Friday, April 6, 2012

Institional vs Moral values

Recently, a book made some claims about conservative vs. liberal.  I don't think the ideas in the book are well thought out.   Among other things, it simplifies things way too much.   I am not hot here to talk about the book, so I won't name it.

Instead I am going to talk about values.   The book mentions three values that it claims both liberals and conservatives share:
  1. Caring for the weak
  2. Fairness
  3. Liberty
It also mentions three values that it claims only conservatives have, but liberals don't.  I disagree.  I do think liberals values these just as much, but have different understandings of them.

  1. Loyalty
  2. Respect for Authority
  3. Sanctity
But lets ignore the conservative/liberal issue for now.   There a major difference between the first set and the second set is qualitative.  The first set of values are moral values.  The second set of values are institutional values.

What do I mean by that?  Well, a moral value is something that is ALWAYS moral.  They exist to help you define right vs wrong.  You can't truly 'sin' by obeying the moral values.  You might get arrested, but even the people that arrest arrest you will admire you and call you a good man, if misguided.

Say you care for the weak - and the weak are illegal aliens.   People will still admire you for it.  Everyone will.   They won't think you are vile scum going to hell.  They might say you are misguided, but they won't attack your MORAL character. You won't be reviled for demanding prisoners be treated fairly, nor for insisting on liberty for all (note liberty is NOT freedom from everything, just freedom from arbitrary/despotic control - we can demand that even for criminals - their control should be appropriate not arbitrary and despotic.)  As such all three of these support morality.

But the three institutional values are different.  They don't support morality, they support institutions.  Their morality depends on the morality of the institution.  If the institution is evil, then having those values for that institution is evil.  You can have them and still be a vile sinner.   You can be 'loyal' to a mob boss,  respect the authority of a corrupt cop, and respect the 'sanctity' of an aztec cannibalistic human sacrifice ritual.  In all these cases, you are evil BECAUSE you maintained these values, not merely misguided.

Because institutional values are not in and of themselves good, they are dangerous. If you are loyal and respect the authority and sanctity of the Spanish Inquisition, you are a vile sinner going to hell.  If you are loyal and respect the authority and sanctity of Buddha, no one will think any less of you (Buddha is, to my knowledge, hated by no group.  No one has used his name to steal, kill, rape, pillage, etc).

Institutional values are worthwhile, but they are in no way in the same league as moral values.  They can be turned to the 'dark side' and used for evil.   Like a gun, they can be used by the good guy or the bad guy.

We need to recognize this and acknowledge that Caring for the Weak, Ensuring Fairness, and Promoting Liberty are far and away superior to the lesser values of loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity. The second set are just not in the same league as the first. 

Some worthwhile institutions need to be supported, but we can not blindly support all institutions.   We can not and should not praise them at anywhere near moral values.

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