Left vs. right: reason and compassion vs. blind principles

What's left and what's right in political terms is hard to define from an international perspective. The Overton window can shift so much that what's left in the US is right in France. In countries with a socialist past, where the main issues are economic, the left may even seem more repressive, and the right seems progressive and liberal.

There are some trends we can identify:
  • The right tends to be economically permissive, but restrictive of personal freedoms.
  • The left tends to be economically restrictive, but permissive in personal freedoms.
The overarching theme, though, is this:
  • The right claims to value principles, and can tolerate any suffering to uphold them – especially if it's other people's. Yet when out of view, rightists often do what benefits them, not what they say in public.

  • The left tends to think this is cruel and evil.

This pattern can be seen in all areas of disagreement:
  • When it comes to abortion, the left wants to minimize suffering – of the child, of the mother, of the people. The right wants to uphold a principle – sanctity of human life, specifically including a fetus – regardless of costs: to a child who didn't choose to be born with a disability; to a mother whose life is devastated, or who may even die in the process; to a society that needs to treat avoidable genetic afflictions, or has people stuck in poverty.

  • When it comes to sex education, the left wants to minimize suffering – research shows teaching abstinence increases teenage pregnancy, so we must teach how to have sex responsibly. The right wants to uphold a principle – lifelong monogamy is the ideal; therefore it's a sin to teach anything that undermines that ideal, even if very few people are going to achieve it.

  • When it comes to the economy, the left wants to minimize suffering – experience shows the economy thrives, and people thrive in the economy, if money is injected from bottom and going up, rather than trickling down from the top. The right wants to uphold a principle – absolute property rights and economic freedoms; even if it means that all wealth will collect at the top, and everyone else will be miserable.

  • When it comes to health care, the left wants to minimize suffering – the profit motive and accessible health care are at odds, so the left wants to balance them in a single-payer system. The right wants to uphold a principle – absolute property rights and economic freedoms, even in medicine.

  • When it comes to the environment, the left wants to minimize suffering – we have to act now to preserve the planet. The right wants to uphold a principle – absolute property rights and economic freedoms, even if it kills us.

With some exceptions, the left nowadays wants to help with whatever works in a particular instance; while the right blindly follows a principle. When it can, the right rationalizes how its principles will lead to good outcomes, but signs of blindness are telling when research says otherwise. The left will adjust to what appears to work, because its goal is well-being, which exists in this reality. But the right will not adjust, because its goal is a principle, which exists in the mind. So the right will still chase principles – even to death; even when all evidence predicts devastation.

I have hesitated to make this statement for a long time. The rationalist community rightly warns we should not think of people we don't understand as monsters. They have legitimate reasons and experiences that we might not comprehend.

But as I age, I have increasingly less time left on Earth, and also increasingly more experience with which to draw conclusions. And with this, I find a steadily depleting supply of patience for things that are clearly not right.

I sought out saving principles – when I was younger and kinda dumber – that avoided compassion and love, and chased shiny ideals like freedom (from what?) and independence (how?). I sought them out for a long time. I can say now that such efforts are deluded – and when people won't cease this pursuit, they're actually making things bad.

When it's at its healthiest, the right these days is a useful counterbalance for when the left is also exaggerating toward principles divorced from reality. But there's not much more value to it than that.


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