Rightism versus Leftism: Moral Differences?

Shimmer Analysis
5 min readJun 2


I recently came upon an interesting article by Jillian Becker, editor of “The Atheist Conservative.” The piece is entitled “Communism is Secular Christianity.” With a title as self-explanatory as that, I need hardly explain what Mrs. Becker’s main thesis is. It is an interesting argument she presents, but I want to home in on one passage in particular:

The idea that compassion is the essence of morality, entered history — to become in time a significant ethical philosophy — with the teachings of St Paul.

That is interesting, as the author sees this elevation of compassion as a commonality between Christianity and communism. A related statement comes later in the article:

It [Christianity] was an ethos that preferred love to justice (in contradiction to Judaism which held justice to be the highest value).

How accurate or inaccurate these ideas about the history and ideals of Christianity really are is beside the point for this discussion. What matters is that these sentiments reminded me of some reflections of my own, which had been prompted by the popular, though flawed, “Political Compass.”

As you may know, the Political Compass divides ideologies into four “quadrants.” The division is twofold: left-right (regarding economics) and authoritarian-libertarian (regarding culture). This prompted me to ask myself whether there were any basic philosophical similarities uniting the two quadrants on the left and the two on the right, respectively.

One idea that came to me was the following: the two leftist quadrants, by and large, base morality on compassion, whereas the two rightist quadrants, by and large, base it on duty. So to the left, morality is mainly about a more intimate, emotional feeling of solidarity with someone who is perceived to be suffering, which occasions some action meant, in theory, to address said suffering. In contrast, morality for rightists tends to be emotionally cooler, less interpersonal, and based on commitment to more abstract codes and rules of behaviour — that is, duty.

For the authoritarian right, duty-based morality manifests itself in the value placed on military service, the idea that married couples should be expected, barring exceptional circumstances, to settle any quarrels they may have and stay together instead of getting a divorce, in a strong commitment to law and order, and so forth. For the libertarian right, duty-based morality takes a different form, being based exclusively or almost exclusively on the duties to respect others’ freedom and take responsibility for one’s own freely chosen actions.

James Northcote’s portrait of Edmund Burke, after Joshua Reynolds. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This idea of duty — obligation to abstract principles which is generally not, in the leftist fashion, swayed by compassion (or false compassion) — is, to some extent, akin to the concept of “Justice,” which Mrs. Becker accuses Christian compassion of having displaced. Again, the point here is not to discuss religion. Rather, what I am trying to say is that Mrs. Becker’s article gives me confidence that there is something to my original notion of the moral left-right divide.

Another aspect of the moral divide, it seems to me, is a gap between the left’s “proactive morality” and the right’s “containing morality.” The left’s idea of morality is centred on the sentiment that one has to help others. In contrast, the right’s morality accords relatively more importance (of course, this is a difference of degree) to the sentiment that one has to contain one’s desires and refrain from doing certain things. This is more subjective than my point about compassion-based and duty-based morality, but my impression is that those on the right generally think of morality more in terms of what one restrains oneself from doing than do those on the left, who in turn generally think of morality more in terms of what one proactively does for others than do those on the right.

(Of course, in the politics of the real world, these moral sentiments manifest themselves in more complex ways, as, for instance, left-wing policies tend to replace private charity by government programmes, under which individuals are not continuously and proactively choosing to part with their money.)

As an example of duty-based morality, consider this beautiful passage by Edmund Burke:

It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the Queen of France, then the Dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she had just begun to move in, glittering like the morning star full of life and splendor and joy.

[L]ittle did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her, in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor, and of cavaliers! I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards, to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult.

But the age of chivalry is gone; that of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom!

As an example of the opposition between “proactive morality” and “containing morality,” consider the Marxist critique of Adam Smith. In “Capitalism and the Jews,” Professor Jerry Z. Muller writes:

In an early essay of 1844, “Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy,” Engels laid out in embryonic form many of the ideas that he and Marx were to spend the rest of their lives developing. The essence of Engels’s critique of political economy as it had developed in the work of Adam Smith and his disciples was that it obscured the basic truth that capitalism was built on avarice and on selfishness. If the key maneuver of Enlightenment thinkers such as Smith was to call attention to the potential social benefits of what had been previously stigmatized as “greed” and “pride,” the first countermaneuver of socialist critics like Engels was to restigmatize self-interest as greed. For Engels, trade stood condemned, in the first instance, for the impurity of motivation that lay behind it. Morality, by definition, could not be based on self-interest.

Whereas the advocates for capitalism were friendly towards selfish activity as long as it operated within certain constraints, such as non-violence (“containing morality”), their leftist detractors wanted economic benefits to come to people due to actions consciously undertaken to help those people (“proactive morality”).

What do you think? These reflections are fairly tentative, so I would be interested to read what you have to write about the ideas I have laid out in this essay.