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Liberal Principles for all of us
By Greg Davidson May 5, 2014

The sincere pursuit of truth is a fundamental requirement for living a moral life. My liberal education has made me aware of the challenges in determining what is true and what is not. Real life often has moral complexities, and there are even alternate approaches to assessing truth that can reach different answers. Neuroscience has reliably demonstrated in empirical tests that there are many pitfalls in how the human brain analyzes problems, and our pursuit of truth will be facilitated by an understanding of these cognitive biases. Nevertheless, we can use our human gift for introspection and the accumulated wisdom of our history to address these challenges and make moral judgments based on our best knowledge of what is right and wrong. This includes the responsibility to regularly question our assumptions to ensure that we have a proper basis for ethical assessments. Our judgments should be made with the humility that comes from knowing the limits of human fallibility, and the recognition that making false moral judgments is itself an immoral action.

I believe that our public discussions have a moral context. This context is independent of the specific viewpoint being raised, as even the argument for an immoral act may be beneficial in creating a better understanding of what is true through the clash of ideas in debate. But I also believe that there are ethical standards for how we should conduct ourselves in public discussion. We would likely all agree that it is immoral to physically harm those we are disagreeing with. When we are engaged in public debate on the internet, there is a social contract that we are gathered here to exchange ideas. This concept of morality extends to how we engage in this internet debate. Since political discussions concern how to best structure society, if anyone knowingly provides false information, then he or she is intentionally harming others by attempting to mislead them regarding the truth of politics. There is a moral responsibility for spreading falsehoods intentionally, and there is a moral responsibility to correct yourself if you later discover that what you have discussed turns out to be false. The same principle applies to logical consistency: if you assert that "judicial activism" is wrong because judges are rejecting precedent and legislative intent, then you must be just as willing to criticize judicial acts that meet those criteria in service of your own preferred policy positions. My liberal education has taught me that every generation has those who prefer the passions of their ideology over a relentless focus on facts and consistency, and only by scrupulous and rigorous focus on what is true can we avoid the errors to which excessive ideology is prone.

As a principle of courtesy rather than ethics, I believe that we should try to honor all that is honorable in other people, and other peoples. The Founding Fathers of our country made history by creating a new and better form of governance. It's also true that many of them were slaveholders, and the rest accepted a political compromise that sustained slavery for generations. The latter evil does not erase the honorable work that they performed; we should honor the positive without turning a blind eye to the negative. We shall also best learn from each other when we treat each other with respect; assigning pejorative names to those we disagree with is at best discourteous and may in some cases be an act of cowardice if the inflammatory designation prevents reasoned discussion. Our participation ought to be as colleagues in search of a better understanding of the world.

Here are liberal positions on two major topics

Economics

I believe that a competitive marketplace performs many functions better than any other alternative system for organizing production; it can efficiently manage highly complex transactions, it can reward initiative and performance, and it often gives an astounding level of choice and autonomy to consumers. A competitive marketplace even channels some adverse human behaviors (such as the appetite for power and domination) into arenas that are less damaging than most alternatives. But competitive marketplaces also have vulnerabilities; adverse effects that are not easily observed or monetarized (such as pollution) often promulgate, boom-and-bust cycles can still hit (5 million rapidly lost their jobs in the economic collapse of 2008 and, arguably, without government intervention, the job losses would have been much more severe), and market actors can convert their wealth into power in order to benefit competitively without providing higher quality or lower cost goods and services. Some level of government regulation is essential in order to address the adverse effects of competition; we should choose that level of regulation based on not solely on ideology but rather through a combination of discussions of our different values and a rigorous look at what actually works in the real world.

Foreign Policy

I believe that many of the foreign policy mistakes of the past century have been made based on an inappropriate focus on reputation, and the domestic political benefits of talking tough. While World War II provides an example of where tougher action earlier would have been beneficial, World War I, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq provide contrary examples in which unnecessary wars were undertaken under false premises. While we need to look realistically at great evil done by other regimes, we also must avoid faulty analyses that represent groups such as the world's 1.8 billion Muslims as all being fanatical "Islamofascists". In many cases, aggressive American actions actually provide domestic political support to the most extreme elements in our foreign adversaries. The best foreign policy is one which makes thoughtful use of our resources and power, which takes advantages of the weaknesses and internal divisions of our potential adversaries, and within those constraints works for the freedom and economic well-being of the people of the United States, and as a second priority, those of other countries.

Greg Davidson is a husband and father of three now-adult children; He is religiously observant and attends services weekly; his job supports US national defense, He believes that we all should choose our actions based on standards of ethics and morality, and his politics are liberal. He participates in on-line discussions on the Ornery American Forum, as well as elsewhere.

Copyright © 2014 by Greg Davidson


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