Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Searching for Political Morality in All the Wrong Places

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Guest post by Jonathan Cohn

Politics and morality are never far apart. As such, one key difference between liberals and conservatives is how they derive morality. And both derivations are flawed.

For the liberal, morality is a derivative of intellect, understood in terms of smartness (the assimilation and application of facts) and sophistication. For the liberal, then, immorality is a result of a lack of education. Racism, xenophobia, sexism, etc.—often treated more as individual failings than systemic injustices—can be cured through better education. (The problem, of course, is that the social structures that perpetuate these forms of prejudice and enact them in policy are usually quite well-educated, but also quite immoral.)

For the conservative, morality is a derivative of strength. Morality is in service of hierarchy: the father as head of the home, the sacerdote of the congregation and community, the boss of the company, and the ruler (s/he understood as “rightful heir”) of the nation-state. Such positions are held through strength, and supporting, expanding, and acceding to that strength is thus moral. Success is a virtue, and the successful are ipso facto virtuous. Failure and weakness are immoral; thus, poverty is a sign of moral decrepitude.

Each derivation can lead to a hollowing of moral content. The liberal derivation of morality from intellect can lead to a belief that facts themselves have prescriptive power (what one might call “argument by chart”). It leads to a replacement of moral arguments with arguments of economic efficiency (how Democrats often argue for criminal justice reform or immigration reform). And it can lead to a replacement of moral deliberation with cost-benefit analysis, like when the DOJ went so far as to apply CBA to the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

The conservation derivation of morality from strength leads to an unquestioning support for the use of violence by the powerful against weaker factions of society. It is the fallacy that “might makes right.”

Each derivation is manifest in a certain style of political performance. The liberal politician will perform smartness and sophistication; the conservative politician will perform strength. We can see this easily in the contrast between Barack Obama and George W. Bush. The liberal trusts Barack Obama’s judgment—even with powers that could never not be abused—because of his intellect, and when justifying actions, he builds a performance of rational deliberation into his rhetoric. (Law professor, Obama’s occupation before entering politics, is perhaps the perfect manifestation of what the liberal desires in a politician.) The conservative trusted George W. Bush’s judgment because he projected strength, presenting a dualistic view of the world in which one stands by allies and smites enemies.

This performance that attracts one side repels the other. The insult the liberal hurls at the conservative is that s/he is “stupid.” Liberals routinely displayed contempt of George W. Bush for his perceived stupidity and lack of sophistication, and continue to regard the average conservative voter in the same light. (The upward redistribution of wealth and destruction of countless lives are bad, but having to live with the embarrassment of a president who says “strategery” really rankles.) The insult the conservative hurls at the liberal is that s/he is “weak.” Conservatives regularly criticize Obama for his perceived “weakness,” and deride the average liberal voter as a softy.

This election cycle will put these two political styles, and their fetishization, at the forefront. Hillary Clinton is celebrated by liberals for her intellect; Donald Trump is celebrated by conservatives for his strength. Each can get away with rapid changes of opinions or views otherwise unsavory to their supporters accordingly. Good judgment is inferred from the display of intellect or strength, and trust handed over.

I often think of this liberal cult of “smartness” and “sophistication” when I hear liberals say that they would have supported Elizabeth Warren but don’t support Bernie Sanders. Elizabeth Warren, like Obama, was a law professor. She’s part prairie populist but, more importantly, part Harvard. She fits well into this liberal ideal (with its clear class biases) in a way that Bernie Sanders does not. And how does the Clinton supporter most often deride the Bernie supporter? Naïve, unrealistic, foolish—ways of expressing a lack of intellect. Similarly, on the other side, those who have fallen at the foot of the Donald have been derided most commonly as “weak.”

The liberal ideal is a technocratic manager. The conservative ideal is a strongman. Neither is great for the flowering of democracy.


Written by David Kaib

March 28, 2016 at 8:05 am

One Response

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  1. Interesting approach. I consider myself a liberal, and I recognize many of the descriptors in this blog in myself. However, I don’t think of education first as my morality code (but it is clearly a strong part of it). I think of the inherent worth and dignity of all beings–a principle–as the core of my morality. Morality means valuing (and all the actions required to do that) the inherent worth and dignity of all beings. Education alone does not do that, but education helps. If nothing else, it can help to raise the question: do all beings have a worth and dignity that “comes with the package?” You will have me pondering this role that education plays in my own moral thinking and acting.


    March 28, 2016 at 8:32 am

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