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Not on the agenda: Caring and justice

One of the most useful concepts I’ve come across in a long time is the idea of moral foundations theory, which I wrote about back in February. The theory posits six “moral foundations,” some of which predominate in liberals and some in conservatives. They are:

Fairness (which we can equate with justice)

In liberals, caring and fairness are prevalent. In conservatives, it is loyalty, authority, purity, and liberty. There is some overlap, of course. Conservatives care about family, and to some degree they care about people who are just like them. But if you’re not just like them, then mostly they see little basis for caring about you, and you’re on your own. And liberals have strong feelings for liberty, though we liberals would never tolerate injustice in the name of liberty, whereas conservatives have a high tolerance for that.

ProPublica posted an article this week with the headline “Has the moment for environmental justice been lost?” The article says that Donald Trump has put the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Justice on the chopping block. It’s not that the Office of Environmental Justice is expensive. It costs only $2 million a year. It’s because the words “environmental justice” stick in the conservative craw, combining two thing that don’t fit with conservative (or libertarian) ideas about liberty.

Trump, of late, has been ranting about loyalty. To normal people, loyalty is reciprocal — I’ll look out for you because I care about you, and because reciprocity is fair, knowing that you’ll look out for me. But to a deranged man like Trump, as an article in Vox points out today, loyalty is a one-way thing owed to the big man. And the big man retains the arbitrary and unreciprocal authority to throw those loyal to him under the bus.

During the last year, through the horror of the Trump campaign and Trump’s first six months in office, we have learned much about how the supposedly moral foundations of conservatism lead conservatives to think, speak, and act during our era — a globalized era in which their thinking, speaking, and acting are amplified by globalization and their prowess in using technology. For example:

— Inequality doesn’t matter. In fact, they want more inequality. George Lakoff has described the conservative moral hierarchy thus: God above man, man above nature, rich above poor, employers above employees, adults above children, Western culture above other cultures, America above other countries, men above women, whites above non-whites, Christians above non-Christians, and straights above gays. Inequality is both good and godly, because they believe that this also is the hierarchy that is in the mind of God.

— It is better that the rich should have tax cuts than that 30 million people should have health insurance.

— Racism and a threat of violence can be tolerated and even encouraged, since it’s a basis of their righteous power.

— Corrupt Russian plutocrats are our friends. Democrats are the true enemy.

— Screw the earth. It’s our liberty to exploit it.

— If you’re poor, it’s your own fault, and we’ll do our best to keep you from voting because all you want is to take from the rich.

— No one is owed an education. If you can’t afford it, tough. (Though training labor for corporations at public expense may be OK. Real educations are actually dangerous in the lower classes and are to be discouraged.)

— Health care is not a right. If you can’t afford it, tough.

— The market can do no wrong. Government can do no right.

— To the maximum degree it can be gotten away with politically, profits should be private and costs legally transferred to the public.

— Thank God for scapegoats such as transgender people.

— Ethics? What ethics?

— If it’s not in accord with what we believe, it’s a lie. If we believe it, it’s true.

I would argue that there is something inherently crazy-making about over-esteeming both liberty and authority. Others have pointed out how authoritarians actually crave to submit — to the big man, at least. Liberals have no such problem, because we are highly skeptical of authority.

If white, conservative Trump supporters were a majority even in their own country, then a kind of repressed political stability might be possible. But Trump is in office even though he did not get a majority of the votes, and only because of meddling in the election to an extent not yet known. Six or so percent of the people who voted for him already have turned against him. In other words, the situation is extremely unstable and unsustainable. The iron heel becomes more necessary each day. It remains to be seen whether the damage done to our governing institutions can be restored after Trump is thrown down. But turmoil is guaranteed from here on out.

Moral foundations theory is presented as an objective, values-free way of categorizing people, which is as it should be with a pragmatic theory. To be a conservative, according to the theory, is just as normal for some people as being a liberal is for others.

But now that we have seen 63 million white, angry, ill-informed, ill-educated, heavily propagandized Americans rise up and elect a new kind of leader, and now that we see what kind of leader that is, and now that we see what the Republican Party has at last become, let us please stop deceiving ourselves. Conservatism is not just a normal and alternative way of being. Though ugly in all times, in our times conservatism is deeply pathological and very dangerous. Conservatism is hostile to every virtue and every value that will be needed if humanity (and the planet we live on) is to survive for another hundred years.

John Rawls:

The unjust man seeks dominion for the sake of aims such as wealth and security…. The bad man desires arbitrary power because he enjoys the sense of mastery which its exercise gives to him…. By contrast, the evil man aspires to unjust rule precisely because it violates what independent persons would consent to in an original position of equality, and therefore its possession and display manifest his superiority and affront the self-respect of others…. What moves the evil man is the love of injustice: he delights in the impotence and humiliation of those subject to him and relishes being recognized by them as the author of their degradation.

Which kind of man is Trump? He might once have been merely an unjust man. I would argue that, when he was running for president, he had become a bad man. And now, week by week, he becomes more evil. We also have seen Trump’s conservative moral depravity echoed in the kind of people he has surrounded himself with. Conservatives cannot conceive of themselves as morally depraved. After all, they go to church; they go around saying God, God, God; they make a great show of praying; and they would like to paint “In God We Trust” on every government building in America. But they are proving themselves to be actively depraved. They are acting it out.

To direct our resistance only at the big man and the Republican government is insufficient. There remains the problem of the 63 million people who voted for this and how their conservatism has damaged them and is damaging the rest of us. What is a solution to that, a solution compatible with caring and fairness? What does caring and fairness owe to the morally depraved? I don’t know, though cleaning up their messes and comforting those they are afflicting is part of it. Their big man acts like a child, a child with vast powers, and they’re OK with that. What they all have done cannot be overlooked or forgotten.


  1. DCS wrote:

    Thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

    >>> he delights in the impotence and humiliation of those subject to him and relishes being recognized by them as the author of their degradation.

    And so we come to the latest news about Trump’s humiliation and degradation of his own Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, the only mainstream Republican to endorse Trump during the primaries.

    See this Politico article about Trump’s treatment of sessions and see if it doesn’t ring a bell:

    My favorite line: “He doesn’t mind the long negative storyline. He will torture him every single day.”



    Wednesday, July 26, 2017 at 3:52 pm | Permalink
  2. daltoni wrote:

    Part of what is so terrifying is that we thought that, with Bush-Cheney, we had surely seen the worst of what the Republican Party is capable of — lying us into war, wasting tens of thousands of human lives for oil and calling it freedom, looting a country, further radicalizing and destabilizing a region, and personally profiting from it all, with the whole fiasco paid for by the public.

    Now we know that the Republican Party is capable of much, much worse. Even so, it’s not the party leadership that is so terrifying, horrible as it is. It’s the 63 million depraved morons who enable it and even cheer for it. They are all around us.

    Wednesday, July 26, 2017 at 5:17 pm | Permalink
  3. Dan wrote:

    Their supporters, constituents, and lackeys are much of the problem. I think what you previously wrote about there being a “culture war” is driving their politics. They want to strip entitlements and anti-discrimination laws from those who they see as beneath them, contrary to their Christianity, but those entitlements are not for specific groups but for everyone, so they’re stripping them away from others like them – rural or suburban white people, their families, and likely themselves. The values they purport to hold, at least externally – patriotism, strong work ethics, Christianity, and self-reliance – are filtered internally through the not-so-subtle vessels of racism and a rural breed of misguided fundamentalist evangelism. That’s why there is this blatant contradictory rhetoric spawning forth from rural stretches of the poorest places in America. They want to have the dismissive mentality Trump and the rest of the far-right 1% have against social justice and progressive ideals but they don’t realize that the wolves are chasing them off the cliff just like the rest of the sheep.

    Trump’s numbers are polling less favorably even in states where he could still curry much support, possibly due to some sort of realization that he’s screwing them over as much as the groups they hate. Hopefully, more people actually start coming out publicly against him.

    There is a great new article by Drew Magary in GQ on John McCain. It’s about him always walking the Republican line while pretending to be a rebel within the party. It is sad he is dying of brain cancer, something that took my grandmother, but he’s never be the contradiction he’s seen as.

    Thursday, July 27, 2017 at 6:39 am | Permalink
  4. daltoni wrote:

    All very good points, Dan. I wish I could avert my eyes and live as though it weren’t all happening. But it’s like a slow train wreck.

    Thursday, July 27, 2017 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

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