Liberal critics like to allege that social conservatives hold two contradictory views: opposition to abortion of the fetus and support for the death penalty. (Never mind that this allegation makes a logical fallacy in presupposing that a person who holds the one view will always hold the other. For the sake of argument let’s just say that all pro-lifers favor capital punishment and vice-versa. After all, conservatives, at least the vociferous ones you’d see on TV or hear on the radio, generally hold both viewpoints.) Those on the left think they have made their case for hypocrisy by simply juxtaposing the two statements; liberals believe (or at least pretend to believe) that these views are mutually exclusive. What they have done, however, is simply identified a pattern that, to their way of thinking, connect the reasons for opposing abortion and supporting the death penalty. They link these two causes by one seemingly common thread: killing. What they don’t understand is that the pro-lifers object to abortion because they believe it involves the taking of an innocent life, that the fetus or unborn child is snuffed out with no choice in the matter. The death penalty, contrariwise, is about justice for heinous crimes, punishment for those who consciously, volitionally, harm other innocent human beings. What the liberals did here was see a pattern or symmetry—killing or dying—and ascribe this linkage to the conservative’s motivation; but this is only a superficial similarity that does not reflect the latter’s thinking on the issue at all.
Now let us walk across the aisle and consider the second example. For their part, conservatives like to portray their left-of-center interlocutors as duplicitous when it comes to opposing war and supporting the troops. How can you support the one and not the other, they ask. Liberals support soldiers engaged in a war that they fundamentally oppose? This is the height and depth of disingenuousness, n’est-ce pas? Again, our pattern-seeking mentality is a culprit here. Perhaps in this case the operative word of linkage for conservatives is military. War is a military action and the military is involved—who knew? Mainstream liberals (not the radical left, mind you) generally appreciate the professionalism and selfless sacrifice of our men and women in uniform; they respect their courage and duty to country. What they object to are the policies or rationales that led to the war and the destruction of lives and property that such an unjustified war brings. Opposition to a war depends on the particular circumstances at the time. As former South Dakota Senator George McGovern, a former darling of the Left, wrote to President Obama: “Like you, Mr. President, I don't oppose all wars. I risked my life in World War II to protect our country against genuine danger. But it is the vivid memory of my fellow airmen being shot out of the sky on all sides of me in a war that I believe we had to fight.” One can surely differentiate support for troops and criticism of the war, the person from the action. After all, both conservatives and liberals criticize one another for not separating the office of the president from the occupant of the presidency when their guy (and someday, gal) is sitting in the White House.
I mentioned above that Darwin only partly explains moral symmetry. Let’s be honest, its use in our discourse today is less about some kind of atavistic drive to survive in inhospitable terrain than about polemics pure and simple. Evolutionary behaviorists talk about proximate and ultimate causes as a way of distinguishing the evolutionary basis on which we do things from the options we have in dealing with this legacy today. The Dutch primatologist Fans de Waal has made a distinction between a self-promoting genetic evolution and the human psychology that it produces; we can be kind and empathetic (as well as hostile and nasty) in spite of pure selfishness at the gene level. We are not doomed to follow the dictates of our evolutionary past and, like Social Darwinists, justify a harsh “survival of the fittest” social policy. We would be committing the naturalistic fallacy which postulates that whatever is natural is good. So the misunderstanding that arises between opposing political camps in the examples above is more about volitional misunderstanding. Moral symmetry might be in our hardwiring, but that doesn’t mean we’re enslaved to it. What it really amounts to is that we don’t want to take the time to understand the nuances of the opposition’s arguments, but we demand that they understand ours and get upset when they don’t. In his book The Moral Animal: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology, thinker and journalist Robert Wright explains this phenomenon:
One might think that, being rational creatures, we would eventually grow suspicious of our uncannily long string of rectitude, our unerring knack for being on the right side of any dispute over credit, or money, or manners, or anything else. Nope. Time and again—whether arguing over a place in line, a promotion we never got, or which car hit which—we are shocked at the blindness of people who dare suggest that our outrage isn’t warranted.
The use of superlatives for our own moral convictions and our knack for picking apart a position contrary to our own with selective criteria emerge from the depths of our apish psyche perhaps, but the behavior we exhibit to an adversary, inevitably accompanied with self-deception and self-righteousness, is of our choosing.