A frequent question I hear in Meetups and other forums dedicated to ideas is: why do people assume that the actions of leftists are noble and motivated by morality, while those of conservatives and libertarians are viewed as cynical and immoral?
The answer is that ethics is more fundamental than politics because all political positions presuppose some ethical framework that its advocates seek to realize. Governments institute policies to achieve particular ends, according to what the prevailing ethics espouses.
The fact is that the dominant ethical theory across the entire political spectrum is altruism. Altruism, meaning “other-ism,” is a coin termed by French philosopher Auguste Comte which describes the view that ethical actions preclude selfishness. On the altruist premise, ethics consists in sacrificing your interests to the interests of the group, the community, the nation, the occasional neighbor, or an entity in another dimension. The beneficiary of any action, for an altruist, must not be the person acting. More consistent altruists, such as Immanuel Kant, even go so far as to say that actions cease to have “moral import” to the extent that they are self-interested.
It is important not to confuse altruism with benevolence. Opening a door for someone with full hands or giving up your seat on the train for an old lady are not instances of altruism. Nor it is altruism if you treat your friends to dinner, or cancel and stay home with your sick child if she needs your help. These are not sacrifices but trades, motivated by the fact that one’s resources and time are finite.
The essential difference is that while self-interested people trade lesser values for higher values, altruism demands that people exchange lesser values (or even non-values) for actual values. Such an act is not a trade, but a sacrifice. If you enter a burning building to save your wife because you love and her and would not want to live without her, then it is not a sacrifice to brave the flames to try and pull her out. If, on the other hand, you go in and risk your neck to save your neighbor’s wife, only to let yours burn to ashes, then you have committed a heinous crime against your own life.
Democrats today advocate a mixture of fascism and socialism in their politics, both of which rest on the moral framework of altruism. A politics based on altruism elevates need above all else and cashes in on the fact that people will go to great lengths to help the “have-nots,” as mandated by their morality. When this happens, objectivity and context go out the window, and all that remains is emotionalism based on helping those who are in need.
When leftists advocate taxing the rich, it is altruism that conjures the image of Oliver Twist asking for just a little more porridge, rather than the faceless businessmen who expended their effort to create the wealth in the first place. When leftists hurl invective at police officers for allegedly targeting innocent blacks, it is altruism that sparks the memory of Bull Connor and his hounds, rather than the paranoid cop who is afraid to draw his gun when threatened for fear of being called a racist. When leftists push for a ban on fracking or DDT to stop corporations from despoiling the land, it is altruism that brings to mind Bambi’s mother rather than the millions of people who will die of malaria and insufficient heating oil.
The social justice warriors have moved the needle in this country, and they have done so in a relatively short span of time. It was not too long ago that movies made fun of men dressed as women, and today people who think it odd when full-grown men elect to use the lady’s restroom are made to feel like bigots. It used to be the case that Martin Luther King’s famous quote about the content of one’s character being more important than the color of one’s skin was the essence of anti-racism. Today, Black Lives Matter tells whites that they have privilege because they are white. Then there are the women clad in “pussy hats” who march through New York City, a metropolitan hub for the freest country in history, demanding an end to “patriarchy” while simultaneously calling people “Islamophobic” for criticizing theocratic regimes in the Middle East when they treat women like Sharia Barbie.
Today’s society is a microcosm of what has gone on historically. Institutions dominated by the left assume that socialism is not immoral but impractical and that those who advocate it are idealists who get carried away. According to this view, Ho Chi Minh was not a Marxist zealot seeking to enslave Vietnam under totalitarianism but was a freedom fighter trying to prevent his country from turning into another banana republic. According to this view, Castro may have gone too far in some respects, but he brought health care to Cuba. According to this view, Stalin screwed up what Lenin started, and if only Trotsky or Bukharin were in charge, then we would have had “true socialism” and paradise on earth. I used to know a fellow software developer who told me that he thought communism was ideal, but that people are too greedy and lazy to make it work.
The explanation for all of this is that altruism has provided the left with the moral currency that they need to get their agenda passed. Even those traditionally opposed to the left cannot help but look at the lunatic, vacant face of a former barista advocating for socialism and think: “she is young and naïve and we have the same goals, even though her methods differ from mine.”
This brings me to the conservatives. Many are religious and accept altruism, except that they make allowances for the free market often on pragmatic grounds. Even when they argue that capitalism works better than socialism, they cling to the altruist ethics that lead to a socialist conclusion. A famous example is Adam Smith, who claimed that while individual selfish actions are not moral, they give rise to something that is, in aggregate, moral. One cannot defend capitalism by moral alchemy; nobody but a Machiavellian pragmatist believes that two wrongs make a right.
The conservatives are incessantly put on the defensive because the fundamental debate is moral, not economic and they support the altruist ethics. It was Herbert Hoover, a conservative, who initiated the policies that would later develop into Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” It was Eisenhower, a conservative, that gave rise to the lie that big business was corrupting America’s angelic legislators via something called the “military-industrial complex.” It was Richard Nixon, a conservative, who gave us the EPA and finished off the gold standard. It was Ronald Reagan, a conservative, who introduced the term “social safety net” to the political lexicon. It was George W. Bush, a conservative, who argued that America’s proper foreign policy was to serve other nations and bring them “democracy,” without noticing that democracy is not the American political philosophy. Conservatives had one job: oppose the left, and they failed miserably.
If one wants to oppose the leftist cultural hegemony, one must challenge the ethical framework on which it depends.
Now one might reasonably ask: What does this entail, exactly? Does it mean that we advocate for lying, cheating, and stealing if we reject altruism? Do we promote Nietzsche’s ubermensch doctrine, and cull the weak like the Nazis? Do we laud people like Bernie Madoff, who was able to work the system and get away with it for a long time? No.
The proper ethical position today for those concerned with our political trend is to point out that the current moral debate is a false alternative. The choice is not between sacrificing oneself to others nor sacrificing others to oneself, but whether you are for or against sacrifice at all. Rather than grant that the left is doing the right thing the wrong way, one must assert that they are doing the wrong thing the wrong way.
Since conservatives (and non-leftists generally) have not embraced this, they have failed to gain significant political ground because of it. While leftists are consistent altruists, conservatives are hypocritical altruists, and this is why they always seem to glide along while the leftist agenda continues, unopposed. For those religious conservatives, in particular, Anita Dunn, one of Obama’s communications directors, offered a stark concretization for the left’s dependence on altruism when she remarked that Mao Zedong and Mother Teresa were her favorite philosophers. If you accept Mother Teresa, don’t be surprised when your opponent turns into Mao.