Exploring Liberal Psychology

Recently I had the pleasure of reading Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind,” an illuminating and highly accessible book on the role of religion in society and how moral intuitions shape politics. Most interesting is Haidt’s “moral foundations theory,” which holds that individuals are usually concerned to differing degrees in about six different moral dimensions. Haidt’s premise is that conservatives have a broader array of “moral tastes” than liberals, leading them to balance competing moral interests and form a more complex worldview than that of liberals or libertarians, who tend to uphold a singular ethical premise above all others and don’t even conceptualize certain moral dimensions at all.

Not pictured, ContextDenial Lobe.
Not pictured, ContextDenial Lobe.
This has interesting political effects, since it leads liberals to be literally incapable of considering why a conservative would hold a certain position (hence the frequent accusations of evil, stupidity, or duplicity leveled at rightwingers), while libertarians simply screech about liberty and write off all other positions which don’t maximize it as being ethically wrong. Haidt himself identifies as being a “liberal atheist” in the beginning, before his experiences with the Cultural Other convinced him that more “rightwing” moral principles have some intrinsic social value. (He does spend a satisfying amount of time noting the liberal ideological hegemony present in his own background, particularly in academia.)

One of the most relevant and depressing points Haidt makes in the book is that it is nearly impossible to change someone’s opinion on a subject because said opinion represents unconscious intuition, justified by post hoc rationalizations. To Haidt, the conscious mind is basically just a press secretary for subconscious instincts and feelings. Furthermore, the better educated someone is, the more adept they are at rationalizing their biases, putting to the lie the idea that a well educated populace will be capable of voting more sensibly. To change the mind of a partisan is an exercise in futility, and you certainly aren’t going to do it by quoting facts at them or using rational arguments. If you’re going to accomplish this at all, you’ll have to resort to some subtle psychological strategies in order to get “the elephant” leaning in a different direction before the rider realizes what’s happening.

Keep this in mind when you’re wasting time debating liberals on Facebook groups.

Haidt’s psychological analysis of libertarians leads him to conclude they are the most difficult political group to gross out, explaining why libertarians can honestly debate the merits of child prostitution and abandoning infants. Essentially the implication is these types rank high on the autism scale, which might possibly be the most banally obvious scientific theory of all time. In terms of moral valuation, unsurprisingly, libertarians are more concerned about the liberty/oppression axis than any other concern, yet again, a restatement of the obvious.

The social theory on conservatism is interesting, with Haidt contending that the Conservative’s balance of various moral values makes them more broadly appealing to a larger audience than liberalism (Haidt laments that liberals are unable to make moral arguments at all much of the time), and their respect for traditional cultural institutions creates an environment of stability and high social trust. Moreover, since conservatives have to actively weigh moral considerations against each other (caring versus fairness, freedom versus respect for sanctity), they’re less likely to just jump onboard with something that a liberal or libertarian thinks is “obviously correct.” In a world of secular fundamentalists, conservatives are actually the moderates. Typically a conservative won’t necessarily think a liberal or libertarian is “evil,” but will view them as naive and lacking nuance or experience.

Liberals, on the other hand, are said to value care, fairness, and liberty, but in actual practice are primarily concerned more so with care than any other consideration. This is why liberals see anything except fervent support for welfare policies as “selfish/dishonest/evil,” as they literally cannot conceptualize what other concern could override this predominate interest in someone else’s well-being. As Thomas Sowell is fond of saying, they view themselves as “on the side of angels against the forces of evil,” and tend to insulate themselves from empirically verifying their stances, since they so fervently believe them to be a priori righteous. (Astute observers will notice hardcore Libertarians do the same thing, even going so far as to deny the validity of empiricism itself.)

Haidt’s overall tone is perhaps a bit too optimistic, and he doesn’t address the social signaling phenomena TRS has observed at all, but overall the book is fascinating. There’s some accidental wandering into the deep dark woods of Race Realism after venturing into the idea of group level selection and fast evolution, although the author doesn’t seem to realize it.

Labeling all opposing views as Koch brothers propaganda is a great short-cut to eliminating cognitive bias.
While this goes a long way towards explaining the differences in political groups and how they argue, here at TRS our long experience trolling liberals have revealed a few more details.

Liberals are extremely concerned with social signaling and social approval.

As any veteran TRS troll will tell you, liberals typically try to pitch their views as an example of their own moral superiority, and will flee en masse if a non trivial number of people disagree with them. For liberals, it’s not about the logic or the content of their message, it’s about others reinforcing their beliefs and agreeing with them. Unlike conservatives, who will often stubbornly dig in their heels and fight against hordes of progressive cat ladies in comment threads, liberals almost always beat a hasty retreat when the group turns against them. They’re saying things to get pats on the back and Facebook “likes,” not to actually argue a point or logically establish something.

Liberals have low self esteem, and liberalism attracts shitty, broken people.

Sean Last recently pointed out a body of research establishing that liberals tend to have low self esteem, and posited that moral self-righteousness is how they feel better about themselves. This rather closely mirrors Sowell’s contention about them, and Haidt’s observation they are predisposed to viewing other political groups as morally deficient. This explains in two ways why liberals block and unfriend others online so frequently: Seeing someone as literally evil removes any obligation to tolerate them, and critical attacks on liberalism itself destroys their very sense of self-esteem, since it is such an essential part of their identity. When you attack a liberal viewpoint, you are actually attacking the liberal himself. Also, as Sean notes, liberals pick fringe issues in order to beat others over the head with their moral orthodoxy and demonstrate how “racist/evil/bigoted” the opposition is, since this nefariousness won’t appear over issues like caring for those with mental disorders, or agreeing that in obvious cases of police brutality, the cops were wrong. They need a fringe issue or ambiguous scenario to drive a wedge into what conservatives are actually willing to tolerate.

In the anecdotal experiences of TRS troll-operatives, liberals themselves tend be individuals living in broken homes, sometimes even tolerating literal cuckolding, have experienced divorce, are both unemployed and unemployable, and just generally suffer from a number of things which would create low self esteem in the average conscious person. This of course neatly dovetails with Sean’s argument and explains why shitty people would choose a political ideology that absolves them of responsibility for their circumstances.

In summation, liberalism/progressivism itself is an extremely one-dimensional political stance built on a dual foundation of moral grand-standing and profound personal insecurity.