How the Right-Wing Brain Works and What That Means for Progressives
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Editor's Note: This essay draws upon Chris Mooney’s forthcoming book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality (due out in April from Wiley) , as well as his interviews with George Lakoff, Jonathan Haidt and Dan Kahan on the Point of Inquiry podcast.
If you’re a liberal or a progressive these days, you could be forgiven for being baffled and frustrated by conservatives. Their views and actions seem completely alien to us—or worse. From cheering at executions, to wanting to “throw up” over church-state separation, to seeking to “drown” government “in the bathtub” (except when it is cracking down on porn, apparently) conservatives not only seem very different, but also very inconsistent.
Even the most well-read liberals and progressives can be forgiven for being confused, because the experts themselves— George Lakoff, Jonathan Haidt and others--have different ways of explaining what they call conservatives’ “morality” or “moral systems.” Are we dealing with a bunch of die-hard anti-government types in their bunkers, or the strict father family? Are our intellectual adversaries free-market libertarians, or right-wing authoritarians—and do they even know the difference?
But to all you liberals I say, have hope: It’s not nearly so baffling as it may at first appear. Having interviewed many of these experts over the course of the last year, my sense is that despite coming from different fields and using different terminologies, they are saying many of the same things. Most important, their work suggests that there really is a science of conservative morality, and it really is very different from liberal morality. And there are key lessons to be drawn from this research about how to interact (and not interact) with our intellectual opponents.
That’s what I’m going to show—but first, let me first emphasize that morality isn’t the only way in which liberals and conservatives differ. They differ on a wide variety of traits--and it is not necessarily clear, as Jonathan Haidt recently put it to me, what’s the root of the flower, what’s the stem and what’s the leaves.
But set that aside for now. Moral differences between left and right tend to draw the greatest amount of attention, and for good reason: They seem most directly implicated in policy disputes and the culture wars alike.
Another thing that you need to know at the outset about conservative “morality” is that it’s not at all the sort of thing that moral philosophers debate endlessly about. We’re not talking about a highly developed intellectual system for determining the way one ought to act, like deontology or utilitarianism. We’re not paging Immanuel Kant or Jeremy Bentham.
Rather, we’re talking about the deep-seated impulses that push conservatives (or liberals) to act in a certain way. These needn’t be “moral” or “ethical” at all, in the sense of maximizing human happiness, ensuring the greatest good for the greatest number, adhering to a consistent set of rules and principles, and so on. Indeed, they may even be highly immoral by such standards—but there’s no denying that they are very real, and must be contended with.
The Science of Left-Right Morality
So how do conservatives think—and more important still, what do we know scientifically about how they think?
Perhaps the earliest and most influential thinker into this fray was the Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff, with his classic book Moral Politics and many subsequent works (most recently, this item at Huffington Post ). Lakoff’s opening premise is that we all think in metaphors. These are not the kind of thing that English majors study, but rather real, physical circuits in the brain that structure our cognition, and that are strengthened the more they are used. For instance, we learn at a very early age how things go up and things go down, and then we talk about the stock market and individual fortunes “rising” and “falling”—a metaphor.