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The Prime Directives of Liberalism and Conservatism


If you’re familiar with Star Trek then you’re familiar with the concept of a prime directive. It’s a single, overriding, guiding principle that influences, “shapes the path,” as it were, of everything else.

A radio commercial for a local car dealer I must have heard a hundred times after I moved to D.C. in the mid 1980’s contained the line

Once you decide to be the best, all the other decisions are easy.

That’s the role of the prime directive; it’s that single, bright, guide star that makes all the day-to-day decisions of navigating through life easy.

It seems that liberalism and conservatism each has a prime directive, and that the prime directives are emergent properties of a their respective unique mix of moral foundations and cognitive style.

The conservative prime directive seems to be moral capital. It’s why things like flag burning and gay marriage and gender fluid bathrooms feel wrong to conservatives. It’s why conservative are dumbfounded in their attempts to explain to liberals WHY hose things are wrong. There’s no clear victim, other than the world full of relationships that is human society. Social capital is as real as asphalt to conservatives, but seems merely conceptual or ephemeral or ideological, and therefore irrelevant to “evidence” based liberals.

The liberal prime directive seems to be the feeling of empathy, sympathy, compassion, and heartbreak one feels when one sees or thinks of the suffering of another, AND the strong urge to reach out and sooth, nurture, heal, and protect others from suffering. To say that liberalism is a one-foundation morality is, I think, to misrepresent the liberal “moral sentiment” as shallower than it really is. It’s much more all encompassing and comprehensive than the care foundation alone. It’s all of the different forms of caring for or about an individual – empathy, compassion, sympathy, etc. – rolled into one.

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