TCS Daily

Why Liberals Think Conservatives Are Stoopid

By Keith Burgess-Jackson - June 17, 2003 12:00 AM

Philosophers, like scientists, love puzzles. There is no disgrace in being puzzled. It is a normal, healthy reaction to a puzzling world. Puzzlement goes hand in hand with curiosity, which, while not a distinctively human trait, is one that humans have carried to a high level. The puzzles that attract and delight philosophers are logical puzzles, such as how it is possible for freedom of the will to coexist with determinism (the view that every event, including human actions, has a cause) and how it is possible for God, understood as an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly good being, to coexist with evil. The typical scientific puzzle concerns why something is the case. The typical philosophical puzzle concerns how something can be the case, given certain other putative facts. Science is about the actual; philosophy is about the possible, the necessary, and the impossible. Science is a first-order inquiry; philosophy is a second-order inquiry.

I've been a student of public affairs since about 1969, when I was twelve years old. That's when, as a youngster in rural Michigan, I began reading The Detroit News on a daily basis. It brought the world -- the wonderful, frightening, often puzzling world -- into my comfortable home. My curiosity about how things work led me to political science (which studies government), economics (which studies markets), history (which studies the past), and eventually to philosophy (which studies the conceptual schemes of -- and the relations among -- these and other disciplines, professions, institutions, and practices). My ideological development has been tortuous rather than linear. I began as an inchoate liberal, then discovered and fell in love with libertarianism, then became a socialist and a radical feminist. I now consider myself -- gasp! -- a conservative, albeit a nonreligious one. My mentors (from afar) are Roger Scruton and John Kekes, each of whom happens to be a philosopher. Liberals who seek to "examine their lives," as Socrates put it, would do well to read their work. (I recommend Scruton's The Meaning of Conservatism, rev. 3d ed. [2002] and Kekes's A Case for Conservatism [1998].)

Here's what has always puzzled me. It seems clear that intelligence is unrelated to (i.e., uncorrelated with) political ideology. For every brilliant liberal mind, there is a brilliant conservative mind. For every liberal dunce, there is a conservative dunce. I would be very surprised if a rigorous social-scientific study found a correlation between what one values (politically or otherwise) and how intelligent one is. This is half of my puzzle. The other half concerns how conservatives are viewed by liberals. My sense, from years of careful observation both as an engaged citizen and as a detached philosopher, is that liberals are far quicker to ascribe low intelligence to conservatives than conservatives are to ascribe low intelligence to liberals.

I won't bother with citations (you can provide your own), but I've heard conservatives referred to as "idiots," "morons," "dummies," "hayseeds," "yahoos," "hicks," "rubes," and "rednecks." The clear implication is that their minds don't work well. Not long ago someone circulated a document on the Internet which purported to rank United States presidents in terms of intelligence. It came as no surprise to me that it ranked liberals significantly higher than conservatives, for that is the prevailing stereotype. Think back to the jokes about Ronald Reagan, who was treated by liberals as a buffoon. Dan Quayle, who was smart enough to earn a law degree and pass a bar examination (no mean feat!), was derided as an intellectual lightweight. (His besetting sin seems to have been lack of facility in spelling, which makes one wonder about the intelligence of those who took this as a sign of low intelligence.) Our current president, George W. Bush, despite his impressive academic credentials and obvious intelligence, is mocked for his mispronunciations and garbled syntax, as if those were adequate reflections of his intelligence or character. On the other side of the ledger, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, the most recent liberal presidents, were usually characterized as "sharp," "intelligent," "worldly," and "savvy." Ask yourself what reputation for intelligence each of the past ten presidents has had, and notice the correlation with ideology. Keep in mind that a correlation doesn't have to be perfect in order to be a correlation.

Someone might interject at this point that there really is a correlation between ideology and intelligence. For this person, there is no puzzle; and if there is no puzzle, then I have nothing to explain to him or her. According to this view, liberals are thought to be more intelligent than conservatives because they are more intelligent than conservatives. Reputation tracks reality. With all due respect, I find that incredible. Hence, my puzzlement. Note that what puzzles one person may not puzzle another. Puzzlement is relative.

Here is my solution of the puzzle -- offered, in good philosophical fashion, from my armchair. Liberals, as such, are committed to the notion (and to the reality) of moral progress. Progress (unmodified) is change for the better. Moral progress is moral change for the better. (There are other forms of progress, such as technological.) Conservatives are more pessimistic than liberals about the possibility or likelihood of moral progress. To a conservative, humans are imperfectible. They are corrupt by nature, always prone to doing evil, and in standing need of oversight and correction. (You don't have to be religious to believe this, although it helps.) One engine of correction is the state, which is why conservatives are not anarchists. Another engine is tradition, which, to a conservative, is simply accumulated wisdom, the very embodiment of reason. Yet another is religion.

But this isn't the only difference between liberals and conservatives. Liberals equate progress, in all of its forms, with reason. Progress consists in using reason to make things better, to perfect humanity, to eliminate and prevent various evils. Liberals view human beings as malleable (or, to change the metaphor, as blank slates). If we reason aright, liberals believe, we shall remake people and thereby remake the (social) world. Everything, to a liberal, is up for grabs. Everything is revisable. Every belief, every value, every practice, every law, every institution. If a thing cannot pass the test of reason (or rather, the liberal's deployment of reason), it is to be rejected, however old it may be, however useful it has been for however many people, and however much it has insinuated itself into people's lives. The major impediments to moral progress, to the liberal, are tradition, bigotry, and superstition. From this it is but a short step to viewing those who oppose liberal ideas or policies as hidebound traditionalists, bigots, or ignoramuses.

Let us explore this liberal logic. If (1) moral progress is linked to reason and (2) someone either denies that a particular liberal policy (such as state-sanctioned adoption of children by homosexuals) constitutes progress or believes that it constitutes regress (change for the worse), then (3) he or she must not be reasoning properly or must be reasoning from false premises. Who could oppose moral progress? Only an ignorant or stupid person! Only someone who is either factually mistaken or incapable of reasoning correctly. Only, in short, a dolt. Opposition to liberal causes is viewed by liberals as opposition to reason itself. Conservatives, who oppose many liberal causes, are benighted, whereas liberals are enlightened. Conservatives are not just wrong; they are willfully and perversely wrong. They are intransigent. They are bigoted, prejudiced, superstitious, and vile. They must be suppressed or, preferably, (re)educated. They are no more to be reasoned with than a cockroach is to be reasoned with. You step on cockroaches.

The recent incident involving Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum illustrates this perfectly. What he said about homosexual conduct was nothing more than what Justice Byron White said for the majority of the Supreme Court in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), which, horrifying as it may be to liberals, is the law of the land. He was making a legal and logical point to the effect that judging one act to be constitutionally permissible commits one to judging other (relevantly similar) acts to be constitutionally permissible. This is a perfectly reputable argumentative technique, indeed the very essence of reason. Philosophers and lawyers use it all the time. It is the basis of casuistry, which has a long, honorable history in theology and medicine. If I want to get you to reject a particular judgment, I show that making it commits you, on pain of inconsistency, to making other judgments. The assumption is that you will not want to make these other judgments, in which case you must either rethink the original judgment or show that it does not have the claimed consequence.

Unfortunately for those of us who believe in civil, respectful, uplifting discourse (I admit that I don't always live up to this high standard), Senator Santorum was not engaged by his critics on the merits of what he said. He was immediately vilified. There was no attempt by his liberal critics to refute him by showing that his facts were wrong or his reasoning fallacious. There was only an attempt to discredit, disgrace, and humiliate him. He was called names. He was accused of being a hate-monger. There were calls for him to resign his Senate seat. To my knowledge, Senator Santorum has not apologized for what he said, much less resigned his office. Nor should he, for he did nothing wrong. He was probably flabbergasted, as I would have been, by the vituperation of the criticism he received. This is but one of many examples I could give in which, instead of engaging conservatives, liberals seek to crush them. It is as if conservatives are unworthy of being taken seriously. It is as if they are less than human.

I hope I am not understood as defending conservatism on its merits. That is a topic for another essay (or series of same). I am claiming that conservatism is a respectable political ideology. It deserves to be taken seriously, not rejected out of hand. Its adherents are no less intelligent, on average, than those of liberalism or any other ideology; nor do they have, by virtue of their values, less of a command of the facts. They do not reject reason; they reject its identification with the liberal's idea of moral progress. The battle is not, therefore, between light and darkness or between progress and regress. It is between two visions of the social world, two conceptions of human nature. It is about the nature and possibility of moral progress, as well as the best means of achieving it (should it turn out to be possible). I hereby call on both liberals and conservatives (indeed, all ideologues) to tone down their rhetoric, to be charitable to views they reject, to stop the personal attacks, and to pay greater attention to facts and logic -- to where we start our reasonings and to how we conduct them. Who knows? If our discourse becomes less militaristic and more friendly, less adversarial and more collegial, we might just learn something from one another. And wouldn't that be curious?

Keith Burgess-Jackson, J.D., Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy, Department of Philosophy and Humanities, The University of Texas at Arlington.

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