In A Conflict of Visions Thomas Sowell offers a thesis that suggests we are all born with a tendency toward one of two basic belief systems, or “visions.” Our vision is our world view. Our own personal way of looking at the world we live in, how we believe that world works. Sowell doesn’t separate the two competing visions as liberal or conservative. That makes sense because he emphasizes that he is talking about mindsets that are primordial and universal in human existence. For convenience he separates them between a constrained and an unconstrained mindset. The former sees human beings as having a fixed nature that is largely intractable to change except over periods of time that stretch far longer than historical memory. The latter, the unconstrained vision, firmly believes that humans are malleable, that every child’s brain is a tabula rasa to be written upon by his future experience and perception, and all of his behavior and beliefs will ultimately conform to whatever is thus written there. This is essentially the nature versus nurture debate.
These two mindsets are not mutually exclusive and most people will exhibit some characteristics of both but will fall mostly into one set or the other.
The constrained vision is sometimes called the tragic vision, mostly by liberals, because they think it’s tragic that human beings are just like the leopard that cannot change its spots. Conservatives, the real ones, don’t think its tragic at all. It’s just reality. Refusing to accept reality is tragic. The unhappiness and failure that comes from not accepting reality and learning how best to live comfortably with it, that is the real source of tragedy in this world.
It’s not so much what one believes to be possible as it is how one believes good things are made possible. If more can be accomplished by people whose vision accepts that we live in a world constrained by natural forces beyond our control, then it is the constrained vision that offers hope for the future.
There is a simple test that may help determine which of these visions is dominate in a person.
Say you are back in school or college and you are in the middle of the final exam in one of your classes. You are writing away and feeling pretty good about how it’s going. Then you notice that the guy across the aisle seems to be stretching his neck to copy off your paper. He’s cheating. The class is graded on a curve, the better he does the higher the curve. If you’ve got all the right answers and he doesn’t, your grade may be higher. You’re incensed at him for cheating. You decide to take corrective action.
You begin to mark down answers you know to be wrong, and the cheater copies them. You get to the end and you neatly stack up your test papers indicating you’re finished. Then you stall a bit until the cheater gets up to turn in his paper, satisfied that he’s done well with the answers he’s stolen from you. After he leaves the room you quickly erase all those wrong answers and insert the correct ones.
When the tests are returned a few days later you have an A and the cheater gets an F.
Now the ultimate test question: Is what you did ethical? Should you be found out and punished for intentionally causing the cheater to get a failing grade?
Invariably, liberals will say what you did was unethical. Conservatives will say no, the cheater deserved what he got. He’s the unethical one for cheating.
Why the difference? Why is it so predictable? The difference is that to say what the smart student did was unethical is to fail to look beyond the surface of the entire interaction. Looking at this episode more thoroughly, thinking it through, we can see there were two distinct acts to be analyzed from an ethical point of view. The act of one student giving wrong answers to another student, and the separate act of the other student cheating on the exam. The act of giving wrong answers must be be further analyzed. It was not so simple as just tricking the other student to adopt wrong answers. The context of the act itself must be considered. It was done to prevent the cheater from gaining by his wrongful conduct. The cheater could easily have avoided the result by simply keeping his eyes on his own paper and giving it his best. He probably would have done better on the exam if he had.
So what we have here is a choice of evils. To the constrained vision, this is a microcosm of life itself. We are forced to make choices between two things when we might like to avoid them both. But if that is not possible we must choose. It is better to choose the lesser of the two evils. The unconstrained vision is so uncomfortable with the thought that the world is not perfect and cannot be made perfect, the holder of that vision will normally avoid thinking it through and will take comfort in declaring that you were unethical to foil the cheater by giving him wrong answers.
It is easier to think like a liberal. Liberals believe perfection is possible if only the smartest people are in charge. Conservatives understand that the perfect is often the enemy of the good. Liberal thinking has been dominate in our culture. That is why we have all the horribly burdensome and destructive social programs in America that do more harm than good.