The Basis of Left and Right, Part 4: Moral Reasoning (or Kant vs. Aristotle Again)

Continuing the ideology series, herewith a few thoughts on the different modes of moral-political reasoning between right and left:

Two things need to be observed about the conflicting modes of moral reasoning between left and right.  The conservative’s innate caution rooted in the anchor of human nature and established experience leads him to evaluate any ideas according to the potential consequences, and especially with regard to the often counter-intuitive unintended or perverse consequences.  Many liberals are averse to this mode of thought, guided instead by an often unacknowledged Kantian moral framework that values the purity of intentionality over consequences, or who think that potential adverse consequences can be overcome through the assertion of a morally pure will.  This unbridgeable divide can been seen at work in the enthusiasm for the “precautionary principle” in environmental affairs, and its close correlate, the notion that even if global warming turned out not to be true, doing all of the large changes to prevent it (carbon suppression, “clean” energy, etc) would be virtuous in and of itself.  Liberally-minded people cannot understand why conservatives do not acknowledge the moral logic of this argument; conservatives cannot understand why liberals cannot see the hazards of presuming to know well enough to prescribe a future path without adverse risks or consequences.  Their moral frameworks or so radically different that they may as well be speaking foreign languages to each other much of the time.

The second observation flows directly from this.  The conservative argument against a liberalism of moral intentions is that it has no logical or practical stopping point—there is no discernable “limiting principle” to liberalism; hence liberals can never say “enough” to its political interventions on behalf of reform and equality.  But while liberals have no stopping point, consequence-minded conservatism has no starting point.  There are few social problems for which the default conservative attitude isn’t to proceed very slowly, often with the tacit assumption that the problem will “solve” itself if just left alone.  Much of the time this is the correct position, but there are exceptions.  The best example of this at work in recent memory was the conservative attitude about civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s.  Most non-southern (that is to say non-racist) conservatives did not support Jim Crow segregation, but tended to oppose all but the most mild and halting political interventions to end it, hoping or believing that the slow social processes of a modern economy would break down the regime of segregation over time.  (Nobel Prize winner Gary Becker wrote his doctoral dissertation on the economics of discrimination—against the strong advice of most of his faculty mentors—and concluded that while markets would punish discrimination in the fullness of time, markets alone would not likely eliminate it entirely because the “taste” for discrimination, as he called it, was non-rational.  The ancient philosophers would have called that a “passion,” but Becker has to conform to the value-free language of social science.)  Many (e.g., William F. Buckley, Ronald Reagan) came later to regret this position and acknowledge its defects.  From the civil rights experience and certain welfare state icons such as Social Security (and possibly the environment more recently) it is possible to generalize that conservative social reform initiatives come chiefly in response to liberal agitation rather than because of some “starting principle” of its own.

Here we come close to affirming the practical notion that the left and right need each other as a counterweight or completing factor.  But on closer look their positions are asymmetrical: the postulates of liberalism will always make it the initiating force in political life, while conservatism will always be its cautionary handmaiden.  While liberals are congenitally discontent with the pace and extent of reform, they always have a general sense of what should come next, best expressed in Samuel Gompers’ famous one-word policy: “More.”  More reform, more legislation, more equality.  Conservatives, by contrast, do not have a clear or uniform outline of the good society; instead, conservatives have serious divisions among themselves about what the good society should be.  It is not simply a matter of opposing “less” to the liberals’ “more.”  Conservatives have deep theoretical differences over the relationship of liberty and virtue, and while liberalism has a similar theoretical argument (between “communitarians” and individualists), it is not as pronounced and politically relevant as the split on the right.  I’ll add here that the theoretical and practical tensions within conservatism are a source of the movement’s strength; conservatism’s infighting leads to a certain amount of self-renewal that is largely missing in liberalism.

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