The Left and Right: An Important Difference

I’d like to take a moment to express what I think might be an important difference between rightist and leftist ideology. The difference highlighted in this post might be obvious to some, but, given that the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ are so often used nebulously, I have a feeling that for others, this difference might not be so obvious.

Before pointing out the important difference between the political right and the political left, it might be worth mentioning what they seem to have in common. It seems to me that, wherever on the political spectrum one falls (if one has at least some general moral intuitions), one generally desires economic, political, and social relations that do more good than harm to society. That is, when agent A (e.g., you, me, Sandy, Bob) chooses act x (say, voting for Obama or advocating for more government regulation of the food industry) over act y (say, voting for Romney or advocating for deregulation of the food industry), A probably thinks that act x will produce a better outcome than act y. Whether an agent is a rightist or a leftist, he will, I think, attempt to promote the good more often than not.

Of course what ‘the good’ is can be parsed out in different ways–the upholding of duties, the maximization of overall happiness, etc. So, while it’s safe to say that regardless of political preference, one desires the promotion of the good, how one understands what ‘the good’ is, will, in a lot of ways, determine one’s political leanings. Rightists, it seems, identify the good with something like (economic) freedom or (economic) power; leftists identify the good with something like equality or justice.

Now, if what I’ve said is correct, one might conclude that rightists care less about equality or justice than they do about freedom and power. This might be true in some cases, but, I think quite often, rightists believe that equality and justice will come about as the direct consequence of actions performed by agents who have maximal freedom and/or power. That is, rightists think that the set of choices that promotes freedom and power (set A below) is either (a) equal to or (b) almost equal to the set of choices that promotes equality and justice (set B below). In diagram form, if we let sets of choices be represented by circles, rightists seem to think that set A and set B are (a) represented by the same circle–as in the first diagram– or (b) are almost entirely overlapping–as in the second diagram .

Leftists, I think, have in mind a very different picture. A leftist, in my mind, thinks that the set of choices that promotes freedom and power is not coextensive with the set of choices that promotes equality and justice (third diagram), and further, when faced with a choice between act x and act y, one ought to choose the act that promotes equality and justice.

This difference is an important one for at least two reasons. First, it puts on display that, more often than not, values are just as much a part of our political reasoning as facts. Often, claims made in political discourse are put forward as factual claims when, really, they are quite value laden. Noticing this can help move discussion away from blame (i.e., blaming ‘the other side’ for not knowing the facts) and toward a clearer discussion of how values (along with facts) inform our decisions.

Second–and here’s where I expose, to some extent, my own political leanings–it seems to me that rightists, if I’ve understood them correctly here, have a harder justificatory battle to fight than do leftists. Since rightists believe the claim that freedom and power will, as a direct consequence, promote equality and justice, they need to justify that claim (i.e., they can’t just state it; they need to have an argument for it). But I think that that claim is actually quite difficult to justify; in fact, there seem to be a slew of counter-examples. For 0ne such counter-example, consider climate change. In accordance with the overwhelming majority of research, it seems safe to conclude that: (1) free market ideology, utilized by the US and Europe, has permitted the excessive burning of fossil fuels and has had (and will continue to have) an effect on the global climate; and (2) those who will be negatively effected by climate change are not necessarily those who have caused climate change. An often cited example of (2) is sea level rise on the coast Bangladesh–many scientists predict that, as a result of climate change, sea levels will rise enough to have serious negative impacts on the 20 million people living in costal areas of Bangladesh (many of whom live in poverty). Further, it is certainly true that Americans and Europeans have contributed to climate change (and consequently sea level rise) much more so than Bangladeshis have.

This climate change example seems to pose a serious problem for rightists; it seems to me that a rightist, if committed to the claim that the set of choices that promotes freedom and power is the same set (or almost the same set) as the set of choices that promotes equality and justice, must hold that the suffering of Bangladeshis caused by sea level rise (which, in turn, is caused by free market choices in the US and Europe) is a just outcome. But, on most theories of justice, I presume, this scenario is unjust. I am certainly open to there being a satisfying solution to this problem, but I have yet to hear of one. Of course one such solution for the rightist might be to deny that the set of choices that promotes freedom and power is the same set (or almost the same set) as the set of choices that promotes equality and justice. But then it seems to me that they must explain why economic freedom and power is more important than equality and justice. It’s not obvious to me that that is the case.

As a child, my grandfather told me that there are two things that one does not discuss during a civil meal: politics and religion. Presumably, the reason is that these discussions will always end with anger due to rightists thinking leftists are ‘out of touch with the facts’ and vice versa. But, I think that if one realizes that the difference between rightists and leftists is driven by values–rather than by one side being ‘out of touch with the facts’–than I think it leaves the possibility for more clear and civil discourse. And, especially since it’s an election year, clear and civil discourse would be nice.



Filed under Ethics, Philosophy, Politics

4 responses to “The Left and Right: An Important Difference

  1. Patrick Rogers

    Hey Brian,

    Couple of thoughts – overall I think you are spot on, but there are a couple of issues worth pointing out. The first is that you’ve assumed a definition of preference (ie agent A prefers option X to Y) as judgements of well-being, which is certainly one way of defining it. But an equally valid, and under some definitions of rationality, necessary, alternate definition is simply that A prefers X to Y if and only if he/she systematically chooses X over Y (the major difference being there is no assumption that A expects a better outcome or that X is morally superior). This can be the case where agents lack well defined preferences or are uncertain of how to rank preferences (the climate example is great – often an agent is uncertain how to rank options that cost him/her different amounts of money for different amounts of environmental improvements).

    If you are only describing the difference in ideologies then this won’t really matter – you are correct that this seems to be the way rational agents on the left and right ought to think about the divide. You make a few descriptive claims, though, so I’m guessing this wasn’t entirely normatively written.

    But in my experience, with people on both sides, seldom are preferences well-formed. This leads to the second issue worth pointing out – in politics there is often one issue so important to a voter that the rest of a candidate’s views become immaterial (and, by extension, the conception of freedom bringing about equality and justice becomes irrelevant). A couple examples: a friend of mine on the left cares so much about female reproductive rights and health, both domestic and abroad, that she considers little else when picking a candidate. On the right, one need only think of those violently against same-sex marriage (the kind of people who left the Episcopal Church after the first gay bishop was elected).

    Lastly, a rightist might reply to your call for empirical evidence (in support of the claim that freedom and willpower lead to justice and equality) with his/her own call for evidence showing that governments that limit freedoms are capable and likely to promote equality and justice.

    Anyway, enjoyed the post (just saw the link of Facebook this morning); hope everything’s going well! Looks like you’re enjoying Colorado.


  2. Mike McConnell

    It seems that you intentionally left out what is, after all, the general response to global warming on the right: denial. Your explanation does put this into a very nice setting. Since the acceptance of global warming so very clearly disconnects the belief that power and freedom lead to equality and justice, denial becomes very comfortable.


  3. orson2

    SEVERAL things needs be said by reply. First, “…it seems to me that rightists, if I’ve understood them correctly here, have a harder justificatory battle to fight than do leftists.” This is a plausible assertion because politics, in the Aristotelian sense, IS harder to do than other forms of philosophical thought.
    (However, speaking as an environmental scientist writing and researching global warming, your example is false. In fact, the UN claimed some years ago that there would be 50 million “climate refugees” from global warming impacts of water rising around low-lying lands mostly in tropical zones by 2010. What happened instead? Population increased. And the UN took down the web site without an admission or acknowledgement of being wrong.) If true, then the implication stands that leftists try to solve a difficult problem simplistically. SEE
    There is no demonstrated anomalous problem with sea-level rise. SEE PRESENTATION—Heartland-Institute
    To continue with the “climate problem,” the climate is always changing. Before the problem is compellingly established and an effective solution definitive (because it is arguable that benefits of added CO2 outweigh the costs, even for the biosphere itself), we must do what we have always done so successfully – ADAPT [cf, Roger A. Peilke, Jr’s blog,
    But back to your brief. “…I think quite often, rightists believe that equality and justice will come about as the direct consequence of actions performed by agents who have maximal freedom and/or power. That is, rightists think that the set of choices that promotes freedom and power (set A below) is either (a) equal to or (b) almost equal to the set of choices that promotes equality and justice (set B below)” Some do, perhaps – especially likely the utilitarians among us. But many other rightists (eg, those following natural rights theory) would deny it. Instead, they would deny your premise that such outcomes need to be effective for there to be justice. In other words, should ‘justice and equality’ matter as outcomes? No, not as such together. The American legal system, for instance, is not about outcomes but just procedures that ensure no such ‘equal’ outcomes. Umpiring in the game of baseball strives for a fair outcome, but no equal results. From this perspective, these alternatives or ‘ideals’ are nominal, not prescriptive injunctions. The Declaration of Independence asserts that in a State of Nature, we are all “created equal” – not that we are equal (because we are in fact not). Thus, when governments are instituted, we want our justice to be blind (cf, to our actual differences, ie, justice ought to strive to be procedurally ‘fair’ – not ‘equal’ (whatever that might mean).
    A final objection: “…actions performed by agents who have maximal freedom and/or power”? What does this mean? The notion “maximal power” is foreign and strictly anti-Aristotelian. You might benefit from consulting my mentor (and Aristotelian) Kenneth Minogue’s works on ideology. ( A precis to his “Alien Powers: The Pure Theory of Ideology” is contained in the relevant chapter of his popular – and more available – paperback book, “Politics: A Very Short Introduction” (OUP). It is indeed VERY short. Another old professor of mine uses Minogue’s ideas to explain and expound ideology in his textbooks, Terence Ball, “Political Ideologies and the Democratic Ideal” and “Ideal’s and Ideologies.” An hour-long interview with Minogue begins here
    Ideologies are self-insulating, self-protective, and self-perpetuating, and unscientific because they resist falsification. Let us refer back to the global warming problem. The theoretical claim is that the climate system is temperature sensitive to changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide. But over the past 10 to 15 years, while CO2 levels have increased over 5%, global temperatures have risen not at all (as comprehensively and sensitively measured by satellites microwaves).
    What to do about this apparent falsification? Political ideologues will press on in True Belief, defensively. But real scientists will either try to repair the theory or else start to raise obvious questions, such as the author of the updated textbook (“The Physics of Atmosphere and Climate” by climatologist Murry Salby does (SEE his lecture last August–9I& Professor Salby thinks that atmospheric CO2 levels bear no relation to man-made CO2 emissions. If so, the very basis for man-made global warming alarm is wrong.

  4. orson2

    Salby says CO2 levels are driven by changes in earth temperature – not changes in man-made CO2. The theory of anthropogenic climate change maintains the opposite. In his interpretation, the data do not support this theory.

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