Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Faith Breaks the Golden Rule

Mini-epiphany time! (Macro-explanation time!) I think I just put my finger on why I’ve become more and more repelled by the concept of faith.  For years I’ve been thinking this was because of the strictly interior rational deconstruction of my own reasoning faculties.  I’ve said many times now that I believe my epistemology is broken.  Not in the sense that it must be wrong.  But in the sense that it puts me out of phase with society.  As a social animal, any anomalous behavior, beliefs, attractions, etc. are little ‘breaks’ from social cohesion and acceptance. So the fact that I can’t ‘sign on the dotted line’ for practically ANY belief structure makes me an outsider to everyone. (at least on some level) My failure to be able to put my stamp of belief-approval on anything is not from lack of trying.  Being raised a Christian and having very close ties in that institution, and nothing but positive experiences from it, meant that I naturally tried as hard as I could to keep believing all the doctrines that would maintain my social cohesion and acceptance in that group. My drifting away from it/them was never a case of finding some “more real” Truth with a capital T out there that defied or contradicted those doctrines.  The drifting away from my faith was strictly driven by the slow revelation that I’m a terrible machine for interpreting reality.  

Cognitive biases, brain sciences, education about other religions and philosophies, all chipped away at my epistemological bedrock.  The one MOST people still have intact.  It’s the one where you can say you “just know that’s true” like a political ideal, an economic principal, an educational maxim; a personal gut instinct telling you not to back down no matter what others say.  It’s the thing that propels passionate people to do powerful things.  I broke that mechanism.  I’m now mostly powerless.

This is not say that I don’t hold convictions.  I do.  But they are ephemeral.  Contingent on new facts, interpretations and analysis.  

Which is what all educated people are trained to say about themselves.  But their manner of conduct when it comes to confrontations with opposing beliefs reveal just how true or false the claim is. Do they Strawman or Ironman their interlocutor’s argument?  Do they sincerely research the opposing side’s material?  Do they ever back down to say: “I could be wrong. Let me do more research.”?  It’s easy to count cognitive biases and logical fallacies when you’re removed from an argument.  And it’s such a delightful feeling to Monday Morning Quarterback someone else’s exchange, pointing out how *I* would never make this or that mistake because I’m so well read on the subject of cognitive biases and logical fallacies. I’m sure you can find plenty of those in this blog.  My point is not that my broken epistemology frees me from cognitive biases and logical fallacies.  Only that it removes the incentive to convert anyone to my ideas.  I don’t get those dopamine infusions when someone relents to my impeccable logic and yells “I WAS WRONG! TELL ME MORE ABOUT YOUR BRILLIANT IDEAS!” You know, that thing that constantly happens in internet debates.

Ok, so that never happens, but in that hypothetical scenario, I don’t ‘win’ anything.  No good feeling.  No vindication.  Why?  Because for all I know I just convinced someone of something that’s totally wrong and is going to negatively impact their lives and society around them.  I don’t think I’ve recently ‘converted’ anyone from one position to another, but I’ve had plenty of exchanges where they have softened their position and acknowledged that there may be some merit to parts of my argument.  Back in the day that was a huge rush.  Back in the day that was me saving a soul from hell or helping to make our country great again.  Now I don’t even know what those words are SUPPOSED to mean, let alone what they actually mean.

Which leads me (a little closer) to my point.  The word “faith” means so many things to so many people it would be a fool’s errand to try to define it here.  But I can simply use the word according to the way *I* have used it and how it impacted me throughout my life.  For me it meant accepting the validity of doctrine that had been handed down to me, without recourse to falsification, logical consistency, or definitional variation.  Don’t get me wrong, all of those things are, in fact, strongly encouraged -to a degree- in my religious tradition.  But the degree to pursue these projects have fairly strict boundaries that, once one crosses, sets one squarely outside of “the faith”.  Which is precisely what happened to me.  I witnessed first-hand the post-hoc rationalization for why my autistic sister was never un-autisticafied, why my missionary/pastor church member died of cancer despite many churches in many countries praying against, thus negating any attempt at falsification of claims. One must simply have faith that the lack of healing had a higher purpose. (Could be. It’s not even worth the dispute to me.)  I witnessed the parsing of texts in order to fully accept a God who ordered multiple genocides and the rape of girls with the God who IS Love.  The God who loves the smell of burnt sacrifices and the eternal torment of the wicked with the God who forgives 70x7.  When un-contradicting these apparent contradictions is the bread and butter of theology, it sends a pretty strong message that no amount of apparent contradiction is enough to breach the dam of determination to stay faithful to the doctrines.  I witnessed the public shaming of any evangelical leaders who dared to point to variant readings and interpretive frameworks that might ameliorate these apparent contradictions in heterodox or heretical way. (e.g. God doesn’t know the future, eternal hell is not real, etc.)  People who pointed out the etymology for the Latin word that got used to render a Hebrew word that clearly doesn’t always mean ‘eternal’.  The people who think Paul’s admonition about the evils of homosexuality are closer to his opinion that long hair is “unnatural” on a man, than the admonition of perfect commands handed down by a God who is super upset by unusual sex. (Again, I’m not ARGUING for the validity of any of the “orthodox” or “heretical” positions here.  I have NO IDEA which is right or wrong or some other intermediate state, or completely invalidated by some OTHER truth.)

The need to stay within the boundaries set by my inherited doctrine is how I interpret “faith”.  How do I, after years of intense and sincere research, come to a place where I’m on the wrong side of that belief divide, and still claim to “have faith”?  Simple.  I don’t.  I still have many of the same hopes that Christians do.  I still feel and call myself a follower of Christ.  (I don’t care whether my positions place me inside or outside of anyone’s particular definition of Christianity.)  But I don’t BELIEVE those things anymore.  Not because I discovered anything BETTER. But, as described above, my epistemology broke and I lack the engine to continue to sign on the dotted line.  

Since I lost the ability to order my life around a set of religious doctrines, I had to find a substitute.  Not because I need a crutch, but because all human activity requires a set of values in order to arrange and enact literally any activity.  Once religious doctrine fell away, I was left with the underlying values.  And the primary value under all that turned out to be Love.  My Christian heritage has taught me that absent from the Christian doctrines, any attempt to promote or embody Love is doomed to failure.  Oh well.  That’s still my life’s goal and organizing principal value.  God is free to use me or not.  As broken as I am, and disconnected from the human zeitgeist. But God will have to use a different handle than faith if I am still to be an instrument.  

And now my small epiphany.  I’ve explained how I’m broken. I’ve explained how I lost the ability to faith. Now I’m realizing that it’s not the broken epistemology that is actually at the emotional core of my resistance to faith.  It’s actually the Golden Rule. Is it irony that one of Jesus’ central messages undermines one of His other central messages for me?  I don’t know, but it sure did, and here’s why.  The Golden Rule of doing unto others what you would have them do unto you is -as far as I can make out- based on Love.  Having faith in a proposition is not.  As far as I can tell, having faith in a proposition is self-oriented.  It’s an internal process of deliberation where you determine that your interpretation of a thing is so infallible that no other data is needed or wanted.  I was taught all my life that faith is accepting what God tells you.  What that glosses over is both the delivery mechanisms (Bible, prayer, prophecy of others who share your faith, preaching, etc.) and the person they are delivered to. (my brain/soul/heart/spirit/whatever you want to call it)  In order to accept a proposition “on faith” one has to believe that all those delivery mechanisms AND the self that interprets them, are all infallible.  I can’t see a way around this problem.  I’ve never heard a solution to this problem.  

This applies to the Golden Rule thusly: In an ideal world, every person I share my ideas and experiences with would try their best to understand me and what I’m saying.  They would not have a partition where literally nothing I say could change their mind on a given topic.  They would not have faith that this or that proposition is off-limits to new ideas.  Faith that democrats are always virtuous warriors of light.  Faith that Keynesian economics are the best model for interpreting that field.  Faith that vaccines cause autism.  Faith that democrats entire platform is based on being lazy and selfish, Faith that genetically modified foods are poison.  Faith the republicans are all motivated by greed and hate, Faith that unborn babies are only tissue.  Faith that anarchy would usher in a utopia.  Faith that working hard guarantees success. Faith that eating animals has zero moral implications.  Faith that there is one God and Muhammad is His prophet. Faith that banning guns is impossible.  And on and on and on.  Faith is exactly what keeps us from actually hearing each other.  The Sacred is what builds echo chambers and in/out groups.  Faith is the substance of not hearing.

As a social animal I don’t just WANT to be heard.  I literally NEED it.  Humans actually go insane without some amount of human interaction and love.  We get by -get our bare minimum of being heard- within our family and our tribal communities.  I think we can do better.  I want to LOVE all people.  That means I want to HEAR all people.  And I simply can’t do that if large portions of my belief landscape are quarantined by faith, effectively blocking billions of ideas.  Can I ever have a 100% “open mind” where literally ANY idea has an equal and fair hearing in my head?  I don’t think so.  I think our mind requires some amount of restricted space in order to operate coherently.  (For instance, I still can’t really HEAR most conspiracy theories.)  The question I have been asking, and answering, over the past decade has been: Do I increase or decrease that restricted space that faith creates and occupies?  And my project of opening up space in order to Love/hear others required that I bulldoze large patches of terrain that were formerly occupied by faith.  Not because I want an open mind for open mindedness’ sake, or for self-improvement.  But because I want to Love better.  And yes, this proposition that “The best way to love people is to hear them as well as I can”, is a faith statement.  Again, this is not a binary state of pure closed or open mindedness.  It’s an ongoing project of experimenting to try to find the best way for my actions and attitudes to match my values.  I want to be loved via being heard.  Therefore, per the Golden Rule, I must love others by hearing as well as I can, which requires losing a lot of faith.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Rogue-Lite Life Lessons

I finally beat Nuclear Throne last night.  It's in my current favorite genre which could be called Action Rogue-Lite.  These are games very loosely in the linage of a very old game called Rogue from 1980, that was a turn-based, procedurally generated (That means the levels are randomly (not ACTUALLY RAMDOM) created each time you play) dungeon crawler.  Besides the random levels, the other thing that made Rogue special was that you had ONE chance to beat the game.  I mean... once you die you have to start over.  Unlike most games where you can save and load your saved state if you die, or where you have a bunch of lives and continues, Rogue was Hardcore Mode before such a thing existed.  Throughout the years a smattering of games tried to preserve this mechanic but it mostly faded from the game design zeitgeist for a couple decades.  Most people just don't find the emotional toll of starting completely over when you die to be fun.  As videogames matured as a medium, the market was guiding developers towards more streamlined and easy experiences.  As hardware evolved we were able to provide lush visual/audio aesthetics that replaced the brutal early years of skill-building games.  But happily, about a decade ago, a new branch of game development came into its own.  Indie games, like indie film and music and writing, etc. is a scaled back, bare bones, experimental scene.  As game creation tools became more accessible, the possibility of thousands of tiny dev projects became a reality and a lot of the old material and ideas –like Rogue- were being mined.
I’m still trying to understand HOW, exactly, the hardcore element of perma-death resurfaced and became popular in this community.  I suppose it’s counter-cultural to the dominant corporate game design ethos, and as with any monolithic movement, it inevitably leaves a lot of itches to be scratched by the opposite of whatever that monolith encompasses.  So I’m guessing that’s where the fuel that feeds this genre comes from.  Though, as usual, I’m about to read some philosophical depth into it.  My apologies to the hundred other people who have surely already written on the topic, I simply haven’t found your writings yet.  The closest I could find was this design analysis ( ) which contains the following statement that I find to be very wrong.

Platformers for example, at their core, test the players input precision, mastery, reaction time and their memorization. These stand in direct opposition to the roguelike elements as variance in either of them would make the tests arbitrary, denying the player mastery over them. If Mario jumped slightly differently every time the game resets the test would become unfair and mastering the core mechanics impossible.”

The Platform (and other real-time action-oriented) games with rogue-like elements do NOT arbitrarily change the fundamental mechanics.  To me, the whole POINT of the exercise is that I, as a player, am learning to master the mechanical system, NOT the map or enemy layout.  It strikes me as rather arbitrary to include memorization as a foundational element of the Platform game genre.  Just as arbitrary as insisting that being turn-based is a necessary foundational element of the rogue-like.  (Also, I’m using the distinction “rogue-lite” to differentiate games that have meta-progress that you gain from multiple play-thoughs, as opposed to “rogue-like” where there is nothing carried over but the skills and knowledge the player takes with them.) But I honestly don’t care about semantics and genre definitions.  I just wanted to comment on this one statement as a springboard to talk about how the action-rogue-lite genre speaks to me.  I believe that these are four interrelated ideas that create a value-package for my emotional maturity.

1.       Embracing the unknown.  A large part of my gaming psyche profile is the Explorer motivation.  And that’s exactly what Rogue and its descendants excel at.  Because every session mixes the terrain up, you can never rely on brute memorization to succeed.  Instead you can only lean on luck (which is usually a bad bet) and mastering the game mechanics.  Instead of learning that in the second level on the forth jump you have to immediately duck when you land or take a bullet to the face, you learn real tactical thinking.  You see a particular configuration of enemies that each have different attributes, and that combination produces emergent properties that you have to deal with given the particular weapons and powers you currently have.  
Because there are so many factors involved, the tactical moment-to-moment experience never gets stale.  These tactical skills coalesce into strategies that apply across the whole arc of the run.  And even meta-strategies, such as deciding that every time you encounter a certain powerup or enemy type you will abandon the goal of beating the game, and instead focus on learning everything you can about that element through experimentation.  These are all skills that are super valuable in real life.  The core mechanics of Life are set.  But the chaotic nature of ever-evolving actors means that we never truly encounter the same situation twice.  This upsets the applecart of our heuristic shortcuts.  The ones that tell us that guys who wear X have Y personality, or that people from X country have Y strengths and weaknesses.  I think rogue-lite games are training me to take a moment to evaluate every situation on a case by case basis.  To understand that every encounter is new terrain, no matter how much my biases want to interpret it in a familiar way.  And most importantly, to find positive VALUE in that novelty.  Am I losing time by re-evaluating my stereotypes so frequently?  Yes.  But I’m gaining insight, compassion, and the joy of exploration.   I bumped into Rami Ismail (approximately half the development team of Nuclear Throne) at GDC several months ago, and asked him for advice concerning the game.  He said something along the lines of: “Push yourself harder than you think you should.” I’ve learned that this is truly the heart of the experience they crafted, and applies to most rogue-lites.  Embracing the chaos and pushing your skills beyond their current limits is how you grow and excel.     

2.       Life is unfair.  I’m sure this is shocking news to many of you. ;)  But it’s true.  Videogames have become a bastion of leveling the field.  Being unfair is the hallmark of bad design.  The most lauded games (such as the Soul’s series) are touted as “difficult-but-fair”.  This fairness, so foreign to the real world, reminds me of the romantic take on sex, violence, and other tropes we see in movies and read in books.  They are the way our culture WANTS the world to be.  So when a game subverts the foundational design ideal of fairness, it’s like the gritty, realistic movies and books that don’t pull punches; that expose the inaccuracies of common tropes by pointing more directly at reality.  When I have a ‘bad run’ in a rogue-lite I need to be able to emotionally cope with that.  Or I could rage quit and start a new game.  But every time I persevere I’m teaching my brain a good thing.  I’m learning to cope, in some small way, with the unfairness of life.  I’m teaching myself to make the best out of a bad situation.  And that skill is applicable to the larger issues that life throws at you.

3.       Privilege is a real thing.  Without invoking Obama’s infamous “you didn’t build that” speech, I will just say that as I’ve looked into the concept of societal privilege and power dynamics, I’ve learned to be more compassionate and understanding of those who have “failed at life.”  And what a stark lesson it is when you start your rogue-lite game and get one bad-luck roll after another.  (The WORST powerup, then the WORST level layout, and the WORST configuration of enemies given the level layout and your lame powerup.) This can be a metaphor for any number of real life bad-luck rolls.  Being born into a poor family.  Suffering child abuse.  Being an underprivileged minority.  Being schooled in a methodology that doesn’t suite your learning needs.  Being handicapped with any sort of physical  and/or psychological abnormality.  The list goes on and on.  There are SO many ways that you can start your life with disadvantages.  If you play two games of the same rogue-lite; in one run getting all the worst rolls, and in the next getting all the best… I can’t imagine a better illustration of how privilege and power dynamics operate.  You are the same person, bringing to bear all the same skills, determination and decision making power, and yet, your outcomes will probably be very different.  To me, this smashes the argument that everybody can just pull themselves up by the bootstraps.  That everyone has it hard sometimes, but if you just work hard and save you can become a success in life.  For the record, I understand the importance of those messages in a psychological context, creating possibility space in the minds of the underprivileged is massively important for their chances to make the most of their situations.  (As it is in an unlucky rogue-lite run.)  But to promote the positive message at the expense of the reality that there are different AMOUNTS of difficulty that must be overcome, and then to make a character judgement about a person (or group) who fails to meet your arbitrary threshold for working hard enough… that’s a sickness that is unhelpful to everyone, and I think this genre of games could help.

4.       Grit. My definition of grit is: The determination to learn from failure rather than rage-quitting. This is all about perspective and interpretation.  And this is something I’ve developed over time.  Had I lived a life where the majority of risks I’ve taken ended badly, I’m betting I would not have leveled up my Grit as much as I have.  In fact, I probably would have stopped taking the risks necessary to excel in life.  Difficult games have helped me to learn to develop grit.  I had a paradigm flip several years ago when I decided that, for continuing education in my field of game design, I had to experience the process of beating an old platform game.  This wasn’t a new thing to me.  I beat a LOT of NES games as a kid, but as I grew, had kids of my own, and focused on developing my career, the point of banging my head against these kinds of games became unclear.  That was compounded by the earlier-mentioned fact that the industry has been softening the difficulty curves of their games over the years.  But several years ago I was leading a team to develop a retro game that was intended to evoke the difficulty of those classis NES platform games.  So I found myself researching them, and realized I HAD to experience the process as an adult.  I chose Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts because I only vaguely remembered it, but knew it had the reputation as a fairly difficult game, and it had an aesthetic I enjoyed.  The first hour of flailing and failing on the first level had me VERY frustrated.  Years of easy games had softened my tolerance for repetitious failure.  But because I started this as an educational experience I was in a different frame of mind, and something clicked for me after I pushed through that hour of failure.  Instead of interpreting the process as a test that I was continually failing, I envisioned it like a jigsaw puzzle.  The process of putting together a puzzle is one of repetitious ‘failure’.  You try a piece, see it doesn’t fit, try another one, see it doesn’t fit, but eventually you build up successes, and the more you succeed, the smaller the pool of failures you have to draw from.  This gives you some momentum.  Unlike jigsaw puzzles, platform games adjust the difficulty curve by upping the mastery requirements as you progress.  But the key insight to me was to interpret every death by the hand of a zombie or skeleton fish as a puzzle piece tried, and rejected.  I taught myself to mentally talk through what I learned from that death.  Except when I was alone; in which case I verbally talked myself through it.   A habit I now maintain when my son is watching me play Dark Souls games.  I’m hoping that I’m teaching him this skill by example.  So once I approached SG’NG this way it went from a torturous experience to an almost zen-like one.  I honestly felt like I was developing emotionally, mentally and spiritually as I played.  Since I discovered action rogue-lites I’ve found that I can develop that same sense in bite sized sessions, which fit my lifestyle much better.
At the beginning I said I ‘beat’ Nuclear Throne.  This is actually fairly retro lingo.  For most video games it makes more sense to say “I finished that game.”  This is because the dominant paradigm for videogames is a one-time experience with a  beginning middle and end, generally draped over the framework of a linear edited narrative.  (along with all those lush audio visuals I referenced above.)   But a really well-tuned, high quality action rogue-lite such as Nuclear Throne is never ‘finished’.  Any more than the game of Chess or Go is ‘finished’.  You may ‘beat’ your opponent, but the game system remains evergreen.  This is why I still play Spelunky 5 years later.  And it’s why I predict I’ll still be playing Nuclear Throne in 5 years.  Not because they are fun.  (Though they most certainly ARE) But because they are fun AND are making me a better person.  

Here’s a nice list of the great features of Nuclear Throne if you haven’t been sold on it yet.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Developing a Better Way to Disagree Online

Here’s something I’ve been kicking around lately. Part of my continuing development as a human who wants to be the most loving person possible, I’ve been seriously investigating claims, philosophies, movements, politics, etc. that I’m naturally inclined to ignore or reject. The latest of these issues is the Black Lives Matter campaign, a popular movement swirling around a range of issues, but primarily instigated by the perception that police disproportionately kill more black people than other races. The status quo backlash response has been a movement rallying around police with the slogan All Lives Matter, or Blue Lives Matter. I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty of the issue because there’s a billion resources for anyone who wants to look into it.

The point of bringing my investigation of the issue up, is to tell you about my experiences with social media. I’ll start by saying that I really love using Facebook. I love the unexpected things I see and hear through it from the incredibly diverse group of ‘friends’ I have. My Facebook policy is to accept almost anyone as a ‘friend’, and not to curate my feed in such a way that any opinion is stifled. I see so many friends who have created a very small echo chamber for themselves, proudly unfriending anyone who falls on the other side of some arbitrary political line. I WANT friends who challenge my ideas and make me uncomfortable. So, I’ve been regularly posting articles and videos that pro-Black Lives Matter. Not because I agree 100% with all of the points they are making or the style with which they make them, but because I think the general message deserves to be heard openly and honestly. I DO believe in the concept of privilege and power dynamics, and I’ve found my fellow privileged people have a really hard time accepting those ideas, and so they have an instant-shutdown switch for even considering most of the BLM concepts. As a result of posting about dozen or so items related to BLM over the course of a couple weeks I’ve found quite a few people popping up and dismissing them out of hand, ridiculing, or arguing with the premises. All of which is totally fine with me. It gives me a chance to attempt to articulate WHY I’m convinced of certain premises; an exercise that is healthy for both them and me.

What always emerges is a dynamic that I think I can improve. What happens is the typical conservative will come on and say: “I disagree, this is wrong.” Followed by me attempting to explain why I think they misunderstand the premise, or that their premises should be questioned, and/or one of my rabid liberal friends tearing into them, calling them racist, implying they are evil for not agreeing with my posted piece, etc.

So here’s a post I put on Facebook where a dissenting conservative agreed to try something with me…


I've been searching for a way to facilitate more healthy communication between people who disagree (on any topic) in the format of social networks. I've invited [a random guy on facebook] to participate in the early development of a method I've been brainstorming. Being in the early stages of development, it will surely be clunky, awkward, WAAAAY too long, and probably won't work the first time. What I'm hoping to discover is a point where our values and/or interpretation of the world diverge.

One thing I'm convinced of -because of my upbringing in a conservative Christian republican leaning community- is that most conservatives want what is best for everyone, just like all my liberal friends. There is SOME point (or points) somewhere down the philosophical chain to our base values where the conservative and liberal mindset diverge, and I'd like to see if I can find that in order for both sides to be able to communicate and learn from each other. I think we have more in common than we disagree on, and if we can understand WHY we REALLY disagree, I think that could help a lot of people be better people. I believe that assuming you disagree because the other person is evil, stupid, selfish, lazy etc. is not only uncharitable, but actually hurts your intellectual life, causing you to fall into an echo-chamber of your own making.

So what I'm hoping to develop here is a structure for discovery that can be applied to people you disagree with on political/cultural issues. I want to be clear that the topic we are discussing should not be the important part of this exercise. (It's just how I happened to come across my volunteer interlocutor.) I also want to make sure that this is dialectical, not didactic rhetoric. In other words, I'm not attempting to operate like the sophists, where I step someone through a carefully choreographed set of questions designed to set them up so that they can only come to a pre-arranged conclusion. Instead, I want this to be like Socrates idealized, (though my perception is that his methods were really not all that different than the sophists, but that's a debate for a different time.) This is an iterative, exploratory, potentially recursive process.

Oh my gawd this is way longer than I hoped it would be. But that's the price you pay for reading anything I do. OK. So I've covered my motivation for this exercise and the style I hope to achieve. And finally I want to make my a priori philosophical assumptions clear. My basic mental model of a human mind is that there are a couple layers of stuff going on there. At the very bottom are values. Values drive our beliefs. Articulating our beliefs recursively leads to thoughts, actions and words that then feed back into our beliefs. (and occasionally percolate back down to influence our values.) Nothing in this system is static, but the lower you go, the more stable they are. It takes a HUGE event or series of events to significantly alter a person's values. It's still hard, but not AS hard to change a person's beliefs, and it's easiest to manipulate people's actions and words. (But if those actions and words contradict the deeper beliefs and values the change won't stick without constant and terrible repression.)

Since most political debate takes place only on the upper levels of the human mind, the focus can only lead to repressive action, creating out-groups, false assumptions, and everything else you associate with "talking politics". I'm not pretending that I can fix this problem, but if I can find even a small way to make people more loving and tolerant of those they disagree with, then I think this will have been worth it.

FINALLY, this is an odd experiment, and it's going to be challenging enough without the usual multitude of voices chiming in. I have LOTS of hot threads with people insulting and yelling at each other if you need that, please go there, and let this conversation between [Random facebook guy] and myself proceed uninterrupted. I'm making the conversation public because I hope to solicit feedback on the structure and such afterwards with a sort of post mortem so I can continue to develop this method if it shows any promise.

SO! Now. I hope to start with sort of baseline. I'm assuming the answer to this first question is "yes". But it might not be. And the reason for disagreement could be because I've worded the question wrong, or used a trigger word I didn't realize, or I'm just dumb. Anyway, the idea is that at every step along the way we touch base and find true connection before continuing towards the point where our philosophical agreement begins to break down. At that point, I hope to explore that territory and create a hypothesis or two. And feel it out from there. Not EXACTLY like this model, but something like it:

So here is the sadly aborted first attempt:

Josh Foreman: First of all, [Random Facebook Guy] thank you for taking the time to do this exercise with me. For the record, our first encounter was on a thread I created with a link to a video that had the basic message that "not seeing [skin] color" is not only "not racist" but actually perpetuates systemic racism. You disagreed with the premise. I'm more inclined to agree with it. But I hope to keep discussion about the specifics of the video out of this until we discover what different philosophical or interpretive schemes have that cause us to differ on the matter.
So here is the first baseline question: 1. Do you believe that all humans ought to be treated equally? (baring those who engage in illegal activity that requires removing them from normal society.)

[Random Facebook Guy]: Everyone should be received equally as strangers, and everyone should be given a chance on an individual level. But our choices and behavior dictate how we are treated individually, so you can't have equal outcome for everyone. But superficial factors like identifiers shouldn't influence that.
On a more professional level, everyone should be treated on the merits of their capability regardless of any factors that may be superficial to the job like age, race, aesthetic, gender, sexuality, political leanings or religion.

Josh Foreman: Great. On the same page.

2. Do you feel that part of your duty as a human is to work for justice for everybody? (Remember, I'm not trying to trap you. I KNOW that our ideas for what that work looks like is different. I'm just trying to establish the deeper value connection at this point.)

[Random Facebook Guy]: Justice is one of the three pillars of who I am. I have put my career on the line to fight for justice for others. One time even stepping in to stop the punishment of a person for something they thought she had done wrong, but it was actually my fault, on the flight line that could have ended my career on the spot.

Josh Foreman: Sweet.

3. What are your other two pillars?

[Random Facebook Guy]: 1. Aid and protect those with-in your power to do so.

2. Do everything in your power to improve yourself.

Josh Foreman: Excellent.

4. Can you provide an example of an ongoing self improvement project you've undertaken?


[Random Facebook Guy] hasn’t got back to me in a few days so I wanted to record this first attempt before the facebook thread disappears into the aether. I wanted to say that even this aborted attempt has been helpful in my goal. It clued me into the psychological premise of the exercise that I had felt, but not articulated. It’s very simple and obvious, but it is this: finding and articulating common values with someone who disagrees with you will lubricate the machinery of conversation. In most internet debates, the conversation is focused like a laser on the immediate disagreement. Attribution of evil is the immediate go-to method a human brain has for explaining why someone disagrees with you, and as long as the shared values you have remain hidden, that go-to explanation remains, subconsciously, dictating both your perception of your interlocutor, and how you feel you ought to engage with them. It makes them a hostile witness that you have to badger into submission to the truth, rather than a fellow explorer trying to figure out how best humans ought to live with each other.

So my project now has two building blocks to help me move forward next time I try this. First: Don’t expect the worst from someone who disagrees with you. Start out by assuming they share most of your values. You could be wrong, but doing this won’t actually HURT your case or your chances of opening someone’s mind to new ideas, and it will help keep YOUR mind open. Second: TELL your interlocutor that you presume that they share most of their core values. And that your disagreement is probably about the strategy for expressing those values best. (Because it probably is.)

I’m still trying to figure out how to distill the process I started with [random facebook guy] into a manageable format that anyone can do. I think I need a couple more attempts before I figure that out.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Jony Ive

Just finished reading a book about Jony Ive, who’s the main industrial designer behind most of Apple’s hardware over the past 20 years. (And since Job’s death; all the software as well.) The book was written by a clearly devout fanboi, but still had a lot of great insight. The book gave me a lot of conflicting feelings. Because I love the fact that a company created a culture in which a singular vision of products could be developed. I love that a design philosophy was given the chance to overrule production, budget, engineering and tradition. Not because I think design is the most important thing in the universe, but because an experiment like that is a great object lesson. The fact that Apple has had such massive success coinciding with this process is fascinating.

My personal problem is that almost all my experience with Apple products have been frustrating, disappointing and baffling. Due to both the industrial design and software design. A prime example of this is the slick, smooth rounded backs that all portable Apple products have. It’s like they were purposefully designed to slip out of your hands. Now… I know that everyone gets a cover for these devises. But that completely negates Ive’s point in making them this way in the first place, which was for aesthetic reasons.

For better or for worse the Apple aesthetic -Jony's aesthetic- has become the de facto future aesthetic as evidenced in countless movies and tv shows. I just wish the fanatical devotion to external minimalism didn't end up pushing the complexity under the rug where users who want to do ANYTHING other than a very narrow, linear prescribed path have to pay the price.

As to the software design… 90% of my experience with Apple software is iTunes. I don’t think I need to say any more on that subject.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Talifar Progress Update: April, 2016

I’ve got several very large projects I need to finish before I can really devote the largest portion of my energies to the final project I hope to spend the rest of my life on.  That final project is Tales From Talifar; the fantasy world that I hope to develop into the next Star Wars or Marvel universe sized phenomenon.  But I still need to finish my Cutscene Subversion Project video series which I’ve been working on and off for the past 6 years.  However, there’s still stuff that I can hopefully start to build towards now.  And a couple of those are starting, so that’s pretty exciting to me.  

  1. Books coming soon!  My mom has been very busy working on our first big hit, the Scarred King Trilogy.  (Along with 7 or 8 other books) set in Talifar.  Part of that process means finding a great editor.  And that’s exactly what she did.  Jeff Gerke has been fantastic at picking up the themes and making sure we push towards those.  Finding the non-sequiturs.  Pointing out little contradictions.  Showing where things need to be established.  That sort of thing.  We’ve also been exploring book cover ideas.  As I’ve pointed out above.  There’s a lot of other projects I need to finish, so I was really worried that developing professional looking covers would either eat a lot of my time, or cost us a lot of money.  But I recently came up with a way to do them that will stick to my strengths as an artist, and keep all the various books with the plethora of characters unified.  As a bonus, the art for the covers will be easy to 3D print to make products to sell or give away as prizes. The idea is to do character portrait cameos for the covers.  Like this:

The things I really like about this solution are that it’s efficient and well within my skillset to produce (I found out a while ago that rendering realistic materials and skin is a super deep, super complex skillset that I don’t really want to learn.)  And it’s also diegetic.  Meaning it can be ‘from the world’ of Talifar.  Most books have a cover that represents some aspect of the story such as characters or genre, but aren’t meant to be an artifact FROM the world of the story.  But these character portrait cameos COULD be historical artifacts that someone on the planet of Talifar actually created in the same way the the piece in that photograph was created by someone on Earth to memorialize Charles the fifth.  

  1. Scientist feedback!  Here’s an example of either providence or lateral development benefits.
So like I was saying, I’m trying to wrap up these other projects before I can put my full focus on Talifar.  But one of the points of these side projects is to build a platform from which I can get Talifar the attention it needs to launch.  And I’ve mentioned in another blog that I desperately need experts in almost every field to vet the ideas of Talifar since I’m trying to make the world scientifically plausible.  So, one of projects I did to contribute to my platform was a 3D printing tutorial for a Super Adventure Box Beedog Lamp.
One of the things I was showing on that video were a bunch of the dice that people have been printing.  And through that, I ran across the bio of a guy named Ian Dwyer (You can find his work here: )  who makes those dice, and in that bio it mentioned that he’s getting his degree in oceanography.  I thought to myself… This is the exactly the kind of guy I’m looking for.  Clearly a smart guy who likes fantasy stuff and gaming, AND highly educated in a topic I need vetting for.  So I tracked him down on facebook and asked him if he’d like to do that.  Turns out his specialty is bioturbation.  It’s so cool when I learn about an entire field of research that I only kind of knew existed!  I have 3 sentient species that live in the oceans of Talifar, that all engage in bioturbation.  So I asked him if he’d like to weigh in on my creature document and he gave really, REALLY good feedback!  Like: “Biomineralizing teeth with metal is great as a feeding adaptation. Shrews do it with iron on earth. So, you could have that adaptation preexisting as a feeding adaptation, and the methane bladder preexisting as a buoyancy adaptation for swimming. This makes the evolution of the complex mechanism far more plausible.”

This is exactly the kind of collaboration with smart creative people that I’m looking for and I’m super excited to have started doing it!   

  1. A second author contributing!  My cousin Aletha has been self publishing books for a couple years now.  She made a commercial for her books, and asked me to jazz it up with some special effects.  So I did.  In return I asked her to write a short story in Talifar.  One of the central ideas of my plan for TfT is having every work that takes place in the world be canon.  In other words; unlike Star Wars and Marvel, no book or movie can contradict another book or movie in Talifar.  That’s going to require some AMAZING, unprecedented production processes to pull off.  And in order to build that production pipeline I need to start identifying the problems that are going to arise once multiple people are making multiple stories from multiple perspectives.  We’ve dealt with this a bit already simply from the fact that my mom has written so many books, and I’ve contributed parts to them.  We’ve found there’s problems with the fluid nature of developing a world.  (But that was no surprise)  Things like changing the names of the sentient species and characters and places means we have to go through every book by hand and do find/replaces constantly.  But that was a “known unknown” problem.  I know that there are many more “unknown unknowns” waiting on the horizon.  And so having a second author enter the process means we’ll discover some of those sooner.  And the nice thing about having Aletha be the first is that we already have a relationship with her, and being related we have similar personalities.  That’s really helpful for communication issues at this point.  It makes it a gentler learning curve.  Eventually I hope to have contributors from all over the world working on Talifar, and that will bring with it a vast array of communication problems to solve.  So it’s nice to have started with my mom, then expand to a cousin, and maybe next will be a friend, etc.  Another cool thing about having Aletha be the second contributor is that she writes in a related, but different genre.  She does comedic whimsical fantasy with modern game tropes and cats.  So again: the close, but just-a-bit-removed nature of her writing means it’s good mid-level experiment to see how different personalities and proclivities can mesh (or not) with the high-level aesthetic of TfT.

  1. Anatomy consultation from a pro!  My friend Katy was attending Emerald City Comic Con as an artist, and also had tickets to a two-day art training thing put on by Schoolism there at the con.  She couldn’t go, and let me have the pass.  Well, when I heard that a particular teacher was going to be there I practically begged her for it.  The classes were mostly about visual development for film and games (which was great) but the one I was mostly interested in was Terryl Whitlatch.  She’s done a bunch of creature design for many films including some Star Wars.  She has the perfect mix of knowledge of animal anatomy and illustration skills.  She knows every muscle in every animal and what it does.  I have all of her books, and enrolled in her online program. I’d been trying to figure out how to make a scientifically plausible centaur-type creature.  There’s a big difference between chimera-type creature design and discrete-type.  Chimeras are standards in myth and high-fantasy.  It basically means you stick together various animals like Frankenstein's monster.  Head of an eagle, body of a horse.  Body of a dragon, head of a lion, second head of a goat, tail with a snake head on it.  These kinds of creatures have no plausible evolutionary or reproductive means of existence.  They are clearly magical.  Those are NOT the kind of creatures I want for Talifar.  I want the discrete kind.  And that’s Terryl’s specialty.  So I had been trying to create a discrete-centaur-like polar bear kind of species and kept running into dead ends, specifically around musculoskeletal system in the part of the torso that needs to stand erect.  The ‘look’ of a classic centaur is simply mechanically impossible, so I knew I couldn’t have that human-looking torso stapled on a quadruped.  But I still wanted to capture SOMETHING of that.  I spilled a lot of graphite sketching out various ideas for how to get it to work, but I don’t know enough about musculoskeletal stuff to know if what I was sketching even made sense.


I took her online course, but having so many other things going on I didn’t get to the point where I felt like I could articulate my problem well enough to bother her with it, and this sub-sub-sub-project fell by the wayside.  But with this new opportunity I dusted off my sketches and hoped to have enough time with her to get a solid direction for the kruliss.  I found she was at an artist booth on the first day, and waited in line patiently while she signed books (putting custom art in each one!), then when I got my moment with her I asked if she’d help me.  She agreed to actually sketch in my notebook to help me figure the problem out!  With that sketch in hand, I spent the evening blocking out the skeleton of the spine, rib cages, and the front four limbs in clay.  I baked that, and the next day spent the first class laying the muscle groups over the skeleton based on her sketch.  Then, after her class I showed her my progress and she gave me a couple tips, but overall said it was the best solution to my problem.  It involves a modified set of serratus and oblique muscles anchoring the upper torso to the delts of the middle shoulder.  I think.  She said a lot of words.  Like, EVERY muscle and sub muscle name.  I was only partially able to follow her, but I got enough of it to be happy enough to settle the design in at this stage and start working on the more surface aesthetic stuff.  


So yeah.  That’s my Talifar update.  Exciting stuff!  Also… if YOU are an expert in a field you think might be helpful to developing a scientifically plausible fantasy world, let me know.  I’d love to talk to you.  And if you just like fantasy and reading, we are always on the lookout for beta readers!  

Monday, January 25, 2016

Book Musings: The Righteous Mind - Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Reflections on the book, The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt.  (Don’t be frightened by the word Righteous in the title: this is not about religion!)  

I just finished a book that is now on my top 5 books of all time list.  Maybe top 3.  (Time will tell.) In my wildest fantasy, I would strap every human into a chair, pull their eyelids open with a terrifying machine and force to them read it.  

This book basically reinforces with (what I find to be) very good arguments, a message that I’ve been trying to articulate and spread for a long time.  It has to do with how we relate to those with radically different worldviews, politics, religions (or lack thereof), etc.  Like many in my generation and after, I’m a child of two ideological worlds.  I was raised in a conservative, evangelical Christian subculture.  Most of my world revolved around a church of people with with a very homogenous worldview.  Everybody read the same evangelical Christian books, listened to the same evangelical Christian music, voted Republican, and in general viewed the “secular world” as evil.  We thought most colleges were dens of atheists whose primary goal was turning our innocent youth into evolution-believing democrats.  (Well… I guess I still think that part’s probably true.)  We were the ones yelling that Cabbage Patch Kids and Smurfs were satanic because there were middle eastern names associated with them, and that Tinky-Winky from the Teletubbies was an example of the “homosexual agenda” attempting to normalize deviant behavior.  
But my trajectory was a bit off from that sub-culture because my parents are intellectuals who love science, literature, science fiction and fantasy.  I don’t think they ever bought into the hysteria regarding demons hiding behind every bush.  And they had no fear of intellectuals, philosophy and science.   

So that’s my origin milieu.  But besides smart, creative parents, I’ve had quite a few other influences that have pushed me in a more liberal direction.  Being an Air Force brat I’ve lived all over the world, and all my adult life I’ve lived in very liberal areas.  I work in the very liberal, creative entertainment industry.  The end result being a very mixed heart.  Perhaps this is why I’m oriented toward reconciliation, apologetics, moderation and ambassadorial work.  (This personality profile describes my ‘role’ as “diplomat”. ) Much of this blog chronicals the destruction of my former headstrong epistemolgy as it was dashed agaisnt the rocky shore of reality; and the result is an extreme aversion to most absolutes. Now I’m a lover, not a fighter.

The point of all this biographical stuff is to establish that I have close friends and family all over the spectrum.  Most of you reading this do as well.  But what I’ve noticed from talking to a lot of ex-conservatives, and reading comments online, is that most people do not respect those on opposing sides of their political/philosophical spectrum.  I can’t claim that I respect everyone who disagrees with me.  But I think the AMOUNT of disrespect I see out there is unnecessary and unhealthy for everyone.  When I hear my liberal friends say that people who vote for Republicans are actually, literally evil, it hurts my feelings.  I have many loved ones and friends who I know very well are not evil, and I know that when I was very conservative I was not evil.  Here’s a quote in the book, (not written by the author, but used as an example of what I’m talking about.)

“Republicans don’t believe in the imagination, partly because so few of them have one, but mostly because it gets in the way of their chosen work, which is to destroy the human race and the planet.  Human beings, who have imaginations, can see a recipe for disaster in the making; Republicans, whose goal in life is to profit from disaster and who don’t give a hoot about human beings, either can’t or won’t.  Which is why I personally think they should be exterminated before they cause any more harm.” ~ Michael Feingold

I’ve seen this basic message from many of my liberal friends more times than I can count.  The other day a friend casually mentioned how it was too bad the entire republican presidential field was “batshit insane”.  After I failed to give him the expected hallelujah chorus or high five, he moderated the statement with: “I mean… not in a bad way.”  

So when I found a book written by a liberal atheist that actually acknowledges the fact that conservatives are not actually mustache-twirling villains., it was very exciting to me.  

Furthermore, it’s well written, well researched, and really fun to read.  The only thing that bummed me out about the book is the fact that two of its central arguments involve ideas that most of my conservative Christian friends will reject.  (Dealing with free will and evolution)  So I don’t think this book will help much with the problem of conservatives who think liberals are evil.  Though one of the elements is powerful enough that I think, even on its own, might soften some conservative hearts.

But I think the whole gist of the book really is most powerful when taken all together, and only a liberal will be able to buy in to the first several important parts.  (I’m liberal enough to buy in.)  This is important, because the later part of the book contains some ideas that will be very challenging for a liberal.  For that reason I hope that the quotes I’m going to be putting in here don’t instantly turn off my liberal friends.  I hope that they can keep an open mind long enough to check out the whole flow of the argument by reading the book, then see if what he has to say is as outrageous as they may initially find them.

The following summary is in no way a systematic one.  It’s the stuff that really stuck out to me.  So please don’t read this smattering of thoughts and quotes as a representation of the structure of the argument that the book makes.  I hope you’ll see this as a sampler buffet of ideas that inspires you to dig deeper by reading the full book.  Or, if you need, I’ll read it to you.  Assuming you have enough eye drops.

I’ll start with a very rough outline of the argument.  First, Haidt’s research has shown that morality is a gut instinct thing.  No one sits down and rationally deduces their moral structure.  Well, except for philosophers.  And even they just end up doing a more complicated dance of post-hoc rationalizations than non-philosophers.  Non-philosophers don’t bother dancing; they just cut straight to the post-hoc rationalizations.  (For clarity: post-hoc means that it’s an argument made up after a decision has already been made, but pretending to be the explanation that was thought about before the decision had been made.  It’s a very common self-deception.) Haidt and his team conducted a lot of tests over many years to discover this fact.  The description of these tests is fascinating.  I’ll just say that they basically show that no matter how unjustified a moral belief is, it can NOT be changed with counter-arguments.  Even when participants admitted that each and every ‘reason’ they brought up was soundly rebutted by the tester-person, they still insisted that their original position was ‘right’.  

Haidt makes an analogy of an elephant and rider, comparing the elephant to our emotional gut-level instincts, and the rider to our rational/conscious mind.  The elephant is the one with the most power in that relationship, and the rider is mostly resigned to explaining WHY the elephant went the way it did, and how they (the rider) was actually the one directing it.  Another analogy he used, that I liked better, is that of a press secretary.  The president is the emotions; the press secretary is the rational mind.  Our minds are experts at spinning everything the president (emotions) do.  A press secretary's job is make everything the president does seem coherent, morally right and well-reasoned.  So when our moral ideas are challenged we don’t step back and calmly ascertain the validity of the challenge.  We don’t go to the president and interrogate them to try to get them to change their mind.  Instead, our inner press secretary jumps in and starts arguing over the annoying press member who’s poking holes in the president’s plan.  Neither analogy is perfect, but both illustrate that all our talk of our moral justifications are post-hoc arguments because our brains are VERY resistant to examining our fundamental moral matrices.  

This idea that there’s a vast area of our self that is determined NOT by our own rational thinking is hard to swallow.  Especially if you’re a conservative who finds the idea of Total Free Will to be foundational to your worldview.  Fortunately, most liberals are more open to the idea that there are parts of our decision-making faculties that are heavily or totally influenced by outside factors.  (Such as the idea of poverty leading to crime vs. the conservative insistence that only low moral character leads to crime.  Or that military intervention flames terrorist sentiment vs. the conservative’s assumptions that terrorist do what they do because they hate our freedom.)

A very important element that comes up again and again in this book is the social dimension.  When it comes to this issue of post-hoc argumentation for our gut-instincts, he says this:
“We do moral reasoning not to reconstruct the actual reasons why we ourselves came to a judgment; we reason to find the best possible reasons why somebody else ought to join us in our judgement.”

Which makes sense.  If I were on a deserted island I would not spend a lot of time trying to explain my moral code to myself.  He follows a couple of intellectual/philosophical threads through the millennia comparing and contrasting ideas about morality.  Rather than attempt to summarize those parts I’m just going to pull some quotes that I found particularly interesting.

“The social intuitionist model offers an explanation of why moral and political arguments are so frustrating: because moral reasons are the tail wagged by the intuitive dog.  A dog’s tail wags to communicate.  You can’t make a dog happy by forcibly wagging its tail.  And you can’t change people’s minds by utterly refuting their arguments.  Hume diagnosed the problem long ago: “And as reasoning is not the source, whence either disputant derives his tenets; it is in vain to expect, that any logic, which speaks not to the affections, will ever engage him to embrace sounder principles.””

And here’s something I’ve found to be very true:

“Perkins found that IQ was by far the biggest predictor of how well people argued, but it predicted only the number of my-side arguments.  Smart people make really good lawyers and press secretaries, but the are no better than others at finding reasons on the other side. “people invest their IQ in buttressing their own case rather than in exploring the entire issue more fully and evenhandedly.””

This is becoming especially problematic thanks to the internet where anyone can find any “authority” to back up any claim to bolster their my-side arguments.

“we can call up a team of supportive scientists for almost any conclusion twenty-four hours a day.”

Haidt then talks biographically about his gradual conversion from being a know-it-all to gaining some actual understanding and empathy for those who held other worldviews.

“Liberalism seemed so obviously ethical.  Liberals marched for peace, worker’ rights, civil right, and secularism.  The Republican Party was (as we saw it) the party of war, big business, racism, and evangelical Christianity.  I could not understand how any thinking person would voluntarily embrace the party of evil, and so I and my fellow liberals looked for psychological explanations of conservatism, but not liberalism.  We supported liberal policies because we saw the world clearly, and wanted to help people, but they supported conservative policies out of pure self-interest (lower my taxes!) or thinly veiled racism (stop funding welfare programs for minorities!).  We never considered the possibility that there were alternative moral worlds in which reducing harm (by helping victims) and increasing fairness (by pursuing group-based equality) were not the main goals.  And if we could not imagine other moralities, then we could not believe that conservatives were as sincere in their moral beliefs as we were in ours.”

He goes on to talk about moving to India to study cultural psychology and living with a traditional family.  Observing the daily life and moral world that was so foreign to him caused the idea of other moral matrices to impact his previous view that there’s really only one correct moral matrix: the modern secular western educated one. He was then able to parse the rhetoric from the right with a “clinical detachment” and see that the specific policies such as prayer and corporal punishment in schools, and no sex education, etc. came from a place other than a totalitarian desire to control every aspect of people’s lives.  (we’ll get to what that is later.)  But he then goes on to say what I hope all liberals who read this -and then the book- will end up saying.  

“It felt good to be released from partisan anger.  and once I was no longer angry, I was no longer committed to reaching the conclusion that righteous anger demands: we are right, and they are wrong.  I was able to explore new moral matrices, each one supported by its own intellectual traditions.  It felt like a kind of awakening.”

Then comes what I think is the central focus of the book and Haidt’s work.  I think they sum it up on the website better than I can, so I’ll just past from there.

From the website:

Moral Foundations Theory was created by a group of social and cultural psychologists (see us here) to understand why morality varies so much across cultures yet still shows so many similarities and recurrent themes. In brief, the theory proposes that several innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of “intuitive ethics.” Each culture then constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world, and conflicting within nations too. The five foundations for which we think the evidence is best are:
1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]
3) Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it's "one for all, and all for one."
4) Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
5) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).  
We think there are several other very good candidates for "foundationhood," especially:
6) Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor. We report some preliminary work on this potential foundation in this paper, on the psychology of libertarianism and liberty.
Much of our present research involves applying the theory to political "cultures" such as those of liberals and conservatives. The current American culture war, we have found, can be seen as arising from the fact that liberals try to create a morality relying primarily on the Care/harm foundation, with additional support from the Fairness/cheating and Liberty/oppression foundations. Conservatives, especially religious conservatives, use all six foundations, including Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, and Sanctity/degradation. The culture war in the 1990s and early 2000s centered on the legitimacy of these latter three foundations. In 2009, with the rise of the Tea Party, the culture war shifted away from social issues such as abortion and homosexuality, and became more about differing conceptions of fairness (equality vs. proportionality) and liberty (is government the oppressor or defender?). The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are both populist movements that talk a great deal about fairness and liberty, but in very different ways


So given this variety of foundations upon which to build a moral platform it’s no wonder that we have such a large variety of moral platforms.  One of the coolest things Haidt has done is to design a website that helps his team gather data on people and their beliefs so that he can build testable models of this. ( )

And here’s some of the neat charts he’s made.

So you can see that the more liberal you are the more you value Care and Fairness above everything else.  Whereas conservatives mix in Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity.  You can see in the second chart that those who identify as “Very conservative” even put Authority, Sanctity and Loyalty ABOVE Care and Fairness.  This, I think, is the the central reason that liberals perceive that conservatives are evil.  Not only do liberals prioritize Care and Fairness, but the more liberal you are, the more likely you are to strongly reject Loyalty Authority and Sanctity AS legitimate moral foundations.  As a friend of mine put it in a facebook conversation we were having about this subject: “Conservatives tend to place a lot of importance on things for which I have no use, whose absence I do not miss, and whose absence generally makes my life more enjoyable (importance of vaguely defined but dogmatically acclaimed virtues like faith, adherence to norms in general, categorized & prescribed roles in human interaction, systematized social constructs, hierarchical relationships, etc). As such, I suspect that I would not be convinced by the perceived "necessity" or "importance" of their additional moral categories.

Here is an example of three moral matrices and the weight distribution that each places on the moral foundations:




As you can see, the conservative moral matrix is the most balanced.  But any liberal will point out that it’s only because they are putting weight on three illegitimate foundations!  They are pulling weight AWAY from Care and Fairness (Indicated by how thick the lines are) in order to bolster repressive evil terrible ideas like blind obedience, sexual repression and jingoism.  This is where things get interesting.  Haidt spills a LOT of ink delving into the evolutionary reasons why these three troublesome-for-liberals foundations may have come about.  And even more challenging… why they may still be necessary for a functioning society.  Not in the sense that they ought to overpower Care and Fairness; but more that they are a necessary yang to the liberal yin. I’m going to come back to this later.

Next Haidt talks about WHY those three questionable-to-liberal moral foundations (And the others as well) exist from an evolutionary perspective. He states up front that there’s an annoying trend in academia to back up one’s position by cherry picking evolution for sloppy theories that support their argument.  And I think he does an admirable job avoiding that pitfall.  His argument does not boil down to “Our monkey ancestors had to form hierarchies so we should to lol!”.  I really enjoyed this part of the book where he builds a case for how and why our brains evolved the way they did, why group evolution was an important driver, and how that evolutionary psychology and sociology created the foundations that he has been postulating and researching.  I’m not going to summarize this part either.  Just take my word for it that it’s great, and buy the book.

Next up is some talk about the New Atheists’ part in the western culture wars.  I was surprised to read some ideas that I’ve FELT all my life, but never seen articulated about my religious upbringing.  He basically says that the New Atheists have a fundamental misunderstanding about what religion IS.  Their critique of religion stems from the faulty idea that he illustrates with the diagram below, on the left.  He shows that it’s actually like the one on the right.  


He says they spin their wheels attacking religious belief, because they think if the religious person will find find out their beliefs are wrong then they will do different things.  (“Oh, I WON’T get 72 virgins in heaven if I suicide bomb?  I guess I won’t then.”) But as Haidt established near the beginning of the book: human beliefs don’t come from rational thought, nor can they be changed with rational argument.  And his insight into the community aspect of morality explains why.  What we humans do, believe, and who we hang out with are all a web of interdependencies and gird each other.  The reason it’s SO difficult to change a person’s moral, religious, or philosophical beliefs is because they are embedded in so much other life stuff that would be undone by that change.  The human brain is very good at conserving energy, and it knows damn well what the repercussions of ripping oneself out of a community of like-minded, supporting people who love and respect you would be.  Just ask any ex-religious atheist about the process.  
“Supernatural agents do of course play a central role in religion, just as the actual football is at the center of the whirl of activity on game day...  But trying to understand the persistence and passion of religion by studying beliefs about God is like trying to understand the persistence and passion of ... football by studying the movements of the ball.  You’ve got to broaden the inquiry.  You've got to look at the ways that religious beliefs work with religious practices to create a religious community.”

OK, back to politics and morality.  The last third of the book contains the challenging stuff about why those evil conservatives think stupid stuff like sanctity, loyalty and authority are important enough to draw energy and resources away from the ACTUAL moral stuff like care and fairness.

Here’s one quote that particularly caught my attention.

“We can look more closely at people’s strong desires to protect their communities from cheaters, slackers and free riders, who, if allowed to continue their ways without harassment, would cause others to stop cooperating, which would cause society to unravel.”

This, I presume, is a statement that contains premises which most liberals would disagree with. First of all, it has the flavor of a Chicken Little about it.  But then Haidt brings up a fascinating study that looked at communes in the 1800s.  (Of which there were a surprisingly large amount.)  It compared and contrasted secular and religious communes.  Being a microcosm of society, they provide interesting little blips of social engineering that can give us a glimpse at the effects of particular ideologies.  It turns out that religious communes lasted way, way longer than secular ones.  And surprisingly, the more strict the religious sect, the longer it lasted.

“Why doesn’t sacrifice strengthen secular communes?  Sosis argues that rituals, laws, and other constraints work best when they are sacralized.  He quotes the anthropologist Roy Rappaport: “To invest social conventions with sanctity is to hide their arbitrariness in a cloak of seeming necessity.”  But when secular organizations demand sacrifice, every member has a right to ask for a cost-benefit analysis, and many refuse to do things that don’t make logical sense.  In other words, the very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient, and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship.  Irrational beliefs can sometimes help the group function more rationally, particularly when those beliefs rest upon the Sanctity foundation.  Sacredness binds people together, and then blinds them to the arbitrariness of the practice.”

This reminds me of my favorite line from The Hogfather, that speaks to the need for belief in what does not exist in order to make it exist.
“All right," said Susan. "I'm not stupid. You're saying humans need...fantasies to make life bearable."


"Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—"


"So we can believe the big ones?"


"They're not the same at all!"


"Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what's the point—"


I think that liberals assume too much when they assume that if a society drops the ‘ugly three’ foundations, that new ways to address the age-old problem of fostering cooperation without kinship will automatically emerge.  In fact, I don’t think they even know such a problem exists because we live in a such a comfortable and stable society right now.   If every human always did a cost/benefit analysis of every action before deciding to contribute to the social good then I think there’s a good chance that everything falls apart. We need the sacred in order to ease the sacrifices that we have to make for the common good. Sacredness is not a thing that exists on it’s own.  Like language, it’s a shared human consensus about a thing.  That means it’s fragile if the consensus erodes.  More on that in a minute...

“We evolved to live, trade, and trust within shared moral matrices.  When societies lose their grip on individuals, allowing all to do as they please, the result is often a decrease in happiness and in increase in suicide, as Durkheim showed more than a hundred years ago.  Societies that forgo the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully on what will happen to them over several generations.  We don’t really know, because the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades.  They are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few)”.

Granted, turning resources into offspring is not a high priority on a planet of 7 billion.  But we are certainly running into problems with our current quality-of-life expectations with so few replacements to keep our social welfare nets intact.  But that’s a can of worms I won’t go into here.  The point is that we really don’t know the cost of abandoning the 3 foundations liberals dismissed so cavalierly.

Ideally, you would have read the rest of the book before you finally get to Haidt’s definition of morality, but I think it’s important to comment on it for the sake of clarity.

“Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.”

Another liberal objection would be that they find the the idea of suppressing people’s desires to be authoritarian, unhealthy and evil.  “I’m basically a good person.  I wouldn’t hurt people.  I don’t need to be told to suppress my urges!”  It’s very hard for us to see the invisible forces that makes up a social moral matrix and the pressure it applies to ourselves and others.  And without seeing it directly, we liberals may have lost sight of its necessity.  The idea that people are essentially selfish and won’t spend resources helping those who aren’t kin is almost unthinkable to many liberals.  Sure, they’ll admit this is the case for rich people and republicans, but they tend to think that the normal human beings are full of compassion and love by nature.  I think the Tragedy of the Commons illustrates that this is not reality.

Haidt argues that Sanctity, Authority and Loyalty are actually a large part of the reason that society can function at all.  

Another interesting study he brings up illustrates something I’ve always wondered about, because I’ve noticed that this phenomenon seemed to be the case, but I assumed it was just my bias from being half-conservative/formerly full-conservative.

“In a study I did with Jesse Graham and Brian Nosek, we tested how well liberals and conservatives could understand each other.  We asked more than two thousand American visitors to fill out the Moral Foundations Questionnaire.  One-third  of the time they were asked to fill it out normally, answering as themselves.  One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out as they think a “typical liberal” would respond.  One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out as a “typical conservative” would respond.  This design allowed us to examine the stereotypes that each side held about the other.  More important, it allowed us to assess how accurate they were by comparing people’s expectations about “typical” partisans to the actual responses from partisans on the left and the right.  Who was best able to pretend to be the other?

The results were clear and consistent.  Moderates and conservatives were most accurate in the predictions, whether they were pretending to be liberals or conservatives.  Liberals were the least accurate, especially those who described themselves as “very liberal.”  The biggest errors in the whole study came when liberals answered the Care and Fairness questions while pretending to be conservatives.  When faced with question such as “One of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal” or “Justice is the most important requirement for society,” liberals assumed that conservatives would disagree.  If you have a moral matrix built primarily on intuitions about care and fairness (as equality), and you listen to the Reagan narrative, what else could you think?  Reagan seems completely unconcerned about the welfare of drug addicts, poor people, and gay people.  He’s more interested in fighting wars and telling people how to run their sex lives.  
If you don’t see that Reagan is pursuing positive values of Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity, you almost have to conclude that Republicans see no positive value in Care and Fairness.”

So again.  I think liberals confuse the conservative attempt to balance care and fairness with other values as an active attack on care and fairness.  And this leads them to see the mustache twirling villains.

Haidt talks about his first time reading about conservatism in a way that made sense to him, in historian Jerry Muller’s book: Conservatism.  I tried to sum this up, but found that the whole arc of the story is vital to understanding the key that I hope liberals will find to unlocking their hearts and minds to be more loving and understanding towards conservatives.  So I just typed out several pages from the book.  That’s probably immoral and illegal.  Sorry. But you know… I’m half conservative… so…


“Muller began by distinguishing conservatism from orthodoxy.  Orthodoxy is the view that there exists a “transcendent moral order, to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society.”  Christians who look to the Bible as a guide for legislation, like Muslims who want to live under sharia, are examples of orthodoxy.  They want their society to match an externally ordained moral order, so they advocate change, sometimes radical change.  This can put them at odds with true conservatives, who see radical change as dangerous.”  

Muller next distinguished conservatism from the counter-Enlightenment.  It is true that most resistance to the Enlightenment can be said to have been conservative, by definition (i.e., clerics and aristocrats were trying to conserve the old order).  But modern conservatism, Muller asserts, finds its origins within the main currents of Enlightenment thinking, when men such as David Hume and Edmund Burke tried to develop a reasoned, pragmatic, and essentially utilitarian critique of the Enlightenment project.  Here’s the line that quite literally floored me:

“What makes social and political arguments conservative as opposed to orthodox is that the critique of liberal or progressive arguments takes place on the enlightened grounds of the search for human happiness based on the use of reason.”

As a lifelong liberal, I had assumed that conservatism = orthodoxy = religion = faith = rejection of science.
It followed, therefore, that as an atheist and scientist, I was obligated to be a liberal.  But Muller asserted that modern conservatism is really about creating the best possible society, the one that brings about the greatest happiness given local circumstances.  Could it be?  Was there a kind of conservatism that could compete against liberalism in the court of social science?  Might conservatives have a better formula for how to create a healthy, happy society?

I kept reading.  Muller went through a series of claims about human nature and institutions, which he said are the core beliefs of conservatism.  Conservatives believe that people are inherently imperfect and are prone to act badly when all constraints and accountability are removed (yes, I thought; see Glaucon, Tetlock, and Ariely in chapter 4).  Our reasoning is flawed and prone to overconfidence, so it’s dangerous to construct theories based on pure reason, unconstrained by intuition and historical experience (yes; see Hume in chapter 2 and Baron-Cohen on systematizing in chapter 6).  Institutions emerge gradually as social facts, which we then respect and even sacralize, but if we strip these institutions of authority and treat them as arbitrary contrivances that exist only for our benefit, we render them less effective.  We then expose ourselves to increased anomie and social disorder (yes; see Durkheim in chapters 8 and 11).

Based on my own research, I had no choice but to agree with these conservative claims.  As I continued to read the writings of conservative intellectuals, from Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century through Friedrich Hayek and Thomas Sowell in the twentieth, I began to see that they had attained a crucial insight into the sociology of morality that I had never encountered before.  They understood the importance of what I’ll call moral capital.  (Please not that I am praising conservative intellectuals, not the Republican Party.)

The term social capital swept through the social sciences in the 1990s, jumping into the broader public vocabulary after Robert Putnam’s 2000 book Bowling Alone.  Capital, in economics, refers to the resources that allow a person or firm to produce goods or services.  There’s financial capital (money in the bank), physical capital (such as a wrench or a factory), and human capital (such as a well-trained sales force).  When everything else is equal, a firm with more of any kind of capital will outcompete a firm with less.  

Social capital refers to a kind of capital that economists had largely overlooked: the social ties among individuals and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from those ties.  When everything else is equal, a firm with more social capital will outcompete its less cohesive and less internally trusting competitors (which makes sense given that human beings were shaped by multilevel selection to be contingent cooperators).  In fact, discussions of social capital sometimes use the example of ultra-Orthodox Jewish diamond merchants, which I mentioned in the previous chapter.  This tightly knit ethnic group has been able to create the most efficient market because their transaction and monitoring costs are so low- because there’s less overhead on every deal.  And their costs are so low because they trust each other.  If a rival market were to open up across town composed of ethnically and religiously diverse merchants, they’d have to spend a lot more money on lawyers and security guards, given how easy it is to commit fraud or theft when sending diamonds out for inspection by other merchants.  Like the nonreligious communes studied by Richard Sosis, they’d have a much harder time getting individuals to follow the moral norms of the community.

Everyone loves social capital.  Whether you’re left, right, or center, who could fail to see the value of being able to trust and rely upon others?  But now let’s broaden our focus beyond firms trying to produce goods and let’s think about a school, a commune, a corporation, or even a whole nation that wants to improve moral behavior.  Let’s set aside problems of moral diversity and just specify the goal as increasing the “output” of behaviors, however the group defines those terms.  To achieve almost any moral vision, you’d probably want high levels of social capital.  (It’s hard to imagine how anomie and distrust could be beneficial.)  But will linking people together into healthy, trusting relationships be enough to improve the ethical profile of the group?

If you believe that people are inherently good, and that they flourish when constraints and division are removed, then yes, that may be sufficient.  But conservatives generally take a very different view of human nature.  They believe that people need external structure or constraints in order to behave well, cooperate, and thrive.  These external constraints include laws, institutions, customs, traditions, nations, and religions.  People who hold this “constrained” view are therefore very concerned about the health and integrity of these “outside-the-mind” coordination devices.  Without them, they believe, people will begin to cheat and behave selfishly.  Without them, social capital will rapidly decay.

If you are a member of a WEIRD society, [Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic] your eyes tend to fall on individual objects such as people, and you don’t automatically see the relationships among them.  Having a concept such as social capital is helpful because it forces you to see the relationships within which those people are embedded, and which make those people more productive.  I propose that we take this approach one step further.  To understand the miracle of moral communities that grow beyond the bounds of kinship we must look not just at people, and not just at the relationships among people, but at the complete environment within which those relationships are embedded, and which makes those people more virtuous (however they themselves define that term).  It takes a great deal of outside-the-mind stuff to support a moral community.  

For example, on a small island or in a small town, you typically don’t need to lock your bicycle, but in a big city in the same country, if you only lock the bike frame, your wheels may get stolen.  
Being small, isolated, or morally homogeneous are examples of environmental conditions that increase the moral capital of a community.  That doesn’t mean that small islands and small towns are better places to live overall - the diversity and crowding of big cities makes them more creative and interesting places for many people - but that’s the trade-off.  (Whether you’d trade away some moral capital to gain some diversity and creativity will depend in part on your brain’s settings on the traits such as openness to experience and threat sensitivity, and this is part of the reason why cities are usually so much more liberal than the countryside.)

Looking at a bunch of outside-the-mind factors and at how well they mesh with inside-the-mind moral psychology brings us right back to the definition of moral systems that I gave in the last chapter.  In fact, we can define moral capital as the resources that sustain a moral community.  More specifically, moral capital refers to:
the degree to which a community possesses interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that mesh well with evolved psychological mechanisms and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.

To see moral capital in action, let’s do a thought experiment using the nineteenth-century communes studied by Richard Sosis.  Let’s assume that every commune was started by a group of twenty-five adults who knew, liked, and trusted one another.  In other words, let’s assume that every commune started with a high and equal quantity of social capital on day one.  What factors enabled some communes to maintain their social capital and generate high levels of prosocial behavior for decades while others degenerated into discord and distrust within the first year?  

In the last chapter, I said that belief in gods and costly religious rituals turned out to be crucial ingredients of success.  But let’s put religion aside and look at other kinds of outside-the-mind stuff.  Let’s assume that each commune started off with a clear list of values and virtues that it printed on posters and displayed through the commune.  A commune that valued self-expression over conformity and that prized the virtue of tolerance over the virtue of loyalty might be more attractive to outsiders, and this could indeed be an advantage in recruiting new members, but it would have lower moral capital than a commune that valued conformity and loyalty.  The stricter commune would be better able to suppress or regulate selfishness, and would therefore be more likely to endure.  

Moral communities are fragile things, hard to build and easy to destroy.  When we think about very large communities such as nations, the challenge is extraordinary and the threat of moral entropy is intense.  There is not a big margin for error; many nations are failures as moral communities, particularly corrupt nations where dictators and elites run the country for their own benefit.  If you don’t value moral capital, then you won’t foster values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that increase it.

Let me state clearly that moral capital is not always an unalloyed good.  Moral capital leads automatically to the suppression of free riders, but it does not lead automatically to other forms of fairness such as equality of opportunity.   And while high moral capital helps a community to function efficiently, the community can use that efficiency to inflict harm on other communities.  High moral capital can be obtained within a cult or fascist nation, as long as most people truly accept the prevailing moral matrix.

Nonetheless, if you are trying to change an organization or a society and you do not consider the effects of your changes on moral capital, you’re asking for trouble.  This, I believe, is the fundamental blind spot of the left.  It explains why liberal reforms so often backfire, and why communist revolutions usually end up in despotism.  It is the reason I believe that liberalism -which has done so much to bring about freedom and equal opportunity- is not sufficient as a governing philosophy.  It tends to overreach, change too many things too quickly, and reduce the stock of moral capital inadvertently.  Conversely, while conservatives do a better job of preserving moral capital, they often fail to notice certain classes of victims, fail to limit the predations of certain powerful interests, and fail to see the need to change or update institutions as times change.”

Whew!  That was a really long quote.  So here’s a picture of Iron Man punching Captain America.

The question I’ve never heard a liberal ask is this: “Are the progressive net positives that liberalism bring ever offset by any negatives?”  I’ve found that the assumption (because I make it myself) is generally that liberal policy and personality is ONLY sunshine and light.  Because it FEELS right. It feels LOVING.  Giving grace to the underprivileged, accepting the weirdos, (As long as they aren’t the intolerant bigoted weirdos.) standing up to bullies, and helping the needy in every way we can.  It’s not immediately obvious that doing these things could POSSIBLY have a downside.  But conservatives see it.  They FEEL social capital in a way that liberals don’t.  And they sense when those load-bearing beams are cracking.  I think they tend to care about that structure too much, to the point that they will allow for more suffering than is needed occur to keep those buttresses firm.  
But they honestly feel like it’s for the good of all.  I know this because they sacrifice THEMSELVES for it.    
““When political scientists looked into it, they found that self-interest does a remarkably poor job of predicting political attitudes.”
Liberals misinterpret the conservative poor as being dupes for big business and the religious right.  “Don’t they know they’d be better off (get more social services) if they voted democrat?!”  But the conservative poor know that.  They believe that they are ‘taking one for the team’.  In their minds they are nobly sacrificing their welfare for that of society by voting for those that say they are upholding those 3 moral foundations that liberals reject, but that the conservative poor believe are vital.  Because they are convinced that without those moral values being held up society will start to unravel.  

I’m guessing this is where the conservative attitude comes from where they see liberals as hippies who only care about feelings and not results, and themselves as the practical grown-ups who have to keep society from falling apart.  

So I agree with Haidt that social capital is both a real, important thing, and a liberal blind spot.  And I think the conservative blindspot is related, and just as bad.  Whenever I post anything about social justice I get a very regular response from conservatives.  They can be summed up like this: “Racism/sexism/etc was an issue 30 years ago but doesn’t affect anyone these days.”  They are completely blind to institutional forms of oppression that make the daily lives of many much more difficult than others.  Again, it gets back to the individual-interpersonal levels of society.  It’s much easier to focus on one person at a time.  To lay praise and blame on a person, and not have to account for the near-infinite influences that shape their decisions, freedoms, emotional and intellectual resources.  That’s really damn complicated, and if you go too far into the woods you lose all sense of accountability.  I understand that fear.  I agree with the reasoning behind that fear.  Not because I’m a staunch believer in total free will.  (quite the opposite in fact.) But because the BELIEF in one’s own power to shape their own destiny is paramount to making the most you can out of your situation in life.  Unlike the conservative, I don’t push that idea to the extreme where I then say that anyone -no matter their starting point- can achieve anything if they work hard enough.  But if you preach the bad news of societal inequality you can inadvertently make things worse for those who already have the short end of the stick by discouraging them to the point where they think the only way they can succeed is if the government steps in a fixes the broken systems.   

As a half conservative / half liberal I can’t be trusted by either side.  I’m a weak-willed sellout who caved to the pressure of my liberal peers in the eyes of conservatives.  And I have conservative baggage that I can’t dump in the eyes of liberals. That’s one of the reasons I don’t bother to chime in on overtly political topics. (I don’t count social issues even though they always have political ties.)   

But since Haidt is an atheist liberal, he can speak powerfully to you folks on the left side of the spectrum.  I’ll keep my eyes peeled for a counterpart on the other end.

“Morality binds and blinds.  This is not just something that happens to people on the other side.  We all get sucked into tribal moral communities.  We circle around sacred values and then share post hoc arguments about why we are so right and they are so wrong.  We think the other side is blind to truth, reason, science, and common sense, but in fact everyone goes blind when talking about their sacred objects.
If you want to understand another group, follow the sacredness.  As a first step, think about the six moral foundations, and try to figure out which one or two are carrying the most weight in a particular controversy.  And if you really want to open your mind, open your heart first.  If you can have at least one friendly interaction with a member of the “other” group, you’ll find it far easier to listen to what they’re saying, and maybe even see a controversial issue in a new light.  You may not agree, but you’ll probably shift from Manichaean disagreement to a more respectful and constructive yin-yang disagreement.”

This book was very eye-opening for me and brought me several epiphanies.  Such as:

I learned why I’m so liberal.
My personality profile is such that I do not naturally see the 3 conservative moral foundations of Authority, Loyalty and Sacredness as worthy of balance with the two major liberal ones of care and fairness.  I can still see why they are important.  (See this very Authority/Sanctity oriented ceremony I designed for my sons: )  But they are SO EASILY to corrupted by terrible people to control and abuse others.  Like… Loyalty?  I GUESS that’s a virtue.  But only so far as the person/organization is WORTHY of it.  People and organizations can and do change.  So being loyal can easily make you compromise your values if Loyalty is way up there in your priorities.  I know that I wouldn’t want someone to be unquestioningly loyal to me.  I want people to rally to my aid IF I DESERVE it, not out of some weird sycophantic brain wrinkle.  Same with Authority, same with patriotism, same with tradition.  So while I think I understand Haidt’s arguments about why and how they keep social capital around, I don’t intuitively FEEL it.  

But besides seeing why I’m so liberal, I also see why I’m so conservative.  
Because I know that I don’t know enough to be sure that radical liberal societal changes won’t have unforeseen devastating consequences that could harm more than they help.  It’s nice to think that all the conservative stuff that societies have that don’t FEEL loving… stuff like hierarchy, zealotry, jingoism, etc. are simply harmful backward baggage that can be tossed aside like an old snake skin. But I have a dimmer view of human nature than many liberals seem to.  I think our natural state is red in tooth and claw. So very powerful external forces are still necessary to keep us from that state being the norm.  And even though I’m not passionate about authority, loyalty and sacredness, I can see how they are probably the things that keep us from Armageddon.  

While I agree with liberals that much of human tradition and institutions came about through processes of the powerful preying on the less-powerful, I also agree with the conservatives that those systems keep society stable and cooperative.  It’d be great to be able to scientifically experiment with societies by radically altering them according to every liberal ideal to see what would happen.  But I think what would happen is economic collapse, disaster, famine, chaos and ultimately more war than we have already.  Maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe a pure socialist or communist or anarchist society could work on a large scale.  Maybe the reason it hasn’t worked yet is because those ‘experiments’ were all watered down with bits of capitalism, religion, or whatever other ‘impurities’ might mess up the perfect society.  But since we can’t do laboratory experiments with hundreds of millions of people at once, we are stuck with the politics we know.  Politicians. pundits, financial interests, etc. all in a tangled tug of war.  And given that reality, MY opinion is that it’s good that we are mostly gridlocked.  One foot stuck in the past and one straining into a new, unknown social construct.

But this book isn’t really about politics per se.  It’s about how we regard the ‘other’ in our daily lives.  It’s how we tend to dehumanize and demonize those who believe differently than we do.  I really don’t care who you vote for or what party you support.  I care that you hate.  That you loathe, condemn and insult people who probably don’t deserve it.  Not for them.  For you.  Life is so much better when you don’t hate half the population of your country.  I mean… I’d be NICE if I didn’t get the message that my parents are racist hateful idiots for how they vote.  But let’s not make this about me.  

IF you truly want the best for this world, you want consensus.  Consensus does not come about by telling everyone who disagrees with you that they are evil.  It really doesn't matter that some percentage of those who disagree with you really ARE evil.  What matters is that reasonable people dig in hard when they are insulted.  Liberal or conservative: no one reads a comment like “Only an idiot would vote for this person.” or “How evil do you have to be to believe this?” and say to themselves: “You know what?  That’s a great point.  Mind blown.  I’ve changed completely now!”  So while it might feel good to lambaste the “others” to your friends in your social network echo chamber, I think you are actually hurting yourself in two ways.  First, you’re dwelling in hate or -at the very least- negativity.  And second, you’re KEEPING YOUR SIDE FROM BEING HEARD.  Your short-term gain of feeling like you’re part of the “good guys” is actually keeping the “good guys” from being effective.  It’s like a superhero team who spends all day giving each other super high fives instead of helping anyone.  

Please consider this.  Your group is already motivated and activated.  In order to form a greater consensus, and thus progress your agenda, you have to convince some portion of the mushy middle that your side is right and good.  Every time you say that the other side is evil or stupid you are either A: directly insulting them for having believed that way to some extent, or B: directly insulting someone they love and respect.  You think THAT is going to help your cause?

So how do you reach the mushy middle?  Haidt puts it this way:
“Intuitions can be shaped by reasoning, especially when reasons are embedded in a friendly conversation or an emotionally compelling novel, movie, or news story.”

That quote reinforces what I take to be my calling in life, which I currently phrase: “Make the world more loving with stories.”

That’s why this book means so much to me.  Haidt clearly has a similar personality profile to mine.  Ambassadors.  We want to facilitate healthy relationships, cultivate respect for others, and ultimately make the world a more loving place.  I think that’s something both ‘sides’ can agree with.