My Damaged Brain

It’s always refreshing to learn that others think you’re mentally ill. Not mentally deficient, which would imply that if I learned enough I would be better, but sick in the head.

And I’m not talking about the standard “brain-damaged male” motif that I learned about so long ago; i.e., that male babies, bathed in testosterone in utero, emerge with damaged brains. Male brains. Same thing, apparently.

Guilty as charged.

But this is different: this has to do with those of us who consider ourselves to be conservative versus those who are liberal. The contention, expressed in the opening of “What Makes People Vote Republican?” by Jonathan Haidt, is that being a conservative, much less a Republican, is a mental illness:

… now that we can map the brains, genes, and unconscious attitudes of conservatives, we have refined our diagnosis: conservatism is a partially heritable personality trait that predisposes some people to be cognitively inflexible, fond of hierarchy, and inordinately afraid of uncertainty, change, and death. People vote Republican because Republicans offer “moral clarity” — a simple vision of good and evil that activates deep seated fears in much of the electorate. Democrats, in contrast, appeal to reason with their long-winded explorations of policy options for a complex world.

So Republicans do not respond to reason, while Democrats do not respond to references to good and evil. I love the assertion of intellectual superiority on the part of the author and the author’s peers, but the point seems sound that one side of the aisle operates under a moral relativism while the other prefers a clearer, more concrete morality.

The author examines this by considering morality and social contracts, primarily contrasting a hypothetical society based on John Stuart Mill’s assertions with one based on Emile Durkheim’s. This leads him to present the following distinctions between conservatives and liberals:

… people who call themselves strongly liberal endorse statements related to the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity foundations [of morality], and they largely reject statements related to ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. People who call themselves strongly conservative, in contrast, endorse statements related to all five foundations more or less equally…. We think of the moral mind as being like an audio equalizer, with five slider switches for different parts of the moral spectrum. Democrats generally use a much smaller part of the spectrum than do Republicans. The resulting music may sound beautiful to other Democrats, but it sounds thin and incomplete to many of the swing voters that left the party in the 1980s, and whom the Democrats must recapture if they want to produce a lasting political realignment.

So rational Democrats use only a fraction of the “moral spectrum,” rejecting other parts that irrational Republicans include in their approach to the world. And being Republican is a mark of mental illness, as implied above. Isn’t it at least possible that the author has it backward, that liberals and Democrats, however intellectual, are morally stunted?

If Democrats want to understand what makes people vote Republican, they must first understand the full spectrum of American moral concerns. They should then consider whether they can use more of that spectrum themselves.

If my damaged brain is why I am more of a conservative than a liberal (in modern terms), I wonder if it also explains why I feel I need a relationship with God to anchor my life. That’s part of the Anti-Candidate position on FAITH & FAMILY, recently posted over in the forum:

It took us awhile to accede to the faith of our parents — we thought we were too intellectual and sophisticated when we were younger — but having accepted it we did our best to pass it on to our children. And for one key reason: because faith provides an anchor in troubled times, and lifts our vision beyond our current situation and limited circumstances to consider the wider world and our proper place in it.

But that’s just me, and I’m brain-damaged. So don’t take my word for it: give it a try yourself. And let me know how it goes.

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0 Responses to My Damaged Brain

  1. dbergeron says:

    I just sit here clinging to God and my guns…