Saturday, January 08, 2005

Liberalism and Conscience

To me, being a liberal means giving primacy to the conscience of the individual. I know that this sounds like I'm just saying "We're the good guys!" Everybody thinks that their side is the "good guys", so it's pointless to make such a claim (except as preaching to the choir). However, I think that while everyone thinks of themselves as the good guys, not everybody thinks that they are good in the same way.
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Giving primacy to conscience means two things: (1) Conscience is the ultimate arbiter of whether something is good, moral, just, and (2) moral training consists of honing one's sense of conscience---becoming more sensitive to injustice and to the suffering of others.

I believe that this is very different from the way most conservatives think about morality. (If any conservatives are reading this---which I doubt, since as far as I know, I only have about 3 readers so far---please correct me if I'm wrong about this.) I think that conservatives are more concerned with teaching the rules of moral behavior, and they distrust or even disdain conscience. Some examples of conservative ridicule of conscience: In the old days, the epithet for liberal was "bleeding heart". That is making fun of the liberal's tendency to be guided by his or her heart. A more modern term of derision is "tree hugger". Obviously, having pangs of guilt about the human destruction of the environment is evidence of foolish sentimentality.

The conflict between liberal and conservative notions of morality is most stark in the case of religion. In spite of recent talk that associates conservativism with religious faith, I really don't think that conservatives are any more religious than liberals are. But there is a difference in their relationships to religion. Conservatives tend to think that morality derives from their religion. Liberals who are religious don't think that. Instead, their morality is something inner which they turn to religion to give outward expression to.

A couple of examples: First, there is the issue of homosexuality. To many liberals, denying someone's basic humanity or their rights as citizens or religious observers on the basis of sexual orientation is just wrong. And it really doesn't matter to them if you can find quotes in the Bible condemning homosexuality---their sense of morality doesn't come from the Bible. That doesn't mean that liberals reject the Bible or reject the teachings of Jesus, but that the morality comes first: The Bible is holy because of the morality of so much of its teachings, rather than the teachings being moral because they are in the Bible.

Another case is the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac (Yes, it's probably unfair of me to analyze this in terms of liberal/conservative, since it reflects the sensibilities of a people 3000 years ago that can't fit in modern terms). Abraham was told by God (or some Angel claiming to speak for God) to take his beloved son, Isaac, up into the hills and kill him as a sacrifice to God. And Abraham went along with this hideous request. (For those who haven't read the story, it turns out okay in the end...)

From the point of view of many religious people (and I would tend to think that these would be religious conservatives), Abraham was showing amazing religious faith and moral courage to obey God even when his heart told him to do otherwise. But as a liberal, I'm outraged by Abraham's wimpiness. If God told me to kill my child, I'd say: Screw you, God! Conscience for me is primary, even over the will of God.

This actually relates to some Socratic dialog---maybe someone more educated than I am could help me identify which one. Socrates acknowledges (for the sake of argument, at least) that the will of the gods is good. But then he asks: Is it good because it is the will of the gods, or is it the will of the gods because it is good? The liberal and the conservative may have different answers.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you are wrong about the conservative idea of conscience and the genesis of 'bleeding heart'. The conservative idea of conscience and the sneering smear 'bleeding heart' are both related to the idea that the conscience ought to be a head AND heart thing not just an emotional heart thing. A 'bleeding heart liberal' (from the conservative perspective) listens to his emotions too much without taking time to think the consequences of acting all the way through. This leads to things like life-long dependency on the welfare system or the idea that pacifism might be a workable response to a dictator. (Please not I'm not forcefully adopting these positions, just tyring to explain a mindset). So, to take your definition as interpreted by conservatives, part 2) would be: moral training consists of honing one's conscience by becoming more sensitive to injustice and the suffering of others while always remembering that attnetion to short term emotional remedies can make things worse in the long run.

That is where the rules often come in (though they are also often overdone). When well crafted, the rules can remind your intellect when it ought to rein in your heart. Like most things, it works well when in balance but can get ugly when not in balance.

I think the difference in outlook is most often starkly revealed in the punishment context. Mercy is laudable, but as CS Lewis said it is like a beautiful flower which grows well only on the mountain peaks of justice. When removed from its proper environment it can choke the life out of everything around it.

Sebastian Holsclaw

Sebastian Holsclaw

2:34 AM  
Blogger Daryl McCullough said...

Hi, Sebastian!

Yes, I have heard people comment about the head versus heart thing, but I don't actually think that on many liberal versus conservative issues, there is any more though on the part of the conservative position. Instead, the conservative position is generally more tough-minded, which doesn't always mean better thought out. For example, opposing the death penalty, supporting gay rights, protecting the environment. I don't think that there isn't anything more thoughtful about the conservative positions on these topics.

7:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not promising that the positions are better thought out. I'm suggesting that the rhetoric about conscience runs differently than you were explaining. I think the death penalty is a perfect example of this. Many conservatives would say that the bleeding heart is acting emotionally when opposing the death penalty because it is icky. That response needs to be overridden by the mind. It isn't a good argument of course. But I think much of the discourse operates on that level.


10:10 AM  

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