Issue Briefs

How The Left Long Ago Won The Moral High Ground

By Paolo von Schirach

WASHINGTON — Beyond the complex Left versus Right debates, and the endless diatribes on the merit of this or that public policy advocated or opposed by either side, it is of crucial importance to stress that the Left has the enormous advantage of appearing to own the moral high ground. Whether by accident or by design, the Left defined its policies through words that have a positive and implicitly benign ring, and therefore an almost automatic moral appeal.

Lofty goals

Think about it. The Left strives for “justice” and “equality”, and its ideas and policy recommendations are “progressive”. These words for most people convey goodness. They have moral strength and therefore they appeal to those who believe that the goal of the political process is to create a society firmly grounded on, or at least inspired by, solid moral principles. Because of the normally accepted meaning of the words used to describe leftist policies,, one can see how the political/policy debates have been implicitly and often explicitly turned into moral debates. between the “good guys”, (the Left) and the “bad guys”, (the Right). Most people want to be on the side of the “good guys”. It does not matter if they are wrong on the merit of the issues debated. They are right because they are good people.


If you are fighting for “justice”, or more justice, you implicitly posit that in the current situation there is not enough justice. If you challenge the statement that there is not enough justice, according to the Left, automatically this means that you are a proponent, or a defender, of “injustice”. Those who claim that we do not have enough justice in our society are inspired by the moral desire to make things better. They want to do good. They want more justice.

Anybody opposing them are people (factions, special interest, entrenched ruling classes) who fight against justice. They want the perpetuation of injustice because they rigged the system and –through brazen injustice– they gained the upper hand in the society. These groups openly benefit from morally reprehensible injustice. A fight for justice is therefore a noble fight of good versus evil.

And so we can see that, even before we start looking at any substantive facts, such as where is this injustice, how much injustice, how do we define it, what does it affect, and more, those who want to promote more justice have already won the moral argument, while their critics appear to be at least morally questionable people, if not wicked reactionaries who profit from naked injustice.


Likewise, if you are for equality, you define yourself as someone who wants all people to have equal standing and equal status within any given society. In any democracy this should not be contentious. Most if not all people would agree that all individuals should be equal under the law and enjoy the same basic rights. Yes, except that surreptitiously the Left has added another aspect that is not at all part of the democratic liberal culture. And that is economic equality. If equality is our goal, what are fighting against? Very simple, we want to eliminate or at least drastically curtail economic inequality. Which is to say that measures aimed at reducing economic and social inequality via taxation, income redistribution or other public policy tools have the moral high ground. Their proponents want all people to be treated the same in all respects. All is this is in the name of equality and fairness. What can be wrong with that?

Since achieving economic equality in the name of fairness and justice is a moral goal, it follows that those who oppose these policies inspired by high moral principles are immoral, mean spirited people who benefit from the current situation of unfairness and inequality. What sounds better? Equality or Inequality? Does anybody like to be labeled as an ardent proponent of inequality? Nobody wants that label, because the term inequality carries a negative moral meaning.

Progressive policies

And then we have the general self-description of leftwing movements as “progressive”. Think about it. Doesn’t the label “progressive” ring nice? In the western world we automatically associate the term “progress” with moving forward, discovering new things, advancements in science, medicine, technology, ultimately yielding improved economic conditions. We are all instinctively in favor of progress. Therefore, those who define themselves as “progressives” tend to be looked at as good people, driven by positive ideals. They are striving to bring about progress in any given society and in the world in general. And who can be against progress? Well, there are some, and we would call them “conservatives” (or “reactionaries”). What sound better, “progressive” or “conservative”?

The mantle of morality

And so, here we have it. Before even looking at what the Left proposes on its merit, trying to see whether the proposed policy agenda can and will achieve its intended goal of overall society improvement, how has it worked when it was implemented, and so on, the Left has the benefit of wearing the immaculate mantle of morality.

Sure, the good people would admit that sometimes the proponents of leftwing policies may be mistaken. Errors have been made. But at least the “progressives” tried. They tried because they are driven by morally superior ideals. They did their best to bring some positive change into this world characterized by inequality and injustice. For these reasons, regardless of outcomes, they are on a higher ground. They are morally superior because their intentions are pure. All they want is a “progressive” world where there will be “justice” and “equality” for all. These are noble objectives. None of this sounds bad. None of this seems to imply coercion, direct or indirect violence, or any kind of abuse. Therefore, it follows that only bad people can be against this beautiful plan.

Uninspiring conservatism

So here is the challenge for the Right. How can one make the term “conservative” sound beautiful and morally appealing? Frankly it is impossible. Because it just does not ring well. It is not poetic. Indeed, true conservatism is about boring prose. It is about healthy skepticism when it comes to grandiose new plans and great transformations. It is about recognizing the limits of public policy. It is about preserving what works. It is about evidence based solutions. It is about limited, incremental steps when tackling complex problems. It is about stressing individual responsibility, rather than magical plans coming from inspired hands.

Unfortunately, none of this sounds lofty and inspiring. And that is the problem. The Left is about beautiful dreams legitimized by the assumed moral superiority of its underlying principles. But dreams they are. And for this reason –not being grounded on reality– they fail. But, strangely enough, failure seems to be irrelevant. As the policies are based on superior principles. good people should try again and again, until finally we shall establish a just society based on true morality.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely the author’s.

Paolo von Schirach is the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC. He is also the Editor of the Schirach Report.