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A Collision of Moral Visions


In which it is proposed that the dichotomy between conservative and liberal political ideology is the product of two distinct and contradictory fundamental moral visions.


Charles W. Moore

 Author Notes

Freelance journalist, syndicated columnist, and web publisher based in Nova Scotia. His work has appeared in more than three dozen publications across Canada, in the U.S., and overseas. He is also editor/publisher of the Barquentine Ventures Online Journal and the MacCave Online Journal.

 Essay - 1/29/1998

A major factor fueling the Culture Wars is that people in the post-modern West now inhabit several distinct, often antagonistic, moral universes. This dissonance of moral and ethical vision is so acute that even the framing of mutually intelligible dialogue and debate has become exceedingly difficult. People yelling at each other across the cultural barricades may both be speaking nominal English, even using the same words, but these words very often connote radically different meanings respectively.

“Truth,” for instance, to conservative traditionalists and Christians, means objective reality that exists independently of human thought or consciousness. On the other hand, liberal humanists’ notion of “truth” is something subjective and mutable, existing within private, positive perception and experience. Ergo, for the liberal there could be as many “truths” as there are people to think them, or to make them up as they go along. Given this disparity of definition, the word “truth” loses its functional utility as a term for accurately communicating a mutually-understood concept.

“Tolerance” is regarded by liberal humanists as a primary virtue, while traditionalists argue that tolerance is not, strictly speaking, a virtue at all, and indeed it may sometimes be quite sinful and evil depending upon what is being tolerated. “Discrimination” is held by liberal humanists to be among the most heinous of moral vices, while conservatives consider it to be, in certain cases, a commendable faculty for making fine distinctions and rational judgments (while in no sense denying the wickedness of prejudicial discrimination against persons on the basis of inherent characteristics like race). Even “justice” has profoundly different connotations for liberal humanists and conservative traditionalists respectively, the former emphasizing even results, while the latter advocate equal opportunity on a level playing field.

The disparity in moral and linguistic understanding results more often than not in a dialogue of the deaf between antagonists in the Culture Wars. But what is it that compels individuals to form an affinity for one or the other polar point of view in the first place? Thomas Sowell, an American think-tanker and essayist, proposes an answer to that conundrum in his book, “A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles,” first published in1987 and recently re-issued in paperback, in which he addresses underlying reasons why the same people can virtually always be relied upon to line up on opposite sides of the barricades on seemingly unrelated but contentious issues.

Mr. Sowell maintains that there are two very fundamental modes of looking at the world, which he respectively calls “the unconstrained,” and “the constrained.” These categories don’t really eclipse the familiar “liberal,” and “conservative,” so Sowell hasn’t re-invented the wheel with his theory, but the lib/con designations carry such an accretion of excess baggage these days that it is perhaps useful to clear the air with some fresh terminology.

Anyway, Sowell says that the most significant distinction between these two paradigmatic visions is that the constrained camp perceives and expects the natural order of things to be harsh and difficult, and are more surprised when things go well than when they do not. In this unforgiving environment, the constrained seek systems and methods that will actually work, and regard the existence of any significant degree of peace, prosperity, and comfort as a major and precarious achievement, arrived at only through massive and clever effort.

Conversely, the unconstrained believe that life in an uninhibited state of nature would be inherently pleasant and easy, and that everything would automatically go well if it were not for someone deliberately preventing the realization of utopia through impure and selfish motives. They therefore beat the bushes for reasons why things are frequently unpleasant and difficult, and seek to identify culprits to whom blame may be assigned. The unconstrained believe we have inalienable natural rights to peace, prosperity, justice, fairness, comfort, etc.

This essential conflict of visions goes a long way toward explaining the dialogue of the deaf I described above. Conservatives (“constrained”) endeavour to explain how much discipline, immediate gratification denial, and plain hard work it took to achieve the modest levels of civilization and prosperity we did, while liberals (“unconstrained’) demand that the oppressors be overthrown immediately, clearing the road for a triumphant march into the New Jerusalem. Or as George F. Will once remarked: “Disagree with a conservative and he will call you dense. Disagree with a liberal and he will call you selfish, insensitive, and uncompassionate.”

From the point of view of the "constrained" vision, which this writer subscribes to, the stakes are high--being nothing less than the survival of Western civilization. Unfortunately, most of those who stand to be affected by the outcome of this war are unaware of just how catastrophic that outcome could be if the unconstrained vision prevails, even though malignant consequences of that side’s current advantage are evident all around them. It is very much like the famous frog who, when dropped into a pot of boiling water, immediately hopped out, However, when the same frog was placed in a pot of cool water, and the heat slowly brought up to boiling, he just sat there and cooked.

Western civilization and Western culture were founded in and been sustained by traditional Christianity's constrained view of human nature. That is an inescapable fact that must be assented to by any historically literate person. The kind of advanced civilization we enjoy and have come to take too much for granted could not have developed ( and demonstrably has not developed) outside of a cultural context based in specifically Christian values. Nor can it survive for much longer if it suicidally insists on rejecting constraint and repudiating Christian values.

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