What’s the Difference Between Liberals and Conservatives? The Moral Dimension

Posted: September 7, 2015 | By: Dennis Goldford Tagged: About the Caucuses


By Dennis J. Goldford, Harkin Institute Flansburg Fellow

Professor of Political Science, Drake University

Liberalism and conservatism, I said in my last post, have both a moral and an economic dimension. There is thus a moral liberalism and a moral conservatism, and an economic liberalism and an economic conservatism. Explaining the moral dimension of liberalism and conservatism is my task in this post, and their economic dimension in the next.

Unfortunately, I have to note at the outset that explaining the distinctions between the moral and economic dimensions of liberalism and conservatism is complicated in the following matter. While moral liberalism and moral conservatism exist within two distinct philosophical worldviews, economic liberalism and economic conservatism exist within only one of those worldviews.

That is, the argument between moral liberalism and moral conservatism is an argument between two different philosophical worldviews, but, as we will see in the next post, the argument between economic liberalism and economic conservatism is an argument wholly within one of those worldviews—liberalism.

Thus, when I noted in my previous post that the Reagan coalition brought together moral conservatives, who oppose moral liberalism, and economic conservatives, who oppose economic liberalism, the term “conservative” actually has two different meanings. That is the complication in understanding the various dimensions of the terms.

(This is not unlike the sports situation years ago in St. Louis, when referring to “the Cardinals” could mean referring to the MLB baseball team or to the NFL football team [before the latter moved to Arizona]. It was the same name, but two different teams in two different sports.)

Therefore when we want to talk about the moral dimension of liberalism and the moral dimension of conservatism, we have to remain alert that, unlike the case with their economic dimensions, we are indeed speaking about two very different philosophical traditions.

What, then, are those fundamental differences? Moral conservatism, which we now often call social or religious conservatism, derives from what is called traditionalist or organic conservatism. In the history of Western political thought, this philosophical tradition tended to support monarchy or aristocracy, and it very definitely opposed democracy as a form of government.

Conservatism in this classical sense would reject the principles of the Declaration of Independence—natural rights, government founded on the consent of the governed—principles that define the American political tradition. In particular, classical conservatism rejected the fundamental principle of the Declaration that all men are created equal, and instead affirmed the idea that human beings were born as members of distinct social classes. For example, when the Constitution refers to “We the People,” we always think that “the People” means all of us—everyone, regardless of wealth, status, race, religion, and so forth. In classical conservatism, to the contrary, “the people” were not everyone, but instead a particular social class distinct from royalty and the aristocracy.

For this reason, classical—i.e., traditionalist or organic—conservatism has always been at least problematic in American politics; no one here seriously supports monarchy or aristocracy, or opposes at least some version of democracy. Therefore, the focus of moral conservatism in the American tradition is not the individual but society or the culture conceived as a moral community. As the term suggests, the principal value commitment of moral conservatism is to the idea of virtue, and the role of government is to create conditions in which people can be good.

Conservative commentator George Will was writing from inside this moral dimension of conservatism when he published a book long ago titled Statecraft as Soulcraft. On this view, the role of government is to endorse and even enforce a moral or religious orthodoxy, for government from this perspective is concerned with our character or, in more religious terms, the state of our soul. Law necessarily expresses a moral vision, which is necessary to bind us together as a people and lend legitimacy to our government. This is the basic position of religious, and especially Christian, conservatives in contemporary American politics. For an example of this, see the remarks of Mike Huckabee at the Family Leader Summit in Ames, Iowa, on Saturday, July 18, 2015.

The role of government in the framework of moral conservatism, then, is analogous to that of the clergyman: he or she is concerned with the state of our soul. By contrast, in the framework of moral liberalism, the role of government is analogous to that of the sheriff. If you recall the sheriff in old Westerns, he had nothing to do if he walked down the street and saw no one robbing a bank or assaulting someone. The sheriff was concerned not with your soul, but with your behavior; as long as you don’t club someone over the head, whether or not you are a good person is not the sheriff’s concern.

This contrasting perspective exists because the moral dimension of liberalism is different from moral conservatism. Whereas the focus of the latter is on society or the culture, and the role of government is to promote virtue, the focus of liberalism is on the individual, and its principal value commitment is to the idea of freedom. The role of government in this latter view is to create conditions in which the individual can be free to pursue her values and interests as she sees fit, insofar as that is consistent with everyone else having the same right. For moral liberalism, the role of government is not to endorse or enforce any moral or religious orthodoxy beyond the commitment to individual freedom.

Such a commitment itself expresses a moral vision, but one that recognizes that reasonable people can hold quite different moral and religious views. Put differently, we can say that both liberalism and conservatism see any legal system as resting on and expressing a moral vision, but where conservatism argues further that any moral vision must rest on a religious commitment, liberalism argues that a moral vision can and must exist independently of religious commitments, because all such commitments are inherently sectarian. Moral liberalism is committed to the idea of neutrality, a not uncontroversial concept, but that commitment is a moral commitment grounded in the value of individual freedom.

The argument over abortion and abortion rights is a perfect example of the contrast between moral liberalism and moral conservatism. People supporting abortion rights call themselves pro-choice because they say that there is no objective, non-religious or non-sectarian way to settle the question of whether a fetus has the moral status of a person. For them, what matters is not what choice is made, but who makes the choice, and they ascribe that choice to the individual woman based upon her own conscience and the advice of people she trusts. This position is one of moral liberalism because there is no standard higher than the individual conscience of the woman involved.

Moral conservatism disagrees. As their self-designation suggests, people that are pro-life argue that because abortion is objectively evil, what matters is not who makes the choice, but rather that the right choice be made. From this point of view, it would be nice if every woman knew the difference between the right choice and a wrong choice, but government—the law—must intervene in case she does not. This view is moral conservatism in that it appeals to the existence of a moral standard that is higher than and, if necessary, trumps the individual conscience of the woman involved. Moral conservatives oppose abortion rights because they oppose abortion itself.

For moral conservatives, it is the duty of government to protect and promote this higher moral standard, and in the caucus process here in Iowa we see this moral conservatism at work in such gatherings as the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition candidate forum at Point of Grace Church in Waukee this past April 25, 2015, and the Family Leader’s Family Leadership Summit at Stephens Auditorium in Ames this past July 18, 2015.

While liberalism and conservatism have an economic meaning for these organizations, it is the moral meaning that is primary. Take the case of prostitution. Apart from concerns about exploitation and coercion, moral liberalism would consider sexual services a market commodity no different in principle from any other commodity—goods and services—subject to sale. For the moral conservative, certain things are simply wrong per se and should not be bought and sold.

For the important sake of clarity, therefore, when someone says, “I’m a conservative,” you need to ask, “In the moral sense, the economic sense, or both?” Bear in mind that it would be difficult to find a person who is purely one or the other.

I will turn to the economic dimension of liberalism and conservatism in my next post.