George Will has a column today about Larry Summers and The Women Math Professors Massacre. Of course, the chick's ridiculous display makes easy humor fodder of just the right type for Will's dry, conservative wit.
More interesting, however, in getting to the root of the problem, he makes a particularly good statement of what might reasonably be seen as the most essential bottom-line philosophical divide between liberal and conservative thought:
The philosophy of natural right — the Founders' philosophy — rests on a single proposition: There is a universal human nature.
From that fact come, through philosophic reasoning, some normative judgments: Certain social arrangements — particularly government by consent attained by persuasion in a society accepting pluralism — are right for creatures of this nature. Hence the doctrine of "natural right," and the idea of a nation "dedicated," as Lincoln said, to the "proposition" that all men are created equal.
The vehemence of the political left's recoil from this idea is explained by the investment political radicalism has had for several centuries in the notion that human beings are essentially blank slates. What predominates in determining individuals' trajectories — nature or nurture? The left says nature is negligible, nurturing is sovereign. So a properly governed society can write what it wishes on the blank slate of humanity. This maximizes the stakes of politics and the grandeur of government's role. And the importance of governing elites, who are the "progressive" vanguards of a perfected humanity.
This does seem to summarize many political differences. The best end of conservative thought largely stems from deep skepticism about the ability of any government to make humans not act like mammals just by passing laws.
One counterexample of this nature vs nurture breakdown leaps to mind, though. Modern liberals are typically very adamant that homosexuality is absolutely genetic, that it's purely nature and not nurture. To me, this seems like an awfully convenient exception that happens to serve their political ends. The argument there seems to come down to saying that homosexuals can't help who they are (nature), so you can't judge anyone for homosexuality anymore than you can judge someone for being black or Jewish.
Conversely, though, I suppose you could argue that this might be a convenient exception for conservatives who would look on homosexual proclivities as a matter of choice, rather than nature. However, that would seem likely to represent the thinking mostly of the Christian side of conservatives. I'm not sure how they'd fall on this whole nature vs nurture thing to start with.
That choice idea seems to throw a monkey wrench into the whole nature vs nurture thing, doesn't it?