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.