Do Liberals and Conservatives Have a Different Understanding of Human Nautre?

I read an article today in a blog called Traversing. I agree with its conclusions about the dangers of economic inequality and an over-emphasis on the financial sector in our current politics, and that these issues should concern everyone, regardless of party.  There was one section of Andrew Hida’s’s article, however, that I disagreed with.  Hida described what he sees as the difference between the liberal and conservative view of human nature.

Liberals tend to have the more trusting view of human nature, proposing that with sufficient nurturance and encouragement in a climate of love and acceptance, free human beings will gravitate to the good and cleave to their better angels. Freedom of conscience is a supreme value, unrestrained by what are often regarded as societal mores imposed by the dominant culture. Modern liberals tend to be relativistic in this regard, and they are either less religious or they embrace religions that emphasize expansive and fluid interpretations of traditional texts.

Conservatives tend to view human nature more darkly, with eternal vigilance required in tending the war between good and evil in society at large and within the human heart. “Law and order” play critical roles in helping to police our darker impulses and help bend them toward the light. Conformity to tradition and prevailing societal mores is a supreme value, with rules seen in more absolute, right-or-wrong terms. Modern conservatives tend to be more religious in general and to embrace religions emphasizing strict adherence to the guidelines espoused in traditional texts.

And then we get to their respective views of the financial world, modern capitalism, and the role of government in its oversight. Now liberals and conservatives both perform 180-degree pirouettes, leading to incessant finger-pointing by both camps that the other is hypocritical in the extreme.

Ah, but to see the beams in their own eyes.

Although people love to point out the “hypocrisy” of conservatives favoring small government except when it comes to moral issues or liberals loving big government except when it comes to social issues, I think this is not a fair way to look at the positions of people aligned with each of these political sides.

Even though our pundits and politicians like to reduce questions to a simple level: “Is big government good or bad?” Most citizens actually see the question with more nuance. We ask: “In what context?”

If you frame a question as “Are human beings in their basic nature good or sinful?” People might give you an answer, and liberal humanists might say “good” and conservatives, especially conservative Christians from denominations with a focus on sin might say “sinful” but most people do understand that human beings are good-bad, with tendencies towards good and temptations to do the wrong thing.

That is to say, neither side “does a 180” because the big underlying question is not “Are people trustworthy or not?” It is “When should people be trusted?”  What is different is not so much a view about human nature as a view about which temptations and behaviors potentially pose the most danger to society.

Conservatives share a strong belief in the virtue self-reliance. You need to earn respect and trust. So if you have shown that you can run a business you have shown that you are self-reliant and have earned trust. You earn trust by behaving in socially normative, respectable ways, working hard, following the rules. Not all conservatives are Christians, but there is a lot of overlap there. The Bible has a strong cultural focus on honor vs. shame. Those who have demonstrated their value by getting (good) educations, “playing by the rules” and acting in morally upstanding ways that demonstrate strong family values earn honor and trust.

Conservatives worry about the people who have not earned trust in this way. So conservatives feel we need external controls on the behavior of the untrustworthy and when that fails we need guns to protect ourselves from them.

When President Obama says something like “people who work hard and play by the rules should have access to health care,” he is appealing to a conservative point of view.

Conservatives are actually quite optimistic about human nature, they believe in the American Dream and think that anyone with ambition and drive can make it. They tend to downplay or even to be unaware of systemic obstacles that might make it more difficult for some people than others to succeed. Anyone can do it!  So conservatives are not inconsistent in wanting control in the bedroom but not the boardroom. Those who misbehave by breaking moral codes have not earned trust and those who succeed have shown they are respectable and have earned trust and can be given more leeway.

Liberals are not hypocritical in wanting to put restrictions on Wall Street, and to have greater control on guns and also to keep government out of religion and our family structures. Hida asked in his article “Can’t rich corporate types be moral, too?” The difference here is not that liberals think that rich people cannot be moral individuals. (Conservatives also think that the poor can be moral individuals.)

Liberals are more aware of systemic obstacles and the danger of people in power rigging systems to their advantage and to the disadvantage of “the least of these.”  Just as a social system might incline an otherwise good poor person to join a gang or get involved in criminal activity, a social system can give incentives to otherwise good rich and powerful people to behave in ways that are detrimental to society– especially if a corporate structure makes a person far removed from the negative consequences of his actions.

Liberals are aware of how moral policing can be a tool of those in power to keep certain people marginalized and to justify other people’s privilege. So being against social control of vice issues and being in favor of policing of the powerful is logically consistent.

The other point here is that only the most extreme ideologues on either side take the view that government/regulation is always the solution or government is never the solution to societal problems. Most people are in the middle with sympathies that align somewhat with their idea of one side or the other.


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