The Eudaimonist: Does a Liberal Consensus Foster Bias?

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

If you are a student at Swat, I can guess there is a pretty good chance that you oppose the death penalty and corporal punishment, consider the Abrahamic religions to be myths, and favor women’s rights, labor rights, LGBTQ rights, environmental protection, the welfare state, less wealth inequality, etc. You probably consider yourself a rational, liberal, and open-minded progressive, as opposed to those unthinking, close-minded, and traditional conservatives. Or, maybe that’s just me.

But am I really that much different in my belief structures than our conservative counterparts? Is it possible that many of us are just as prejudiced as many of them? Prejudice is nothing more than a preconceived opinion or feeling, implying that the person who holds a prejudice did not formulate the opinion on their own, but acquired the conception from an external source and incorporated it into their belief system without scrutiny. Often times we conflate the word prejudice with words typically associated with intolerance, like sexism, racism and nationalism. However, prejudice is not about specific beliefs or opinions, but the way in which one holds their beliefs and opinions.

Last year I took a class taught by Harvard professor Robert Kegan, who works on constructive-developmental theory. He posits that there are five different stages of conscious complexity, according to what things we are subject to and what we hold as object. As children, we tend to operate within the first two stages, where we are subject to our own needs and preferences, and largely unable to consider the feelings and desires of others. Most adults emerge from adolescence at the third stage, called the “socialized” or “traditional” mind. At this stage, one now subordinates one’s own impulses and desires to the desires and expectations of others. However, one is still subject to the beliefs and opinions generated and transmitted to her or him by external sources, such as the people close to them or influential institutions like a church or political party. It is not that people at this stage consciously choose not to challenge these opinions; it is that they do not even think to challenge them. They do not hold these opinions as object (something that they can hold up to scrutiny and reflect on); and thus they seem concrete.

For example, when I was younger, I used to read the Bible during mass. I was quite distressed by God’s behavior in the Old Testament, and, like every child, I was puzzled about where God came from. But at the time, whether the stories represented truth or myth and whether God existed or did not exist were not things I even thought to question – the stories were true, whether I liked them or not, and God’s existence was a fact. I was subject to my belief in God; it was a prejudicial assumption that was completely unnoticed.

Juxtaposed with that circumstance was my distress over eating animals at around the same time, and in this circumstance my parents did frame the situation as a matter of opinion. Although they did try to morally justify eating animals, it was clear to me that the ethical defense for carnivorous behavior was not an unquestionable fact, and people were free to decide for themselves. Here I was able to hold meat-eating as an object in my mind, something capable of scrutiny.

That leads me to the fourth order mind, the “self-authoring” or “modern” mind. At this stage our opinions are internally generated, or self-authored. Obviously, no one produces opinions in a vacuum; our beliefs will still betray significant external influence. To the extent that we can, we recognize the beliefs we were once subject to and reflect upon them. And we need not discard the beliefs once held prejudicially in order to be at the fourth order, if, after deliberation and reflection, we decide to retain those beliefs.

At the fifth order, the “self-transformational” or “postmodern” mind, people recognize the limits of their own inner systems, and the limits of having an inner system in general. They recognize, or hold as object, the subjective bias inherent in any of our opinions, and are less likely to see the world in terms of polarities and dichotomies. They recognize the similarities between differing systems, and appreciate the world as shades of gray rather than black and white.

According to Kegan’s research, a majority of adults are at the third order, some are at the fourth order, and very few are at the fifth order. In addition, whereas most people develop beyond the first two orders during childhood and adolescence, not everyone develops beyond the third order during adulthood.

Why did I waste your time explaining this?  There is a possibility that, despite Swarthmore students’ impressive academic prowess, the ideological homogeneity of the student body could result in an intellectual complacency. People may not be not genuinely self-authoring their political beliefs after rigorous investigation and deliberation and may simply adopt the prevailing views. I am not suggesting that this is necessarily the case here. But my experience talking with neighbors back home in the quite liberal city of New Haven is that many do not have a logical, well-informed, well-articulated reason for why they endorse a certain position because they spent most of their lives with other liberals. Many either are unaware of the sophisticated arguments offered by intellectual conservatives and libertarians, or quickly dismiss them without offering an informed refutation of their claims. (To be fair, I had the exact same experience with conservatives in the military.)

And this leads me to believe that we must be constantly vigilant of what opinions, activities, and institutions we have unconsciously or subconsciously adopted without sufficient reason or reflection of our own. Study after study shows that, across the political spectrum, we are all irrational and biased, but, to the extent possible, we should strive to acknowledge and understand differing opinions.

With the increasingly complex challenges of our time, the world, and democratic nations especially, have never been in greater need of citizens who develop into the fourth and fifth orders of mind, who are capable of questioning the prevailing opinions of their community, of conscientiously evaluating different viewpoints, and of generating their own beliefs. Hopefully, we can rise to the occasion.


  1. I think you raise important concerns that we should all be mindful of, but I’d beware of equating coherence of articulation and functional knowledge of the esoteric with validity of belief. As Michael Polanyi said, “We know more than we can tell”. I think that the ability to connect core moral principles to political positions is a sufficient baseline for entry into the political/civic sphere. This isn’t to say that anyone’s beliefs are above reasonable contestation, only that participation in contemporary politics shouldn’t be restricted to those with a sophisticated understanding of Keynes vs. Hayek or Ayn Rand vs. compassion, justice, and common sense.

    “People may not be genuinely self-authoring their political beliefs after rigorous investigation and deliberation” not because they’re lazy or unchallenged but because that sort of romanticism is reserved for fairytale democracies and political savants. For the rest of us, moral instinct must still come to bear on our politics.

  2. This is probably just me, but I was so offended by one of you initial statements, I couldn’t read the rest of your article. I find offense in you statement, “those unthinking, close-minded, and traditional conservatives.” I consider myself a conservative republican, but I am not unthinking nor close-minded. While I am more than aware that many of my beliefs are held by a minority of students here, I was under the impression that everyone on campus was respectful of other peoples’ beliefs. Considering the recent hate crimes, which I find absolutely appalling, and though I know this article is not nearly on the same level of seriousness, how could you even consider writing such a statement in a campus and beyond wide publication? I am sure you wrote an interesting article, which I am sorry I could not read. So please, next time, don’t disparage someone else’s ideals just because they are “traditional” while priding yourself on being “a rational, liberal, and open-minded progressive.”

    • It is just you.

      The sentences you were offended by:
      “YOU PROBABLY CONSIDER YOURSELF a rational, liberal, and open-minded progressive, as opposed to those unthinking, close-minded, and traditional conservatives. Or, maybe that’s just me.” [emphasis mine]

      “But am I really that much different in my belief structures than our conservative counterparts? Is it possible that many of us are just as prejudiced as many of them?”

      The point of the article was exactly the opposite of what you thought it was: in a liberal setting we can easily fall into the trap of being prejudiced against differing opinions because we pride ourselves on being open-minded.

      You may find that your ability to criticize an article is dependent on how much of it you have read and comprehended.

      Also, please don’t make comparisons between hate crimes and the marginalization of conservative beliefs. People annoyingly making assumptions about you is not really comparable to calling into question one’s physical safety.

    • If you have read on you would have seen that the whole rest of the article is about how that initial view is so biased, hence the name of the article “Does a Liberal Consensus Foster Bias?”

      If you have an opportunity to read any of the literature on political psychology, you see that many people of every political persuasion suffer from strong cognitive biases like naive realism. Many of us liberals think they we are rational, open-minded, and well-informed and that many conservatives are not. (“I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it.”-John Stuart Mill)

      Conservative think the opposite (“If you’re not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you’re not a conservative at forty you have no brain.”) Based on how ignorant conservatives like Thomas Sowell make liberals out to be, I am sometimes shocked I have been able to survive for two decades being this illogical. And libertarians think both sides are completely irrational and incoherent.

      What I was trying to say is that we should not assume, based on their beliefs, that someone is not an independent, critical thinker, because there are people on all sides who are, and, I believe, there are people on all sides who are not. Its not the beliefs themselves, but the method of how one arrives at their beliefs, that determines if someone is a free-thinking individual (I realize that no one is a perfectly rational, independent thinker and even the most free-thinking person is likely still subject to some subjective biases and unperceived environmental constructs, so it is not that there are free-thinkers and non-free thinkers, but that there is a spectrum, to what extent is your thought free?)

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