Conservative Approaches to ‘Liberal’ Values

We all know someone who sits with their arms crossed and frowns at social gatherings, is consistently appalled at the latest custom, norm, or tradition to go by the wayside, and is generally a hard ass that is often too much to take. Every way of life is prone to its own particular set of vices, and in this, conservatives – of which this stereotypical individual is a representative – are no different. Those who identify as politically conservative often look stingy because of a commitment to a hands-off approach to government, and cold and critical because they must counter the seductive, but what they take to be ultimately exaggerated promises that their opponents like to make. There is a great deal of truth to this view of conservatives, something that I think is rather unfortunate given that this grouchiness can grow out of valid concerns.

Although it is commonplace to think of conservative politics as preoccupied with values such as competitiveness, discipline, hard work, honour, dignity, respect for authority, loyalty, and family values, there is more to the picture than meets the eye. Jonathan Haidt’s work in social psychology has done a great deal to illuminate the differences in moral preferences among people, and the way in which they correlate with political world views. He finds that there are roughly six pillars of morality, or moral ‘taste buds’ as he calls them. They are grouped in pairs of opposites, the first listed being the moral value followed by its opposite: care – harm, fairness – cheating, loyalty – betrayal, authority/respect – subversion, sanctity/purity – degradation, and liberty – oppression.

Key to his thinking is an emphasis on the importance of feeling, rather than rational cognition as the prime causal factor determining our moral preferences. Prior to the development of the discipline of psychology, the divide between cognitivists and non-cognitivists was found among early modern philosophers – the rationalists (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz) and empiricists (Locke, Berkeley, Hume). The former emphasized that knowledge was founded in, or reducible to abstract terms described by mathematics and logic in a form that is itself prior to experience. Furthermore, they thought that rational, cognitive activity, and not sentiment was the key source of it. The latter were convinced that knowledge is ultimately the product of experience received through our sensory faculties, and is impressed upon our minds through repeated exposure. Haidt is fully aware of this history and stands self-consciously in the tradition of the empiricists when it comes to ontological, or ‘what kind of thing?’ questions about the nature of our moral concepts. His own work was inspired in part by an encounter with the perceived inadequacies of the cognitivist theoretical framework that dominated psychology during his formative years of study – that of Piaget and Kohlberg. The paradigm that the work of these thinkers helped create is one that sees moral norms as the product of cognitive solutions to social games or problems, that become more complex, and rationally based as children develop into adults.

What Haidt and his fellow researchers have found is that psychological characteristics that are important in determining moral preferences correlate well with political beliefs. Using the Moral Foundations Questionnaire, Haidt and his colleagues have discovered that liberals tend to be most sensitive to the care and fairness foundations, libertarians are similar to liberals though not surprisingly most concerned with liberty, and conservatives are equally sensitive to all moral preferences. Not only are people most sensitive to their preferred values, but their arguments, and the way in which they think and speak about political issues directly reflect them. For example, liberals and conservatives view fairness very differently – liberals being concerned more with material equality, often citing excessive greed and wealth as a premise. Conservatives tend to emphasize the connection between work ethic and wealth, citing certain types of welfare and redistributive policies as undermining these values.

Leaving out the question of the genetic determination of values, and the relationship between emotion and cognition, Haidt’s findings are useful insofar as they accurately catalogue and describe the different ways in which people frame and justify political and moral issues. Furthermore, they at least suggest that conservatives do indeed value those things that liberals seem to have a stranglehold on in the contemporary cultural discourse. What then, does the conservative approach to the values associated with care-harm, and fairness-cheating look like?

The issues most commonly associated with the care-harm, and fairness-cheating moral tastebuds are things like material and status differences between groups, and care for the vulnerable and needy.

The issue of inequality is a vexed one, in part because there are different senses of the word, and little agreement about which type is the one to be concerned with. Conservatives in the Anglo-American tradition have emphasized equality of opportunity through an equal application of the rule of law. This just means that there is to be a set of rules that apply to all people without distinction due to contingent features of their person, such as race, gender, class, etc. Conservatives are less concerned with material and status inequality insofar as they are the result of differences in work ethic, preferences, choice, and the like. Liberals tend to emphasize relative differences in material or status, or the way in which differences in identity affect a person’s treatment under a supposedly fair and impartial set of rules.

These perspectives make sense in light of differing conceptions of human agency – conservatives emphasizing the ability of individuals to choose for themselves, and take responsibility for their actions, and liberals highlighting the natural and social determinants of a person’s material wealth and well-being or status. On the former view, differences in material and status outcome are justified because actions are mostly freely chosen, and on the latter view, many differences are unjust or unfair because these outcomes are mostly structural, or are naturally caused.

Modern left-leaning liberals – insofar as they are academically inclined – tend to view inequality as a technical problem that a technocratic solution can ‘solve’ by bringing to bear the forces of state-sanctioned redistributive policies, such as progressive taxation, welfare and social programs, and international aid and finance initiatives. This is appealing to many as it is aspirational as well as scientific and administrative, and to their mind, therefore respectable.

This type of solution, however, is made from within the umbrella of liberal democracy, that is more or less accepting of the market order. This is a view that is increasingly under attack. The further leftward we go, the more we see that the problem is endemic to markets and liberal democracy itself, and the solution lies in some form of collectivism. This view has always struck me as odd, since prior to the advent of capitalism and modernity, poverty – of the material kind – was unquestionably worse. As a counter, it is sometimes said that pre-agricultural societies were egalitarian, and even that the gap between a feudal lord, a guildsman, and a peasant was not so vast given that access to life-saving and enhancing technologies was not so vast then, as it is today between the rich and the poor. There may be some merit to this view, in that if one takes relative equality in status and wealth to be more important than more freedom, opportunity, and higher standards of living, then this is a more attractive society. However, it is not very helpful to treat values as atomistic entities that can be achieved or realized without considering the impact on other things.

In order to achieve high levels of equality, it is important to have high levels of cultural homogeneity through cross-generational adherence to norms and customs that bind and blind. In order to maintain such high levels of homogeneity, reciprocal interaction is required in order to build bonds and trust, as well as the perpetuation of such a society over time requires small size, and insularity. This makes the potential for conflict with out-groups much higher.

Ancient, tribal and collectivist egalitarian societies were quite violent, controlled their own members by suppressing any upsurge of individuality, and were culturally and technologically static, because change is necessarily a threat to the egalitarian order.

The conservative approach naturally places the emphasis and onus on individuals, families, and communities to care for their own. They see large entities, and formal state bureaucratic initiatives as particularly unsuited to the care of individuals, who have problems unique to their own circumstances. Every person needs a community of peers, friends, and family to rely on, and to integrate or re-integrate people into the community by including them in the everyday activities that make up civic life. Conservatives see state-run initiatives as doubly problematic because they disincentivize local, charitable and private practices of caregiving, as people know and expect some government entity to step in and help, so they don’t have to. Furthermore, such initiatives weakens social ties – the family unit, and the interdependence between friends, and associates in the extended community.

Of course, tight-knit communities can also be smothering, and throughout history there have been many static societies rooted in inflexible hierarchies. Yet, it is always these small groups of people that we know, with whom we share a space, and to whom we owe non-contractual obligations of politeness, respect, and toleration that we spend most of our lives with – even in a globalizing world. In short, conservatives care about the differences between people, but this is tempered by a respect for hard work and values, loyalty to the group of people to which they belong, and the particular individuals in their lives – often in specific, local places.

Another topic that the left and liberals take as their exclusive domain is that of discrimination, toleration, or multiculturalism. Conservatives are often painted as bigoted, misogynistic, xenophobic, etc., compared to an unequivocal, and benevolent acceptance of difference in all its forms. 

Martin Luther King, though not a conservative, best stated what is now the conservative approach to the judgment of another person that best characterizes the justification for a principled approach to acceptance of others, and toleration of difference: that people ought to be judged by the content of their character, and not the colour of their skin. This means treating people for what they do, not on the basis of those contingent features that they possess. Thus, when conservatives criticize radical Islam, multiculturalist politics, and the ‘diversity, equity, and inclusivity’ triad fashionable in progressive institutions of higher learning and certain parts of the corporate world, they are appealing to their values primarily. It is an accidental feature that this means that certain behaviours and practices that are – for whatever reason – found on average among certain groups and types of people are the subject of the criticism.

Some liberals and certainly those on the left – to their credit – rightly note that holding certain values in a principled manner above others means that, when they are acted upon, individuals and groups are affected in different ways, and thus unequally. Their solution to this is to rectify these differences through a number of different initiatives. For material differences, there are the aforementioned redistributive and welfare policies that siphon money and resources away from some to give to others who have less. For differences in status, there are many initiatives that are designed to change the meaning of words, concepts, and institutions so that they can include more people. For example, the definition of marriage, popular understandings of beauty, good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust, you name it – all have been changed so as to cover more types of action, behaviour, and identity. Furthermore, in this category there are attempts to ensure that groups – as defined by the contingent features of their ethnicity, gender, ‘abilities’, and sex are to be proportionally, or sometimes over-proportionally represented in different areas of society through affirmative action policies that work variously through quotas, preferential hiring schemes. Increasingly, the conferral of special awards and distinctions on the basis of group membership is being done for the sake of ‘justice’. This is especially common in the media and entertainment industries, where it is clear that traditional criteria pertaining to quality are sometimes sacrificed for the sake of intersectional representation.

Conservatives need to do their best not to cave to pressures to signal their ‘progressiveness’, by sacrificing their principles. They need to emphasize that they stand primarily for values, and that the contingent features pertaining to a person’s identity take a backseat to this.

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