Friday, November 05, 2004

Justice and Righteousness

Scott, I really like your defense of FDR. You can add Truman and, to a lesser extent, JFK and RFK to that list. But part of the point of my post was that these great figures, while fighting for a broad notion of justice, were defined largely by economic issues cast in moral terms. I don't know where any of them would have come down on the litany of social/moral issues today, but I know Jimmy Carter was vehemently pro-life. I don't think the modern Democratic party would nominate Jimmy again, and the party certainly pressured Al Gore and Dick Gephardt, both of whom were pro-life early in their careers, to adopt the party orthodoxy if they wanted to seek more prominent positions. My hope was that the party would loosen up on this issue, which would allow it to loosen up in other areas and attract more strident "moral values" candidates. It can't be that the split in the two parties is a difference in one's view of the role of government in setting up and enforcing morality. Democrats' rhetoric drips with moral overtones. Republicans are accused of supporting greedy companies, of being bigoted toward Blacks and other races and of being intolerant of gays. This is moral language. When a tax structure is supported not because it will increase the GDP, but because it will be more just or fair for the poor, that is a moral argument. When capital punishment is opposed because it is the taking of a life, that is a moral argument. Most subtly, when racism and sexual orientation discrimination are made to be illegal bases for employment decisions across the spectrum of the entire American market, those are moral interventions into private American choices.

One could roughly separate moral arguments into two kinds, those that are concerned with justice for the poor and oppressed, and those that are concerned with personal righteousness. Economic issues dominate the former, while sexual issues and issues of integrity (like, say, corporate corruption) dominate the latter. Speaking very broadly, I'd say Democrats like state intervention to correct issues of economic justice, Republicans are more concerned with state representation of personal righteousness. But this is not the only possible divide. Libertarians would be laissez faire about both market disparities and personal righteousness; most Catholic thinkers are interventionist about both economic and personal morality. I think strategically, to be more successful, the Democrats could try to be open to people concerned with issues of personal righteousness. It certainly rings hollow to use moral language up and down in criticizing the selfish, greedy, intolerant behavior of conservatives, and then assert that really moral issues are a matter of one's private conscience that the State has no business getting involved in. Democrats are not libertarians, so why are they selectively applying their rhetoric?

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