Chapter 6 – Part 2: More About 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 14, 2007

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In politics we regularly hear discussions about responsibility, integrity, and security. These fundamental American values mean different things to progressives and conservatives. In this installment of the Thinking Points discussion, we look at the ways these values get expressed through political worldviews.

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

The Meaning of Responsibility

Progressives and conservatives both recognize the importance of responsibility. We just have different understandings about what responsibility is and who is responsible for what. In Thinking Points the discussion centers around two common surface frames for responsibility:

Carrying the weight of responsibility
Responsibility is a load carried by a person as s/he goes through life. This load makes moving through life more difficult. If the person is too weak to carry the burden of responsibility, it is his or her own fault. This meaning is based on the conceptual metaphor A Responsibility is a Heavy Load.

Fulfilling a responsibility
There is a void that needs to be filled by somebody. If one person can’t do it, s/he isn’t the right person for the duty and someone else more appropriate should take the responsibility. This meaning is based on the conceptual metaphor A Responsibility is a Need to be Fulfilled.

These two different conceptual metaphors are based on different experiences. The first one expresses responsibility in the context of being given a manual labor chore to perform that you are responsible to complete. The chore is an individual contribution that is the responsibility of the person it is assigned to. The second metaphor expresses responsibility in the context of having a task that needs to be performed that has not been assigned. A member of the group who is capable of performing the task is needed. The bond of community – combined with a recognition that task performance affects everyone in the group – compels an individual to rise up and perform the task for the benefit of everyone.

Progressive Responsibility
Nurturant responsibility is based on the fulfillment of needs. It builds upon the sense of responsibility that arises when a person empathizes with others and recognizes that s/he can fill the void that has caused harm or reduced the benefits of others.

Conservative Responsibility
Strict Father responsibility is based on discipline and authority. There are two sides to responsibility in this perspective:

  1. The people making the rules have a responsibility to enforce them by rewarding those who follow the rules and punishing those who do not.
  2. The people following the rules have a responsibility to follow the rules while seeking to maximize personal well-being.

A striking difference between these perspectives is the absence of social responsibility in the strict father worldview. Progressives acknowledge both personal and social responsibility, while conservatives expressing strict father modes of thought will not recognize the need for accountability of authority figures to the society that their actions impact. This is explored in a Rockridge article [Accountability article] written by Glenn Smith and George Lakoff.

Another key difference is the source of obligation. Both meanings require appropriate action. Conservative obligation arises when an authority figure assigns a task to you. It is your duty to perform the task to the best of your ability. Progressive obligation arises from the recognition that the task needs to be performed and incorporates the bond of community as a motivator for action to fulfill the need. If you care about your community and see a need arise that you are the most appropriate person to address (which means you are knowledgeable about the abilities offered by others in the community), then you will feel a “call to duty” even if you aren’t asked to do it.

The Meaning of Integrity

Integrity is about having an authentic moral character. It means saying what you believe and then acting on it consistently. The expression of authentic beliefs will take different forms for people with different moral values. This is certainly true for progressives and conservatives:

Progressive integrity is the consistent application of nurturance.

Conservative integrity is the consistent application of strictness.

Significant differences arise when these contrasting principles are applied. With strictness, constancy is essential. Discipline must be applied the same way every time, regardless of circumstance. This is necessary for the person being disciplined to learn that there are immediate consequences for wrongful action and that the consequence is the same.

The consistent application of empathy does not work this way. The needs of the person receiving nurturance must be addressed. The focus is not on the process – the consistent application of discipline for conservatives – but on the amount of care provided to the person you give nurturance to. The expression of care may change to fit the circumstances but the amount of care does not.

Life Altering Consequences
This important difference can be deadly serious. Consider the actions of John Murtha, Congressman from Pennsylvania, when he spoke out about the need to bring our troops home from Iraq after an initial commitment to military engagement by voting to approve the use of military force. Progressives recognized this action as Murtha’s unwavering concern for the men and women in uniform and the innocent civilians in Iraq whose lives have been adversely affected (or summarily ended) by the U.S. presence in Iraq. It is emblematic of personal integrity because it was a courageous act to speak out when this position was unpopular.

Conservatives, on the other hand, saw this act as the opposite of integrity. They attacked Murtha for being a “flip-flopper” who first supported the war and then criticized it. Conservatives instead granted Bush a high level of integrity for his unfaltering vigilance in Iraq.

One interpretation perpetuates a destructive policy that has ended hundreds of thousands of lives. The other resonates with the call to end the suffering caused by the bad policy.

The Meaning of Security

One of the most basic elements of life as sentient beings is the need to reconcile the knowledge that one day we are going to die. The tension arising between this fundamental truth and the strong drive we feel to continue to exist provides the emotional basis for security. Not all threats are severe enough to end our existence, but in terms of emotional response it can be thought of as merely a matter of degree.

Brief Note
Here I am adding the element of risk to the analysis of security on page 99 of Thinking Points. This additional element allows us to understand the contested meanings of security more thoroughly.

Security is fundamentally about the elimination of threats that can cause harm or death. This establishes the core meaning of security as being protection from harm by reducing threats. This requires the source of protection to be strong in order to stand up to the threat, but strength itself is contested and has two very different meanings.

The first meaning for strength is protection against an impending force, exemplified by a levy that withstands a tidal wave or a city wall that stands up to attack. The second meaning is strength through the use of force, which can be thought of like a fist trying to punch through a board. These different meanings, when applied to a situation involving a security issue, lead to two opposing meanings:

Progressive Security
Security is the elimination of risk through strong forms of protection against threats.

Conservative Security
Security is the elimination of risk through the use of force – or threat of force – to eliminate threats.

The progressive understanding of security builds upon the first meaning as being about protection against threats. This understanding stems directly from our core values of empathizing with others and recognizing the responsibility we all share to take care of each other. Progressives strive for safe working environments, seat belt laws, and environmental regulations to keep toxic chemicals out of air and drinking water. All of these actions express the understanding of security as providing strong forms of protection. In the context of national security, progressives emphasize responsibility to protect our own nation. This responsibility extends to people of other nations in some situations.

The conservative understanding of security builds upon the use of force to destroy threats, including the threat of force as a deterrent. Primacy is given to the core values of authority and discipline. Conservative security policies focus narrowly on the use of military force to provide physical security to the citizenry.

Conservative philosophy, as expressed by conservative leaders today, deems issues of personal security to be the responsibility of individuals. Hard-working, disciplined people are rewarded with improved living conditions while those who suffer in squalor lack discipline and deserve the punishment of their condition. Social responsibility is not recognized and government policies that protect citizens from harm are viewed as coddling by a nanny state.

A noteworthy example is when harm arises from sources beyond individual control, as in the case of natural disasters. In the event of hurricanes and earthquakes, conservative security policies emphasize military strength first and give consideration to natural disasters second. The disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina [katrina article] provides a telling manifestation of this. The National Guard was sent to fight in Iraq instead of keeping them in reserve to protect our communities at home from threats of natural disaster.

Differences are Paramount

The values explored here are critically important in politics. Progressives need to understand how our morality shapes responsibility, integrity, and security so that we can effectively respond to the conservative meanings of these values. More importantly, we need to understand what these ideas mean to us so that we are empowered with the ability to clearly express them.

Does responsibility include authority figures being accountable to the public?

Is moral consistency a matter of consistent discipline or consistent concern for the well-being of ourselves and others?

Does investing the bulk of taxpayer money in military capacity to use force really make us safer?

These are not idle questions and the answers are not academic. These are core questions of our times. How we answer them as a nation (and as a species) will have a significant impact on our viability and quality of life.

Go to the next discussion in this series.

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