It’s All Absolutely Relative

In his response to The Man Who, DSL very kindly pointed us in the direction of Jonathan Haidt’s article on Why People Vote Republican. *  Haidt parses the issue in terms of five factors:  kindness (not harming others), fairness, loyalty, authority, and purity.  Liberals, he says, put the first two above the others, and may even outright object to paying any serious attention to loyalty, authority, and purity.  Conservatives, while generally accepting of the values of kindness and fairness, put their primary emphasis on loyalty, authority, and purity.  Hence, they keep talking past each other, and, often, the people whose votes they are trying to attract.


I’d like to look more closely at these values.  Liberals believe that loyalty and authority are relative values.  That is, they are no better than the person or entity to whom one is being loyal, or whose authority one accepts.  The “good Germans” who supported Hitler believed very strongly in both those values, and implemented them, often, at great sacrifice to themselves.  The Nuremberg principle that there is sometimes a duty to refuse to obey immoral or illegal orders is a profoundly liberal value.  It may, and as a practical matter usually is, based on a higher loyalty and authority.  Most of the Germans who resisted Nazism did so because of their own religious or political faith.  But weighing loyalties against each other is a liberal project. It begins with the recognition that there are multiple authorities, some of them better or more important than others. 


Conservatives are more likely to see loyalty and authority as absolutes.  “The powers that be are ordained of God.”   The government you have is the government you obey.  The family you have is the family to which you are loyal.  The accidents of your birth determine your obligations in life.  “I was only doing my job,” is not an excuse, it is a justification. 


This exploration is not novel.  As a draft counselor and attorney, I have had to read deeply into the literature of conscientious objection and civil disobedience, which goes back well before the Common Era, and is based entirely on when it is permissible, or even obligatory, to resist unjust authority. 


But the other side of the issue gets less attention.  All of us, to some extent (except real saints), but especially conservatives, believe that the values of kindness and fairness are also relative values.  We tend to reserve our kindness, and even our fairness, for the people we regard as Good Guys.  Cop shows are especially clear about the importance of treating Good Guys well and Bad Guys badly.  A large part of the law-and-order arguments against liberalism is based precisely on this principle.  So were American operations in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and the behavior of almost all military forces against enemy civilians and prisoners.  This is a natural human tendency, of course, even among liberals.  Note that liberal feminists have lately been as censorious of Sarah Palin for going back to work three days after the birth of her youngest child as Phyllis Schlafly could ever have been.


But  the liberal ideal is the one most famously enunciated in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 5:   

“43You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[h] and hate your enemy.’ 44But I tell you: Love your enemies[i] and pray for those who persecute you, 45that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?”

Our kindness and fairness, Jesus tells us, should be absolutes, imperative at all times toward all people.


As we know all too well, nobody preaches against what nobody does.  Jesus would not have had to say what he said if we were capable of behaving with absolute and impartial kindness and fairness all the time. 


Haidt is himself engaged in a liberal project—trying to understand Other People in terms of their own values.  In doing so, he points out to his fellow liberals the merits of conservative values, and the usefulness of taking them seriously in political discourse with The Other Side.  But he misses the relative/absolute axes of both liberal and conservative values. 


A couple of afterthoughts: I’m not even going to try to deal with the purity issue in this post. It deserves an essay of its own, which may follow later.  And, while Haidt has inspired me to be more sympathetic to conservative values, I still think that people who believe kindness and fairness should be reserved only for the Good Guys, while they may well be good human beings and clear thinkers, should not be claiming to be followers of the man who enunciated the Sermon on the Mount.


Red Emma

* Nobody seems to have done any serious research on the other conundrum in American politics, the fact that most American Jews “earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.”  [The Puerto Ricans, of course, don’t vote at all in US elections unless they move to the mainland, but I digress.]  In both instances, some Americans appear to be voting against their own material interests, based on some ideological factors which apparently trump dollars and cents.  I’m waiting for an exploration of the phenomenon as a whole.

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