Left is left and right is right,
but when the twain DO meet…
VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – While the left/right model of socio-political analysis is somewhat deceptive in its over-simplicity, it remains a generally useful shorthand for describing the political landscape in very broad strokes. Nevertheless, it would perhaps be more useful to look at the left/right continuum as existing on a crescent as opposed to a straight, flat line, with the extreme ends of the continuum curving downwards and toward one another until they meet. The extreme left – Soviet-style communism, therefore becomes very similar to the extreme right – Nazi-style fascism. So just as the radical fringes of both ends of the continuum become increasingly similar in their determination to control the lives of citizens, the political posture at which the left and right remain the most distinct is at their moderate positions. On a crescent-shaped model, the moderate position of either side is where the left and right are at their greatest distance; at both the centre and the extreme ends, the positions tend to approach one another. When they meet and form a circle, the political zeitgeist is totalitarianism, and left and right becomes a distinction without a difference.
Fortunately, neither the radical left nor the reactionary right, except for a few genuine sociopaths, advocates for the logical extreme of either side. Although the spectrum is more realistically plotted on a crescent than a straight line, the points don’t touch and the two remain distinct.
As the conservatives in North America become more emboldened, they move steadily further to the right and embrace more and more extreme views. In the news and in the media generally, including the blogosphere and social media, the rhetoric, at least, has become so extreme that for most people to compromise and seek some middle ground would necessarily require them to assume a position that, even twenty years ago, would have been seen as borderline fascist.
Looking to the south, we see Barack Obama routinely accused of being a communist by the more vocal right wing; that he is a socialist has become common wisdom to such an extent that the Democratic Party has given up denying the accusation. The truth of the matter is that, had definitions of left and right not shifted so radically, Obama would be seen as a centre-right politician. The centre has moved so far to the right that even right-leaning moderates are now considered by conservative true believers to be unacceptably liberal. The very word “moderate” has, to the new conservatives, become a dismissive epithet.
As the extremism of the right becomes more manifest, it becomes apparent that the parallel disciplines of moral/ethical philosophy and political science begin to overlap. As the favourite meme of the right – that right wing solutions are hard-headed, unemotional, practical ones – is put into play, the need for a moral analysis of those solutions becomes imperative. It becomes imperative because one of the salient characteristics of the doctrine of the right is that decisions ought to be made in practical, unsentimental ways; that is, morality ought to be left out of the equation and pragmatism is the appropriate paradigm for making political judgments. The view from the conservative standpoint suggests that, when making political choices, the truly rational person eschews the softer, sentimental impulses and opts instead to act upon purely practical, bottom line-oriented thinking.
This, of course, highlights the very reason some of us remain committed liberals. For the right, property values are paramount, whereas for the left, human values are where we prefer to focus.
The pursuit, acquisition, and retention of profit is the benchmark by which conservatives measure values, whereas for the informed liberal, that benchmark only has utility insofar as it can act as a measurement of human wellbeing. At its most fundamental level, the contrast between economic conservatives and economic liberals is the difference between property rights and human rights. The problem is that these different paradigms don’t merely represent alternative priorities, hierarchies that are open to examination and discussion. For the new conservative, the benchmark represented by the core value – money – is so fundamental that trying to examine its validity is like trying to understand quantum physics explained in a foreign language.
Both liberals and conservatives, however, seem to forget that there is nothing inherently more emotional or impractical about making political and social calculations with human values rather than property values as the benchmark. It is only a matter of choosing which we, as a society, ought to be striving for; the thinking and reasoning processes are the same. In fact, the zealous inclination to protect and preserve the profits of an individual or corporation is every bit as emotional an impulse as, say, the equally fervent desire to provide a minimum standard of living for the poor. And yet the former is regarded as practical, rational, clear thinking, while the latter is seen as fuzzy, sentimental, and impractical.
It takes only a minor shift in perspective to realise that one can be practical, pragmatic, and hard-headed and yet focus on human values like poverty alleviation, minimum standards of living, universal health care, environmental protection, combatting climate change, access to education, and world peace. In fact, for many people it doesn’t take any shift all; a significant portion of society is employed in occupations that apply practical, pragmatic approaches and thinking to precisely those areas. Nevertheless, in popular discussion, the territory of rational, practical thinking has been ceded to those who advocate for property rights, even by those who advocate just as passionately for human rights.
And this is where moral philosophy comes in. Both sides seem to acknowledge that practical, pragmatic thinking is better or more desirable, at least when seeking to achieve goals; on that issue there is little disagreement. It seems that the crux of the disagreement is the question of just what those goals ought to be. The question of what human goals ought to be is one of the central questions of all moral philosophy, just as how to achieve those goals morally is a central question of all ethical philosophy.
Without getting too deep into the weeds of moral philosophy, it is fair to say that most, and all serious, codes of moral human behaviour, from the religious to the secular doctrines, take the view that those actions that enhance the wellbeing of sentient creatures are inherently moral, and those which diminish that wellbeing are not. And that application of Occam’s razor allows us to offer the following proposition: A left wing political posture is inherently more moral than a right wing stance.
In virtually every instance where a choice must be made between profit and human wellbeing, the conservative choice will be in favour of profit. One need only follow any discussion of an environmentally threatening but profit-generating project. Just as a single example, in an instance where a pipeline that will, on the one hand, displace human beings and degrade the environment, further threaten endangered species, put people and their environment at risk of devastation in the event of an accident, but, on the other hand, will create profits for a corporation, the conservative will invariably argue vigorously for the latter course.
One need only listen to the passion and vehemence in those pro-profit arguments and consider the ad hominem epithets employed – tree-huggers, welfare bums, sheeple – to recognise that there is as much fuzzy, emotional, ideological thinking on the arguments from the right as we are accustomed to hear of in accusations routinely hurled at the left. There is very little clear, dispassionate, unemotional reasoning in those defenses of the conservative’s ultimate value. Nevertheless, even if the arguments were to be rational and devoid of logical fallacies, the position held, insofar as it assumes corporate profits to be a higher value than human wellbeing, would still be wrong. Within those parameters it is easy to see that the position of the conservative is a morally wrong one.
Given the forgoing, what is needed in the left/right debate is an acknowledgment on the part of the right that their arguments are not morally neutral or even capable of being made while dismissing morality as irrelevant. To argue for their fundamental underlying principle of profits over people is not to argue amorally; it is, quite frankly, immoral. The right cannot argue rationally that their views are more rational or that their reasoning is less emotion-laden; or they can, but it’s demonstrably not true. They can only argue that their fundamental values are different from those of the left. And every reasonable moral system in the history of human life on this planet agrees that their values are fundamentally morally inferior to those of the left.