"Traditional" vs. "Liberal" Morality
2 is not equal to three, not even for large values of 2.
In a post this morning, Andrew Sullivan notes the latest move of the religious right: globalized theoconcervativism—an Islamic-Christian alliance to bring "traditional morality" to the world.
It's worth considering exactly what that means.
What, exactly, is the difference between "traditional morality", as the phrase is used in these contexts, and what some conservatives call "liberal morality"?
Here are a few:
(My atheist friends will have to forgive some religious language, which I've used both for historic purposes and for clearer communication with my religious friends.)
Underlying Political Model:
Kings and Kingdoms
|Democracy and Republics|
|The nation is the King.||The nation is the people.|
|The people, as part of the nation, are mere extensions of the King.||The government, the form of the nation, is a mere extension of the people.|
|Authoritarian Rule: choices are best made from the top.||Freedom and Responsibility: choices are best made by individuals.|
Laws and force are for making sure individuals do what the King's wants.
|Laws and force are for ensuring liberty and protecting individuals.|
|The people serve the King.
||Government serves the people.|
|Underlying Religious Model:||God = The King and
The King = God(The King's exerts God's authority, and acts as God's representative.)
|God, or the Holy, is everywhere, and in everyone.|
|God is understood as a King, the world as his kingdom.||We are all holy, in our ordinariness, all images of God, temples of the Holy Spirit, children of the Universe.|
|Whoever is in charge (whoever has the most power at the moment) effectively gets to be God, since they decide what God wants, and enforce it, on God's behalf.||No one person or group (even whoever has the most power at the moment) has the right to decide what is right for others, or to enforce it on God's behalf.|
Underlying Model of Humanity:
|Average people are untrustworthy, incompetent, or evil.||Average people are reasonably trustworthy, competent, and good.|
|They cannot generally be trusted to know or do what is best for themselves or others.||We can generally be trusted to know and do what is best for ourselves, and others.|
Those who subscribe to the "traditional" view also sell themselves (and anyone who will listen) a series of myths:
- If people don't accept "traditional" morality, they will run amok, doing all the things that "traditional" morality says they shouldn't.
Nonsense. First, it is quite obvious that accepting "traditional" morality doesn't begin to protect people from violating its statutes. Beyond that, there are a great many people, myself included, who reject the "traditional" view and do not find themselves committing rape or murder, robbing banks, or even becoming unpleasant.
The truth is, the values that are used to sell the "traditional" viewpoint are values that are pretty common to human nature, and consequently to the "liberal" viewpoint as well. Most of us find murder distasteful, because we do. We don't have to have someone enforce the idea upon us.
If we believe the traditionalists when they tell us that we have to accept traditional morality in order to disapprove of murder, the next step entails all sorts of unnecessary and weird beliefs: from what women must wear on their heads to whether dancing is wrong to racial and gender prejudice to war in the name of God. But the worst one is that whoever is in charge at the moment gets to define right and wrong for everyone.
- "Traditional" morality is a constant, basic set of "rights" and "wrongs" that never changes.
Only if you don't look too closely. All you have to do is open up your Bible to find all kinds of things "commanded by God" which any "traditional" moralist would consider either silly or wrong. Those things were part of "traditional" morality at the time, but aren't now.
- "Traditional" morality is the oldest morality.
False. Rooted, as it is, in a model of kingship, "traditional" morality goes back no further than kings: about 12,000 years at most. Before that humans lived for millions of years on this earth, presumably with some value structure, but not the one we now call "traditional".
- The "traditional" model is the only legitimate religious model.
False again. I'll confine my comments here to Christianity, since it's the only religion I really know. The New Testament, on the whole, is about a struggle against the traditional morality of that time and place. The early church (at first a small Jewish sect) taught that Christians were free of the restraints of the Jewish law, as recorded in the Hebrew scriptures.
Jesus himself taught that judging others (a fundamental part of "traditional" morality) should be avoided, as should punishing others. He stopped the stoning of the woman caught in adultery: a frontal attack on "traditional" morality. Even when he seemed to be endorsing the traditional view, he undermined it by redefining it in a "liberal" fashion: Love God... and your neighbor as yourself. This is the Law and the Prophets. And we can hardly forget St. Augustine's moral advice: "Have love, and do as you like."
The "traditional" model cannot claim the clear support, even of Christianity.
- The "traditional" model is traditional.
It isn't traditional in the sense of going back to the beginning of human experience. It isn't traditional in the sense of having the consistent backing of traditional religion. It isn't traditional in the sense of being a consistent tradition. It certainly isn't a model that reflects the traditional values of the United States.
In fact, the traditional model was originally designed to keep the subjects (a polite word for slaves) of a king in line. It was never fit for a free, democratic, people.
We should be careful what we endorse, lest our children find themselves slaves again.
At least, that's what I think today.