Liberal’s Moral Dilemma

We liberals are not as moral as we might think. Worse yet, conservative America has just voiced their belief that the Republican Party has the corner on morality. Certainly, most liberal readers of this document will wonder how I could possibly suggest that conservatives are more moral than liberals. Well, it depends on the definition of morality, and to some degree ethics.

I recently read The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor who integrates psychology, morality, religion, and politics. Importantly, he has been a lifelong political liberal and served for a time on the Bill Clinton staff. I was put onto this book by the editor of The Week, a center left periodical that remains a mainstay of my weekly reading. Haidt admits that he found himself dragged kicking and screaming to a very important understanding of how morality is at the core of our current political divide. He comes to the painful conclusion that many Americans, not all of them conservatives, find the liberal moral platform lacking. His conclusion is based on a brilliant examination of the concept of morality, an examination that in a broad definition of morality liberals are found surprisingly wanting.

Haidt proposes that morality has five, or perhaps six pillars: (1) care, (2) fairness, (3) loyalty, (4) authority, and (5) sanctity, possibly adding (6) liberty. Simply put, liberals value care most and fairness next, while conservatives value authority, sanctity, and loyalty. Liberals give lip service to these last three values, but frankly not much, while conservatives give lip service to care and fairness, but not much. We liberals think we have the corner on the market of morality because of our care/fairness orientation. What could be more moral, we think, than taking care of the needy and giving everyone a fair chance at success and life satisfaction? What we have seen in the recent election should wake us up to see that we do not have such a corner, and more importantly, morality, and to some degree ethics, is much broader than care and fairness. This is, so I believe, how the Republicans have taken over so much of the country recently: they have cornered the market of morality, or perhaps more accurately, they have taken over at least three of these five corners leaving Democrats to cry in our wine about how immoral these Republicans are.

Let me look a bit closer at this concept of morality. Take, for instance, the concept of authority. We might think that Hillary spoke with authority, which she certainly did, but she did not speak as an authority, nor did she speak as someone who would use her authority as President. Donald Trump, for all his brashness and profound narcissism, spoke as an authority and spoke of using this authority as soon as he would gain office. Yes, there are significant dangers of being the authority and abusing authority, but we must admit that it is attractive to many Americans, not just conservatives, to have someone speak of setting things right with authority, however impossible it might be to do so. How silly it was for Trump, following Scott Walker and other Republican candidates to speak of doing something “the first day in office” but it was attractive to many people. These people felt a certain safety in the fact that finally someone would just do the right thing even if it offended many people.

Of course we, as liberals, might challenge what is right to do and whether a President even has the right to do the so-called right thing, but that doesn’t matter to people who daily hear of the danger of ISIS, the lack of healthcare for millions of Americans, and the exploding national debt. People just want the magic bullet that will cure these ills, and Trump provided it for them. We can complain that Trump was elected by “uneducated white males,” but this minority of Americans was not the only element in his victory. It is too easy for us to sit back and wine (sic) that people should have known better. We need to see what Republicans and other conservatives are saying about morality, particularly about the value of authority. My favorite President, Republican Theodore Roosevelt, “carried a big stick” in many ways, spoke and acted with authority but was more progressive in many ways before his time. His Democrat cousin FDR also spoke and acted with authority and not always within the rule of law. He just did the right thing with lend lease and other measures to subvert the liberal pacifism of the 1940’s. Kennedy acted with authority, often against a significant element in his own party fighting for racial equality on the one hand, and with the threat of war against Russia during the Cuban missile crisis. Liberals have forgotten the value of moral authority and focused on care and fairness.

The majority of Americans might give lip service to care and fairness, but the larger majority want the freedom to do what they think is right. The hallmarks of the Clinton campaign has been on these two laudable elements of morality. Unfortunately, most Americans care less about care than they do about the freedom to do what they want to do. I am fully behind a woman’s right to “care for her own body” (freedom to choose abortion) but most Americans don’t care much about this element of morality. Clinton also focused on the fairness element of morality speaking frequently and wisely about the great and increasing disparity between rich and poor in this country. So why would most under-waged Americans vote for Trump the billionaire? Because he said that everyone could be a billionaire if government would get out of the way and let them do what they want to do. Thus, the focus of the Clinton campaign was on this fairness element of morality while Trump trumped the other moral element: freedom. Which is more attractive to the person on the street, if we dare to admit it? We can complain that the freedom element can lead to narcissism so clearly displayed by Trump, but if it is a choice between what I have and someone else needs, we will always go with the first…and then hopefully the second.

Not only have Republicans garnered the corner on authority and freedom, they have added the sanctity element suggested by Jonathan Haidt. I find it truly remarkable that such a despicable person such as Donald Trump could secure the majority of evangelicals and many other peole with lesser strict religious convictions. The only vaguely religious element in his campaign was his exaggerated talk about “tearing babies out of the womb.” Otherwise, he was almost completely devoid of anything objectively religious. But we must consider that his statement about restricting Muslims coming to America, and perhaps even his threat of deporting 11 million Latinos seemingly spoke to a kind of sanctity, namely the sanctity of our allegedly Christian nation. As a recovering Christian fundamentalist, I recall the safety and sanctity of the absolutes that fundamentalism of any kind provides. Note the success, if we call it that, of ISIS based on similar absolutism. But aside from Trump, the Republicans have made great hay in espousing quazi-religious elements in their programs over the recent decades. I found it interesting that in her concession speech Clinton used a biblical reference, but never before in her campaign. Rather, she spoke of fairness and care, but little of the religious element. There is a strong element among liberals to belittle much that is religious, often for good reasons, but not with an understanding that sanctity is very important to Americans, including those who rarely darken the doors of church.

So I close with the suggestion that we liberals need to be more moral, or perhaps more broadly moral and understand the sanctity, authority, and freedom corners of morality finding value in these pillars. Authority is not authoritarian, freedom is not licentiousness, and sanctity is necessarily theistic.