Reception of Transitionalism – Part 2 – In Dialogue with Liberals

by on March 29, 2015

Hands on a globeIn the previous article we examined general features of the conventional conservative perspective both from their social/moral and fiscal/political standpoints. In this article, we will focus on conventional liberals and how we might bridge the gap between them and Transitionalism.


The Conservative-Liberal Divide
In the current political environment we witness what appears to be an ever widening chasm between conservatives and liberals around the world; particularly here in the United States. Without question there is little that liberals and social/moral conservatives share in common. The social/moral conservative position is at its core ideologically non-liberal, and the basis for this is grounded in a fundamentally religious view of the world that also contributes a significant cultural divide. It should be noted, this situation could be changing to some extent given that it appears younger evangelicals are expressing more interest in environmental and social justice issues and less in abortion and homosexuality than have older generations.

Unlike social/moral conservatives, liberals do understand fiscal/political conservatives because they occupy the same ideological space. However, they are positioned on opposite ends of the spectrum, since at its root the fundamental divide is grounded in individual behavioral predispositions. Conservatives resist change because when they look at the world they tend to see threats, either because change means proceeding into unknown, untested territory or straying from a path on which conservatives believe we should remain or return to.

In contrast to conservatives who advocate for virtues of times past, liberals are wedded to notions of future-leaning social progress as the path towards something better; thus the basis for the ideological divide where conservatives collectively are said to occupy the right and liberals the left ends of the ideological spectrum. Both conservatives and liberals firmly believe in the principle of individual freedom. But conservatives have repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to abrogate those principles in the defense of society and personal security; whereas, liberals resist such measures as being too great of a compromise for what is gained. While psychological predispositions are the basis for the divide and recognition of this gives us a clearer understanding of why the split exists, it has little practical value in bringing the two sides together. Instead, it seems to accentuate it.

The Liberal Heart
In forming a better perspective of the liberal position we find that its roots are found in the writings of John Locke, David Hume, and Adam Smith. While advocating the importance of individuals pursuing their self-interest, these writers did recognize society had positive roles to play. Liberals, as they are recognized now, came about as a response to the rise of industrial capitalism in the early 19th century with its benefits, but also for its deleterious consequences for workers, the environment, and society, presenting liberals with something of a dilemma. In the end, although many might have real concerns about market behavior and its effect on the lives of people, liberals are just as committed to the same basic ideological principles of the primacy of individual freedom and autonomy over the interests of society as are fiscal/political conservatives.

If change is part of the discussion, the focus turns to what should be looked to as the primary change agent. Fiscal/political conservatives insist it be the marketplace, while liberals feel it should be government. The divide is based on a conservative ideological principle that free markets, as opposed to government, are more reliable in forming the best and more efficient solutions. It also follows from a view of government as a constraint, even a threat to individual freedom.

Liberals view government as society’s arbitrator where the principle of individual freedom has to be balanced with the potential for social harm. Hence, the reason they look to government to provide protection for workers, the environment, and vulnerable populations.  These perspectives contribute to the framing of the gun rights controversy fostered by ambiguity of language in the Second Amendment and made further complicated by a cultural divide between traditional rural and urban ways of life.
It also relates to the issue of fairness, an important concern for both conservatives and liberals alike. However, conservatives believe fairness pertains to rewarding those individuals who are deserving based on a strict moral code that assigns responsibility and valuation of their choices and actions. Liberals define fairness on a broader empathic standard, where life is valuable for its own sake, leading them to frequently point to the circumstances of people’s lives as factors that are often outside their control and so beyond individual responsibility.

Where Liberals Get it Wrong
We described the divide between conservatives and liberals to better highlight the liberal point of view, but also to show it suffers from the same basic ideological pitfalls as conservatism, which have already been discussed at length. Perhaps the most significant failure unique to the liberal position is its adherence to secularism. Once again it is easy to understand the source of the animosity when seen in the context of history, where religious institutions were powerful and influential members of an entrenched conservative social order and did all they could to resist change. The struggle over usury, the trials of Galileo, and the vilification of Darwin, are just a few of the many perceived injustices against the cause of social progress committed at the hands of religious authorities. Now in the early decades of the 21st century, the political power of religious institutions has long since been marginalized in western culture, leading to significant changes for the better where many churches have been active in causes that help people lead better lives. Nevertheless, resentments that run deep still remain.

This mistrust and resentment is in part at the heart of how liberals express their interest in the spiritual. Much of the language used in describing the experience of taking hallucinogenic drugs during the 1960’s was framed in terms of a spiritually transcendence. During that time and since, those who identify themselves “as spiritual, but not religious” have not necessarily abandoned their religious upbringing. Often the phrase reflects an individual’s personal dissatisfaction and disconnection with the agendas of conventional churches. Many who no longer find a home in their own cultural heritage have been reaching out in ever increasing numbers to seek answers from other cultural traditions such as Buddhism and Islam or in nativist religious/spiritual traditions. Even so, people are continuing along the mistaken path of believing the answer to our existence lies somewhere ‘out there’.

Where Liberals and Transitionalism Intersect
While the value of finding a home within any of the traditional religions is an open question, someone listening to their inner voice to seek a spiritual path is a sound one. In taking such a path one is required to question, struggle with, and doubt what they thought and believe before making their choice of faith; even if it means reaffirming it paralleling the thoughtful, self-reflective process which is fundamental to Transitionalism and the process of self-actualization.

While Transitionalism is critical of secularism as a principle because we need to be connected to our spiritual nature, as a practical concern it recognizes the need for religious belief to be an individual choice and for religious doctrine and civic institutions and life to be kept separate. A society guided by the essential question of meaning, the source of spirituality, would be very different than one guided by a specific institutionalized religious doctrine, particularly of the theistic tradition, where historical experience has shown the focus for such institutions has been more on political power as opposed to spirituality. Liberals need to begin thinking and feeling beyond their historical resentments to see spirituality in more expanded terms than what has been offered historically.

Although hampered by its commitment to individualism, liberals look to government as arbitrator and society’s protector. They recognize the need for there to be a balance between the interests and perspective of individuals, and the interests and perspective of society. They also recognize government is able to marshal a far greater amount of resources than can any individual or group. Looking to government in times of need is a logical step from a time when people in a village were likely able to depend on the help of others. Once the numbers of people exceeded the ability to maintain personal relationships based on trust, the connections between people became impersonal and necessarily transactional leaving it to government as society’s overseer, to assume the role of protector. How well liberal inspired social programs actually function is a separate question altogether and a subject for discussion at another time.

Where liberals tend to falter has to do with the matter of individual responsibility, to which social/moral conservatives are more attuned. Freedom and responsibility are opposite, yet proportionally related concepts. This is to say, with less freedom there is less responsibility. Such would be the experience of an employee who if they follow company policy and problems develop as a consequence would not be held accountable. On the other hand, the democratic process identifies individuals as autonomous agents possessing great freedoms of choice and action. It also identifies individuals as the source of political authority requiring that individuals participate responsibly as informed citizens for the system to function. In this instance, citizens would be held accountable for the consequences because they are responsible. Since the 1950s, with the demand for more individual freedom there came to be lost the understanding that with more freedom so there comes more responsibility.

In examining both conservative and liberal perspectives we can see that, while they share more in common ideologically than is generally recognized, because of underlying predispositions and cultural differences there exists a few deep, even bitter points of contention. When viewed from a distance, both positions can claim some basic validity, but we will not be able to benefit from their respective wisdom as long as the discussion is conducted in an environment where self-interest and “winner takes all” is the name of the game.

In our final segment of this series we will take a look at some of the outliers to the spectrum; libertarians, socialists, authoritarians, and anarchists. I hope you will join me then.

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