In a recent online debate pitting conservativism against liberalism, Professor Stephen Hicks, advocating for the latter, describes it as “the social philosophy that makes foundational the liberty of the individual in all areas of life — artistic, religious, economic, sexual, political, and so on.” An attractive aspect of liberalism defined in this way is that it appears not to commit to a specific set of values. As Hicks argues:
A government claims and enacts the authority to apply its rules to everyone in a society. Further, it claims and enacts the authority to use physical force against those who break its rules—confiscation, imprisonment, execution. [Consequently], the question of government power requires deep moral thinking. And that is what puts the various ‘isms’ in conflict with each other, as liberalism, socialism, fascism, and so on, bring to their politics different — often fundamentally different — values, value hierarchies, and philosophical justifications for their values.
The liberal answer to the value questions is, of course, to say that liberty is the top political value.Stephen Hicks: “What is Liberalism?”
The liberal approach to government has on this basis been to stipulate that individuals are free to follow the values of their choice but, where a shared value perspective is needed to make things work, it is the role of the state to legislate for this. This formula appears to have worked well over a period of several centuries, allowing those societies which have followed it to prosper relative to more illiberal forms of society. However, we observe that it is premised on the idea that a set of values can be identified which can be considered as “shared”; also on the interpretation of what is “needed.” The challenge that liberalism faces in the 21st century is that the scope of what is considered to be needed is growing, while at the same time the realm of shared values is ostensibly shrinking. As we shall see, when it comes to understanding the reason for these two trends, they are closely connected.
Starting with the second of these challenges, Jonathan Haidt in his 2012 book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Penguin Books Ltd.) classifies the core values which have typically been upheld in human societies under the banner of six Moral Foundations:
- Care (kindness)
- Fairness (proportionality)
The main difference he observes between liberals and conservatives is that the former emphasise the first two of these core values, liberty and care, while conservatives are more likely to be concerned also about the other four. But the apparent coincidence of their both upholding liberty masks a second important difference in that progressive left liberals interpret this as a call to further equality by championing the cause of oppressed minorities, whereas conservatives and classical liberals like Hicks interpret this as engendering the autonomy of the individual.
This I would suggest is problematic for the establishment of a sphere of shared values insofar as it is possible to act in ways which increase equality of outcomes for certain groups experiencing relative disadvantage in society, but which are perceived by other groups as being unfair and causing harm to them and to society more generally, even as curtailing their liberty. For example, we might observe that people who have immigrated to the country recently have much lower wages on average and have difficulty affording accommodation and argue that this should be addressed by providing accommodation for immigrants out of taxes paid by the better off. Arguably such a thing is already happening in the UK and the USA and it has caused a significant backlash, particularly among settled citizens who are struggling to find and pay for accommodation for themselves and their families.
The other challenge to liberalism, that there is “mission creep” in terms of the scope of what is perceived as needed, likewise derives from the tendency of the progressive left to interpret liberty as a call to further equality, but is at the same time something which is intrinsic to liberalism itself, in the classical sense defined above by Hicks. As he goes on to conclude:
Liberalism has been a robust success in the modern world, yet societies are complex and a few centuries is a brief amount of time in political theorizing, experimenting, and institutionalizing. So liberalism is an ongoing project. It is not against conserving previous generations’ political accomplishments, some of which are now traditions, as long as those accomplishments are justified by their liberty-enhancing effects. And it is committed to ongoing reform or the outright abolishing [sic] any still-existing illiberal political traditions.Ibid.
From this we can see how Hicks’ liberalism is potentially destabilised by its intrinsic appetite for challenging traditions which stand in the way of its realising ever more liberty. As James Orr argues in his reply to Hicks:
On the conservative view, liberalism’s preference for individual freedom over the ties that bind the individual to family, community, and nation gradually erodes those ties until the state remains as the sole guarantor of individual freedom, a state of affairs as certain as any to bring about the tyranny that liberalism wishes to avert. The liberal mind constantly tests and questions the limits of what a society can tolerate to the point at which the liberal state must abandon its neutrality and invoke ranking principles for resolving conflicts between the free choices of its citizens, conflicts that arose only because of liberalism’s beguiling myth that the only acceptable limits to freedom are those imposed by positive law. For the conservative, recourse to the legal adjudication of the limits of human freedom is a mark of a dysfunctional moral community.James Orr: A Conservative Critique of Liberalism
Indeed when we go beyond the “classical” liberal position set out by Hicks to consider the more progressive strains of liberalism alluded to above which, under the influence of postmodern theory, identify liberty with the removal of societal obstacles seen as preventing members of certain marginalised groups achieving equality of outcome, we find they are indeed aggressively targeting the Enlightenment foundations of Western society in an effort to undermine them. In addition we see precisely the ranking principles alluded to by Orr applied to resolve conflicts by assigning levels of victimhood to disputants in a system referred to as intersectionality and prioritising their grievances accordingly. Douglas Murray, in an excellent and highly accessible recent review of these developments summarises the situation thus:
In a few short decades, the Western tradition has moved from being celebrated to being embarrassing and anachronistic and, finally, to being something shameful. It turned from a story meant to inspire people and nurture them in their lives into a story meant to shame people. And it wasn’t just the term “Western” that critics objected to. It was everything connected with it. Even “civilization” itself. As one of the gurus of modern racist “anti-racism,” Ibram X. Kendi, put it, “‘Civilization’ itself is often a polite euphemism for cultural racism.”Douglas Murray., The War on the West: How to Prevail in the Age of Unreason (Harper Collins, 2022), p. 8.
Hicks himself recognised this problem over a decade ago when, in his book on the subject, he explains how from a postmodernist perspective:
All decisions are inherently subjective and driven by preference and politics. The law is a weapon to be used in the social arena of subjective conflict, an arena driven by competing wills and the coercive assertion of one group’s interests over those of other groups. In the West, for too long the law has been a cover for the assertion of white male interests. The only antidote to that poison is the equally forceful assertion of the subjective interests of historically oppressed groups.Stephen R. C. Hicks. Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Ockham’s Razor, 2011), p. 26.
Postmodernism, therefore, is a comprehensive philosophical and cultural movement. It identifies its target— modernism and its realization in the Enlightenment and its legacy— and it mounts powerful arguments against all of the essential elements of modernism.Ibid., p. 31.
So where does this leave us? In terms of values held in common between those whose thinking is embedded in the politics of the traditional conservative/liberal divide and those of the modern progressive left, we identify only kindness. The other main value, liberty, of the progressive left, when viewed through a postmodern prism has an interpretation quite different from that given it in earlier political traditions and is in the process converted from a pursuit of freedom to a pursuit of equality of outcome, in particular between historically marginalised groups and the mainstream. The elevation of other virtues such as fairness (proportionality), loyalty, and respect for authority and sanctity is generally problematised by postmodern critical theory as potentially standing in the way of its pursuit of equality and social justice.
In other words, there is very little left of values held in common. But the difficulty is compounded here by the postmodern language games employed by the progressive left to impose their agenda on an unwilling audience, turning political arguments into moral ones, by suggesting that anyone who does not support their agenda and subscribe to the underlying ideology which they claim is promoting the interests of oppressed victims of power structures in society thereby makes themselves a part of those power structures, so morally culpable. As Hicks concludes:
In a conflict that cannot reach peaceful resolution, the kind of tool that one wants is a weapon. And so given the conflict models of social relations that dominate postmodern discourse, it makes perfect sense that to most postmodernists language is primarily a weapon. This explains the harsh nature of much postmodern rhetoric. The regular deployments of ad hominem, the setting up of straw men, and the regular attempts to silence opposing voices are all logical consequences of the postmodern epistemology of language.Ibid., p.194
In this way the progressive left are increasingly able to impose standards of political correctness, silence critics and avoid having to persuade anyone of the rightness either of their ideology or of their moral/values agenda. Political discussion is in this way curtailed and replaced by a one-dimensional moral discourse about what best promotes equality and social justice, policed through dissenters being subjected to “cancel culture.” Naturally this provokes a backlash from conservatives who feel there is no space in the political sphere for them to express their distinct values, the result being “culture wars” where neither side is really listening to each other’s political arguments but each is more interested in impugning the other morally, either by claiming that what they are proposing or doing violates my values or else by making ad hominem criticisms about their private life, comments made on social media, etc..
At this point, if you see yourself as a conservative-minded person, you may be thinking that there is not much scope to find common ground with the value system of the progressive left. But wait, because the scope is about to decrease further! For, when Haidt first introduced the values framework I summarised above, he had just five Moral Foundations. It was only on realising the importance of liberty for both conservatives and liberals that he added it in (noting at the same time the differences of interpretation between the various political camps). But, while the first five were selected by “analyzing lists of virtues from around the world” (op. cit., p. 122, emphasis added), the last was added retrospectively to a list of derived “Moral Foundations”. Notice here that liberty is not a virtue that we embody personally, whatever definition we choose to give to it, but something that we look to see embodied and maintained in society, which is perhaps the reason it was overlooked originally by Haidt. While support for liberty can be portrayed for conservatives and classical liberals as encompassing a belief in tolerance as a virtue, this is not the case for the progressive left whose intolerance of those who oppose their political agenda is well documented, inter alia by Douglas Murray (op. cit.) and Andrew Doyle in The New Puritans: How the Religion of Social Justice Captured the Western World (Constable, 2022) and is a phenomenon I have myself remarked upon in Is “Woke” the New McCarthyism? and Counting the Cost of Social Justice.
So the attainment of liberty for progressive left liberals is more a cause we espouse than a virtue we look to embody; which means the only remaining virtue of significance for them is care (kindness). It is not surprising, therefore, that they invariably portray conformance with their agenda of promoting the interests of oppressed victims of power structures as “kindness”; and that they seek to treat conformance with or expression of support for their agenda as a demonstration of moral virtue, while any resistance to conformance is portrayed as moral deficiency, fuelled (as it must have been) by racism, homophobia, misogyny, Islamophobia, etc., in addition of course to a lack of kindness.
It may appear that the picture I have painted here is a bleak one. But to the extent that I am right in my diagnosis that the intractability of political discourse in the present age is due to a dearth of common values, and more specifically a lack of diversity in the values perspective of the progressive left, then it is better to acknowledge this and look to deal with it, rather than ignoring it, in a mistaken hope that common ground might yet be found. If greater common ground is to be found between liberals and conservatives, it is the latter group who must establish it and look to defend it, challenging the former’s monopoly on the idea of what constitutes “kindness” and enriching it by offering a more diverse palette of values and virtues allowing a more inclusive moral debate.