Conservative vs. Liberal, Plato vs. Descartes

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Conservatives are climbing aboard Jonathan Haidt’s “viewpoint diversity” train, pushing for more variety of opinions and attitudes on what many call our monocultural campuses. They are, of course, admirably trying to spin the hugely successful and wonderfully diaphanous brand “diversity” for their own purposes.

Haidt is not a conservative. He’s a self-described moderate, but his moderation is the product of compromising the clash of opposites rooted in human nature.

He’s become America’s most influential social psychologist by being able to explain so clearly who each of us is according to our nature. We have conflicting impulses, one we now call liberal and the other we now call conservative.

Related: A Conversation with Jonathan Haidt

Each of us is hardwired to be a social animal, oriented around preserving and enhancing our species by living according to our social instincts. We’re happiest when we devote ourselves to family, community, and country, and we’re alive to the costs various forms of disruptive innovations have on our relational lives.

Conservatism, from this view, is social conservatism, favoring patriotism over cosmopolitanism and thinking of ourselves as parents and children more than liberated individuals. Conservatives are also inclined, of course, to be religious, seeing how institutional religion supports social bonding and “family values,” especially as a countercultural antidote to the excesses of modern individualism.

Each of us, however, is also, by nature, self-conscious. We’re the dominant species because we’re very social and having singularly huge brains. The result is that we’ve become self-conscious, able to distinguish our own personal good from those of the social groups of which we are a part. Self-consciousness doesn’t merely generate the selfishness that produces the joyless pursuit of happiness at the experience of the real happiness of parents, citizens, friends, and so forth.  It also produces just criticism—on behalf of universal principles—of the narrowness or exclusivity of various forms of human tribalism.

Related: The New Age of Orthodoxy Overtakes the Campus

Self-consciousness, ironically, can both lock each of us up into our puny selves and open us to the cosmopolitan truth about what we share in common. From this view, the social danger posed by self-consciousness is its extremism, producing two forms of being displaced or abstracted from the social embeddedness required for the flourishing of animals such as ourselves.

From this view, the combination of individualism—or maximum conceivable autonomy—and cosmopolitanism that animates those around today who are most proudly self-conscious at the expense of real social responsibility.

Now the reason Haidt so clearly lays out the socially instinctual and self-conscious parts of human nature is that he was an undergraduate major in philosophy. He knows that the insights of evolutionary psychology are most deeply articulated by the philosophers. From this view, the fundamental alternatives are really Plato and Descartes. Plato presents a utopia in which human beings are completely socialized to care for nothing but what the good citizens share in common.

The result (as Socrates ironically suggests) is the impossible and undesirable effort to suppress the forms of human Eros that are mixed up with self-consciousness and produce the most wonderful (and often dangerous) human achievements.

Descartes, by contrast, thinks of being human as an isolated consciousness located in an alien machine or body. And so the point of human life is to liberate oneself through doubt from being suckered by the call of instinct. The point of life becomes to keep me around as long as possible and simply to overcome all the limitations—including the natural guidance—of being embodied. Descartes seems to forget that even being conscious is “knowing with,” and so he unrealistically minimizes what’s required for all forms of human happiness.

For Descartes, the human good is autonomy, and that means defining for oneself one’s own personal identity independently of all exterior authority. Even religion, in this view, becomes the religion of me. And even justice becomes what’s best for me, as “human rights” become pretty much keeping the persons around right now alive for as long as possible and as free (or unconstrained by natural or social imperatives) as possible.

Too Much Success for Descartes?

Plato and Descartes present polemical alternatives, attractive partial visions to achieve desirable social reform. Plato wanted the liberated self-consciousness represented by Socrates harnessed by the invincible imperatives of social and political life. Descartes wanted self-consciousness liberated from repressive religious moralism to achieve whatever reform is possible through technological innovation.

In our time, we need Plato—and other forms of pre-modern or highly social and relational thought—to counter what might be called the excessive success of Cartesianism, just as we can see all the good for justice and individual liberation that Cartesianism has achieved.

According to philosophically informed evolutionary psychology, the job of higher education is to take the student beyond the partial truth dominant in his or her particular time. The truth about who we are remains the same, but seeing all of it always required a countercultural educational effort. As Alexis de Tocqueville, the author of the best book ever written on democracy and America, said, had he lived in Descartes time, he would have joined him in getting people’s eyes off heaven onto what they can do for themselves.

But in a techno-democracy, the task is to get them to take the soul and its needs seriously by arousing the social instincts through various educational means that habitual Democratic or Cartesian skepticism are bound to slight.  They include local government, organized religion, and reading the great books of the Greeks and Romans, if possible in their original languages.

That’s why Haidt founded his “Heterodoxy Academy.”  The truth is that our colleges and universities are dominated by a rather uniform set of opinions characteristic of a proudly liberated elite. They think history has surpassed the wisdom of pre-Cartesian thought, and that we have achieved unprecedented insights when it comes to marriage, personal responsibility, citizenship, God, and personal identity. So they think they have nothing to learn from conservative opposition to their agenda, both found among today’s social conservatives—religious and otherwise—and old books with unfashionable points of view.

Today’s Orthodoxy: Dissing Orthodoxies

Being “heterodox” means being unfashionable, nonconformist, and not orthodox. The irony is today’s orthodoxy is all about dissing orthodoxies. Here’s the orthodox assertion: Question authority?  Here’s the heterodox response:  Why? Explain to me how people can get by without taking anything at all on trust. And today’s orthodoxy really is a kind of political expertise that dismisses the truth and authenticity of the personal experiences of ordinary people—reducing them to racism, xenophobia, and so forth.  It’s not that such accusations of uncritical tribalism have no truth in them; it’s just that they’re far from the whole truth. Today’s orthodoxy amounts to:  Trust the experts and their studies.

The defense of heterodoxy by the evolutionary psychologist is, let me emphasize, quite different from the liberal or libertarian who puts all his faith in the free marketplace of ideas. That faith, which has its origin in the liberalism of John Stuart Mill is that just as the unimpeded marketplace leads us to the shortest route to economic progress, the free clash of ideas leads us to progress in the direction of the truth.

The problem, more or less, is that what economic progress is pretty clear, but the history of thought is constantly ambivalent, with gains in some areas producing losses or forgetfulness in others. Our libertarians too often believe that progress in the moral libertarian of the individual has been won with no cost at all to truth and morality, with no forgetfulness about who we are: social or relational animals.

For thinkers such as Haidt (or Tocqueville), thinking—or higher education—is always a return to the beginning for the particular person born to know, love, and die. Making the whole truth available to that person requires an aggressive assault on the fashionable opinions of our time, on the thought that history has some right side which has superseded the moral wisdom of the past and the wisdom still shared by those attached to deep social, political, and religious lives in some particular place.  We live in a time when genuine orthodoxy—as described by the Catholic Chesterton and lived, say, by the Orthodox Jews—is also genuine heterodoxy.

There is, of course, something deeply utopian in the thought that most of our elite institutions would heed the call to “viewpoint diversity.”  But, you know, it remains the case that the American system of higher education as a whole is marked by a singular moral and intellectual diversity.

Just like at Alice’s restaurant, you can still get pretty much anything you like when it comes to higher education in America—and often at a surprisingly affordable price. Do you want Smith or Oberlin?  Do you want Christendom or Thomas Aquinas? Do you want Berry or Berea?  Do you want Hampden-Sydney or Wabash? Do you want Cal Tech or MIT? Do you want Pomona or Swarthmore? Do you want Yeshiva?  Do you want Morehouse? Do you want Hillsdale or Patrick Henry? Do you want Union or Baylor?  Do you want Notre Dame or BYU?  It’s all there on our fabulously extensive viewpoint menu of choice.

We should be most attentive to the threat to that real viewpoint diversity flowing from the standardizing pressures of accrediting associations, government bureaucrats, foundations, think tanks on both the left and the right, misguided politicians—from Bernie Sanders to Scott Walker, and all the experts in general.

 

Peter Augustine Lawler

Peter Augustine Lawler

Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College.

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