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.