Sunday, July 17, 2005

"Left" and "Right"

I have seen the political views of Arnold Schwarzenegger, before he became himself a politician, described as "somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun." I am less concerned with Arnold himself than with this description, and what it says about the meaning of the terms 'left' and 'right'.

What possible sense could it make? Attila left no body of political theory describing the proper functions and limits of government. He did not, like Hayek, deny that he was a conservative. Of his recorded sayings, perhaps the most insightful is, "Some Huns have solutions for which there are no problems." Why is there such a phrase as "bleeding-heart liberal" but not such a phrase as "bleeding-heart conservative?"

Trudy Govier says, "A further moral corollary emerges when we consider the sorts of persons who are likely to be or become adherents of a cause pursued by violent means. Many sensitive and conscientious people will be unwilling to join, while some of those attracted are likely to be callous to the point of criminal thuggery. For example, in Poland and Czechoslovakia, in the 1970s, those organizing in opposition to the governing communist regimes declared themselves to be nonviolent and interested in developing a more humane society respectful of human rights. As nonviolent movements, these movements attracted certain sorts of people. In Poland in the 1970s and 1980s, many oppositionists were highly religious Catholics inspired by the fact that the Pope was Polish; others were workers; still others, writers and intellectuals. Had the oppositionists used terrorist tactics, they would have no doubt attracted some adherents, but not the same ones." ("Physical Violence in Political Contexts: Grounds for a Strong Presumption against Violence," in Philosophy 9/11, (124f.)).

To understand the difference between political right and left I think two ideas will be helpful in the future: the psychologists' ideas of a characteristic emotion and the idea of cognitive salience.

One's characteristic emotion is the emotion which one spends most time experiencing. Salient is the characteristic of a thing, or the idea of a thing, which is most likely to strike one on presentation. The relationship between these putatively different aspects of humanity should be obvious. We notice what our feelings incline us to notice. To the child with a new hammer, as perhaps to the Hun, many things need pounding.

[Added September 5, 2005] Since writing this I have found that the subject I was puzzled about has been well studied. See


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