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Monday, January 27, 2020

Big Ideas #3 - Social liberalism vs social conservatism

Our third Big Idea looks at one of the battlegrounds of modern life: social liberalism vs social conservatism.

What is the difference between a social liberal and a social conservative?

A social liberal believes:

  • We live in the world as individuals, each different and distinct.
  • We should be allowed to make our own choices about how we live; where we live; what we believe; whom we love.
  • Identities shared across national borders such as race, gender and sexuality are more important than identities based around nationality or region.
  • Change, variety and fluidity are higher goods than familiarity, similarity and community.
  • A country or region has a responsibility to accept and welcome incomers, and to allow them to preserve their identity.
  • Tolerance of different ways of life is a higher good than conformity to shared ways of life.

A social conservative believes:

  • We live in the world as part of a community defined by common values and practices.
  • We should respect these common values and practices, and prioritise them over our own personal desires.
  • National or regional identities are more important than transnational identities based on race, gender or sexuality.
  • Familiarity, similarity and community are higher goods than change, variety and fluidity.
  • Incomers to a country or region have a responsibility to adapt to their new home’s way of doing things, abandoning their own values if necessary.
  • Conformity to shared values is a higher good than tolerance of diversity.

How can you apply this clash of values to debate motions?

1. This house would abolish immigration controls

Social liberalism sides with the proposition; social conservatism sides with the opposition.

A social liberal argues:

  • Our economy depends on immigrants; they tend to be hard working and willing to do jobs natives wouldn’t do. They are also more likely to be young and fit, contributing to the country through taxes rather than using health care and benefits. (Social liberalism works better than social conservatism.)
  • Immigration has enriched our society culturally. Britain is a more diverse and exciting place because of it. (Variety and change are better than familiarity and uniformity; we should adapt to welcome incomers.)
  • We have a moral responsibility to welcome people less fortunate than ourselves. (Our responsibility is to the whole of humanity, not just our national community.)

A social conservative argues:

  • Immigrants drive down wages and take jobs from local workers. (Social conservatism works better than social liberalism.)
  • Immigration has caused Britain to lose its identity; we no longer have common values. (Familiarity and uniformity are better than change and variety; incomers should adapt to a community rather than the other way round.)
  • We need to look after our own country first. (Our responsibility is to our immediate community, not the whole of humanity.)

2. This house would make it compulsory for all schools to teach that gay relationships are equal to straight relationships.

Social liberalism backs the proposition; social conservatism backs the opposition.

A social liberal argues:

  • Diverse sexualities and ways of living enrich our society, and should be celebrated at all ages and all levels of society. (Diversity is a higher good than uniformity.)
  • What we teach in our schools defines who we are as a society, and we want to be a tolerant society. (Tolerance is a higher good than conformity.)
  • The rights of gay students to express their sexuality freely are more important than the rights of religious groups who teach that homosexuality is wrong. (Identity based on individual lifestyle is more important than identity based on shared tradition.)

A social conservative argues:

  • The family is the bedrock of society, and the best way to bring up children; there is nothing wrong with celebrating traditional ways of living above how a minority of people live. (Social cohesion is a higher good than diversity.)
  • It is not right to impose values on communities who may not share those values, e.g. making a school in a majority Muslim area teach gay rights. (Community values are more important than universal values.)
  • Religious objections to teaching gay rights should be respected, because the great world faiths have a greater depth and strength than contemporary fashions. (Tradition is more valuable than modernity.)

3. This house would ban the wearing of the niqab in public.

Social conservatism supports the proposition; social liberalism supports the opposition.
A social conservative argues:
  • Women who wear the niqab shut themselves off from mainstream British society. (Incomers have a responsibility to adapt to the shared values of the society they come into.)
  • The wearing of the niqab is a public demonstration of the oppression of women. (Sub-groups within society do not have the right to promote values that contradict those of the community as a whole; social cohesion is a higher good than tolerance.)
  • Britain’s culture is based on different values to those of Islam; public celebrations of Islamic culture threaten our national identity. (The preservation of shared values is a higher good than diversity.)
A social liberal argues:
  • People should be allowed to dress how they like. (Acceptance of diversity is a higher good than conformity to shared values.)
  • Banning ways of dress associated with certain ethnic groups opens the door to racism. (Tolerance is the highest good.)
  • British values are in fact based on tolerance and openness, and we should therefore accept and celebrate different ways of dressing. (A good society is an open society.)


I think it’s fair to say that most British people under the age of 25, particularly those either at university or likely to go to university - in other words most debaters - are more likely to identify with the values of social liberalism than those of social conservatism. That makes it all the more important to understand that there is another way to see the world, which is not necessarily stupid or evil.

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