Aristotle argued that happiness is the ultimate goal or purpose in life, for it is the only thing we seek for itself and not for the sake of something else. Aristotle's conception of happiness, however, is better understood as thriving or excellence, or--as he put it-- "a live well-lived, " rather than mere emotional contentment. Today, perhaps we call it "the good life."
In contrast, everything else that we seek, we seek for the sake of happiness. So it makes all the difference in the world what kind of things we seek.
Aristotle offered, but neglected to develop, a guideline to help us think about our desires. He wrote that everyone desires what appears to be good for them, but only some of those things are really good for them. Every person ought to use their reason to discern the difference between apparent goods, and real goods--more commonly distinguished today as wants and needs.
Real goods meet real human needs--those species specific needs shared by all members of the human race. In contrast, apparent goods or wants are innocuous or even harmful. Prudence dictates that we should only desire those things that satisfy our real human needs or those wants that are clearly innocuous. We ought to avoid those things that are harmful. A life well-lived is not a matter of "to each his own" and is more than just exercising one's "right" to live one's own version of the "good life."
This brings us to the first conceptual contrast between traditional conservatism and modern liberalism:
Traditionally, conservatism give primacy to the good; modern liberalism gives primacy to the right.
Conservatism holds to the idea that every individual has the duty to pursue the good life--a life of excellence. This means developing human potentialities to their fullest so that they become moral virtues. It also means developing and using our intellectual virtues so that we seek those things that are good for us, in the right way, to the right degree.
Conservatism also reserves respect only for those individuals who pursue the good life as understood above. For conservatives, respect characterizes relationships between individuals--especially friendships. And that respect is earned. Conservatives do not promiscuously offer offer respect to anyone. "To each his own" is not a cliche owned by conservatives, or at least one that should be.
Conservatism maintains that the political and economic arrangements of society should reward those who life a live of excellence. Just as individuals give respect those who earn it, social, economic, and governmental arrangements provide wealth and public honors on the basis of merit.
Modern liberalism does not diametrically oppose excellence or virtue. Excellence knows no political ideology or party. People with liberal political views make excellence a goal both for themselves and their children. They reject, however, that excellence--or the good--or virtue should be universalized. Instead, they argue that everyone has the right to live whatever version of "the good life" that they choose. They prioritize the right over the good.
Consequently, they generally remain non-judgmental about "alternative lifestyles." Modern liberals usually express it as something like "while I personally would never [ . . . . .] I cannot force my views on someone else." Moreover, progressives assert everyone should be non-judgmental about such matters. Because all human beings are equal, they say, all persons and their versions of "the good life" should be accepted or even affirmed. Tolerance, or even empathy, should be the guiding principle in all relations.
Of course, some of our libertarian liberals have abandoned all pretense of morality. They keep asking from justifications for moral precepts on some grounds other than "the harm principle." What's wrong with drug use? What's wrong with prostitution? As long as nobody else is harmed . . . . Sitting around smoking a blunt and listening to the Grateful Dead while the wife brings home big bucks as a sex worker may be an attractive lifestyle for some people. Just don't call them conservatives.
Finally, for liberals the idea that the government should favor one view of "the good life" over another is anathema. Just as individuals should be tolerant of "alternative lifestyles," the government should be neutral. Instead it should maintain the conditions that allow all persons to pursue their own version of "the good life," however they may conceive it.
This conflict between the good and the right is a complex one. Careful readers that these concepts overlap with others such as liberty, equality, rights, etc. These issue will be examined in future posts.
The fundamental issue at stake seems to be whether or not individual citizens or their government should care about the moral character of their fellow citizens.