Feelings good, values bad

February 23, 2005

Here is a strange opinion piece by Dennis Prager, arguing that the political left is motivated primarily by feelings, while conservatives act on values.  Prager recites a litany of quirky liberal ideas – pacifism, animal rights, the mania about self-esteem for children – and determines these all spring from an over-reliance on feelings.  He concludes with a half-admission that conservatives have feelings too, but these drive them to action less than values.

To be fair, feelings also play a major role in many conservatives’ beliefs. Patriotism is largely a feeling; religious faith is filled with emotion, and religion has too often been dictated by emotion. But far more conservative positions are based on “What is right?” rather than on “How do I feel?” That is why a religious woman who is pregnant but does not wish to be is far less likely to have an abortion than a secular woman in the same circumstances. Her values are higher than her feelings. And that, in a nutshell, is what our culture war is about — Judeo-Christian values versus liberal/leftist feelings.

I find basic flaws in Prager’s reasoning.  When he writes about Judeo-Christian values, I presume he means the values cherished by religious people:  Christian and Jews.  Fair enough.  I very much agree that religious faith provides a solid anchor to morality.  But religions differ.  “Judeo-Christian” may describe the Christian bible; the faith of a believing Jew stops before the hyphen.  Denominations disagree about abortion, divorce, homosexuality, women in the rabbinate-priesthood (to resume the hyphen).  When such disagreements come to a head, appeals to God have proven dangerous.

One may also note the existence of persons of perfectly good morals (or values, a word I find singularly devoid of flavor) who adhere to no religion, and believe in no God.  What is one to make of them?

And then, as Prager himself points out, even conservatives have feelings.  In fact, according to a growing body of cognitive research, all moral judgment is largely based on feelings.  That is why arguments about abortion are different in nature from debates about quarks or string theory; that is why anti-war arguments never persuade pro-war advocates, and viceversa.  A moral commandment, a value, is self-evidently powerless unless our feelings compel us to act.  That pregnant woman he uses as an example would need more than the knowledge of a value, which is possessed by most criminals.  She would need a desire to act on the value:  the feeling that this action is morally necessary.

Do left/liberals follow feelings, while conservatives follow values?  As a stranger to both houses, let me propose a few clarifications.

Morality concerns the objects to which we attach our feelings.  Since our way of life requires certain specific behaviors, and these in turn must spring from specific moral assumptions, the choice of objects is a public and far from trivial matter.

When Prager speaks of feelings, he really means “selfishness” or “self-indulgence.”  He wants to push back on the postmodernist nonsense about personal moralities.  Who can blame him?  The objects to which we attach our moral feelings must be larger than ourselves.  Even then, as Prager notes, we can slip into totalitarian fanaticism – we can become Nazis or Maoists, and declare war on freedom.

To live in freedom together as individuals espousing different faiths or none at all, we must agree on a common set of rules about how to comport ourselves:  we need a shared morality.  Prager believes such a shared morality can only be found in the bible.  He is half right.

We share a moral tradition in this country, distilled from a history of solving moral dilemmas in ways we have found acceptable.  The agony over slavery in the nineteenth century is one example.  Our mistrust of fanaticism, whether political or religious, is another.  This tradition, I believe, is neither all-encompassing nor infallible, but it has guided us as individuals and as a nation safely past many a reef and shoal.  We depart from it at our peril.

The documents important to our way of life are almost all secular:  proclamations, laws, political speeches, and so forth.  Yet that is a superficial perspective.  Just as Christianity has absorbed much from Plato and Aristotle, so the thou shalts and thou shalt nots of biblical morality run through our secular traditions, and engender transcendental aspirations in atheist and believer alike.