Why we’re all a little liberal and a little conservative
One of the grandfathers of both conservative and liberal thinking is the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume. Hume believed that people did not have a constant character: rather, that the self emerged from the bundling of different sensations and perceptions.
Findings from neuroscience in recent decades have substantiated this: we develop neural networks, particularly but not exclusively in sensitive periods such as early childhood and adolescence, which form a multitude of processes that are stimulated in different environments. In other words, the unique social experiences we encounter mix with our genetic profile to form the different dispositions we have at different points in time. As Professor Bruce Hood shows in his new book The Self Illusion, it is often the reflected opinions of others in different social networks which modifies our behaviour and attitudes.
So the self is malleable; our tastes and views changeable: “In other words, there is no homogenous ‘backcloth’ to our world”, says the esteemed cultural psychologist Richard Shweder, “we are multiple from the start”.
As neuroscience teaches us more about human nature and development, what does this mean for how we govern societies? Shared liberal and conservative principles – markets, freedom, spreading opportunity and scepticism – seem to me most fitting.
First, markets make providers of goods and services responsive to the demands of consumers; they are not always equitable or efficient, hence why government intervention is sometimes necessary. But, when they do work, they enable people to exercise choice, reflecting the fluctuating and unique preferences people have. If the state commands economic output, it will fail to meet the plurality of demand, and there will be little incentive to design new goods to meet nascent human wants.
Second, freedom matters: if attitudes and preferences change, it is right that people are given space to explore them. Sure, live your life by your own code: but let others do the same. Our legal framework should thus reflect this. Maximising freedom gives space for people to pursue the values they currently more strongly hold; and this philosophy of laissez-faire is common to both conservative and liberals.
Markets, however, are sometimes attacked for encouraging apparently baser human instincts: competition, materialism and making money. Such critics often liken themselves with nobler virtues: empathy, caring and volunteering. Condemning or even trying to minimise the behaviour of those who want to live prioritising those allegedly more distasteful instincts is an attack on their freedom. Anyway, these instincts aren’t always exclusive: just look at the growing social investment market in the UK, where investors invest in socially beneficial activity that generates a financial return. Yet still there are attempts to categorise people, to box their behaviour, so one can justify one’s own behaviour as right against someone else who is wrong.
The truth of course is that nearly all of us are guided by these different impulses, stronger and weaker at different points in time, and they are more universal than many people would like to believe. However, as status and identity matter so much to us, because we are social animals where meaning and belonging in a social group is important, we are so desperate to carve out the differences between us, rather than recognise the many similarities. This is about asserting the self, even though the self is fluid. So, for example, we get self-identified “lefties” automatically believing the same things: Israel is bad, big business is evil, Tories are vile. They are adopting the norms of the group they identify with – since mimicry is an essential part of mental processing – rather than forming well-considered individual standpoints.
This tribalism stifles and discriminates. This is why we need to erode the constructed barriers, and discourage the belligerency, between different social groups. This supports another crucial principle of liberalism and conservativism: extending opportunity. For this gives space for people to explore new networks and new perspectives, facilitating greater understanding and tolerance.
Finally, scepticism matters. The potency of socialisation means it is important to recognise the flimsiness of convictions, knowing how much they are contextualised. As such, people should respect that others hold diverging views. You may disagree, but as moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt notes, you should be aware that the alternative is still often “an equally heartfelt vision of the good society”.
So there should be appreciation of how little we know: the richness of what came before us, and the wonders that still await and are presently unknown. Indeed, good-intentioned folk with clever ideas often try to impose their worldview on others, through legislation and social pressure. It’s vital to remain cautious of those who try to implant their grand plans on the current social order, unless the evidence is overwhelmingly compelling. Alternative viewpoints and lifestyles, if not harmful, should be protected and encouraged, not destroyed.
The fusion of liberal and conservative ideas offers a compelling and progressive vision for society, where two insights from neuroscience are cherished: the changeability of individuals – and, by and large, our fundamental sameness.
Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue, a group campaigning for liberal conservatismTagged in: Bruce Hood, David Hume, Jonathan Haidt, Neuroscience
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