Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- March 2005, March, 2006

The Right and the Left, in a Nutshell

Ernest Partridge

March 13, 2006

Excerpts from Chapters One and Three of Conscience of a Progressive.


Those of us who are at middle age or beyond have lived through a revolution in political and economic theory and practice, a revolution so profound that few of us can even begin to appreciate its significance, much less its peril.

Future historians, however, will understand and appreciate this revolution and will wonder at the passivity of the public today and the ease with which those who instituted this upheaval achieved their success. The same historians, I would venture, will be equally or more amazed at how this moment played out. But this we cannot know, for their past is our immediate future. We are the agents of that still-to-be written history. The United States of America, in this year of 2006, is at a hinge of history. Our fate, and that of our successors, rests directly in the hands of all of us who are politically alert and active today. As Edward R. Murrow famously said, “we can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result."

Those factions and interests now in control of the United States government declare that their policies, which they choose to call “conservative” and I prefer to call “regressive,” are an advancement in the course of human history. Those who disagree, and the pollsters tell us that they are a majority of the American people, believe that in the past five years, and arguably in the past twenty-five years, the people of the United States and their government, have suffered a grievous setback.

I count myself among this dissenting majority. In my book, "Conscience of a Progressive," I attempt to articulate that dissent, criticize the foundational dogmas of the regnant, “regressive” regime that now controls our country, and justify the principles of “progressivism” – the political-economic ideology that distinguished and honored our past, and if we are both determined and fortunate, may once again guide and enrich our national future.

Here, briefly, are the “players” in this political contest.

The Regressives:

To begin, it is important to note that the regressivism that controls and supports our present government is not a unified political doctrine. Rather, it is a coalition, some factions of which are in strong disagreement with others, most notably “the libertarian right” and “the religious right.”

In general, most regressives tend to believe that the ideal society is merely a collection of autonomous individuals and families in voluntary association. In fact they assert that strictly speaking, as Dame Margaret Thatcher once proclaimed, “There is no such thing as a society -- there are individuals and there are families,” and Ayn Rand, “There is no such entity as ‘the public’ ... the public is merely a number of individuals. ” It follows that there is no such thing as “public goods” and “the public interest,” apart from summation of private goods and interests. Moreover, there are no “victims of society.” The poor choose their condition; poverty is the result of “laziness” or, as the religious right would put it, a “sin.”

Each individual, by acting to maximize his or her personal self-interest, will always act “as if by an invisible hand” (Adam Smith) to promote the well-being of all others in this (so-called) “society:” that which is good for each, is good for all. Accordingly, the optimal economic system is a completely unrestricted and unregulated free market of “capitalist acts by consenting adults.” (Robert Nozick) Moreover, private ownership of all land, resources, infrastructure, and even institutions, will always yield results preferable to common (i.e. government) ownership and control. Finally, the regressives firmly believe that because economic prosperity and growth are accomplished through capital investment, the well-being of all is accomplished by directing wealth into the hands of “the investing class;” i.e. the very rich, whereby that wealth will “trickle down” to the benefit of all others.

The libertarian right insists that the sole legitimate functions of government are the protection of the individual’s unalienable natural rights to life, liberty and property. The libertarian’s demand for individual autonomy and government non-interference entails a tolerance and respect for privacy, and thus the libertarian has no use for sodomy and drug laws, for laws prohibiting gay marriage, abortion, voluntary euthanasia, and least of all for government endorsement of religious dogma or enforcement of religious practice. Thus the libertarian fully endorses John Stuart Mill’s pronouncement that, “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” In general, the libertarian advocates the fullest possible freedom of the individual, consistent with equivalent liberty of all others. In these respects, there is much of libertarian thought that should be attractive to the progressive.

The religious right, of course, vehemently rejects the libertarian’s uncompromising tolerance and insistence that the government has no right whatever to interfere in the private life of the individual. The religious right, to the contrary, believes that the government is entitled to enforce moral behavior and even to support religious institutions and “establish” religious doctrines in the law. In the most extreme cases, the religious right advocates the establishment of “biblical law” in place of our present system of secular Constitutional law.

With the exception of the dispute between the libertarians and the religious right regarding private behavior, all the other tenets of regressivism share this characteristic: They all lead to policies that benefit wealth and power (“the masters”), to the disadvantage of all others; i.e., the “ordinary citizens.

The Progressives:

“Progressivism” is essentially the “liberalism” of most of the twentieth century, as promulgated by both Roosevelts, by the Kennedy Brothers, and by many Republicans, such as Dwight Eisenhower, Jacob Javits and Earl Warren. “Progressivism,” to put it simply, is “liberalism,” free of the slanderous connotations heaped upon it by contemporary right-wing propagandists.

In general, progressives endorse the political principles of our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as well as the fundamental moral precepts of the great world religions and the ideas of many secular moral philosophers – precepts most familiar to the American public through the moral teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

Accordingly, progressivism is founded on enduring “conservative” principles. Thus the familiar “liberal vs. conservative” dichotomy is a hoax. Moreover, the Right, far from being “conservative,” in fact endorses a radical political doctrine, with policies designed to return society and the economy to a condition of autocracy, wealth and power for the privileged few, and servitude, poverty and ignorance for “the masses” – a condition which, until recently, was generally believed to be permanently discredited and relegated to the distant past. Hence my preferred term, “regressive.”

In contrast to the regressive, the progressive regards society not as an aggregate of autonomous individuals but as an “emergent” entity that is more than the sum of its individual human components. In this sense, a society is like a chemical compound such as table salt or water: substances with properties that are separate and distinct from the properties of their component elements. It then follows that there are “social goods” and “public interests” that are demonstrably separate from the sum of private goods and interests. Moreover, there are genuine “victims of society” who are in no way responsible for their suffering and poverty. (The illegitimate child of a teen-age heroin addict did not choose her parents. The decision to “outsource” a job was out of the hands of the worker who loses that job).

Because society (or “the public”) is demonstrably distinct from the sum of its component individuals, behavior that might be good for each individual, may be bad for society as a whole; and conversely, what is “bad” for the individual (e.g., taxes and regulations) may benefit society at large. These fundamental precepts: “good for each, bad for all” and “bad for each, good for all” are of essential importance to the defense of progressivism, and by implication to the refutation of regressivism.

The progressive is not against free markets, but rather believes that in the organization and functioning of society and its economy, markets are invaluable servants. But markets can also be cruel masters. Thus, in the formulation of public policy, markets should count for something and even for much, but not for everything. There is a “wisdom” of the marketplace, but that “wisdom” is not omniscient. Adam Smith was right: each individual seeking his own gain might act, “as if by an invisible hand,” to the benefit of all. But as Adam Smith also observed and regressive economists tend to forget, there is a “back of the invisible hand,” whereby self-serving action by each individual can bring ruin upon the whole – a warning that was vividly presented by Garrett Hardin in his landmark essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” (1968)

The progressives are so much in favor of a market economy that they are determined to protect it from its excesses and from its inborn tendency toward self-destruction. The progressive recognizes that the natural tendency of “free markets” is toward monopoly and cartels, which are, of course, the end of the free market. Thus the progressive endorses anti-trust laws, which means, of course, a rule of law enforced by government.

The progressive also recognizes that market transactions, especially those by large corporations, affect not only the parties of those transactions (the buyers and sellers), but also unconsenting third parties, the “stakeholders;” for example, citizens who reside downwind of and downstream from polluting industries, citizens who are enticed by false advertising to endanger their health, and parents whose children's’ minds and morals are corrupted by mass media. “Stakeholders” should thus have a voice in these corporate transactions, and the only agency with a legitimate right to represent the stakeholders is their government; hence the justification for regulation of corporations.

The progressive agrees that economic benefits “trickle down” from the investments of the wealthy. But he also insists that the wealth of the privileged few “percolates up” from knowledge and labor of the producers of that wealth – the workforce – and from the tranquility and social order that issues from a public that is served well by, and freely consents to the rule of, its government. The progressive insists that the workers are most productive and prosperous when they participate, through collective bargaining, in determining the conditions of their employment. The progressive also recognizes that the productivity of that workforce results from public education and from the publicly funded basic research that might otherwise be neglected by private entrepreneurs.

In addition to the libertarian’s defense of government’s function of protecting the rights of “life, liberty and property,” the progressive believes that it is also the function of government “to establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, ... [and] promote the general Welfare." Critics from The Right, who choose to call themselves “conservatives,” should note that these words are quoted directly from the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States.

Also, along with the libertarians, the progressive endorses the “like liberty principle” which affirms that each individual is entitled to maximum liberty, consistent with equal liberty for all. Likewise, the “no-harm principle,” expressed in the familiar folk maxim, “my freedom ends where your nose begins.” However, the libertarians fail to come to terms with the full implications of these principles, for their program results in freedom for the privileged few at the cost of the freedom and welfare of the many. To put the matter bluntly, the progressive disagrees with the libertarian, not because the progressive values liberty less, but because he values liberty more.

The progressive insists that certain institutions and resources are the legitimate property, not of private individuals, but of the public at large. These include, first of all, the government itself: the legislature, the executive, and the courts. In addition, the natural environment – the atmosphere, the waterways, the oceans, the aquifers, wildlife – can not be parceled out, marked by property lines, and sold to the highest bidder. Language, the arts, literature, the sciences, are common heritages which must be protected and nurtured for the common good, and not be used and exploited exclusively for private gain.

Finally, the progressive demands that government belongs to the people, and not exclusively to those interests that can afford to “buy into” access to and influence upon the government. “Governments,” the progressive reminds us, “are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” and that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.” And if the (self-described) “conservatives” find such sentiments to be treasonous, they should again take note of the source. These words are from the founding document of our republic: The Declaration of Independence.

Accordingly, far from being “traitors,” as Ann Coulter would have us believe, progressives are among the most authentic of patriots.


No question about it: We the People of the United States are now sharply divided into two hostile political factions, variously labeled as “liberal vs. conservative,” “left vs. right,” and (my preferred designation), “progressive vs. regressive.” Let a stranger utter just a couple of sentences of political opinion, and you will usually have a pretty good idea with which faction he identifies himself.

(There is a third part of our population, perhaps the largest: the a-political. When asked the question, “what do you think of the political ignorance and apathy of the American public,” they will likely reply “I don’t know and I don’t care.”)

The ongoing political debate in our country exemplifies one of the most remarkable paradoxes of language: namely, that while we routinely use abstract words without difficulty and are well understood when we do – such abstract words as “love,” “beauty,” “justice,” “freedom” – we find it very difficult to define them, when challenged to do so.

This paradox is well known to philosophers. For example, Plato wrote at length about all the above concepts, and often came to no firm conclusion. In fact his best known work, “The Republic,” is a book-length attempt to define “justice.”

The following analysis takes on the difficult task of defining “The Right” and “The Left” (and its synonyms) – concepts which are employed in public discourse with little apparent difficulty. In this brief space, I can only offer a grossly over-simplified analysis and some unqualified generalizations – a first approximation. For when we scrupulously examine the polar political concepts of “Right” and “Left” as they are used today, we encounter a great deal of vagueness, ambiguity, and even contradiction. Thus, after I have set down my ten brief and simplified distinguishing elements of progressivism (a.k.a. “liberalism”) and regressivism (so-called “conservatism,”) it is necessary that I offer five qualifications.

One final note, before we proceed: In this analysis, I will use the contrasting terms, “Right vs. Left” and “progressive vs. regressive.” However, I will avoid the terms “conservative” and “liberal.” As I have argued elsewhere (here and here), the word “conservative,” in its traditional sense, simply does not correctly apply to the contemporary policies of The Right. As for “liberal,” that word has been so abused by decades of assault from the right, that it no longer serves to communicate its original meaning.

I propose the following ten pairs of distinguishing characteristics of “The Right” and “The Left.”

Is society a collection of private individuals or is it a community?

The Right: Society is an aggregate of self-interested individuals. Associations within the society are personal and voluntary. Social progress issues from private, self-interested behavior. Strictly speaking: “there is no such thing as society – there are individuals and there are families.” (Margaret Thatcher). “Good for each, good for all; bad for each, bad for all.”

The Left: Society is a community: “a cooperative venture for mutual advantage [which] makes possible a better life for all than any would have if each were to live solely by his own efforts.” (John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 4) Common goods are achieved through individual constraint and sacrifice. “Good for Each, Bad for all; Bad for each, good for all.”

2. Cui Bono? Who are the beneficiaries of the policies?

The Right: A “Master Morality” (the term is from Nietzsche). Policies and rules are designed to benefit the wealthy and powerful few who own and control national wealth at the expense of the masses who produce the wealth. For example,: George W. Bush’s 2006 Budget Proposal and his tax “reforms.”

The Left: A Social-Democratic Morality. Policies and rules are designed to result in the greatest good for the greatest number in a regime of “equal justice under law.” Examples: FDR’s “New Deal” and LBJ’s “Great Society.”

3. What is the function of government?

The Right: The function of government is to protect the fundamental rights of life, liberty and property – nothing more. “Government is not the Solution.” (Ronald Reagan, 1981). “Government is the most dangerous institution known to man.” (John Hospers). “Who is best qualified to spend your money? You, or the government?” (George W. Bush).

The Left: Government “of, by, and for the people” is a legitimate surrogate of the people’s interests and a protector of the people’s rights. “To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” (Declaration of Independence, 1776). Citizens must constantly be on guard against abuses of office. However, the answer to bad government is better government, not the abolition of government.

4. What are the justifications for taxation?

The Right (i.e., the Libertarian faction): Taxes for any purpose other than the protection of individual rights to life, liberty and property, are a theft of personal property. (But for the religious right, tax revenue may also expended to compel private morality).

The Left: Taxes are legitimate dues that we pay for civilized society. (Oliver Wendell. Holmes). Taxes can be legitimately levied to support such community goods as education, the arts, national parks, basic research, and physical infrastructure. In general, to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” (Preamble, Constitution of the United States).

5. What is the function of free markets in society?

The Right: Social problems can best be solved through the unconstrained action of free markets. Private initiative and privatization of property produces results superior to government action. (Maslow’s Rule: To a carpenter, all problems can be solved with a hammer. Corollary: To the right, all problems can be solved by the free market).

The Left: Privatization and free markets, while valuable ingredients of society, must not be absolutes. They must be regulated for the common good by agencies of popular government. Unregulated free markets are self-eliminating, for their natural tendency is toward monopolies and the end of competition. Thus the necessity of anti-trust regulation.

6. Is wealth generated in society from the top down (“trickle down”) or from the bottom-up (“percolate up”)?

The Right: “Trickle-down.” Prosperity results from investment by the wealthy. “The rising tide lifts all boats.” “I never was given a job by a poor man.” (Sen. Phil Gramm).

The Left: Wealth “percolates up” from the labor and innovation of an educated work-force.

7. What is the role of language in society and politics?

The Right: Language is a political weapon, to be “shaped” to the advantage of the ruling elites. "Newspeak" in George Orwell's 1984 shows the way.  (See "Newspeak Lives!" and "The Language Trap.")

The Left: Language is the primary (“keystone”) social institution. The distortion of language leads to social disorder, public alienation from politics, and economic inefficiency. In other words, the left takes an authentically “conservative” view of language.

8.  How are human conduct and society morally evaluated?

The Right: Simple, dualistic view of human nature, morality, society and social problems. (“You are either with us or against us.” G. W. Bush).

The Left: Complex view of human nature, morality, society and social problems. Rules and principles often conflict and must be “bent” to accommodate circumstances. (The Religious Right derides this as “situation ethics” and “moral relativism”).

9. Political methodology.

The Right: Dogmatic approach to policy. “Top down:” unyielding principles applied to particular circumstances. “Unconfused by the facts.”

The Left: Pragmatic and empirical. “Reality based:” i.e., willing to be “instructed” by the real world. Principles adapted in the face of newly discovered facts and newly invented technology. Policies tried, and if they fail, are revised or even abandoned.

10. Moral perspective:

The Right: Egocentric point of view. Society viewed and evaluated through “the mind’s I.” The interests of the individual are supreme.

The Left: Moral Point of View. Society viewed and evaluated from the perspective of the “ideal observer” of the society as a whole, without advantage accorded any individual unless that advantage works to the benefit of all. (Equal opportunity, blind justice).

From these elements arise the contrasting policies of The Right and The Left, regarding such issues as the minimum wage, Social Security, worker protection, legal liability (torts), health care, and environmental protection.

Some qualifications:

1. Political opinion is in fact distributed along a continuum – a “spectrum” – thus between the extreme Right and Left are the “centrists” and “moderates.” Because the above list suggests a polar dichotomy of political opinion, it is a distortion.

2. Accordingly, these elements are not “defining characteristics,” rather they are “symptoms.” (“Defining characteristics” are attributes that something must have for a word to correctly apply to it. For example, “unmarried,” “adult” and “male” are defining characteristics of the word “bachelor.”) Because these “elements” are not defining, a “progressive” or a “regressive” individual may exhibit many but not all of the traits attributed above to The Right and The Left. To cite a medical analogy, these traits are like “symptoms” that comprise a “syndrome.” Not all symptoms need be present to confirm a diagnosis.

3. To further complicate matters, there are strong disagreements among the factions that comprise “The Right” and “The Left” – within each “family,” so to speak. For example, the libertarian right opposes all legal restrictions on personal conduct (e.g., drug laws, sodomy laws, obscenity restrictions, banning abortion, etc.). The religious right, on the other hand, advocates the criminalization of “sin”.

4. These traits are not necessarily exclusive. A political position might “mix” both “right” and “left” traits, and do so consistently. Surely The Right affirms, for example, that workers produce wealth (“percolate up”), and The Left acknowledges the necessity of private investment in a thriving economy (“trickle-down”). (Only the radical left, e.g., the communists, would deny the necessity of private investment). The distinction is in the relative importance The Right and The Left assign, respectively, to private investment and to labor.

5. Finally, because this list has been drawn from a progressive point of view, regressives would surely object to several of “The Right” elements, listed above. Most notably, they would strongly object to the characterization of “The Right” as a “master morality.”  Most regressives sincerely believe, or at the very least emphatically affirm in their public pronouncements, that their policies (notably “trickle down” and minimalist government) bring about “the greater good for the greatest number” of citizens. I will argue that this assertion is a delusion at best, and a fraud at worst. Examine each policy of The Right and ask, “Cui Bono?” – who benefits? – and the answer will almost invariably be “the privileged few.” An apparent exception would be The Right’s support for the agenda of the religious right – opposition to gay rights, advocacy of obscenity laws, the banning of abortion, etc. – but even these policies are also devised to benefit the oligarchy of wealth and privilege, for they are adopted to secure the enlistment of the essential “foot soldiers” of the Right, the evangelical Christians, whose votes are an essential ingredient of the political power of The Right.

The list is offered to progressives as an inventory of “targets” – of doctrines of the Right to be criticized, and of The Left to be defended. But to be of much use, these elements must be elaborated and examined – which is why I am writing my book.

Copyright 2005, 2006 by Ernest Partridge

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .