A Conflict of Visions

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A Conflict of Visions
Cover of the hardcover edition
AuthorThomas Sowell
CountryUnited States
PublisherWilliam Morrow & Co
Publication date
January 1987
Media typePrint
Pages273 pp.
Followed byPreferential Policies 

A Conflict of Visions is a book by Thomas Sowell. It was originally published in 1987; a revised edition appeared in 2007.[1] Sowell's opening chapter attempts to answer the question of why the same people tend to be political adversaries in issue after issue, when the issues vary enormously in subject matter and sometimes hardly seem connected to one another. The root of these conflicts, Sowell claims, are the "visions", or the intuitive feelings that people have about human nature; different visions imply radically different consequences for how they think about everything from war to justice.

The rest of the book describes two basic visions, the "unconstrained" and "constrained" visions, which are thought to capture opposite ends of a continuum of political thought on which one can place many contemporary Westerners, in addition to their intellectual ancestors of the past few centuries.

The book could be compared with George Lakoff's 1996 book Moral Politics, which aims to answer a very similar question.

Sowell's book has been published both with and without the subtitle "Ideological Origins of Political Struggles".

Steven Pinker's book The Blank Slate calls Sowell's explanation the best theory given to date.[2] In his book, Pinker refers to the "unconstrained vision" as the "utopian vision" and the "constrained vision" as the "tragic vision".[3]

The competing visions[edit]

Sowell lays out these concepts in his A Conflict of Visions, and The Vision of the Anointed. These two visions encompass a range of ideas and theories.

The unconstrained vision[edit]

Sowell argues that the unconstrained vision relies heavily on the belief that human nature is essentially good. Those with an unconstrained vision distrust decentralized processes and are impatient with large institutions and systemic processes that constrain human action. They believe there is an ideal solution to every problem, and that compromise is never acceptable. Collateral damage is merely the price of moving forward on the road to perfection. Sowell often refers to them as "the self anointed." Ultimately they believe that man is morally perfectible. Because of this, they believe that there exist some people who are further along the path of moral development, have overcome self-interest and are immune to the influence of power and therefore can act as surrogate decision-makers for the rest of society.

The constrained vision[edit]

Sowell argues that the constrained vision relies heavily on the belief that human nature is essentially unchanging and that man is naturally inherently self-interested, regardless of the best intentions. Those with a constrained vision prefer the systematic processes of the rule of law and experience of tradition. Compromise is essential because there are no ideal solutions, only trade-offs. Those with a constrained vision favor empirical evidence and time-tested structures and processes over intervention and personal experience. Ultimately, the constrained vision demands checks and balances and refuses to accept that all people could put aside their innate self-interest.[4]



  1. ^ Sowell, Thomas (2007) [First published 1987]. A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles (Revised ed.). Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-00205-4.
  2. ^ Pinker, Steven (2002), The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, New York: Penguin Books, p. 287, ISBN 9780142003343
  3. ^ "The Blog: Tragic vs. Utopian View of Human Nature". Ben Casnocha. 2009-10-13. Retrieved 2010-03-17.
  4. ^ For helpful discussion of Sowell's dualistic ideological model, see Joseph G. Conti and Brad Stetson, Challenging the Civil Rights Establishment: Profiles of a New Black Vanguard, (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1993, pp. 85--122).
  5. ^ Jenkins, Holman W. (June 29, 2012). "The Weekend Interview with Jonathan Haidt: He Knows Why We Fight". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved March 5, 2017. ...as a moral psychologist, I had to say the constrained vision [of human nature] is correct.
  6. ^ Haidt, Jonathan (2012), The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, New York: Vintage Books, pp. 338–340, ISBN 9780307455772, Based on my own research, I had no choice but to agree with these conservative claims. As I continued to read the writings of conservative intellectuals from Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century through Friedrich Hayek and Thomas Sowell in the twentieth, I began to see that they had attained a crucial insight into the sociology of morality that I had never encountered before. They understood the importance of what I'll call moral capital... If you believe that people are inherently good, and that they flourish when constraints and divisions are removed, then yes, [simply linking people together into healthy, trusting relationships] may be sufficient [to improve the ethical profile of the group to achieve a moral vision for the group]. But conservatives generally take a very different view of human nature. They believe that people need external structures or constraints in order to behave well, cooperate, and thrive. These external constraints include laws, institutions, customs, traditions, nations, and religions. People who hold this 'constrained view'...
  7. ^ Pinker, Steven (2002), The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, New York: Penguin Books, pp. 286–296, ISBN 9780142003343, The most sweeping attempt to survey the underlying dimension is Thomas Sowell's A Conflict of Visions... Sowell calls [the two 'visions' of the nature of human beings] the Constrained Vision and the Unconstrained Vision; I will refer to them as the Tragic Vision...and the Utopian Vision... My own view is that the new sciences of human nature really do vindicate some version of the Tragic Vision and undermine the Utopian outlook...
  8. ^ "human conditions". prospect. October 2002. Archived from the original on 2012-08-21. Retrieved 2013-09-30.
  9. ^ Sailer, Steve (2002-10-30). "Q&A with Steven Pinker, author of The Blank Slate". United Press International. Archived from the original on September 26, 2019. Retrieved 2013-09-30. Alt URL Archived 2015-07-29 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ Younkins, Edward (Fall 1998). "Reality is Not Optional: Thomas Sowell's Vision of Man and Society". The Social Critic. Retrieved 2013-09-30.