Tuesday, September 7, 2010

the yin and yang of everything

All things come into being by conflict of opposites.

- Heraclitus, 500 BC

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.

- William Blake, 1790 AD

The ancient Chinese symbol of yin and yang represents the value of the eternally shifting balance between seemingly opposed principles. As the epigrams above from Heraclitus and Blake show this is not just an Eastern idea; it is Great Idea, a timeless insight that in a way summarizes the rest of this book. Religion and science, for example, are often thought to be opponents, but the insights of ancient religions and of modern science are both needed to reach a full understanding of human nature and the conditions of human satisfaction. The ancients may have known little about biology, chemistry, and physics, but many were good psychologists. Psychology and religion can benefit by taking each other seriously, or at least by agreeing to learn from each other while overlooking the areas of irreconcilable difference.

The Eastern and Western approaches to life are also said to be opposed: The East stresses acceptance and collectivism; the West encourages striving and individualism. But as we've seen, both perspectives are valuable. Happiness requires changing yourself and changing your world. It requires pursuing your own goals and fitting in with others. Different people at different times in their lives will benefit from drawing more heavily on one approach or the other.

And, finally, liberals and conservatives are opponents in the most literal sense, each using the myth of pure evil to demonize the other side and unite their own. But the most important lesson I have learned in my twenty years of research on morality is that nearly all people are morally motivated. Selfishness is a powerful force, particularly in the decisions of individuals, but whenever groups of people come together to make a sustained effort to change the world, you can bet that they are pursuing a vision of virtue, justice, or sacredness. Material self-interest does little to explain the passions of partisans on issues such as abortion, the environment, or the role of religion in public life.

An important dictum of cultural psychology is that each culture develops expertise in some aspects of human existence, but no culture can be expert in all aspects. The same goes for the two ends of the political spectrum. My research' confirms the common perception that liberals are experts in thinking about issues of victimization, equality, autonomy, and the rights of individuals, particularly those of minorities and nonconformists. Conservatives, on the other hand, are experts in thinking about loyalty to the group, respect for authority and tradition, and sacredness. When one side overwhelms the other, the results are likely to be ugly. A society without liberals would be harsh and oppressive to many individuals. A society without conservatives would lose many of the social structures and constraints that are so valuable. Anomie would increase along with freedom. A good place to look for wisdom, therefore, is where you least expect to find it: in the minds of your opponents. You already know the ideas common on your own side. If you can take off the blinders of the myth of pure evil, you might see some good ideas for the first time.

By drawing on wisdom that is balanced—ancient and new, Eastern and Western, even liberal and conservative—we can choose directions in life that will lead to satisfaction, happiness, and a sense of meaning. We can't simply select a destination and then walk there directly—the rider does not have that much authority. But by drawing on humanity's greatest ideas and best science, we can train the elephant, know our possibilities as well as our limits, and live wisely.

- Johnathan Haidt

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