Chapter 6 – Part 1: Our American Values

This article is part of the Thinking Points Discussion Series published by the Rockridge Institute in early 2007. It was written by Joe Brewer (Rockridge Institute staff member) on Monday, May 7, 2007

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People who have pointed to the United States as a beacon of light in the world have often cited its dedication to fairness, freedom, and equality. But the meanings of these values are not set in stone. Right now there are two opposing meanings for each value. Exposing these contradictory meanings is necessary in order to assess their qualities and choose the one that resonates with the brighter side of America.

Chapter 6 of Thinking Points is about the fundamental American values we all share and their conflicting meanings. This installment explores the values of fairness, freedom, and equality. Next week we will look at responsibility, integrity, and security.

Common Ground or Common Misunderstandings?

Despite our significant differences, progressives and conservatives all talk about the fundamental American values of fairness, freedom, equality, responsibility, integrity, and security. This common ground is the foundation for the moral vision of our country. So why do we disagree so strongly, when we share so much? The answer has to do with what these ideas mean.

An example is the “freedom to marry” movement, which sees same-sex marriage as an issue of personal freedom. Progressives do not believe the government should be involved in the personal decision of whom you can marry. We liken this to the situation where old laws banning interracial marriage were overturned. George W. Bush also considers this a “freedom” issue, that he argued in opposition to when Congress took up a constitutional amendment to ban “gay marriage.” In the progressive worldview, this is a matter of personal freedom beyond government rule. In the conservative worldview, the government has the moral authority to decide, and freedom is the exercise of the vote by elected officials.

Contested Concepts

In the legendary song Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin, released more than three decades ago, we are told that “sometimes words have two meanings.” It is only in the last few years that a detailed understanding of this phenomenon has been revealed.

A contested concept is an idea that means different things to different people.

Contested concepts were first described in the late 1950′s by W.B. Gallie, using examples like “art” and “democracy.” They have certain regularities that help us understand how they work:

  • Each concept has an uncontested core that is generally agreed on – a class of examples that there is no argument about
  • Each concept is evaluative – expressing certain values – and the disagreements arise from value differences
  • The uncontested version of the concept has a complex structure, and contested versions are variations on this structure.

The recent advance in understanding contested concepts is that they are structured in a way that has an understandable set of rules to allow us to draw the same conclusions again and again. It used to be believed that no such structure existed, and the inconsistent meanings were an indication that no clear logic exists for understanding what contested concepts mean. This is not true.

One way to think about contested concepts is that they have a simple core meaning that everyone agrees on, but it is so simple that there is vagueness and ambiguity about what the concept means. The central definition is given but there are many empty slots that require a context to fill them in.

Let’s take a look at three crucial American values – and how their meanings are structured by progressive and conservative understandings – to see how this works.

The Meaning of Fairness

Fairness is a contested concept. Its uncontested core, the part everyone agrees on, is that fairness is unbiased distribution. Most progressives and conservatives will agree on this meaning. But the idea of fairness contains other concepts that need to be filled in: bias, a process of distributing things, things distributed, who they are distributed to, and so on. There is plenty of room to disagree about what fairness means in these areas.

An example is the voting principle that says “It is fair for everyone’s vote to count equally.” Nobody’s vote counts twice as much as another’s, and no person’s vote is not counted. This is only agreed upon when we exclude the hard cases: Should absentee military votes in Florida have been counted in 2004 if they were sent in after the election ended and it was known that the election was close? Does a hanging chad count? Should convicted felons be allowed to vote? All of these questions complicate the meaning of voting fairness. They can only be answered by introducing a broader context that tells us what is centrally relevant and what is inappropriate or irrelevant.

The idealized cognitive models of strict father and nurturant parent families provide the context for our understanding of fairness. It is these models that structure the contested meanings.

Contested Fairness and Affirmative Action

The issue of affirmative action in admissions to public colleges and universities reveals how strict and nurturant models “fill in the blanks” for the concept of fairness.

Progressive Fairness
Affirmative action is motivated by empathy and is considered to be fair and right. We have empathy for African Americans and Native Americans who often live in communities that are still suffering from past discrimination. We also empathize with poor minorities who are given inferior educations and often lack the cultural knowledge necessary to succeed in the business world. We recognize that minority communities commonly lack adequate professionals (doctors, nurses, dentists, and lawyers), social services, and business infrastructure (banks, stock brokers, real estate agents, and corporation offices).

Affirmative action is designed to meet the moral mission of colleges and universities by making sure that all people can realize the benefit of higher education. Universities are supported by government grants and tax breaks – part of the common wealth – and should serve the public good. This means they should serve all sectors of society, including minorities. Affirmative action is about providing fairness to redress widespread unfairness.

Conservative Fairness
Conservatives view affirmative action differently. They believe it is your fault if you haven’t made it. People who work hard will be admitted to college. Because everyone is submitted to the same admission process, everyone is treated fairly. Conservatives see affirmative action as being unfair and immoral because people are given something they haven’t earned.

This comes about because conservatives view college admissions as a competition, where admittance is the reward a student gets for defeating less disciplined applicants. It is all about individual initiative and discipline. The competition needs to be kept fair by using “objective” criteria like high school grade point averages and standardized test scores.

From this perspective many things are irrelevant: empathy, community needs, cultural discrimination, and past discrimination. The only things that are relevant are individual initiative, discipline, and achievement.

Moral Worldview Shapes Consequences

The values and concepts of strict father and nurturant parent families inform the debate about affirmative action. The progressive position is built around empathy and social responsibility. The conservative position is built around discipline and authority (establishing “objective” standards that are not questioned). Without these moral landscapes the different meanings of fairness are confusing and contradictory – implying that the concept of fairness is unpredictable.

Yet, the application of fairness to a broad range of issues demonstrates the predictable structure of the two family cognitive models. Every time the strict father model is applied to situations involving fairness there will be emphasis on discipline and authority. The same is true when the nurturant parents model is applied with empathy and responsibility.

The Meaning of Freedom

The history of the United States can be understood in part as the ongoing expansion of freedoms: voting rights, civil rights, and freedoms afforded by expanded systems of public education, public health, highways, parks, libraries, and so on. These are progressive freedoms.

Right now we are in the midst of a reversal in this trend. A radical conservative “freedom” that fits modern conservative ideology is stripping Americans of these freedoms. Examples include efforts to amend the U.S. Constitution to institutionalize discrimination against homosexuals and the encroachment of fundamentalist religion onto public courts and schools. How is it that we are losing ground? It is because freedom is a classic case of an essentially contested concept.

An essentially contested concept is a concept that is so thoroughly contested that it is impossible to have a fixed, stable meaning.

The idea of freedom must be vigilantly protected against efforts to narrow it. This is evident with common truisms like “The best way to lose the Bill of Rights is to ignore them!” and “Every generation must stand up for freedom of speech!” Our responsibility as citizens is to actively preserve our fundamental rights. If we remain silent while they are attacked, we will surely lose them. This is a central component of progressive patriotism.

The uncontested core for freedom is (very roughly) defined as being able to do what you want to do so long as you don’t interfere with the freedom of others. This includes physical freedom, freedom to pursue goals, freedom of the will, and political freedom (where citizens freely choose who runs the state and where the state cannot interfere with the basic freedoms of citizens) This is all generally accepted by progressives and conservatives.

Freedom is a very complex concept. George Lakoff devoted 288 pages to the subject in his book Whose Freedom? The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea. Here is the logic of what counts as interfering with one’s freedom:

  • Coercion and harm, and the fear of them, interfere with one’s freedom
  • Property and money add to one’s freedom (taking away your money or property is an imposition on your freedom)
  • Opportunity is necessary for freedom
  • Unfairness interferes with freedom by taking away what is rightfully yours
  • Justice contributes to freedom, since it deters unfairness, coercion, and harm
  • Rights give you access (taking them away interferes with freedom)
  • Responsibility must be exercised by others to make your rights possible
  • Nature cannot interfere with freedom, only people can (a tornado that knocks down your house has not interfered with your freedom)
  • Winners in a competition do not interfere with the freedom of losers

This is all part of the logic of uncontested freedom. Freedom becomes contested when other concepts become contested: coercion, harm, property, nature, competition, etc.

To get a sense of where disagreements come from, consider what constitutes “interference”: Do I have a right to say whatever I want, even if it’s obscene, or do you have a right not to be offended? If I have no clothes, no food, and no shelter, am I free? How much property is necessary for adequate freedom? The concept of freedom can get complicated very quickly.

Contested Freedom and the Market

What progressives consider to be essential freedoms, conservatives see as essential interferences. (See why freedom is essentially contested?) Consider different approaches to the market:

Progressive Freedom
We empathize with people suffering from economic hardship and believe economic pressures can interfere with freedom. When we see a person working 80 hours per week at the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour who still lives in poverty, the market is interfering with their freedom. This is why the regulation of the market is an issue of freedom. We apply the Common Good Principle to the market when we believe Social Security, universal health care, and access to education – all part of the common wealth – can help improve economic conditions and contribute to freedom from want.

Conservative Freedom
Conservatives believe the market is a “natural” system. The market – like an earthquake or tornado – cannot interfere with a person’s freedom. Regulation is understood as the government interfering with the market by setting “artificial” prices. Minimum wage is considered to be a restriction placed on employment contracts that inhibits the freedom of employers to let wages be set by the natural functioning of the market.

The Meaning of Equality

We hold the idea of equality dear to our hearts in this country. We believe all people should be afforded the same rights and freedoms. Everyone is entitled to equal opportunities to pursue their dreams. After all, this is the Land of Opportunity.

There are simple cases where equality is straightforward, such as when 2+2 equals 3+1. In simple cases like this the uncontested core is that equality is sameness of distribution. It becomes contested when we consider what is being distributed, who things are distributed to, what the process of distribution is, what counts as the same, who does the distributing, and on what basis.

The social, legal, and political ideas of equality get even more complicated when the things distributed are votes, rights, property, pollution credits, jobs, and so on. We must ask which votes count during an election (hanging chads?) and who has the opportunity to run for office (do naturalized citizens count?).

Equal Opportunity: Access or Outcome?

Both progressives and conservatives support equal opportunity. But their understandings are informed by the deep frames of each worldview. The result is that we take very different positions on what equality means when it comes to opportunities.

Progressive Equality
Because we empathize with others, we see others as being like us. Men and women – regardless of race, ethnicity, age, etc. – are born with the same range of abilities. It is not the case that we all have the same abilities, but we do have the same range of abilities. When we see people of different races having a different range of outcomes, we do not pass judgment on the abilities of that race. Instead we acknowledge the fact that institutional discrimination leads to inequality of opportunity. If there were equality of opportunity, there would be the same number of doctors, lawyers, scientists, etc. per capita in African American communities as in the population at large.

Progressives speak of equality as having the same access to outcomes.

Conservative Equality
Conservatives agree that there should be equality of opportunity, but they apply conservative deep frames of competition (i.e. that the market is open to everyone, so nothing further needs to be done to ensure fairness). Framing opportunity in the context of competition leads to emphasis on equal access to compete. The assumption is that not everyone has the same abilities and competition will separate those who move ahead from those who fall behind. When conservatives see whites holding more positions of influence than non-whites, they interpret this to mean that whites have out-competed non-whites. (Implicitly claiming that whites have greater abilities – more disciplined and less lazy – than non-whites).

Conservatives speak of equity as a hierarchy of merit (defined by success in the market).

Preserving American Values

It should be clear at this point that contested concepts are extremely important to politics. The most fundamental values we hold as Americans are shaped by the moral worldview that is active in our brains. A person whose thoughts are shaped by strict father concepts will understand the American vision very differently than another whose thoughts are shaped by nurturant parent concepts.

What is at stake when contested concepts about fundamental values are not recognized in political debates?

How can we keep our freedoms from being redefined by a radical group of political fundamentalists?

What are you doing to promote our real (progressive) American values?

Ideas are powerful! We can find personal power when we express our understanding of important ideas. And every cause – be it climate change, corporate reform, or election integrity – involves freedom, equality, and fairness. Let’s reclaim the beacon of light that has inspired millions to venture to our shores.

Go to the next discussion in this series.


Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.

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