The Water We Swim In: A Need to Look at Causes as Well as Effects.

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

This was how David Foster Wallace opened the commencement speech he gave to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College.

I’m frustrated by many of the recent analyses of the political divide because they seem to be about the fish and unaware of the water.

The fish are ideas, values, beliefs and ideologies and the people who hold them. The water is the psychological profiles from which all those things follow. The former are effects; the latter are causes. Most analyses today seem to fixate on effects without even asking whether they have deeper causes.

These analyses come from many sources, but one striking example is the blog of Heterodox Academy (HxA), which includes the essays “The Google Memo: What Does the Research Say About Gender Differences?,” “In Defense of Amy Wax’s Defense of Bourgeois Values” and “Sociological Paradigms and Organizational Analysis.”

I use Heterodox Academy as an example because its members are mostly academics from the humanities and social sciences, including psychology and sociology—the very people one would expect to be most curious about why we humans do the silly things we do. I’d expect them to be looking for the psychological root causes for which effects are clues, distinguishing between the two, and treating each separately within its proper context.

But instead I see an almost total focus on effects and practically no curiosity about causes. The analysts examine the veracity of Damore’s and Wax’s claims but make no effort to subject their attackers to the same scrutiny.

The scientific accuracy of Damore and Wax is important, of course, because it establishes whether or not the criticisms against them were well founded. But Heterodox Academy found both of them to be mostly correct, and therefore the criticisms are largely unjustified.

This naturally raises another set of questions which Heterodox Academy failed to ask. If Damore and Wax were mostly right, then why did their critics respond to their assertions with such vehement anger? What was their thinking, and why? What was the empirical basis of their claims? What was their rationale? How well was it reasoned?

Their analyses are focused in the wrong direction. They’re looking at effects, and seem unaware of possible causes.

In “Sociological Paradigms and Organizational Analysis,” Derek Coursen attempts to identify the fundamental tension that defines the ideological divide that dominates Western culture and to question whether the “Two Incompatible Sacred Values at American Universities”—the telos of truth and the telos of social justice—accurately describe it. Drawing on the work of Gibson Burrell and Gareth Morgan, Coursen examines the current polarization in terms of two basic questions:

  1. Is society fundamentally about cooperation or about conflict?
  2. Is it possible to say anything objectively true about society, or not?

Coursen explains that:

Burrell and Morgan posited two dimensions on which to locate sociological theories. With regard to the nature of society, the poles represent an emphasis on order and stability (“regulation”) rather than on conflict and radical change. With regard to the nature of social science, the poles represent whether researchers take their work to be an objective approach to an objective reality (following traditions drawn from the natural sciences), or, alternatively, consider that work as necessarily fraught with subjectivity. The resulting orthogonal axes separate four quadrants.

Burrell and Morgan’s Two Dimensional Chart

I have two issues with this. First, why ask those two questions? Why not ask questions like “Is the mind a blank slate at birth?”; “What is the fundamental unit of society?”; “Does liberty mean freedom from or freedom to?” and “What is liberty’s greatest enemy?” We could ask almost any two such questions and create a graph with four quadrants that describe the political divide. We could potentially come up with hundreds of them. How helpful would that be?

But, more importantly, Coursen, Burell and Morgan all focus on what people think, not how they think. They focus on the outcomes of social thinking, not the thinking process itself. They focus on effects, not causes, fish not water.

Imagine if Coursen, Burell and Morgan were medical doctors assessing a sick patient, and they concluded that he has a high fever, congested sinuses and bodily aches, but never paused to consider what might be causing those symptoms: a virus, an infection, an allergy etc., even though the answer would determine the most effective treatment. An antibiotic might cure an infection, but it does next to nothing for an allergic reaction. Antihistamines might relieve the symptoms of an allergy, but they’re of little help against an infection. Neither of those treatments will do much good—and might do great harm—if the cause is a virus. Administering aspirin, for example, to a person with a virus can result in brain and liver damage due to Reyes syndrome. If the cause is an infection, alleviating the symptoms with an antihistamine might allow the patient to feel better in the short term, but in the longer term it may allow the infection to worsen. Making the right diagnosis—finding the true root cause of the effects the patient is presenting—is the crux of the matter.

We should be just as eager to ferret out the root causes of social problems as we are for medical problems. Instead, we’re content to accept whatever analysis sounds right to us at that moment, and whatever treatment plan seems right, taken at face value. We notice that science, education and the advancement of knowledge suffer when everybody shares the same viewpoint, so we conclude that increasing viewpoint diversity must be the cure. Have a fever? Take some aspirin.

Jonathan Haidt’s early work focused on understanding root causes. See, for example his TED Talk “The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives” and his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. But, more recently, he has switched to looking at effects such as “Incompatible Sacred Values,” the cultural trends behind The Coddling of the American Mind and the different ways in which we interpret capitalism. As a result, he misses a key moral foundation which is possibly the central cause that determines one’s moral roots.

According to Haidt, the first principle of moral psychology is intuition comes first and reasoning follows. If this is true then shouldn’t we be trying to understand where such intuitions come from, rather than focusing on the values, beliefs and reasoning which follow from them? Shouldn’t we be looking for causes, rather than studying their effects, the water not the fish?

The Water

The fundamental tension that defines the political divide is between two different psychological profiles—two ways of thinking, two operating systems, like Mac and PC—evident through at least 2, 400 years of human history. These are the causes from which the effects follow. They’re the water in which we fish all swim, unaware of its existence.

Arthur Herman metaphorically depicts these two cognitive styles as Plato and Aristotle, in his book The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization:

Despite their differences, Plato and Aristotle agreed on many things. They both stressed the importance of reason as our guide for understanding and shaping the world. Both believed that our physical world is shaped by certain eternal forms that are more real than matter. The difference was that Plato’s forms existed outside matter, whereas Aristotle’s forms were unrealizable without it.

Herman traces the intellectual thread of these two ways of thinking from the time of Plato and Aristotle right up to today, and concludes:

The twentieth century’s greatest ideological conflicts do mark the violent unfolding of a Platonist versus Aristotelian view of what it means to be free and how reason and knowledge ultimately fit into our lives.

Herman and Haidt are not the only, or even the first, observers to recognize that two opposing cognitive styles dominate social thought. Thomas Sowell identified them as the “constrained” and “unconstrained” visions in his book, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. Michael Oakeshott recognized them as “practical” knowledge and “technical” knowledge, and the kinds of thinking associated with each, in his book Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. William James classified them as the “tough-minded” and the “tender-minded” personality types. Michael Sandel’s concept of the “situated” self and the “unencumbered” self fits with the paradigm of the Aristotelian and Platonic cognitive styles. John R. Hibbing, Kevin B. Smith and John R. Alford suggest biology-based explanations of left and right in their book, Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences.

It’s not what people think that defines the ideological divide, it’s how they think. The ideological divide is not a contest between the viewpoints held by people like Wax and Damore and those of their critics. It’s a contest between the cognitive processes from which such viewpoints follow.

I’d like to suggest a new principle of moral psychology that precedes Haidt’s first principle, a zeroth principle of moral psychology: psychological profile comes first, and intuitions follow. The missing moral foundation is cognitive style. This is the concept proposed in Towards a Cognitive Theory of Politics.

Solving the Riddle

Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier solved the riddle of the supposed flaws of human reasoning when they changed our basic assumption about its evolved purpose. The well-documented failures of our ability to solve basic logical problems—and the dozens of biases to which we are prone—had baffled researchers who assumed that reason evolved to help us make better decisions and find truth. But the confusion was resolved when Sperber and Mercier proposed an alternative assumption: reason evolved to help us win arguments. Armed with this new assumption about the evolutionary purpose of reasoning, the flaws and the biases inherent to it suddenly made sense: they’re not flaws at all, they’re features, doing exactly what natural selection designed.

The same sort of epiphany occurs when one grasps the concept of the cognitive theory of politics (introduced here, detailed here). Left and right are best understood as psychological profiles (the water), from which all beliefs, values, principles and policies (the fish) follow.

Psychological profiles are made up of two main aspects: 1) cognitive style and 2) moral matrix. The former arguably determines the latter. There are two predominant cognitive styles and two predominant moral matrices.

The two cognitive styles are WEIRD Platonic idealism and holistic Aristotelian empiricism. (WEIRD is an acronym for the cultures in which the style is typically found: Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic). WEIRD Platonic idealism tends to be hyper-rationalist, and to revere pure reason as the path to moral truth. It tends toward reason-based choice, in which the preferred path forward is the one that can be best explained. This way of thinking regards the world as full of objects, some of which happen to walk around on two legs. Holistic Aristotelian empiricism thinks more in terms of stories, along the lines of the analects of Confucius. It accepts that some things can be true even if reason alone cannot explain why. It sees a world full of relationships, rather than objects. These two modes of thought are described by Haidt in The Righteous Mind (from which the ideas in this paragraph are mostly drawn), and by Thomas Sowell in his book, A Conflict of Visions. The political left leans toward WEIRD Platonic thinking. The right leans toward holistic Aristotelian thinking.

The moral matrices are the three-foundation leftist matrix and the all-foundation conservative matrix Haidt describes in his TED Talk and in his book.

The two cognitive styles and the two moral matrices I propose are the psychology-based—i.e., cause- rather than effect-based—endpoints of an orthogonal X–Y axis of psychological profiles, along which practically all ideologies can be located.

Messenger’s Two Dimensional Chart

Viewed through this lens, our blurred vision of the partisan divide clears up like ground fog burning off after sunrise. The political left leans toward the Platonic-thinking one-foundation profile, the right leans toward the Aristotelian-thinking all-foundation profile. I say “leans toward” because the difference between left and right is not that of black-and-white binary dichotomies. Rather, it involves statistically significant trends and tendencies, averages and aggregates: overlapping bell curves with different peaks. These two profiles are the psychological causes from which the effects of beliefs, values, and ideologies follow.

This theory provides us with a clearer grasp on history, too. For example, the French revolutionaries were Platonic idealists, while the American founders were, as a group, Aristotelian empiricists.

Again, it’s not what we think that divides us, it’s how. Trying to fix the divide with viewpoint diversity or compromise seems to me like a doctor trying to cure an infection by reducing the fever it caused. It may comfort the infected person and make the doctor feel better about himself, but it does little to address the root of the problem. It may even mask the problem and allow it to fester. We need to find different, possibly more effective, solutions, such as that outlined in the essay, “Understanding Human Nature is the Best Way of Fixing Our Political Culture.

This is water.



    1. “I’m not sure what use a two-dimensional model is which leaves two quadrants (top right and bottom left) empty.”

      They aren’t necessarily empty. I’m sure you could find people or schools of thought all over the map. Also, it’s fine not to use axes that leave the dimensions independent. For example, the height and weight of people are fairly strongly correlated. We use those two numbers to describe the size of people, even though a coordinate change to, say, ‘size’ and ‘fatness’ might make things more independent.

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