Is It Ideology Vs. Humanity?

Surely, humanity stands apart from all ideology and political dispute, both as a vision and a reality. As a species and as a nation, we need to foster the restoration of an ethic of humanity that transcends the competition for power. Facing this prospect, I am particularly concerned with the current tendency of liberals to marginalize conservatives and the converse, whenever either group clan-gathers to hone its myopic vision of the world. Curious, how these terms liberal and conservative survive in our discourse in spite of inadequate definition. Or is their wide currency a product of the ambiguity? Certainly, the words are inconsistent in common application. Think of the journalistic reporting about “liberals” in the former Soviet Union who were pro-capitalist. More recently – within the genetic technology debate, we find liberals and conservatives united on opposite sides of the issues.

A brief aside: In my three decades as a public defender I went out of my way to cultivate human relationships that transcended my criminal defense role (and encouraged my colleagues — with limited success — to do the same). As a result, my professional life was enriched with insights into the humanity and perspectives of those who were arresting and prosecuting my clients, as well as the counselors and support groups that served my client population. An atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding evolved. This was of immeasurable help to the institution I headed for the last decade of my public defense career, particularly during periods of budgetary turmoil.

In a Wall Street Journal column (Dateline 10-27-02), Peggy Noonan, the conservative who wrote President Reagan’s speeches, gave us an authentic human account of her grief at the loss of the passionately liberal Minnesota Senator, Paul Wellstone; the piece was graceful, sincere, and without a word of political analysis or speculation. “It’s sad to lose a good man,” Noonan wrote. “Good for America for raising him; good for Minnesota for raising him to the Senate; good for Wellstone for being motivated by belief and the desire to make our country better.” Putting humanity well ahead of ideology is vital to our survival. All advocates could all do as well as Ms. Noonan.

Repairing a Crippled Dialogue

I attended an interfaith gathering a few years ago, an event whose attendance was conspicuous by virtue of the representation of the “usual suspects.” One of the attendees later made a painfully accurate observation. He said, ruefully, that this was another one of those “liberals talking to liberals things.” Years later, I witnessed brief vignette at a gathering dealing with humanity and technology. A questioner asked whether the panel was aware of any organizations that were engaged in a broader dialogue on the topic that included conservatives. His question wasn’t as pointedly phrased as that, but the import was plain, and the answer was the predictable, “no” followed by a resumption of the regular discussion. I had the image of his implicit point sailing over the heads of the panel (and most of the audience) like a bat in an unlit barn.

What we call liberal and conservative each represent core stances, well rooted in human experience, and valid within particular contexts. These stances are perennial, necessary and complementary elements of an ongoing human dialogue. Each adds a special contribution to human wisdom. In our history of policy and power competition, various theories of human organization have gotten attached to and detached from the underlying core conservative or liberal stances. This process has given rise to constructs like “left” and “right, ” “progressive” or “moderate. ” Various policy clusters, often cobbled together from cooperating interest groups, tend to make up our ideologies.

Yet the ultimate issues of our time transcend all these categories. Consider the latest issue: Will our species succeed in subordinating technology to objectives and goals that actually serve humanity? This, among other questions, is too important to allow the partisans to define for us, let alone to assign us our roles in some outdated political spectrum.

Technology issues are so multifaceted that no single, extant ideology supplies a rational roadmap to good policy. Consider questions like the control of atomic weapons, the possible use of high tech information technology to restrict free expression, the misuse of genetic engineering and psychotropic drugs to alter human nature in ways that may facilitate totalitarian control, and the very personal problems of the preservation of the capacity for reflection and calm in the face of information overload. These looming problems can easily overwhelm our “wisdom bandwidth.” Somehow, we need to cull information from a torrent of raw data, knowledge from our information, and wisdom from our knowledge base. And in the process, we must learn how to preserve our balance and sanity.

The new century has handed us essentially novel issues and they are simply too important to allow the old ideologies to divide us, even for a moment. Humanity has too many potential allies in political and ideological camps that are not now in mutual conversation.

Wisdom and foolishness surface everywhere: among liberals, moderates, conservative intellectuals, and even among the so-called “religious right” (an overused pejorative).

We need many more than “the usual suspects.” Liberals should note in this connection that Francis Fukuyama, a ground breaking academic, (The End of History and the Last Man is his classic defense of democracy), typically associated with “conservative” positions, has written probably the most trenchant and compelling discussion of the dangers of the genetic manipulation of human personality. Also see The Great disruption: Human Nature and the Restoration of the Social Order. Conservatives would do well to heed the rational, humane voices among the environmentalists.

Why So Liberal; Why So Conservative?

Three core stances tend to identify and partially define the core liberal and conservative mind sets. These in turn produce a world filter that colors information and opinion formation about specific issues—


· A presumptive positive value is assigned to human tradition;

· A strong tendency to favor the rule-consequences model for moral issues;

· A predisposition to honor material achievement as a fundamental good.


· A presumptive positive value assigned to relaxing human tradition;

· A strong tendency to favor the accommodation-consensus model for moral issues;

· A predisposition to honor artistic achievement as a fundamental good.

History is full of examples of the flaws and excesses latent within each point of view. In any particular historical context, each mindset, wholly or in part, may contribute wisdom, folly, or both.

Left and Right

The terms “left” and “right” represent an historical overlay impressed on classic liberal and conservative predispositions. In the last century or so, these clusters of opinion have taken on parallel elements that differ in important ways. Again, I’ve limited my observations to the most prominent three.


· Materialist egalitarianism is a presumptive good that defines virtue.

· The societal use of force is appropriate to take away excessive wealth.

· The proper function of foreign policy is to facilitate internationalist regimes that further the first two objectives.


· Materialist accomplishment is a presumptive good that defines virtue.

· The societal use of force is appropriate to defend acquired wealth.

· The proper function of foreign policy is to facilitate co-nationalist policies that further the first two objectives.

We can easily observe two things:

  1. Neither materialist egalitarianism nor materialist accomplishment really define virtue;
  2. Societal use of force should be limited by legal process, itself organized around moral principles designed to protect human dignity. 

I now believe that the ardent and ideologically driven “Left” and “Right” are morally bankrupt. But conservative and liberal remain relevant, though taken separately are incomplete.

The Great Breakdown of Boundaries

Over the last century and a half, the assigned boundaries that help define all these islands of thought have begun to erode in important ways. Some of these are healthy developments, others unhealthy; all present risks. This process will accelerate. Here are three domains where dissolving boundaries are having strong effects:

Moral boundaries….

A negative development: The rise of cultural and moral relativism.

Many on the left have embraced this because it is an acid that dissolves tradition and undermines authority structures, which are perceived to be illegitimate. Ultimately this position is incoherent because, in a morally relativist culture, the way is left wide open for the return of fascism and other atavistic, power-driven regimes. The Weimar Republic foreshadowed this possibility for us.

When we humans operate without overriding universal norms that are agreed to as valid and followed as authoritative, malevolence fills the void: Nazism and totalitarian Marxism were the 20th century’s malevolent exemplars. Amoral power ideologies are usually camouflaged in the language of moral rebellion. This century poses even greater risks than the last because technology is a potential force multiplier for the malevolent mind.

Therefore I believe that moral relativism is profoundly toxic. The restoration of sound moral boundaries rooted in universal principle is the first task of 21st century thought.

Creative boundaries….

A positive development: The acceptance of technology and invention have as legitimate parts of the creative process.

This has blurred the boundaries drawn between creative material and creative artistic achievement. On balance, I see this as a healthy development. The creative process in all its modalities requires a degree of freedom; the creative process in the domain of art has enriched human life; in the domain of technological invention it has enhanced human life, ameliorated human suffering, and holds out the promise of giving us the tools to save the biosphere.

Of course we must face the omnipresent danger that without overriding universal norms technological power will become destructive. So we 21st century humans find ourselves on the precipice of the species-defining question: Will technology be used to change human nature? Without a deep and abiding respect for human dignity, a clear vision of the truly human, and an underlying confidence in universal moral rules, those with power will misuse technology. They will be tempted to alter human nature to fit the need for compliance. Even an unsuccessful attempt at this effort portends an unacceptable cost to the rest of us.

National boundaries…

A pivotal development: The subordination of national sovereignty is a strong trend in the current circumstances, but the modality of that subordination, whether it is for good or for ill, depends again, crucially, on the norms that apply, and whether such norms can reliably be enforced.

I am reminded of the high sounding rhetoric in the UN Charter and in the “constitutions” of some totalitarian regimes of the left. Not only is the “devil in the details” it is in the structure and the underlying philosophy.

Our special country with all her faults acknowledged remains in the upper tier of accomplishment as measured against the world population as a whole in four respects. [This by no means is a claim of perfection, just a general comparative assessment]:

(1) For religious tolerance (by which I mean respect for religion, itself, as well as tolerance among religions);

(2) For the protection of communication freedoms;

(3) For the protection of basic economic freedoms;

(4) For the prohibition of atavistic practices such as the torture of political prisoners, genital mutilation, slavery, and the subjugation of women, just to identify four such evils.

It is impossible to ignore the core human migration pattern. Migration is almost always unidirectional: Toward the safe and prosperous islands in this turbulent world where the core norms of civilization flourish: especially the protection of the law, opportunity for productive employment and peaceful, creative activity. Yet the areas where these things are robustly protected and promoted hold only a minority of the world’s population. People are voting with their feet every day.

Any prospective trans-sovereign regime must be measured by its ability to foster and protect the core norms of civilization. Under the present circumstances, a world regime based on “one regime one vote” would facilitate the regression of civilization, even its suicide. Without overriding universal norms, and appropriately realistic enforcement regimes, the return to patterns of pre-Enlightenment, tribal rule is almost inevitable. The dissolution of national boundaries requires the reestablishment of moral boundaries.

Recovering Our Humanity

In order to hold fast to our core humanity during these struggles, we humans must escape the boundaries of our “ideological clans” and recover the moral boundaries that make true civilization possible. This can’t happen quickly. But we can start by insisting on the observance of certain norms in all our discourse and interactions:

In Our Rhetoric:


A willingness to understand and concede that all policy changes depend on real world forces, that unintended consequences cannot be eliminated, and that “past performance does not guarantee future returns.”

Mutual respect:

A willingness to acknowledge that the discussion about ideas form a common human perspective. Ad hominum personal or even attacks almost always degrade the debate and reduce the capacity to cooperate on matters of common interest.

Authenticity and intellectual honesty:

A refusal to make the arguments you don’t believe in; a policy not to pretend that the issue is practical rather than moral or the converse, and a commitment not to engage in deliberately deceptive ambiguity or promote confusion.

In Our Dealings:


We keep our promises.


We remain willing to laugh at ourselves, at human folly, and to share our common playful side.

Authentic relationship:

We relate to each other on that deeper human level in which policy differences, power competition, and ideology are secondary, even trivial.

A Final Comment

Do you find it as interesting as I do that the six norms of rhetoric and dealings I have outlined seem far stronger in all the small towns and small enterprises I know about than elsewhere? In the larger secular academic circles, back biting and intellectual dishonesty too often prevail. In the more extreme political camps of left and right, posturing, character and ideological assassination are part of the regular playbook.


Why “Conservative” and “Liberal” Are Universal Tendencies

The contrary view (seeing the battle between these competing views of the human condition as an epic struggle between irreconcilable, incommensurate value systems) misses something essential to the human condition: There is the kernel of a universal normative principle operating in each liberal or conservative tendency.

The actual social utility and moral validity of the respective dominant liberal and conservative tendencies in human history has varied era by era as the boundaries in question have captured or failed to capture essential stability points in human development. We humans have traveled from our “short, nasty, and brutish” pre-civilized phase to the “ladder of civilizations” that promises, over time, the realization of the innate potential of our species for greatness. In this journey, we have benefited from boundaries as much as we have been held back by them.

Civilization is our species’ most essential technology. This social technology, more than any single or group of engineering inventions, is responsible for our species’ progress toward realization of the full human potential.

Civilization’s optimum functioning depends on normalizing and preserving a regular and recognized system of peaceful exchange of ideas, goods, services, the preservation of human institutional and cultural memory, and the creation and protection of conditions essential for the promotion of human creative endeavors.

By necessity, human civilization requires the preservation of essential boundaries while allowing arbitrary divisions to melt away, to be replaced by new, more reasonable ones. Thus, in the last two hundred years, civilizations have begun to discard (and in some instances have succeeded in almost erasing) arbitrary social and political boundaries founded in outmoded notions of inherent social superiority based on genetics and gender.

The liberal tendency is strongly associated with this boundary dissolution process, but the histories of the late 19th and early 20th century have supplied us with powerful counter examples. For example, who would now argue the merits of the Chinese “cultural revolution” in which trained physicians, scientists and teachers were compelled to work in farms, or were ridiculed in the public square because of their success? There has never been a time in human civilization in which some individuals were not more accomplished than others or in which some accommodations were not made for those whose skills and efforts were more generally beneficial than others.

At root, the perennial conservative – liberal dialog is always and always has been about boundary issues. For discussion purposes, I have selected fifteen Boundary Issues for further dialogue.

Each division invites us to identify policy and social issues in which the dissolution or retention of the boundary in question makes sense. And the overall exercise invites us to grasp how in each instance the larger context of the division reveals a unifying norm that transforms each of the various boundary disputes into a potentially constructive dialog rather than an irreconcilable conflict.

male – female
adult – non-adult
heterosexual – homosexual
nationalist- internationalist
competent – disabled
personally accountable – circumstance impaired
moral judgment – value consensus
evil – illness
fetus – person
useful innovation – artistic achievement
earned success – unearned success
human being – sentient being
environment as resource – environment as transcendent value
aggressive self defense – accommodation / mediation
generosity as virtue – altruism as duty

Copyright © 2003, 2006 by Jay B. Gaskill

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