Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Progressive Movement

I want to articulate the fundamental ideological planks of what I see as the progressive movement.

Humanism: I think the fundamental value of the progressive movement is to value that which promotes human happiness and diminishes human suffering. This plank stands in stark and principled contrast to the conservative movement's value of adherence to abstract ideals. To a progressive, an ideal is worthy not in itself but only if it promotes subjective human well-being. To a conservative, one should adhere to the ideal for itself, even if it doesn't promote subjective well-being in reality.

Libertarianism No, not like the "Libertarian" party, which is no more libertarian than the "Republican" party with its king is about a republic, or the "Democratic" party, which ignores and challenges the principles of its voters, is about democracy.

I mean "libertarian" in the sense of valuing personal liberty and, insofar as practically possible, freedom of choice. Libertarianism entails that, while there are some wrong ways to live (e.g. as a criminal or in poverty), there is no "One Right Way" to live.

Communitarianism: The idea that we have positive moral duties to each other. We have a duty to promote happiness and relieve unnecessary and unchosen suffering in our fellow human beings. The "Invisible Hand" cannot regulate everything (or, in another sense, we should recognize that the Invisible Hand regulates not only economics but also politics: i.e. "There ain't no such thing as governnment interference").

There is a certain dynamic tension in these positions. Humanism has internal tension: the happiness of one person can entail the suffering of another. The essence of progressivism, though, is that we resolve these difficulties not by appeal to an abstract ideal, but rather by getting down into the gory details and figuring out how precisely we have the best effect on human well-being.

Libertarianism and Communitarianism are also in tension. We have a communitarian duty to others so long as we're not interfering with their own choices: No one is substantially interfering with my freedom of choice, for example, by making it impossible to live in involuntary poverty, but one might well object if our government forces her to quit smoking.

Progressivism, unlike conservatism, does not provide simple, easy answers. This is a feature of progressivism, not a "bug".

The only way conservatism can provide its simple, easy answers is by promoting as its highest meta-value submission to authority: Submission to the unquestionable authority of church and religion, to political leaders, and to objective moral virtues. The problem with the meta-value of submission to authority is that there's never only one authority; and once you submit to some authority, you cannot negotiate--you can only fight.

By explicitly embracing complexity and tension, progressive ideology preserves its ability to negotiate without sacrificing a strong principled position from which to negotiate.

All of the terms which I used to label these planks have been corrupted and redefined by opponents to a greater or lesser degree. Better rhetoricians, polemicists and politicians than I will doubtlessly have to present these planks in a more salable fashion.


  1. Maybe I'm not the sort of conservative you're railing against here, Mr. Bum, but as a conservative Christian, I have no problem with the principles of humanism, libertarianism and communitarianism as you've described here. I happen to accept a Higher Authority that provides guidance in navigating the interactions between them (and provides a few other standards as well).

    This gives me no less room to negotiate in dealing with the realities of life than you have, unless you consider it valuable to allow yourself the room to murder or steal.

    Do you have any specific gripes you'd care to bring up to clarify the situation? Or is there someway you define me out of the realm of "conservative"?

  2. This post is not about "gripes" with conservatism. It's about a positive definition of progressivism--by a self-described progressive--positioned against the typical conservatism of self-described conservatives.

    Naturally the views of people who self-identify as conservative are going to vary; when speaking in a general sense, I have to go with statistical generalizations. There are going to be some people whose views are "outliers", but outliers are still part of population.

    I don't demand that that people describing progressivism use my definition; I'm trying, rather, to persuade self-described progressives to buy into my vision and thereby make it typical progressivism.

    To the extent that you sincerely believe humanism, libertarianism and communitarianism in the senses that I describe, then I'm vastly more pleased that we agree on these philosophical points than I am worried that we self-identify differently.

  3. I have to say that I find the biggest actual distinction in political philosophy to be between stupid people and smart people.

    I generally find that smart people are usually (aside from the expected outliers) pretty close philosophically when you get down to actual cases, differing not so much on actual goals as on fine points of tactics--regardless of how they self-describe.

  4. And thanks, by the way, for the "Mr." rather than the "sir". (wink)

  5. So now it's not conservative vs. progressive, but smart vs. stupid? Harder to get opponents who self-identify in that case, I suppose. I was thinking of your recent post on Mere Comments:

    "I find it objectionable (albeit amusing) when an obviously biased commentator offers a simplistic, tendentious and reductionist account of an opposing philosophical view."

  6. Oops, that anonymous post was me. Anyway, let me refine my statement. I don't think anyone would disagree that your three planks are good; they simply affirm that there are better planks that often supercede your three, or that certain rules should often/ always govern the conflicts between these planks.

  7. I don't think I'm giving a tendentious definition of conservatism: I think the majority of self-identified conservatives would uphold moral objectivism, and if some person (perhaps a thief or a murderer) suffers as a result of a conflict with those objective moral truths, well, that's just too bad.

    My point as a progressive is not that one should tolerate or promote thievery, but that thievery is wrong not because it conflicts with objective moral values, but rather because it causes suffering on the part of the victim.

    The difference in the two meta-ethical stances becomes clearer when we look at more controversial topics: abortion, gay marriage, secularism, the conflict with the Islamic countries, etc.

    [Conservatives (?)] simply affirm that there are better planks that often supercede your three, or that certain rules should often/ always govern the conflicts between these planks.

    And that's the crux of the biscuit: I would have progressives affirm that there aren't better planks, and that these three supersede all others--with Humanism the fundamental plank.

  8. Yaknyeti, you might benefit from investigating a strain of American political thought called Classical Liberalism. It's sort of a small "c" conservatism with a theist core at its heart. The thing to remember about American political thought is that its liberals are historically more conservative than European liberals, and its conservatives used to be far more liberal than European conservatives. Until about the last forty or so years. The influence of European thought, post-WWII, has pushed both sides farther to the poles. This is what usually gets me about Andrew Sullivan: He willfully forgets that his strain of "conservatism" is only conservative by English and old U.S. standards. There's a reason Burke was a Whig and not a Tory.


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