Liberal vs. Conservative Values and Why It Matters

Greta Christina hit the nail right on the head for me with this article about politics. When we are young, we usually have not thought out to any degree what we think about the world and what approach we will take to living in it. We seem to soak up everyone’s values who live around us and if we had parents who took us to church, we believed what they believed. If we came to religion late, we went to church and there we accepted what we were told because hundreds of people believing the same thing had to be right… right? Not so fast.  When we actually begin questioning our values and belief systems (and sadly not everyone does this), we start analyzing not just those things we believe to be true, but the very assumptions behind them. Perhaps I soaked up this method in philosophy 101 but I learned that you should always begin with the premise of an idea not just the idea when discussing any topic. You had to establish the basis from which everyone was working before discussion could begin.

I think that the problem with religious folk and those who never question their belief systems is that they never question the premises on which their beliefs rest. Fundamentalists believe a god premise, or a holy book premise, or creation by a deity premise. Conservatives believe in, as Christina points out, a premise of authority, loyalty, and purity. She writes:

The conservative value of authority has, at its very core, the idea that certain special people — i.e., authority figures — ought to be respected and obeyed more than others, and ought to have the right to tell other people what to do, and ought to have the power to enforce those dictums. The conservative value of loyalty has, at its very core, the idea that certain special people — i.e., people inside the in-group, the family or country or faith or what have you — ought to be valued more than others. And the conservative value of purity… well, purity is a weird one, since it applies more to how people treat their own bodies, and less to how people treat one another. (Making it a pretty baffling ethical principle, in my opinion.) But when it does apply to how people treat other people (the notion of “untouchables,” for instance), it has, at its very core, the idea that certain special people — i.e., people who are considered pure — ought to be treated as fully human… and that people who are considered impure need not be.Conservative values — authority, loyalty, and purity — can’t be universalized. They actively resist universalization.

Liberals on the other hand believe in the principles of fairness and not doing harm. In other words, whatever mangles these two ideas is not liberal. She goes on to explain herself in detail and I suggest you read all of it, but Christina’s premise of making an ethical principle universalized is similar to Kant’s Categorical Imperative which states, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Both Christina and Kant agree in that we should examine our principles in such a way that we would wish all of society be this way. Of course we know that both liberals and conservatives believe they are practicing that which best furthers society. But my eyes were opened to the fact that I pretty much agree with Christina that liberal values are better for society. Liberal values open society to the dignity of all persons whereas conservative values still compartmentalized people into elites vs. untouchables, those not worthy of help vs. those who deserve it due to money, status, power, etc. Their sexual politics is worlds apart, so the purity principle is paramount in conservative values.

It was indeed an eye-opening article and I’ve grateful for finding it. As someone who has spent her life questioning the why of things, I realized that I had never broken down my political beliefs and convictions into the basics enough to see that what enhances a few people in society enhances all of us. Rather than chastise some of us for not “creating wealth” as this man does we should look for ways from which everyone can benefit, including those who will never have enough capital to “create wealth” on their own and by implication will never be good enough to participate in society.  I will end with Christina’s words as they sum up my own:

I’m saying that any moral progress humanity has made over the centuries and millennia has been made, not in the direction of greater adherence to authority or purity or tribal/group loyalty, but in the direction of expanding our understanding and application of fairness and the avoidance of harm. I’m saying that, in every example I can think of where our morality is a clear improvement over the morality of the past — democracy, banning slavery, religious freedom, women’s suffrage, etc. etc. etc. — the core values being strengthened have been the values of fairness and the avoidance of harm: the liberal values, the ones that can be applied to everyone.

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10 thoughts on “Liberal vs. Conservative Values and Why It Matters

  1. Interesting posting. Though it brings about the beginning of many questions one could ask.

    For instance, define “the avoidance of harm?” Are we speaking of only a physical harm, or are there other “harming” actions that would be included that have no actual physical component? Is the taking of anything valued by one individual against their voluntary consent harm?

    The primary problem I detect in any of the mainstream political foundations (progressive/liberal/democratic or elitist/conservative/republican) is the fundamental lack of preventing the isolation of some segment of society by arguing the actions being taken are for the “greater good.” When the actions being taken become for the “total good” then I would agree the actions are justifiable.

  2. Och… can’t read Christina’s article in full. Too busy writing a Short History of Shoggoths and How They Became Apostates and Came to Work for The Gorgon Instead… Also, too damned hot & muggy, today.
    On the whole I agree. Liberal values at least are based on much nicer premises. The risk of Liberals is, of course, that they may turn Woolly… 🙂
    As for the Conservatives…Pah! They all be a bunch of Myserabilist Hobbesians. No notion of fun, or games or just plain innocent hedonism. May they all be engulfed & devoured by their own private, custom-made Leviathans.
    Stay cool, baby!
    Dodo

  3. Plainly Spoken,
    I don’t believe anything is ever done for the “total good.” It’s not possible as an ethical principle. There will always be someone who feels marginalized, left out, elided, or left feeling harmed. As Christina says in her article, there is going to have to be checks and balances and people in charge. One has to use good judgment and it’s better to err on the side of personal freedom and dignity rather than on the authoritarian side. My problem with conservatives has always been that they do not trust people to make their own decisions nor do they trust people to make good choices. Thanks for the comment.

  4. I agree completely that conservatives tend not to have a sense of humor and take many things way more seriously than is required. Speaking of hot and muggy!! Whew! It has been here too. Where’s my manservant with that fan?? LOL.

  5. I would disagree that something can’t be a “total good”. Though in reaching for that level we must return to my first comment and answer the questions on harm in the second paragraph.

    At this stage of political development in this nation authoritarian excess is being instituted by either side of the political spectrum, liberals may try and wrap it in a prettier package than conservatives but that doesn’t make it any less real.

  6. Well, we disagree then about a “total good.” There can never be and indeed there never has been any such thing, except when dictated by tyrants who believed it was so. This is why revolutions will always be the method of choice when dealing with heavy handed governments. What’s “good” and what constitutes “harm” by conservative standards will always be different in many respects than those of liberal bent, which is the point of Christina’s article and the point of my agreeing with it. I think Christina’s article explains it all quite nicely.

  7. I never asked the answer be based on any political view – it would be more from a human view that we define harm. My apologies for not making that clear.

    I went and read the posting by Christina, and while there are some valid points well explained by her, she falls into the trap – unstated – that so many others do (liberal, conservative, or somewhere in-between) and that trap is the refusal to leave the comfort of the “box” the persons ideals have placed them in.

    Thank you for the discussion.

  8. No apology needed. I wasn’t basing my answer on politics but on the human tendency to be liberal or conservative in outlook. I find it amusing that each side of the equation feels the other falls into some kind of trap wherein they cannot see the other’s view. I believe this is true. Both sides (as if there are only two) do this. That is why I don’t believe in either side exclusively. Life is too varied and too full of ideas to take one side or the other as if it were a boxing match. But very, very generally, I’d prefer to err on the side of compassion no matter what my politics. But then all of these are very subjective terms aren’t they?

  9. “Compassion” “Nicer premises”, yes indeed. And, if anyone wants a definition of “wooly”, just take a look at my blog.

    I feel that Plainlyspoken’s point about the impossibility of defining a universal good, which harms no-one, is something of a counsel of despair, in that anything which might be good for me could be opposed on the grounds that it was deleterious to you; and then we’d have to try to balance how good against how deleterious, which is Jeremy bentham’s problem in trying to establish some calculus of quantifiable good or harm – the Victorian view that society could be run by the benign application of scientific principles.

    Perhaps we can only escape attempts to bog down this discussion as an impossible balancing act, (it’s all too dangerous, so let’s do nothing), by thinking of Christina’s “values” more like guiding impulses which inform our choices, micro or macro, as individuals or governments.

    For example, democracy is a pretty blunt instrument. In what I might term a brutally applied democracy, we would have no wheelchair ramp access to our buildings, because the physically disabled are a minority, and therefore do not count. That ramp does most people no good, so away with it. There may be libertarians who believe this, but probably only until they sustain a serious spinal injury.

    I agree with you Mystery; Greta Christina’s post is as good an exposition of humane political principle as I’ve read recently. Sure it’s unquantifiable, messy and vague, but principles such as “do to others as you would have them do to you” are as good as we have, if we’re not going to enforce our narrow self interest if we happen to have the power to do it. The current state of the world indicates to me that always putting us and ours first isn’t even practical politics, since the disempowered will feel marginalised and resentful, and they will take their revenge sooner or later, while nation states become ever more repressive in an attempt to stop them doing that.

    So here’s to “compassion” and “nicer premises”, if inevitably wooly. How would I feel if I were poor, taunted by conspicuous affluence all around me, or a woman, banging my head against the glass ceiling of male privilege?
    If I, and those who govern me, can think seriously about those things, I think that I and they may make better choices.

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