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Political Moral Philosophy - R.I.P.

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

"Political moral philosophy" sounds like an oxymoron in the context of our modern, unprincipled politics. Nevertheless, a sound moral philosophy is the vital center of any political movement intent on fashioning a just society. Unfortunately, both political parties today seem to have lost their grip on whatever moral philosophy they once held to be true. Democrats have abandoned their old socialist ideals for a pragmatic approach focused on winning elections by promising new domestic programs and repeating a mantra advocating vague, undefined notions of "change." Republicans have dropped their ideals of personal freedom and limited government in favor of winning elections by rewarding powerful special interest groups with earmarks, tax cuts, and limitations on liability for wrongdoing.


The dominant principle of moral philosophy guiding both major political parties seems to be reelection.

There is great value in having a guiding moral philosophy to act as a check on the political fancies of the day. Both politicians and their constituencies are often carried away by their desires or perceived needs. When people suffer, they are tempted to look first to the government for aid. And when politicians' terms are about to expire, they often seek to ingratiate themselves to their constituents by sending money and benefits their way. These impulses will inevitably lead a government astray if they are not hedged in by a well-informed political moral philosophy.

P.J. O'Rourke exposes the importance of political moral philosophy in his recent Weekly Standard article, "Mr. Sununu Goes to Washington." O'Rourke explains that both the left and, to a lesser extent, the right have forgotten or abandoned their underlying moral philosophies. In his article, O'Rourke interviews one man whom he feels still embraces a moral philosophy which guides his political decisions: Senator John Sununu of New Hampshire. Though the Senator's specialties are engineering and business, O'Rourke maintains that he has a grasp of the core principles which made the Republican Party strong. Sununu asserts, "I have a deep-seated belief that America is unique, strong, great because of a commitment to personal freedom—in our economic system and our politics. We are a free people who consented to be governed. Not vice-versa."


Personal freedom is foundational to all branches of conservative moral philosophy, but it is especially important to Christian conservatives. Christian conservatives believe that all individuals—rich or poor, black or white, whole or handicapped—have inherent worth, value and dignity. Their belief springs from the concept of the imago dei, that is, that every individual is created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). Their belief is bolstered by the notion that God loves humanity so much that he sent his son to die for fallen human beings in order to redeem them for eternity (John 3:16; 1 Pet. 1:18-19). These views give rise to the notion that all men stand equal before the law and that government exists to protect the rights that have been endowed to them by their creator.

Tension sometimes develops between the different strains of conservatism, especially between libertarian conservatives and Christian conservatives. That tension typically arises over where to draw the lines limiting government involvement in the free choices of its people. For example, many libertarians oppose governmental attempts to restrict abortion, prohibit physician-assisted suicide or use tax monies to assist the poor. The basis for their opposition is that in a free society, government has no business limiting the rights of its citizens to make decisions for themselves. For libertarians, freedom is the ultimate value and the atomistic individual should be free to make decisions for himself by himself. Hence, libertarians believe that women should be free to decide whether to abort their unborn children, that people should be able to determine the time and manner of their death and that government aid to the poor represents nothing more than a coerced form of redistribution of wealth through taxation.


Christian conservatives, while cherishing freedom, do not believe that freedom is the only value or that it gives rise to an unrestricted license in personal decision making. They believe that since we live in community with others who are of equal worth and dignity, we have obligations to our fellow citizens and not just to ourselves. Decisions which affect our fellow citizens must be evaluated in light of whether they are fair and just to others and in light of the impact they have on the rights and freedom of others. Christian conservatives see government as agent of all the people, not just of the individual. Its chief purpose is to protect life and to preserve order so that freedom can flourish for all. Preserving order includes protecting the weak from exploitation by the strong and protecting the lives, rights and property of all citizens.

The conservative principles of equality and freedom formed the moral philosophy of the early United States. While they were often realized incompletely (the horrors of slavery show the inconsistencies of the founders), they were vital to the success of the nation. The Declaration of Independence specifically focuses on these principles. It declares that the equality of all men and their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are self-evident truths. Human equality and freedom are the core principles that form the moral philosophy of the United States.


The Declaration goes on to state that the purpose of government is to protect the freedom and equality of its citizens. Government is necessary to prevent one man from killing or enslaving another. Moreover, since government derives its powers from the people, the people have the right to "alter or abolish" the government if it ceases to fulfill its purpose.

These political principles of moral philosophy were once understood by most Americans, but they are increasingly being replaced by the selfish concerns of politicians and citizens alike. Both Republicans and Democrats are now focused on their own political gain. Their agendas have become little more than checklists of benefits available to the constituencies who elect them.

Americans need to demand principled politics from their representatives. They have a responsibility to oppose the self-centered, vote-grubbing tactics of modern Republicans and Democrats. Both parties need to establish and articulate their undergirding moral philosophy. The contrast between these philosophies would augment the national political dialogue. Through a discussion of the contrasting political philosophies, Americans will once again begin to develop their own individual political philosophies which, in turn, will guide their opinions and votes.


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