After spending a couple of weeks with liberal George Lakoff and Corey Robin’s sometimes objective but definitively contrarian takes on the conservative mind, it was refreshing to get a more positive perspective, even one from yet another liberal, Jonathan Haidt, in The Happiness Hypothesis. “A society without liberals,” he writes, “would be harsh and oppressive to many individuals. A society without conservatives,” he continues, “would lose many of its social structures and constraints that Durkheim showed are so valuable…A good place to look for wisdom, therefore, is where you least expect to find it: in the minds of your opponents.” It is in this balance, East and West, old and new, conservative and liberal, that we are most likely to find satisfaction and happiness.
But more striking is the metaphor Professor Haidt uses in describing conservatism. Human society, he says, like the world of Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, has two dimensions, the horizontal dimension of closeness and liking, and a vertical one of hierarchy or status. We instinctively understand more closeness to friends and family, and less with others in our lives; and have an instinct for hierarchy, with superiors and subordinates. And then, Haidt says, one day you see or feel something special which lifts you up, along what he denotes as the Z axis, and which he labels “divinity”, even for those who are agnostic or atheist.
Liberals maximize freedom and autonomy; conservatives find purpose in the divinity of the three-dimensional world; for them, “hell on earth is a flat land of unlimited freedom where selves roam around with no higher purpose than expressing and developing themselves.”
In being liberal, or in being conservative, something is gained, but something is lost; and that seems to be a good starting place for examining the conservative and the liberal minds.