Monday, August 20, 2007

The Defining Premise

Have you ever wondered what makes a person a liberal or a conservative, a Democrat or a Republican? Or to be more precise with language, what makes a person a socialist or not?

Is it the old joke -- a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged? Or the other old joke -- he who is not a liberal at 20 has no heart and he who is not a conservative at 40 has no brain?

Is it just environment? Do children tend to take on the opinions and beliefs of their parents and their peers? This probably explains many people, especially the passive-minded people who are content to go along with the crowd. But what shaped the opinions and beliefs of their parents and peers? There can't be an infinite regress; at some point, somebody had to have an original thought.

Is it the belief in God? Many more Republicans than Democrats believe in God. But how do you explain that Objectivists, up until lately, voted mostly Republican? With the growth of religion, the belief in God might become the defining premise in American politics in the near future -- and a baleful day that will be indeed. But we're not quite there yet.

Is it pressure group politics? Do people gravitate toward the party that serves their interests best? This would explain why minorities and unions vote Democrat and why the middle class, small business and military vote Republican. But it does not explain why rich educated whites vote Democrat, nor does it explain why many poor people in the "heartland" vote Republican. Both parties are such broad coalitions that it is hard to determine sometimes who they would not give money to in order to buy votes.

In my opinion, the defining premise is the belief in moral absolutes. Liberals are moral relativists. Both the religious right and Objectivists are moral absolutists. (The problem with the religious right, of course, is that their morality comes from religion, not reality. Their morality is grounded in faith, not reason, and is therefore dogmatic.)

In issue after issue, you can see politics determined by morality. Take crime, for an easy example. As moral relativists, liberals tend toward lenient punishment; they shrink in horror from the death penalty. Those who believe in moral absolutes, on the other hand, see vigorous punishment as justice; when someone kills in cold blood, he deserves to be executed.

In the 19th century Thomas Jefferson, a product of the Enlightenment, thought rapists deserve the death penalty. Today, after two centuries of the radical subjectivism of modern philosophy after Kant, most people would think Jefferson was a little harsh. One wonders how much modern philosophy has affected even those of us who oppose it.

Guns are another issue. Liberals think, "Who are we to judge other people?" It's a short step from that idea to, "Who are we to hold the power of a gun? Only the state should have such power." (Granted, the state is just comprised of fallible individuals as much as any other institution; this is a contradiction of statism.)

Liberals support intervention in the economy because it's not fair that employers with their subjective judgment can fire whomever they want or pay "slave wages."

The belief in moral absolutes has been the defining premise in politics all my life. But things are changing, and not for the better, with the increasing religiosity of the Republicans and the increasing radicalization of the Democrats (see Daily Kos). What does the future hold?

If the Republicans become the party of religion and the Democrats the party of modern philosophy, then we will have a pure, classic rationalist-empiricist split in American politics, with the left mumbling skepticism and the right shouting dogma detached from reality. Neither party will be a comfortable fit for those who advocate reason, except on an ad hoc basis. We're close to this situation now, although both parties show moments of lucidity and reasonableness.

We come to an interesting question: Why has President Bush, a seriously religious man, advanced socialism with his spending and big government?

Well, he is actually being consistent with Jesus Christ with his socialism. Christ was no capitalist; his Sermon on the Mount sounds outright communist to me. Christ was an altruist who believed the individual should sacrifice.

The contradiction between capitalism and Christianity has always been present in the religious right. Throughout the 20th century, as traditionalists, they rode the last waves of our enlightenment heritage and were for free markets (to some extent, or at least in lip service). As modern philosophy advances and we get further from the 18th century, the right will become more altruist and socialist. Combine that statism with nationalism and religious dogma and you will have fascism. Religion does not protect the right from modern philosophy.

Although the defining premise now is the belief in moral absolutes, the difference 20 years from now might be whether or not one subscribes to reason and reality -- with a vast majority on the left and right who do not uphold reason and reality and a small minority who do.

UPDATE: Revision.


Jess said...

I absolutely love your blog. Very insightful.



Anonymous said...

One of your best posts ever. I seriously hope you never stop blogging.

John Kim

Myrhaf said...

Whoa! You people really know how to make a guy feel good. Thank you for the kind words.

Anonymous said...

Moral absolutes. Not bad. I'll have to chew it for a bit. It's certainly something to make one think.

Now, I'm just thinking out loud here, but does the hard Kos left subscribe to moral absolutes? I mean, like environment > man or something like that? Or is that only in the unavoidable sense that "there are no absolutes" is itself an absolute?

I can't shake the feeling there is some additional, deeper truth hiding here...

I know that Dr. Peikoff said in DIM that most Americans in their politics, left or right, are D1 - eschewing principles or integrated thinking.

And as I commented recently to one of Krieg's posts, the more I think about it, the more I have come to believe that the key to understanding America is pragmatism. It is utterly pervasive. While it may not be a prime force, it is the default that the prime force(s) will be acting upon.

That makes it worth understanding.

EdMcGon said...

Listen to Jessica and John. They know what they're talking about. ;)

The only part of the whole post I would disagree with you is the part about Christ being a socialist, which is strictly a Leftist defense of their already morally and politically corrupt philosophy. Your own sentence proves my point: "Christ was an altruist who believed the individual should sacrifice." Christ NEVER spoke of government sacrifice, which is the flawed basis for socialism.

Joubert said...

Excellent. It is about morality (or ethics as I prefer to call what civilized folk practice.)

I'm not a Christian but I don't think Jesus advocated socialism. He advocated charity which is about individual love not government handouts. In fact socialism destroys charity. Americans donate more time and money than Europeans.

Phoroneus said...

Christ set about the creation of an irrational morality that would ultimately culminate into its moral acceptance on earth.

Myrhaf I must say I really enjoyed reading this one. I got myself pondering on division between party acceptance based on moral absolutism with a Christian friend (implicit enlightenment values kind) I could actually get him to agree on the absolutism of morality and he would have definite stances on issues that could be at least be "reasoned" with until the ultimate "it's just a matter of faith!" but I was unsure if it was a serious consideration. I'm glad I wasn't the only one who thought of it.

Keep up the awesomeness.

Anonymous said...

Christ preached suffering and sacrifice as moral ideals. He stood for total and complete renunciation of your lives, values, and mind to God. Because of his message (ie Christianity), ethics has come to be totally associated with self-sacrifice. In that way, I would say that Christ's message is one of the most evil ever to plague mankind. Mohammed sought to enslave man's body. Christ sought to enslave man's soul. I think, in the end, Christ was worse.

Socialism would have been impossible if not for the legacy of Jesus Christ.

John Kim

Galileo Blogs said...

I also echo the compliments on your piece. It is a cogent analysis of conservatism and where it's headed.

As for Inspector's emphasis on pragmatism and yours on moral absolutism, I think *both* are defining characteristics of conservatives. Observe that every religious person chooses which of his supposedly absolute principles to adhere to. For example, in some Christian sects, nearly everything is permitted including premarital sex, homosexuality, abortion, dancing, gambling, etc., whereas in other sects, all of these are forbidden. Yet, even in those sects pragmatic compromises are made simply to function on earth. For example, a strict fundamentalist can still rationalize pursuing wealth, etc.

This pragmatism is why Bush and his ilk can say they are for the “free market.” A conservative’s pragmatism lets him define the free market to suit his needs of the moment.

The only true moral absolutists can be those who base their morality on man's actual nature in reality, i.e., Objectivism. Everyone else has to be a pragmatist on some level.

Although pragmatists, Christians do try to operate from principles, which are ultimately arbitrary since they come from the revealed word of God. Their ostensive belief in principles makes them somewhat different than leftists, who eschew them (except for the principle that there are no principles).

At the end of the day, we Objectivists are fighting for principles, the non-arbitrary principles grounded on earth. Everyone else is cut off from reality in varying degrees in their arbitrary fantasies.

Anonymous said...

OT, but Robert Spencer has written a new book: "Religion Of Peace: Why Christianity Is and Islam Is Not." Here is a response by secular conservative John Derbyshire:

From the Objectivist perspective both Spencer and Derbyshire are wrong but I find Derbyshire's response interesting even if I dont agree with his anti-immigration positions. I am curious to know what you think on Spencer and his Christian apologetics approach to criticising Islam.

Ben Maebie