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Keys to the Progressive Kingdom

Observers on the Right frequently say the Left is motivated by a singular drive for power. That’s not entirely correct, and the recent protests, some of which have descended into chaos and violence, provide a useful case study.

Power for the sake of power is not an adequate motivation for most. And it certainly is not an adequate public justification for the pursuit of power. While a few egomaniacs might seek it for its own sake, power is primarily a means and not an end. It makes possible the achievement of other goals. Political and social goals that motivate and inspire tend to have deep moral resonance. Consider the difference between striving to place a man on the moon (a purely technical achievement) and doing so to foil an evil opponent. Or consider the moral power that motivates a struggle for equality, human rights, or justice. The energy of these movements derives explicitly from the perceived moral significance of their goals.

This is an important point: some on the Right have long accused the Left of being morally vacuous, of embracing moral relativism whereby moral categories are merely subjective preferences more or less akin to preferring one flavor of ice cream over another. This is clearly not the case. The modern American Left is nothing if not morally assured. Leftists are moral absolutists when it comes to defending particular versions of equality, including, for instance, marriage equality, genderless restrooms, and the complete equality of sexual identities. They are absolutely convinced that certain rights must be preserved at all costs. The absolute access to abortion is an obvious example. The current protests against police violence aimed especially at people of color, is justified by the moral content of the cause. Protesters are so convinced of the moral rectitude of their demands—that they are on “the right side of history”—that they are quite willing to silence or destroy their opponents in order to achieve their goals.

Here we encounter the first of several curious tensions. The moral energy of the radical Left depends on the residue left over from a repudiated Christian past. How can that be? Consider: The language of human rights is only coherent if each human person possesses moral value ultimately rooted in a divine order. This intuition is expressed in the familiar words of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Humans possess rights because each human possesses God-given moral value. Decouple the language of rights from this theological foundation and rights become mere assertions, having the appearance of moral content but lacking any moral substance.

The same is true of the idea of equality, which is perhaps the most cherished value of the Left. The Declaration affirms that all are created equal, and thus equality and rights stand or fall together with a commitment to a divine order. From this we can develop a coherent account of justice, democracy, and even tolerance. Justice—and this includes racial justice—is, as thinkers from Augustine to Martin Luther King Jr. understood, rooted in a God-ordained moral order. In this sense, an unjust law is no law at all, for it runs counter to the moral order of creation. Modern democracy, which depends on the moral equality of each person, also has its roots in his same metaphysical structure. Even tolerance finds a home here, for tolerance assumes the existence of a hierarchy of moral goods. One only tolerates a position one disagrees with: “I find your position repugnant, but for the sake of peace, stability, friendship, etc. I will tolerate your position.” Of course, tolerance has turned out to be a transient virtue, for once the leftists gain power, the call for tolerance is replaced with an impulse to punish and purge.  

When equality, rights, justice, and tolerance are stripped of any metaphysical source and wed to raw power, they become parodies of the real thing.

Thus, the ideals at the heart of the radical Left—equality, rights, democracy, justice, tolerance—are derived from a Christian view of the human person. Dispense with orthodox Christianity, as most leftists have, and what remains are moral concepts deprived of any moral root. They are free-floating ideals carrying a moral echo but lacking a moral, and ultimately divine, source.

Once the connection with the Christian past was repudiated, power could advance without a check. Moral ideals once defined the limits of acceptable action. However, when moral categories were severed from a divine source, any and every means became permissible for securing the desired ends. Here we see the so-called will-to-power employed to advance ideals that are nothing other than the residue of a rejected Christian past.

In this strange scheme, power is wed to purity; Machiavelli to Christianity; Nietzschean will-to-power to Puritan moralism. This union, of course, shouldn’t work. It is fundamentally incoherent. To assert with absolute confidence that equality is a moral good that must be defended at all costs while denying any justification for equality other than, “because I say so” is a position resting only on power. To claim that human rights must be defended while rejecting an account of human nature that could plausibly justify those rights is an assertion of power in service of moral ideals that have been cut off from their source. The same is true when democracy, justice, or tolerance are asserted as morally good and defended with the intensity of the true believer armed with nothing but brute force.

The result is a sort of psychic turmoil that manifests itself socially and politically as self-righteous rage. This rage takes the appearance of a moral crusade whereby opponents must be silenced or destroyed. Power is employed against any who dissent, for a dissenting voice could tear away the façade of moral righteousness and expose the underlying incoherence. When put in these terms, the rage would seem to provide cover for a profound insecurity. This helps us grasp why reasoned debate seems so rare among radicals today. The tactic of the protest has replaced the art of persuasion that is at the heart of any legitimate democracy. Power and purity are all that remain.

Of course, this account does not describe everyone on the Left. There is a world of difference between the old-fashioned liberal who genuinely believes in the effectiveness of debate and the radicals who seek to silence their opponents with violence or threats thereof. Sadly, however, the Left is increasingly succumbing to its radical wing. It has been hijacked by ideologues who are both moral absolutists and willing to employ any power necessary to achieve their desired ends. This does not bode well for our beleaguered republic.

Neither does this bode well for the ideals the radicals cherish. Equality, rights, freedom, democracy, justice, tolerance—these are all noble ideals worth defending. However, when they are stripped of any metaphysical source and wed to raw power, they become parodies of the real thing. Equality is reduced to identity; rights are demanded for some and denied to others; justice becomes a weapon; tolerance becomes intolerant; freedom descends into tyranny. When power and purity are at the center, the center will not hold.

Ironically, in these times of cultural disintegration and political turmoil, the most radical option might be a return to the very things we abandoned, to the source of moral truth and human dignity, and to the only hope for racial reconciliation.

Reader Discussion

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on June 15, 2020 at 10:20:44 am

This essay states that among "the ideals the radicals cherish" are "(e)quality, rights, freedom, democracy, justice, tolerance..."

That is not so. It was not true of Marxism; it is not true of neo-Marxism; it was not true of the cultural revolutionists of 1968; it is not true of their progeny today; it is not true of the contemporary Democrat Party.

No case can be made that it is so. And, based on a reading of the rest of the essay, I would say that the writer knows that it is not so.

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paladin
on June 16, 2020 at 09:27:14 am

The writer does go on to explain his intended meaning. The "radicals" to whom the writer refers do "cherish" the ideals you mention but for themselves; only themselves.

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Latecomer
on June 16, 2020 at 08:58:26 am

"Power and purity are all that remain."

Power, yes; their ephemeral or essentially fashionable purity du jour, their au currant purity, is what they have to leverage. It reflects an unfounded or poorly founded or inchoate sense of identity. Hence they seek reassurances in numbers, in mass gatherings in person or now in virtual realms. This is also why, one of the reasons why, they seek outward conformity and obedience and even kowtowingly obsequious behavior in others, even to the degree of Maoist cultural revolutionist regimens - mockery, severe forms of censure, public humiliations, reeducation, etc.

One can have sympathy and compassion for another's struggles with identity as such - but only to a degree. Once a group, such as the left most prominently, becomes content with a poorly formed or malformed identity, in some sense a malignant identity, and additionally seeks dominance over and conformity from others in a manifestly illiberal fashion, that sympathy and compassion must give way to sterner stuff.

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Michael Bond
on June 16, 2020 at 12:53:32 pm

While most authors and readers at L&L are probably religious believers, some of us are not. The author is on no firmer intellectual ground than the Leftists he castigates when he says: “The language of human rights is only coherent if each human person possesses moral value ultimately rooted in a divine order. […] Humans possess rights because each human possesses God-given moral value. Decouple the language of rights from this theological foundation and rights become mere assertions, having the appearance of moral content but lacking any moral substance.”

It used to be that those claiming morality as absolute relied on a Divine source (via Revelation documented in Scripture) for that absolute authority (i.e., beyond human capability or reason); while everyone else claimed morality was relative based on social norms and consensus. But our author distorts even that simple dichotomy when he says “Leftists are moral absolutists when it comes to defending particular versions of equality …” I presume he really means Leftists are very aggressive in pushing their given position at a given time, but are willing to turn on a dime and change their relative views should social or political events merit such a change. While undoubtedly conversant with the concept of Original Sin, the author may be ignorant of its modern psychological equivalent as expressed by Thomas Sowell in Conflict of Visions (conservatives tend to hold a “constrained vision” of human nature as largely immutable, whereas liberals tend to favor an “unconstrained vision” than humanity is perfectible and malleable). Another examination of morality vs. political persuasion is available from psychologist Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

For me the dichotomy between absolute and relative views of morality was resolved when I discovered Larry Arnhart’s Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics Of Human Nature. Professor Arnhart postulates that our morality is really a combination of genetically inherited (or mainly absolute) characteristics and a set of cultural or socially derived characteristics and rules (the relative component in morality). He identifies up to 20 distinctly genetic features in mankind, including our desires for cooperation as social animals, a sense of fairness, a sense of empathy and reciprocity, pair mating, artistic inclinations, etc. Thus we have an inherent sense of justice, but it can and is modified by our particular set of cultural decisions and structures. Abortion still has a 50% acceptance level in our Western society, but the concept of "honor killing" is considered evil and wrong. A more recent discussion of how our brain and inherent psychology also has both genetically and culturally evolved features is given by Kevin Laland in Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind, although many questions still await further neuroscience research.

That all men are created (genetically or socially) equal is patently false in reality, but the idea is a convenient socially adopted legal fiction that we all accept as valid for our mutual protection. We are fortunate that our Founders/Framers captured this concept and many others within our Constitution. And of course the 1st Amendment forces me to tolerate religious views at variance with my own, but also protects my freedom of conscience from any aggressive countermeasures. (And it appears our author has made the proper distinction between tolerance and acceptance of divergent views.)

John Adams asserted in 1798 that “… Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." But recognizing and exercising the virtues of facing reality and accepting responsibility does not require religious revelation, per se, just the willingness to use our innate rational intellectual capabilities and to adjust our culture in accord with what we learn.

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R2L
on June 16, 2020 at 17:29:30 pm

" A more recent discussion of how our brain and inherent psychology also has both genetically and culturally evolved features is given by Kevin Laland in Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind, although many questions still await further neuroscience research."

Not quite so. what you are, or the author you cite is, intimating is a theory of epigenetics. It has unsubstantiated.
Yes, cultural influences DO play in role in how a particular culture "unpacks" those moral precepts common to humanity but there is NO evidence that those "unpacked" adjustments find their way into our neuro-chemistry. Murray, in his recent book, "Human diversity...." gives a fair compilation of the data. He also provides statisitcal evidence on the genetic differences AMONGST and between races and ethnic groups. Interesting to note that the variance WITHIN a racial or ethnic group is LARGER than the variance between groups.
All that being said, the effects are minimal for 'cognitive repertoires (functions) but more substantial for physical traits / characteristics. Murray points out, as do I, that it is all beside the point as each and every human being is entitled to fair and equal treatment. We may aver that this is a cultural "unpacking", as it were BUT I would accept Hadley Arkes' contention that it is fundamental to humanity as a function of our "reason." Arkes, by the way, does a rather fine job of justifying morals. indeed some absolute morals. without recourse to a Divine Being in his book "First Things..."
Following Arkes, I would say that the "unpacked" variations of morals may be nothing more than a) an inability to fully apprehend the moral predicate, b) an unwillingness to recognize / practice such predicates and c) a differential understanding of "justification" needed to support a failure to exercise the restraint imposed by the moral predicate. In short, morals are intended to cover MOST situations but NOT ALL - at least absent some proper justification. As an example, "Thou shalt not kill - EXCEPT in self defense OR in defense of others" any and all moral precepts are impractical without the recognition of some conditions which justify their apparent disavowal. In short, that is what "cultural" "unpacking" is. Differing conditions in different cultures may impel one to appraise "justifiaction" differently BUT the underlying predicate remains valid and it surely does not "recode" ones neurochemistry.
Anyway, good thinking / writing in your two comments. I appreciated them.
take care
gabe

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gabe
on June 17, 2020 at 19:07:20 pm

Gabe, thanks for the reference to Arke’s “First Things …”. Sounds like a good complement to this discussion and definitely worth exploring. I agree that cultural “unpacking” of our genetically evolved and defined psychology does not end up influencing further genetic change (except perhaps very indirectly over long periods: lactose tolerance, sickle cell anemia, lung capacity of mountain dwellers, etc.). I see that my phrasing was not quite as clear as it might have been.

But part of the take away from Laland is further endorsement of the older ideas of evolutionary psychology. Our brain was evolving along with our body, but did not leave fossil evidence outside of brain case size, tool use, mastery of fire, selected ritual practices (e.g., burials), and other increasingly sophisticated (but circumstantial) cultural practices. But as our mental capabilities advanced they also enabled development of different cultural paths and selection among alternative cultural decisions/solutions. A hunter gatherer responds to a family member being murdered by a revenge killing in turn; we moderns call 911 and hope for justice from within our legal system. The desire for justice is innate in both cases; the mode of achieving it varies from culture to culture. I understand Laland to be saying that thereby our cultures have also been evolving in parallel with our brain/psychology.

Arnhart identifies a desire for transcendent experience to be one of his 20 core naturally evolved human characteristics. In response to Dean Mitchell’s essay, I am only suggesting that particular desire can take the form of various religious beliefs, or perhaps another focus outside of divinity and “religion”. Perhaps Arke’s work will change (evolve) my mind on this.

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R2L
on June 18, 2020 at 23:47:57 pm

I'm very glad you wrote this; it's absolutely spot-on. For generations the right claimed to renounce moral relativism, and embrace universal laws. Doesn't the moral certainty of the right, which is often based on personal interpretation of the bible, deserve equal scrutiny for whether or not it's logically coherent, at least as much so as a moral absolutism based on supposed "laws of history"? I would prefer a coherent relativist or a coherent absolutist, to someone whose relativism or absolutism cannot be explained or justified with logic and provable examples. As opposed to the mythology of a movement (communist or religious) whose laws are not, and cannot ever be proven. It seems to me that everyone else is just talking out of both sides of their mouths when they deride the other side as relative or absolute.

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Josh Strike
on June 16, 2020 at 16:31:06 pm

"In these times of cultural disintegration and political turmoil, the most radical option might be a return to the very things we abandoned, to the source of moral truth and human dignity, and to the only hope for racial reconciliation" And what pray tell would that be? I presume connection to a Metaphysical Source....

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Anthony
on June 16, 2020 at 16:51:23 pm

I might prefer a connection to a physical source, such as an EKG or MRI machine, attempting to plumb the depths of religious and moral views based on our genetic psychological endowment.
With regard to race: most of us are not racists, whether based on upbringing, exposure to friendly persons of another race, rational analysis, or other causes. But when we are continually labeled as such by the racialist industry and its practitioners, we are justified in becoming angry at said racialists, and fighting back. That counter move is not racism, but honesty, integrity, and virtue. Maybe the best way to end racism is to just ignore race, and not acknowledge that it (could, kinda sorta) exists. The other alternative is to accept the growing evidence of statistical genetic differences/variations, fully explore what they mean, and probably find they don't really matter all that much with regard to any particular individual.

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R2L
on June 18, 2020 at 23:55:15 pm

"The language of human rights is only coherent if each human person possesses moral value ultimately rooted in a divine order"

This is a complete failure of imagination and an incredible insult to the vast majority of humans who have ever lived who didn't agree with your "divine order". It's just like the Islamist view that human rights are meaningless if everyone is not part of the same Ummah.

What endows humans with their rights is the fact that they are just like you, and you would like to also be endowed with those rights. No deity necessary, and certainly no specific "divine order" required. A man who respects himself will respect others and be bound by the same obligations to them as he feels are obliged to him. Regardless of their religion or lack thereof. One who does not is only degrading his own moral claim to life, liberty and equality.

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Josh Strike
on June 20, 2020 at 18:28:45 pm

A very good and strong statement about endowed rights, which is still (I perceive) a view derived from our common Judeo-Christian and Western culture, and thus one with which I also agree. The Golden Rule is "golden" because it is considered "universal", but again perhaps only from our Western perspective. I gather that some Han Chinese and some members of the Islamic ummah consider themselves superior to "us", based on religious or historical influences. Their view is that we are not "just like them" but inferior and thus it may well be acceptable morally to subjugate us if or when possible. Therefore I have a corollary to the Golden Rule (from Tit for Tat game theory): Do unto others as they have done unto you ... until they stop.

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R2L
on June 21, 2020 at 10:07:21 am

Terrific article! Spot on.
And as far as some of the critical comments go, invoking Darwinian concepts and its empirical toolkit to explain morality is pathetic; Science will never solve the inadequacies and contradictions of the human soul.
And I say this as a former strident atheist who is now merely an agnostic.

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Skeptical1

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