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.