Characterising the conservative/progressive divide

I’ve been thinking a little about the underlying differences between progressives/liberals and conservatives in the American (US) setting.  I’m not really thinking of opinions on economics or the ideal size of government, but views on economics and government would clearly be affected by what I describe.  Instead, I’m trying to imagine underlying bases for the competing social and political ideologies.

I’m not claiming any great insight, but it’s helped me clarify my thinking to imagine three overlapping areas of contention.  Each area helps inform the topic that follows in a manner that ought to be fairly clear:

  1. On epistemology and metaphysics.  Conservatives contend that there exist absolute truths which we can sometimes know, or even – at least in principle – always know.  In contrast, progressives embrace the postmodern view that there may not be any absolute truths and that, even if absolute truths do exist, our understanding of them is always relative and fallible.
  2. On the comparison of cultures[by “cultures”, I here include all traditions, ways of life, interactional mannerisms and social institutions in the broadest possible sense].  Conservatives contend that it is both possible and reasonable to compare and judge the relative worthiness of two cultures.  At an extreme, they suggest that this is plausible in an objective, universal sense.  A little more towards the centre, they alternately suggest that individuals may legitimately perform such a comparison to form private opinions.  Centrist progressives instead argue that while it might be possible to declare one culture superior to another, it is not reasonable to do so (e.g. because of the relative nature of truth).  At their own extreme, progressives argue that it is not possible to make a coherent comparison between two cultures.
  3. On changing one’s culture.  Conservatives suggest that change, in and of itself, is a (slightly) bad thing that must be justified with materially better conditions as a result of the change.  Progressives argue that change itself is neutral (or even a slightly good thing).  This leads to conflict when the material results of the change are in doubt and the agents are risk averse.  To the conservative mind, certain loss (from the act of changing) is being weighed against uncertain gain.  To the progressive mind, the act of change is a positive act of exploration which partially offsets the risks of an uncertain outcome.

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