Thomas Sowell answers this question from a purely secular point of view. He calls it A Conflict of Visions. I have now read this book twice and I hope to live long enough to get back to it before I die. Even more impressive, I have purchased two copies.
Sowell suggests that there are two major divisions of thought in modern history, the constrained vision and the unconstrained vision. He traces the thought from the 1700's to the present and gives examples of the thinking of the names we know from Adam Smith to Harold Laski. He brings everything back to these two visions.
The constrained vision is a belief that man must be constrained. Men are fallible and need a social system that makes allowance for that. At the same time this vision believes that people should be free to make choices without coercion. Thus the Founders established a Constitution with checks and balances. They were concerned about the tyranny of one Caesar and also the tyranny of the majority.
The unconstrained vision has a belief that man will do what is right because it is right. If he does not, it is because society has kept him from being truly free. They admit that most people do not measure up yet, so they believe that they need to be led by those who are intellectually superior. This small group is to make decisions for their less fortunate fellow citizens. That way they are free to choose, but only among choices that are good for them. He explains how the French Revolution was led by people that had this vision so it was open for the take-over by a small group of strong personalities.
Take the issue of the courts and how they reach decisions.
“The clash over judicial activism reflect a much more general clash over the best way to contribute to the social good. In the unconstrained vision, wise and conscientious individuals should strive to shape the best outcomes in particular issues that come within their jurisdiction. In the constrained vision, the inherent limitations of individuals mean that each individual’s best contribution to society is to adhere to the special duties of its institutional role, and let the systemic processes determine outcomes.” , p. 56Both sides want to do good. They view the law totally different.
Or take a current hot topic, social justice.
“The concept of social justice thus represents the extremes of the conflict of visions – an idea of the highest importance in one vision and beneath contempt in the other.” p. 215I will leave it up to you to figure out which is which.
This book explains why people can look at the same facts and come to opposite conclusions. Sowell makes a genuine effort to be even handed. This is not a hit piece but a thoughtful analysis.
Buy a copy and read it.
Sowell, Thomas, A Conflict of Visions, New York: Basic Books, 2007.