Friday, June 5, 2009

Empathy for Conservatives/Our Shifting Moral Values

I have been thinking about the differences between how liberals and conservatives tend to perceive the world recently.

I have made a realization which has given me increased empathy for conservatives.

What will society be like in 100 years? 50 years? 20 years? What difficult and thorny ethical questions will arise due to new technology unveiled within the next few decades or centuries?

New advances in technology can be scary stuff, raising difficult ethical questions. I thought about how I would feel in a future afraid I would be if I thought that the moral paradigm and the traditions of my society were eroding and deteriorating before my eyes.

And that is when a powerful observation struck me: this fear of erosion and deterioration may just be exactly how many conservatives feel today.

I now understand why people would be afraid of changes in society which could possibly be unnerving and apprehension-inducing.

The struggle that we all share is navigating a course between tradition and modernity. This, I believe, is the great moral struggle of every generation of humanity.

We have struggled to define our moral values in each civilization, in each society, and in each generation of human history. We witness this phenomena in the movement to end slavery, the 20th century civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, the controversy over abortion, the controversy over the death penalty (and which forms of execution are cruel or unusual and who should be executed or not), the struggle over gun control, the struggle over communism, the struggle over fascism, and the clash of other religious and political ideologies.

What is morality? What defines when an act is moral? Who defines it? Conservatives and liberals are largely answering the same questions -- they just tend to seek the answers in differing places.

We have a changing moral paradigm. Some people would deny this, but I contend that I have presented enough evidence to confirm this phenomenon's occurrence.

Conservatives and liberals tend to argue over which course to follow on the continually revising moral paradigms of human history. Conservatives seem to be largely guided by "tradition"; liberals seem to be largely guided by "modernity". Neither of these concepts is particularly well-defined; both seem quite nebulous. Neither concept seems to be a clear or resolute guide for future action; neither concept is fully coherent. Both ideas seem equally capable of badly misleading our decision-making. I do believe that over-adherence to either idea will produce disaster.

What is tradition? Yes, we learn from our mistakes, and we have derived ideas and beliefs to help us avoid them. I admire conservatism for trying to preserve our heritage of knowledge and experience and hedging against futile attempts to subvert our best practices. However, since our environment is continually shifting and evolving, there are many occasions where we find ourselves in need of new and inventive approaches for a changing world. I admire liberalism because I believe this way of thinking provides the capability to arrive at such bold solutions.

I must admit, conservatism is awfully appealing to me at times. I like the notion of sticking with tested and broken-in ideas over radical departures from known strategies. I am an incremental thinker; I have never been good at "out-of-the-box" thinking. When I make decisions, I try to build upon the best information that I have. Before I will try a new approach, I tend to re-try older approaches first to see if they work better. I tend to avoid risk in my personal life.

So why am I more liberal than conservative? I don't know for sure. Perhaps it is a function of when I grew into politics. I believe in change. I believe that we have adhered too much to tradition, and that we need new ways of thinking. The way we treat the environment, the way we treat minorities and the poor, the way we treat foreigners, the way we treat homosexuals -- the traditional approaches are not good enough for me. I want to go in another direction.

I have empathy for conservatives, but it has been apparent to me for many years that our country needs to travel in another direction. There are many policies which the Democrats espouse about which I am either ambivalent or with which I disagree. I do not know whether Obama's economic policies are sound. I am, as I have been for most of my life, largely ambivalent about the abortion debate, embracing neither the strong pro-choice nor the strong pro-life position. I wish that the Democrats would move faster and more radically on healthcare and gay rights.

The battles of the future will define and guide our moral values, just as they have in the past. I eagerly await further full and vigorous participation in the debates to come.


K said...

Wow, this is almost exactly how I feel. In fact, I was thinking about the very same contest between tradition and modernism the other day.

Very nicely written, as always!

Anonymous said...

If we think about our forebearers at the turn of the century for whom modernity was the automobile, or a tractor rather than a team of horses and a plow, it's jarring to think about man upon the moon, in vitro fertilization, and Iphones. For society to progress in any way, someone has to step out. Very thought provoking and excellent writing, Alex.

Matt said...

I agree with a lot of what you wrote, especially with respect to the different approaches liberals and conservatives take to the same problems.

On the other hand, I believe we have a fundamental difference when it comes to what you call a "changing moral paradigm". Even though humanity and civilization evolves over time, I believe there IS a universal and unchanging standard of morality. This largely stems from my Christian beliefs, but it remains logically consistent even without bringing God into the argument.

Humanity changes, but humanity is also inherently flawed. Therefore, and I think you'll agree here, the majority opinion is not always the correct opinion...not always the truly moral opinion. As humanity progresses, sometimes this "progress" has an overall negative impact on the culture. Sometimes people as a whole give themselves over to debauchery and moral depravity. When enough people do this, it becomes accepted as "normal".

A "changing moral paradigm" might tell us that this IS normal, because it is the natural result of human progress. But if there is a universal standard of morality (which again, only something extra-human, ie God, can provide), then we avoid the faulty compromise of accepting what is "new".

This makes me think of a book I once read, in which a technologically and culturally "advanced" society harvests babies from the womb and allows them to develop in a tank until the age of 3 or 4. At this time, the child's brain is then removed and essentially replaced with the brain of someone else. It goes much more into the science of the procedure, but we'll leave it like this for simplicity's sake. Anyway, an elderly person's brain is implanted into the child, killing the child and allowing the elderly person to achieve immortality. Every time their body begins to deteriorate, society allows them to replace it with a child's. Overpopulation is no longer a problem, and science progresses exponentially because people now have hundreds and thousands of years to build on their knowledge.

But is this really ethical?

A changing moral compass would tell us yes. It's fine, because society has advanced to the point and embraced it. We might not understand it now, from our perspective, but for THAT society at THAT time, it's perfectly acceptable.

A God-given standard of morality, however, tells us that this "change" can often be a very, very bad thing. We can't leave it up to humanity to decide the difference, because humanity is flawed. Consequently, the mass murder of these innocents IS wrong by this standard...regardless of whether it's child sacrifices 5000 years ago, brain implantation 5000 years in the future, or abortion today.

I know we've talked some about moral relativism in the past. If I remember correctly, you're also somewhat of a moral absolutist, though you obviously derive your standards from some other, human, source. I might be wrong about that, though.

One last point.

There are different types of "change" there must also be different types of "progressives". Our country's political system has set things up so that someone is either a liberal or a conservative. But neither one of these descriptors is really 100% accurate. I'm a conservative, but I also strongly believe in equal rights for everyone under the law (black, white, gay, straight, born, and unborn). I believe in the good that can be accomplished through advances in medicine, agriculture, and technology as a whole. But from my perspective, every change must be closely scrutinized against my Biblical standard of morality.

James Madison summarizes it well:

“We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We’ve staked the future of all our political institutions upon our capacity…to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.”

Alex said...


Thanks for responding to my post. I am glad that you agree on some of my observations; I was worried that I may have mischaracterized liberal and conservative behavior.

We also agree that humanity and civilization evolves over time. So we have a starting point, at least.


You assert that there is a universal and unchanging standard of morality.

You also assert that certain flaws of humanity cause a negative impact on culture - even if the majority of people construe such a movement as "progress", there may still be many undesirable effects.

You argue that if there is a universal morality, then we can avoid the perils of negative societal changes caused by certain kinds of human flaws.


Okay, great. I hope I have summarized your position correctly.

1) I disagree that there is any universal and unchanging standard of morality. I would like to see evidence of the existence of such a standard. Could you demonstrate the existence of even one principle that is universally, inherently, unfailingly right or wrong?

I assert that humanity possesses subjective reasons that underpin our moral decisions and actions. In many circumstances, these reasons may remain relatively consistent over various times and places (rape is one such situation I would propose where societal treatments are more stable than not - though there are still some notable counter-examples), and therefore a principle could maintain the appearance of being an objective standard, meanwhile it could just be a set of subjective reasons with relatively consistent benefits.

Lastly, if any act could be considered ultimately right or wrong, what more obvious example is there than the taking of a human life?

Yet, the number of socially permittable ways to kill has declined from Hammurabi's Code, to the days of the British Empire, to today in America where only murder and treason are grounds for execution, and in many countries, capital punishment is not even condoned anymore.

2) I can find no evidence to indicate that humanity's flaws are a result of any "fall", which as I understand it, is the perspective of the Christian worldview. I agree that humanity is too aggressive and violent, and is responsible for many atrocities, but I attribute this to the competition and struggle for survival over time.

3) I believe that my model of morality allows for the conservation of moral traditions and it is not hostage to vague notions of modernity. I believe that if there are consistently strong reasons for certain actions in a relatively stable environment, then the "moral paradigm" should not change dramatically.

It should be noted, however, that I am NOT a cultural relativist. I do believe that we can compare moral decision-making across times and cultures - though I can see the attraction of cultural relativism here because it does seem like an arduous and difficult comparison process.

I believe that we can compare the reasons and desires of different peoples in different time and places, as long as we account for all of the other variables (changing environment, changing technology, changing worldviews, etc.)