Conservatism's Double Dilemmas

"Dilemma" is a technical term -- easily misunderstood and often misused. The English word "dilemma" comes from the ancient Greek δί-λημμα. "Di" means "twice" or "double," and a "lēmma" is a "premise" or a "proposition." In logic (and this is important), a dilemma is an argument "forcing an opponent to choose either of two unfavorable alternatives"[i]. Because the intellectual left, assisted by the mainstream media, the public system of education, and the popular culture, sets the terms of moral and political discourse, the left has managed to maneuver conservative leaders (and some of us in the rank and file) into two political dilemmas. Roughly, and preliminarily, described: One dilemma is moral, and the other is "logical" (a method of rationalization). The left is able to steer the debate by shifting the focus of the argument from one dilemma to the other.

Spokesmen and women for the right have, for the most part, failed to understand the nature of the paired dilemmas they face. Let's examine these double dilemmas (simplified, for concision, into two sets of two):

(1) Conservatism's Moral Dilemma:

A) Moral positioning

Western civilization, inspired by intellectual thought of the left, is now steeped in moral relativism. As I have shown elsewhere, notions like tolerance, diversity, and political correctness grant the left a carte blanche when it comes to making the most important decisions in life. The left's position is summed in our ubiquitous cultural norm that "each person's values are his or her own."

When the arguments for moral relativism are explained to them, most people reject the theory. But too many conservative officeholders and intellectual leaders have been educated by and are trapped within the moral rhetoric of the popular culture that is controlled by the left. Almost like a virus, the notion that individual values or personal beliefs trump objective knowledge permeates our society. Consider this recent exchange between two conservative leaders.

In an already infamous article in The Weekly Standard, Mitch Daniels, Indiana's Republican governor (and possible GOP presidential nominee in 2012), was quoted as saying that the next president should "call a truce" on social or moral issues and focus on the economy and the war on terror. Apparently, Daniels is serious about this "truce." He explained the "truce" this way:

I really believe, that for the first time, the future of the American experiment is at risk. ... It's a just a thought that we could agree to disagree. I picked the word "truce" because no one has to change their point of view, no one has to surrender." [Emphasis added.]

Congressman Mike Pence -- another possible GOP presidential hopeful -- responded to Daniels' call for a "truce" thus:

I believe with all my heart that Republicans need to continue to fight for the sanctity of life and the sanctity of marriage with everything we've got in 2010 and in 2012. ... To renew this nation, we must renew the institutions that strengthen her character. We must stand for the sanctity of life." [Emphasis added.]

Notice that each politician described his position as a belief -- not a factual or reasoned argument regarding the topic (whether or not the right should continue to press forward on "social" -- actually moral -- issues). Daniels goes so far as to identify a person's personal take ("point of view" and "agree to disagree") on crucial moral issues as, apparently, the truth. In short, each of these politicians (whether consciously or not) has bought into the left's myth that moral values are relative to the individual. That is, values are based on a person's beliefs -- not on objective moral principles[ii]. Leaders on the right often speak the language of moral relativism of intellectuals from the left.

B) Moral responsibility:

If we examine the statements of Daniels and Pence, then in light of the left's control of political and moral language, Daniels' argument is actually the cleverer of the two. (I am speaking purely in terms of political positioning in our current culture of moral relativism.) Daniels has at least given himself some ethical wiggle-room in the debate by acquiescing to the rhetoric of the left. If Daniels is unfaithful (or if a family member is involved in, say, procuring an abortion), Daniels will be able to retreat to the safety of his personal moral relativism that is implicit in his statement. On the other hand, by using religious language ("sanctity") to describe marriage, Pence cannot make even the tiniest misstep in his marital affairs without being (correctly) tagged a hypocrite.

There are countless examples of politicians on the right who staunchly defend "family values" (a logical misnomer to begin with) falling on their swords by having an extramarital affair. Politicians on the left are exempt from such political damage because they do not trap themselves with (or, for some, even believe in) words like "sanctity."

In short, the right continually allows itself to be boxed into a corner by accepting the premise that moral values are (Daniels) relative to each person or (Pence) by claiming that morality is fundamentally a matter of religious faith. The left never flinches at taking advantage of the situation when someone on the right breaches his or her personal moral values or violates his or her religious beliefs[iii]. Because of the squishiness of the dominant cultural morality, liberal politicians are essentially immune from the moral consequences of their personal behavior.

(2) Conservatism's rational dilemma:

The rational dilemma of conservatism is a bit more complicated, and I will not go into the problem in depth. It results, in part, through the application of the moral dilemma discussed above. First, notice that "each person's values are his or her own" cannot be true. Human values are necessarily hierarchical, and values often conflict within each individual and from situation to situation. I may value mowing my lawn every Wednesday afternoon. But I will forgo this value if, say, my wife is seriously injured and needs to be taken to the hospital at the moment it is time for the weekly maintenance of my yard.

We have been sold the value that "each person's values are his or her own" is the highest value. As I have shown at length and will not repeat here, this leads to a morality of relativism that is imposed from the top down (from the intellectual elites who sell this elastic morality to the masses who eagerly buy it). Paradoxically, this moral relativism leads first to a groupthink morality and then to group political action to protect the groups' newly established "right" to an "individual" value.

C) Groupthink:

One of the first articles I wrote for American Thinker was called "Liberals and Control." In the piece, I argued that many people, including almost all rank-and-file liberals, desire control over the aspects of their lives that they cannot directly manage. Politicians (mostly liberal politicians, but conservative leaders as well) use this need for control to acquire votes and, thus, power. For example, the left pushes for universal health care because none of us can completely oversee the status of his health. As a counterexample, the left does not promote universal lawn care because most people can water and mow their own lawns.

(Sound health is, for obvious reasons, one of the highest of human -- not individual -- values[iv]. Once someone is convinced that his or her values are relative, but that these values are inherently important because they are his or her own, it is very easy to persuade the person that some values should also be rights. This is exactly what happened in the health care debate. An important human value has been magically converted into an individual right.

This need for some outside power to save or sustain the individual in certain aspects of day-to-day existence leads to a groupthink mentality. It also promotes groupthink rationality -- and it is precisely this rationality that is the basis of the second conservative dilemma.

Because of the tepid attitude of the leaders of the right, the left has been able to tag the right with the label of "groupthink." Yet, for the most part, it is the politicians on the left who manipulate, with great ingenuity, the human frailty of needing control over life's fundamental problems.

When a pseudo-conservative politician like G.W. Bush, with his "compassionate conservatism," promotes government intervention to meet fundamental human needs, the politician is not following conservative principles. Compassion is an emotion, and governments (no matter what we are told by any politician) cannot experience an emotion -- only individuals can. For the most part, conservatives understand that life's core problems should be the responsibility of the individual, his or her family, friends, and members of voluntary organizations -- like churches. These are people who can feel compassion, for another person's health problems as an example, and then act on that emotion to help the person in need.

The confabulation [v] that the right, rather than the left, is governed by groupthink is beyond reason. The history of the KKK, for example, is tightly interwoven with the history of the Democratic Party of the South. Yet the left has managed to make "racism" an attribute of white conservative Christians, who fought to end slavery in America and then struggled to give former slaves full political rights.

Until the emergence of the Tea Parties, the right was about as far from groupthink as is imaginable. Social conservatives, economic conservatives, and libertarians fought like cats and dogs over a wide range of issues. Social (read: religious) conservatives squabbled among themselves. (Recall Mike Huckabee's scurrilous attacks on Mitt Romney's religion in the 2008 presidential race.) This fractiousness played into the hands of the left -- and kept the right from uniting as a cohesive political movement. The left, on the other hand, has pushed forward both its moral and political agenda with amazing success.

The left, not the right, has mastered the art of groupthink. It has accomplished this feat by first establishing the notion of moral relativism by promoting diversity, political correctness, tolerance, etc. The left is able to control the political action because it has defined the terms of our moral rhetoric.

D) Group action:

Tagging the right with "groupthink" has allowed the left to compartmentalize its own adherents and keep those people in a groupthink state. Groupthink has led to group action and political victories via command of the moral vocabulary by the left. The left has been able to get away with claiming that anyone holding or defending traditional conservative principles is a racist, homophobe, misogynist, etc. The right has done a poor job of responding to these categorizations because, as we saw above, it is fighting back with a moral and political nomenclature devised by intellectuals from the left. As long as those on the right remain within that framework, they cannot defeat, let alone rationally respond to, the positions of the left.

With few exceptions (like crowds of people at a public event emotionally driven by a speaker or, say, a fire in the building) there is no such thing as group action or group choice. People rarely behave in mindless group action. Individuals have reasons, whether rational or not, for most of the decisions they make in life. An instance of one of the most important of these decisions: Each of us walks into the voting both alone. The left has perfected the art of turning groupthink into group action. The Tea Parties are an indication that the right is beginning to catch on.

(3) Conclusion:

I am not about to argue that the solution to these twin dilemmas is going to be easy -- or that I have readily available answers. But I will briefly list some initial steps that we can take to help us win back our culture.

First, we must reject moral relativism in all of its multifaceted appearances in our society. Morality is not relative. Values are not unique...though individuals are.

I recently had a spirited exchange with a person on an aspect of gay marriage. When it appeared as though I had won the argument, my interlocutor said something like, "Well, you have your truths and I have mine." This person intended his statement to bring an end to the discussion. As politely as possible, I pointed out why his assertion was demeaning to both of us and showed him (again, tactfully) that he was trying to avoid the issue at hand.

This kind of discussion takes patience and a critical mind. It is not easy to do without offending the other person. But all of us need to come to terms with, and refuse to shrink from, our responsibility to defend the truth.

(One of the most impressive aspects of the Tea Parties I have attended is the respectful, almost reverent, attitude of most of the attendees. These are people intensely interested in saving the Republic and restoring the constitutional rule of law. For what it is worth, these people have my utmost respect.)

Second, we must live by example. It is one thing to propagate "family values." It is quite another to live as a trustworthy spouse and a competent, loving parent. There is no more room for hypocrisy on the right. We simply cannot afford it. Political leaders like Governor Mark Sanford or Senator Larry Craig, who preach one set of principles while practicing another, must be quickly rebuffed and then removed from office[vi].

Finally, and most difficult, we must abjure groupthink and still, somehow, embrace group action. Once again, the Tea Parties seem to be heading us in the appropriate direction. As conservatives, we must leave our petty squabbles behind us. If a "truce" needs to be called anywhere...it is among the various factions within the conservative movement.

Fortunately, there is one set of principles, and two documents, that we can and should defend. They have served us well in the past and can be our touchstones for the future. These principles are outlined in the Declaration of Independence and codified in our Constitution. From these founding documents we should seek our direction, and our inspiration, as we confront conservatism's double dilemmas.

Larrey Anderson is a writer, a philosopher, and submissions editor for American Thinker. He is the author of the novel The Order of the Beloved and the memoir Underground.


[i] This definition is from the Oxford English Dictionary. I will not distinguish between constructive and destructive dilemmas in this article. In logic, a simple dilemma is described as A Ú B, A Þ C, B Þ C ⊢ C, or, sometimes, by (a < b) (c < d) (a + c) < (b + d). These logical definitions of "dilemma" mirror the preferred usage of the word in English. According to the Oxford English Dictionary:

USAGE: Dilemma should be reserved for reference to a predicament in which a difficult choice must be made between undesirable alternatives: You see his dilemma? If he moves to London, he may never see his parents again. But if he stays in Seattle, he may be giving up the best job offer of his life.

[ii] Marriage and the family, depending on a person's religious beliefs, may or may not be "sacred." Pence's rationalization is an argumentum ad populum directed only to persons of faith. This is a crucial problem for conservatives. We tend to appeal to each other's beliefs -- rather than making a clear and rational defense of our positions. As I will argue in my next book, The Idea of the Family, monogamous marriage and the family promote and provide vital guidelines and principles for human morality and human self-awareness -- apart from any particular religion's dogmas about the nature of the family.

[iii] I have made it clear here and here that "moral values" are neither personal nor relative. Although they are oftentimes very difficult to apply and/or to articulate, moral principles are, and should be seen as, objective.

[iv] Notice that good health is an objective human value -- not a value that varies from individual to individual. Someone who desires ill health is not mentally stable.

[v] I mean by "confabulation" the psychiatric use of the word.

[vi] I have a handwritten thank you card from Mark Sanford that I keep on my desk. Before he was involved in his marital scandal, I had praised Sanford's response to the passage of the first TARP bill in a blog on American Thinker. I keep the postcard as a constant reminder to put my faith in principles, not politicians.
"Dilemma" is a technical term -- easily misunderstood and often misused. The English word "dilemma" comes from the ancient Greek δί-λημμα. "Di" means "twice" or "double," and a "lēmma" is a "premise" or a "proposition." In logic (and this is important), a dilemma is an argument "forcing an opponent to choose either of two unfavorable alternatives"[i]. Because the intellectual left, assisted by the mainstream media, the public system of education, and the popular culture, sets the terms of moral and political discourse, the left has managed to maneuver conservative leaders (and some of us in the rank and file) into two political dilemmas. Roughly, and preliminarily, described: One dilemma is moral, and the other is "logical" (a method of rationalization). The left is able to steer the debate by shifting the focus of the argument from one dilemma to the other.

Spokesmen and women for the right have, for the most part, failed to understand the nature of the paired dilemmas they face. Let's examine these double dilemmas (simplified, for concision, into two sets of two):

(1) Conservatism's Moral Dilemma:

A) Moral positioning

Western civilization, inspired by intellectual thought of the left, is now steeped in moral relativism. As I have shown elsewhere, notions like tolerance, diversity, and political correctness grant the left a carte blanche when it comes to making the most important decisions in life. The left's position is summed in our ubiquitous cultural norm that "each person's values are his or her own."

When the arguments for moral relativism are explained to them, most people reject the theory. But too many conservative officeholders and intellectual leaders have been educated by and are trapped within the moral rhetoric of the popular culture that is controlled by the left. Almost like a virus, the notion that individual values or personal beliefs trump objective knowledge permeates our society. Consider this recent exchange between two conservative leaders.

In an already infamous article in The Weekly Standard, Mitch Daniels, Indiana's Republican governor (and possible GOP presidential nominee in 2012), was quoted as saying that the next president should "call a truce" on social or moral issues and focus on the economy and the war on terror. Apparently, Daniels is serious about this "truce." He explained the "truce" this way:

I really believe, that for the first time, the future of the American experiment is at risk. ... It's a just a thought that we could agree to disagree. I picked the word "truce" because no one has to change their point of view, no one has to surrender." [Emphasis added.]

Congressman Mike Pence -- another possible GOP presidential hopeful -- responded to Daniels' call for a "truce" thus:

I believe with all my heart that Republicans need to continue to fight for the sanctity of life and the sanctity of marriage with everything we've got in 2010 and in 2012. ... To renew this nation, we must renew the institutions that strengthen her character. We must stand for the sanctity of life." [Emphasis added.]

Notice that each politician described his position as a belief -- not a factual or reasoned argument regarding the topic (whether or not the right should continue to press forward on "social" -- actually moral -- issues). Daniels goes so far as to identify a person's personal take ("point of view" and "agree to disagree") on crucial moral issues as, apparently, the truth. In short, each of these politicians (whether consciously or not) has bought into the left's myth that moral values are relative to the individual. That is, values are based on a person's beliefs -- not on objective moral principles[ii]. Leaders on the right often speak the language of moral relativism of intellectuals from the left.

B) Moral responsibility:

If we examine the statements of Daniels and Pence, then in light of the left's control of political and moral language, Daniels' argument is actually the cleverer of the two. (I am speaking purely in terms of political positioning in our current culture of moral relativism.) Daniels has at least given himself some ethical wiggle-room in the debate by acquiescing to the rhetoric of the left. If Daniels is unfaithful (or if a family member is involved in, say, procuring an abortion), Daniels will be able to retreat to the safety of his personal moral relativism that is implicit in his statement. On the other hand, by using religious language ("sanctity") to describe marriage, Pence cannot make even the tiniest misstep in his marital affairs without being (correctly) tagged a hypocrite.

There are countless examples of politicians on the right who staunchly defend "family values" (a logical misnomer to begin with) falling on their swords by having an extramarital affair. Politicians on the left are exempt from such political damage because they do not trap themselves with (or, for some, even believe in) words like "sanctity."

In short, the right continually allows itself to be boxed into a corner by accepting the premise that moral values are (Daniels) relative to each person or (Pence) by claiming that morality is fundamentally a matter of religious faith. The left never flinches at taking advantage of the situation when someone on the right breaches his or her personal moral values or violates his or her religious beliefs[iii]. Because of the squishiness of the dominant cultural morality, liberal politicians are essentially immune from the moral consequences of their personal behavior.

(2) Conservatism's rational dilemma:

The rational dilemma of conservatism is a bit more complicated, and I will not go into the problem in depth. It results, in part, through the application of the moral dilemma discussed above. First, notice that "each person's values are his or her own" cannot be true. Human values are necessarily hierarchical, and values often conflict within each individual and from situation to situation. I may value mowing my lawn every Wednesday afternoon. But I will forgo this value if, say, my wife is seriously injured and needs to be taken to the hospital at the moment it is time for the weekly maintenance of my yard.

We have been sold the value that "each person's values are his or her own" is the highest value. As I have shown at length and will not repeat here, this leads to a morality of relativism that is imposed from the top down (from the intellectual elites who sell this elastic morality to the masses who eagerly buy it). Paradoxically, this moral relativism leads first to a groupthink morality and then to group political action to protect the groups' newly established "right" to an "individual" value.

C) Groupthink:

One of the first articles I wrote for American Thinker was called "Liberals and Control." In the piece, I argued that many people, including almost all rank-and-file liberals, desire control over the aspects of their lives that they cannot directly manage. Politicians (mostly liberal politicians, but conservative leaders as well) use this need for control to acquire votes and, thus, power. For example, the left pushes for universal health care because none of us can completely oversee the status of his health. As a counterexample, the left does not promote universal lawn care because most people can water and mow their own lawns.

(Sound health is, for obvious reasons, one of the highest of human -- not individual -- values[iv]. Once someone is convinced that his or her values are relative, but that these values are inherently important because they are his or her own, it is very easy to persuade the person that some values should also be rights. This is exactly what happened in the health care debate. An important human value has been magically converted into an individual right.

This need for some outside power to save or sustain the individual in certain aspects of day-to-day existence leads to a groupthink mentality. It also promotes groupthink rationality -- and it is precisely this rationality that is the basis of the second conservative dilemma.

Because of the tepid attitude of the leaders of the right, the left has been able to tag the right with the label of "groupthink." Yet, for the most part, it is the politicians on the left who manipulate, with great ingenuity, the human frailty of needing control over life's fundamental problems.

When a pseudo-conservative politician like G.W. Bush, with his "compassionate conservatism," promotes government intervention to meet fundamental human needs, the politician is not following conservative principles. Compassion is an emotion, and governments (no matter what we are told by any politician) cannot experience an emotion -- only individuals can. For the most part, conservatives understand that life's core problems should be the responsibility of the individual, his or her family, friends, and members of voluntary organizations -- like churches. These are people who can feel compassion, for another person's health problems as an example, and then act on that emotion to help the person in need.

The confabulation [v] that the right, rather than the left, is governed by groupthink is beyond reason. The history of the KKK, for example, is tightly interwoven with the history of the Democratic Party of the South. Yet the left has managed to make "racism" an attribute of white conservative Christians, who fought to end slavery in America and then struggled to give former slaves full political rights.

Until the emergence of the Tea Parties, the right was about as far from groupthink as is imaginable. Social conservatives, economic conservatives, and libertarians fought like cats and dogs over a wide range of issues. Social (read: religious) conservatives squabbled among themselves. (Recall Mike Huckabee's scurrilous attacks on Mitt Romney's religion in the 2008 presidential race.) This fractiousness played into the hands of the left -- and kept the right from uniting as a cohesive political movement. The left, on the other hand, has pushed forward both its moral and political agenda with amazing success.

The left, not the right, has mastered the art of groupthink. It has accomplished this feat by first establishing the notion of moral relativism by promoting diversity, political correctness, tolerance, etc. The left is able to control the political action because it has defined the terms of our moral rhetoric.

D) Group action:

Tagging the right with "groupthink" has allowed the left to compartmentalize its own adherents and keep those people in a groupthink state. Groupthink has led to group action and political victories via command of the moral vocabulary by the left. The left has been able to get away with claiming that anyone holding or defending traditional conservative principles is a racist, homophobe, misogynist, etc. The right has done a poor job of responding to these categorizations because, as we saw above, it is fighting back with a moral and political nomenclature devised by intellectuals from the left. As long as those on the right remain within that framework, they cannot defeat, let alone rationally respond to, the positions of the left.

With few exceptions (like crowds of people at a public event emotionally driven by a speaker or, say, a fire in the building) there is no such thing as group action or group choice. People rarely behave in mindless group action. Individuals have reasons, whether rational or not, for most of the decisions they make in life. An instance of one of the most important of these decisions: Each of us walks into the voting both alone. The left has perfected the art of turning groupthink into group action. The Tea Parties are an indication that the right is beginning to catch on.

(3) Conclusion:

I am not about to argue that the solution to these twin dilemmas is going to be easy -- or that I have readily available answers. But I will briefly list some initial steps that we can take to help us win back our culture.

First, we must reject moral relativism in all of its multifaceted appearances in our society. Morality is not relative. Values are not unique...though individuals are.

I recently had a spirited exchange with a person on an aspect of gay marriage. When it appeared as though I had won the argument, my interlocutor said something like, "Well, you have your truths and I have mine." This person intended his statement to bring an end to the discussion. As politely as possible, I pointed out why his assertion was demeaning to both of us and showed him (again, tactfully) that he was trying to avoid the issue at hand.

This kind of discussion takes patience and a critical mind. It is not easy to do without offending the other person. But all of us need to come to terms with, and refuse to shrink from, our responsibility to defend the truth.

(One of the most impressive aspects of the Tea Parties I have attended is the respectful, almost reverent, attitude of most of the attendees. These are people intensely interested in saving the Republic and restoring the constitutional rule of law. For what it is worth, these people have my utmost respect.)

Second, we must live by example. It is one thing to propagate "family values." It is quite another to live as a trustworthy spouse and a competent, loving parent. There is no more room for hypocrisy on the right. We simply cannot afford it. Political leaders like Governor Mark Sanford or Senator Larry Craig, who preach one set of principles while practicing another, must be quickly rebuffed and then removed from office[vi].

Finally, and most difficult, we must abjure groupthink and still, somehow, embrace group action. Once again, the Tea Parties seem to be heading us in the appropriate direction. As conservatives, we must leave our petty squabbles behind us. If a "truce" needs to be called anywhere...it is among the various factions within the conservative movement.

Fortunately, there is one set of principles, and two documents, that we can and should defend. They have served us well in the past and can be our touchstones for the future. These principles are outlined in the Declaration of Independence and codified in our Constitution. From these founding documents we should seek our direction, and our inspiration, as we confront conservatism's double dilemmas.

Larrey Anderson is a writer, a philosopher, and submissions editor for American Thinker. He is the author of the novel The Order of the Beloved and the memoir Underground.


[i] This definition is from the Oxford English Dictionary. I will not distinguish between constructive and destructive dilemmas in this article. In logic, a simple dilemma is described as A Ú B, A Þ C, B Þ C ⊢ C, or, sometimes, by (a < b) (c < d) (a + c) < (b + d). These logical definitions of "dilemma" mirror the preferred usage of the word in English. According to the Oxford English Dictionary:

USAGE: Dilemma should be reserved for reference to a predicament in which a difficult choice must be made between undesirable alternatives: You see his dilemma? If he moves to London, he may never see his parents again. But if he stays in Seattle, he may be giving up the best job offer of his life.

[ii] Marriage and the family, depending on a person's religious beliefs, may or may not be "sacred." Pence's rationalization is an argumentum ad populum directed only to persons of faith. This is a crucial problem for conservatives. We tend to appeal to each other's beliefs -- rather than making a clear and rational defense of our positions. As I will argue in my next book, The Idea of the Family, monogamous marriage and the family promote and provide vital guidelines and principles for human morality and human self-awareness -- apart from any particular religion's dogmas about the nature of the family.

[iii] I have made it clear here and here that "moral values" are neither personal nor relative. Although they are oftentimes very difficult to apply and/or to articulate, moral principles are, and should be seen as, objective.

[iv] Notice that good health is an objective human value -- not a value that varies from individual to individual. Someone who desires ill health is not mentally stable.

[v] I mean by "confabulation" the psychiatric use of the word.

[vi] I have a handwritten thank you card from Mark Sanford that I keep on my desk. Before he was involved in his marital scandal, I had praised Sanford's response to the passage of the first TARP bill in a blog on American Thinker. I keep the postcard as a constant reminder to put my faith in principles, not politicians.