Saturday, August 04, 2007

Principles vs. Practices

Being the sucker for popular culture that I am, I've been playing around with Facebook. Lisa has been very scornful of me for this, pointing out that Facebook is the playground of high school kids and their middle aged predators, not a savory place for an ordinary guy like me. Add to this the fact that I only have thirteen friends in my networks (as compared with one of my students, who has nearly 400), and one begins to wonder where the fascination really lies.

Well OK, mister, I'll tell you where. There are lots of cool "applications" you can install on your Facebook profile, and you can do loads of fun stuff with these applications, like "poke" your friends or "compare" them with each other to see who is "nicest" or "most fun to go shopping with". What could be more fun than that? But one such application has really got me to thinking.

This particular application, called "The Compass", is produced, allegedly, by The Washington Post, and its stated purpose is to graphically locate your political proclivities on a graphic representation of a compass ranging from liberal through moderate to conservative. The application seeks to determine where you lie along this spectrum by asking you ten questions to which you answer things like "strongly agree", "agree", "somewhat disagree", and the like. Here are some sample questions:
The federal government should raise taxes so it can provide more help for people who need it.

A same-sex couple should have access to the same marital benefits as those given to heterosexual couples.
And so on. I installed the application on my profile after answer the questions.

Now, longtime readers of this blog (all thirteen of them) will already know where I think I fall on that political spectrum. Whenever asked to rate myself politically (such as in the profile section of Facebook!) I always put "very conservative" (at they didn't have that as a choice, and I had to put "ultra conservative". I have even fewer friends at But The Compass application rates me to the left of moderate. This is curious because I've answered the questionnaire twice now and the first time I was exactly moderate, so I appear to be moving leftwards as I get older, which will probably please my old "militant marxist atheist" college advisor.

The difficulty with the application lies in the sorts of questions it asks and the sorts of answers it expects "liberals" and "conservatives" to give. Here is one example. One of the questions is worded this way:
Except in rare instances, such as when a woman's life is threatened, abortion should be illegal.
This is tricky, because I had to say that I agree with the wording even though I don't. I agree that abortion should be illegal, but I think it should be illegal even in instances in which the woman's life is in danger, and the question has no way to get at a view like that.

But more importantly the questions presuppose that a liberal or a conservative will answer these questions in a certain, fixed way. "Conservatives" are expected to favor the death penalty, but I don't. "Conservatives" are expected to be against amnesty for illegal immigrants, even though I'm not. In short, the quiz defines liberal and conservative in terms of specific positions adopted, not in terms of principled reasons and starting points.

But I define "conservative" for my own purposes in terms of principles, not practices. A conservative, on this account, is a person who is committed to the value of certain sorts of ideas and institutions, such as democratic government, free markets, common law, the Church, etc. On this understanding of the term, a "conservative" does not automatically support capital punishment as some sort of knee-jerk commitment to the sort of practices that other self-styled "conservatives" think is a good idea. I oppose capital punishment precisely because I am a conservative: a conservative committed to the inherent value of all human life and the Christian principles of mercy and compassion. Needless to say, this sort of reasoning often comes under attack from people who are best described as "folk conservatives", people who think that a commitment to "law and order" and "justice" makes decided to kill another human being a relatively simple matter. Of course we are at liberty to draw distinctions between humans who have committed no crimes and those who have committed very grave crimes, and such distinctions do entitle us to treat the latter differently from the former in defense of the common good, but the decision to end a human life does not follow by logical necessity from such distinctions. I'm not sure what I would call someone who thinks that capital punishment is a necessary consequence of certain political commitments, but "conservative" is certainly not the term I would choose.

Similarly with illegal immigrants. Again, the popoular culture and the mass media tend to assume, on the basis of a cartoonish caricature of the folk conservative, that conservatives tend to be jingoistic xenophobes who want all people from foreign lands lacking the proper papers quickly shown to the border. Some conservatives may, indeed, want that, but the assumption on the part of some appears to be that they want it because they "don't like foreigners". I'm certainly sympathetic to those who worry that public monies collected from tax-paying citizens might become ever more attenuated if they are being distributed among illegals who have made no contribution to the system, but among the principle I am committed to is the idea that the institutions and cultural aspects of this country represent something that is objectively good for anyone. This means that it would be wrong to withhold it from someone who seeks it out. Now, we are reminded that thousands of foreigners enter the country legally every day and seek citizenship through the proper channels, and such persons certainly ought to be given some sort of precedence over those who seek to milk our system for all it's worth without making any contribution at all. But consider a doctor who is on his way to work at the local hospital. At the hospital he will find many sick persons who checked themselves in using their insurance cards or Medicare cards or what have you, all of them seeking help from the staff in a perfectly legal and ordinary way. These people are certainly deserving of the help fo the staff. But suppose, on his way to work, the doctor finds a man crawling on his hands and knees to the hospital. He asks the man what he's doing, and the man explains that he's very sick, that he may die without medical treatment, so he's crawling to the emergency room hoping that they'll help him. The doctor points out that they will help anybody, but the man says that he's worried that they won't help him because he has no money and no insurance. Will the doctor leave him there to die? Of course not. In fact, most hospitals have a policy to help anyone who comes to their emergency rooms regardless of ability to pay, and that is as it should be. It would be terribly wrong for a doctor who could help someone to refuse to help anyone simply on the grounds that he would not gain anything from helping a person who cannot pay. The idea that we offer help to the helpless, or indeed to anyone, on a quid pro quo basis is a seriously disordered view of morality.

Our institutions and culture is the intellectual and social equivalent of good medicine, and we ought to be much freer with it than we are, and that is why I favor amnesty. To grant amnesty is not to say that anybody at all can come here and start soaking up our public monies any time they like without making any contribution of their own, it is rather a first step towards immigration reform, a reform that seeks to make what we have to offer as widely available as possible in pursuit of the common good. Conservatives can, and do, disagree about how to handle this thing, obviously, but the position that I have staked out is a conservative ideal, not a liberal one. The principle difference between the conservative and the liberal on this particular score, in my view, hinges not on the actual practice at the end of the deliberation, but on where the help is expected to come from. The conservative wants individuals to do the helping, the liberal will tend to expect governmental or publicly funded institutions to do the work. But however else we view the situation, we ought to avoid saying things like "conservatives don't like/trust foreigners or people who are different from them and that's why they will always be against amnesty".

You can see a similar pattern in many other debates about how best to pursue the common good. One of my favorite examples is the way in which help was sent to the victims of the 2005 tsunami. One often heard, at the time, that the United States, one of the richest countries in the world, had contributed the least amount of support. It turns out, if you look carefully at such reports, that "support" was being calculated in terms of official, federal-governmental contributions to the relief fund. In terms of total support, the United States was one of the leaders, but the money came mostly from private sources and, hence, was not counted as "support" for some reason. Again, the conservative will argue that private help is the best kind, since it is not coercive, or it tends to be the least coercive. Freedom is a very important principle in conservative reasoning, and the freedom to be wrong about one's moral reasoning (for example, whether I ought to help out in a certain situation), while it can sometimes have unfortunate consequences, is central to the conservative Weltanschauung. Some conservatives are troubled by this, since there are some conservatives who are also utilitarians. But a good conservative will reject utilitarianism, and such consequentialist worries will disappear.

I'm going to keep The Compass application on my Facebook profile, and not just to trick people into being my friends. I'll keep it as an object lesson in the banality of folk politics.

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