There are several questions at the heart of the philosophical conflict between the right and the left. The political war that has been fought for generations is not a trench conflict made up of competing political ideas, but a sweeping blitz, a social campaign of shock and awe, composed of entire mountains of worldviews fighting tooth-and-nail for the soul of our society. These inquiries, begged of us by our restless souls to find a perfect solution (and sometimes the ultimate argument). The questions vary, but the purpose of asking them do not.
For the leftist, the religious morally assertive, and the individualist, the overriding question is this: what exactly is the responsibility of a society?
The diversity of the left makes answering this question very difficult, perhaps impossible. Classical liberals, libertarians, and moderate liberals believe strongly that society, essentially, has little to no responsibilities to uphold. That is, society, defined as the collective of those who are a part of it, does not have a moral or fiscal mantle to achieve, except the most basic restrictions that only exist to keep society itself from falling apart; spitting distance from anarchy or within sight of restricted collectivism. The modern liberal (leftists) believes strongly that our job is to improve society down equally-beneficial lines; Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, and unionism. It is the agnostic equivalent of political Evangelicalism, because it uses the same philosophy; artificial morality. The notion that we must intervene in the natural process of society to make things better. The religious seek to do this in order to benefit god and religion (anti-homosexuality, anti-abortion, pro-charity). While leftists seek to do this to benefit the people (pro-abortion, pro-homosexuality, pro-equality,) so while the end goal might be different, they use the exact same path to get there.
For the politically and morally religious, the answer is easy. It is our responsibility, they believe, to improve our society in the name of religion; in the name of a book. There is nothing new about this idea and in fact, this is oldest belief in the world. The idea that we, as individuals, need to be controlled by others who understand the righteousness of believing in religion. Or at least those who claim to. We have seen this scenario play out before, and that is why opposition to it is so steadfast. But it is also why support for it is so strong. Those against this see the past, when this idea was uncontested, as times filled with racial, sexual, and domestic inequality. The grandfather of everything wrong with America. Those who support it, see the classic example of American perfection. The “leave it to beaver”-like stability and morality that shines bright as the political star of Bethlehem, for those who pursue this state of society.
But what of the industrialists? As well as the anarchists? Well, the merit of anarchism is not a rejection of societal responsibility, it is the idea that it never existed in the first place. That the only responsibility one has to fulfill to is that of survival, and in the scheme of things, even that is optional. To them, freedom is more powerful than any governmental program. And while many acknowledge the important role that moral intervention in society plays, they stick to the very genuine idea that since it is not natural, it messes with the natural course; it goes counter to the very path humanity is supposed to take. It is basically the political form of Darwinism. And for those who take the answer to this question in the direct opposite direction, the solution is extremely simple. Do you have the power to make things better? If so, use it to further the form of justice you believe in, no matter if it is common among those you police it with.
An examination of the question will find that this fundamental query itself has an underlying theme; the answers are either artificially moral (leftists, religious moral assertiveness,) or individualistic (classical liberals, anarchists). This tells us much about each faction and it also reflects how they view other issues as well, because in the end, everything is related to how we view responsibility as a person. An argument can be made that it is the underlying principle of every theological, philosophical, political, and moral question we ask; what exactly do we owe society?
Upon closer investigation, we can also observe how curious the ability we even have to ask this question is. Whether we like it or not, historically, the right to even proclaim that enforced morality is a failure would have been met with the harshest of punishments, or at the very least a theological smack to the face. But obviously, we have evolved since then. It’s not that our ideas have changed; it’s our freedom to publicly express that has. We must acknowledge that those who were in control for most of history in this respect, no matter how decent their intentions, undeniably committed many atrocities in the name of enforced morality and religion. Take your pick, the inquisition, the death of millions of South Americans, the crusades, and the European wars of religion.
Those who argue on behalf of an enforced moral law, based on religion, conveniently pass over this as their idea being done “the wrong way.” But the very fact that theological-enforced morality has historical precedent and that it is no longer around today at such an extent, tells us that this has been a losing war for those who wish to enforce their own moral code upon others. Slowly, but surely, the enlightenment of philosophical thought crept into our laws and schools to where now, when we have this discussion, we are on equal footing. We can now base our arguments on the merits of our ideas, not whether or not someone committed blasphemy and thus will be promptly escorted off to the nearest stake.
So even though I may take the time to explore the reasoning and philosophical footing of these major ideas on the role we should play in society, I cannot ignore the indisputable fact that if the ancestors of today’s religious morally assertive had their way, we would not be having this conversation in the first place. It is because of this, and not previous theological or agnostic bias, that I would like to think most open-minded thinkers would see the past of this argument in a very different light than the modern-day participants in this debate. Each side has merit, each side has the good of the people at the heart of their endeavor; but only one side wants to effectively restrict those who disagree with them behind the pretense of morality, and as an extent much of the time, religion.
It is also for this reason that we can see why this conflict escalated so quickly. While the religious morally assertive believe, it is not just their duty, but their God-given obligation, to quell all those who commit practices that are seen as blasphemous against god. Opponents see this as an attack on the freedoms of the individual, which it is. But many mistake this assault on individual freedom as a representation of their entire philosophy, which it is not. In fact, the religious morally assertive value individual independence to an extreme extent. Historically, it was how they survived regimes of a different faith. They take their right to worship the way they want very seriously and, symbolically, say they support members of other religions and their right to do so. However, in practice, most can see this has not always been the case. So, it is here that the religious right have their own private dilemma. They understand that religious freedom is how they survived history, however, the only widely-accepted interpretation of biblical command tells them to go against that very idea. Their guide on how to handle the world is telling them, in their view, to burn the path that led them to dominance, because others who use it are going about on a different mission that they find offensive.
Even though the religious morally assertive might deal with their own private form of hypocrisy, it doesn’t cancel out the practical benefits of their ideas. Maybe the philosophical logic of it, but not the physical implementation. Unlike other factions, the religious right has the unique position of being the only one to have been widely accepted in the past. In fact, they have controlled society for most of history. But this also is their biggest liability, especially to anyone who has read a book on world history. There’s a reason why some of the ugliest points in the story of humanity, particularly Europe, where enforced morality was prevalent, centered around religion and morality. For many, it’s not the fact that one side was wrong and one side was right, it’s the fact that if morality and religion weren’t so preciously enforced, the conflict would not have existed in the first place, thus saving the lives of millions. The argument has moved in trajectory. It’s no longer about who was right, it’s about the very foundation of the argument; religion and morality. This also has the strategical negative of canceling out the long-lasting argument that the morally assertive are morally superior, because judging by their ideology’s body count, this is certainly not the case.
But with any ideology that puts importance on authoritative posture, order and stability are bound to be priorities, although sometimes this has the opposite effect. But in the end, the successful implementation of religious-enforced morality depends on where it is trying to be put in practice. Historically, it works best in nations where the populace is either easily swayed by religion or nationalism, or at the very least, has little access to knowledge or education. Russia, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and Israel are all nations that fit that description and, noticeably, have extensive laws on the books dictating moral values to the public. We can also peel back the pages of history to see that this is also true for the ancient and medieval world, where the effects of enforced moral codes and religion were most powerful. Europe, as a whole, was affected by this throughout history until about the 1800s. The interesting part? The timeline of European enlightenment coincides with the slow fall of this system. Translation? Knowledge and logic have not been good friends of the idea of religious-enforced morality.
Now, this is no insult to the ideology, as almost any belief system can be easily put in place where the participants don’t have the mental independence to refute it. But this does show us that this system concept is irrefutably prehistoric and predates the existence of organized logic. Because of this, it isn’t taught as a good thing in most western school systems, as they prefer the usage of logic, humanitarianism, and knowledge to guide their studious novices into their own private area of thought, effectively shielding them from this rejected form of societal control. But it’s not just the west. Much of the world, including the republics of the former U.S.S.R. and current communist and socialist states also have rejected this form of thought, teaching collectivism and societal teamwork instead. This leaves only certain, usually obscure, nations on different continents holding out as true beacons of religious morally assertive thought.
So, at the very least, Evangelical morally assertiveness is a dying branch of philosophical thought; but that doesn’t mean the idea of enforced morality is. Meanwhile, there is a battle raging in the west in the sectors of education, philosophy, and politics between the leftist version of enforced morality and the religious version. The leftist and religious versions of enforced morality might be related, but they come from different parents. As I stated before, the left and right both believe that their recipes of moral assertiveness should be for everyone to bear, but for different reasons. For the left, it’s for the good of mankind, particularly the underprivileged; for the right, it’s for god and purity. While the religious version of enforced morality might be the only one with historical precedent and dominance, the leftist version is certainly winning the overall war. It’s in western education blocks surely, but most importantly, it’s already an impregnable aspect of our governments. Social Security, the income tax, the inheritance tax, free education, free healthcare, and the welfare state are all implementations and concepts originally based on the leftist interpretation of moral assertiveness.
Another key difference is not only the focus of who is affected by their separate moral inclinations, but also how it is implemented. While Evangelical purists usually concentrate their efforts on only societal restrictions in their mission to purify society, leftists actually put more emphasis on economic and financial outlets for enforcing equally-beneficial morality. The most potent part of this difference is that it makes their version much more attractive than that of the religious, because it actually helps just as many people as it suppresses. Maternity leave, for example, might be damaging to the business and violates freedom of choice, however, it helps female employees tremendously. This is because the benefactors are part of the population, not an abstract morally-superior being, as in the case with the religious version. So, while the religious right suppresses for the good of a god, that, whether we like it or not, is not a provable fact, the left suppresses in the name of certain parts of society to improve their lives, or occasionally actions they believe will benefit society as a whole down the road. As previously mentioned, this makes their interpretation of enforced morality much more attractive, and subsequently, more common.
This rift between leftist-enforced morality and religious-enforced morality is not recognized as often as it should be, and even though it is condemned by many leading figures when the religious practice it, they have a habit of turning a blind eye towards those with agnostic or atheist inclinations who play the same game. This is especially true for American politics. We will hear Democrats condemn the religious right for policing others with their biblical values, however, they keep uncharacteristically silent when it comes to taking the money of others to give to the poor or to social programs. Do they not see they are both doing the exact same thing with the only difference being the purpose of it? This is not to say that any one side is morally obstruct-able or impractical, only to point out the very real truth that for two sides that claim to be total opposites, they both share the opinion that their own philosophies are too good to be simply accepted voluntarily.
This leaves us with classical liberals and individualists, where we run across another misconception regarding how society views them. But at the same time, we can see why mistruths with this philosophical faction, too often charged with being morally crippled, would be commonplace. Because of the epic struggle between two different versions of the same model of enforced morality, individualism in society has taken a back seat. Very few times in history has the philosophy of societal freedom been in place. Many mistake members of this philosophy of not believing society has any responsibilities at all. On the contrary, they are the most fervent supporters of that idea. With the utmost care for the downtrodden, they fully endorse the creed that everyone is responsible for their own actions and theirs alone, an admittedly much simpler path aimed at keeping anyone out of the occupation of moral policing. Society itself is made up of individuals, so, if everyone kept to themselves and carried out their own responsibilities as laid out by individualism, why would there be a need for society as a whole to carry on any duties in the first place? For if everyone kept themselves in the boundaries of non-violent and harmful activities in relation to those around them, there would be no need for interference in the first place. Some say it’s wishful thinking, others claim it’s the key to fixing our society. Either way, like all these ideas, they are at the very least philosophically sound attempts at making our world a better place.
But if we leave the dynamic world of political and philosophical consideration, we must face the cold, hard reality of the world we actually do live in. So many become infatuated with pointing out their opponent’s apparent philosophical failures at making a logical argument, they fail to look at the real-world aspect of how the idea could be used. Logic is violated everywhere and everyday around us. The bumble bee, perhaps the most overrated creature in our universe, should not be able to fly based on a variety of scientific theories that have proven to be right for other living organisms, but apparently not this one.
One theory in this complex, yet fascinating area of philosophy does not, and will not fix all the problems associated in the world. There will always be one society or nation that needs a different system than the one we have proposed, and this isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s what makes life so interesting. If everything could be fixed by one solution, it would make our world very bland indeed and in fact, even more dangerous. For if everything can be solved by one solution, can it not all be dissolved by only one problem?
Diversity is our greatest strength and we need to understand this as we arrogantly walk out on our streets and proclaim, thousands of miles away and with no academic knowledge of the country itself, that the U.K. needs democratic socialism, or that Russia needs republicanism. We must immerse ourselves in the country itself and have a fundamental understanding of the culture and people before we can boldly try to sway another nation or person to our own point of view. The bumble bee is a true reminder to us all that we can come up with the perfect solution to make our world a better place, but if it fails to help a certain group of people, which it ultimately will, accept it and acknowledge they need something different.
I intend for this to be my first in a series of articles examining each one of these viewpoints in how society should operate. I will look at the positive and negative ramifications of these positions, as well as their philosophical soundness. If published, I hope to provide you the best analytical pieces on these very interesting factors of life.
* Caleb Mills is an analyst, writer, and political strategist from the American Midwest.