Quaker constitutionalism (a constitution not as a paper document, espoused dogma, or mission statement but as a living pact between God and a specific people). Natural law has been cited by conservatives in making claims of traditionalism, but it was used even more persuasively and powerfully by radicals and revolutionaries seeking divine authority above human law.

One might note that Burke came from a family that was originally Catholic whereas Kirk converted to Catholicism as an adult. And one might note that both Burke and Dickinson were educated by Quakers. The commonality between Catholicism and Quakerism is the heavy emphasis on the social, specifically the social imagination as expressed through social theology and social action, including social activism. The moral imagination ultimately is a social imagination, overlapping with what some simply call culture or what Daniel Everett describes as the dark matter of the mind (i.e., the sociocultural unconscious). The social component isn’t only about what defines imagination but also what constrains or focuses it. Enculturation as with conversion is all about moral imagination, as are social control measures from propaganda to perception management.

To continue with Jones’ analysis: “Kirk sought to guide the reader to that place where he made his “home” – the small, local networks of associations that echo Burke’s well-known “little platoons” of society. Set against the “modern” in ways at once superficial and philosophical, such guidance was placement in an uncertain yet transcendently-grounded “postmodern” time and place.”

This is where, I’d argue, Burke lost the thread of his own narrative. With the French Revolution, his fevered rantings and detached fantasies about distant royalty had nothing to do with human-sized “little platoons” at the local level of comunity, certainly nothing to do with the lived experience and real world concerns of the average person in France or England — as Thomas Paine put it: “He is not affected by the reality of distress touching his heart, but by the showy resemblance of it striking his imagination. He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird.”

A major point Paine made was that modernity had destroyed those “little platoons” and that the remnants of that loss required moral re-imagining to compensate for what was stolen for that loss was intentionally caused by those who gained from it. Those in power had intentionally and actively targeted the destruction of those “little platoons” (the communities and commons of feudalism) and on the rubble they built the British Empire.

This created an insurmountable problem for the burgeoning conservative mind. Burke’s moral imagination had become untethered since, for whatever reason, he lacked Paine’s urgent sense of the living memory of the disappearing past. Maybe that is because Paine, in having come to the colonies as Burke never did, saw with his own eyes the Indian tribes living within their “little platoons” and so this concrete experience that no longer could be found in England ensured that Paine didn’t get mired in idealistic fantasies and ideological abstractions. In speaking of common sense, Paine was turning to the common past and gave voice to the most powerful vision of moral imagination of his generation.

Kirk’s moral imagination is the perception of others as moral beings as part of a moral community. That much I agree with and so would the likes of Thomas Paine. It is reminiscent of a distinction I often point to. Germanic freedom embraces this kind of moral imagination whereas Latin liberty does not, as freedom is etymologically related to friend and means being a free member of a free people whereas liberty originally meant just not being a slave in a slave-based society. This concern over a moral community is where Burke’s moral imagination met Paine’s common sense, not that either of them saw the connection.

Kirk’s ultimate failure as with Burke’s was a too limited imagining of moral imagination in that over time conservatism despite all its protestations to the contrary had shackled itself to ideological dogmatism and so denied the radical challenge (radical, etymologically-speaking, as going to the ‘root’) of moral imagination as it operates in the human mind and human society, an unwillingness to follow negative capability into the dark unseen realms of the collective psyche. In relation to the likes of Julian Jaynes and Lewis Hyde, I might argue that Burke and Kirk were comparably superficial thinkers which is not entirely their fault since, in being products of a specific place and time, they both lacked education in such fields as linguistic relativism, anthropology, social constructivism, consciousness studies, etc; although Kirk seems to have had a broader a liberal education.

These two had an intuitively astute sense of the moral imagination while lacking the cognitive frame to fully and consciously articulate it, such is the sense I get from reading their writings and reading about their lives. In the end, there is something lacking and dissatisfying about the conservative constraints placed not just on the enactment of moral imagination but on its very definition and explication. Before beginning to explore it, moral imagination in these earlier texts had already been made into something small and manageable. In constructing a moral imagination into something usable for the modern conservative mind, maybe a few important parts get left and forgotten on the shop floor.

In looking for what has been lost, let’s return to the issue of modernity. For all that post-Enlightenment modernity gets blamed, the seeds of modernity including autonomous individuality and vast meta-narratives were planted during the Axial Age. The entire civilizational project following the Bronze Age has been a suppression and retooling of the moral imagination. According to Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind, earlier humanity was fully immersed in the moral imagination such that it was their entire lived reality, even to the point that the imagination was taken for (superimposed upon) reality and this imagination spoke to them in clear voices. The archaic moral imagination is no longer part of our paltry consciousness with ego boundary-walls that keep it all safely contained and controlled, such that the gods no longer are even a small inner voice to be heard at all.

For all its florid and flaunted fantasizing, Burke’s moral imagination is a pathetic, weak creature that is chained, beaten and starved if not yet fully subdued and domesticated. Burke wonders how moral imagination might serve us, but for archaic humanity they served at the behest of moral imagination. Burke’s censures of radicals was the replaying of Plato’s banishment of the ancient poets whose wild and unruly more-than-human imaginings threatened that aspiring civilizational order. Revolution wasn’t caused by a lack but by an excess of moral imagination, as it had become unleashed from millennia of oppression. Burke felt the necessity to philosophize about this fearsome moral imagination in order to safely put it back in its cage and then to lock the door to that Burkean wardrobe.

What Burke’s moral imagination and Kirk’s conservatism touched upon but never quite grasped is that Eric Hobsbawm’s invented traditions didn’t merely replace but were used as weapons to destroy and dismantle the traditions that came before, erasing the living memory of them from the the public mind. Conservatism, as a modern phenomenon, is a non-traditional tradition (within the liberal tradition itself that is the paradigmatic framework dominating and defining all of modernity). As such, conservatism inherently is a reactionary persuasion and there is no way to escape this for all the attempts at philosophical diversion and special pleading. There is no going back for the revolution, once begun, can’t be stopped. Moral imagination is a living fire that consumes the world and remakes it. And conservatives have played a key role in radically creating something entirely new.

Paine’s radical liberalism acknowledges the dire situation of tragic loss, not getting deluded in the process by nostalgic fantasies. And so Paine’s moral imagination seeks to engage the world rather than evade the situation. Kirk, in his friendship with the sociologist Richard Nisbett, maybe comes closer to seeing what Paine was pointing toward, the loss of community. But what Kirk didn’t understand is what community once meant, not just in the near past but centuries earlier. Consider the Jeffersonian freedom proclaiming each generation’s right to self-governance which seems like a radical and revolutionary ideal of the Enlightenment but in actuality was built on the Anglo-Saxon (and Scandinavian) tribal tradition in Britain, as written laws and constitutions were as abstractly modern as was ethno-nationalism and colonial imperialism. Jefferson was invoking the traditional moral imagination of a once free people and, such as his referencing the fight against Norman invasion, was quite explicit about it.

Burke ran up against this issue. He struggled to admit the problems of colonial and corporatist imperialism and to admit the impotence of his moral imagination in dealing with those problems, stating in a 1783 speech about the British East India Company that, “it is an arduous thing to plead against abuses of a power which originates from your own country, and affects those whom we are used to consider as strangers.” This caused Burke to switch back and forth between progressive reformer and reactionary counterrevolutionary, at one moment criticizing empire and at the next reverencing its authority, at one moment defending the rights of corporations and next demanding a corporation be put under government control. Moral imagination, however it was dressed up, offered little guidance for making sense of the radical character of imperialism that was forcefully remaking the world. Rather than inducing moral clarity in Burke’s mind, the only thing moral imagination made easy was moral rationalization.

Kirk had an idiosyncratic take on conservatism, and such idiosyncrasy is common among conservatives because of the underlying reactionary impulse. Kirk’s conservatism wasn’t easily defined. It was a mindset, temperament, attitude, tendency, or even just a mood. He sometimes spoke in Catholic terms of a canon which simply means an argument made, one argument among many and so not conclusive. This conservatism was a supposed “negation of ideology,” a claim that is never convincing for anyone who has given much thought to the topic. The real issue, as I describe with symbolic conflation, is that the power of conservative ideology is precisely dependent on it being hidden. This is the purpose of obfuscation to which Burke applied moral imagination and Kirk found it likewise useful. Burkean moral imagination uses the mental wardrobe to veil the tender naked skin of truth, to keep it from the prurient eyes of the conscious mind and the harsh glare of Enlightenment thought. This is political ideology transformed into a vague and shifting theology of mysticification.

Right-wing ideologues, interestingly, are always attacking ideology because only other people’s beliefs and values (and not their own) are ideological — this kind of anti-ideological ideology goes at least back to the 1800s, such as the defense slaveholders used against the -isms of the North: abolitionism, feminism, Marxism, etc (and yes Lincoln was friends with all kinds of radicals such as free labor advocates and there was a Marxist in Lincoln’s administration). Moral imagination when cut off from ideological worldview (in Louis Althusser’s sense) becomes an ideological realism that closes down the mind, as the eyes are drawn to the shadows cast on the cave wall.

Related to this, Kirk wrote that “a conservative impulse, if denied intelligent leadership and moral imagination, may be diverted banefully into ideological fanaticism.” Not quite right. Moral imagination is never denied for it is always present, if typically below the threshold of consciousness. Between Burke and Paine, the disagreement wasn’t over being for or against moral imagination but about what kind of moral imagination and to what end. Paine’s complaint was that Burke’s horror fantasies were abstractions of suffering disconnected from the real world experience of living humans. Kirk was less guilty of this, so it seems to me. Being a professional politician muddied Burke’s thinking, a problem Kirk tried to avoid in maintaining a more philosophical position.

Some have talked about moral imagination and more generally about the mind in terms of closed vs open, constrained vs unconstrained, thick boundary vs thin boundary, and similar categorizations that loosely correlate to conservative-mindedness and liberal-mindedness. Both serve purposes for the survival of the species and the functioning of society, but to be trapped in either one is problematic. Flexibility is the key, although this is a biased position for flexibility is a trait of the latter and not the former.

I’ve made the argument that the liberal mind can only operate during times of peace and tolerance. And this relates to how the liberal mind can allow space for the conservative mind in a way that is not possible the other way around, which is why liberalism can only operate under optimal conditions. And maybe liberal-mindedness is more common among tribal people with their low stress lifestyles, indicated by relaxed attitudes about sexuality among most hunter-gatherers. Consider my favorite example the Piraha who are extremely laid back and anti-authoritarian, disregarding hierarchical authority altogether.

This has to do with the circle of concern and the capacity to empathize. We can only empathize with those we perceive as moral beings, as humans like us. This is determined by our moral imagination. It is unsurprising that Edmund Burke, a professional politician operating in fear during a revolutionary era when his beloved British Empire was under threat, had a severely constrained attitude that did not only disallowed him to experience more openness toward others but made it hard for him to even imagine that such openness could be a part of human nature. His conservative-minded imagination excluded liberal-mindedness from his conception of moral imagination. We never know moral imagination in general for we can never step outside of our own moral imagination which typically is shared by those immediately around us.

What has changed over time is the expansion of moral imagination. Even those who identify as conservatives today are more liberal-minded than those who identified as liberals in the early 1800s, a time when liberals were divided over issues such as slavery. Much of what Burke complained about as dangerously radical has since become mainstream thought, even among conservatives today. Thomas Paine’s moral imagination won the struggle over hearts and minds, even as the struggle over Paine’s politics lags behind.

That is how it always happens, the revolution of mind preceding the revolution of society and politics, sometimes the one preceding the other by centuries. Heck, it took the Axial Age revolution of mind a couple of millennia to more fully take hold. And I might add that moral imagination in how we understand it as part of an intentional civilizational project (as opposed to an implicit experience of social reality) began with the Axial Age, as it was in the late Axial Age that religion and politics began to be thought about in explicit terms and as distinct categories, coinciding with the invention of rhetoric proper. Burke’s openly philosophizing about  and questioning the modern moral imagination demonstrated how far that millennia old revolution of mind had gone.

In explaining this phenomenon, Kwame Anthony Appiah notes that the arguments for something being right, true, or necessary become common knowledge long before public opinion and political will emerges to cause change to happen (such that most of the arguments against slavery used during the Civil War were widespread and well known prior to the American Revolution). It can take a long time for a society to assimilate new ideas and implement new ways of thinking, but eventually a change is triggered and the once unimaginable quickly becomes the new reality. Then as memory fades, the altered status quo dominates the collective moral imagination, as if it had always been that way.

We project our moral imagination onto reality without giving it much if any thought. No matter how philosophical we get about it, moral imagination can’t be disentangled from our experience of being in the world and being in relation with others. It is the substructure of our entire sense of reality. Our ideas about moral imagination are as likely to delude us as to enlighten us about how our moral imagination actually operates. That is because moral imagination is the territory of rhetoric and rationalization. It’s the stories we tell so often that we no longer realize they are stories, making us ripe for indoctrination and propaganda. But there is nothing inherently sinister about it, as this is simply the process of enculturation that is the basis of every society that has ever existed.

An early philosopher on moral imagination was Blaise Pascal. I don’t know that he ever specifically spoke of ‘moral imagination’, but he wrote extensively about morality and imagination. He appears to have been ahead of his time in many ways, having been born more than a century before Burke (some conservatives claim the both of them as ideological ancestors). Maybe his writings influenced Burke for it is highly probable that Pascal’s writings would have been familiar to many well educated English-speaking individuals in the 18th century. Pascal was one of the earliest thinkers to take seriously the impact of modernity, Jack Sherefkin claiming that he was “the first to face and express the experience of living in this new universe without center or limits.”

Sherefkin goes on to say that, “Most pre-modern societies identified with and felt a part of an orderly, purposeful universe. That is no longer believable. We now find ourselves lost in an infinite universe.” The ancient experience of reality was unraveling and so moral imagination was let loose. Pascal lived during the English Civil War, what some consider the first modern revolution because of the radical ideas (e.g., socialism) that emerged at the time. I’ve often thought that what Burke most feared wasn’t the foreign threat of the French Revolution but the homegrown tradition of British radicalism. It was the English, not the French, who first had the idea of beheading a king in order to establish a revolutionary ideal of social and political order. What Burke couldn’t admit was that, long before his birth, revolution and regicide had become established as part of the British moral imagination.

There is an interesting anecdote about the power of moral imagination. “During his final illness,” Mark Malvasi writes, “Pascal often refused the care of his physician, saying: “Sickness is the natural state of Christians.” He believed that human beings had been created to suffer. Misery was the condition of life in this world. His was a hard doctrine.” It’s similar to Burke’s view of the British Empire and monarchy for, though he could imagine reforming it, he couldn’t imagine a world without it. To Burke, imperialism and monarchism was the natural state of the British; despite the fact that both were foreign systems imported by the French Normans.

There is what has been called the banality of evil. It’s what blinds us to evil in normalizing it, often by way of the slow boiling frog effect. Describing his own experience and observations as a German during the Nazi rise to power, Milton Mayer shows how moral imagination operates:

“But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33. But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next.”

What is so shocking about the Nazi regime is how normal life continued to be for the average German, right up to the point when war began. Nazism slowly became apart of the German moral imagination. This was only possible because there had been a long history that had already embedded authoritarian tendencies, anti-semitism, and such within the German psyche. The veneer of a free, democratic society kept obscure this dark underbelly. There was never a right moment for a German like Milton Mayer to revolt against German Nazism, as there never was a right moment for a British subject like Edmund Burke to revolt against the British Empire.

The same goes for Americans today with the American Empire. It has become inseparably a part of American identity, largely because American culture emerged from the British Empire with its moral imagination of White Man’s Burden and Manifest Destiny. It doesn’t matter that most Americans find it impossible to imagine their society as an empire. The relationship between collective imagination and objective reality tends to be tenuous at best, specifically in such a vast society that requires a vast meta-narrative.

Moral imagination is as much or more about what it denies than what it affirms. This includes how the moral imagination denies the claims of any competing moral imagination. As such, American conservatives deny the moral imagination of Native Americans and Hispanics whose traditional relationship to the land is far older than the ideological abstractions drawn and written on paper that American conservatives are mesmerized by. Most Mexicans are a mix of Spanish and Indigenous ancestry. With a long history of traveling ranch workers and migrant farm workers, the moral imagination of Latinos in North America is rooted in a profound living memory that can’t be erased by legal and ideological abstractions. Well into the 20th century, Mexicans continued to freely cross the ‘border’ as their ancestors had been doing for centuries or millennia before there was any border. This demonstrates the absolute polarized conflict and contradiction between conservatism and traditionalism. The conservative mind is enthralled by imagined abstractions such as lines drawn on maps, no matter what is asserted by traditional authority of local organic communities.

Consider an even more contentious issue. Abortion has become a defining feature of modern American conservatism. But abortion wasn’t a central concern, even for Christians, until quite recently. In fact, abortions used to be quite common. Not that long ago, any American woman could find a local doctor who would perform an abortion (my great great grandfather was a rural abortion doctor). Even when there were some laws about abortion, they were rarely enforced and everyone in communities knew doctors performed abortions. Abortion is a practice that has early origins in Anglo-American and English society. One can go back even further in reading about how common was not only abortion but infanticide and exposure in much of the ancient world. Sickly and unwanted babies were a potentially dangerous liability prior to modern medicine and the modern welfare state.

If conservative moral imagination is supposed to be about tradition, there is no ancient established social norm about abortion. So, what is the moral imagination about for an issue like abortion? Conservatives often say it is about the sanctity of life. But that is obviously bullshit. Countries that ban abortions have higher rates of abortions, albeit illegal, than do countries that don’t ban them. This is because liberal policies effectively decrease unwanted pregnancies and so eliminate much of the need for abortions. As often is the case, there is a severe disconnect between moral imagination and moral realities. In the end, moral imagination is about social control in enforcing a particular moral order. It’s not that babies shouldn’t die but that loose women who get pregnant should be punished as sinners for that is the divine decree within the moral imagination of contemporary conservatives — such a god-tyrant still haunting the imaginations for many on the political right even after their formal religious faith is lost or weakened.

This fundamentalist deity, as with all of fundamentalism, is a modern invention. As with conservatism in general, fundamentalism didn’t exist prior to modernity. The reactionary mind that provokes this re-imagining only comes into being once the traditional power and authority of the ancien regime was in decline, and that ancien regime experienced its fatal blow centuries before the modern American culture warriors decided to obsess over sexuality. Burke had more of an insight into this. He clearly demarcated moral imagination and natural law, not mistaking the one for the other, as he didn’t believe in natural law. What Burke admitted that many modern conservatives won’t is that moral imagination is built on human customs accruing over time, not on divine commandment decreed at the beginning of time. Burke was a devout Christian but at a time when fundamentalism hadn’t yet fully formed.

Moral imagination isn’t about the world itself, rather about our place in the world. As the world shifts, so does our moral imagination and the entire context for what we are able to imagine. It is a constant process of forgetting about what came before. Living memory is a flame in the darkness and imagination is the shadows on the cave wall. The most radical act of imagination may not be in imagining something entirely new but remembering something forgotten in order to see what was unseen, which happens when moral imagination turns back toward the source of light. It is only in emerging awareness that we can challenge the stories that possess our minds and then tell a different story that speaks more honestly about our shared origins. How we imagine the past determines how we imagine all else.

* * *

Hume’s Theory of Moral Imagination
by Mark Collier

David Hume endorses three statements that are difficult to reconcile: (1) sympathy with those in distress is sufficient to produce compassion toward their plight, (2) adopting the moral point of view often requires us to sympathize with the pain and suffering of distant strangers, but (3) our care and concern is limited to those in our close circle. Hume manages to resolve this tension, however, by distinguishing two types of sympathy. We feel compassion toward those we perceive to be in distress because associative sympathy leads us to mirror their emotions, but our ability to enter into the afflictions of distant strangers involves cognitive sympathy and merely requires us to reflect on how we would feel in their shoes. This hybrid theory of sympathy receives a good deal of support from recent work on affective mirroring and cognitive pretense. Hume’s account should appeal to contemporary researchers, therefore, who are interested in the nature of moral imagination

Why We Think They Hate Us: Moral Imagination and the Possibility of Peace
by Robert Wright

It’s about “the moral imagination”—a term that has been used in various ways but, in my usage, refers to the ability to put ourselves in the shoes of other people, especially people in circumstances very different from our own. I argue that the moral imagination naturally tends to expand when we perceive our relations with other people as non-zero-sum and to contract when we perceive those relations as zero-sum. […]

In general, when a religious groups sees its relations with another religious group as non-zero-sum, it is more likely to evince tolerance of that group’s religion. When the perception is instead of a zero-sum dynamic, tolerance is less likely to ensue. (For an essay-length version of the argument, see this article, based on the book, that I wrote for Time magazine.) The moral imagination, I contend, is involved in this adaptive process. […]

Moral Imagination

The way hatred blocks comprehension is by cramping our “moral imagination,” our capacity to put ourselves in the shoes of another person. This cramping isn’t unnatural. Indeed, the tendency of the moral imagination to shrink in the presence of enemies is built into our brains by natural selection. It’s part of the machinery that leads us to grant tolerance and understanding to people we see in non-zero-sum terms and deny it to those we consign to the zero-sum category. We’re naturally pretty good at putting ourselves in the shoes of close relatives and good friends (people who tend to have non-zero-sum links with us), and naturally bad at putting ourselves in the shoes of rivals and enemies (where zero-sumness is more common). We can’t understand these people from the inside. […]

[T]he point is just that the ability to intimately comprehend someone’s motivation—to share their experience virtually, and know it from the inside—depends on a moral imagination that naturally contracts in the case of people we consider rivals or enemies.

In other words, we have trouble achieving comprehension without achieving sympathy. And this puts us in a fix because, as we’ve seen, some people it is in our profound interest to comprehend—terrorists, for example—are people we’re understandably reluctant to sympathize with. Enmity’s natural impediment to understanding is, in a way, public enemy number one.

It’s easy to explain the origins of this impediment in a conjectural way. Our brains evolved in a world of hunter-gatherer societies. In that world, morally charged disputes had Darwinian consequence. If you were in a bitter and public argument with a rival over who had wronged whom, the audience’s verdict could affect your social status and your access to resources, both of which could affect your chances of getting genes into the next generation. So the ability to argue persuasively that your rival had no valid grounds for grievance would have been favored by natural selection, as would tendencies abetting this ability—such as a tendency to believe that your rival had no valid grounds for grievance, a belief that could infuse your argument with conviction. And nothing would so threaten this belief as the ability to look at things from a rival’s point of view.

In dealing with allies, on the other hand, a more expansive moral imagination makes sense. Since their fortunes are tied to yours—since you’re in a non-zero-sum relationship—lending your support to their cause can be self-serving (and besides, it’s part of the implicit deal through which they support your cause). So on some occasions, at least, we’re pretty good at seeing the perspective of friends or relatives. It helps us argue for their interests—which, after all, overlap with our interests—and helps us bond with them by voicing sympathy for their plight.

In short, the moral imagination, like other parts of the human mind, is designed to steer us through the successful playing of games—to realize the gains of non-zero-sum games when those gains are to be had, and to get the better of the other party in zero-sum games. Indeed, the moral imagination is one of the main drivers of the pattern we’ve seen throughout the book: the tendency to find tolerance in one’s religion when the people in question are people you can do business with and to find intolerance or even belligerence when you perceive the relationship to be instead zero-sum.

And now we see one curious residue of this machinery: our “understanding” of the motivations of others tends to come with a prepackaged moral judgment. Either we understand their motivation internally, even intimately—relate to them, extend moral imagination to them, and judge their grievances leniently—or we understand their motivation externally and in terms that imply the illegitimacy of their grievances. Pure understanding, uncolored by judgment, is hard to come by.

It might be nice if we could sever this link between comprehension and judgment, if we could understand people’s behavior in more clinical terms—just see things from their point of view without attaching a verdict to their grievances. That might more closely approach the perspective of God and might also, to boot, allow us to better pursue our interests. We could coolly see when we’re in a non-zero-sum relationship with someone, coolly appraise their perspective, and coolly decide to make those changes in our own behavior that could realize non-zero-sumness. But those of us who fail to attain Buddhahood will spend much of our lives locked into a more human perspective: we extend moral imagination to people to the extent that we see win-win possibilities with them.

Given this fact, the least we can do is ask that the machinery work as designed: that when we are in a non-zero-sum relationship with someone we do extend moral imagination to them. That would better serve the interests of both parties and would steer us toward a truer understanding of the other—toward an understanding of what their world looks like from the inside.

Nietzsche on Truth, Lies, the Power and Peril of Metaphor, and How We Use Language to Reveal and Conceal Reality
Brain Pickings

Two centuries after Pascal, whom Nietzsche greatly admired, examined the difference between the intuitive and the logical mind, he ends by considering the tradeoffs between these two orientations of being — the rational and the intuitive — as mechanisms for inhabiting reality with minimal dissimilation and maximal truthfulness:

There are ages in which the rational man and the intuitive man stand side by side, the one in fear of intuition, the other with scorn for abstraction. The latter is just as irrational as the former is inartistic. They both desire to rule over life: the former, by knowing how to meet his principle needs by means of foresight, prudence, and regularity; the latter, by disregarding these needs and, as an “overjoyed hero,” counting as real only that life which has been disguised as illusion and beauty… The man who is guided by concepts and abstractions only succeeds by such means in warding off misfortune, without ever gaining any happiness for himself from these abstractions. And while he aims for the greatest possible freedom from pain, the intuitive man, standing in the midst of a culture, already reaps from his intuition a harvest of continually inflowing illumination, cheer, and redemption — in addition to obtaining a defense against misfortune. To be sure, he suffers more intensely, when he suffers; he even suffers more frequently, since he does not understand how to learn from experience and keeps falling over and over again into the same ditch. He is then just as irrational in sorrow as he is in happiness: he cries aloud and will not be consoled. How differently the stoical man who learns from experience and governs himself by concepts is affected by the same misfortunes! This man, who at other times seeks nothing but sincerity, truth, freedom from deception, and protection against ensnaring surprise attacks, now executes a masterpiece of deception: he executes his masterpiece of deception in misfortune, as the other type of man executes his in times of happiness. He wears no quivering and changeable human face, but, as it were, a mask with dignified, symmetrical features. He does not cry; he does not even alter his voice. When a real storm cloud thunders above him, he wraps himself in his cloak, and with slow steps he walks from beneath it.

Blaise Pascal on the Intuitive vs. the Logical Mind and How We Come to Know Truth
Brain Pickings

Pascal argues that our failure to understand the principles of reality is due to both our impatience and a certain lack of moral imagination:

Those who are accustomed to judge by feeling do not understand the process of reasoning, for they would understand at first sight, and are not used to seek for principles. And others, on the contrary, who are accustomed to reason from principles, do not at all understand matters of feeling, seeking principles, and being unable to see at a glance.

He considers what mediates the relationship between our intellect and our intuition:

The understanding and the feelings are moulded by intercourse; the understanding and feelings are corrupted by intercourse. Thus good or bad society improves or corrupts them. It is, then, all-important to know how to choose in order to improve and not to corrupt them; and we cannot make this choice, if they be not already improved and not corrupted. Thus a circle is formed, and those are fortunate who escape it.

Blaise Pascal on Duplicity, Sin, and the Fall
by William Wood
pp. 137-139

The Imagination Bestows Value

The preceding analysis raises an important question. If the heart produces immediate moral sentiments, and if those sentiments are both true and compelling, then why does anyone ever act immorally? Why do we not always act in accordance with our sentiments? Pascal’s response to this question leads back to his famous critique of the imagination. Even though our moral sentiments have the felt sense of truth, according to Pascal, we are also strongly motivated to believe that our imaginative fantasies are true. If it is the heart that responds to the perceived value of moral goods, it is the imagination that bestows value on them in the first place. As a result, even though we do respond immediately to moral goods, we typically perceive those goods only after they have already been filtered through a haze of imaginative fantasy. Without repeating the discussion of the imagination in Chapter 2, recall that, according to Pascal, the imagination can “fix the price of things” and so invest moral goods with value. Moreover, “Imagination decides everything: it creates beauty, justice and happiness which is the world’s supreme good” (L44/S78).

Pascal’s account of the socially constructed imagination reveals that he is not just an ethical intuitionist but a social intuitionist. A social intuitionist recognizes that people are “intensely social creatures whose moral judgments are strongly shaped by the judgments of those around them.” While moral intuitions may be innate to everyone, social intuitionists claim that people acquire most of their particular moral intuitions through custom and habituation — that is, through their participation in thick cultural webs of moral practice. Once again, although social intuitionism currently enjoys pride of place among empirically oriented moral psychologists, there has been no recognition that Pascal is an early advocate of its key claims. Social intuitionists often look for inspiration from David Hume, or even Aristotle, without ever recognizing that Pascal is an even closer cousin to their own work. Moreover, Pascal is able to wed a social-intuitionist ethics to a full-blooded account of moral and axiological realism, something that contemporary social intuitionists often find themselves unwilling or unable to do.

Both the imagination and the heart are cognitive and affective faculties. The heart intuitively grasps moral and spiritual goods, and perceives moral beauty (L308/S339). Yet it is also an affective faculty associated with loving and desiring. Like the heart, the imagination also unites various cognitive and affective functions into a single faculty. In its cognitive aspect, the imagination allows us to form mental representations. These representations include theeveryday images by which we inwardly grasp the things that we perceive with our external senses. In its affective dimension, the imagination bestows value on goods. Although Pascal does not directly speculate about how the heart and the imagination would work if human beings had not fallen, it seems clear that the heart should perceive moral goods accurately, leading us to love and desire them according to their true value. Similarly, the imagination should also correspond to the world as it is, and supply us with accurate mental representations. In both cases, there should be no conflict between what is true and what we find beautiful. A moral agent that is not fallen would accurately perceive the beauty of spiritual goods and would love them as a result.

Instead, after the Fall, the imagination has become a “proud power” that oversteps its bounds and creates moral value independently, setting “the same mark on true and false alike” (L44/S78), and the heart has become “hollow and foul” (L139/S171). The sinner rejects the sentiments of the heart — the seat of conscience — and instead acts on the basis of the false, self-serving fantasies of the imagination.

Although Pascal usually focuses on the way we excessively magnify the value of our own selves, any object may be imaginatively invested with more value than it can bear: one may build up a fantasy about a commodity (a new car, for example), a specific self-understanding (of oneself as being just the kind of dashing person who would drive such a car), or some other pursued goal (making enough money to buy the car). The possibilities are endless. In each case, however, the perceived value of the object sought is a function of how it is imaginatively construed.

Although Pascal recognizes that the imagination is central to the moral life, his thought challenges the sometimes facile claims of contemporary narrative ethicists and those who would look to the “narrative imagination” for moral renewal. Pascal reminds us that the imagination is not just the locus of individual creative genius and speculative possibility. It is also a socially constructed repository for the (often immoral) dispositions and values of the wider world. Far from being the initial launching pad for moral critique, the imagination is often itself the faculty most in need of such critique. Furthermore, Pascal would remind us that reorienting the moral imagination is no simple matter. Certainly it is not just a matter of reading the right novels or passages from scripture, imaginatively identifying with the right moral exemplars, or trying to dream up new possibilities for moral community. Because the imagination is socially constructed, reorienting the imagination requires something like a massive program of counter-habituation, comparable to becoming a native member of a wholly new society. In short, reorienting the imagination would require something that looks quite a lot like an ongoing program of religious conversion. Pascal therefore sounds an important note of caution about the moral possibilities of imagination.

* * *

Inconsistency of Burkean Conservatism
Poised on a Knife Edge
The Haunted Moral Imagination
A Phantom of the Mind
The Fantasy of Creative Destruction
Violent Fantasy of Reactionary Intellectuals
Freedom From Want, Freedom to Imagine
Orderliness and Animals
On Rodents and Conservatives
Imagination: Moral, Dark, and Radical
The Monstrous, the Impure, & the Imaginal
Lock Without a Key
On Truth and Bullshit
Sincere Bullshit
Racism, Proto-Racism, and Social Constructs
Race & Racism: Reality & Imagination, Fear & Hope
Racial Reality Tunnel
Race Is Not Real, Except In Our Minds
Race Realism and Symbolic Conflation
Symbolic Conflation & Empathic Imagination
Liberal-mindedness, Empathetic Imagination, and Capitalist Realism
Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park
Delirium of Hyper-Individualism
The Group Conformity of Hyper-Individualism
Ideological Realism & Scarcity of Imagination
Foundations and Frameworks
The Iron Lady: The View of a Bleeding Heart
A Conflict of the Conservative Vision
Avatar: Imagination & Culture
Our Shared Imagination
The Way of Radical Imagination
Imagination, a Force to Be Reckoned With
Vision and Transformation
The Master’s Tools Are Those Closest At Hand
Imagined Worlds, Radical Visions
A Neverending Revolution of the Mind
The World that Inhabits Our Mind
Beyond Our Present Knowledge
Revolution and Apocalypse
To Imagine and Understand
Fantasyland, An American Tradition
Memetic Narratives of War and Paranoia
Cold War Ideology and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
Of Dreamers and Sleepwalkers
The Living Apocalypse, A Lived Reality Tunnel
The Elephant That Wasn’t There
Stories: Personal & Collective
The Stories We Tell
The Stories We Know
A Compelling Story
A Storyteller’s Experienced Meaning
A Story of Walking Away
Conscious Dreaming, Conscious Self
Dark Matter of the Mind

Progress and Reaction in a Liberal Age

I have some thoughts rumbling around in my head. Let me try to lay them out and put order to them. What I’m pondering is liberalism and conservatism, progressive reform and the reactionary mind, oppression and backlash.

One conclusion I’ve come to is that, ever since the Enlightenment, we live in a liberal age dominated by a liberal paradigm. So, in a sense, we are all liberals. Even reactionaries are defined by the liberalism they are reacting to. This relates to Corey Robin’s observation of how reactionaries are constantly co-opting ideas, rhetoric, and tactics from the political left. Reaction, in and of itself, has no substance other than what it takes from elsewhere. This is why conservatives, the main variety of reactionaries, often get called classical liberals. A conservative is simply what a liberal used to be and conservatism as such merely rides along on the coattails of liberalism.

This isn’t necessarily a compliment to liberalism. The liberal paradigm ultimately gets not just all the credit but also all the blame. What we call liberals and conservatives are simply the progressive and regressive manifestations of this paradigm. The progressive-oriented have tended to be called ‘liberals’ for the very reason these are the people identified with the social order, the post-Enlightenment progress that has built the entire world we know. But this easily turns those on the political left toward another variety of reaction. Liberals, as they age, find themselves relatively further and further to the right as the population over the generations keeps moving left. This is how liberals, as they age, can sometimes start thinking of themselves as conservatives. It’s not that the liberal changed but the world around them.

As reactionaries have no ideological loyalty, liberals can lack a certain kind of discernment. Liberals have a tendency toward psychological openness and curiosity along with a tolerance for cognitive dissonance (simultaneously holding two different thoughts or seeing two different perspectives). This can lead liberals to be accepting of or even sympathetic toward reactionaries, even when it is contradictory and harmful to liberalism. Furthermore, when experiencing cognitive overload, liberals easily take on reactionary traits and, if stress and anxiety continue long enough, the liberal can be permanently transformed into a reactionary (as a beautiful elf is tortured until becoming an orc).

We are living under conditions that are the opposite of being optimal for and conducive toward healthy liberal-mindedness. That isn’t to say the liberal paradigm is going to disappear any time soon. What it does mean is that the political left will get wonky for quite a while. American society, in particular, has become so oppressive and dysfunctional that there is no hope for a genuinely progressive liberalism. Right now, the progressive worldview is on the defense and that causes liberals to attack the political left as or more harshly than they do the political right. As they increasingly take on reactionary traits, mainstream liberals trying to hold onto power will defend what is left of the status quo by any means necessary.

Yet there is still that urge for progress, even as it gets demented through frustration and outrage. It was inevitable that the #MeToo movement would go too far. The same pattern is always seen following a period of oppression that leads to a populist lashing out or at least that is how some will perceive it. It is what is seen in any revolutionary era, such as how many at the time saw the American and French revolutions going too far, and indeed both led to large numbers of deaths and refugees, but that is what happens under oppressive regimes when the struggle and suffering of the masses becomes intolerable. The judgment of going too far was also made against the labor movement and the civil rights movement. Those stuck in the reactionary mind will see any challenge to their agenda of rigid hierarchy as being too much and so deserving of being crushed. And as reactionary worldview takes hold of society, almost everyone starts taking on the traits of the reactionary mind, hence reaction leading to ever more reaction until hopefully a new stability is achieved.

All of this has more to do with psychological tendencies than political ideologies. We all carry the potential for reaction as we carry the potential for progressivism. That struggle within human nature is what it means to live in a liberal age.

Who is Jordan Peterson?

Jordan Peterson has attracted a lot of media attention. I have no interest in discussing his views on gender pronouns. And I’m not going to write a hit piece on him. But I was curious to understand where he is coming from. I looked at a bunch of articles and videos about him along with some of his talks and interviews. A few things stood out to me. Here is how he identifies himself:

“Politically, I am a classic British liberal. Temperamentally, I am high in openness, which tilts me to the left, although I am also conscientious, which tilts me to the right. Philosophically I am an individualist, not a collectivist, of the right or the left. Metaphisically, I am an American pragmatist, who has been strongly influenced by the psychoanalytic and clinical thinking of Freud, Jung and the psychotherapists who have followed in their wake.”

This makes me think of a classical liberal like Edmund Burke but not classical liberal like Thomas Paine. In the American tradition, Peterson might be more in line with Russel Kirk, what some would now call paleoconservative, expressing a dislike of libertarians (“chirping sectaries“) and mistrust of laissez faire capitalism — having written the most famous book on American conservatism, Kirk once voted for a socialist candidate for president rather than voting for the imperialists in either of the two main parties (this relates to Kirk’s ‘conservativsm’ having prioritized moral character over political ideology). Burke has been claimed by both the right and the left for he offers much to choose from: politician of the liberal party, anti-corporatist, progressive reformer, willing to challenge established authority,  and critic of imperialism; yet also traditionalist of sorts by way of moral imagination, British nationalist, anti-radical, reactionary tendencies, fear of revolution (although initially supported American Revolution), and suspicion toward abstract ideology.

Peterson likewise has much that appeals to people across the political spectrum. But maybe like Burke, he dislikes what he perceives as the extremists at both ends of the spectrum. At the moment, it’s his more conservative-sounding positions that are getting all the media attention. Here is an example from his popular book, 12 Rules for Life (p. 156):

“Don’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your enemies. Don’t reorganize the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your household, how dare you try to rule a city?”

This is the whole focus on individualism and meritocracy, a major strain within classical liberalism that is presently advocated most loudly by conservatives and right-wingers, although much of it still fits within the contemporary liberal worldview (this post began as a comment responding to a Canadian friend who, as a progressive liberal, recommended Peterson to me). He seems to be of the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps school of thought, which is a mainstay of American ideology — and even though a Canadian, Peterson admits to being influenced by American thought. Those on the political right eat up that rhetoric of hyper-individualism, as it fits into the ideological worldview of social Darwinism and capitalist realism.

Having recently watched an interview with Johann Hari about his new book on depression, I would note that what Peterson says is the complete opposite message. Hari’s view is based on the idea that there is no way for us to reorder our experience without also reordering our lives, our relationships, our communities, and our society, not to mention maybe also our economy and government. And this might be where Peterson diverges from paleoconservatism which heavily emphasizes the social aspect of social conservatism. Russell Kirk, in this area of thought, would more likely agree with Hari than Peterson. When Peterson calls himself a classical liberal or British liberal, this expresses a turning away from the traditional aspects of social conservatism that put the social before the individual.

I would argue that, as individuals in this society, the worst problems and greatest challenges we are facing are systemic and not individual. There has been worsening inequality, decreasing mobility, and and increasing mental illness (at least in the US) for generations (e.g., higher rates of urbanization has been strongly correlated to higher rates of schizophrenia). I could go on and on about all of that, as I’ve done many times before. The younger generation are experiencing pressure like no generation ever has before and so Peterson’s traditional(-sounding) advice designed from a simpler era is probably not all that helpful in these complex times — for, even if we were to agree that he points to enduring truths, the context of changing conditions would change the significance and applicability of those truths.

Many have noted that Peterson isn’t saying anything new, the comforting familiarity of his message being part of the attraction, but many of the struggles right now are new or else are taking different form and greater severity. Yet if Peterson offers nothing original, then how is he genuinely challenging anyone, either in how we act as individuals or in how we relate as a society. Harkening back to supposed traditional wisdom maybe misses the point, especially when it ends up offering further support for the anti-traditional social order defended by the modern reactionary mind. All that this does is feed into pseudo-nostalgic fantasies, as preached by a professor playing the role of a stern father figure. That is assuming my assessment of his message is correct.

Ignoring that, Peterson is quite liberal in other ways. He supposedly is fine with abortion, supports public healthcare, etc (then again, even American right-libertarians like Charles Murray, infamous for the racist book he co-authored, will support some liberal positions such as basic income). And it seems many on the political left have been drawn to his more academic views on psychology, religion, and such. I kept coming across people, often students and colleagues, who said they agreed with and appreciated much that he has taught and so respected and supported him but thought he went off the rails on issues of gender realism, racialism, genetic determinism, and evolutionary psychology — topics outside of his main area of expertise, clinical psychology.

Those latter issues are why he has gained support from the reactionary alt-right that also supports Steve Bannon and Donald Trump. Peterson distances himself from his alt-right supporters and yet he has done multiple video talks with Stefan Molyneux, an alt-right cult figure (anarcho-capitalist turned white nationalist and well known Trump supporter). Out of curiosity some years back, I spent months watching Molyneux’s videos and debating his followers and so I know what kind of person he is (see here for my posts about him). James Damore who was interviewed by Peterson also did an interview with Molyneux, the initial two interviews he did after being fired by Google.

Peterson apparently has said he would talk to anyone and this includes the bigoted and wacky right (Sargon, Mark Steyn, Laura Southern, etc). That is fine and even maybe admirable, specifically if, as he claims, his goal is to reach out to different audiences. But he sends mixed messages by associating with such people on a regular basis, even moreso when he doesn’t challenge their reactionary beliefs and so could be interpreted as offering them cover. That is no reason by itself to judge him guilty by association, though. Just something to keep in mind, considering there does appear to be a clear pattern of associations, potentially implying an intention or sympathy. It makes my Spidey sense tingle, but others can judge for themselves.

I’ll end with a discussion about this issue:

djakoeba
“[Stefan Molyneux] is a maniac, crazy dude who thinks he has all the answers. Still don’t know why Jordan Peterson engages in long interviews with people like Stefan, Sargon, Mark Steyn, The reality call show (tara or something – a racist 22 year old with 11k subscribers) and even Laura Southern. Each and everyone of them is an absolute low life with “racist tendencies” to put it mildly and they have no problem twisting facts and lying.”
“Why does JP engages with these people?”

knowthyself2000
“Let me answer this JBP question with a JBP reference: The hero returns to resurrect his dead culture.
“It’s not in the Doc’s nature to withhold himself from anyone, particularly these kids who need rescuing from Neverland so badly.
“He’s doing them a service, and you can be sure he’s softened them up and they’ll all mature because of him.
“Would you rather these people go without a compassionate sensible voice to interrupt their radicalization?”

djakoeba
“I was thinking along the same lines but it seems nonsense if you look at how it plays out. JP defended Laura Southern when she was banned by patreon for giving out instructions which endangered refugees. That is absolutely horrible and despicable but JP never said anything about that. JP tweets about patreon and how they are “censoring” her. What??
“He is only empowering these people. I never heard him directly challenging the idea’s of them in their interviews. He is definitely doing them a service. A legit professor is talking to them? One of the most popular guys on the biggest podcast in the world is obviously doing a service to them by coming on their show and talking about “western civilization”. JP isn’t interrupting them, he is empowering them. They will use what they need from him and move on.”

knowthyself2000
“They never dare bring up that shit around him. Talking to them is not a service. He’ll talk to anyone and that’s part of his reputation.”

Is there a balance point in a society of extremes?

“That decadence is a cumulative thing. Certainly, it is nurtured both by dogma and nihilism. Only a sceptical meaningfulness can push forward in a creative way.”
~ Paul Adkin, Decadence & Stagnation

Many liberals in the United States have become or always were rather conservative in personality and/or ideology. This is an old complaint made by many further to the left, myself included.

Quite a few liberals maybe would have identified as conservatives at a different time or in a different society. The US political spectrum is shifted so far right that moderate conservatives appear as liberals and typically portray themselves as liberals, but even these moderate conservatives long to push society further right into neoliberal corporatism and neocon authoritarianism. That is how so much of the political left gets excluded from mainstream respectability and legitimacy for, in big biz media and plutocratic politics, even a moderate liberal gets portrayed as a radical.

But the other thing about our society is how reactionary it is, not merely right-wing in the way seen a century ago. This forces the entire political left into an oppositional position that gets defined by what it isn’t and so leftists are forced into a narrow corner of the dominant paradigm. This causes many left-wingers to be constantly on the defensive or to be overly preoccupied with the other side.

And it is so easy to become more like what is opposed. There is a surprising number of left-wingers who become right-wingers or otherwise fall into reactionary thinking, who become obsessed with fringe ideologies and movements that feed into authoritarianism or get lost in dark fantasies of dystopia and apocalypse. Many others on the political left simply lose hope, becoming cynical and apathetic.

In a society like this, it’s very difficult to remain solidly on the political left while maintaining balance. One hopes there is a sweet spot between what goes for liberalism and the far left, these two in themselves forming extremes on a spectrum.

The danger on the political right is far different. Conservative, right-wing, and reactionary have all become conflated into an ideological confusion that is held together by an authoritarian streak. This is a vague set of overlapping visons involving dominance and oppression, fear and anxiety, righteousness and resentment, nostalgia and pseudo-realism, theocracy and nationalism, crude libertarianism and fascist-like futurism.

This scattered political left and mixed-up political right is what goes for American politics.

How does an individual as a member of the public gain enough distance from the very social order that dominates the public mind and frames public debate, manages public perception and manipulates public behavior? And where does one find solid ground to make a stand?

* * *

Let me add some thoughts.

We Americans live in an authoritarian society. There is a long history of authoritarianism: genocide, slavery, land theft, population displacement, reservations, internment camps, re-enslavement through chain gangs, Jim Crow, sundown towns, race wars, redlining, eugenics, human medical testing, tough-on-crime laws, war on drugs, war on the poor, racial profiling, mass incarceration, police brutality, military-industrial complex, near continuous war-mongering, anti-democratic covert operations (foreign and domestic), intelligence-security state, plutocratic corporatism, inverted totalitarianism, etc.

In America, there were openly stated racist laws on the books for several centuries. Of course, we inherited this authoritarian tradition from Britain and Europe. They have their own long histories of imperialism, colonialism, genocide, pogroms, Holocaust, eugenics, ghettoization, exploitation, oppression, prejudice, violence, state terrorism, wars of aggression, world war, and on and on. We can’t rationalize this as being just human nature, as not all humans have acted this way. There are societies like the Piraha that wouldn’t even understand authoritarianism, much less be prone to it. But even among modern nation-states, not all of them have an extensive past of conquering and dominating other people.

Anyway, what other societies do is a moot issue, as far as dealing with one’s own society and one’s own culpability and complicity. So you say that you’re an anti-authoritarian. Well, good for you. What does that mean?

Our lives are ruled over by authoritarianism. But it’s not just something that comes from above for it is built into every aspect of our society and economy. On a daily basis, we act out scripts of authoritarianism and play by its rules. Our lives are dependent on the internalized benefits of externalized costs, the latter being mostly paid by the worst victims of authoritarianism, typically poor dark-skinned people in distant countries. The cheap gas and cheap products you consume were paid for by the blood and suffering of untold others who remain unseen and unheard.

Even to embrace anti-authoritarianism is to remain captured within the gravity of authoritarianism’s pull. The challenge is that maybe authoritarianism can’t ever be directly opposed because opposition is part of the language of authoritarianism. Opposition can always be co-opted, subverted, or redirected. There is either authoritarianism or there is not. For it to end, something entirely new would have to take its place.

This is where radical imagination comes in. We need entirely different thinking made possible through a paradigm shift, a revolution of the mind. We aren’t going to debate or analyze, petition or vote our way out of authoritarianism. That puts us in a tricky spot, for those of us dissatisfied with the options being forced upon us.

Bias About Bias

A common and contentious issue is accusations of bias, often in the media but more interestingly in science. But those making perceiving bias can’t agree what they are. Some even see biases in how biases are understood. An example of this is how ideologies are labeled, defined, framed, and measured. I’m specifically thinking in terms of opinion polling and social science research.

A certain kind of liberal oddly agrees with conservatives about many criticisms of liberalism. I can be that kind of odd liberal in some ways, as complaining about liberals is one of my favorite activities and I do so very much from a liberal perspective. But there are two areas where I disagree with liberals who critique their fellow liberals.

First, I don’t see a liberal bias in the social sciences or whatever else, at least not in the way it is often argued. And second, I don’t see human nature as being biased toward conservatism (nor, as Jonathan Haidt concludes, that conservatives are more broadly representative and better understanding of human nature).

* * *

Let me begin with the first.

I agree in one sense, from a larger perspective, and I could go even further. There is a liberal bias in our entire society and in all of modern Western civilization. Liberalism is the dominant paradigm.

As far as that goes, even conservatives today have a liberal bias, which is obvious when one considers how most of conservatism is defined by the liberalism of the past and often not even that far into the past. Conservatives in the modern West are more liberal than liberals used to be — not just more liberal in a vague relative sense, as contemporary conservatives in historical terms are amazingly liberal (politically, socially, and psychologically). Beyond comparisons to the past, the majority who identify as conservative even hold largely liberal positions in terms of present-day standard liberalism.

Being in a society that has been more or less liberal for centuries has a way of making nearly everyone in that society liberal to varying degrees. Our short lives don’t allow us the perspective to be shocked by how liberal we’ve all become. This shows how much Western society has embraced the liberal paradigm. Even the most reactionary politics ends up being defined and shaped by liberalism. We live in a liberal world and, to that extent, we are all liberals in the broad sense.

But this gets into what we even mean by the words we use. A not insignificant issue.

This insight about the relativity of liberalism has been driven home for me. In the context of our present society, using the general population as the measure, those who identify as and are perceived as liberals (specifically in mainstream politics and mainstream media) are really moderate-to-center-right. Sure, the average ‘liberal’ is to the left of the political right, by definition. Then again, the average ‘liberal’ is far to the right of most of the political left (or at least this is true for the liberal class that dominates). Those who supposedly represent liberalism are often neither strongly nor consistently liberal, and so I wonder: In what sense are they liberal? Well, beyond the general fact of their living in a liberal society during a liberal age.

This watered-down liberalism defined by the status quo skewed rightward becomes the defining context of everything in our society (and, assuming the so-called liberals are somewhere in the moderate middle, that still leaves unresolved the issue of what exactly they are in the middle of — middle of elite-promoted mainstream thought? middle of the professional middle-to-upper class?). If social science has a liberal bias, it is this bias of this ‘moderate middle’ or rather what gets portrayed as such. And put that way, it doesn’t sound like much of a bias as described, other than the bias of ideological confusion and self-confirmation, but certainly not a bias toward the political left. As far as leftists go, this supposed liberalism is already pretty far right in its embrace or at least tolerance of neoliberal corporatism and neocon oligarchy. Certainly, the ‘liberals’ of the Democratic Party are in many ways to the right of the American public, with nearly half of the latter not voting (and so we aren’t talking about a ‘liberalism’ that is in the middle of majority opinion).

The question isn’t just what words mean but who gets to define words and who has the power to enforce their definitions onto the rest of society. Liberalism ends up being a boundary, a last line of defense. This far left and no further. Meanwhile, there seems to be no limit to how far our society is allowed to drift right, often with the cooperation of ‘liberal’ New Democrats, until we teeter on the edge of authoritarianism and fascism, although always with liberal rhetoric playing in our ears. The liberal paradigm so dominates our imaginations that we can’t see the illiberal all around us. So, liberalism dominates, even as it doesn’t rule, at least not in a direct and simplistic sense.

With all this in mind, the mainstream may have a ‘liberal’ bias in this way. But it obviously doesn’t have a leftist bias. There is the problem. Leftism has been largely ignored, except for its usefulness as a bogeyman since the Cold War. Mainstream liberalism is as far (maybe further) away from leftism as it is from conservatism. And yet to mainstream thought, leftism isn’t allowed to have an independent identity outside of liberalism, besides when a scapegoat is needed. Ignored in all this is how far leftist is the American public, the silenced majority — an important detail, one might think.

Social scientists, political scientists, and pollsters all the time include nuanced categories for the political right, distinguishing conservatives from libertarians, authoritarians, and reactionaries. But what about nuanced categories for the political left? They don’t exist, at least not within mainstream thought. There is little if any research and data about American social democrats, socialists, communists, Marxists, anarchosyndicalists, left-libertarians, etc; as if such people either don’t exist or don’t matter. It’s only been in recent years that pollsters even bothered to ask Americans about some of this, discovering that the majority of certain demographics (younger generations, minorities, etc) do lean left, including about the terms and labels they favor, such as seeing ‘socialism’ in a positive light.

In social science, we know so little about the political left. The research simply isn’t there. Social science researchers may be ‘liberal’, however we wish to define that, but one gets the sense that few social science researchers are left-liberals and fewer still are leftists. It would be hard for radical left-wingers (or those who are perceived as such within the mainstream) to get into and remain within academia, to get hired and get tenure and then to do social science research. As hierarchical and bureaucratic institutions often run on a business model and increasingly privately funded, present day universities aren’t as welcoming to the most liberal-minded leftist ideologies.

Anarchists, in particular, are practically invisible to social science research. Just as invisible are left-libertarians (many being anarcho-syndicalists), as it is assumed in the mainstream that libertarian is by definition right-wing, despite the fact that even right-libertarians tend to be rather liberal-minded (more liberal-minded than mainstream liberals in many ways). It’s almost impossible to find any social science research on these ideologies and what mindsets might underlie them.

Let’s at least acknowledge our ignorance and not pretend to know more than we do.

* * *

This brings me to the second thing.

Among some liberals (e.g., Jonathan Haidt), it’s assumed that human nature is inherently conservative. What is interesting is that this is, of course, a standard conservative argument. But you never hear the opposite, conservatives arguing human nature is liberal.

The very notion of a singular human nature is itself a conservative worldview. A more liberal-minded view is that human nature either doesn’t exist, not in a monolithic sense at least, or else that human nature is fluid, malleable, and shaped by the environment. The latter view is becoming the dominant view in the social sciences, although there are some holdouts like Haidt.

Mainstream thought changes slowly. The idea of a singular human nature was primarily held by the liberal-minded in centuries past. This is because it was used to defend universal human rights and civil rights, often in terms of inborn natural rights. The Enlightenment thinkers and later revolutionary pamphleteers helped spread the notion that everyone had a human nature and that it was basically the same, no matter if European or otherwise, rich or poor, free or slave, civilized or savage.

As opposed to today, the conservative-minded of that earlier era weren’t open to such thinking. Now conservatives have embraced this former ideologically and psychologically liberal position. Classical liberalism, radical in its opposition to the traditionalism of its day, is now seen by even conservatives as the bedrock tradition of our liberal society.

The very notion of a human nature is the product of civilization, not of a supposed human nature. Prior to the Axial Age, no one talked about a human nature nor is it obvious that they ever acted based on the assumption that such a thing existed. The invention of the idea of a ‘human nature’ was itself a radical act, a reconception of what it means to be human. All of post-Axial Age civilization is built on this earliest of radical visions that was further radicalized during the Enlightenment. Without the Axial Age (and one might argue the breakdown of the bicameral mind that made it possible), there would have been no Greco-Roman democracy, republicanism, philosophy, and science; and so no Renaissance that would have helped inspire the European Enlightenment.

The question isn’t just what is human nature, such as conservative or liberal, individualistic or social, etc. First and foremost, we must ask if such a thing exists. If so, what exactly does it even mean to speak of a ‘human nature’? Those are the kinds of questions that are more likely to be considered by the most liberal-minded, at least in the context of present Western society.

When certain liberals argue for a conservative human nature, I suspect an ulterior motive. The implication seems to be that conservatism is the most primitive and base, uncultured and uncivilized layer of the human psyche. As liberals we must contend with this conservatism and so let’s throw the conservative wolf a bone in hopes of domesticating it into a dog that can be house-broken and house-trained.

This could be seen as turning liberalism into an advanced achievement of modern civilization that transcends beyond a base and primal human nature, as if the difficulties and weaknesses of liberalism prove its worth. Sure, conservatism may be the foundation, but liberalism is the penthouse on the upper floors decked out with the finest of modern conveniences. Liberalism is to conservatism, from this perspective, in the way modern civilization is to ancient tribalism. Whatever one may argue about those earlier societies in relation to human nature, I doubt many want to return to that kind of social order, not even among the most nostalgic of reactionaries.

This is an argument made by Jonathan Haidt in promoting a Whiggish narrative of capitalism, despite his at other times bending over backwards to praise conservatism. Using conservatism as a broad base upon which to build the progressive liberal dream is not exactly what conservatives are hoping for from their ideological movement. This is why Haidt doesn’t grasp that most conservatives don’t want to just get along, for egalitarian tolerance isn’t a conservative-minded attitude.

One might suspect that calling human nature fundamentally conservative is a bit of a backhanded compliment. A wary conservative likely would assume a hidden condescension or else an attempt to butter them up for some ulterior motive. Even with the best of intentions, this seems like a wrong way to think about the ideological situation.

Here is a central problem. Anthropological accounts of tribal societies, I’d argue, don’t confirm the hypothesis of a conservative human nature. Outside of the modern Westernized world, I doubt it makes much sense to use a modern Westernized frame like liberal vs conservative. The approach used by theorists of Darwinian psychology has too many pitfalls, misguiding us with cultural biases and leading to deeply unfalsifiable just-so stories. As John Gray stated so clearly, in The Knowns and the Unknowns (New Republic):

“There is no line of evolutionary development that connects our hominid ancestors with the emergence of the Tea Party. Human beings are not amoebae that have somehow managed to turn themselves into clever primates. They are animals with a history, part of which consists of creating cultures that are widely divergent. Using evolutionary psychology to explain current political conflicts represents local and ephemeral differences as perennial divisions in the human mind. It is hard to think of a more stultifying exercise in intellectual parochialism.

“Like distinctions between right and left, typologies of liberalism and conservatism may apply in societies that are broadly similar. But the meaning that attaches to these terms differs radically according to historical circumstances, and in many contexts they have no meaning at all.”

For example, in thinking about the Pirahã, I don’t see them as being fundamentally conservative, at least as Daniel Everett portrays them. It appears they don’t particularly care about or, in some cases, even comprehend the worldview of what we call conservatism: need for control and closure, ideological dogmatism and rigid belief systems, natural law and universal morality, family values and the sanctity of marriage, organized religion and religiosity (much less literalism and fundamentalism), rituals and traditions, law and order, social roles and authority figures, overtly enforced social norms and community-sanctioned punishments, public shaming and harsh judgment, disciplinarian parenting and indoctrination of children, strict morality and sexual prudery, disgust about uncleanliness and protection against contagion, worry about injury and death, fear-ridden anxiety and heightened threat perception, dislike toward a lack of orderliness and clear guidelines, etc.

Within their society, they don’t have any kind of hierarchies or privileged positions. They have no chiefs, respected committee of elders, governing body, or political system. Any person could be a temporary leader for a particular activity, but the need for a leader is merely pragmatic and rare. Their society is loosely organized with no formal or traditional roles, such as shaman or medicine man. They lack anything resembling a social institution or social structure. They don’t even have such things as initiations into adulthood, traditions of storytelling, etc. The communal aspects of their tribalism are quite basic and mostly in the background. What holds their society together is simply a cultural identity and personal relationships, not outward rules and forms.

Their way of relating to the larger world is casual as well. They don’t have an inordinate amount of worries and concerns about outsiders or hatred and aggression toward them. They don’t seem to obsess about perceived enemies nor foster a worldview of conflict and danger. The worst that they do is complain about those they think treated them unfairly, such as trade deals and land usage, but even that is talked about in a personal way between individuals. Otherwise, their attitude toward non-Pirahã is mostly a casual indifference and the tolerant acceptance that follows from it.

In some key ways, the Pirahã are less conservative-minded and authoritarian than Western liberals. On the other hand, their society is basically conformist and ethnocentric in a typical tribalistic fashion. And they do have some gender role patterns, including in their language. But their pedophilia is gender neutral, not privileging men, as everyone is permitted to participate in sexual play.

Even within the conformity of their group identity, they strongly disapprove of one individual telling another individual what to do. No Pirahã will tell another Pirahã how to be a Pirahã. And if a Pirahã was unhappy being a Pirahã, I doubt another Pirahã would be bothered or try to stop them from leaving. They appear to have a rather live and let live philosophy.

Pointing out a specific area of social science research, I’m not sure how boundary types would be applied to the Pirahã, in that they don’t think about boundaries as modern Westerners do. They live in such a small world that what exists outside of the boundaries of their experience is simply irrelevant, such that they wouldn’t even recognize a boundary as such. Where their experience of the world stops, that is the edge of their world. There is just what they personally know and then there is everything else. Boundaries are explicitly acknowledged liminal spaces and so extremely fuzzy in their worldview, including boundaries of consciousness and identity. The worldviews of either individuality or group-mindedness would likely seem meaningless to them.

Even pointing out the few areas that could be interpreted as ‘conservative’, I wouldn’t think that would be all that helpful. It doesn’t really say much about human nature in a broad sense. What anthropology shows us, more than anything, is that human societies are diverse and human nature contains immense potential.

Consider all of this from the perspective of the outsider.

Jonathan Haidt came to his understanding partly because of an early experience among another traditional culture, India with its ancient Hinduism and caste system. That gave him a contrast to his liberal view of individualism and convinced him that individualism was lacking in something key to human nature.

I agree, as far as that goes. But I’d simply point out that in the United States the political right is often more obsessed with individualism than is the political left.

It’s American liberals who go on and on about community, the commons, social capital, social responsibility, concern for future generations, externalized costs, environmental protection, natural resource conservation, public parks, public good, public welfare, universal healthcare, universal education, child protection, worker protection, labor unions, public infrastructure, collective governance, group rights, defense of minority cultures, Native American tribal autonomy, etc. And a typical response by American conservatives is to accuse progressive liberals of being collectivists (maybe they’re right about this) while declaring the abstract rights and simplistic individualism of classical liberalism, often mixing this up with fundamentalist religion as though the Christian soul was the basis of Enlightenment individualism and the Biblical God the inspiration for the American Revolution.

Ironically, it is liberals in promoting tolerance who so often end up defending traditional religions and cultures against the attacks by modern-minded conservatives. The latter group, through internalizing libertarian and Objectivist ideologies, have become the fiercest advocates of classical liberalism and hyper-individualism.

Comparison between societies doesn’t necessarily tell us much about comparisons of ideologies within a society. If Haidt had instead spent that time in the Amazon with the Pirahã, he probably would have come to very different views. Plus, it always depends on your starting point, the biases you bring with you. Daniel Everett, who did spend years with the Pirahã, was coming from a different place and so ended up with a different view. Everett was a conservative missionary seeking to convert the natives, but instead they deconverted him and he became an atheist. My sense is that meeting a traditional society left Everett way more liberal than he began, causing him to embrace an attitude of cultural relativism, as inspired by the epistemological relativism of the Pirahã.

What Haidt misses is that Western religious conservatives, especially in the United States, tend to be individualistic Protestants (even American Catholics are strongly individualistic). It’s not that Everett necessarily lost his Evangelical individualism in being deconverted for the traditional society that he met was in some ways even more individualistic, even as it was less individualistic in other ways. The fundamental conflict had little to do with individualism at all. A religious conservative like Everett had been lost in abstractions, based on an abstract religious tradition, but he was blind to these abstractions until he met the Pirahã who found his abstractions to be useless and irritating.

American conservatism, religious and otherwise, can tell us nothing about traditional societies. As Corey Robin convincingly argues, modern conservatives aren’t traditionalists. Modern conservatism was created in response to the failure of the ancien régime. Conservatives came to power not to revive the old order but to create a new and improved order. It wasn’t a movement to conserve but a reaction to what had already been lost. This was clear even early on, as observed by the French counter-revolutionary Joseph de Maistre when he pointed out that people identifying as conservatives only appeared after revolution had largely destroyed what came before.

Also, keep in mind that individualism and liberalism didn’t appear out of nowhere. Incipient forms of both, as I pointed out earlier, came on the scene back in the Axial Age. Even the India Haidt visited was a fully modern society that had seen millennia of change and progress. Hinduism had long ago fallen under the sway of varying forms of influence from the Axial Age to British Imperialism. And if we are to speculate a bit by considering Julian Jaynes’ bicameral theory, even the hierarchical social orders of recent civilizations were late on the scene in the longer view of vast societal development beginning with agriculture and the first settled communities.

To claim we know the ideological substructure of our humanity is to overlook so many complicating factors, some of which we know but most of which we don’t.

This has been a difficulty in our attempt to understand our own psychological makeup, in how our minds and societies operate. The ultimate bias isn’t political but cultural. Most social science research has been done on the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, And Democratic), primarily white middle class college students. It turns out that very different results are found when other populations are studied, not just countries like India but also tribes like the Pirahã. What we know about ideological groupings, as with human nature, might look far different if we did equally large numbers of studies on the poor, minorities, non-Westerners, independent societies, etc.

It’s not just a matter of what kind of human nature we might be talking about. More importantly, the question is exactly whose human nature are we talking about and who is doing the questioning. WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) researchers studying WEIRD subjects will lead to WEIRD results and conclusions. That is not exactly helpful. And it is even worse than that, as the biases go deep. Our very approach to human nature, identity, and the mind are shaped by our culture. In a WEIRD culture, that has tended to mean the assumption of an autonomous, bounded individual. As Robert Burton explained it (A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind, pp. 107-108):

“Results of a scientific study that offer universal claims about human nature should be independent of location, cultural factors, and any outside influences. Indeed, one of the prerequisites of such a study would be to test the physical principles under a variety of situations and circumstances. And yet, much of what we know or believe we know about human behavior has been extrapolated from the study of a small subsection of the world’s population known to have different perceptions in such disparate domains as fairness, moral choice, even what we think about sharing. 16 If we look beyond the usual accusations and justifications— from the ease of inexpensively studying undergraduates to career-augmenting shortcuts— we are back at the recurrent problem of a unique self-contained mind dictating how it should study itself.

“The idea that minds operate according to universal principles is a reflection of the way we study biological systems in general. To understand anatomy, we dissect one body as thoroughly as possible and draw from it a general grasp of human anatomy. Though we expect variations, we see these as exceptions to a general rule. It is to be expected that we see the mind in the same light. One way to circumvent this potentially misleading tendency to draw universal conclusions whenever possible is to subdivide the very idea of a mind into the experiential (how we experience a mind) and the larger conceptual category of the mind— how we think about, describe, and explain what a mind is. What we feel at the personal (experiential) level should not be confused with what a mind might be at a higher level— either as a group or as an extended mind.”

The very belief that the mind can be explained by the mind is a particular worldview. In the context of WEIRD populations being biased toward such a belief, Burton brought up an interesting point (pp. 50-51):

“If each of us has his/ her own innate ease or difficulty with which a sense of causation is triggered, the same data may generate different degrees of a sense of underlying causation in its readers. Though purely speculative, I have a strong suspicion that those with the most easily triggered innate sense of causation are more likely to reduce complex behavior to specific cause-and-effect relationships, while those with lesser degrees of an inherent sense of causation are more comfortable with ambiguous and paradoxical views of human nature. (Of course, for me to make any firm argument as to the cause of the authors’ behavior would be to fall into the same trap.)

“Unfortunately for science, there is no standard methodology for objectively studying subjective phenomena such as the mind. One investigator’s possible correlation is another’s absolute causation. The interpretation of the cause of subjective experience is the philosophical equivalent of asking every researcher if he/ she sees the same red that you do. The degree and nature of neuroscientists’ causal conclusions about the mind are as idiosyncratic as their experience of love, a sunset, or a piece of music.

“There is a great irony that underlies modern neuroscience and philosophy: the stronger an individual’s involuntary mental sense of self, agency, causation, and certainty, the greater that individual’s belief that the mind can explain itself. Given what we understand about inherent biases and subliminal perceptual distortions, hiring the mind as a consultant for understanding the mind feels like the metaphoric equivalent of asking a known con man for his self-appraisal and letter of reference.”

* * *

Here are some further thoughts about liberalism and such.

Maybe our very view of liberal bias has been biased by the ‘liberal class’ that dominates, defines, and studies liberalism. I don’t doubt that there are all kinds of biases related to our living in a modern liberal society as part of post-Enlightenment Western Civilization. But this bias might be wider, deeper, and more complex than we realize.

This class issue has been on my mind a lot lately. We live in a class-obsessed society. Sure, we obsess about class differently than the Indian caste system, but in some ways we are even more obsessed by caste for the very reason that it stands in for so much else, such as how castes include factors of ethnicity, religion and social roles. Class, in American society, has to do so much more ideological work to accomplish the same ends of maintaining a social hierarchy.

Maybe this is why class ideology gets conflated with political ideology, in a way that wouldn’t be seen in a different kind of society. Calling oneself a liberal in our society only indirectly has anything to do with liberal politics and a liberal mentality, as many who identify as liberal aren’t strongly liberal-minded about politics while many who are strongly liberal-minded about politics don’t identify as liberals.

The word ‘liberal’ doesn’t actually mean what we think it means. The same goes for ‘conservative’. These words are proxies for other things. To be called liberal in America most likely means you are part of the broad liberal class, which typically means you’re a well-educated middle-to-upper class professional, no matter that your politics might be moderate-to-conservative in many ways. A poor person who is liberal across the board, however, will unlikely identify as a liberal because they aren’t part of the liberal class. This is why rhetoric about the liberal elite has such currency in our society, even as this so-called liberal elite can be surprisingly more conservative than the general public on a wide variety of key issues.

What we forget is that our society is highly unusual and not representative of human nature, not in the slightest. The American liberal class is the product of a society that is based on Social Darwinian pseudo-meritocracy, late capitalism, plutocratic cronyism, and neoliberal corporatism. As I argued earlier, even American universities are hierarchical, bureaucratic institutions. And the Ivy League colleges still use class-based legacy privileges, which is important for maintaining the American social order as most politicians are Ivy League graduates as are many who are recruited by alphabet soup agencies (e.g., CIA). The larger history of Western universities precedes Enlightenment liberalism by centuries, not having been designed with leftist ideologies in mind.

Yet we consider universities to be refuges for the intellectual elite of the liberal class. That is only true in terms of the class social order. The majority of the liberal-minded, of the socially and politically liberal won’t find a refuge in such a place. In fact, the most strongly liberal-minded would rarely fit into the stultifying regimented lifestyle of a university. To be successful in a university career would require some strong personality traits of conservative-mindedness, although some have argued that was less true decades ago.

As such, liberalism in the United States has taken on so much meaning that has directly nothing to do with liberalism itself, specifically when talking about the role of liberalism within human nature. Consider other societies. In feudal Europe or the slave American South, being liberal (psychologically, socially, and politically) would have had nothing whatsoever to do with class; and if anything, being too liberal in such societies would have been harmful to your class status and class aspirations.

During the American Revolution, it was actually among the lower classes that were found the most liberal-minded radicals and rabblerousers. Thomas Paine, a self-taught working class bloke and often dirt poor, was on of the more liberal-minded among the so-called founding fathers. The more elite founding fathers were too invested in the status quo to go very far in embracing liberalism and many of them became or always were reactionaries and counter-revolutionaries. The working class revolutionaries who fought for liberalism didn’t tend to bode well, either before or after the revolutionary era. It took many more generations before a liberal class began to develop and, even then, the most strongly and radically liberal would often be excluded.

This is the point. A liberal class hasn’t always existed, despite liberal-minded traits having been part of human nature for longer than civilization has existed. The status quo ‘liberalism’ of the liberal class in a modern capitalism of the West is the product of specific conditions. It’s a social construct, as is ‘conservatism’. The entire framework of liberal vs conservative is a social construct that makes no sense outside of the specific society that formed it.

Environments are powerful shapers of the psyche, of attitudes and behavior, of worldviews and politics. All of Western civilization has become increasingly liberal and large part of that has to do with improved conditions for larger parts of the population, such as improved health and education even for the poor. In direct correlation with rising IQ, there is increasing liberalism. How class plays into this is that the upper classes see the improvements before the lower classes, but eventually the improvements trickle down or that is what has happened so far. The average working class American today is healthier, smarter, better educated, and more liberal than the middle class was in centuries past.

So, even class can only be spoken of as a comparative status at any given point in history because it isn’t an objective reality. The liberalism of the American liberal class, as such, can only be meaningfully discussed within the context of its time and place. This is more about a social order than about political ideologies, per se. That is most obvious in how conservatives embrace the liberalism of the past, for conservative and liberal have no objective meaning and there is no objective way to measure them.

Environments effect us in ways that involve confounding factors, and most of us inherit our environments along with other factors from our parents (epigenetics connecting environmental influences to new generations, even if a child was raised in another environment). Think about cats. For whatever reason, cat ownership is much more common in the Northeast and the Northwest of the United States. And as these are colder regions, people are more likely to keep cats inside. But this habit of having cats as indoor pets is a recent development. It has led to a rise in toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection — as I’ve discussed before in terms of psychology and ideology:

“When mapped for the US population, there is significant overlap between the rate of toxoplasma gondii infections and the rate of the neuroticism trait. Toxoplasmosis is a known factor strongly correlated with neuroticism, a central factor of personality and mental health. When rates are high enough in a specific population, it can potentially even alter culture, which is related to ideology. Is it a coincidence that liberals have high rates of neuroticism and that one of the areas with high rates of toxoplasmosis is known for its liberalism?”

Are New Englanders a particular kind of liberal simply because that is the way they are? Or if we corrected for the confounding factor of cats and toxoplasmosis, would we find for example that there is no causal relation between liberalism and neuroticism?

Environments aren’t always inherited, as it can change quite easily. Will a New England family that moved to the South still show increased rates of neurotic liberalism several generations later? Probably not. Most of this isn’t intentional and parents are often perplexed about why their children turn out differently, oblivious to the larger conditions that shape individuals.

My conservative parents raised me in a liberal church and in some liberal towns. And maybe more importantly, they raised me with cats in the house. It wasn’t genetic determinism and inborn nature that made me into a neurotic liberal. Still, the potential for neuroticism and liberalism had to be within me for environmental conditions to make it manifest. And indeed I can see how my neurotic liberalism is just an exaggerated variation of personality traits I did inherit from my conservative parents who are mildly liberal-minded.

Then again, I did inherit much of my broader environment from my parents: born in the United States, spent my formative years in the Midwest, grew up during the Cold War, went to public schools, encouraged to respect education from a young age, my entire life shaped by Western culture and capitalism, etc. So, my parents’ conservatism and my liberalism probably has more in common than not, as compared to the rest of the world’s population and as compared to past societies. Parents and their children share a social order and the way that social order shapes not just people but all the world around them. And in many cases, parents and their children will share the same basic position or place in society.

That is the case with my family, as contact with the broad liberal class has influenced my conservative parents as much as it has influenced me. The same goes for the Midwestern sensibility I share with my parents. My parents’ Midwestern conservatism seemed liberal when our family moved South. And my liberalism is far different than what goes for liberalism in the South. Had various lines of my family remained outside of the Midwest, the following generations would probably have been far different. Choices to move that were made by previous generations of non-Midwesterners led to my parents and I being born as Midwesterners.

Then, even later on living in the South, my parents and I couldn’t shake how growing up in the Midwest had permanently altered us, more powerfully than any political ideology (although less so for my dad, maybe because his mother was a Southerner). This is why it is often easier for me to talk with my conservative parents or to conservative Iowans than to talk to the liberals of the liberal class from other parts of the country.

Context is everything. And this gets me wondering. If all confounding factors were controlled for, what would be left that could be fairly and usefully identified as political ideology?

When feudalism was the dominant paradigm and ruling social order, it simply seemed like reality itself. It was assumed that social and class position were built into human nature. This is one of the earliest sources of racial thinking. The aristocracy and monarchy assumed (based on pseudo-scientific theories and observations of class, ethnicity, and animal husbandry) that feudal serfs were a separate race, i.e., a sub-species. It turns out that they were wrong. But if they had had the ability to measure various factors (from personality to ideology, from physiology to health), they would have noted consistent patterns that supported the belief that the social order was based on a natural order. It was a dogmatic ideology that was systematically enforced and so became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What if our own society operates in a similar way? Class-based opportunities and disadvantages, privileges and punishments socially and physically construct a shared experience of reality. A cultural worldview then rationalizes and encloses this in a mythos of ideological realism. The sense of identity is framed by this and those who inquire into human nature already have their sense of human nature constrained accordingly. Unless they are confronted by a truly foreign society, their worldview will remain hermetically sealed.

* * *

How many in our society, even among the well-educated, ever manage to escape from this blindered habitus? Not many. Only as the culture itself shifts will more people within the culture be able to explore new undestandings. This will then lead to new biases, but one could hope those biases will be more expansive and flexible.

Bias is inevitable. But we have the added problem of being biased in our perception of bias. It’s impossible to fully discern one’s own biases while under their influence, although we can gain the awareness of our predicament. The fact that we are beginning to question the biases of our culture indicates that we are beginning to shift outside of them. It will take at least a few more generations, though, before we can understand this shift and what it means.

Give it some time and liberalism will mean something entirely new. And the conservatives of the future will embrace the liberalism of our present. Some of what we now consider radical or even unimaginable will eventually be normal and commonplace. There will be different sets of biases framed in a different worldview and dominated by a different paradigm.

Most people in the future likely won’t even notice that a shift happened, as it likely will be gradual. They’ll assume that the world they know is in some sense how the world has always been. That assumption will shape their sense of human nature, how they think about it and study it, probably in ways that would surprise us. But one thing is for sure. They’ll look back on our debates about ideological natures and biases in the way we look back on the simplistic and misguided rhetoric of feudalism that defined the classes as separate races.

One thing that is safe to assume is that our society is wrong about most things we’ve taken as obvious truth. The realization of such uncertainty is a step toward new understanding.

Poised on a Knife Edge

“To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.”
~ Edmund Burke

I spent much of the day looking back at old posts. My purpose was to find my various writings on the revolutionary era, specifically in relation to the American Revolution. I was doing so in order to link to them in the post I just wrote, about democratic republicanism in early America.

In my search, I came across a post from several years ago. It is sort of a rambling book review of Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate, the topic being the relationship between Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. What caught my attention was the comments section. I sometimes put more into the comments section than I do in the post itself. A longtime friend and reader of the blog left a comment, which is partly what led me to go off on some tangents there.

As one of my responses, I quoted at length from Corey Robin’s writings. One quote came from the first book I read by him, The Reactionary Mind:

Earlier than most, Burke understood that if violence were to retain its sublimity, it had to remain a possibility, an object of fantasy— a horror movie, a video game, an essay on war. For the actuality (as opposed to the representation) of violence was at odds with the requirements of sublimity. Real, as opposed to imagined, violence entailed objects getting too close, bodies pressing too near, flesh upon flesh. Violence stripped the body of its veils; violence made its antagonists familiar to each other in a way they had never been before. Violence dispelled illusion and mystery, making things drab and dreary. That is why, in his discussion in the Reflections of the revolutionaries’ abduction of Marie Antoinette, Burke takes such pains to emphasize her “almost naked” body and turns so effortlessly to the language of clothing—“ the decent drapery of life,” the “wardrobe of the moral imagination,” “antiquated fashion,” and so on— to describe the event. 68 The disaster of the revolutionaries’ violence, for Burke, was not cruelty; it was the unsought enlightenment.

Robin explains what Burke meant by the moral imagination, explains why such power exists and what nullifies it. That is why I began this post with the quote by Burke. Here is the fuller context from the 1759 text (“A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful”, Part Two, Section III – Obscurity):

To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes. Every one will be sensible of this, who considers how greatly night adds to our dread, in all cases of danger, and how much the notions of ghosts and goblins, of which none can form clear ideas, affect minds, which give credit to the popular tales concerning such sorts of beings. Those despotic governments, which are founded on the passions of men, and principally upon the passion of fear, keep their chief as much as may be from the public eye. The policy has been the same in many cases of religion.

It’s not just the power of the mind. Moral imagination is what extends power over people, the emotional grip of distant or hidden authority, human or otherwise. Sublimity and fear, awe and terror.

But this misses the subtlety of this power. Moral imagination is everpresent, the pervasive force that puts blinders on our vision, hypnotizing us into a reality tunnel and sometimes full epistemic closure. As Burke puts it, this forms the wardrobe of our moral imagination, from which we clothe our experience of the world. This wardrobe holds the social constructs of the mind, the ideologies and narratives of society, the customs and norms of culture. It is just there, all around us, enclosing us, a familiar presence, and yet near impossible to see directly, most often barely glimpsed at the periphery of our awareness. It’s power is in its simultaneous obscurity and presence, the unseen depths of unconsciousness with an undertow that can be felt.

Also in the comments section, I pointed to the connection to another writer: “I noticed in these passages that ‘horror’ was mentioned a few times. Corey Robin even made reference to horror movies/films and “delightful horror.” What came to my mind is something that Thomas Ligotti said in an interview. He was discussing monsters. He explained that no story can ever have a monster as the protagonist, for then the sense of monstrosity would be lost. The monster has to remain other and the evil vague. That is what gives a horror story its power to horrify.” That stood out to me most of all. There is a simple reason for this, as I had just recently mentioned Ligotti (in relation to True Detective) to this same friend when he came to visit me. I had forgotten about these comments. Reading them again, I saw them in new light. That involves a more important reason for these comments interesting me. Ligotti was making a deeper point than mere commentary on horror fiction. The most horrifying other is that which is unseen and that is its power over us.

This all connects back to the ongoing development of my own theory, that of symbolic conflation. But I forgot about an earlier post where I brought Burke into the context of symbolic conflation. It was for a different reason, though.

In that post, I explained Burke’s role as an outsider and how that positioned him as a purveyor of symbolic conflation. The moral imagination is all about this, as symbolic conflation is the beating heart, the meeting point of the imagined and the real. The centrality of the outsider status also brings into play the reactionary mind, according to Corey Robin, for the outsider sees most clearly the threat of boundaries being transgressed and all boundaries are ultimately boundaries of the mind. A symbolic conflation is a wall that both marks and establishes the boundary. It makes the boundary real and, in doing so, defends the authority of claims about what is real.

This is the moral imagination of fear. It is a visceral fear, the embodied imagination. A symbolic conflation requires a grounding within bodily experience, fight and flight, pain and illness, pleasure and guilt, punishment and death. It relates to what I call the morality-punishment link. It also offers possible insight into the origins of the reactionary mind. The conservative, as I argue, is simply a liberal in reactionary mode. The conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by their own moral imagination. Their minds have been wrapped in chains of fear and locked shut by symbolic conflation, the visceral experience of a story that has become their reality.

This is a potential existing within everyone, not just those on the political right. But this potential requires specific conditions to become manifest. Liberalism and the conservative reaction to it is an expression of modernity. This dynamic isn’t found in all societies. It is a cultural product and so there is nothing inevitable about it. Other cultures are possible with other ideological mindsets and other social dynamics. For us moderns, though, it is the only reality we know, this endless conflict within our collective psyche.

Maybe unintentionally, Edmund Burke offers us the key to unlock the modern mind. Knowing this key existed is what he feared the most, for then the human mind and its potential would be laid bare. Yet this fear is what gives the reactionary mind its sense of power and purpose, an existential threat that must be fought. Modernity is continuously poised on a knife edge.

The near cosmic morality tale of ideological conflict is itself a symbolic conflation. There is always a story being told and its narrative force has deep roots. Wherever a symbolic conflation takes hold, a visceral embodiment is to be found nearby. Our obsession with ideology is unsurprisingly matched by our obsession with the human brain. The symbolic conflation, though moral imagination, gets overlaid onto the brain for there is no greater bodily symbol of the modern self. We fight over the meaning of human nature by wielding the scientific facts of neurocognition and brain scans. It’s the same reason the culture wars obsess over the visceral physicality of sexuality: same sex marriage, abortion, etc. But the hidden mysteries of the brain make it particularly fertile soil. As Robert Burton explained in A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind (Kindle Locations 2459-2465):

our logic is influenced by a sense of beauty and symmetry. Even the elegance of brain imaging can greatly shape our sense of what is correct. In a series of experiments by psychologists David McCabe and Alan Castel, it was shown that “presenting brain images with an article summarizing cognitive neuroscience research resulted in higher ratings of scientific reasoning for arguments made in those articles, as compared to other articles that did not contain similar images. These data lend support to the notion that part of the fascination and credibility of brain imaging research lies in the persuasive power of the actual brain images.” The authors’ conclusion: “Brain images are influential because they provide a physical basis for abstract cognitive processes, appealing to people’s affinity for reductionistic explanations of cognitive phenomena.” *

The body is always the symbolic field of battle. Yet the material form occludes what exactly the battle is being fought over. The embodied imagination is the body politic. We are the fear we project outward. And that very fear keeps us from looking inward, instead always drawing us onward. We moderns are driven by anxiety, even as we can never quite pinpoint what is agitating us. We are stuck in a holding pattern of the mind, waiting for something we don’t know and are afraid to know. Even as we are constantly on the move, we aren’t sure we are getting anywhere, like a dog trotting along the fenceline of its yard.

* * *

* D. McCabe and A. Castel, “Seeing Is Believing: The Effect of Brain Images on Judgments of Scientific Reasoning,” Cognition, 107( 1), April 2008, 345– 52.
(For criticisms, see: The Not So Seductive Allure of Colorful Brain Images, The Neurocritic. But for more recent corroboration, see: People Think Research is More Credible When It Includes “Extraneous” Brain Images, Peter Simons, Mad In America)

Confused Liberalism

Here are some thoughts on ideological labels and mindsets in the United States. I had a larger post I was working on, which I may or may not post. But the following is bite-sized commentary. Just some things to throw out there.

These views are not exactly new to my writing. They are issues my mind often returns to, because I’m never quite satisfied that I fully understand. I can’t shake the feeling that something is being misunderstood or overlooked, whether or not my own preferred interpretations turn out to be correct.

The two thoughts below are in response to this question:

What do we mean when we speak of liberalism?

* * *

We live in a liberal society, in that we live in a post-Enlightenment age where the liberal paradigm is dominant. But what exactly is this liberalism?

What I find interesting is that conservatives in a liberal society aren’t traditionalists and can never be traditionalists. They are anti-traditionalists and would be entirely out of place in a traditional society. These conservatives are forced to define themselves according to the liberal paradigm and so their only choice is to either become moderate liberals or reactionaries against liberalism.

Even if they choose the latter, they still don’t escape liberalism because our identities are shaped as much by what we react to as by what we embrace. In some ways, we become what we react to, just in a distorted way. That is why reactionary conservatives use liberal rhetoric, often unconsciously.

Ironically, the illiberalism of such reactionary politics is only possible in a liberal society. And, sadly, that reactionary politics has become the dominant ideology in a liberal society like this. The liberal and the reactionary are two sides of the same coin.

This is quite the conundrum for the liberal and reactionary alike. Both are chained together, as they pull in opposite directions.

* * *

There are a large number (how many?) of self-identified liberals who aren’t strongly liberal-minded and maybe a bit conservative-minded, aren’t consistent supporters of liberal politics, are wary of liberal economic reforms, are unsure about the liberalism of human nature, and/or doubt a liberal society is possible. These kinds of ‘liberals’ are their own worst enemies. They make it easy for the political right to dominate, for the authoritarians and social dominance orientation types to gain and maintain power.

I’ve come to a suspicion. It’s not just that many of these supposed liberals aren’t particularly liberal. I’d go further than that. Some of them, possibly a large number of them, could be more accurately described as status quo conservatives. But this isn’t to say that some liberals aren’t strongly liberal-minded. My thought goes in a different direction, though. Maybe the crux of the matter isn’t self-identified liberals at all.

Self-identified liberals have proven themselves easily swayed by the rhetoric of reactionaries, authoritarians, and social dominance orientation types. Because of this, the label of ‘liberal’ has become associated with weakly liberal positions and what are sometimes illiberal attitudes. Liberalism has become identified with the liberal class and bourgeois capitalism, with mainstream society and the status quo social order, with a waffling fence-sitting and Washington centrism.

My thought is that most liberal-minded people (specifically in the US) don’t identify as liberals and never have. Instead, the strongly liberal-minded have taken up other labels to identify themselves: independents, non-partisans, social democrats, progressives, leftists, left-wingers, socialists, democratic socialists, communists, communalists, communitarians, Marxiststs, unionists, anarchists, anarcho-syndialists, left-libertarians, etc. Pretty much anything but ‘liberal’.

This is where mainstream thought goes off the rails. The most liberal-minded tend to be ignored or overlooked. They don’t fit into the mainstream framework of ideological labels. These strongly liberal-minded people might be a fairly large part of the population, but they can’t be seen.

We don’t have the language to talk about them, much less study them. We have nuanced language to distinguish people on the political right and this nuanced language is regularly used in collecting and analyzing data. Pollsters and social scientists are often careful to separate conservatives from libertarians, authoritarians, and social dominance orientation types. Such nuance is rarely seen in mainstream thought about the political left.

It seems, in the mainstream, that it is assumed that ‘liberals’ can be taken as mostly representative of the entire political left. This is based on the assumption that leftists in the US are so small in number and therefore insignificant and irrelevant. But if we define leftists as all those who are to the left of the liberal class found in the Democratic Party establishment and the mainstream corporate media, we might discover there are more leftists than there are so-called liberals. And if many of those leftists are far more liberal-minded than the self-identified liberals, then how useful is the social science research that uses self-identified liberals as a proxy for all liberal-mindedness?

Denying the Agency of the Subordinate Class

I’ve thought about the abortion issue in terms of social control, the morality-punishment link, and symbolic conflation. It’s been on my mind for much of my adult life. The culture wars began just as I started high school, as my thinking about the larger world began to develop. Abortion was always the most potent of the culture war issues.

Corey Robin brings in another perspective—What Donald Trump Can Learn From Frederick Douglass:

If the goal is simply to constrain the agency of the subordinate class, the simplest thing to do is to punish the disobedient so that she doesn’t act disobediently again. But in doing so, you implicitly recognize her agency, particularly if your punishment is tied to a set of laws and rules you expect her to learn. […]

If the goal is not simply to constrain the agency of the subordinate class, but to deny it altogether, the far better move is not to hold the disobedient accountable all but instead to blame her disobedience on some external force: Satan, the serpent, the doctor. She then becomes a vessel, the implement of another’s will (preferably a man’s will), which is precisely what so many in the conservative movement want women to be.

I’m not sure what to think of that theory. It’s interesting. I wonder if that in any way fits into some of my own prior thoughts on the matter. I sense some possible connections.

Symbolic conflation is about shutting down awareness and narrowing thought, and as such agency is central to it. The main insight I had early on was that the obsession with abortion never had anything directly to do with abortion itself. I’ve struggled ever since in trying to understand what it actually is about.

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The following is a comment left at Corey Robin’s post—Chris G wrote:

That is the perfect rejoinder to this interview with a pro-lifer on NPR this morning – http://www.npr.org/2016/03/31/472501022/reaction-to-donald-trumps-abortion-comments

An excerpt: “Well, because the pro-life movement has never, for a very good reason, promoted the idea that we punish women. In fact, we believe that women are being punished before the abortion ever occurs. In other words, the early feminists believed this was the ultimate exploitation of women.”