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What kind of political animal are you?

October 27, 2009

Are you liberal or conservative?

If you’re not sure where you stand politically–or you want to know where a politician stands–then I have two simple questions.  How you answer these questions determines your political orientation.

First:  Do you believe that people are basically good or basically evil?  This describes a fundamental outlook on life. Aristotle wrote that man is a social animal; the original Greek translates more closely to man is an animal designed to live in the polis, the Greek word for “city” and the root of our word “politics.”  How we organize that political/social life depends on our view of the nature of man.

People who believe people are basically good have a tendency to be honest, trusting and credulous.  They believe what people tell them and often follow the best speaker.  In ancient Greece, these were the Sophists, who focused on style over substance.  Sooner or later this kind of person gets taken advantage of, figures it out, and ceases to believe people are basically good.  If people cling to this belief in goodness despite the all evidence to the contrary, they are called Idealists and tend to be true believers in a cause.  There aren’t a whole lot of these people over 25, but they are a determined, committed bunch.  They will drink the poison kool-aid.

Of the social contract theorists, Jean Jacques Rousseau believed that in a state of nature without government or society people were basically good.  He was called the Noble Savage.   Society corrupts mankind.

The idealist doesn’t need to answer the second question: they already have all the answers.

Alternatively, people may believe that people are basically evil.  Harsh as that sounds to our post-modern ears, this is exactly what Christianity and Judaism teach: that we are born in sin, children of a fallen humanity.  What need of a Savior if people are good?  Buddhism teaches a similar message: evil comes from our selfish desires.  Islam agrees about the nature of mankind.  Atheists are on their own here: with no religion to guide them, they must rely solely on their experience.

Thomas Hobbes believed that people in the state of nature were evil: without government or society life was “a war of all against all” and life in such a situation would of necessity be “nasty, brutish and short.”  Think of the movie The Road Warrior.

Does this mean that everyone who believes people are evil must be conservative? Not necessarily.  Here’s where the second question comes in.  I’ll discuss that in the next post.


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