No one should make the mistake that many conservatives do of claiming that liberals have no morals, and no moral backbone. We have a different system of morals than those conservatives, but it is a very principled set of morals and we’re just as passionate about them. The battle for the soul of America is very much a moral battle.
Liberals are more likely to be people who address issues in solidarity with the rest of society, working as a team. Not everyone of course, but statistically more likely. Similarly liberals are more likely to think of everyone as equals, with equal rights and equal claims on the protections of our economic, social and political institutions. And liberals are likely to want to see the consequences before deciding what’s right – will we cause more progress or more suffering. We have a clear, humanistic goal – to reduce the pain in the world and increase happiness where possible. In effect liberalism has been shaped by the British utilitarians of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, men like Jeremy Bentham who simply asked whether people would feel more joy or more pain. Liberal thinkers have moved past Bentham’s utilitarianism but the basic instinct remains. That’s a philosophy, and a moral system, built on empathy. Some reject it and describe it with all sorts of pejoratives. But for liberals it is a deep commitment and profoundly moral. To reject that view is in like measure immoral.
Conservatives are more likely to think of everyone on their own, making independent choices. Again not everyone but statistically more likely. And conservatives are more likely to think society has ranks where people belong. They are more likely to talk about “moral clarity” – the idea that there are clear and unchanging answers to questions about right and wrong. So the issue of whether I do the right thing is independent of the consequences for others. And, for the most part, whether they flourish or perish is their own doing. Conservatives don’t like to accept the notion that we are together in this rowboat with mutual responsibilities. For them that’s coddling, weakening people, destroying moral character. And to them that is also moral and it’s the liberals who are immoral. Indeed the liberals who show concern for others are mocked as “do-gooders.”
Both of those are stands about morality. Each side likes to think of the other as immoral. But in fact they are different moral stands. There’s an excellent book by Harvard Professor Michael Sandel called Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? in which Sandel compares the liberal, consequentialist, moral approach with the conservative, individualist, attachment to unchanging answers.
I’m clearly in the we’re-all-in-this-together camp. I do not take the position that what happens to you is of no account. This could be a dog eat dog world. But I don’t think of myself as a dog. American law makes some exceptions but most of American law is malleable by experience and consequences. The notion that one has rights regardless of the consequences to others, rights to run one’s business or use one’s property regardless of the impact on neighbors, customers, society or global warming, is what Yale political scientist Ian Shapiro calls “self-regarding rights.”
The Preamble of our Constitution states our forebears’ intention to “promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty” not only “to ourselves” but also to “our Posterity.” These men were not self-regarding. They cared about what happened to others.
— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 24, 2011.