Variations on the Tilted Political Compass

Last year I published The Tilted Political Compass (part 1, part 2). I had thought of it as a short, quick and easy piece when I started writing it, but it grew into a 9000-word two parter and also an unexpected hit. It’s still my most popular piece most days.

The regular political compass — which I don’t particularly care for and wrote these two pieces as a response to — is a popular format for jokes and riffs. I’m not going to give any examples because I could do that all day, but you can browse r/politicalcompassmemes for a taste.

I’ve been thinking about riffing on the tilted political compass as well over the last year, and here’s my collection. I want to point out that 1) they’re not jokes, more like serious variations and 2) these alternate versions aren’t always meant to map onto the four quadrants of the titled political compass particularly tightly. Sometimes they’re just vaguely echoing them, and the variations are more different from each other than they are from the original, so sometimes the contradict each other. I know there are almost always valid arguments in the vein of “this variation quadrant is different from the original political equivalent for reason x, y, and z!” Relax.

Theme: The Tilted Political Compass

I’m not going to give a full explanation of the basic model. You’ll have to read the original articles for that. Very briefly:

The thrive/survive dimension refers to how precarious order and civilization are, and thus how generous and forgiving we can afford to be towards the weak, unfortunate, transgressive and for various reasons unproductive. At the thrive end, society is wealthy and stable enough that we can afford high-minded ideals about compassion and kindness, to take people’s feelings, and more subtle, distant problems seriously, and don’t obsess over everyone carrying their own weight. At the survive end, there’s a significant danger of killing the goose that lays the golden egg if we lose sight of the paramount importance of capability, results, and responsible behavior, and of making sure they’re adequately encouraged and rewarded.

The coupled/decoupled dimension refers to one’s understanding of the relationship between strangers in the same larger community, or between the individual and the community as a whole. If coupled, the ideal is modeled on close personal relationships: you have open-ended obligations to others and society by virtue of living among them and in it, and you owe others to genuinely incorporate their needs and interests into your own values and motivations. Distributed, systemic problems are everyone’s responsibilty. If decoupled, the ideal is modeled on business transactions, currency and contracts: you have to respect other’s rights and the rules, and be reliable and honor agreements, but you have by default no other — especially no vaguely defined — obligations to strangers or society in general. Distributed, systemic problems are nobody’s responsibility.

This gives us these four quadrants:

tilted basic

I’m not entirely satisfied by the label “populism” for the top quadrant (for reasons discussed in part 2) but it’ll have to do. The best alternative, “communitarianism”, sounds too lame and lacking in character (and nobody uses it).

Variation 1: A capitalization

I used psychological dimensions to make the tilted compass, because I feel the best way to understand beliefs and opinions is to know what it feels like to hold them. But not everyone thinks that way, and while I find “sociological reductionism” — reducing somebody’s views to a function of their social position rather than their personality — to be both insulting and less interesting than the reverse, I admit there’s some truth to that approach as well.

So, in this version I got rid of the psychology and just replaced it with cold hard capital: economic capital along the former decoupling axis, and cultural capital along the thrive/survive axis. Your position on the compass is supposed to follow from how much economic and cultural capital you possess.

tilted capital

What does that bring us? I find the result uncomfortably convincing. If you have more cultural than economic capital (think starving artist, journalist or academic), you’re on the left. If you have more economic capital than cultural capital (think skilled worker, technician or industrialist), you’re on the right. If you have a decent amount of both, in relative balance, you’re a liberal, and if you have little of either you’re a populist (communitarian). This matches my prejudices, so it must be true.

Politically I’m in the bottom square, about a third of the way straight down from the center. What does that say about my capital stocks? I make decent money, significantly above average but not lots and lots. I also have a respectable middle class job where I make and write things for a company that people listen to and mostly respect, and I blog about things like postmodernism, free will and art interpretation well enough for a very small number of strangers to pay me for it. That sounds like similarly above average but not massive amounts of cultural capital to me.

I feel a little “reduced”.

Variation 2: Two materialisms

Let’s get away from filthy capital and go philosophical instead. This one is a much bigger stretch, I grant you, but I’ve been fiddling with this model and I can’t get it good enough to deserve its own post, so here it is. Consider it a 2-by-2 that just uses the same orientation and colors while trying look innocent.

tilted materialism

What does this mean? Well, I have the impression that explicit materialism — by which I mean not professing belief in supernatural things like religion, and thinking of oneself as secular — is a different thing from implicit materialism, which means having an actually, actively materialist worldview.

One part of it is the phenomenon (mostly but not only concentrated on the political left) where people don’t believe in religion but at the same time don’t have a physically (i.e. biological/evolutionary/physiological) grounded conception of what people are and how they work.

In implicit non-materialism, the mental realm is thought of as separate and different from the physical, in practice if not in theory. Only mental things can affect the mind, and you may even say the nature of your self and your personality is entirely constructed or created by mental and social phenomena, such as how your parents, your friends, your teachers, advertisers or the wider culture treats you, and not by biological, physical and physiological factors. Strong emotional experiences, like trauma, is especially important and formative. Things like genes for behaviors are far-fetched and kind of ridiculous and needs a lot of evidence, rather than being obvious and expected. Phenomena like love is supposed to be explained as a soulful magical connection or appreciation of inherent beauty rather than as a biological function and an experience created by the release of neurotransmitters etc. In short, mental phenomena are to be explained in terms of other mental things.

I don’t mean that everyone I’m referring to would agree that they believe that, it just sounds a lot like they do when they talk. For example, believing that science and the humanities, or nature and culture more broadly, are separate and separable would be a sign of implicit non-materialism. To always reach for “something in your upbringing” as the first theory of why a person is the way they are would be another. To believe in free will as not just a practical construct but a metaphysical reality would be a third. To have a strong faith in the power of education and socialization to completely remake people a fourth.

There’s a good clue what I have in mind in Ullica Segerstråles book Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate that I recently re-read:

What the critics of sociobiology seemed to believe in was a “totally free” free will, not a will in any way influenced by genetic constraints. This, in turn followed from their belief in a separate realm of culture. Because of culture, there were no constraints on what humans could do, nor on our social and cultural arrangements. This was one of the early arguments in the sociobiology controversy promoted by Gould in “Biological potentiality vs Biological Determinism” (1976).

Truth be told, my thoughts on this whole variation is mostly about this particular quadrant, trying to articulate what I find to be a curious and frustrating about this implicit non-materialist. But we can fill out the rest of the model with a few quick sketches: the opposite on the right side would be professing to believe in supernatural things like God or souls but be like a materialist in practice, such as considering some things to be human nature and believing in the importance of heredity. I think that description does fit some parts of the political and cultural right.

Then there is my own bottom quadrant of consistent materialism, which is obviously the best and most correct one. Its opposite at the top contains the consistently spiritual/religious, which match its counterpart in the tilted political compass the worst of all four, but it does form a distinct group.

Variation 3: Three tribes

Scott Alexander once wrote a now famous blog post outlining American “political tribes”, characterizing them this way:

The Red Tribe is most classically typified by conservative political beliefs, strong evangelical religious beliefs, creationism, opposing gay marriage, owning guns, eating steak, drinking Coca-Cola, driving SUVs, watching lots of TV, enjoying American football, getting conspicuously upset about terrorists and commies, marrying early, divorcing early, shouting “USA IS NUMBER ONE!!!”, and listening to country music.

The Blue Tribe is most classically typified by liberal political beliefs, vague agnosticism, supporting gay rights, thinking guns are barbaric, eating arugula, drinking fancy bottled water, driving Priuses, reading lots of books, being highly educated, mocking American football, feeling vaguely like they should like soccer but never really being able to get into it, getting conspicuously upset about sexists and bigots, marrying later, constantly pointing out how much more civilized European countries are than America, and listening to “everything except country”.

(There is a partly-formed attempt to spin off a Grey Tribe typified by libertarian political beliefs, Dawkins-style atheism, vague annoyance that the question of gay rights even comes up, eating paleo, drinking Soylent, calling in rides on Uber, reading lots of blogs, calling American football “sportsball”, getting conspicuously upset about the War on Drugs and the NSA, and listening to filk – but for our current purposes this is a distraction and they can safely be considered part of the Blue Tribe most of the time).

I’ve been sweating over how to place those tribes on the tilted compass, and this is the best I’ve got:

tilted tribes

Maybe the overlap should be bigger, or maybe we ought to think of them in terms of their centers instead of their borders, but something like this seems accurate. I’m quite certain “the big two” differ more on the thrive-survive axis (a big part of the reason the same Scott Alexander wrote about the American political spectrum in those terms) and that the blue-gray divide is along the other axis.

And I should probably check out “filk”.

Variation 4: Four cultures

When I was a psychology student I learned about “cultures of honor”. It refers to cultures where no authority could be relied on to enforce justice, and therefore the only way to not get screwed over was to let everyone know, in no uncertain terms, that you were not to be screwed with. Typically this means projecting an image of toughness and cultivating a habit to respond fiercely to slights or challenges of any kind. From here:

A culture of honor is a culture in which a person (usually a man) feels obliged to protect his or her reputation by answering insults, affronts, and threats, oftentimes through the use of violence. Cultures of honor have been independently invented many times across the world. Three well-known examples of cultures of honor include cultures of honor in parts of the Middle East, the southern United States, and inner-city neighborhoods (of the United States and elsewhere) that are controlled by gangs.

It’s important to show that you won’t let anyone dominate or disrespect you, since knowing that one can get away with it invites further attacks. Honor cultures are common in many parts of the world and dominated also the West in centuries past. They value self-sufficiency and tend to exist outside what we’d call modern civilization — which makes me feel it’s related to the “decoupled” and “survive” poles of the tilted compass, and thus the rightmost quadrant.

Currently honor cultures are rare enough in wimpy liberal modernity to feel exotic to someone like me. What happened? The rise of the modern social contract, the state’s monopoly on violence, and the resulting reliance on third party justice made it less important to protect yourself and have a reputation for fierceness. Enter dignity culture.

Dignity culture discourages resorting to violence and instead prefers to settle serious conflicts thorugh legal means. Instead of reacting violently to minor insults, we are encouraged to ignore them and develop inner emotional resilience.

Manning and Campbell describe honour-shame culture as having been replaced in the modern Western societies in the 19th and 20th century by a dignity culture where “insults might provoke offense, but they no longer have the same importance as a way of establishing or destroying a reputation for bravery.” Instead, “When intolerable conflicts do arise, dignity cultures prescribe direct but non-violent actions.”


A dignity culture, according to Campbell and Manning, has moral values and behavioral norms that promote the value of every human life, encouraging achievement in its children while teaching that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

This is from the Wikipedia article on The Rise of Victimhood Culture by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning. As the title suggests, Campbell and Manning aren’t satisfied chronicling the now old-news shift from honor culture to dignity culture. They claim that dignity culture is itself in the process of being replaced, at least in some social environments, by victimhood culture.

In victimhood culture, they argue, we are no longer encouraged to grow a thick skin. The reliance on authority is preserved, but instead of only being used as a last resort to deal with serious problems it is supposed to respond to any and all complaints.

Because victimhood culture is now claimed to confer the highest moral status on victims, Campbell and Manning argue that it ”increases the incentive to publicize grievances.” Injured and offended parties who might once have thrown a punch or filed a law suit now appeal for support on social media.

With a little effort you could describe dignity culture and victimhood culture by saying that both of them rely on third party justice — and are therefore reliant on the peace taken for granted in modern civilization and thus thrive-oriented — but while dignity culture goes by “your feelings are your own responsibility”, victimhood culture rejects this in favor of the far less individualistic “your feelings are everybody’s responsibility”. This puts them on different sides of the coupled-decoupled divide, with victimhood culture on the coupled side.

That’s three culture, and again we stand without a top quadrant. What’s supposed to be there? As a consultant I’ve learned that sets of three concepts do not exist. Everything is a 2-by-2. Let’s sketch the last one. We have no modern, liberal justice system, and conflict management are between-people, not from-above. But at the same time it isn’t individualistic, but group focused. Sounds like we’ve got strong social norms, where the group as a whole does conflict resolution, and your position probably depends on how well you fit into the group.

Well, there’s something called shame culture. It’s described here on Wikipedia as being in opposition to guilt culture (which is described similarly to dignity culture):

In a guilt society, control is maintained by creating and continually reinforcing the feeling of guilt (and the expectation of punishment now or in the afterlife) for certain condemned behaviors. The guilt-innocence world view focuses on law and punishment. A person in this type of culture may ask, “Is my behavior fair or unfair?” This type of culture also emphasizes individual conscience.


In a shame society, the means of control is the inculcation of shame and the complementary threat of ostracism. The shame-honor worldview seeks an “honor balance” and can lead to revenge dynamics. A person in this type of culture may ask, “Shall I look ashamed if I do X?” or “How people will look at me if I do Y?” Shame cultures are typically based on the concepts of pride and honour, and appearances are what count.

The terminology was popularized by Ruth Benedict in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, who described American culture as a “guilt culture” and Japanese culture as a “shame culture”.

Given that, and this more succinct explanation in the New York Times

In a guilt culture you know you are good or bad by what your conscience feels. In a shame culture you know you are good or bad by what your community says about you, by whether it honors or excludes you. In a guilt culture people sometimes feel they do bad things; in a shame culture social exclusion makes people feel they are bad.

… it seems to me that shame culture shares a lot with honor culture, but is much less individualistic. It shares that anti-individualistic stance with victimhood culture, but differ in that it doesn’t rely on a third party authority outside of the immediate group. That means we’ve got the last piece of our puzzle. Here goes:

tilted cultures

There we are. Does this match the political quadrants? Somewhat, I think.

Variation 5: Virtues and houses

You could turn the four culture types into four sets of virtues if we go by what traits they value the most. It looks something like this:

…which makes me think of something else, something well known and popular. A stretch, sure, but there’s at least little to it, don’t you think?
tilted potter

End of part one.

Variation 6: Hierarchies

What else? There’s was an article by the always insightful Kevin Simler that once did a lot to articulate something I think is important to understand when it comes to people’s political attitudes and how and why they differ. It was about how social status has two separate components:

The beginning of wisdom about social status is learning to distinguish its two (and only two[1]) primary forms: dominance and prestige. These are, as one research paper puts it, the “two ways to the top.”

If dominance is the kind of status we get from intimidating others, prestige is the kind of status we get from doing impressive things or having impressive traits or skills.

A schoolyard bully is an example of pure dominance. He’s not impressive, only aggressive. Stephen Hawking and Malala Yousafzai (winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize), on the other hand, are examples of pure prestige. You’re likely to treat them with deference and respect, though neither is threatening to stuff you in a locker. Both forms of status can, of course, exist simultaneously in the same person — e.g., Steve Jobs, who was brilliant, charismatic, and a notorious tyrant to his employees. The point is that dominance and prestige can be separated, and that they’re analytically distinct. They’re the two Platonic forms of social status.

I hope Kevin will forgive me if I twist and simplify this and talk about two kinds of social hierarchies, based primarily on dominance vs. prestige status, and refer to them as domination– and competence hierarchies.

One major (maybe the major) division in politics is how comfortable we are with the existence of social hierarchies and inequality: is it fine and natural as long as no specific injustice has been committed, or does it constitute an injustice in itself?

If we ask separate questions about attitudes to domination vs. competence hierarchies, we get, you guessed it, a 2-by-2:

Note that the left and the right have something in common: they have the same attitude to both kinds of hierarchy. Or rather, they have the same attitudes to both facets of social hierarchies, because I suspect having the same attitude to both makes the analytical distinction between the two not stand out that much.

I’m not saying they’re wrong. There’s a reasonably strong case to be made that in practice, they aren’t separable. Competence-based prestige somewhat reliably results in a combination of money and clout, and at a certain point those things turn into serious power. Not necessarily power to beat somebody up, but power nonetheless. So whether these logically-but-not-necessarily-practically separable forms of hierarchy are actually thought of as fundamentally different comes down to a kind of philosophical choice[2].

I propose that the left and right quadrants are joined by not thinking of them separately, and separated by having opposing narratives about how they’re the same.

The leftist story is that prestige/competence hierachies reduce to domination hierarchies. Insofar as there are competency differences, they are ultimately expressions of preexisting structures of domination that allowed some to develop more and greater skills than others. The rightist story is that domination hierachies reduce to competence hierarchies, because more competent people will tend to gain power and hold on to it.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say something controversial: I think both stories are partially correct.

The bottom quadrant, in contrast, makes a distinction between the two. That some people are better at things than others and that this is rewarded is not by itself considered a problem, nor compelling evidence of a problem, and it doesn’t cause discomfort. Domination, as in outright, coercive exercise of power does however cause discomfort and sometimes anger.

I know this is a real configuration of attitudes because it describes myself. I don’t mind competition and ranking, or soft status based on it, even when I come out near the bottom myself[3]. I do react with almost violent anger when faced with naked authority and power. It’s upsetting in real life, and in fiction. Luckily few people attempt to exercise such direct, unveiled power over me these days, but when it happens I obsess over how upset it made me for a long time afterwards.

Ideologically, this comes with some internal tensions. You accept material and status inequality without much trouble but don’t accept it turning into effectively coercive power[4]. It’s a hard border to police.

Doesn’t this put us in a weird place when it comes to the top quadrant? Why would anyone be fine with dominance hierarchies and not with prestige/competence hierarchies? Granted, it doesn’t make much sense in modern liberal democracies, but think back to history and imagine a premodern, martial ideology that valued strength, bravery and fighting skill — the ability to dominate — above all else. It considered gains from fighting and conquering others to be more worthy of respect than, say, gains from trade or craft. Think the Mongol horde. Think the Mandate of Heaven. Think klingons. Think vikings or medieval knights — or think specifically of Lord Randyll Tarly from Game of Thrones, who despises his son Sam because he’s a lousy fighter and doesn’t care at all that he’s a bright guy and a promising scholar who can potentially do a lot of impressive and valuable stuff. Domination status is everything.

Variation 7: The Nietzschean take

When I thought about how Campbell and Manning described “victimhood culture” as an emerging phenomenon (or perhaps “woke social norms” insofar they are distinct) it felt highly familiar in how it seemed to consider oppression and victimization as a, perhaps implicitly, ennobling condition. It gives you knowledge and understanding that’s inaccessible to the privileged, and it gives you moral purity because you are free from the corruption that comes from benefiting from injustice (which you have if you aren’t victimized). In short, victimization makes you morally superior.

That, combined with the commonly displayed anger at billionaires who use their wealth to have an outsized impact of the world, accountable only to their own values, starts to look seriously Nietzschean. Or, anti-Nietzschean. It looks to me like what Nietzsche, in On the Geneaology of Morality, called “slave morality” or sklavenmoral.

Slave morality is, according to Nietzsche, a reaction to “master morality”, or herrenmoral. Master morality is the morality of the strong and the strong-willed, for whom right and wrong are not given, but emerges from within oneself[5]. The idea is specifically opposed to the Christian morality that preaches submission to the values inherent in God. Nietzsche (echoing parts of Aristotle) thinks of the good, as far as herrenmoral is concerned, as whatever the strong-willed individual needs to flourish and achieve self-actualization. It often meant traditionally virile qualities like confidence, strength and bravery, but also open-mindedness, trustworthyness, integrity and creativity. In contrast, qualities like timidity, weakness and pettiness were contemptible[6].

Slave morality is the strategic inversion of master morality in Nietzsche’s story. The strong and the strong-willed will dominate the weak and the meek, and to better live with their predicament — the fact that they are losers, if you want to be brutal about it — the weak will paint the qualities of the strong as evil, and recast their own, involuntary, situation as resulting not from weakness but from superior morality.

It will thus consider good the qualities the weak have, and benefit from others having, such as humility, compassion, sensitivity and charity. From the herrenmoral perspective, these are typically not chosen virtues at all, but traits and behaviors that are forced upon you by lack of power and agency. To Nietzsche, slave morality was the moral code at the center of Christianity, that was (successfully) foisted upon the strong by the weak to bring their betters down to their level.

I think there’s significant truth to this story. By that I don’t mean that I share Nietzsche’s moral beliefs, per se. They’re far too lopsided. But his story is compelling the way a good movie villain speech is compelling because the villain is right about something. I think you can strip herrenmoral and sklavenmoral of the positive and negative connotations he gave them and still have the them make sense. If you wanted to you could tell it in terms flattering to the sklavenmoral viewpoint[7].

Part of the reason I made the tilted political compass in the first place was that I didn’t think “left and right” could and should be reduced to a single factor. I still don’t (certainly not if you want to include the full political coalitions that make up the “lefts” and the “rights” in various countries) but if I had to pick the one that fits the stripped down “kernels” of left and right in contemporary western societies the best, it might be this[8].

tilted nietzsche

Nietzsche’s herrenmoral is clearly individualistic, almost as much as a moral code can be. It captures the “decoupled” perfectly by explicitly and forecfully rejecting the idea that we have any unchosen positive obligations towards others, let alone unarticulated and potentially unbounded ones. It’s a little harder to justify placing it on the “survive” rather than “thrive” end, but I’ll do it by arguing that it values power, strength, creation and force of will, which is typical for that side.

His sklavenmoral winds up on the left because of how it empasizes duties to the collective (very “coupled”) and for the weak and victimized specifically (very “thrivey”, because only in conditions of abundance can it be afforded).

But that’s just the two. What about up and down? That takes another model altogether.

Variation 8: The Kegan-Chapman take

I think Nietzsche’s master and slave moralities are good fits for the left and right because they are fundamentally about loyalty to one of two kinds of people. “Left” vs. “right” is the question of with whom your sympathies lie: with the makers or the takers (right-wing version)/with the oppressors or the oppressed (left-wing version)? In a world dominated by the left-right axis, policy issues are by default viewed through the lens of this social dynamic.

The other two are different. They don’t so much answer the same question differently as they pose a different question: not “who” but “how”. Think back to the idea that “up” and “down” separate the two forms of social hierarchy while the left and right don’t. Because of that, the fight between “overdogs” and “underdogs” doesn’t stand out as the paramount issue the same way it does for the left and right. Instead of focusing on outcomes (the score of the game), up and down are more concerned with mechanisms and processes (the nature of the rules).

What do I mean by that?

The psychologist Robert Kegan has developed a schema of mental development with five stages that I’m going to do my best not to butcher too badly in this short description. The first two stages primarily describe children, while stages 3 and 4 (and the rare 5) describe adults. Transition from 3 to 4 is a big part of what adulthood in modern society is about, according to Kegan, and (surprise) I’m going to map them onto the top and bottom quadrants.

I read about this in Kegan’s book In Over Our Heads, which is about the difficulty of transitioning to stage 4, but I’ve actually found David Chapman’s writing on it more illuminating than the original.

You reach stage 3 is when you come out of childhood self-centeredness and learn to have genuine, empathic relationships with other people. These relationships are based on raw affiliative emotion, and they’re unstructured, without clear boundaries, limitations, and prioritizations. Chapman refers to it as the building blocks of the “communal mode” social structure:

Communal ethics seek harmony within a homogeneous social group. That is maintained by empathically monitoring others’ needs and aligning your intentions toward them. Equality here means that everyone’s needs deserve to be heard; unlike stage 2, it does not necessarily imply an exchange of equal value, because some people need more than others. Decision-making is ideally by consensus, after everyone has shared their feelings. Also, you should obey community taboos and shibboleths, even when they are unjustified and senseless. Violating them upsets people, which is not nice. Living up to what other members expect from you to is good by definition—because “who I am” is “how people feel about me.” The Golden Rule is a summary of communal ethics; note its perfect symmetry!

The communal mode also recognizes asymmetrical relationships of biological necessity, i.e. family and heterosexual pair bonds. Here the ethical imperative is to fulfill the role in the conventional prescribed way: being a “good” child, parent, or spouse. Fulfilling the role consists largely in having the correct feelings. Throughout communal ethics, emotions dominate other considerations.

Note how very “coupled” this all is. You’re defined by your relationships, what others think of you, and those relationships are in essence unbounded.

Is it also related to “survive” rather than “thrive” in such a way that it makes sense to put it in the top quadrant? Kind of, but I think for a different reason than Nietzsche’s herrenmoral. This is a distinctively premodern way of thinking, adapted to life in a tight-knit community rather than a large, anonymous society — which we’ve earlier talked about as closely tied to the “thrive” mindset.

Then what’s a modern way of thinking? Stage 4. Chapman again:

It’s impossible to base a large-scale society on the communal mode, because it’s so ineffective at coordinating complex group activities. (If individuals frequently fail to do their specific, agreed tasks, nothing can get done.) Modern societies are based on the systematic mode (stage 4).

Systematic mode, the social structure based on Kegan’s stage 4, becomes a necessity when societies become too large to manage using only informal, intuitive personal relationships. Then we go from dealing with relationships to dealing with systems. While stage 3 means we have (or are) a loose, unstructured mass of relationships and the obligations those relationships entail, stage 4 means we have a system of formalized duties and obligations. Reliability and predictability is key, because modern society is a machine and that is what machines need.

There’s a particular way to describe this shift that made me connect it to the tilted compass: towards personal sovereignity. At stage 3 there are values, morals, duties and such but they’re not your personal values and you aren’t entitled nor obligated to figure them out for yourself. This is easy (as in cognitively undemanding) because you don’t have to understand why you’re supposed to do what you do. You just do it. Chapman also calls it “choiceless mode” because of this:

In a choiceless society, you are defined by your social position. You are the son of so-and-so, and belong to the eagle clan—as your father, the clan chief, did. When he died, your elder brother wore the eagle clan hat at the wake. If your brother dies before you, you will wear the clan hat. Like all eagles, you are an enemy of the horse clan and allied to the bear clan. You knew from the age of five that you would marry your mother’s brother’s daughter. This is your self; this is who you are.

Modern society, by contrast, allows and demands that you internalize and systematize the entire structure of justification. It’s no longer the group’s values you can just live in and act out a part of, it’s now your values and you need to keep track of them and justify them yourself[9]. Each person has a complete internal value system and is mentally “sovereign”, making relationships “cross border” and mediated by formal rules and mechanisms. We go from this:

To this:

Chapman, finally:

A systematic self has an individual identity, which is not dependent on social roles. “Individual” literally means “not divided.” As chief of your inner world, you run the show. You have freedom of choice, rather than being torn between conflicting impulses and relationships. You experience yourself a single being, the same person in every circumstance, throughout your life.

Compared to Nietzsche’s herrenmoral and sklavenmoral, Kegan’s stage 3 and stage 4 — or rather Chapmans “choiceless mode” and “systematic mode” that are closely based on them — are the ends of a different axis. It’s not about attitude to inequality. Indeed, that aspect is conspicuously absent.

It’s about the fundamental mechanisms of how we “are people” in a society. In choiceless mode our relationships to each other are given by roles, typically roles we’re born into, and given by the set of our relationships to others. In systematic mode, however, individuals enter agreements and form relationships from a default state of separateness; the rules that regulate interaction is not based on the idea that everyone knows each other and thus correct conduct depend on your relationship, but on the prototypical interaction being between strangers. Thus there are certain, explicitly defined and limited things everybody is supposed to be able to expect from others — there are rights, rather than roles[10].

By combining the Nietzschean take with the Kegan-Chapman take, we’ve re-derived the regular non-tilted political compass, but in other terms. If we make people pick between herrenmoral vs. sklavenmoral, and choiceless vs. systematic mode, will we get these familiar quadrants again?

Try it out.

Does that bring us full circle? Maybe. This could be a good place to stop, but I have a little bit left. As I’ve been twisting and turning this one every which way, I feel like I’ve been grasping for the some single essential 2-by-2 underneath it all, and maybe what I’m after was there all along.

End of part two.

Variation 9: My old favorite

Years ago at work I researched different personality classification systems in the hope of drawing some conclusions about what dimensions they tend to use, and perhaps merge the most popular schemas into a maximally general model we could use in our survey-based projects. It came to nothing in the end but I remember the 2-by-2 I pitched, and it still plays a big part in my thinking.

Its two dimensions are abstract vs. concrete, and people-oriented vs. thing-oriented.

Personality wise, the abstract-concrete dimension is similar to what the standard Big Five model calls Openness to Experience.

Openness involves six facets, or dimensions, including active imagination (fantasy), aesthetic sensitivity, attentiveness to inner feelings, preference for variety, and intellectual curiosity. A great deal of psychometric research has demonstrated that these facets or qualities are significantly correlated. Thus, openness can be viewed as a global personality trait consisting of a set of specific traits, habits, and tendencies that cluster together.

It’s even more similar to what the (not-standard) Myers-Briggs model calls Sensing vs. Intuition:

Sensing: Paying attention to physical reality, what I see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. I’m concerned with what is actual, present, current, and real. I notice facts and I remember details that are important to me. I like to see the practical use of things and learn best when I see how to use what I’m learning. Experience speaks to me louder than words.

Intuition: Paying the most attention to impressions or the meaning and patterns of the information I get. I would rather learn by thinking a problem through than by hands-on experience. I’m interested in new things and what might be possible, so that I think more about the future than the past. I like to work with symbols or abstract theories, even if I don’t know how I will use them. I remember events more as an impression of what it was like than as actual facts or details of what happened.

We’ve got concrete, experiential, commonsensical and practical on one side, and abstract, theoretical, fanciful and aesthetic on the other.

People-oriented vs. thing-oriented is a little harder to relate directly to such already well-known constructs. Most personality classification systems has something like an introversion-extraversion dimension, the Big Five also has agreeableness[11], and the Myers-Briggs model has a thinking-feeling axis. The psychologist Simon-Baron Cohen has an empathizing-systemizing spectrum that perhaps most closely resembles what I’m going for.

I don’t want to straight-up pick any of these because I don’t want to get it wrong. Instead I’ll gesture vaguely towards something like them, supported by some wild armchair speculation. The idea is this: interacting with living beings and physical objects require two completely different modes of thinking, and I suspect this duality is part of our cognitive machinery on a pretty fundamental level. The vast majority of us can handle both kinds just fine, but there are variations in which one you’re better at, most comfortable with, and most likely to use (and overuse).

The most important fact about physical objects is that they don’t act. They’re acted upon and respond in simple, predictable ways. Poke something and it moves. Their behavior is rule-bound and they can be understood in logical, mechanical, “if-then” terms. This means we can manipulate and arrange them in extremely precise ways to make them perform functions. This is called technology.

People don’t work that way at all. They have agency. They can’t be understood in terms of simple mechanical rules, and, ahem, respond negatively to being treated as if they did[12]. Since people are too complex to be successfully mentally modeled using explicit rules, we have an altogether different way of doing that: we relate to and understand others through modeling their motivations, desires and feelings, using a particular mentalistic ontology adapted to this purpose (which includes concepts like “motivation”, “desire” and “feeling”). This mentalistic (as opposed to mechanistic) thinking is less rule-bound and explicit and more associational, impressionistic, and fuzzy. It has to be. Because it deals with much more complex phenomena it has to to compress information much, much further. The fuzziness and opacity is an artifact of that.

I believe “empathizing-systemizing”, “agreeableness”, “thinking-feeling”, and possibly even some of “introversion-extraversion” are in part expressions of relying on mentalistic vs. mechanistic cognition to different degrees.

In terms of social relationships, the people-oriented are attuned to social harmony and appreciate the subtleties of relationships, and the rich, multifaceted and ineffable meanings of symbols and concepts. The thing-oriented like rules and straightforwardness, and appreciates clean (i.e. no ambiguity and no meaning besides defined behaviors) precision and the detailed complexity it allows.

When I first suggested a simpler version of this model at work it I used the resulting quadrants to map out people’s interests for market segmentation purposes.

People-oriented and concrete would mean a lot of social activities, friends, family etc. Concrete and thing-oriented would mean a lot of tinkering and making things, and physical activity with rules: crafts, gadgets, sports, etc.

People-oriented and abstract/symbolic meant being into ideas, specifically highly mentalistic ideas, i.e. with a lot of emotional, romantic (in the 19th century sense) and/or mystical content. Thing-oriented and abstract, finally, would also be about ideas, but the kind of ideas that relate to each other by a formal, rule-based logic rather than an emotional, association-based kind: science, math, games etc.

Of all the variations this is probably among the most tenously connected to the tilted political compass, but I think this has to be the most correct way to orient it:

The examples are interests, but you can place pretty much anything in this square, like jobs, fictional characters, philosophies and ideologies, books, movies and tv shows, music styles etc. I took a stab at adding a “neutral” position on each dimension and populated the whole thing with archetypes (a “wamb” is the opposite of a nerd, see this for details):

Variation 10: Decoupling, in whole and in part

The model in the last variation is old, but it was only quite recently I realized that you can recast its abstraction plus mechanistic rule-following as two facets of a concept I’ve been talking about here quite a bit over the last few years: decoupling.

I first brought it up in my article about the quarrel between Sam Harris and Ezra Klein, which was an unexpected hit that forced me to qualify and expand on the idea in Decoupling Revisited (and touch on it further in Postscript to a Podcast and A Disagreement About Disagreement).

As I’ve used it this concept is an expanded and less stringent version of something originally thought up by the psychologist Keith Stanovich. My version is a mess and one of these days I’m going to clear it up properly, but for this particular variation the original, more narrow, formulation of “cognitive decoupling” from Stanovich fits perfectly well.

Before I go on I ought to make it really clear that his original is different from the one I used in the tilted political compass. That was a metaphorical extension from ideas to people that I made, of a concept I had already expanded. This is not that. This is back to basics.

Now, this is how I first introduced decoupling, with a quote from this blog post by Sarah Constantin:

Stanovich talks about “cognitive decoupling”, the ability to block out context and experiential knowledge and just follow formal rules, as a main component of both performance on intelligence tests and performance on the cognitive bias tests that correlate with intelligence. Cognitive decoupling is the opposite of holistic thinking. It’s the ability to separate, to view things in the abstract, to play devil’s advocate.

The essence of cognitive decoupling is both abstraction away from the concrete, physical and experiential into the abstract, general and theoretical, and formalization away from rich concepts teeming with subtle, vague associations and connotations towards deliberately contentless symbols that acquire meaning from precisely defined and rule-bound relationships to other symbols.

Lucy Keer, a mathematician that blogs at Drossbucket, described the difference here by quoting Sylvia Plath describing her visceral distaste for the sterile formulas of physics, and following it with this:

The botany classes ground out in vivid, concrete experience: ferns, leaf shapes, bread mould. There’s an associated technical vocabulary – carotene, xanthophyll – but even these words are embedded in a rich web of sound associations and tangible meanings.

In the physics and chemistry classes, by contrast, the symbols are seemingly arbitrary, chosen on pure pragmatic grounds and interchangeable for any other random symbol. (I say “seemingly” arbitrary because of course if you continue in physics you do build up a rich web of associations with x and t and the rest of them. Esther doesn’t know this, though.) The important content of the lecture is instead the structural relationships between the different symbols, and the ways of transforming one to another by formal rules. Pure cognitive decoupling.

She continues:

[S]he’s able to give very perceptive, detailed descriptions of subtle features of her experience, always hugging close to the specificity of raw experience (‘the odd, heart-shaped leaf in the sex cycle of the fern’) rather than generic concepts that can be overlaid on to many observations (‘ah ok, it’s another sphere on an inclined plane’).

Strong coupling in this sense is like being a kind of sensitive antenna for your environment, learning to read as much meaning out of it as possible, but without necessarily being able to explain what you learn in a structured, explicit logical argument. I’d expect it to be correlated with high sensitivity to nonverbal cues, implicit tone, tacit understanding, all the kind of stuff that poets are stereotypically good at and nerds are stereotypically bad at.

Strong coupling, according to Keer, sounds very much like a combination of concrete, sensing experience and fuzzy, people-oriented/mentalistic thinking. We can try replacing the top and bottom quadrants in the matrix from variation 9 with “coupled” and “decoupled”:

That leaves the other two, and they’re both partially decoupled but in different ways. Left or right depends on which facet of decoupling dominates, and the greater the disparity between the two, the greater the left or right tilt. Do you abstract a lot but aren’t fond of contentless, mechanistic rules? You’re probably on the left. Do you like rules, predictability and mechanisms but prefer to keep things concrete and practical? You’re probably on the right.

There are plenty of problematizations and counterexamples, but the more I think about it the more impressed I get with how much sense it manages to make given how simple it is.


Thank God I got this out of my system. I ticked a lot of assorted items off my to-do list with this post. And like the original tilted compass it ended up a lot longer than planned. My plan was just a flurry of short riffs, but some of them built on each other and it began to make sense as a larger story. Funny how that happens.

I’m of two minds about how much and how valuable insight there is in this. It certainly feels to me as if I’ve found some profound truth in how these variations, especially near the end, point towards some underlying archetypal truth. But then I’m bound to think that, aren’t I? Just like I’m going to find my own music pleasing to listen to because it’s written to appeal to my idea of what beautiful music sounds like, I’m going to find my own theorizing insightful because it corresponds perfectly to my own beliefs and concerns. “I have compared my mental model of the world with my mental model of the world and it turns out I’m right about everything“, as somebody on Twitter said.

Perhaps instead of revealing something about the world and how people work, it reveals more about me and how I think. I’m alright with that, if the alternative is to do a lot of boring and effortful research I don’t have time for and that will just wind up complicating things.

• • •


I wonder if there isn’t another kind of status that Simler overlooked: connection status. That is, the sort of status that comes from being well-liked by many people, and by people who are well-liked themselves, i.e. a kind of social network centrality (or “popularity”, as it’s called…). It’s not the same as prestige, because it’s not so much a matter of being impressive; it can be had by just being friendly, personable and a joy to be around. I know plenty of such people, and it too can be turned into power, just like prestige can.

I’m not arguing it’s a conscious, intentional choice. It’s more likely subconscious and semitentional.

I may resent it sometimes and feel envy like everybody else, but I don’t think it represents an injustice that needs to be rectified.

Indirect influence of the kind money often buys isn’t really power in this sense (as opposed to in the leftist view) because it isn’t viscerally repulsivethe way outright dignity-destroying domination is.

Read this for more on Nietzsche’s moralities, slightly less simplified and mangled than my description.

Archetypal conceptualizations get reinvented again and again. The virgin/chad meme is a modern incarnation of something like herrenmoral/sklavenmoral.

I’ll leave that particular story as an exercise for the reader.

I’m obviously not the first to make this connection. There’s even an example on Reddit.

Kegan uses an excerpt from Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House to illustrate the transition from choiceless to systematic mode and towards personal sovereignity that the heroine Nora undergoes, to her husband’s dismay. For a lower-brow example, consider the lyrics to my daughters’ favorite song this month: How Far I’ll Go, from Moana:

I know everybody on this island
Seems so happy on this island
Everything is by design
I know everybody on this island
Has a role on this island
So maybe I can roll with mine

I can lead with pride
I can make us strong
I’ll be satisfied if I play along
But the voice inside sings a different song
What is wrong with me?

Disney movies are quite often about transitioning from communal to systematic mode.

Note that the choiceless and systematic modes are the ends of a spectrum, and we don’t live entirely in one or the other. Chapman says both have been present in various proportions all throughout recorded history, and even today many pockets of choiceless mode exist even in the postiest of post-industrial societies. Indeed, Kegan’s book is about how many of us struggle with the demands of systematic mode — hence the title In Over Our Heads.

I’ve never liked the agreeableness construct because it doesn’t make sense to me personally. It combines being highly empathetic, interested in people and sensitive to others’ needs with disliking conflict, confrontation and aggression. Those aren’t the same at all for me. I’m not particularly empathetic, and actively, continuously considering others’ needs and wants is, I’ve noticed, for some reason highly cognitively and emotionally taxing (and I consider blanket demands to do so to be a fundamentally aggressive imposition). At the same time I value kindness, politeness and respect a lot and judge aggression and meanness harshly (but silently). Those are just very different things.

My behavior towards others is not a function of “live” intuitive empathy for the most part (that’s reserved for a small set of people I have close personal relationships with, and it’s draining even then[13]). It’s more of an inner moral code or idea of personal virtue — a precompiled, internal, idealized image of how a good person behaves — rather than an in-the-moment, on-the-fly sensitivity to what behaviors other people want and expect from me.

Economists, being social scientists who do that, are routinely vilified for their cold, robotic ways.

I wonder if this is the link between being thing-oriented and “introverted” in the sense of being drained by social interaction: modeling other people mentalistically, especially people you don’t know very well, takes up a lot of mental resources if it’s not your primary, preferred mode of cognition, so you need plenty of rest from it.

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16 thoughts on “Variations on the Tilted Political Compass

          1. The four elements can be derived from a Hot-Cold and Wet-Dry graph according to Aristotle:

            – Cold & Wet = Water
            – Hot & Dry = Fire
            – Hot & Wet = Air
            – Cold & Dry = Earth


  1. I suppose I’ve been unclear.

    There is no empirical support for dividing the world up into a 2 by 2 matrix. That’s precisely why you are so free to speculate on various axes and labelings.

    The Pew typology (8 groupings) is based on survey data about real human beings, unlike your efforts which are (at best) based on abstract or subjective concepts.


  2. Honestly this kind of objection is so odd to me. What does “there is no empirical support for dividing the world up into a 2 by 2 matrix” mean? To me it’s as if I were to object “there’s no empirical support for reducing the world to values on a single axis” whenever somebody uses an adjective. Asserting that a conceptual system has validity isn’t the same as asserting it’s the metaphysical basis of reality. It’s a map (of a selected area from a selected angle), not the territory.

    Often (typically, I’d say) these matrices are meant to aid thought by explaining some logical relationship between ideas, rather than represent a dataset by compressing it in the “statistically correct” way that preserves the most variance. That’s a different type of task altogether, which does require a data-driven approach (although as someone who works a lot with survey data I have my concerns about how well that actually works).


  3. > Asserting that a conceptual system has validity isn’t the same as asserting it’s the metaphysical basis of reality.

    So which do you prefer, the Aristotelian 4 element system or the periodic table? (Thanks, Babilfrenzo!)

    My point has been that we KNOW that 4 element systems like yours and Aristotle’s are more metaphorical than based on something scientifically testable. Which is why you can swap metaphorical axes with such gay abandon and it still makes just as much “sense”.

    In science education, these are called “naive conceptions”. The goal in science education is to replace these understanding with more sophisticated scientific understandings (which themselves can replaced with even more sophisticated understanding until you approach the limits of scientific knowledge.) People resist having their understandings falsified, which is why science education often doesn’t “stick” and you get phenomena such as Harvard students not knowing why winter is cold and summer is hot, even though they have been taught why.


    1. I’m not quite grasping what (apparently) upsets you about this. Reality, especially complex reality like people, have lots of properties and you can focus on some of them to make various points and apply various perspectives. *shrugs* Aristotle’s four elements are worse than the periodic table because it tried to be science and wasn’t very good at it. A more apt comparison would be to ask which is preferred of the periodic table vs. animal/plant/mineral or whatever. Depends on what you need it for.

      Regarding testability… that’s something you do with empirical claims. A conceptual system typically has implied empirical claims in it (or it wouldn’t say much) but isn’t itself an empirical claim and isn’t evaluated as such. If you want to test a model you have to see how well it does what it’s supposed to do.


      1. It upsets me because pseudoscience is invariably misused.

        You are using pseudoscientific classifications. And yes, classification can be a science: look up cladistics. The problem isn’t that you “focus” on a few things: the problem is that your “focus” implies a disregard of OTHER things that are important. Not to mention often a misdirection. It’s the same principle magicians rely upon: get the focus on one thing and they will not notice anything else you are doing. That’s why the libertarian versions are used for propaganda.


        1. I understand your concerns. I’ve had a hard-nosed “it’s science or bullshit” attitude myself for a long time, but after 25 years plus of cultivating scientific and philosophical literacy I feel confident enough to let go of the handrails and indulge in speculation to my heart’s content, remaining aware of the varying epistemic status of different kinds of ideas. I expect my readers to be able to make such judgments as well. However, if one generally does not expect that, and the chief concern is fighting mystical woo and such, priorities are different. This means skeptic movements and such often engage in harsher epistemic cleaning and sterilization procedures than I find to be strictly necessary, if your immune system is strong enough. People differ in their needs and priorities.

          There are more things in the world than science and pseudoscience, and categorization schemes are often such a thing. There are some that are based on deeper truths and are therefore more scientific than others, like cladistics — of which I’m well aware, in contrast to your incorrect (and unnecessary) implication — and some where there isn’t a clear candidate for the most deep, most correct way. If we’re looking at food or clothes for example, there would be many criteria on which they could be grouped, like type (coat, shirt, hat, trousers, socks etc.), or material, or color, or price class, or designer, or time period. I do this kind of stuff all the time at work, in many different domains. There’s no right answer. It depends on what you want to do.

          You could argue that this isn’t science and you’d be right, but that doesn’t make it worthless, and it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t contain insights or truths of a sort. Pseudoscience is what pretends to be science but isn’t, it’s not everything that isn’t science. Not every idea construct purports to be science, and doesn’t purport to exclude everything it doesn’t focus on — every other way conceptualize the same underlying thing. Some of these ten variations even contradict each other, as I have said. This is fine. Putting all these (typically taken from others, I didn’t make them up myself) together this way is a philosophical and artistic exercise, not science. A glass bead game, if you will.

          The relationships between reality and our conceptual systems are complicated as hell, and many things — including many fields of study — are somewhere in between physics and stamp collecting (or clothes classification I guess). I’ve spent considerable time studying and mulling over these kinds of questions for many years, because they interest me greatly. How different conceptual systems describe the same underlyng reality with focus on different features is in fact a common theme here (most notably in and, but I expect you wouldn’t like them). In short, I don’t appreciate having someone coming in here to condescend to me about this, like I’m some naïf.

          We could go on and on about metaphysics, demarcation criteria, the social construction of knowledge, linguistic ambiguity and nebulosity, postmodern critiques of science, or whatever for thousands of words, I’m sure, but I’m not interested in doing so right now, partly because it would turn into what I’m describing in Conversations Going Critical ( and partly because I see no signs of effort on your part to be courteous enough to make it worthwhile.

          Perhaps I shouldn’t have written this much in response to what you just said, but despite your rudeness it does raise interesting questions that I enjoy discussing. But I consider this conversation over now.


  4. ” In short, I don’t appreciate having someone coming in here to condescend to me about this, like I’m some naïf… despite your rudeness…”

    You asked: “I’m not quite grasping what (apparently) upsets you about this.” So I answered honestly.

    Sorry if I implied you were unaware of cladistics: I hardly ever encounter somebody who has heard of it, including many philosophers.

    I routinely criticize propagandistic uses of these diagrams.

    If you had declared outright your opinion of the epistemic status of these diagrams and their worth, I would have been happy (and probably would have agreed with you.) For now, the impression I get is that you think of this as art and exploration.

    I don’t mind complicated relationships in explanations (hell, I’m a biologist): I even have a few of my own. I don’t mind weak models or heuristics: we all use them. But I like when we are open about their status.

    And I do enjoy and respect your explorations enough that I link them to my critiques site.


  5. This is a great post! Thanks!

    Funny enough, it occurred to me recently that the Earth-Air-Fire-Water schema is actually pretty good in that it corresponds to the physics states of matter. I don’t remember coming across that connection before but it seems obvious now and makes me more charitable towards it as as sensible-for-the-time idea.

    Liked by 1 person

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