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Cognitive Science Advice for Republicans and Democrats?

The upcoming US elections have revived the culture wars but so far controversy about science and biotechnology has not taken centre stage, as both candidates support stem cell research. But science is still playing a minor role in the discussion. Writing in the New York Times, the influential conservative pundit David Brooks recently gave advice to his fellow Republicans. In recent years, he argues, they have come to endorse a rampant libertarian individualism and forgotten about the importance of social connections and bonds, once a core conservative value. This form of criticism is old and familiar. What is new is the form it now takes. What is wrong is wrong about the individualist outlook, Brooks argues, is that it is false to human nature, a fact apparently revealed by recent research in cognitive science, neuroscience, genetics, and behavioural economics, which has rediscovered the ‘old truth’—“that we are intensely social creatures, deeply interconnected with one another and the idea of the lone individual rationally and willfully steering his own life course is often an illusion.”

How has science shown that? Cognitive science has shown, Brooks tells us, that decision-making is often influenced by social context—by shared frames and biases. Neuroscience has shown that we have ‘mirror neurons’ that allow us to understand others by internally imitating their actions. Genetics has shown a significant heritable component in behavioural dispositions, behavioural economics has shown that individuals are not efficient utility maximizers, and so forth. All of which is correct, so far as it goes. But how does any of this show individualism to be false, or contrary to human nature? The basic point is familiar: Libertarian individualism is largely a normative thesis, a claim about how we should live and relate to each other, not an empirical claim about people’s minds. And presumably ‘individualists’ do not deny that individuals can empathize with others, or can be influenced by social context, or are not always fully rational. As for our genetic inheritance, doesn’t the genetic influence on minds and behaviour, which makes us different from each other in ways resistant to social influence, not lend equal support for the individualist outlook?

Cognitive science apparently also has important lessons for Democrats. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt thinks it can help his fellow Democrats understand what makes people vote Republican. Instead of sneering about their rivals’ tendency for black and white thinking and fear of uncertainty and complexity, Democrats should look to recent cognitive science (and in particular to Haidt’s own work) to see how their views are false to human nature. Haidt’s study of the psychology has revealed that “morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way.” The liberalism of the left, inspired by Mill’s ‘harm principle’, has emphasized some aspects of our moral psychology at the expense of others. For human are also born with psychological systems that incline them to value their own group, to be concerned with social hierarchy and authority, and to care about purity (and be disgusted by threats to it). The conservative worldview encompasses these aspects of human psychology; the liberal worldview rejects or represses them—and the repressed returns to haunt it in the form of President Bush and repeated Republican victories. Haidt’s advice is that Democrats loosen up their morality and learn to love patriotism, authority and purity—or is the advice rather that Democrats should cynically package their existing views in ways that also resonate with these ‘psychological systems’?

After pressing Republicans with a crash course in the recent science of the mind, Brooks returns to old fashioned normative argument: pointing out why certain things should be valued, and why certain policies don’t work or have bad consequences. And something like a normative argument is also at the background of some of Haidt’s remarks. Isn’t he really saying that, deep down, liberals also care about country, society and purity, that these are things that really do matter, even if not in the way conservatives think they do?

But if there are these good old fashioned normative arguments, what work is all the fancy talk about the latest science doing? Isn’t it just a clever rhetorical device meant to give a familiar point the stamp of scientific authority? Everyone knows how hard it is to convince others by pure moral and political argument (a point that Haidt’s research amply confirms). Even the plain facts can be in dispute: whether some politician is shamelessly lying or merely misspeaking and being maliciously misinterpreted. If only we could replace rancorous political shouting with the calm consensus of science! But that itself is an illusion: there is no avoiding the hard normative questions of what we ought to do, what is just and right. But am I saying the all the recent scientific work is simply irrelevant? There is no simple path from is to ought, but that doesn’t mean that these two words cannot be brought together. The topic is too big to be dealt with in a blog post. How should facts about human nature constrain moral and political thinking—is it true, for example, that communism is to be rejected because it is incompatible with human nature (a normative claim)—something conservatives have insisted on for many decades. Is this shown to be correct by the collapse of the Soviet Union (an empirical fact)? Or should facts about human nature only inform the means by which we pursue independent aims—for example, do facts about human biases and irrationality support a form of benign paternalism, as Thaler and Sunstein have recently argued?

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1 Comment on this post

  1. How much does the Republican/Libertarian argument depend on free will? That is, there’s more than brain-structures that induce particular action in and beliefs about a persons roles in society. There’s culture and what one learns in a particular school-yard, neighborhood and family that shapes a person’s actions in and beliefs about society and ethics – what the right thing to do in a particular case, and how to live.

    On the other hand, I still tend to individualism and toward being Libertarian. Why is that?

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