How, my oldest daughter asks, can you call yourself passionately moderate? I thought you were a liberal. Yes, I answered, my personal preferences are liberal. Universal health care, a woman’s right to reproductive choice, a tax system that doesn’t favor the wealthy, affordable college and affordable housing…the list goes on. But I realize that a sizeable chunk of my city, state and nation subscribes to a different set of priorities and preferences, overlapping in some cases and diametrically opposite in others. And even if my views were those of the majority, which they are in some cases, I don’t want to impose them on a frustrated and probably angry minority. I am willing to compromise, to settle for the good or even the good enough for now rather than holding out for the very best. I am passionate about that openness to compromise, the give and take so that none of us get exactly what we want personally but what may be good enough, at least for now. That makes me a liberal in theory and a moderate in practice.
Moderation lies at the core of the two academic disciplines I love the most and have taught to several generations of college students I have a Ph.D. in economics from my early days and worked as an academic economist for 30 years. Then I went to seminary and got a master’s degrees in theology with a concentration in ethics, which helped me to get my economic head and my theological heart on the same page. It also gave me the opportunity to teach ethics and public policy for 15 years to graduate students in policy studies because I was able to bring these two disciplines together.
As both an economist and a theologian, I was interested in very practical questions about how we live our lives, and in particular, how we live in community. For an economist, that means a focus on policy—making and implemented decisions that affect our material well-being in our common life. For theology, my focus has been ethics, which was my concentration in seminary. Theological ethics explores how our faith understanding guides our participation in governance in a democratic society. In the process of studying ethics, I fell in love with virtue ethics.
The heart of Aristotelian virtue ethics, infused into late medieval scholasticism by Thomas Aquinas, is moderation. Moderation is fulcrum on which Aristotle’s golden mean rests. Aristotle’s golden mean contends that each virtue lies at the midpoint between two vices (or sins, in Christian/Jewish language). One vice is the virtue’s extreme, the other its opposite. His notion of the golden mean fit perfectly into the decision processes of my economic mind and my progressive heart.
Barry Goldwater got it wrong when, running for president in 1964, he said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue”. Extremism is tempting, but Goldwater lost in a landslide. BErnie Sanders, running for the Democratic nomination, took absolute positoins on health care, free college education, and other issues and met a similar fate. Moderation, along with patience, is a more likely path to human flourishing.
Thirty years ago, economist Alan Blinder wrote a book called Hard Heads, Soft Hearts, arguing that the Republicans were the party of hard heads, hard hearts, while the Democrats were the party of soft heads, soft hearts. What we needed,he wrote, was hard heads and soft hearts, rational decision processes tempered by compassion and empathy for others. The same dichotomy exists between economists and theologians—and in my head and heart. That same dichotomy also exists between theologians of right and left and economists of right and left. It is in the middle that we engage both head and heart in dialogue with each other.
The core of economic decision-making is a balancing act, weighing costs and benefit, pain and pleasure, and steering a middle course rather than going to the extremes. In fact, economics embodies utilitarian ethics, the greatest good for the greatest number. It’s all about getting to get good outcomes.
In political economy (the old name of economics as a guide guide to public policy), moderation is not just a principle, it’s a survival strategy. The successful candidate is ever in search of the median voter, constantly resisting the pull of the extremes where few voters reside. Yes, there is lure of standing tall for what you believe, whether it’s an extreme version of the second amendment or free college for all; rigid and unyielding in the face of pressure to compromise. It’s high drama, but it doesn’t create or sustain communities in which we can dwell together in peace and enable humans to be nurtured and flourish. So if you value a healthy and sustainable human community, please consider join me in declaring yourself a passionate moderate. With this qualification from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Moderation in all things, including moderation.”
The golden mean applies not just to virtue, but to other qualities of being. I have friends who are perfectionists, which is frustrating for them because it is impossible to always be perfect, and so often the perfect keeps us from getting to the good enough. Perfection is the opposite of moderation. Carelessness, indifference, apatheia represent the extreme. I vacillate between appreciating the gift perfectionists bring and exasperation at the lack of big picture, the delays while everything is revisited one more time. I have worked with perfectionists, and it has never been easy for either of us.
My passion for moderation is a passion for process, not outcomes. In order to practice moderation as a commitment to good process, you have to let your inner Buddha guide you in letting go of attachment to outcomes. I do believe that in most cases that good processes are more likely to lead to good outcomes. Not best outcomes. Not perfect outcomes. But again, outcomes that are steps in the right direction, or good enough for now.
Note: This blog is an excerpt from the opening chapter of a book in progress.