Jon Bialecki

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Are we beyond liberal and conservative, deontological and consequentialist?

This week by accident I came across one of those examples of a certain kind of academic psychology that attempts to boil off the differences between ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ to some sole global explanatory cognitive trait, such as their differing models for what counts as a just father (such as a “liberal” “nurturing parent” versus a “conservative” “strict father” which reads like a caricature of the paternal leg of the Lacanian Œdipal triangle). In this particular journal article, the difference between conservatives (which was set up as an effective conflation of the religious and political sense of this term) and liberals was a moral one, and not a difference in substantive content of the moral, but rather a difference at a formal level. Drawing from answers given by Americans (and in one case, by Indians and Americans) this essay claimed that Conservatives supposedly operate under a deontological logic, in which the question of whether or not there is harm is unimportant, or rather, that the harm is in the violation of the rule itself. By contrast, this report tells us that liberals operate under a consequentialist concept of the ethical, where the harm that is avoided by following the rule is the focus; hence, when the violation results in no harm, in one way the violation is not truly a violation at all.

Even granting for the sake of the argument that there might be some truth to this formulation, what is striking about this claim is that these are both particular, and to some degree historically situated, stances towards the question of moral code. Now, as Foucault has suggested, the moral code is just once aspect of what is considered proper behavior, and just as important as the moral code is one’s stance towards it. So far, this seems to be in accord with what was suggested in the psychology journal article under consideration here.  But Foucault also posited numerous different ways of making oneself a subject in relation to the law, and this is something that has been born out by some very careful thought in cultural anthropology. Other ways are possible. Further, when there are multiple modes of subjectification in a single social millieu, there is no reason to presuppose that there will only be two positions, forming a nice oppositional binary; one can take as an example Egypt, where not only is there is both a liberal Islam which views the religion as a source of propositional ethical truths, and a dakah oriented Islam that sees proper religion as the taking on a set of ritual practices that, through repetition, exercise and mold the adherent’s character, but there is also a Sufi-influenced form of Islam which view ethical subjectification as an opening to the possibility of encounter with a radical alterity.

What is of note here is that the Egyptian triadic system is one that is not easily reducible to a liberal/conservative opposition borrowed directly from the United States, but the Sufi-influenced wing is in some ways unassimilable to this distinction. We can imagine that such a group, when being interrogated by survey questions designed to measure on a singular axis how conservative to liberal one is, might give answers that would look like noise – some conservative answers, some liberal answers, making what actually is a separate political formation look like stragglers suspended between the two poles.

Returning to America, we could ask whether there is such an occlusion being performed by this survey, and if so, what we might look for as a sign. If one assumes that it is the ethical that leads, and that it is politics which trails, we would look for modes of subjectification that are neither consequentialism or deontological. It seems to me that there are modes of religiosity in America today that are centered on forms of  subjectification that looks like a blend of Dakwah and Sufi Islam, about a training of the self that ends up in an opening to an alterity which is siuationaly privileged as a source of the ethical. Such an ethical form, neither deontological or consequentialist, would not be visible to a questionnaire designed only to identify those two positions, and might in turn lead to a politics that aspire to radically break with the current milieu – though it would be a politics that would also escape a questionnaire crafted to only chart a liberal-to-conservative political continuum.