Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Irrational conservatism

I was hoping someone might challenge my "Dumb Stuff" post below, and Dave Rye, a thoughtful conservative, was kind enough to do so. Since this is my slow day at the office (I rolled the last page off at 8 this morning) let's think a bit about this.

John Hawkins writes that "liberalism is nothing more than childlike emotionalism applied to adult issues." He adds:

Going to war is mean, so we shouldn't do it. That person is poor and it would be nice to give him money, so the government should do it. Somebody wants to have an abortion, have a gay marriage, or wants to come into the U.S. illegally and it would be mean to say, "no," so we should let them. I am nice because I care about global warming! Those people want to kill us? But, don't they know we're nice? If they did, they would like us! Bill has more toys, money than Harry, so take half of Bill's money and give it to Harry.

Hawkins gives the game away in his first paragraph when he says that liberalism is "nothing more" than emotionalism. He reiterates that point in the sentence following the quote above. So if we can find even one aspect of liberalism that is something more than emotionalism, he loses. But that's too easy. For purposes of argument, let's assume that he actually thinks liberalism is some sort of political philosophy, or at least an ideology. Let's assume that some general understanding of liberalism vs. conservatism applies: that conservatives generally favor less government than liberals, that conservatives generally are more resistant to social change, that conservatives are more likely than liberals to base their political views on an underlying belief that moral and religious absolutes should govern human behavior.

How does the paragraph quoted above fit within this framework? It's pathetic. If Hawkins is to be taken seriously, we must believe that liberals are less likely to wage war than conservatives. Over the course of world history, this may be true. Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun and Spartan warriors were probably more conservative in important ways than their contemporaries and adversaries. But the analogy breaks down in American history. American conservatives were loyal to the Crown during the Revolutionary War. Liberal abolitionists and federalists beat the drums for the Civil War. A classic liberal was commander-in-chief during World War II, and liberal presidents started and then expanded American involvement in Vietnam. Even the Iraq War makes sense only as a liberal war -- principled conservatives such as the Cato Institute, Pat Buchanan, William F. Buckley and George Will were either skeptical about or outright opponents of the war from the beginning. The only really coherent case for war in Iraq that I have heard came, predictably, from a liberal, Christopher Hitchens.

Hawkins next presents the idea of giving government money to the poor as a product of liberal emotionalism. But nearly all sides now agree that at least some level of government assistance should be available to those most in need. If somebody falls unconscious in the street, cops gather and an ambulance is called. Even those least able to care for themselves through illness or accident generally can find a place to eat and sleep, and I don't hear conservatives complaining about that. We're really just arguing about how much government support is justified, and that is a question that doesn't rely heavily on emotion. There is no bright line dividing conservatives from liberals on exactly what level of assistance should be provided. That's what politics is for.

Are the liberal positions on abortion, gay marriage and immigration based solely on emotion? This gets confusing because my own positions on these topics seem solidly conservative to me, yet they get me pushed into the liberal camp. I am pro-choice on abortion because Americans have been unable to reach moral consensus on what the correct position should be, and I don't think the government should step in on moral questions that the people themselves can't resolve. I think gays should be allowed to marry because I don't think telling people whom they can marry is any of the government's damn business. I accept the need for constraints on immigration, but I also know that this country was built, and is still being built, by immigrants, and immigration policy must take that into account. It amazes me that any conservatives disagree.

Finally, is concern about global warming emotional? This is the perfect question for such a debate because the existence of human-caused global warming (as opposed to what the correct policy response should be) is purely a factual question. The planet doesn't care what conservatives or liberals think. But if either side is relying on emotion in this debate, it seems to be conservatives. My conservative values tell me that global warming might be for real, and if it is, the consequences could be devastating, so I should support reasonable steps to deal with it. Actual conservatives seem to argue that every scrap of evidence in favor of global warming should be discounted or ignored, and every scrap of evidence against it should be trumpeted.

Why? Pure emotionalism, so far as I can tell. Conservatives don't like the way a world with global warming would look, so they set about to deny it for as long as possible. Indeed, an emotional attachment to tradition and to belief in higher powers seems to be the cornerstone of what Hawkins believes conservatives are. Liberal democracy, which is at the heart of Western greatness, embraces knowledge and accepts changing conditions. By Hawkins' own standards, the real enemies of logic and fact in political discourse are conservatives, not liberals.


Ed Kemmick said...

Two observations:

1) Your response was very good.

2) Hawkins won't be able to understand it, which I think is related to your original point.

Shane C. Mason said...

Thanks David. Your response was thoughtful and well said.

Dave Rye said...

Oh, David, David, David (which sounds like my mother when she was slightly exasperated with me, and maybe your mother under similar circumstances)...

On the plus side, thank you for the compliment, and I agree with Ed's first observation in the sense that "very good" means well-written (which is, after all, your livelihood) and argued like a professional debater.

Like all good debaters, you stood some of the opposing arguments on their heads, and took those arguments to their (il)logical extremes.

I cautiously suggest that your "conservatism" on the raging social issues of the day is actually libertarianism. You are basically saying that moral judgments have no place in American law or policy. I would counter that ALL laws are extensions of moral judgments, and that virtually all of them are religiously based in terms of how we should or should not treat others. Few people would disagree, for example, that there ought to be laws against murder. One conflict in interpreting such a principle arises in the case of abortion, which some people (me included) regard as murder and others (you included) apparently do not. The gay-marriage issue is in the same category. You are saying basically that the government has no business making a judgment as to whether heterosexual and homosexual relationships are morally equivalent to each other. If I use your debating style, David, then what business does the government have in determining that monogamy is morally (and, by extension, legally) preferable to polygamy?

The basic contention of the original column, which I guess started this process of pitting you and Ed against me in what has turned into a thought-provoking argument, went beyond "emotionalism" versus "logic." I think its basic contention was attacking a pair of ideas which appear axiomatic among liberals: (1) basic human nature is flexible and improvable, and (2) humankind's limited level of goodness and virtue can eventually rise to the level of what those of us in the "spiritual community" regard as God's infinite abundance of those qualities, unachievable by mere human beings.

And at that point we reach an impasse that may very well be argued forever, with no agreement ever reached. As with geometry problems, you start with different axioms and you reach different conclusions, and the axioms on both sides are "emotional." I regard the axioms on my side as LESS emotional and more self-evident, but we might well argue even about that.

I wish I could recall who said, "If there is no God, everything is permissible." Those of us on the conservative side often suspect liberals of thinking of such a condition as, in the words of Hamlet, "a consummation devoutly to be wished" (with some of them going very heavy on the "consummation"). It would also be a condition in the long run of freedom turning into anarchy, and all feelings of personal social responsibility transferred to a government which by its very nature will always be inefficient, indifferent and slow to respond.

David said...

You make some good points and I may respond later at greater length. But I want to say two things up front.

First, I don't go quite so far as to say that moral judgments have no place in law or policy. It's one thing for the law to reflect moral judgments that society has made (child pornography is wrong) and another to use the law to enforce a moral consensus that society has not reached (gluttony is a sin; therefore, I have a right to dictate how much you eat).

I do think it's better to avoid moral judgments in law when other arguments will serve. It may be morally wrong for you to kill me, but my main concern is not your sin; it's the loss of my right to live out my life. Maintaining the distinction between morality and rights helps distinguish between moral failings that damage the republic and those that merely damage me. To me, gay marriage falls into the second category, and so, for that matter, does polygamy, which after all has been a perfectly acceptable social arrangement for thousands of years in many societies.

The second point is that many people who think abortion is murder don't seem to have the courage of that conviction (perhaps you do). If aborting an inconvenient baby is murder, then so is it murder to abort a baby that results when a woman is raped or her life is at risk. But even people who think abortion in such cases is wrong usually stop short of favoring life imprisonment or the death sentence for the mother. In our heart of hearts, we know that abortion and murder, no matter how closely linked, aren't identical.

Chuck Rightmire said...

I think the basic problem is this issue is a debate on what is emotional and what is reasoned after the fact of emotion. Some people will say that emotion has no place in decision making yet some recent research indicates that without emotion we cannot make decisions. Some people will also say that there are other ways to "know" something other than reason. I think that Hawkins was using nothing but emotion in his statement while liberals use emotion only. He is wrong. Both sides use emotion to make decisions. What happens with liberals, I assert, is that they then, in many cases, filter what they have learned through emotion through reason to come up with a response.

I also think that when religion is weighed into the mix of decision making, then almost all decision making comes from emotion. Religion, after all, is based on an emotional response to various rituals and has little basis in reason because most of the arguments for religion are based on flawed premises.

I also suggest that morals do not derive from others, such as religious leaders or government, but are grown from the need for humans to live together. Even Musk ox have a form of moral stability, I understand, in that they take turns being on the outside of the herd so that they are all enabled to be warm during the cold arctic winter. And are morals which are practiced only because someone such as a preacher or a policeman will get us, actually morals or fear? I would suggest that the most immoral among us are those who depend on another's judgment to keep them from bad actions to other humans. They don't always take responsibility for their own actions. It's God's will or the law's not the need to live with other humans.

I believe that emotions are important considerations for all humans in making decisions and that Hawkins, to get emotional for a moment, is full of it.