The defense of the less fortunate and the harmed is one of the most unifying threads running through the liberal political spectrum. It serves as a shared mandate for everything that could conceivably fall under the leftist umbrella. From revolutionary Marxist class warfare, to modern progressive tax schemes in the capitalist West, it’s there. Liberal support for collective bargaining, minimum wages, transfer programs, universal health care, redefining gender roles, anti-discrimination laws, etc… is largely rooted in this moral imperative.
In his influential political psychology book The Righteous Mind, NYU professor Jonathan Haidt confirms this. He outlines five potential “moral foundations” that underlie our ethics and politics: Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity. While conservatives tend to pull political inspiration from all five foundations, liberals hyper-focus on Care and Fairness and mostly dismiss the others. Here’s Haidt:
But when we look at the Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity foundations, the story is quite different. Liberals largely reject these considerations. They show such a large gap between these foundations versus the Care and Fairness foundations that we might say, as shorthand, that liberals have a two-foundation morality.
The concepts of Care and Fairness as moral foundations (capitalized from here out to avoid confusion) are not always clearly distinguishable. Care is bestowed on those who are less fortunate or are harmed in some way. Think compassion, sympathy, and empathy. Meanwhile, Fairness is lacking where some equal right is being denied or distributed disproportionately. For an example where the two do not overlap, imagine birth defects or pre-existing conditions. While “unfair” in a grander sense, no one is directly gaining from the misfortune; there is no “cheating” or “rigging of the system” involved. No one has appropriated an unfair share of what should be an equal right, so only the Care foundation applies. To see where they overlap, imagine poverty generated via true exploitation of labor. Fairness is invoked in addition to Care due to the nature of the wrong committed.
Care and Fairness are largely about equality and inequality and therefore liberal politics are largely the politics of equality and inequality. Those less fortunate are less fortunate because they have less of something. Those being treated unfairly are being treated unfairly because they are given less than their full due.
The subjects of said inequality varies depending on the variant of liberalism and can even contradict. A partial list would include opportunity, income, wealth, talent, education, representation, respect, and dignity.
What inequalities contemporary liberals often tolerate they tolerate in the name of equality. If you’re confused, let us turn to the massively influential liberal philosophers John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin to clear things up.
Rawls lays out two main principles in his Theory of Justice, the second of which states:
Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged…and attached to….conditions of fair equality of opportunity.
Dworkin, in A Matter of Principle, makes a similar exception in the pursuit of his own conception of equality:
In either case, he chooses a mixed economic system – either redistributive capitalism or limited socialism – not in order to compromise antagonistic ideals of efficiency and equality, but to achieve the best practical realization of the demands of equality itself
Equality is the goal; inequality the enemy. Inequality is allowable only insofar as it extends overall equality. An example might be wealthy capitalists who take on risk and uncertainty in entrepreneurial activities that reduce the gap in living standards for the working class on the whole.
Inequality is the basis for grievances in the liberal political order, a sort of currency that can be traded for the redistribution and empowerment served up to make amends. The more inequality that can be claimed, the higher the grievance sits in the hierarchy and the larger the redress. If liberals mostly are concerned with cases of Care or Fairness, it stands to reason they must be more concerned with cases of Care and Fairness, that is, overlapping cases. Adding a Fairness claim on top of a Care claim strictly increases the priority of the grievance. It’s generally a bad thing that someone is in an unenviable position but it’s really bad if someone else put them there unfairly. Worse still if they got away with it…or profited from it.
The nexus of Care and Fairness is victimhood and the tenants of that overlapping sphere are victims. More specifically, they are victims deserving of liberal compassion (the left doesn’t much care if the uber rich is harmed these days). These groups and individuals check both the boxes in the two-foundation morality. Therefore, all else equal, victimhood moves grievances up the ladder. If inequality more generally serves as the currency of the system, then inequality at the hands of injustice represents the largest bills circulating.
Grievances require an additional Fairness claim to invoke victimhood, and that typically requires counterparties. The left is up to the task of finding the purported assailants. For a variety of reasons, liberals are more likely to see injustice embedded in suboptimal outcomes, more likely to detect conscious intent in social processes, and more likely to see power as a key concern in social interaction.
Here is multidisciplinary academic Thomas Sowell on what he terms the “unconstrained vision”, which maps closely to modern American liberalism:
The role of power in social decision-making has tended to be much greater in the tradition of the unconstrained vision than among those with the constrained vision. That is, much more of what happens in society is explained by the deliberate exertion of power – whether political, military, or economic – when the wold is conceived in the terms of the unconstrained vision. As a result, unhappy social circumstances are more readily condemned morally.
As Lord Acton reminded us, power corrupts. So when your worldview detects power at every turn your worldview likely detects victims at every turn as well. Moreover, this is a self-reinforcing process. The liberal vision, due to its beliefs and assumptions on human nature and the power of reason (again, see Sowell for more), is prone to overemphasize power as a causal force in society. It therefore detects it much more frequently. The presence of power and its inevitable abuse spawns unequal victims. The existence and relative position of victims in the grievance hierarchy reinforces the relevance and accuracy of the model and provides a sense of urgency to the cause.
It is for this reason that economist Arnold Kling’s pigeonholing of liberalism into the oppressor/oppressed axis in his three-axis model (liberalism/conservatism/libertarianism) is fairly accurate and quite helpful. The power-holders are the oppressors, the victims the oppressed, and it’s everywhere you look.
The self-reinforcing process of the liberal vision and the hierarchical nature of grievances provide incentives for both the afflicted and their rescuers to detect not only new victims, but ever deeper levels of victimhood. Those requiring assistance maximize their attention and reparations by maximizing their grievances. Those providing the assistance maximize the effectiveness of the liberal order, the accuracy of the worldview, and their own cognitive comfort by rectifying the largest grievances. Even bystanders or dissidents have strong incentives to join rank and begin finding victims to console. If they resist, their views are silenced and pushed aside. Those higher in the grievance hierarchy can speak louder; those who refuse to join aren’t even allowed to speak.
It should come as no surprise then that liberal students on liberal campuses taught by liberal professors are finding new, previously undetected layers of oppression and injustice. They campaign to kill off microaggressions, expand trigger warnings, build “safe spaces,” and win a dozen other battles. Writing on this very topic recently in The Atlantic, Jon Haidt and Greg Lukianoff describe what they dub the “offendedness sweepstakes”, where contestants see who can claim or detect the most offense. The larger victim is heard; the lesser is silenced. This sweepstakes is a particular manifestation of a broader “victimhood sweepstakes” that results from liberalism’s focus on inequality. In a clamor to reach the top of the grievance hierarchy, the leading edge of political liberalism is in a race to the bottom.
Now this system, along with its worldview, its self-reinforcing loops, its oversensitivities, its race to the bottom…it’s all not so bad while large, objective grievances exist. If those on the bottom are in dire, justifiable need of lifting up, then it should be a race to get there, and not a leisurely stroll. Slavery was cut from the cruelest cloth imaginable. Denying suffrage to half of the population is unthinkable today. Etc…
But we’re past that now, and that makes modern liberal principles less relevant as pertains to future political action. Here is Patri Friedman (go read the whole thing) on the topic:
If only certain limited differences were targeted – like suffrage not being universal – this crusade could well be beneficial. Yet what we see is progressively increasing outrage over progressively smaller differences. It looks much less like a force for actual justice than like an anti-difference paperclipper – eternally dedicated to a single instrumental value which it has mistaken for the only terminal value.
Now, it must be said, that until this point I have unfairly characterized the entire liberal spectrum, and the American one specifically, as falling into this hole headfirst. But this was by design, for two reasons. 1) The worst offenders are the future of political liberalism. They are, by and large, younger. But beyond that, their voices are heard, their demands are met, and their witch hunts prove fruitful. They are winning the race. It’s not clear who, on the left, is losing. Which leads me to 2) What large swathes of liberals should I exclude from the characterization? The opposition to even the most egregious ideas is pretty scant so far.
So the race goes on. In the most absurd corners, we find a manufacturing and inflation of victimhood where less and less exists. The logic that had much to offer in shaping Western political values is at risk of trampling them underfoot. Arbitrary labor and discrimination laws will threaten to reduce standards of living by ignoring basic economic theory. The infighting continues. Expressing an opinion on the treatment of women in Islam is a good way to invoke passionate liberal debate these days. So is bringing up the relative attention and support transgender women receive in feminist circles.
Germaine Greer, the 76-year-old author of “The Female Eunich,” is making waves by lambasting the idea that Caitlyn Jenner may be honored by Glamour Magazine as “Woman of the Year.” Jenner isn’t a woman, says Greer. He’s just attention-starved and seeking to steal the limelight from the women in the Kardashian family.
The victimhood sweepstakes lens has much to offer by way of insight here. Women may face certain oppression in the Muslim world but so do Muslims at large. Thus, a conflict is born…a jockeying for position. Greer is a woman, but Jenner is a transgender woman, and therefore a victim of multiple inequalities that sum to an injustice larger than any Greer could possibly endure. Jenner is higher on the grievance hierarchy, and criticism from the lower levels is not allowed from the leading liberal edge, let alone condoned. From the same New York Post article:
As Kaite Welsh wrote: “Isn’t it often the way? You fight your way from the trenches to the throne, overthrow the corrupt regime and set about remaking the world in your own image, only to realize that you have become the thing you most despised.”
Greer’s gone from “revolutionary to oppressor,” she said.
Oppressor. Paging Arnold Kling, come in Arnold.
This race is not sustainable. The reduction of inequality per se has no logical end, given that various forms of its existence are facts of life. Moreover, with increasing layers of victimhood being discovered, a larger and larger portion of the populace falls into the oppressor camp. Previous victims become the oppressors as the circle grows perpetually wider. At some point, the most victimized group or individual in the system is the only one left; they take first place in the race. How long will a material and growing share of adherents to a political view tolerate finger-pointing directed their way? Their views will be increasingly marginalized and dismissed the longer they wait, that’s how the hierarchy works.
In the end, it seems obvious that there are lower benefits and higher costs to stamping out increasingly transitory or minor inequalities. But where is the tipping point, where will the left draw the line? The answer will be critical, as the lack of an endgame to the eradication of inequality has arguably left modern liberalism without any steady-state to aim at up until this point. An agreed upon line would provide that endgame; it’d be breaking new ground. Yet few seem willing to dig their heel in the dirt and drag it at this stage. Meanwhile the race to the bottom is doing more than enough digging to go around.