In my article on November 12, 2008, I discussed the need to build a progressive empathetic foundation to at least match if not surpass the well developed and obesely funded conservative single-party foundation that brought us torture, preemptive war and now an economic disaster to compare with no less than The Great Depression. In my article on November 25, 2008, I discussed replacing the “you’re on your own,” “empathy deficit,” conservative cognitive policy with an empathic progressive cognitive policy. In this posting, I will try to describe the two individual worldviews behind these policies.
We are a country with basically a two party system. These two parties have come to represent two worldviews: conservative and progressive. We are also a country where our brains have two modes of thought which coincide with these two worldviews. These worldview are impacted by our capacity, or lack there of, for empathy, which can easily be killed by fear.
This posting reviews the history of these two worldviews, what some of the latest research says about the two modes of thought which support these two worldviews and what research on the brain says about empathy and its affect on these worldviews.
Thom Hartmann’s book Cracking the Code provides a detailed history of the conservative and progressive worldviews. It also includes footnotes and excerpts from historical writings by the authors that laid the foundation for conservative and progressive worldviews.
Here is Hartmann’s summary on the history of the conservative worldview from chapter one of Cracking the Code:
Conservatives, believing [Thomas] Hobbes‘s view of human nature to be inviolable cannot conceive of the possibility that civilizations can exist without constant warfare or an iron-fisted Church or State to prevent that warfare. This is the original modern conservative story. Conservatives believe in what Riane Eisler and others have called the dominator culture. They believe that human nature must be dominated for human societies to flourish because without constraint by domination the essentially evil nature of humans will emerge and society will dissolve into chaos.
Conservatives believe that government must be restrained and controlled precisely because it’s made up of flawed human beings, “the governed.” This is why they’re willing to allow corporations to take powers — like controlling our health-care system — that they would never allow to government. Corporations are essentially independent entities and totally without morality (and, thus, without immorality or evil). Being amoral they’re less dangerous in the conservative mind than a government controlled by humans, particularly the vast majority of people (whom John Adams called “the rabble”) because those people are, at their core, evil.
The conservatives’ core belief is that if our essential (evil) human nature is not restrained by something — God or priests or corporate bosses [? also humans] — harm will come to society. This is why conservative morality is nearly always focused on restraining individual behavior, particularly private behavior (With whom you are having sex and in what positions or ways? What you are smoking, drinking or snorting? Is there a fetus growing inside you?). And why they’re enthusiastic to “privatize” functions of government [privateering is what is happening], taking the commons out of the hands of We the (evil) People and putting it into the hands of morality-neutral corporations that, in their minds, answer only to a mechanistic and morally neutral “free market.”
In the 1600s, when Thomas Hobbes developed his philosophy, England was suffering from significant social, economic and political turmoil. His major work, Leviathan, was written during the English Civil War. Here is the essence of Leviathan:
Beginning from a mechanistic understanding of human beings and their passions, Hobbes postulates what life would be like without government, a condition which he calls the state of nature. In that state, each person would have a right, or license, to everything in the world. This inevitably leads to conflict, a “war of all against all” (bellum omnium contra omnes), and thus lives that are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (xiii).
To escape this state of war, men in the state of nature accede to a social contract and establish a civil society. According to Hobbes, society is a population beneath a sovereign authority, to whom all individuals in that society cede their natural rights for the sake of protection. Any abuses of power by this authority are to be accepted as the price of peace. However, he also states that in severe cases of abuse, rebellion is expected. In particular, the doctrine of separation of powers is rejected: the sovereign must control civil, military, judicial and ecclesiastical powers. [This reminds me of the unitary presidency of George Bush.]
Later in chapter 1 of Cracking the Code, Hartmann references another British philosopher from the 1600s, and Thomas Jefferson. This British philosopher, John Locke, who was born when Hobbes was 44 years old and about 14 years before the publication of Leviathan, provided the foundation for progressive philosophy to rebut Hobbes. Around 1689 Locke wrote Two Treatises on Government.
The First Treatise is focused on the refutation of Sir Robert Filmer, in particular his Patriarcha which argued that civil society was founded on a divinely-sanctioned patriarchalism. Locke proceeds through Filmer’s arguments, contesting his proofs from Scripture and ridiculing them as senseless, until concluding that no government can be justified by an appeal to the divine right of kings.
The Second Treatise outlines a theory of civil society. Locke begins by describing the state of nature, a picture much more stable than Thomas Hobbes’ state of “war of every man against every man,” and argues that all men are created equal in the state of nature by God. From this, he goes on to explain the hypothetical rise of property and civilization, in the process explaining that the only legitimate governments are those which have the consent of the people. Thus, any government that rules without the consent of the people can, in theory, be overthrown.
Thomas Jefferson based some of our Declaration of Independence on Locke’s writings. As documented in Cracking the Code, Locke wrote the following:
Man being born, as has been proved, with a title to perfect freedom, and an uncontrouled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of nature, equally with any other man, or number of men in the world, hath by nature a power not only to preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty and estate against the injuries and attempts of other men …
From this, Jefferson wrote:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed …
Here are Hartmann’s statements on progressives, also from chapter 1 of Cracking the Code:
Liberals speak of using the government for positive ends, but they don’t mean to further restrain people. Instead liberals believe that the role of government is to provide a framework within which individuals can achieve their maximum potential.
The closer we can all come to our true human nature, the better, liberals believe. Instead of restraining human nature, liberals want to promote it.
What should be restrained, in the liberal worldview, are those amoral institutions — like corporations — that serve to lock humans into particular social and/or economic roles that prevent both individual and societal self-realization and achievement of our essential human nature (Jefferson’s happiness).
This is why liberal morality is nearly always focused on providing for the needs of individuals within society — and was so well articulated by Jesus in the Beatitudes and Matthew 25 when He said, essentially, that we couldn’t claim morality if there were hungry, homeless, sick, thirsty, or imprisoned people among us whose needs are not being met.
(Does the word empathy come to mind after reading these statements on the liberal worldview?)
As a lead-in to the brain’s modes of thought that represent the conservative and progressive worldviews, here are a few more statements from Hartmann on Hobbes and Locke:
It’s interesting to note that Hobbes was born in a time of great poverty and upheaval in the England of the 1630s (which was then a third-rate power, its economy eclipsed by the Dutch and Spanish trading companies until the mid-1600s, when the British East India Company began successfully competing world-wide). He noted how poverty makes people desperate, and desperate people can be dangerous people. London was filled with them. And he assumed that such poverty and “criminal” behavior was the norm of all societies that preceded “civilization.”
Locke, on the other hand, was writing as the East India Company and British colonialism were having considerable economic successes, the Enlightenment was taking hold, and a more substantial middle class was emerging in England. He looked at the behavior of London’s emerging middle class as a more accurate reflection of the “natural” state of humanity.
Conservatives may well be right about the “true nature” of people — when they’re desperate. Liberals may well be right about the “true nature” of people — when their basic needs are met and they feel safe and secure.
The above excerpt implies that the conservative or progressive worldview could be driven by the environment that one grows up in and is surrounded by. Well, recent research by George Lakoff and others into cognitive linguistics shows that the conservative and progressive worldviews are actually programmed into the brain as we grow.
Their research, as documented in The Political Mind and on the RockRidge Institute web site, resulted in two idealized models of the family. These two models “come with distinct moral systems that are founded on different assumptions about the world, interpret shared values such as responsibility or fairness differently, and center around different moral priorities.” (Sound like something else you just read?)
(An interesting and related occurrence: When I googled “wiki The Political Mind,” the first result was a link to George Lakoff. The second was a link to John Locke.)
In The Nation as a Family, the Rockridge Institute concludes part 1 with:
In other words, our beliefs about what a family should be exert a powerful influence over our beliefs about what kind of society we should build. For instance, those with a strong Strict Father model are likely to support a more punitive welfare or foreign policy than someone with a strong Nurturant Parent model, who are likely to favor more cooperative approaches. Those with a strong Nurturant Parent model are more likely to favor social policies that ensure the well-being of people such as health care and education, whereas someone with a strong Strict Father model would object to social programs in favor of promoting self-reliance [“You’re on your own.”].
In The Conservative Worldview section of The Nation as a Family, the strong Strict Father model results in the conservative worldview:
- “The world is, and always will be, a dangerous and difficult place.”
- “It is a competitive world and there will always be winners and losers.”
- “Children are naturally bad since they want to do what feels good, not what is moral, so they have to be made good by being taught discipline.”
- “There is tangible evil in the world and to stand up to evil, one must be morally strong, or ‘disciplined.'”
In The Progressive Worldview section of The Nation as a Family, the strong Nurturant Parent model results in the progressive worldview:
- “It is assumed that the world is basically good.”
- “… however dangerous and difficult the world may be at present, it can be made better, and it is your responsibility to help make it better.”
- “… children are born good, and parents can make them better, and it is their responsibility to do so.”
- “Both parents (if there are two) are responsible for running the household and raising the children, although they may divide their activities. “
- “The parents’ job is to be responsive to their children, nurture them, and raise their children to nurture others.”
- “Nurturance requires empathy and responsibility.”
In The Political Mind, Lakoff discusses empathy and its importance in promoting the progressive worldview:
Empathy is at the center of the progressive moral worldview. …
… Empathy is normal, and it takes special education (such as basic training in the army), a special heartlessness, or a brain injury to disengage it.
In short, empathy is morally powerful, and its political power seems to arise from its moral force, which in turn is a consequence of the brain structure …
There is a moral here for progressives: The more they can activate empathy in the public, the more support will be available to them and the worse conservatives will do. Correspondingly, the more conservatives can generate fear in the public, the more support they will generate, and the more they will inhibit support for progressives.
If this is true, then progressives should be talking more about their moral worldview — about empathy, responsibility, and hope — rather than accepting fear-based frames to think and talk within. Instead of moving to the right and activating the conservative worldview, stay without your own moral universe and activate the progressive world view.
… We are born to empathize and cooperate.
American democracy was founded on the politics of empathy and responsibility, with the role of government being protection and empowerment. From these flow the progressive ideals of equality, freedom, fairness, opportunity, general prosperity, accountability, and so on.
Over the past few years, I have had discussions with my daughter about religions and what causes them to go bad or do good. I have had similar discussions with a libertarian coworker about government versus corporations and which is more likely to go bad or do good. Whether it is religion, government, large corporations, a family, or anything in between, they are all controlled or supported by all of us. And we have the ability to use these institutions for good or bad. One religion can be used against another or it can be used to help the least of us. One government can wage war against another or even against it’s own citizens, or it can help bring peace to other waring nations. Corporations can put profit above all else or work with it’s stakeholders to still make a profit. One member of a family can abuse another or can treat all family members with respect.
Either way, we Americans, with our history and worldviews, are responsible for what these institutions accomplish – good or bad – and empathy and fear are critical factors.
I close with a quote from George Washington, our first liberal president, “As Mankind becomes more liberal, they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protections of civil government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations of justice and liberality [The trait of being generous in behavior and temperament].”