December 23, 2010

The Great Divide

Years ago, I took a job at a midsized company in the Ohio. The company is located in a rural village of about two thousand people, and despite the isolation I decided to move there. I had only been living there a few days when I was stopped on the sidewalk, several blocks from my apartment, by a small boy staring up at me curiously. "You work with my dad," he said. Finding this a little surprising, but assuming he must be the son of one of my immediate coworkers, I asked him who his dad was. He told me, but I did not recognize the name. I told him he must have mistaken me for someone else. He shook his head confidently and pedaled off on his tricycle. The next day I asked one of my coworkers who the boy’s father was. As it happened, the boy’s father did indeed work for my company – on the assembly line in a different building half a mile away. This is when I came to understand, clearly, that I had not simply moved from a metropolitan area of nearly a million people to a village of about two thousand – but had also crossed an invisible boundary between one culture and another.

It is my hope to show, among other things, that the fundamental difference between liberalism and conservatism is not one of competing rational ideologies but simply one of culture, and that the dominant factor behind their cultural distinction is neither ethnicity nor religion – but simply the inevitable consequence of population density.

I. Demographics and Conditions of Life

Most urban dwellers are liberal. Most people living in rural areas are conservative. Compare the two maps above. The one on the left shows US population density and the one on the right shows candidate preference in the 2008 presidential election. We will take it as given that most of the people who voted for McCain are conservatives and most of the people who voted for Obama have at least some liberal leanings. Studying the two maps will show that wherever the population density is high Obama voters (presumed liberals) predominated, or were at least more common than in surrounding rural areas. Even in the south, cities show purple rather than the surrounding red. The blue regions along the Pacific and Mid-Atlantic coast correspond particularly well. McCain voters (presumed conservatives) predominated in rural areas with only a few exceptions. In the south and west, patches of blue in rural areas correspond to one minority group or other, not surprisingly voting for our first real minority president. Only in New England and the upper Midwest did the largely non-minority rural populations contradict the trend by voting for the Democrat. Regions of intermediate population density, predictably, show a mixture of the two political cultures. The lower Great Lakes region, with its mix of cities and countryside, shows a patchy appearance on both maps. We are accustomed to thinking that political orientation is an individual choice, and to some extent it is, but the correlations shown by the maps are too strong to be coincidental, and this comparison is not an isolated example. Clearly, there is something causal at work here – some distinction between rural and urban lifestyles and interests, which manifests itself in voting patterns.

Consider the conditions of life of both urban and rural groups.

Urban life is characterized by diversity and anonymity. These traits are not peculiarities of American or even western cities, but are, to some degree, characteristic of cities everywhere. Cities inevitably contain as broad a range of human beings as exist in any particular society. Living in a city does not demand a deep philosophical belief in human equality, but it does demand a certain rudimentary toleration of people who look or behave differently. Most human interaction in cities is impersonal, occurring between strangers. The relation of the individual to the city as a whole is one of residence, not one of community. For the urban resident, the city is not so much a giant village as it is an artificial wilderness. It is a place that combines variety and opportunity with a certain degree of perennial insecurity and random danger.

Rural life, on the other hand, is characterized by uniformity and familiarity. The range of occupations, religious beliefs, and ethnic traditions are all much narrower in villages and small towns. Inevitably, the inhabitant of a village interacts with familiar people most of the time. Familiarity is an imperative of the culture. For better or worse, rural communities are not places where one can live anonymously. Not surprisingly, the pressure to conform is also much higher in rural than in urban areas. Tolerance, where it exists, is more of a personal choice and not a demand made by the nature of the environment itself. The village is a safe and comfortable place – providing one is both willing and able to conform.

To illustrate the difference more clearly, let’s consider the position of a non-conformist in each environment. Imagine a person who, for whatever reason, converts from Christianity to Norse Paganism. I could use atheism, Islam, open homosexuality, or many other interesting and topical possibilities for my example – but Norse Paganism seems nicely neutral and shouldn't inflame anyone’s emotions unnecessarily.

In a city, among the anonymous multitudes, our new covert’s religion would only be noticed by a handful of people, and then only if the convert were vocal about it or decided to make some outwardly visible sign. Those people who did notice might raise an eyebrow, but the rule of the city is generally one of at least behavioral indifference, so our neophyte Norseman would be tolerated and largely ignored. Close friendships and family relationships would be affected, of course, but the people at the bank, the grocery, and the license bureau would simply shrug and go on about their business. One Norse Pagan in a city of a million is irrelevant.

A lone Norse Pagan, in a village of a thousand, would have the misfortune of being interesting. "I noticed you weren't in church – were you sick?" the bank teller might ask. "Did you know John so-and-so is not a Christian anymore?" the bank teller might later inform the grocery clerk. The smaller the town, the fewer real strangers there are. In a village, not only will our neophyte Norseman stand out, but his eccentricity will be the topic of conversation and legend. In a city, a transient oddity is quickly forgotten; in a village it becomes part of an oral history that carries on for decades.

The sense of common interest -- of community -- which villages have and cities lack, is the very heart of the cultural distinction between the two, and is worth exploring in more detail.

The innate conservatism of the village is our common cultural history. No city on earth arose spontaneously out of the mud, stocked with ready-made sophisticated urbanites. Cities are a new thing in human social evolution; living in small groups has been the norm.

The social ties that bind people living in small, natural groups are generally functional ones. Primitive villages, like bands of hunter-gatherers, are autonomous entities. They contain all of the skills and physical means necessary to maintain their constituent members. They prosper to the extent that those members work together for the common good. If villages tend to be intolerant of outsiders and individualists, it is at root because such people are the least likely to act in the interests of the community. Bigotry may be an ugly thing, but it is rooted in survival strategy.

There are far fewer functional ties that bind the inhabitants of a city together. The taxi driver and the florist only rarely benefit by one another’s actions. The employees of car dealership and those of the corporate accounting firm do not depend on each other economically. Everyone in the city shares some common basic services (police, fire, street department, etc.) but these are administered by anonymous professionals with little direct involvement by the populous. In short, most of the conditions of life in a city are beyond one’s daily influence.

When one is unhappy with conditions in a particular urban neighborhood, one moves to another neighborhood if the means are available. Urban dwellers might be just as suspicious and resentful of outsiders as their rural counterparts, but since they have fewer social ties to their neighborhoods than a villager to his or her village, they are more likely to relocate than to fight for the preservation of the status quo.

A phenomenon that often occurs when new immigrants move into cities is that they to flock to neighborhoods populated by people from their home countries. In the U.S., this occurred among European and Chinese immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and is occurring with Mexican immigrants today. It would be a mistake to think this pattern can be explained entirely by the attractions of a shared language or a shared ethnicity. It is equally driven by a desire to replicate, as much as possible, the social relations of rural life in an urban setting. Wealthy immigrants from urban settings are far less likely to settle in such groupings. Everything else being equal (and in the absence of enduring differentiators like race and religion), "urban villages" tend to disintegrate within a few generations. This is so not merely because succeeding generations learn the language, but also because they become accustomed to the general uncertainties of urban life. Their neighborhoods lack both the economic independence and social isolation necessary to be as autonomous (and therefore as enduring) as villages.

City dwellers use the word "community" differently than their rural counterparts. Rural people rarely use the word at all. The degree of social cohesion implied by the word is such a basic condition of rural life that it rarely needs acknowledgement. "Community" is something people notice in its absence, as a fish notices the absence of water when it is thrown on dry land. The modern proliferation of the term’s use in urban contexts (the black community, the gay community, etc.) is telling. There is a difference between a real community, in which the members are materially interdependent, and a merely nominal community, in which the members are simply proximate or share some common characteristic or interest. One is an autonomous social and economic unit, the other is a mirage. The most desperate use I have heard made of the term is in the phrase "Internet community". Facebook is no more a meaningful form of community than a McDonalds commercial is a nutritious meal. Social networking is, at heart, an attempt to compensate for the alienation that is an inevitable feature of urban life. It is socialization stripped of both presence and accountability. It is a parody of community, where third-rate personal advertisements take the place of human beings.

II. Further Considerations

Having laid out my central thesis, I should concede a number of points. Obviously, population density is not the sole determinate of one’s political orientation. Individual upbringing counts for much. The tendency for people to grow more conservative as they grow older is a commonplace – though this is not wholly independent of my thesis, since in a time of rapid population growth older people will have formed their predispositions in a world that was generally less urbanized. Older people might remember when their towns were villages, or when their cities were towns or at least smaller cities. It is also true that whole societies sometimes reorient themselves in response to historical events. For a couple of months after the 9/11 attacks, virtually all Americans were conservatives. The common yearning of the whole society was to return to the pre-9/11 world, a time in which we had all felt safer. No one really wanted to just smile and get comfortable with terrorism. For a moment, everyone agreed. The opposite sort of transformation occurred in the defeated Axis nations after the Second World War, particularly in Japan. At that moment in history the status quo had culminated in utter defeat and ruin. Tradition had been violently and decisively discredited, and there could be no thought of going back. Liberalization offered at least the hope of a life beyond the abyss.

Another point that I need to acknowledge is that the communal nature of rural settlements and the alienating nature of urban ones are relative. It would be foolish to believe everyone in a modern American village of a thousand people knows everyone else in that village, or is intimately bound to them economically. Likewise, it is obviously not true that cities are places utterly devoid of such connections. We are talking about relative positions on a continuum of urbanization, not about two fixed, immutable states.

On a grander scale, national and even global social and political orientations are also relative, evolving over space and time. Those that call themselves liberals today would have been unabashed socialists by 19th century standards – people who believe that government should play a large and direct role in mediating our daily lives. Contemporary conservatives are, by 19th century standards, classical liberalspeople who reject the idea of overly centralized authority, particularly in the realm of economics. The conservatives of at least the early 19th century, on the other hand, held a medieval view that is all but extinct today – that power naturally resides (and should reside) with those who control the largest tracts of land. It is reasonable to see such political metamorphoses as evolutionary, as indeed they are, but it would be a mistake to just assume that they represent a kind of incremental moral progress toward some future ideal state. Rather, the shift of power from landed nobility (or its equivalent) to merchants and manufacturers, and subsequently to government bureaucracies and central banks, has simply been the inevitable consequence of subjecting human populations to ever more capable technologies and ever more concentrated urban environments. Put a hundred people on an island and they will organize themselves into a certain sort of social system. Put a million people on an island and they will naturally produce a rather different social system. Give them cell phones and televisions and they will produce yet another. Nothing about such changes is either necessarily positive or necessarily negative. It is merely the collective result of the adaptation of many individual human beings to the conditions of life with which they are presented.

The intellectual precursors of the trajectory humanity is now on were formulated during the Enlightenment, but mass political change was really the end product of the Industrial Revolution. It was then that rapid technological change and urbanization began in earnest. Humanity has been getting more urbanized and more technologically capable ever since. Rapid technological advancement and population growth have, until very recently, always reinforced one another.1 By making agriculture and transportation more efficient, and by creating many entirely new means of livelihood, new technology spurs population growth. At the same time, larger populations with a greater variety of demands spur technological advancement. Given a relatively free, relatively educated population, sheer numbers spur technology forward too. It is significant that almost all of the most innovative nations are comparatively populous. Germany, France and the UK are all populous nations by European standards, and also produce the most new inventions there. The US has a huge middle class population, which has always been able to turn out brilliant innovators at a reliable rate. As the Chinese and Indian middle classes have begun to grow, they too get their predictable allotment of technologists and entrepreneurs. Israel, on the other hand, despite a highly educated populous simply lacks the numbers to produce more than a scattering of geniuses, and is responsible for few significant inventions.

The positive consequences of advancing technology have been many and are, for the most part, obvious. In the industrialized world, we now live longer than our ancestors did. We certainly have the potential to know more. The list of advantages of living in modern times is lengthy, though to some extent debatable. Those things we have lost are less apparent because most of us are unaware, at least consciously, that they ever existed. Cultural stability is an unimaginable condition for most people in modern societies. We are conditioned from birth to believe that we either reinvent ourselves continuously or face obsolescence. We can expect, in old age, to live in a world that bears little resemblance to the one in which we were born. A sort of corollary to this is that we lack any rational sense of belonging. The community, as a stable, predictable unit of social organization, is all but extinct. Let’s return to our primitive village for a moment to see if we can throw some light on this obscure idea.

As I have already observed, the basis of village organization is function. As animals, human beings are simply more able to cope with their environment in groups. People don’t live in groups because they love each other; they live in groups because they need each other. Or, perhaps even more bluntly, they love each other because they need each other. This is a deep genetic trait. We were social animals before we had villages, or language, and probably even before our ancestors had the ability to walk upright. We want to belong to some group almost as strongly as we want to survive, and in some instances even more so.

The conditions of modern life tend to erode our sense of social stability at both ends. Not only does the community become unwieldy beyond a certain size, but the pressures and demands of urban life also undermine that most basic unit of social organization -- the family. Individuals move from one city to another in search of work. Both opportunity and scarcity contribute to this diffusion. In boom times the ambitious pursue opportunities far from their homes. In lean times, everyone seeks employment anywhere it can be had. Once the traditional extended family might have offered some support in times of scarcity, but once that institution is scattered across the country we are left to fend almost exclusively for ourselves.

In the absence of either a real functional community or a family, human beings must meet their unfulfilled need for belonging with something else. Modern societies offer a number of alternatives, but all of them are essentially illusory.

III. Palliatives for a lost sense of Belonging

The most obvious palliative for a lost sense of belonging is nationalism. Indeed, the rise of nationalism closely parallels the rise of industrialism and urbanization. The progression from one attachment to the other is intuitively simple. The nation, usually in an ethnic sense, becomes a sort of village or family writ large. The ardent patriot does have a sense of belonging, but the difference between patriotism and village solidarity is a tragic one. The relationship between the individual and the village is mutually beneficial in a way that the relationship between the individual and the nation can never be. Villages are networks of human relationships that are simultaneously functional, reciprocal, and personal. Individuals can be treated unjustly in a village, but even such mistreatment is fundamentally personal – no one is simply an anonymous cog in a heartless social machine. Nations, on the other hand, are innately heartless. They lack the capacity to care about the individuals that theoretically constitute them. No one really matters to the nation. We are all merely cogs in the unconscious machinery of the state. Such benefits as we might derive from being members of a particular nation are ultimately the result of decisions made by real people – other cogs in the process – not by any deliberate action of the nation as a whole.

Since human beings generally do not derive a sense of belonging from participation in unconscious processes, patriotism requires an illusion. The nationalist loves the nation as though it were a conscious, living entity. To expand this further, evolution has only given us a limited repertoire of emotional attachments – those suitable for living in small groups. "Love of beneficial bureaucratic processes" was not high on the list of feelings our troglodytic ancestors would have found useful. We are predisposed to mould our relationships with abstract entities in personal terms, no matter how incongruous. In the cold light of reason, a nation is really nothing more than a belief. It has no empirical existence of its own. It shares with the village the property of being a social collective, but it is a collective compounded of the very yearning to belong – rather the more substantial sense of belonging that stems from a set of tangible, functional relationships.

That patriotism is more virulent among rural conservatives than among urban liberals does not contradict the notion that villages are inherently more socially secure and comforting places than cities. As I outlined earlier, the whole of society is in a state of flux, and even rural areas are being transformed by the dominant urban culture. Our entertainment media, which grows more global and more pervasive by the year, is targeted at urban audiences. It denigrates the rural or traditional. Thus, the rural conservative feels the erosion of existing social institutions more acutely than the urban liberal. The latter is constantly having the normalcy of modern life, no matter how bizarre or hostile, reaffirmed by television and the internet. The rural citizen, on the other hand, receives only a steady stream of condescension and the treat of largely unwanted change. When, through pressure of the dominant culture, the village begins to fail as a functional entity the villager loses something real. It is natural enough to look for a substitute of similar kind but of a grander scale – however sadly illusory it might be.

Theistic religion is more complex than raw patriotism, and its attraction to either rural or urban populations is not simply the attraction of a substitute community. In traditional rural villages, churches serve as a natural focal point of community life. Whatever else they may be, they are the roof under which the whole community sits. They have a social function that is largely independent of any religious teaching they might offer. Even if the sermons are dull and uninspiring, the congregation draws significant strength from the simple solidarity of attendance. Rural churches give the community a unique opportunity to see itself as a whole.

A service at an urban megachurch is something rather different. The congregants of a megachurch are not a community as such, but a scattering of people drawn from a wide area. They may draw some passing sense of strength from their very numbers, but in the end they are essentially an interest group of otherwise disassociated people. Like attendees at virtually any other urban venue, they come to be entertained – in other words, to be distracted from the stresses of urban life. No megachurch could sustain itself with a dull and uninspiring pastor. Congregants would simply shop for their salvation somewhere else.

Significantly, the conditions of urban life have transformed religion (at least in the US) by making it more energetic but at the same time less demanding. While the content of a sermon must be entertaining, it cannot be very restrictive. In a village, people attend the church the village happens to have; in a city, they attend the church that suits them. Given a choice, most people will adopt whatever form of their religion demands the least of them. Consider how many modern churches emphasize verse John 11:26 ("And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.") This is the lowest possible common denominator to which Christianity can erode. Simple belief is the cheapest cover charge that any deity has ever required. The Catholic Church, though much in retreat, still wants the faithful to follow certain rules. A few protestant churches in rural Appalachia still ask congregants to show their faith by handling venomous snakes. John 11:26 asks only a little credulity, which you have to possess to derive any comfort from Christianity anyway.

To summarize, rural religion tends to demand more arbitrary concessions from its adherents but also offers them something valuable by strengthening their social relationships. Urban religion doesn’t dare demand much, has far less to offer, and has to compete with every other form of distraction the city can create. Let me be clear, however. Urban churches need not be harmless, watered-down versions of their rural brethren in regard to their condemnation of non-believers. On the contrary, in the absence meaningful moral strictures to violate, the only thing that delineates the congregation from outsiders is belief. This, too, is a desperate attempt to give adherents a sense of belonging and mutual solidarity – by the common expedient of raising an external enemy against whom they can contrast themselves.

While the Enlightenment began the downfall of religion among intellectuals, urbanization began the downfall of religion among the masses. The very anonymity of urban life made participation in religion optional, and the diffuse and transient nature of urban congregations has made the social benefits increasingly negligible. All that remains for the urban believer are grand promises of salvation and rewards in the afterlife. While these have a certain appeal for many people starving for a feeling of security in a ruthless urban world, it is well beneath the threshold of cynicism for most. The majority of urban dwellers, as well as the majority of people who could be broadly considered liberal, are not explicitly atheists. They have not rejected faith so much as they simply do not take the time to bother with the question. If you ask them directly "do you believe in God?" they tend to shift around uncomfortably and mutter things like "sure – I guess so." Their very lack of interest makes such an affirmation meaningless.

Another attachment that provides an essentially empty sense of belonging is a devotion to organized sports. Here too, we have a cultural entity that developed hand-in-hand with urbanization. Sports like baseball began as pastimes for ordinary people to participate in. Socially, they functioned to strengthen the bonds between actual team members. Teams then began to represent larger entities, cities and businesses. Their chief social consequence became the creation of a sense of unity among the spectators. Widespread though it might be in both our cities and our countryside, it isn’t hard to see how shallow this illusion of belonging actually is. After all, very few people actually feel any special sense of duty toward their fellow fans of team "x". Devotion to a team may offer a vague sense of identity for an individual, and provide a superficial point of connection to fellow supporters, but can offer little in the form of substantive relationships. No fellow fan is going to either trust a person or assist him on the basis of their mutual fandom alone. No player feels very obligated to any individual fan. If nationalism is a poor parody of the relationship one might otherwise have had to a small and functional community, then fandom is one step even further removed – a parody of nationalism. The fan pours out his enthusiasm for those he not only has no influence over, but who have in turn no substantive influence over him. Nationalism is, in one sense, the political exploitation of our natural longing for community – a one-sided but still relevant exercise. A love for organized sports is merely the embrace of community’s ghost image – an exercise whose only social consequence is distraction.

Other forms of fandom function similarly. The cultish fascination with movie series like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings should not be surprising. Both offer the attractive magic of religion without the uncomfortable restrains and limitations. Fantasy blooms most plentifully where religion is the weakest, chiefly in cities and suburbs. Fantasy offers the young yet another kind of community of the mind, a much more interesting and appealing one than the dull, dysfunctional, pseudo-communities of their parents. The knowledge that trying to live in such fantasies becomes a self-consuming psychosis beyond a certain point is no deterrent to children, and little deterrent to many adults. Believing in Harry Potter’s mythos is, after all, only slightly less rational than believing in Christianity – and not in the least less rational than believing in Scientology.

Lastly, returning nearer to our main theme of comparing liberalism with conservatism, we should consider the palliative dimension of belonging to a political party. That membership in a political party offers a person both a sense of community and a sense of identity is obvious. The distinctions between party membership and simple nationalism are less obvious, but are important nonetheless.

First, it should be noted that the pure nationalist must, to some extent, accept his or her country whole. The nation is defined by the whole, and if any subgroup of the nation is to be excluded it requires a special conceptual effort. For example, Hitler, an ardent nationalist, could not stop at portraying the Jews as merely a dangerous minority of Germans; they had to be portrayed as fundamentally non-Germans. If the nation is the parental entity before which all individuals must bow, then all that is evil and dangerous in the universe must be external to the nation. Those who are evil must be alien, born of alien blood. A pure partisan, however, need not make any special effort to cast enemies out of the common ethnic fold. Parties, too, are cultural entities at heart, drawing their defining boundaries around beliefs rather than genes. Republicans and Democrats don’t usually think of themselves as distinct genetic breeds. They think of themselves as believers in right ideas or right values.

In reality, there are few pure nationalists and few pure partisans. The two encompassing collectives are compatible and often reinforcing. The dominance of one tendency over the other varies with conditions. Thus, the Soviet state before the Second World War was a brand new cultural entity with a heavy facade of ideology. It centered on a party – the communists. During the war, however, the appeal of Russian nationalism was needed to rally a public sick of both military defeat and the failings of the communist program. After the war, the cultural and ideological experiment resumed its dominance over nationalism.

Parties are more palpable entities than nations. They have real leaders and sometimes even definite purposes. Straightforward ethnic nationalism is an emotional state. Its can have no purposes, per se. Political parties, though centered on certain cultures and their values, must inevitably support some recognizable program of policies. They must pin themselves to comparatively concrete statements of what they are for and against. This not only invites social division, but actually demands it. The pure nationalist wants the nation to move as one. The pure partisan wants to dominate those fellow countrymen who happen to have wrong ideas. The synthesis of the two, on the other hand, requires a redefinition of what the nation is. Whether a party is on the right or the left, the redefinition takes on essentially the same form – that of redefining the nation as a certain set of cultural values rather than as a certain ethnicity. For Americans on the right, America is a nation characterized by patriotism, distrust of government, fiscal restraint, and usually some measure of religious piety. For Americans on the left, America is a nation characterized by tolerance, fairness, and an unshakable faith in progress. Each group sees the other as misguided or demented and, while not actually external to the nation, possessed by ideas which are in opposition to the true national character. By this trick of national redefinition a person’s sense of belonging can be transferred from a nebulous abstraction to a collection of ideas, a body of leaders, or even a handful of slogans. Though parties are somewhat smaller entities than nations, they are still far too large to have reciprocal relationships with their lesser members. We belong to them far more than they belong to us.

IV. Contemporary Liberalism examined more specifically

Over the course of this essay I believe I have adequately summarized the predispositions of those we would classify as Conservatives. They are, broadly speaking, those people who find themselves on the trailing edge of social change. They are people who either like their lives as they are and want to keep them that way, or want to return to some mythologized state of the past, be it imagined or remembered. What, then, do liberals believe? What drives people on the leading edge of social change?

Liberals and conservatives are both human beings, and as such are subject to the same human motivations. Liberals, being generally more urbanized, are rather less inclined to turn for security to functional communities they don’t really have, or be nostalgic about some mythologized past they either don’t know or don’t believe in. Nevertheless, though they are more accustomed to the alienations of modern life, they are still afflicted by them – if only less consciously. Only a tiny percentage of human beings are truly content without any communal context whatsoever. The alienated urban masses hunger for a sense of security and identity just like their rural counterparts.

The promise offered by liberalism, like that offered by nationalism, is couched in the assumption that we share a not only a common need, but a collective existence. To be a liberal is to believe that humanity as whole has a certain positive destiny – a destiny that can be reached by implementing a progressive social program. Stable conservatism lives in the present; agitated conservatism lives in the past; liberalism lives always in the imagined future. This means that change is not merely a hallmark of liberalism but a central element of the creed. Liberals believe that they are agents of positive social evolution. They believe that they can argue, legislate, and invent their way to a utopia of equality and universal happiness.

Since, as I’ve already outlined, the specific beliefs of liberals and conservatives both move further to the left as society becomes ever more urbanized, the criterion of whether one looks backward or forward for solutions is probably the only reliable demarcation of the divide. In many other respects, the two cultures are really quite similar.

Noble as it may sound, the love of liberals for humanity as a whole is just an even more grandiose cousin of nationalism. Rather than dividing the world into countrymen and foreigners, the liberal divides the world into liberals and obstructionists. They believe in a sort of global community of the enlightened, whose full realization is only barred by the bigoted, regressive obstinacy of conservatives. Put another way, they have an irrational love for their ideology rather than an irrational love for their nation. Practically speaking, one is little more tenable than the other. While the notion of humanity as a whole conjures up a nice utopian sentiment, it ignores the reality that humanity is composed of people with all sorts of beliefs and agendas, many of which are violently incompatible despite the basic commonality of human nature. The liberal tends to believe that the masses in other nations (particularly developing nations) are nascent liberals yearning to breathe free, while in reality most of the people of the world are conservatives within their own social contexts, often nationalist or religious or both. They may buy our Coca-Cola, but they have irrational utopian visions of their own. They no more want to be second-rate knock-offs of western liberals than they want to be second-rate knock-offs of western conservatives. One can love "humanity" as an abstraction – as an artifact of the imagination – but such a love rarely survives prolonged exposure to any real population in the real world.

In practice, liberals do not love all human beings as individuals either. It’s a very rare person who does. Liberalism is a cultural entity, and as such has its own schema of in-groups and out-groups, which vary a little depending on the subgroup of liberals in question. For example, I think it would be fair to say that American liberals, particularly during the civil rights era, despised white southerners as a class. If one happened to be an American liberal and a white southerner, a certain apologetic attitude for the latter was obligatory. The corollary to this particular prejudice was the unconscious assumption that all American blacks (or members of any other suitably downtrodden minority) were necessarily morally good. If a black American appeared to be less than perfect the fault was obviously that of some white bigot somewhere along the line. My point is not to deny that many white southerners (and plenty of white northerners) did (and in some cases still do) engage in bigotry, but to assert that Liberals tend to make the same kinds of sweeping generalizations about out-groups and in-groups that people of any other culture do.

American conservatives, for their part, tend to become incensed at the suggestion that any American soldier could ever be justifiably accused of a war crime. Soldiers currently have an almost holy status among conservatives, and the suggestion that even a single one of them might tarnish this image is simply proof that the accuser is a liberal who hates America.

What all such hardened generalizations have in common is that they support a particular group’s identity myth. White liberals see themselves as the good white people, bestowing social justice on the oppressed. It would muddy the water if any of the bad white people had any merit as human beings, or if any of the oppressed might be a little lacking in personal merit. The Robin Hood myth just isn’t as inspiring if, once in awhile, Robin steals from a philanthropist to give to an impoverished child abuser. For the conservative, the soldier is less a person than a living symbol of the nation -- a sort of walking talking flag -- who shoots the bad guys and passes out candy to children. Real soldiers, of course, are merely human beings with the usually variety of human traits. In a population of a hundred thousand of them, it is almost impossible that one wouldn’t find at least a few cold blooded sociopaths, just as one would expect to find in any city of that size. Nevertheless, the myth, however impossible, must take precedence over the grey, unhappy realities of the world. It is not a matter of truth, but of identity.

Another striking similarity between liberals and conservatives can be seen in each movement’s response to the other’s political rallies. There are, inevitably, a few hardcore racists at any sufficiently large Tea Party rally. This shouldn’t be surprising. The Tea Party movement is, at present, a very decentralized movement. The Tea Party groups have neither the capacity nor the desire to carefully vet those who happen to turn up at their events. Populists cannot be overly choosy. Any group that opposes America’s first black President is bound to draw at least a few people who oppose him because he is black, but this does not mean the movement as a whole is racially motivated. People can have other reasons for opposing a president, as history abundantly shows. The left characterizes the Tea Party groups as racist because doing so drops them neatly into a category of enemies liberals already have, and this absolves liberals of the irksome burden of having to address the Tea Party movement’s actual platform. When the liberals hold rallies, conservatives do almost exactly the same thing. They consistently point out the handful of self-declared communists and socialists who turn up on such occasions, and demonize the rest of the people present as mere dupes of this traditionally hated fringe. Again, it is an easy way to avoid the irksome task of having to actually think about opposing ideas. Each side, on the other hand, takes the righteousness of its own cause as a given. This is chauvinism pure and simple.

V. Conclusions

In relatively secure and stable periods of history, when change is slow, the divide between largely urban liberals and largely rural conservatives is modest. At present, under the strain of enormous economic pressure, international instability, and dizzying technological change, the gulf is wide. This does not bode well for anyone. Rational people, if there are any, must find themselves caught between increasingly radicalized extremists at both ends of the political spectrum. The dexterity with which each camp spins a narrative blaming all the world’s problems on other is a testament to both human inventiveness and human credulity. There is little room for compromise between such factions. Even if there were, the ad hoc blending of two irrational extremes does not seem likely to yield anything sound. Considering civilization’s bloody history of civil wars, revolutions, and counter-revolutions we have reason to worry about each side’s insistence on ideological purity.

In truth, the aggregate behavior of human beings is almost never driven by reason. The larger the collective one examines, the less rational its behavior is. Individuals can be reasonable; villages can exhibit practicality; states can be managed wisely to some degree; the collective direction of humanity as a whole, however, is beyond the realm of rational control. It is probably also beyond the realm of what we, as individuals, can fully understand. We did not agree, as a species, to pursue our current trajectory. As individuals, no one asked us. Like anything else in nature, social evolution is ultimately the playing out of a vast, complex, and essentially non-conscious process. Urbanization is a feature of that process that we may, at least, recognize –- and one with reasonably predictable social consequences.

The conditions under which we live change faster our basic motivations. Our very ability to overcome and dominate nature has led us into problems for which nature never prepared us. Important as entitlements, tax policy, and all the other topics of the day may be, they are all broadly symptomatic of a larger human problem – the problem of the instability which appears to be inherent in societies on the scale of tens or hundreds of millions. Considered on the timescale that we use to judge the viability of other species, the most enduring nations on earth are mere events. The imaginary collective of "humanity" is more an explosion than a steady march of progress.

In other species that have, for one reason or another, experienced explosive population growth the process inevitably continues until it meets some natural limitation. Typically, the species exhausts its food supply or induces some disastrous change in its environment. In many of the more developed nations population growth has slowed or even reversed, but overall there are still more and more human beings every year, sharing a fundamentally finite pool of resources. Technology cannot increase productivity without end, so a Malthusian catastrophe of some sort seems almost inevitable. This, if nothing else, may put an upper limit on urbanization and all that it entails. What sort of society human beings we might have at the upper limits of concentration, starved of either energy or food I shudder to imagine.

1 The decline or reverse of population growth in most industrialized nations that has been occurring in recent decades is an interesting topic in itself, but beyond the already broad scope of this essay.

Note: I owe an acknowledgement to Eric Hoffer’s great work, The True Believer, though I arrived at many of his conclusions independently. It was his view that mass movements originated from the frustrations of people with certain personality types, and were brought into an active phase by their ability to awaken simmering dissatisfactions in the broader population. It is my view that this process is driven not so much by certain personality types (although such people do indeed serve as a focus for mass movements) but by a the general dissatisfaction of large segments of the public with their relative impotence and insignificance within the context of a large, bureaucratic, urban society. We simmer because we are members of corporate bodies too big to notice us. As Hoffer himself saw, we can only become fully numbed to the impotence and insignificance society imposes on us by sacrificing our individual identities to one collective vision or another.

December 20, 2010

A Word or Two on Greed

As politicians haggle and maneuver over the question of taxes on the rich, the notion of greed is always with us, an ever-present subtext to such debates. It seems that no one, though, considers the notion of greed in any depth. It is enough to simply hurl accusations and accept one’s own moral high ground as a given. But are greed and wealth synonymous? Most of us who are not wealthy were taught to think so, either directly or implicitly. In truth, however, greed is just a characteristic of human beings. No group has a monopoly on it.

Consider this scenario. Imagine yourself completely without greed, absolutely committed to the laudable principles of fairness and human equality. It seems to me you would then be subject to the following proposition:

The per capita income of the world is approximately 10,500 US dollars. If you make more than this and do not give the surplus to people who makes less, arguably you are being greedy -- taking more than your fair share. For simplicity sake, let us assume that you are single and have no dependents. You certainly have the means to give the money away. No agent of authority is going to stop you from being charitable. Nor would it be too difficult to find recipients. Even if you felt justified in stipulating that “your” surplus should only go to people who are deserving (by whatever ethical criteria you might propose) deserving people on a planet of six billion are plentiful enough. Further, I can say from personal experience that $10,500 per annum is a sufficient sum to survive on in the US, albeit not very comfortably or securely. Certainly, you could find a way to do without a car, and modern television, and even take the risk of living without health insurance, in the interest of helping someone in Zimbabwe or Paraguay attain minimal shelter or food. This would be the fair thing to do. Still, supposing you didn’t want to give up "your" surplus, what excuses might you offer to your conscience?

You could say you deserve your income. You could argue that you contribute disproportionately to the wellbeing of humanity, and therefore ought to get a little more than the paltry world average. Perhaps you are a doctor and you heal the sick, or an industrialist who provides jobs for thousands of people, or a clergyman who at least imagines he saves their souls. If you are really serious about fairness, this argument for your exemption isn’t going to work in most cases. Maybe if you do enough direct and obvious good, a little extra income for healthcare might be justified to save your life -- but it doesn’t seem as justified to use it on your third vacation home. For that matter, it doesn’t seem much more justified to use it on more pedestrian luxuries. You get a big TV, and the Paraguayan peasant starves. Not a very equitable exchange.

The positive argument failing, you could always try the negative one: those who are poor deserve their poverty. Well, unless you are devoted to some sort of transcendent cosmic justice myth, believing that wealth, and probably everything else, gets parceled out by a deity who is fair by definition, this justification isn’t going to work either. After all, there are whole nations of malnourished, desperate people. It isn’t plausible that they all became destitute through acts of individual will -- even if we assume we have free will, which is at least an open question. In any case, only being fair to those whom you deem worthy of fairness isn’t very different from being unfair. We cannot really have principles if we make them up as we go along.

You could propose that you already make donations to charity, and that the amount you give is morally sufficient. Unfortunately, this still leaves that Paraguayan peasant starving as you sit comfortably behind your new TV. How can you be a moral person and believe that your enjoyment of some non-essential possession has the same value as another person’s life or health?

You might also think “I live up the moral standards of my society.” This will certainly not do, because so did Josef Mengele. The moral equality of human beings is a pretty meaningless ideal if it can be trumped by a mere ad populum rationale.

Lastly, you might argue that the wealth you have to offer is inconsequential compared to the wealth that others so unjustly horde, and that it is they who need to feed that Paraguayan peasant and not yourself. This argument has an interesting quality. The millionaire can wag a finger at the billionaire, the well-off professional can wag a finger at the millionaire, and the store clerk can wag a finger even at the well-off professional. Each makes a claim, at least implicitly, of being relatively fair -- of being innocent because others are more guilty. Is it true, though, that failing to prevent one instance of suffering is more moral than failing to prevent two instances – or are two failures more moral than a thousand? Is allowing a neighbor to suffer more moral than being indifferent to the suffering of a million people one will never know or see?

Other than actually impoverishing oneself, there is only one way to escape this trap. It is to accept that, though most people manage be generous to some degree, probably not one in a million actually pursues the ideas of fairness and equality to their logical conclusions. The person that does is fair. The rest of us are greedy -- prepared to let others suffer for the sake of our own comfort.Human beings are not made morally different by the mere acquisition of wealth. People of all classes pursue similar patterns of generosity. They give to those that are close to them and, for the most part, they ignore those that they don’t personally know. Moreover, generosity itself is not always the purest of exercises. If you give to have a foundation created in your name, or to impress your friends, or to placate your deity, your motives are essentially self-serving. Of course, it’s all the same to our starving peasant -- but we are talking about intentions here, not consequences.

It is not my object to make the wealthy feel better about themselves. There are more than enough sycophants in the world to provide that service. It is more my object to point out to the rest of us how self-servingly hypocritical it is to think our relative poverty makes us, by necessity, morally better. The non-rich call the rich greedy for more-or-less the same reason that the rich call the non-rich lazy – to feel better about themselves. We can certainly debate the actual, tangible consequences of unrestrained capitalism -- just as we can debate the tangible consequences of socialism, or anything else. Adding moral indignation to such discussions, though, rarely contributes anything illuminating. Any attempt to make rational sense of human society must include putting aside those ideas that condemn or deny the actual nature of human beings.

August 27, 2010

Liberal Values – An Alternative View (Part 2)

I’m promoting M.C. Planck’s comments on my previous entry (Liberal Values – An Alternative View) to the level of a new entry. His defense of Greta Christina’s position is interesting -- and probably representative in some respects. It merits a response in detail. M.C. Planck’s comments are in red italics; my responses are in black. – e.m.c.


Naturally if your democratic society votes to end your democracy, you’re going to lose your democracy – one way or another. But that’s not the point.

The first point is that democracies out-perform other kinds of governments when measured by the goals people have of their governments. The second point is that the history of the world is the history of the advance of democracy. This does not mean there were not retreats; rather, it means that the retreats can be understood in terms of local conditions.

The Wiemar Republic, for instance, was in quite a fix. To a large degree the Germans could be said to have voted for Fascism instead Communism, since the continuation of Democracy simply was not a believable option.

If you view democracy as a technology (albeit social rather than physical) then this interpretation sounds much more reasonable. Hardly anyone would deny that the human race has steadily advanced in technology over the years, even while acknowledging that in many times and places it has temporarily declined. Recognizing that democracy – like any other advanced technology – requires an extensive infrastructure to arise and function explains its history. The loss of this infrastructure and the subsequent collapse of democracy is not necessarily a comment on democracy itself, anymore than the Tasmanian abandonment of fishing is a definitive comment on the viability of fishing technology.

Also it seems appropriate to point out that the Germans lost, and lost definitively. Even the Russians threw in the towel eventually, and the Chinese are certainly not spouting “Workers Unite!” these days.

 The history of the world is no more the history of the advance of democracy than it is the history of the advance of ever larger authoritarian structures. It has been said, and very plausibly too, that Joseph Stalin was the most powerful individual leader in the history of the world. If I were an advocate of authoritarianism (which I am not) I might just as easily point out the recent trend toward at least nominal democracies as "retreats" from the ultimate trend of concentrating more and more power in fewer and fewer hands. If we consider the species as a whole, power was certainly more widely distributed in the stone age than it is now. In a tribe of thirty people, I might have a level of influence that I could hardly hope to have over any democratic government today.

We are living in a very unstable period of history for many reasons, including the proliferation of technology and its miscellaneous consequences to demographic and environmental issues. No one really knows where it is going. Like evolution, history is a complex set of interactions that proceeds with a certain lawfulness but with no deliberate purpose. History, ultimately, isn't about progress – it’s about physics. At the highest intelligible level, it’s about evolution. To believe that history is an inevitable upward movement toward some ideal state is purely wishful thinking. You can create such a narrative -- but only if you are willing to cherry pick historical events. Indeed the Nazi state was short lived, but then dozens of democratic governments in the third world have been equally short lived. You cannot plead "local conditions" to dismiss real instances that contradict your belief, and yet stand firmly behind that belief without anything to support it but equally explicable cases.

Indeed the Chinese are not shouting “Workers Unite!” – but neither are they rushing headlong toward anything even resembling democracy. Their authoritarian regime shows no sign of cracking any time soon, and gets along perfectly well with their particular species of capitalism.


I have a very different view of both sides of this issue.

For the conservatives, I believe you have missed their mark completely. Their opposition to abortion is fundamentally about control over childbirth. To put it in the most charitable terms, the conservatives are attempting to maintain some stake in childbirth for men. A noble goal, but their chosen method is to punish women for having sex, which while being amazingly effective for the last 5,000 years or so is these days considered barbaric.

For the liberals, you have also missed the mark. Roe vs. Wade does not depend on the fetus not being a person or not having rights. Rather, it depends on the recognition that someone else’s rights cannot trump your own. We do not force people to take homeless bums into their house and feed them for 18 years until they are capable of feeding themselves, because doing so – however beneficial to the bum – would be hugely detrimental to the homeowner and not incidentally a complete destruction of fundamental rights. If they can force a woman to feed a parasite, then why can’t they force a man to do the same? Yes, the bum has rights: but so does the homeowner.

If pure pragmatism is your goal, a more defensible argument is that birth control + abortion is the safest public health policy. Pregnancy is perhaps the most life-threatening event most non-elderly women face. This has nothing to do with convenience or wealth; it simply recognizes that as long as sexual activity is a legally protected activity, people have the right to practice it with all due regard to safety. Banning elective abortions while retaining birth control would be like allowing motorcyclists to purchase helmets for their own safety, but not allowing them to go to the emergency room after an accident. Such a policy would be instantly recognized as simply a ploy to ban motorcycle riding.

 Let’s start with your assessment of conservative motives. In the first place, roughly half of the conservatives out there, including many of the most vocal ones on this issue, are women -- for whom your proposed motive makes no sense. Second, even if you assume that all conservative women are the meek ideological slaves of conservative men (which, frankly, isn't even true in Afghanistan) this explanation still doesn’t work.

There are fundamentally two kinds of motivation: conscious ones, and unconscious ones. If you are positing a conscious motivation, then you believe that the majority of conservative men walk around thinking, more-or-less, “I need to maintain some stake in childbirth” or “I need to punish women for having sex.” This is not only doubtful, but surreal.

If you are positing a subconscious motivation, then you are either talking about some genetically innate characteristic, or some product of personal experience. The genetic case is going to be difficult to make. Young men, with the most at stake as far as assuring their progeny are carried to term, actually tend to be less “pro-life” than older men, for whom the issue is usually academic. Further, if a “pro-life” stance were a sort of phenotype you would expect it to breed true. In other words, a child of “pro-life” parents adopted into a “pro-choice” family would still tend to grow up with a “pro-life” stance, and you could expect similar results with a “pro-choice” child adopted by a “pro-life” family. I doubt that anyone has researched this, but I am pretty confident you would not find a real phenotype here.

What we are left with, then, is a subconscious motivation rooted in personal experience. I will not say that such things don’t exist, but unless you are also positing some sort of Jungian collective unconscious there is no way to get from a personal subconscious to the collective will of a group.

Not unlike Ms. Christina, you fail to ground your position in real phenomena. Anytime anyone says “group ‘x’ does ‘y’ because…” rational people need to become suspicious. Motivations are the province of individuals – not of groups. You can say that the culture of a certain group appears to have certain consequences, but that is not the same as saying that all (or even any) of the individuals within that group are aware of those consequences – and necessarily responsible for them. Your hypothesis smells unpleasantly of both a belief in out-group homogeneity and the fundamental attribution error. In more philosophical terms, it’s a linguistically coherent explanation -- it just doesn’t correspond to a consequential number of real peoples’ actual motivations. It’s a nice narrative for the liberal-feminist culture of which you are a part though, and it no doubt promotes solidarity within that context – not that I’m claiming that’s your motive… ;)

Moving on to your interpretation of the liberal position -- I’m more than a little stunned. You start out by saying:

“…Roe vs. Wade does not depend on the fetus not being a person or not having rights. Rather, it depends on the recognition that someone else’s rights cannot trump your own.”
Do you actually intend this as a general principle!? We are measuring (at least potentially) a life on the one hand, against a certain loss of personal freedom on the other. Given the adoption option, we aren’t necessarily even talking about a life-changing loss of personal freedom. If we apply your rule as a general principle, we eschew ethics altogether. Even Ted Bundy could have lived by such a maxim. After all, Ted would probably have agreed that the women he killed had a reasonable desire to live – he just didn’t believe their life-right trumped his right to a rather nasty pursuit of happiness! Ms. Christina’s whole point was to extol the virtues of fairness and avoidance of harm. The common thread between these virtues is the idea of altruism – making sacrifices for the good of another. Your rule is the antithesis of that. If someone else’s rights can never trump your own, then what exactly does it mean for them to have rights?

Then you go on:

“We do not force people to take homeless bums into their house and feed them for 18 years until they are capable of feeding themselves…”
Neither, in most of the industrialized world, do we force women to raise newborns to age 18. In the US at least, giving up a newborn for adoption is a very well-protected right. I will assume that this was just a rhetorical flourish on your part, and that you do not actually consider minor children merely “bums” or “parasites,” nor consider their upkeep something parents need not bother with if it’s inconvenient.

Regarding your last point, one must consider the context and the historical period one is discussing. I assume we are talking about the industrialized world at the present time. The leading cause of death among women of child bearing age in the US is, by a wide margin, auto accidents. Death by complications of childbirth is far down the list. I can’t think of a single instance of hearing about a woman dying in childbirth during my lifetime. I’m sure it happens somewhere. In less modern times it was certainly common, but with access to reasonable healthcare it is now quite a rarity. You need some newer actuarial tables.

Unfortunately, you have missed my principal point in any case. My point is not that abortion is necessarily wrong. I, for one, would not be inclined to repeal Roe v. Wade (though I might well draw the line at a different stage of embryonic development). I am certainly not in the “life begins at conception” camp. The point I was trying to make is that the issue is debatable, and that the fairly sharp division it draws between conservatives and liberals drops each group on sides of the debate that are counter to Christina’s theory. Your comments only draw that contradiction in starker relief.

I find it interesting that Ms. Christina imagines a time when we all might find eating a chicken sandwich morally repugnant – but when (I assume)* fairly late-term abortions will still be perfectly ok. This sort of inconsistency is well explained by a cultural model of the liberal-conservative divide. Plenty of good liberals are vegetarians, but hardly any are “pro-life” – so universal vegetarianism looks like and advance, whereas revisiting the abortion issue looks like a retrenchment.

* I admit I’m making assumptions about Ms. Christina’s views. She may be the world’s only pro-life, atheist, feminist, liberal, erotic author for all I know…

Universality of Fairness

You have touched upon an interesting notion, which I am not certain anyone but myself has really developed. The various levels of moral development – fear of punishment, desire for reward, peer approval, social contract, and universal rights – do not differ in theory so much as they differ in application. To explain: all people (even sociopaths) understand the concept of fairness, but differ on who to apply it to. The higher up the scale of moral development, the wider the circle of recognized moral agents. At the bottom, fairness is a one-way concept that only applies to the individual; near the middle it becomes something that applies to your peers (i.e. kin or tribe) but not necessarily to others. At the highest levels we move from personal relations to social relations, and finally to the recognition that fairness applies to all entities.

Viewed in this light conservatives certainly are ethical; they just limit their ethics to smaller groups. However, I very much disagree with the perceived inclusionary nature of conservatism: I believe you have underestimated both the strength of racial/national/class boundaries and the necessity that these groups have someone to be in opposition to.

Ms. Christina was probably referring to the work on authoritarianism as explained here: I find myself quite swayed by that theory (and underlying research), so I recommend a study of it.

Of course I cannot disagree with your notion that people adopt veneers for the sake of social acceptance. However, the point of the RWA research is that there is a certain personality type who is far more likely to do this. Nonetheless, we all do it to some degree; but that does not invalidate Ms. Christina’s point. I may reflexively identify myself with physicists, but they are still right about gravity.

The other vector of thought that fuels Ms. Christina’s position is sociobiology: the recognition that morality is an evolutionary strategy. Human beings are obsessed with fairness because of our particular biological condition. We are, by and large, physically equal (even the differences between men and women are quite small compared to many other species); we are remarkably equal in mental capacity (here, the similarities of human cognitive ability are so much greater: even the dumbest non-defective human brain has vastly more tools at its disposal than the smartest non-human brain); and we are dependant on each other for survival (again, much more so than even the apes, our closest genetic kin).

In this view, there is clearly a single, best human morality, that is necessarily applicable to any creature in the same biological conditions (both genetic and environmental). And that is the morality Ms. Christina (and I) assert is universal. Our morality is as universal as our biology, and our biology is absolutely universal (once again, human beings are the least genetically diverse large mammal on the planet, excepting those species that are on the verge of extinction).

That morality can be summed up quite simply as fairness. And to the extent that conservatives value other things (such as social cohesion) over fairness, they deviate from the (human) moral ideal.

I can’t answer for that “do no harm” stuff, though: that’s just fuzzy-headed thinking. A truly moral person causes precisely as much harm to others as he would have them cause to him. In many cases this equates to fatality. Killing is not immoral (despite what many liberals seem to think); rather, killing in situations where you wouldn’t expect to be killed yourself is immoral.

And now I’ve gone and made a long post, too, despite the limitations imposed by your censorious comment box; which seems only fair. :D

 Reading your first paragraph in this section, a fundamental difference between our views comes sharply into focus. You view moral differences, and perhaps many other sorts of differences as well, in terms of some sort of absolute, hierarchical, process of improvement. You rough out Kohlberg’s classic hierarchy, for example. While I might have a personal preference for certain categories near the top of your hierarchies, philosophically I prefer to view moral differences more horizontally – as alternative systems of social organization. That I may personally find some particular stance or other repugnant is not the point – what interests me most is how those systems actually function in the empirically real world. Mine is an essentially evolutionary perspective, and, contrary to the popular misconception, evolution does not move toward some absolute long term ideal, but merely toward what works best at any given moment. I’m not saying all systems are equal – I’m saying that if you really want to understand the world, becoming a cheerleader for your own accidental biases is a rather bad start.

The RWA research you reference above appears to be such poor science I would hesitate to even call it "research." Since you reference the Wikipedia article, and no one on the web has challenged its contents as not representing the theory fairly, I have to assume the article is in fact a reasonable summary.

To begin with, it suffers from the same problem IQ tests do -- the test itself becomes the definition of the property you are testing for. This is a hazard with almost all standardized assessments of this nature. You test against the biases of the people who compose the test. If the people who compose the test have an agenda you get a very bad test indeed. Consider what the article cites as the first item on the new RWA scale:

"Our country desperately needs a mighty leader who will do what has to be done to destroy the radical new ways and sinfulness that are ruining us."
The article explains:

"People who strongly agree with this are showing a tendency toward authoritarian submission (Our country desperately needs a mighty leader), authoritarian aggression (who will do what has to be done to destroy), and conventionalism (the radical new ways and sinfulness that are ruining us)."
Well, that sounds like very frightening stuff. Now, let’s alter the language only slightly, while trying to maintain the same essential content:

"Our country desperately needs a forceful leader who will do what has to be done to stamp out the new extremist policies and runaway corruption that are ruining us."

This still sounds like... authoritarian submission (Our country desperately needs a forceful leader), authoritarian aggression (who will do what has to be done to stamp out), and conventionalism (the new extremist policies and runaway corruption that are ruining us)." Of course, this sentence would have dovetailed neatly into any Democratic candidate's nomination speech during the 2008 US election cycle. Well, amusing as it might be, we can't all be Ring-wing authoritarians.

What I believe Altemeyer and his colleages have done is to assemble a compact set of stereotypically conservative traits that most liberals find especially abhorrent, then constructed a quite precise linguistic trap that would snare conservatives -- and only conservatives -- into identifying with that definition.

A common hallmark of good science (though I admit not one that occurs in absolutely all cases) is that it produces some surprising results. The RWA assessment appears to be so carefully crafted that the results are about as surprising as discovering that optometrists write more glasses prescriptions than other people.

The RWA article continues:

“In a study by Altemeyer, 68 authoritarians played a three hour simulation of the Earth's future entitled the Global change game ( Unlike a comparison game played by individuals with low RWA scores, which resulted in world peace and widespread international cooperation, the simulation by authoritarians became highly militarized and eventually entered the stage of nuclear war. By the end of the high RWA game, the entire population of the earth was declared dead.”
Again, if you look at the Global change game objectively you will have to admit the findings are rather problematic. As a socio-economic-military simulation of the world, the game is both crude and overly subjective. The game world is quantified along resource and population lines based on real numbers, but little if any attempt is made to model cultural or historic relationships between nations. Military and economic models are oversimplified for the sake of playability. Assessments of the effects of player’s decisions are often not handled algorithmically (by some neutral mathematical rule) but by the ruling of “facilitators” with their own personal biases. I have no doubt the game is an enjoyable exercise, but it proves little. A global simulation designed and refereed by conservative economists might be equally enjoyable, would probably yield very different results, and would be every bit as useless.

A classic study of authority like the Milgram experiment ( had real validity because it attempted to hide the game from the experimental subjects. They thought they were doing something real. The Global change game is, straightforwardly, a game -- not reality. Further, while the Milgram experiment put people into an unusual situation, it was one that was at least plausible for them to be in. The tiny population of world leaders the Altemeyer game attempts to have players represent are, in the real world, not drawn from some sampling of people from a common culture, screened only in accordance with how they performed on a psychologist’s test. On average, real leaders in the real world are a more cautious and deliberative breed. They have something real to lose. The global change game that actually played out over the forty-four years of the Cold War failed to produce a nuclear exchange, even though there were often authoritarians on both sides and always authoritarians on at least one side. Any candidate for a valid simulation of the future ought to also be a credible simulation of the past. While Altemeyer’s game is dramatic and interesting, I don’t see the Rand Corporation seizing on it anytime soon as means of predicting the future behavior of actual nations.

Moving on to socio-biology, morality as an evolutionary strategy, you write:

“…In this view, there is clearly a single, best human morality, that is necessarily applicable to any creature in the same biological conditions (both genetic and environmental). And that is the morality Ms. Christina (and I) assert is universal… That morality can be summed up quite simply as fairness. And to the extent that conservatives value other things (such as social cohesion) over fairness, they deviate from the (human) moral ideal.”
In an absolutely homogenous, absolutely stable environment, there certainly would be a single ideal “morality” (i.e., a set of behavioral rules) to achieve any particular outcome you wish to define as humanity’s purpose. I don’t think humanity has anything remotely like a collective purpose, but for sake of argument we will just start with survival of the species as a sort of comfortable default. Alright then, everything else being fixed, there would be an ideal morality for species survival. The problem is that such a stable, homogenous world does not, and probably can not, exist. In a universe that is neither uniform from place to place nor from one year to the next, the ideal strategy for survival is bound to vary with changing conditions.

The only way to have a fixed ideal strategy in an otherwise variable world is to create an abstract goal which is associated with your strategy in a more-or-less self-referential way. So, for example, if you happen to define the purpose of humanity as showing devotion to God, then prayer is the ideal strategy regardless of any environmental circumstances, and perhaps even regardless of whether God actually exists or not. Abstract, circular arguments neatly evade empirical refutation – at the minor cost of being meaningless. If your argument is that morality just equals fairness and that people who sometimes rank fairness less than some other value are therefore immoral – you are making just this sort of definitional claim. On the other hand, if your argument is that fairness improves humanity’s chances of survival (or achieves any other broad objective) then you have to have a definition of fairness which can be clearly applied to enough real circumstances to support your case. I just don’t see that here.

What I believe you and Christina are actually doing (though not necessarily consciously) is merely arguing that your idealized view of members of your own culture (liberalism) are better than your stereotypical views of your enemy’s culture (conservatism). Since one of the popular precepts of modern liberalism is multiculturalism – a sort of tacit oath of universal tolerance to anything identifiable as a culture – liberalism’s enemies have to be definable in some fundamentally non-cultural terms. Enter Altemeyer and Co., ready to show that conservatism can be modeled as a psychological disorder. There hasn’t been such an inevitable lovefest since the Nazis met the eugenicists. (Forgive the hyperbole…)

My view is that liberalism and conservatism are cultures – or at least cultural entities. By this I mean that liberalism and conservatism are collections of beliefs and values espoused by certain definable groups of people, and adhered to largely for the sake of acceptance by members of those groups. Liberalism and conservatism are neither genetic predispositions nor individual psychoses nor the product of careful intellectual rigor – they are, to use Dawkins’ term, collections of memes.

I don’t expect either liberals or conservatives to be very happy with this perspective. No one likes to think his or her own cherished views might be nothing more than an accident of circumstances, but it isn’t difficult to show that, in most if not all instances, that’s exactly what they are. Conservatives rarely arise spontaneous among groups of liberals, nor do conservative populations churn out many liberals. Nevertheless, no one is born one or the other, any more than one is born with the ability to speak a particular language. These are learned social traits. Nor can either group make the claim that their positions are the inevitable product of reason. This cannot be so as long as even the more intelligent members of both groups are willing to tolerate contradictions in their own positions that they would not tolerate in the positions of outsiders.

Let us be clear though. The recognition that liberalism and conservatism are both cultural entities in no way implies that they are functionally equivalent. There is no logical reason to be bound to any tacit oath of cultural neutrality. As systems of social organization, liberalism and conservatism each have unique advantages and failings. Given that we have some definite criteria for what “better” means, it would be absurd to think that some cultures are not “better” than others. Personally, I find certain theoretical aspects of both liberalism and conservatism admirable – but I also find that the more entrenched and militant these cultural ideologies become, the more their theoretical differences become irrelevant. To me, one snarling dog is pretty much the moral equivalent of any other. In that sort of contest, nature almost always picks the bigger, stronger dog.

August 10, 2010

Liberal Values - An Alternative View

A Critical Analysis of Greta Christina’s “Why Liberal Values Really Are Better
As an occasional contributor the Humanist Symposium, I make a certain effort to read other people’s articles there. Greta Christina’s article in edition #56 caught my attention, and seemed worth examining in some detail. My views are rather at odds with Ms. Christina’s. For the record, I am neither a conservative nor a liberal. I am a humanist in the general sense that I reject supernatural explanations for reality and put considerable value on the thoughts and feelings of others, human or otherwise. The only “ist” I am reasonably comfortable identifying myself as is “empiricist,” but if I ever find a movement of empiricists I will probably avoid it like the plague.

My objection to Ms. Christina’s argument isn’t that it lacks sincerity or good-intentions, or even that it’s badly reasoned by web standards, but simply that it doesn’t hold up well when applied to real people in the real world. For purposes of discussion, I have abridged her argument to the long italicized passage below. If you prefer to read her full article, it is available by following the link at the end.

Why Liberal Values Really Are Better

Liberals and conservatives don't just disagree about specific issues -- we disagree about core ethical values. Can a case be made that liberal values really are better?

… A number of researchers are coming to the conclusion that ethics and values aren't entirely relative, and aren't solely derived from particular cultures. Human beings, across cultures and throughout history, seem to share a few core ethical values, hard-wired into our brains by millions of years of evolution as a social species. Those values: Fairness, harm and the avoidance thereof, loyalty, authority, and purity…

… researchers are finding is that liberals prioritize very different values from conservatives. When asked a series of questions about different ethical situations, self-described liberals strongly tend to prioritize fairness and harm as the most important of these core values -- while self-described conservatives are more likely to prioritize authority, loyalty, and purity.

If these are core values, fundamental axioms of human ethics... how do we distinguish between them? I mean -- they're axioms. They're our ethical starting points. When they come into conflict, as they often do, how do we step back from them, and decide which ones we should prioritize?

I've been chewing over this question ever since I heard about this research. In other words, for at least a couple of years. And then, at an atheist conference I spoke at recently, the answer was dropped into my lap, so clearly and succinctly that I kicked myself for not having thought of it myself, by the conference's keynote speaker, philosopher and MacArthur genius Rebecca Goldstein…

Here's the idea.

Fairness and harm are better values -- because they can be universalized.

Goldstein's argument is this. The basic philosophical underpinning of ethics (as opposed to its psychological and evolutionary underpinnings) are:
(a) the starting axiom that we, ourselves, matter;
and (b) the understanding that, if we step back from ourselves and view life from an outside perspective, we have to acknowledge that we don't, cosmically speaking, matter more than anyone else; that other people matter to themselves as much as we matter to ourselves; and that any rules of ethics ought to apply to other people as much as they do to ourselves. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," and all that. (Some version of the Golden Rule seems to exist in every society.)

In other words, the philosophical underpinning of ethics are that they ought to be applicable to everyone. They ought to be universalizable.
And liberal values -- fairness and harm -- are universalizable.

In fact, it's inherent in the very nature of these values that they are universalizable.

Fairness is the most obvious example of this. I mean, the whole freaking idea of fairness is that it be ought to be applied universally. Tit for tat. What's sauce for the goose is what's sauce for the gander. Yada, yada, yada. The whole idea of fairness is that everyone ought to be treated, not identically, but as if they matter equally.

And the value of harm, and the avoidance thereof, can easily be universalized as well. It can be applied to everybody. In fact, the history of the evolution of human ethics can be seen as the history of this principle being expanded to a wider and wider population: to people from other countries, to people of color, to women, etc. etc. etc. It can even be universalized further, and applied to non-humans. (It may well be that, in 200 years, people will look back on the way we treat animals with the same bewildered, "How on earth could they do that?" horror that we now view slavery with.) There's nothing in the principle of avoiding harm that prevents it from being applied to any creature with the capacity to experience suffering. It is an easily universalizable value.

Conservative values, on the other hand, are not universalizable.
Quite the contrary.
It is in the very nature of conservative values -- authority, loyalty, and purity -- that they are applied differently to different people. It is in the very nature of conservative values that some animals are, and ought to be, more equal than others.

The conservative value of authority has, at its very core, the idea that certain special people -- i.e., authority figures -- ought to be respected and obeyed more than others, and ought to have the right to tell other people what to do, and ought to have the power to enforce those dictums. The conservative value of loyalty has, at its very core, the idea that certain special people -- i.e., people inside the in-group, the family or country or faith or what have you -- ought to be valued more than others. And the conservative value of purity... well, purity is a weird one, since it applies more to how people treat their own bodies, and less to how people treat one another. (Making it a pretty baffling ethical principle, in my opinion.) But when it does apply to how people treat other people (the notion of "untouchables," for instance), it has, at its very core, the idea that certain special people -- i.e., people who are considered pure -- ought to be treated as fully human... and that people who are considered impure need not be.

Conservative values -- authority, loyalty, and purity -- can't be universalized. They actively resist universalization.
So if you accept the idea that the philosophical foundation of ethics is that other people matter as much as we ourselves do, and that any principles of ethics ought to apply to other people as much as they do to ourselves, then that makes liberal values... well, better. Closer to that philosophical foundation.

Well, let’s start with the idea of fairness being universalizable. The problem here is that we are talking about an idea that sounds very noble in the abstract, but which often leads to contradictions in actual application. The quickest way to illustrate this is to consider democracy, which might be seen as a subset of fairness – fairness in the realm of politics.

Democracy is straightforwardly fair, but survives only so long as a clear majority of the participants consider democracy itself inviolable. It begins to break down as soon as some large fraction of the polity wants to elect representatives who will abolish the democratic institutions themselves. What then, do good small “d” democrats do? They must either accept that, sooner or later, the anti-democratic opposition will win and democracy will end, or they must be willing to outlaw the anti-democratic party -- thereby effectively disenfranchising a large segment of the polity. In other words, either they let democracy be destroyed, or they destroy it themselves. This is not a bizarre example invented to make a philosophical point, but something that happens in the real world. The trite but valid example that leaps to mind is Germany in the 1930’s. The Weimar Republic essentially bowed to the general will, and let democracy be destroyed. I can think of other cases, but I won’t belabor the point.

What is true of democracy is true of fairness in general. The religious zealot who follows you down the street demanding your repentance might be acting in an entirely “fair” way within the context of his beliefs. He is “saved” so it is his duty to “save” you too. This is the Golden Rule. Likewise, people who burned witches did so (at least in principle) to save their souls – so their intentions were arguably “fair”. Whether there really are souls or witches or salvation is irrelevant with regard to the principle of fairness, because fairness cannot be measured against the standard of ultimate consequences, but must by practical necessity be measured only against the standard of intent. Thus, fairness is only universalizable, in a functional sense, within some homogenous (or “fairly” homogenous) social group. Given this restriction, it is not universalizable in any sense that merits the term.

Since we seem to be on shaky ground with regard to fairness maybe we had better move on to the avoidance of harm. It is almost a commonplace that the first step on the road to harming someone is dehumanizing them, either as an individual or as part of some group. Non-pathological individuals are much less likely to harm people they identify as persons than they are to harm those they identify as essentially non-persons. In war for example, it is always necessary to talk about the enemy in less-than-human terms, both for the benefit of the soldiers and the public at large. If liberals are innately predisposed to value an avoidance of harm above adherence to authority, and conservatives are predisposed to the reverse, we would expect these predispositions to manifest themselves with some consistency. Superficially, they do appear to. I have never seen a conservative at an antiwar protest, for example. Not many liberals are advocates of capital punishment. At least in certain cases of direct, observable, first order harm liberals do seem to be the kinder, gentler species of human being. But let’s not jump to conclusions too quickly.

Consider the perennial controversy over abortion. I will tread as lightly as I can here, knowing this is an emotional issue for many people. I do not intend to take a position one way or the other, but only to use the issue to illustrate a point.

If it is axiomatic that other persons matter, in some deep sense, just as much as we do ourselves, then it has to matter just what it is that constitutes a person. There is clearly no consensus, scientific or otherwise, on the point at which a human embryo becomes a person. The matter gets sorted out arbitrarily by the law for the sake of practicality, but I hope that we can agree the courts are not the best place to inquire into any sort of philosophical truth. Birth is a nice discreet event, but I don’t think many people would argue that a newborn infant was an absolute non-person only moments before birth – least of all a non-religious individual like myself who does not believe in a separate and disembodied soul. Somewhere in the period from conception to birth then, the status of personhood must, somehow, come into being. I see no reason to think this is the kind of question we will ever be sorted out objectively. There will always be room for individual belief -- and individual doubt.

If liberals tend to value avoidance of harm over the strictures of human authority, then one would expect most of them to oppose abortion. Since the personhood of a fetus is indeterminate, erring on the side of caution would seem to be the more humane course. Likewise, you would expect most conservatives to be at least tolerant of abortion, since it is legally sanctioned by their duly elected government, and since avoiding harm is a matter of lesser concern than obedience to authority. Obviously, these are not the positions either group typically takes. What is going on here?

Let’s deal with the conservative position first. It could be that the majority of conservatives that oppose abortion only do so because they have narrowly construed religious beliefs – in other words, that they do not really care about avoiding harm, but are simply bowing to religious rather than secular authority. I am very skeptical about this explanation. I know too many Catholics who have no particular love for their own church hierarchy, and openly defy it on many other issues, but are adamant about their opposition to abortion. There are at least two possible explanations that work better. The first is that, contrary to theory, many conservatives really do care about avoiding harm, and are perfectly capable of prioritizing that concern. This, I think, is true in many cases. The second explanation is that they simply believe what their group believes. It really is just culture after all. This is also often true, and we’ll pursue this in more detail later.

Now let’s turn to the liberal position. This is typically stated in terms of freedom of choice. A woman has sovereignty over her own body. That certainly sounds reasonable. Unfortunately, this position is a case of begging the question. By denying even the possibility that a fetus might be a person with some sovereign status of its own, a status that would limit the rights of the mother, the argument just assumes what it has no means of proving objectively. If the fetus does become a person at some point, however indeterminate that point might be, then from that time forward anyone committed to the avoidance of harm would have to uphold its right to live. While it is true that a fetus is wholly dependent its mother’s body, we clearly don’t take as a general principle that someone wholly dependent on us is fair game for us to dispose of as we choose. Infants are rather inconvenient too, but not many modern people consider infanticide acceptable in the name of personal freedom.

The more pragmatic pro-choice argument is that abortions are going to happen anyway, and that prohibiting them by law merely inconveniences rich women (who can seek abortions overseas) while putting poor women in danger. In general, I like this argument because it acknowledges the actual behavior of human beings. It accurately describes the era before Roe v. Wade. At base, it is an argument for the minimization of harm, asserting that the real consequences of repeal (harm to poor women who seek “backroom” abortions) will be greater than the possible but unknowable harm to those that might or might not be persons. Unfortunately, this argument suffers from the same testability problems as the status of fetuses in the first place, and is not very convincing to anyone who already considers abortion tantamount to murder.

The real reason most liberals are “pro-choice” is, I believe, exactly the same reason that most conservatives are “pro-life.” They are simply acculturated to hold these views. The thing that gets left out when you carve up social behavior into the five core valves is the motivation at the very heart of social behavior itself – the need for acceptance by one’s social group. Liberals are “pro-choice” because their subculture simply evolved that view. A more-or-less unconscious consensus formed that the rights of women, who are very present and very vocal, trump the possible rights of possible persons who are neither so visible nor so articulate. This is almost exactly the same process by which the rights of one’s own national or ethnic group trump the rights of foreigners in the eyes of conservatives.

Let me leave this insoluble abortion controversy and move on to something else – an example of philosophical inconsistency I can draw from personal experience.

Long ago (when I believed in ideologies) I was associated with one of the socialist parties in America. In this instance at least, I am going to do the unspeakable and equate American liberalism with American socialism. This does not mean I have been brainwashed by rightwing radio. It isn’t that I think American liberals are all that far to the left, but rather that I found the American socialists of the Reagan era to be, well, rather tame. Leon Trotsky once said that the socialism in America was an ideology for successful dentists. At least in the early 80’s, the American socialists I encountered appeared to be merely liberals who had either given up on the Democratic Party, or just found it not romantic enough.

During my youthful sojourn with the pseudo-far left, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. The ensuing war became a hotbed of discussion for the party while it lasted. For those of you born after 1982, or who were otherwise engaged at the time, here’s a short synopsis of the conflict.

Argentina claimed the Falklands, a cluster of islands several hundred miles of the Argentine coast, but the British also claimed them and were in actual possession. Most Falklanders were sheep, but the few thousand bipedal residents of the islands where predominantly of English decent. In 1982, Argentina sent troops to occupy the islands, hoping the British would simply not care enough to fight for them. The British did care enough. They sent a fleet and troops and retook the islands after two months of sporadic fighting.

The reaction of my group of pseudo-socialists to this pointless little war was fascinating. The war was in the news, so the party apparently felt they needed to take sides. Would they support England -- a western industrial nation with some definite socialist leanings (albeit socialist leanings that were being undermined by Margaret Thatcher) -- or would they support Argentina and its latest military dictator, Galtieri? The party’s national newspaper supplied the answer. We were to support our Latin brothers in their war against western imperialism! We must retake the Malvinas (the Argentine name for the islands).

In the first place, it was utterly meaningless for a small American leftwing party to take any side at all. They could not affect a local election, let alone alter the course of a war in another hemisphere. It was not as if any one of them were about to volunteer to fight for the Malvinas personally. It was all that they could do to keep up turnout at the weekly meetings. In the second place, Argentina started the war, getting about a thousand people killed for the sake of distracting the Argentine public from their own ongoing economic problems. Not really the noblest of motives, nor commensurate with the deaths of a thousand human beings. Third, Galtieri was a rightwing dictator. He wasn’t even for democracy, let alone socialism.

In essence, liberal values short circuited political principle. At the end of the day both the party’s leaders and the local membership just couldn’t bring themselves to side with a rich industrial European nation over a much poorer Latin American one. Poor people are good, rich people are bad. People of color are always the victims in their dealings with whites. Ideas like this are not the product of individual reason, but merely the ossified dogma of culture – in this particular case, a western liberal one.

Ms. Christina is right that the stereotypically conservative values of authority, loyalty, and purity cannot, in any real world, be “universalized” – at least not in the sense that she uses the term. “Universal” in the sense of being equally applicable to everyone. However, either Goldstein’s argument regarding ethics (or at least Ms. Christina’s interpretation of it) is flawed. Let’s look at it again:
… (a) the starting axiom that we, ourselves, matter;

and (b) the understanding that… we have to acknowledge that we don't, cosmically speaking, matter more than anyone else; that other people matter to themselves as much as we matter to ourselves; and that any rules of ethics ought to apply to other people as much as they do to ourselves…

In other words, the philosophical underpinning of ethics are that they ought to be applicable to everyone. They ought to be universalizable

The error in this argument is that it makes a leap to universal generalization that the rudiments of ethics don’t require. It says, in effect, that any view or action that can’t be universalized to absolutely everyone is not ethical. In other words, any apparently ethical restrictions a person might have in his or her personal dealings do not count as ethics if they exclude even one person. Noble and Kantian though this sounds, in practice it nullifies ethics as a useful concept. By such an exacting standard, perhaps the Dalai Lama is ethical -- but I can think of no one else who might be. In the real world, practically everyone who isn’t a sociopath is ethical within some social context and with a certain group of persons. The minimal prerequisite for ethical behavior is the acceptance of the worth of some other being – not all other beings. Notably, ethical behavior in its rudiments doesn’t require an admission of equality at all, but only a bare recognition that some other being has some intrinsic worth.

What the Goldstein/ Christina argument does is simply to define ethics as an absolutist version of fairness, and then shows (not surprisingly) just how ethical fairness is. At one point Ms. Christina almost sees the circularity herself:

“I mean, the whole freaking idea of fairness is that it be ought to be applied universally.”
Somehow, however, she misses the point. She has not discovered a truth in nature -- but merely measured her abstract values against themselves.

My harshest criticism of Ms. Christina’s assertion about the superiority of liberal values is that it is merely a liberal equivalent of conservative flag waving. That is, it serves no purpose except to make members of her particular subculture feel better about themselves. It in no way advances the universalist ideals it espouses, nor even attempts to. It is simply a neat philosophical trick for a group that requires something a little more intellectually satisfying than a patriotic song. To use an unusually blunt philosophical phrase – it does no useful work.

It’s worth noting that the vast majority of conservatives do have ethical standards – they just tend to be more applicable to people within their group than those outside it. Further, unless we are talking about some specific and deeply racist ideology specifically bent on genocide (Nazism is the trite example), conservative ideologies are merely intolerant – not exclusive. Most conservatives welcome everyone to accept their hierarchies, be loyal to their symbols, and observant of their moral codes. Nothing could be more “universal” than everyone trusting the same leaders and believing in the same God. By their own sense of the term “universal,” conservatives do not resist universalized values – they resist individualized ones.

A further fact that Ms. Christina alludes to in her full article (but, I think, underemphasizes) is that there is a distinction between a person’s ideology and his or her actual behavior. Most of us have probably met someone who espoused the most appalling beliefs, but was personally a decent and caring human being. We also meet the opposite sort – people who can speak rapturously of high ideals but are predatory and unfeeling in their actual behavior. This, too, shows that ideologies of any sort are often just a veneer that people put on for the sake of being accepted. What matters, ultimately, is not what someone advocates as an ideal – but what one does. Acting with compassion is rather more meaningful than talking about it.

I said at the outset that I am neither a liberal nor a conservative, and I hope by now I have made abundantly apparent why. If you genuinely value either truth or living beings you must be very careful about aligning yourself with any group’s consensus views. As soon as you begin to think “I am a member or group ‘x’ because the people in group ‘x’ are right,” you stand perilously close to believing “people in group ‘x’ are right because they are my people.” The transition is an easy and unconscious one.