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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right-wing_authoritarianism. 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 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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.