How do we form a healthy, thriving society together? What should be our highest ethical values and goals? Should we strive to create a free society? An equal society? Or should we strive to create a free and equal society? Lately the political right and left have become even more deeply divided along these ethical fault lines than usual. The right wants a free society (sometimes to the neglect of promoting social equality), while the left wants an equal society (sometimes to the neglect of protecting individual freedom). Rarely do I hear individuals voice an interest in transcending the dominant dichotomy by seeking to create a society that is both free and equal. Most public voices are so partisan that they appear to assume talking positively about the ethical values promoted by “the other side” would be perceived as a violation of trust, a punishable act of betrayal, by members of their own tribe. Stepping out beyond the safe boundaries of a one’s tribe to express independent views or suggestions can surely be a harsh and dreadful thing.
One rule of warfare is never cede any ground to your enemy unless you absolutely have to. The current political landscape has become so combative that opponents tend to approach one another in ways that are oddly like warriors engaged in some tribal conflict. Attempts are rarely made the understand the moral motivations of “the other side,” let alone affirm some of their legitimacy. The extreme right (which has increasingly become the mainstream right) wants smaller governments and less state intervention in the lives of individuals for the purpose of maximizing individual freedom. The extreme left (which has increasingly become the mainstream left) wants bigger governments and more state interventions and controls for the purpose of maximizing social equality. The right promotes their own agenda in ways that focus on positively expanding individual freedom and interprets the left’s agenda in ways that negatively restrict individual freedom. Whereas the left promotes their own agenda in ways that focus on positively promoting social equality and interprets the right’s agenda in ways that negatively diminish social equality. In the process neither side tends to acknowledge the inherent mix of potentially positive and negative outcomes associated with promoting freedom or promoting equality, but rather only those potentials that serve their partisan priorities. This isn’t to suggest there aren’t some on the right who also care about creating an equal society and some on the left who also care about creating a free society. But the public discourse has become so polarized that nuanced discussion has no place in it. It doesn’t fit or support the dominant narratives.
You can notice the biases in the one-sided narratives partisans present of themselves and their opponents, which sometimes verge on parody. Right partisans say things like, “We’re just standing up for the freedom of individuals to decide for themselves how they want to live their lives and what they want to do with what belongs to them without outside interference. The left just wants to create a tyrannical totalitarian state that controls our lives, forces assimilation, and eliminates independent thought and freedom.” On the other hand, left partisans say things like, “We’re just standing up for justice and equality for individuals and groups, especially for people who are poor and marginalized. The right just wants to get rid of the government so our lives will be thrown into anarchic chaos and the rich and powerful will be allowed to ruthlessly exploit the disadvantaged and increase their dominance to no end.” The way extreme partisanship has steadily become more mainstream on both sides is certainly cause for concern. There is a disappearing middle ground typically occupied by moderates where most of the productive dialogue and debate usually happens. But this middle ground is hard to hold when the political battle becomes so polarized that the only way to find some social support and shelter is by exclusively allying with one of the two warring tribes.
Our current problems and situations are strangely reminiscent of those found in ancient polytheistic cultures. These were times when separate tribes worshipping separate gods would go to battle to determine whose god was more powerful and therefore deserving of collective allegiance. Typically each god (consciously or unconsciously) functioned as a personified representative of particular ethical values and hierarchies in these wars. With the collapse of Western society’s shared, cultural monotheism—a cultural system which, among many things, provided our recent ancestors with social stability, coherence, and orientation—we have functionally returned to a kind of cultural polytheism where different tribes (and individuals) ally with different gods as they battle out their differences on both earthly and heavenly planes. The current battle escalating between the high gods of Freedom (exclusively worshipped by the extreme right) and Equality (exclusively worshipped by the extreme left) deeply threatens to disrupt the already-shaky stability of our society, especially if we accept the increasingly popular assumption that this war is a mortal struggle between irreconcilable enemies where only one can emerge victorious. We consider it a sacred right for each individual and tribe to pursue their separate interests and ultimate concerns, and for good reasons. But one potentially dysfunctional consequence of the collapse of our society’s unifying values and narratives is each tribe fights to remake society in the image of their separate gods.
Is there any way of moving beyond participating in a mortal battle between Freedom and Equality and instead seek a society that simultaneously promotes freedom and equality? E.F. Schumacher has offered a helpful distinction between “convergent problems” and “divergent problems” that is relevant here. He says convergent problems are problems that clearly have only one answer. So the answers to these problems converge on a single solution. For example, what does two plus two equal? What is the capital of Canada? What temperature does water boil at? Convergent problems are problems that have been solved. In contrast, divergent problems are problems that tend to elicit multiple, sometimes equally legitimate answers that may even conflict. So the answers to these problems tend to diverge into many solutions. Does God exist? What is God like? What is the highest good? What is the best way to educate and raise our children? How do we create a healthy, thriving society? Divergent problems are of a different order than convergent ones since properly respecting and addressing the dilemmas they present requires tolerating ambiguities and paradoxes without hastily forcing them to resolve into easy but inadequate certainties. Divergent problems, then, are problems that are unsolved and perhaps even unsolvable.
Schumacher writes that “Everywhere society’s health depends on the simultaneous pursuit of mutually opposed activities or aims. The adoption of a final solution means a kind of death sentence for man’s humanity and spells either cruelty or dissolution, generally both.” He notes that the only ethic that is able to reconcile the ethics of freedom and equality in human communities is an ethic of love. For love both honours the freedom and dignity of individuals, and yet voluntarily acts to promote the wellbeing of others. Love does not coerce or force or oblige or impose itself on others. And love does not neglect or ignore or exploit or abuse others to get what it wants. Love freely seeks equality amongst the people within its sphere of concern.
This highlights an inherent limitation of governmental solutions in addressing all social problems. For love cannot be forcibly legislated by any authority—not even by God. Love may inspire and invite, but it cannot coerce. Otherwise it ceases to be love and becomes something else. Interestingly, the Christian theology of God understands God as Love: three Personalities eternally existing in perfect freedom and equality of Being, and thus intrinsically concerned with promoting the freedom and equality of all people made in God’s image. God as Trinity is a transcendent reality that actively hold the ethics of freedom and equality together in loving harmony. Is it a coincidence that our deepening social and political divides seem to be worsening in the recent wake of our culture’s monotheistic collapse? Are we witnessing a functional return to a more polytheistic, tribal society that is fragmenting ethical values once held together by our recent ancestor’s trinitarian vision of God? It’s hard to say for sure how related these events are. Though it seems to me to be more than a mere coincidence, to some degree, that these polytheistic patterns have been emerging in the aftermath of monotheistic breakdown.