Liberal vs Conservative “Essences”

The terms “Conservative” and “Liberal” are much abused, and, I fear, nearly obsolete, but this thread makes use of them anyway due to a lack of good replacements. I utilize them in hope that you will understand my meaning.

Conservatism and Liberalism basically see human nature quite differently:

Conservatives see people as possessing an ultimate inner essence, some inborn quality, be it your soul, nature, or DNA. This you can mold, but cannot fundamentally change. To put it in Christian terms (since most American Conservatives are Christian), through Free Will you can make good, moral, decisions, but you cannot change the fact that you are Fallen; only through an external Salvation-through-Christ can that be changed.

In more mundane terms, through Free Will, or Virtuous Living, you can make the most of your inner essence. For example, even someone who was born dull–an unchangeable state–may be honest, hard working, and follow the advise of smarter people. A person with a tendency toward addiction may work hard to fight that addiction, avoid drugs entirely, and still live virtuously.

In this view, your nature is like clay. You can’t trade it in for wood or steel or sand, but what you do with that clay, whether you turn it into a plate or a vase or sculpture, (or a splat on the ground) is up to you.

By contrast, Liberalism (in its theoretical form) rejects the notion of an “inner self.”  You have no inner essence. There is no “you;” only a set of interactions between your body and the rest of society. The identities people use to describe themselves, man or woman, gay or straight, black or white, Christian or not, are all “social constructs” created via your interactions with the rest of society.

Like the Bohr model of the atom, your “inner essence” only exists when observed by others.

For example: suppose a person of 100% sub-Saharan ancestry had a rare skin condition that made him look white. In his daily life, as he went about his business, he would be treated like a “white” person. Suppose, in addition, he had not been raised by a black family (adopted as an infant by a non-black family) and no one ever told him he was genetically black. Would he have any consciousness of himself as a “black” person?

Or note, for example, the liberal reluctance to attribute to people even traits like “smart” or “dumb” (“Oh, those kids just went to really good schools where they had really good teachers, that’s why they did well on that test, and besides, I don’t really believe in IQ.”)

Dig a bit, and you can find people who believe things like “women do worse in sports and weightlifting than men because society has conditioned them to” and “women are shorter than men because society has consistently underfed them for centuries.”

In Liberalism, your self is not like clay, but a point of environmental intersection where all of the things that have ever happened to you or you have perceived happen to meet.

Conservatism contains a kind of optimistic belief that no matter how bad things are, “you” can, by dint of will, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and overcome hardships. You can exist separate from the bad things that happened and can create a good life.

Conservatism therefore tends to approach life’s difficulties as a matter of “right living.” How to lead a good life? By doing it right. Clean your room. Be polite. Honor your mother and your father. Don’t covet.

Conservatism’s approach to dealing with problems is to “get over them.” Pretend they don’t exist. In its optimistic form, it believes that this is possible and that you can overcome your problems. (In its less optimistic form, it comes across as an excuse for abandoning people to insurmountable problems.)

Liberalism contains a kind of pessimism that “you” do not exist separate from the bad events of your life, but rather are created by them. “Racism” is an essential part of what creates “black identity” and thus “black people.” While you can “redefine” and “reclaim” identities, you cannot simply “get over” a core part of your own identity. To do so would render yourself blank.

Since Liberalism defines suffering as a core part of who people are, doesn’t tell them to reject it.

Liberalism tends to approach life’s difficulties as a result of the confluence of societal forces that have all impinged upon a single body to produce that difficulty. For example, a rock does not fall off a cliff and hit a passing car simply because the rock contained some internal desire to launch itself off a cliff, but because a confluence of forces (mostly gravity) compelled it downward. Likewise, when people misbehave, it is because of external circumstances that have created that behavior, like historical racism, sexism, malnutrition, bad schools, etc.

The solution is not to encourage “right behavior” (which is impossible) but to change thought patterns so that oppressive thought categories like “black” or “gay” will stop existing.

In other words, if whites can be convinced to stop thinking that race exists, then they will stop being racist against black people, and black people in the future can exist with identities that don’t include racial suffering.


In a slightly less abstract vein, when we ask “Why did psychology heartily endorse so many experiments that have failed to replicate?” many of those experiments conformed to the liberal, environmentalist view of human identity and behavior.

To give a bit of background: Pre-WWII, psychology was quite taken with Freudian notions that people have unconscious or subconscious thoughts and desires. Freudian ideas are hard to quantify and even harder to falsify, and thus test in any kind of rigorous, scientific way (though there are anthropological studies that have attempted this.) Post-war, mainstream psychology went in a different direction–skinnerian behavioralism–but behavioralism is boring because it treats people like black boxes and just looks at outcomes.

Also post-war, psychologists wanted to figure out why people would do things like stuff other humans into ovens and then claim later, “I was just following orders.” Hence the famous Milgram and Stanford Prison Experiments:

The Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures was a series of social psychology experiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram. They measured the willingness of study participants, men from a diverse range of occupations with varying levels of education, to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience. Participants were led to believe that they were assisting an unrelated experiment, in which they had to administer electric shocks to a “learner.” These fake electric shocks gradually increased to levels that would have been fatal had they been real.[2]

As far as I know, the Milgram experiments have replicated relatively well, and so will not be further discussed. The much ballyhooed Stanford Prison experiment, however, has turned out to be much more questionable.

The Stanford Prison Experiment became popular because it purportedly demonstrated that people’s behavior could be radically altered by even minor environmental expectations–in this case, being paid to pretend to be a prison guard for a few days turned people into raging psychopaths who tortured and abused their fellow students (“prisoners”) into mental breakdowns.

In reality, as has now come out, the “guards” were instructed to act violent and mean, and the prisoners were happily playing along, because after all, it was a fake prison:

Some of the experiment’s findings have been called into question, and the experiment has been criticized for unethical[5][6] and unscientific practices. Critics have noted that Zimbardo instructed the “guards” to exert psychological control over the “prisoners”, and that some of the participants behaved in a way that would help the study, so that, as one “guard” later put it, “the researchers would have something to work with.” The experiment has also been criticized for its small and unrepresentative sample population. Variants of the experiment have been performed by other researchers, but none of these attempts have replicated the results of the SPE.

Psychology is littered with other experiments purporting to prove that the environment has a large effect on how people act and feel in daily life. Take “priming,” the idea that you can change people’s beliefs or behavior via very simple stimuli, eg, people will walk more slowly and shuffle their feet after reading words related to old people; or “power posing,” the idea that you will be more assertive and effective at work and negotiations after adopting a Superman or Wonder Woman type pose in front of the bathroom mirror for a few minutes.
Phrased optimistically, if “you” can be shaped by negative experiences, then “you” can be re-shaped by positive ones.
None of this is replicating.
It’s not that “priming” can’t exist (I’m actually certain that in some form it does, otherwise advertising wouldn’t work, and studies show that advertising probably works,) but that the extreme view assuming that people possess no true inner essence is flawed. A moderately shy person might be able, with the right ritual, to “pump themselves up” and do something they were too shy to do before, like give a presentation or ask for a raise, but a very shy person might find this completely ineffective.

Both people and their circumstances are complicated.

Sometimes people DO react to environmental stimuli, and sometimes people DO overcome tremendous odds. Sometimes people who were abused abuse others, and sometimes they don’t.

People are complicated.


8 thoughts on “Liberal vs Conservative “Essences”

  1. This is a good model, the problem is that there are about a gazillion other models just as good for this. For example, conservatives are ingroup-preferring, preferring their own nation, race, it’s typical members (heterosexuals), liberals are outgroup-preferring, preferring the foreign, the alien, the immigrant, the minority, the different, the other. Or that conservatism is about how those who are already high on the social food pyramid should govern the rest responsibly, liberalism is about how to those who are lower on the ladder can gain power or pull the powerful down.

    Notice also how liberals tend to drop nurture in favor of nature every time it is tactically advantageous. In current_year gays and trans people were just born so, can’t help being what they are. This is a tactical argument. To some extent conservatives do similar things, basically trying to keep gays and trans away from their kids, sort of fearing that it is contagious, hence nurture-based, but I think it is simple reactivity, that is, it just comes from thinking if liberals are pushing teaching this in school it is probably a bad thing.

    As for the ingroup-outgroup model, Franco brought North African troops into the Spanish Civil War, and the liberals (well, the Republic) reliably brought out the typical ape-men with exaggerated racial characteristics raping white women type of propaganda.

    And sometimes conservatises go populist in a down with the corrupted elites, burn this rotten establishment down way, in which case liberals switch to the “but we are the responsible elites, please behave more thoughtfully” thing, see Scott Alexander.

    I really hope there is an essential difference, but what I see is there is infighting or generational change about nearly everything. In the sense that while libs manage to hide their infighting or at least I tend to see it less, there is conservative infighting or generational change about nearly everything. Conservatives used to be monarchists, went for populist democracy, now we have monarchism v2.0 and democratic populism at the same time. Conservatives used to believe in a paternalistic society and disagreed with Gladstone’s free-market Whiggery, then became the champions of free markets again, now they are rediscovering state intervention in the form of protectionism and an opposition to free trade.

    Perhaps your model is the least bad after all, because as far as I can tell sexual-gender deviance is the only thing conservatives fear to be nurture-based (contagious, brainwashable) and liberals are quite transparently using the “born that way” as a mere tactical argument.

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  2. Everyone understands “liberal” and “conservative”. But increasingly I think they are outdated. I might suggest better terms are “traditionalist” and “progressive”. “Liberal” comes from the progressives of the 19th century, but is increasingly obsolete because the left took power 85 years ago and thus has no need for many of liberalism’s innovations, such as freedom of speech. And “conservative” is (IMO) defined by its root “to conserve”, which is simply the status quo. In our communist country, conservatives are conserving leftism.

    I think you understand traditionalists better. Human nature exists and is largely unchangeable, the sexes and races exist and have natures which are largely unchangeable, and our individual personalities also exist and are largely unchangeable.

    I don’t think most progressives are as strongly socially-constructivist as you suggest. Rather, they are individualistic, considering the individual as radically self-created.

    Progressives not only accept our individual natures but they celebrate them. There is a huge focus in progressives of self-discovery, self-esteem, self-expression, self-affirmation, and demands that others see and affirm the same self that is felt. Anything which impinges even slightly upon the individual’s choice is seen as radically oppressive. (Here is a google n-gram of self-esteem vs self-respect. Esteem is how you feel, not connected to anything beyond the self; respect must be earned by meeting standards — which must come from outside the self.)

    What they deny is any nature of groups. Social constructivism is their means of making sense out of the obvious commonalities of the sexes, races, and other groups. Women are weak? No, they are the same as men; if you think any different it is “because society has conditioned you”.


  3. “if whites can be convinced to stop thinking that race exists” But Liberals (or Progressives or “the Left”) have been shoving race down our throats for decades. Whites after MLKJr have wanted to move beyond race and live colorblind. But we were denied it at every turn. This is kind of personal for me because I was born in 1969 and believed in the raceless future for about 40 years. Then I finally had to face reality: only whites are supposed to pretend race doesn’t exist. Except when other races are making demands of them.


    • I understand where you’re coming from.

      Racial colorblindness was kind of a mild, pleasant fiction of the sort that people need to espouse to get along in a multi-racial society, and the left blew it.


      • Seriously, “they” start saying that, no, being colorblind is also “racist”, and then seem surprised when 5-10 years down the road, people start figuring that you can’t win for trying, so just be an old fashioned racist… (I don’t think most people are really going to go full-on old-school racist just yet, but at the very least, if you’ll get called a racist for something that would have been seen as perfectly decent in, say, 1992, it really starts to take away the sting of being called a racist…)


  4. “…As far as I know, the Milgram experiments have replicated relatively well…”

    HAHA even the most well know experiments that the left uses are lies, distortions and frauds. You can’t believe a word these people say.

    “…By examining records of the experiment held at Yale, I found that in over half of the 24 variations, 60% of people disobeyed the instructions of the authority and refused to continue…”

    Leonard’s “traditionalist” and “progressive” seems to be a good compromise. I also suggest that Anonymous Conservative’s r/K theory describes some of the breaks in attitudes between the traditional and the progressive.

    It’s worth noting that in this theory that it seems the r’s are willing to use outsiders or different races in alliance to attack the K’s. It’s also worth noting that traditional types have a much larger amygdala the section of the brain that sees threats. Progressives have very small ones. A.C. talks about the amygdala a LOT. He says that the amygdala can be overloaded and bring about an almost catatonic type state of confusion. He says that some of the press reactions are related to this state that Trump pushes them in to.

    I don’t believe rk-selection-theory describes everything but it does describe a great deal. It’s a very good theory. I think that it’s true but that psychopaths drive a great deal of large events. What we would see as history. Without taking them into account I think it leaves a big gap.


    • 40% is still a large enough percent. Unlike the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which 100% were apparently just acting.

      Sociopathy is hard to talk accurately about because sociopaths function so differently from normal people, but I suspect you are correct that they are a big, important factor in a lot of large events.

      Any good system has to be sociopath-proof.


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