The Polarization Series: The Search for an Integral Politics

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More often than not, we are lured into the temptation of conformity and group think. As social animals we care deeply about the opinions of others. We concern ourselves with our relative position and status within society. At our core, we all want to fit in and gain approval of our peers and respective groups that we are associated with.

Group evolutionary adaptation, which enabled us to temporarily forego selfish self-interest in pursuit of the greater good of our communities is both a blessing and a curse. While this drive motivates us towards mutual co-operation within groups it can pull us towards antagonism and tribal politics between groups.

Of course, this has become evidently more apparent in our society with rising polarization in our politics and the general decline in the quality of public discourse. On issues that are of high importance to us, we tend to be unwilling or unable to understand potential criticisms of our view. We remain deeply rooted in our positions, dumbfounded by the counter arguments of our adversaries.

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.

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind

Breaking the Deadlock

So how can we go beyond these rigid political and ideological narratives that we find ourselves entrenched in?

How can we find a way to find a truce between these different ideological tribes?

In order to do so, the first thing that we must acknowledge is that each worldview has both positives and negatives. There is always a trade-off. For instance, policies which promote greater economic liberty and reliance on the free market (i.e. free trade) may collectively increase GDP while leaving certain groups of low-skilled workers worse off.

Additionally, each set of paradigms or beliefs has at least some degree of truth. That is not to say that each of these worldviews is equal or that one can not be categorically better than another. Rather, it is to argue that there is always some signal within the noise. While we may disagree with others on certain issues, if we remain objective and modest we can see that beyond someone’s beliefs they may have good and honest intentions. Perhaps they hold their view simply because they think it is what is the best for themselves or their loved ones.

An Integral Approach

Everybody — including me — has some important pieces of truth, and all of those pieces need to be honored, cherished, and included in a more gracious, spacious, and compassionate embrace.

Ken Wilber, A Theory of Everything

The basic premise of integral theory is that we ought to seek to integrate different perspectives by incorporating the positives and discrediting the negatives of each paradigm.[1] Rather than rigidly maintaining our fixed ideologies, the integral approach advises that we approach new ideas with a sense of humility and curiosity.

In disagreements with those with opposing views, we can ask ourselves, what are the areas of convergence?

A useful way to conceptualize this approach is by thinking of how venn diagrams work, that is they highlight the areas of intersection and differences between various sets of concepts or ideas.    

Venn Diagram.

As an example of how we these can work in the real world, let’s look at a model developed by the integral philosopher Steve McIntosh in his article Towards a Post-Progressive Political Perspective.

 McIntosh claims that three major worldviews characterize our world’s different values and belief systems, and each consist of both both positives and negatives. These paradigms (ways of seeing the world), along with there pros and cons can be seen in the chart below.


WorldviewCharacteristicsPositivesNegatives
TraditionalismAssociated with social conservatism. Seeks to preserve traditional values such as one’s duty to family and country.Acts as a social ‘glue’ which binds individuals together through a common set of beliefs.Can disregard the rights and values of vulnerable minorities, and lead to the oppression of these groups (i.e., racism, sexism, homophobia).
Modernity  Promotes individual liberty and political and economic freedom.  Has led to unprecedented economic growth within the past few centuries.  

Resulted in a shift towards government which respects the rights of individuals, and led to the emergence of democratic institutions.
Prioritizes economic growth over environmental concerns leading to biodiversity loss, environmental degradation and climate change.
Progressivism  Connected with advocacy and social reform. Concern for the protection of the environment. Focus on the rights of vulnerable groups within society.  

Inclusive world-centric morality which aims to address inequalities within society.
Divisive identity politics which disregard any benefits that traditional values may bring.  

Can lead to relativism which claims that no one system is better than others, making it difficult to promote consensus or social cohesion.
Based on Steve McIntosh’s article: Towards a Post-Progressive Political System

McIntosh argues for a system called post-progressivism which seeks to provide a synthesis of these three paradigms by integrating the benefits and disregarding the negatives. For instance, this can include policies which promote the use of business and the free market to develop innovative technologies to curb climate change. Moreover, it can recognize the past injustices of Western colonization while appreciating the economic liberty and scientific progress modern society has brought us.  Moreover, these individual freedoms and innovations can be leveraged as a mechanism to promote greater equality for historically disadvantaged communities.

Integral Consensus

The key to moving forward is to cultivate a sense of intellectual humility and resist the temptation towards group or tribal thinking. Of course, there is nothing wrong with affiliating yourself to a particular political party, group or ideology. However, it becomes a problem when we stubbornly hold onto rigid beliefs without questioning their validity or assumptions.

We must both celebrate our differences as well as recognize our common humanity with others. Disagreements are inevitable, but we can always settle them in a respectful and cordial way. As society is pulled towards the extremes, we must always search for areas of consensus and convergence.

In an increasingly inter-connected world, our collective wellbeing depends on our ability to work together.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

[1] This is an oversimplification of integral theory which contains various stages and models of growth and development. For a primer on this work see Ken Wilber’s A Theory of Everything


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The Polarization Series: A Look at our Moral Foundations

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In my last piece in this series, I argued that our minds are susceptible to a host of biases and deceptions which influence our decisions. We are inclined to jump to conclusions, and make up stories to justify our beliefs – even when we lack concrete evidence to back up our claims.

This can partially explain why we are sometimes dumbfounded when questioning the judgements or actions of others. Of course, we all have the ability to act rationally, but our capacity to think clearly about issues is in large part shaped by our environment, as well as our emotions.

Let’s continue to peel the layers of and explore what factors influence our judgements.

With so much cultural and moral diversity apparent throughout history and across different societies in the modern era, is there anything that binds us together? After all, in spite of these disagreements on what we consider right or wrong, each of us humans share a common ancestry.

Moral Foundations Theory

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues developed a theory to try and answer these perennial questions. Moral Foundations Theory proposes that we all have a set of fundamental moral intuitions which guide our behaviour. In the Righteous Mind, Haidt puts forth six building blocks of morality. 

Moral FoundationDescriptionExamples
(1) Care\HarmWe are sensitive to others who are suffering, and are inclined to care for those who are vulnerable or in need.Care for a small child, or someone who is ill.
(2) Fairness\CheatingEnables us to be aware and reject ‘free riders’ in instances of group collaboration, that is those individuals who get the rewards of something but didn’t contribute.Explains our aversion towards those who are rewarded without ‘paying their fair share.’
(3) Loyalty\BetrayalEvolved to allow us to build coalitions and work collaboratively. Motivates us to reward those who remain faithful to a cause, while punish those who detract.Think of when your favourite player gets traded to a rival team.
(4) Authority\SubversionObedience to hierarchy, rank and position. Also includes the desire to follow traditions, institutions and shared values.Respect for parents and family, cultural traditions, and institutions.
(5)Sanctity\DegradationClosely associated what we deem as ‘sacred’.   On the flip side, feelings of ‘disgust’ arise in cases where someone degrades what we hold as sacred.Principles, objects or places we place an infinite value on.   Religious symbols, objects of patriotism including national flags, saints or heroes.
(6) Liberty\OppressionInclination to resist unwarranted authority, domination or tyranny.Desire towards equality and freedom.

Haidt comes up with yet another brilliant metaphor to explain a pluralist account of how we can all share these moral foundations yet have starkly different attitudes towards various contentious issues.

The analogy is as follows. All of us humans have the same five taste receptors, but like a variety of different cuisines. Cultures have different foods which satisfy our desire for sweetness. I may like churros while a friend may prefer baklava – nonetheless both desserts are satisfying the same taste receptor.  

Further, some of us could be more inclined towards foods which are more bitter, while others prefer foods which are sour. Just because we have the capacity for different tastes doesn’t mean we like them all equally.

Haidt’s thesis states that we are all born with the same six moral intuitions.  However, the variety and differentiation in our morals and values comes as a result of us our societal and cultural upbringings as well as our social interactions.  Different practices can satisfy the same moral foundation, and some groups may be drawn to some values more than others.

This allows for both rigid moral foundations, yet flexibility in the development of cultural norms.

Political Applications

What is interesting about Moral Foundations Theory is that can be applied to a range of issues, mostly notably politics.

Haidt’s research is able to help us discern what moral foundations underpin the values of liberals, conservatives and libertarians.

  • Liberals are motivated by (1) Care\harm and (2) Fairness\cheating foundations and (6) the Liberty\Oppression foundation. Focused on issues of fairness and social justice, liberals are driven by the desire to push for policies which expand equal treatment to minorities and marginalized groups. The attention is on the individual rights as opposed to the group.
  • Haidt found that conservatives appeal equally to all six foundations, giving the most weight to upholding tradition, social intuitions and shared values in order to uphold social cohesion.
  • Lastly, libertarians prioritize the (6) Liberty\Oppression foundation, namely advocating for freedom from interference by the state.

Search for the Grey Areas

Moral Foundations Theory offers us a starting point to better understand those who disagree with us on certain issues.  It is easy to simply talk past one another, especially in cases when two people have a different set of moral values.  As postdoctoral researcher Kristin Hurst notes,  

People on both sides of the political spectrum tend to frame their own issues using the language and arguments that align with the moral convictions of their own group. We can have a hard time recognizing the legitimacy of each other’s moral convictions and, because of that, find it difficult to craft arguments that resonate with people who prioritize a different set of values 

While we may not be convinced by another’s argument nor change our mind, at a minimum we can gain insight on which of the 6 moral foundations someone is appealing to.  With this, we can understand how to frame the issue in a way which is more sensitive to the moral concerns of others in order to try and develop a common ground on what is actually being debated.  

Each of the political paradigms or ways of seeing the world have both positives and negatives. For instance, there is a tradeoff between promoting individual rights (liberalism) and upholding traditions and social cohesion (conservatism).

Issues arise when we divide others into right or wrong or slip into black and white thinking. Rather than becoming fixated on our differences we can try to work towards searching for the ‘grey areas’, the things we can agree on and search for compromise.


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The Polarization Series: Why We are Mostly Emotional, and Sometimes Rational

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Over the course of our lives many of us will have gotten into arguments with friends, family or loved ones which goes somewhat along the lines of:

“You are not thinking, can you hear yourself? You need to stop being so hard headed and stubborn, and just listen to the facts. Can’t you just be a bit more reasonable!?”

Notice how we are quick to charge others of being irrational or unreasonable. However, we rarely look inwards at our own internal biases or lapses in thinking. Moreover, we tend to think that we are free from emotion and are able to make decisions on a purely rational or logical basis.

Perhaps, we even periodically ponder that if more people were to just overcome their passions and desires, and think with their head instead of their heart, we would all be better off.

An Old Debate: Reason vs Emotion

For centuries, philosophers have been debating whether reason or emotion was the dominant force in human decision making. Thinkers from Plato to Immanuel Kant praised the rational part of the mind while having contempt for our baser passions, drives and emotions. Others such as David Hume claimed that “reason is a slave to our passions.”

So, who was right in more accurately modelling human decision making?

Evidence from modern psychology points towards the latter view. Emotions come first, and reason is secondary. This makes sense if you think about the history of humanity from an evolutionary and developmental perspective. For hundreds of millions of years our ancestors deployed automatic processing and intuitive thinking to navigate the world around them. It was only when we began to develop and use language, around one million years ago, that we acquired the ability think in a systematic or logical way.  

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman distinguishes between two different types of cognition – System 1 and System 2.

  • System 1 (Emotion): This is our intuitive judgements about events or our ‘gut feelings.’ It requires low effort and is automatic. Our minds often have the tendency to jump to conclusions without sufficient evidence.  We construct stories to justify our decisions based on the information we have and what is currently available to us. This makes us susceptible to a whole range of biases and heuristics. Kahneman uses the concept of ‘What You See is All Their Is’ to explain our ability to have overconfidence in the information already known to us rather than searching for alternative ideas or opinions. Similarly, we also are inclined towards confirmation bias which is the idea that we are more likely to accept new information which confirms our existing beliefs, and ignore evidence which contradicts our views. [1]
  • System 2 (Rationality): On the other hand, we also have another mode of cognition which is responsible for rational thinking. In contrast to our automatic intuitive judgements, deliberate logical thinking takes a lot more effort. It is slow and methodical. Activating System 2 thinking requires attention and focus. System 2 is capable of high-level abstract thinking, enabling us develop and test models and theories which help us better understand the world around us. 

Elephant and the Rider Metaphor

Jonathan Haidt created a useful metaphor of someone riding an elephant which can help us understand the interaction between these two systems. The elephant represents our emotions while the rider symbolizes the rational part of the mind.

The rider can do several useful things to guide and shape the path for the elephant. It can set intentions, goals and provide a set of clear instructions. However, when there is conflict between these two, it is pretty clear who will have the upper hand – the elephant of course.

Despite our best intentions, many of us may be able to recall situations when we said or did something that we had no intention of doing. Our passions got the best of us.

Unfortunately, looking at the current events of today, with all the outrage and fiery debates we see on various media platforms, it seems like we are giving our elephants (our emotional mind) steroids. 

The Importance of the Environment

Given the significance of rational thought in advancing humanity and moving towards progress, how do we give reason a chance is prevailing in our personal development or public discourse?

One thing we can focus on is shaping our environment, and limiting the opportunities of us engaging in unintentional acts or becoming overwhelmed by our emotions.

If you want to have a productive work environment the first thing one ought to do is remove all possible distractions from the room. You don’t want to be in a room with a television or with your noisy roommates.

The same holds true for when we want to shape a more balanced and nuanced public sphere or hold more productive dialogues with others who share different views. Unfortunately, much of what happens in the digital sphere and from media isn’t conducive to truth and fact but rather clicks, views and profit.  Our attention is for sale. This is not to say we should completely disengage, but rather use the information we gather from these sites with a degree of prudence and reservation.  

In his book Enlightenment 2.0, Joseph Heath urges us all to slow down and think. Complex policy issues can not be accurately articulated in short sound bites, 280 characters or from passionate monologues from your favourite news anchor. Nuanced detailed analysis will most likely not come from your social media feeds. Rather it requires the hard work of comparing and contrasting different viewpoints and arriving to conclusions which are based on evidence, not assumptions.

Just like a good scientist testing, validating and proving their hypothesis, we can all benefit from a bit less certainty in our own views and opinions.

Humility, sensibility and empathy must serve as the backbone of good public dialogue – not arrogance or pride.      

Politics should be about cultivating intelligence rather than demeaning it, building on experience rather than going with our gut feelings.

Joseph Heath, Enlightenment 2.0

Collective Intelligence

To fix our internal cognitive biases our proclivity towards emotional thinking, we have to rely on the wisdom that the ‘whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’ We all have individual flaws and lapses in judgement, but these can be identified and resolved when we have the opportunity to have open and honest conversations with others. As Haidt states in his book The Righteous Mind,

We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth.

The path that lies ahead of us in our deeply divided frantic world is not an easy one, but we can start to repair fractures in our discourse and work towards the common good one constructive conversation at a time.

We all must find a way for the elephant and the rider to work together.


[1] You can view some of the most common cognitive biases here

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