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In the broadest and most general usage, moderates are defined by their opposition to radicalism, extremism, and fanaticism. Moderates value calm, continuity, consensus, tolerance, and stability. They are satisfied with the present condition of society but may agree that specific areas are in need of improvement. Proposals for change disruptive to society, though, are to be avoided. Persons who take the middle position in politics do not consider themselves to be either left or right on the political spectrum, although some may identify themselves as either moderate conservatives or moderate liberals.
Called variously the political center, the middle-ofthe-road, the mainstream, the middling way, or the juste milieu, moderation is an inherently provisional and problematical category of thought. Moderates profess no specific body of philosophical principles and pride themselves on making decisions based solely on pragmatic considerations. Their political positions, hence, tend to follow the shifts in the political culture. A moderate stance on universal health care in socialist Sweden, for example, may be rejected as extreme in the more free market–oriented United States. Complicating even further the problem of definition is the fact that no intellectual histories of moderate thought, comparable to Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind (1953) or Kenneth Minogue’s The Liberal Mind (1963), have been written.
In moral thought, the moderate pursuit of one’s pleasures is generally hailed as a virtue. Since Homeric times, the axiom “everything in moderation, nothing in excess” was a cardinal principle in Greek moral thinking. The “golden mean,” Aristotle (384–322 BCE) taught, should be the guiding standard for one’s conduct. The ethical life, he explained in his Nicomachean Ethics, “is a mean between two vices, the one involving excess, the other deficiency” ([c. 350 BCE] 1908, bk. 2, chap. 9). He did not believe, it must be stressed, that the individual should be average or mediocre nor split the difference between two competing vices. Nor did he imply that the mean is always the best. In calculating the mean, persons must consider what is appropriate for them within a particular situation. For example, a ten-dollar donation to a worthy cause might be considered too much for a poor person, but not enough for a wealthy individual. To achieve “what is intermediate in passions and in actions,” Aristotle admitted, “is no easy task.” Any person “can get angry—that is easy—or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble” (bk. 2, chap. 9). Moral virtues are not so much taught or learned as acquired by proper upbringing. Society itself amounts to a vast education project to teach its members how to live lives in the middle. Encouraged by the presence of good models and shared expectations, the Spoudaios, Aristotle’s person of moral excellence, habitually chooses to pursue his or her pleasures in moderation.
Moderation in politics, on the other hand, is not always universally praised nor rewarded with success. Political parties attempting to stake out moderate positions during times of revolutionary upheaval often suffer at the hands of extremist groups. The Girondins and Feuillants, for example, voiced moderate republican views during the French Revolution (1789–1799) but were brutally suppressed during the bloody Reign of Terror by their more radical adversaries, the Jacobins. The Mensheviks envisioned a moderate bourgeois democratic revolution in Russia in which they would take part in a democratically elected socialist government. They were opposed by the more radical V. I. Lenin (1870–1924) and the Bolsheviks, who imposed the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” After losing a power struggle for control of the party, the Mensheviks were declared illegal in 1921. Its members either fled Russia or were liquidated. As Vincent E. Starzinger notes in his The Politics of the Center, the politics of moderation “is least realistic where it is most relevant, and most realistic where it is least relevant.” In societies torn by extreme political divisions, “the center will very likely be pulverized from both sides and driven to futile negativism. On the other hand, commitment to the center is likely to be a fairly realistic enterprise where the political left and right both stand within the same value consensus” (1991, p. 16).
Moderates are often condemned by their critics as trimmers, opportunists, or persons who lack the courage of their convictions. Leftists denounce moderates as defenders of the status quo who impede beneficial reforms for the poor and oppressed. Right-wingers, for their part, think that moderates and liberals are ideologically indistinguishable. Stung by relentless accusations of extremism during his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Senator Barry Goldwater (1909–1998) questioned whether moderation is always the best policy: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” the conservative candidate famously declared in his nomination speech to the 1964 Republican National Convention, “and let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
Embracing extremism, though, is not generally regarded as a winning strategy in American politics. Especially in national and statewide elections, successful candidates typically tack toward the political middle. The Framers consciously designed the American Constitution to favor moderate outcomes. After noting in “Federalist No. 10” (1787) that the greatest danger to stability and order is “the violence of faction,” James Madison (1751–1836) argued that among the many advantages of the Constitution were the institutional mechanisms it provides for controlling the harmful effects of factional strife. Madison hailed a system of functional checks and balances, federalism, and representative government as salutary remedies “for the diseases most incident to republican government.” Madison favored an extended commercial republic covering a vast territory and population. “Extend the sphere,” he argued, “and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens,” or, in the event that such a motive exists, sufficient impediments would exist to block its realization.
Moderation, then, is not an ideology but a mentality, a temperament, a frame of mind, a strategy that one brings to the theory and practice of politics.
- Aristotle. [c. 350 BCE] 1908. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. W. D. Ross. Oxford: Clarendon. http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/a/aristotle/nicomachean/.
- Madison, J 1787. Federalist No. 10: The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection. The Federalist Papers, 1787–1788, by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison. http://thomas.loc.gov/home/histdox/fedpapers.html.
- Starzinger, Vincent 1991. The Politics of the Center: The Just Mileu in Theory and Practice, France and England, 1815–1848. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
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