TCS Daily

Nurturance and Terrorism

By Arnold Kling - March 19, 2004 12:00 AM

"We must be the change we want!

"The foreign policy of moral norms is the only sane foreign policy. In the idea of responsibility for oneself, it remains practical. But through empathy and other forms of responsibility (protection, care, competence, effectiveness, community development), it would lead to international cooperation and a recognition of interdependence."
-- George Lakoff

George Lakoff is a great liberal-leftist intellectual. He is the author of Moral Politics, an important work which I should have remembered to include in my list of books that every college student should read. However, his essay "September 11, 2001," quoted above, is vacuous, as is indicated by the way that a prominent academic -- a professor of linguistics, no less -- is reduced to speaking like a platitudinous self-help guru ("be the change we want").

Almost all of my friends are liberals (I use that term in its contemporary meaning, as opposed to classical liberalism). I share their moral outlook, in a sense that I will explain shortly. However, that moral outlook is not always the best guide to public policy. On the issue of terrorism, it is particularly unhelpful. As a result, discussions of terrorism with my friends always degenerate into exchanges of debating points, rather than constructive conversations about real policy options.

The national political campaign clearly is headed in the same direction. Instead of clear policy differences, what we are going to see is an endless barrage of charges and counter-charges. The two major political parties have begun to sound like siblings who were discovered fighting by their parents. "He hit me first!" is going to be the theme of the 2004 election.

In the rest of this essay, I will elaborate on these two points. First, that liberalism has great difficulty with fitting terrorism into its moral outlook. Second, that there are real policy choices that ought to be up for discussion, but which we are not going to see examined in the 2004 election campaign.

Strict, Nurturant, or Consenting?

It is the thesis of Moral Politics (which extends this essay) that liberals and conservatives differ in their moral outlook. Conservatives view morality in "strict father" terms, as an issue of right vs. wrong, with the need for wrong to be punished. Liberals view morality in "nurturant parent" terms, as an issue of giving people the material and emotional support necessary to enable them to grow and develop.

As a parent, I believe in the "nurturant" approach. The "strict" approach sees children as inherently inclined toward evil unless reined in by parental punishment. I think of my children as basically good. I want them to learn to make the right choices themselves, rather than act out of fear of my wrath.

Lakoff's insight is that most of us who believe in nurturance are liberals. By the same token, people who believe in strictness tend to be conservatives. I think he is correct that "nurturance" and "strictness" are the two dominant political metaphors. This model explains the divisions between "red" and "blue" America very well -- certainly much better than an attempt to explain those divisions in terms of economic factors, such as income.

The metaphors Lakoff describes are metaphors of the government as a parent and the people as children. He subscribes to the "nurturance" metaphor.

Although as a parent I subscribe to "nurturance," in politics I subscribe to neither metaphor. I do not want to think of government as a parent, either nurturant or strict. Instead, I prefer John Locke's view of government as a contract among consenting adults. The challenge is to design a contract that cannot be used by one individual or group to deprive others of their freedom.

Nurturance and Terrorism

My liberal friends have a difficult time with terrorism. Their problem is that the use of force against terrorism represents the "strictness" model of morality that they reject. They are convinced that everything that President Bush does is wrong, because he is guided by the "strictness" model. They were prepared to denounce the war in Afghanistan, but the high ratio of benefits to costs has silenced them on that issue. On the other hand, they see an opportunity to attack the President for using force in Iraq.

Liberals are willing to blame America for supporting repressive regimes in countries like Saudi Arabia. However they would reject any plan to topple such regimes, particularly if it involved military force.

For liberals, the natural ideological response to terrorism would be to say that it is a result of poor nurturance -- that terrorists come from broken homes or dysfunctional families. However, this obviously is not a very satisfying account of terrorism. The idea of dealing with terrorism by, say, increasing funding for Head Start, is absurd.

Lakoff himself argues for a type of multinational nurturance. He writes,

"When applied to foreign policy, nurturant moral norms would lead the American government to uphold the ABM treaty, sign the Kyoto accords, engage in a form of globalization governed by an ethics of care -- and it would automatically make all the concerns listed above (e.g., the environment, women's rights) part of our foreign policy."

Nowhere does Lakoff discuss using force against terrorism, except to denounce "blundering overwhelming force" and "massive bombing." For the most part, however, not even my liberal friends are prepared to second Lakoff in arguing that the key to ending terrorism would be signing the ABM Treaty and the Kyoto Protocol.

Fundamentally, the "nurturance" model has no mechanism for coping with terrorism. It is easy and comfortable for liberals to express anger at President Bush, who represents the opposite "strictness" model. However, liberals are empty-handed when it comes to providing meaningful, constructive suggestions for policy. There simply is little or nothing within the "nurturance" paradigm that is useful for dealing with murderous fanatics.

The only constructive-sounding idea about terrorism that comes from the left is the cry for multilateral solutions. However, "multilateral" is an adjective, not a verb. It begs the question, "A multilateral what?" The quarterback does not fulfill his responsibilities simply by gathering a huddle. He needs to call a play.

The Missing Debate

"Nurturance" fails as an approach for dealing with terrorism. However, that does not mean that "strictness" has all of the answers. While the conservatives rant on behalf of "strictness" and liberals rant against conservatives, many difficult, important issues slide by. Here are some of the questions that I wish were on the table.

What should be the nation's surveillance architecture? This question is being addressed haphazardly. The FBI worries about preserving wiretapping capability in the Internet age. Civil libertarians are worried about protecting privacy. Knee-jerk reactions are predominant, when what is needed is visionary leadership. I wrote an essay about this shortly after September 11, and it is a topic to which I plan to return.

What are our expectations for moderate Muslims? If a group of Jewish or Christian fanatics were engaging in mass murder, we would hold the entire religious community accountable to some extent. We would expect priests or rabbis to stand up firmly and denounce the terrorist fringe. We would expect community leaders to work to isolate and expose the radicals. No one seems to ask very much from the Islamic community, either in this country or elsewhere. Is this due to the "soft bigotry of low expectations?" Or are we afraid that when push comes to shove, the "moderate" Muslims are not really all that moderate? The absence of discussion about setting expectations for moderate Muslims is indicative of how empty our national political debate on terrorism has been.

What would it take to win the war against terrorism? No matter how many defensive measures we take, as long as there are murderous fanatics we will be in danger. It seems that we need a strategy for ridding the world of murderous fanatics. The instinct of liberals is to see President Bush as moving too aggressively in his approach. However, the way I see it, as someone who wants my children never to have to suffer from a terrorist attack, the President is not moving quickly enough.

I believe that terrorism represents the greatest challenge for the contract among consenting adults since the founding of our Republic. Neither the "nurturant" moral outlook of the liberals nor the "strict" moral outlook of conservatives provides a roadmap for dealing with the issue. This election is shaping up as a liberal-conservative donnybrook at exactly a point in history when that conflict does nothing but detract from the public debate.

Arnold Kling recently wrote for TCS about "Zero-Sum Bioethics."


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