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.


  1. I do think my defense is representative of sorts of the standard atheist liberal, with perhaps one major exception: I reject multiculturalism completely. I have no idea how otherwise rational liberals excuse things like genital mutilation based on "tolerance of culture," even though I've seen them do it.

    I'm not sure Christina is a multiculturalist either: the metaphysical naturalist wing of atheism is not all homogeneous on that point.


    Uncle Joe may have been the most powerful being ever, but he still had to couch his power in terms of service to the people. Contrast this to the monarchs of old, who did not (I mean pre-Magna Charter). Sure, empty rhetoric is empty; but its mere existence should be taken as a sign that things are different now.

    It is true that you could have more influence in a small tribe, but it was over a much smaller sphere. Just imagine trying to organize multiple tribes against an environmentally degrading practice (such as goat-raising). In that situation your influence will be able to change your daily life, but unable to affect your future. Contrast that to our situation, where your vote is unlikely to change your daily life but can have profound consequences on your future.

    But merely comparing these two situations is incomplete; because in our society you already have a lot of influence over your daily life. Indeed, more than any Stone Age tribesmen. You can choose to move to another continent/environment, voluntarily not eat an entire class of foods, never speak to strangers, and a whole host of other choices that would be suicidal in a primitive context.

    The fact that so many more people today can make so many more choices than ever before in history is concrete proof that yes, things are better. It is true that every evil of the past is still with us - slavery, monarchy, starvation - but it is also true that the percentage of people who have significant choices has exploded over any percentage in the past.

    In its simplest historical formulation, "wealthy" means owning more than one pair of shoes, one pair of underwear, and having a choice about what to eat for dinner. The percentage of people who have those choices today is vastly larger than the percentage who had them 1,000 years ago - and that trend shows no sign of changing direction (Chinese state-controlled capitalism included). This is progress.

    Now here I've made an argument for the advancement of wealth, not democracy: but since I consider democracy (i.e. personal freedom) to be one of the luxuries wealth allows societies to purchase, I don't see a contradiction. I'm not so much saying as people become democratic they will necessarily become rich; rather, I am saying as they become rich they will tend to become democratic. For exactly the same reason TV screens will continually get bigger as people get richer. China is no different; the more money their people have, the more pressure for freedom.

  2. Abortion

    Punishing women for having sex outside of marriage is not an unconscious goal for conservatives: it is an explicitly stated goal. Indeed, the pain of childbirth is described in the Bible as women's punishment for Original Sin.

    Asserting that women are sometimes meek ideological slaves to institutions that actively oppress them is merely describing Judaism/Christianity/Islam. Nothing controversial here, although I agree it is surreal.

    The unconscious part is that punishing women for sex maintains male stake in childbirth. Most conservatives are not aware that these two issues are related, and are quite content to punish women for having extramarital sex for its own sake. My point was that the social impetus that maintains this meme (sex is bad) is fueled by the pragmatic role it serves (men own babies too). By restricting sex to marriage, men are automatically given/assigned ownership and responsibility for offspring. By making pregnancy an unavoidable risk for sex, women are encouraged to withhold sex until the risk of having to raise a child is mitigated by the acquisition of a mate. Conservatives are not aware this is why they think sex outside of marriage is bad, but they certainly agree with the logic in this argument even when it is presented in this form. They just think this is true because God wanted it that way.

    Roe vs. Wade

    Yes, I do intend it as a general principle, and so did the Supreme Court when it made that decision. Perhaps I phrased it badly, but what I was trying to say is that rights are equal; if other's rights cannot trump yours, neither can your rights trump theirs.

    The mere fact that another person will die is not sufficient reason to curtail your Constitutional rights. This is a well-established and indeed inviolate principle of our legal system and our freedom. If people are dying at a horrible rate due to exercise of Constitutional rights, then legally the only recourse is to amend the Constitution (which was supposed to be designed to minimize this problem).

    The preservation of life is not the highest principle. Fairness is the highest principle, which leads naturally to the preservation of life (since people want their own lives preserved). If we make preservation of life the highest principal - indeed if we make anything else but fairness the highest principal - then not surprisingly fairness is eroded. And all people, everywhere, recognize unfairness as bad (at least when the unfairness applies to them).

    Altruism has nothing to do with it: I don't even believe in altruism. I posit to you that a person acting with no benefit to themselves, however intangible, is a horrifying thing. It is the behavior of a psychotic, impossible to understand, predict, or cope with. They might as easily stab you in the eye as give you a crust of bread - either action is indistinguishable to them. What we usually call altruism - giving food to a beggar, etc. - actually merely very removed self interest. People do nice things because it feels good to do nice things, and it feels good because we evolved to feel that way, and we evolved to feel that way because social cooperation is necessary for our species. People are nice for the same reason they have sex - because it feels nice.

    (Also, just for the record, describing the nine month process of bearing a child and giving it up for adoption as "not necessarily life-changing" is not going to sell well to women ;P Just saying...)

    To sum up: you have rights, and mere mortal peril to others does not curtail those rights, particularly if it would also expose you to moral peril. The mere fact that the levels of peril are not equal is irrelevant; freedom entails the right to choose how much mortal peril you wish to expose yourself to. The rights you have are balanced, insomuch as they do not trump other people's rights.

  3. Hmm. My 2nd post got lost. Is this supposed to be technological progress? :D BTW, every time I post it complains that the URL is too large to process. I have no idea what that means.


    Perhaps I phrased it inelegantly. I meant to say that rights are balanced: they not trumped by others nor do they trump others. The mere fact that someone is in mortal peril is not sufficient to curtail your Constitutional rights. This is how it must be: otherwise there would be a powerful incentive to manufacture mortal peril as an instrument for trumping rights. The power of economics cannot be ignored.

    This logic explains why one can be vegetarian and pro-choice. Allowing abortion is a necessary condition of respecting other people's rights; allowing the degradation of animals is not. However, should chickens be raised and slaughtered in a perfectly humane way, with no particular damage to the environment or economy, then the moral argument against eating chickens is undermined.

    The punishment of sex outside of marriage is not an unconscious goal for conservatives: it is a freely stated one. The unconscious part is that this maintains men's stake in childbirth. Most conservatives are happy to punish extra-marital sex for its own sake, without any regard to any larger issue, and will happily inform you of this. My point was that the reason this cultural behavior survived is because it met a real social need - binding men to the effort of raising children. People don't have to understand this function of their cultural mores for it to be true that it is the function of their cultural mores.

    Asserting that women are sometimes meek ideological slaves of institutions that oppress them is merely describing monotheism (Judaism/Christianity/Islam). Nothing controversial there, although I agree it is surreal.

    I do not believe in altruism. What we normally call altruism is really just extended self-interest. People do nice things because it makes them feel good; it makes them feel good because they evolved that response; they evolved that response because we are social creatures and altruism helps our species survive. You know, just like sex. Nobody takes the many, many times people have sex without childbirth in mind as a knock on the claim that sex evolved to reproduce our genes. Why should altruism be any different?

    On the other hand, imagine a truly altruistic person, who committed acts that derived them no benefit whatsoever. They are as likely to stab you in the eye as to give you a crust of bread, because those two acts are indistinguishable to them. Asserting that they will only do "good" acts begs the question: it presumes they can tell the difference between the actions, and that they arbitrarily select for the one that is "good" without any incentive to do so. Neither of these hold in "strict" sense of altruism.

    (Also, describing childbirth as "not necessarily life-changing" is not going to go over well with most women. Its permanent effects, both physical and psychological, are dramatic.)

  4. Universality of Fairness

    You are correct, of course: I do view moral differences in terms of an absolute hierarchical process of improvement. That process has a name: it is called evolution.

    Given that I assert that morality is merely an evolutionary strategy, it is of course no surprise that I grade moral systems based on how well they help the species survive. And improvement - in the sense of refining adaptation to environmental pressures - is a given feature of evolution.

    The view that moralities are gradable is an inescapable consequence of the view that moralities are evolutionary strategies. The problem for your position is not so much defending different moral systems as neutral alternatives as it is explaining where morality comes from in the first place.

    The classic liberal position is to assert that morality is a purely arbitrary social arrangement. Any given population can have any given moral system, as long as the people are properly conditioned to it. While this allows for your neutral scheme, the staggering failure of the tabula rasa view of human nature is well-documented.

    The conservative position, on the other hand, is that morality is a product of divine revelation. I don't feel it is necessary to even address the failure of this argument.

    So before we discuss whether moralities are gradable on an absolute scale, we have to have an idea of what moralities are. If they are merely cultural constructions - then we have a very different discussion before us. On the other hand, if they are evolved strategies, then of course some work better than others. The only alternative is to posit some other source for morality.

    The RWA research is not supposed to focus on traits that are "personally abhorrent," but rather on traits that lead to dysfunctional moralities. As an example: rape is, at first glance, an evolutionarily successful reproductive strategy. However, on closer analysis it can be shown that this strategy only works in abnormal circumstances: once external factors are removed, human populations invariably punish rape to the point where it is less successful than legal cohabitation (which admittedly may be indistinguishable from rape to the woman; but it is still distinguishable by half the population, so it still qualifies as a different set of affairs). What the RWA is trying to show is that obsessive fear is an external factor that allows these dysfunctions to flourish.

    Your concerns about a homogenous, absolutely stable environment are misplaced. In any given instant the environment is stable for that instant, and in that instant there is an ideal morality. That the needs change later only means the ideal morality changes later. However, our environment (both physical and genetic) changes much, much more slowly than our culture. Genetically speaking, we've been pretty stable for the last 10,000 years, which is plenty of time to refine a morality.

    The variable goal is species existence. The purpose of humanity is to produce more humans. That human beings invent other purposes for themselves, built out of the machinery evolution gave them, is no more surprising than that humans have sex for other reasons than producing children.

    Fairness does improve humanity's chances of survival. This is so self-evident that I don't know how to explain it. Warfare - the violent imposition of unfairness - is clearly detrimental to the human species, given that humans take years to raise to productive age but seconds to kill. Those societies that eschewed perpetual warfare triumphed over those that did not. And so on. The American empire is not solely a product of vast natural resources - it is also a product of technological development, and government is a technology.

  5. Universality of Fairness, continued

    Finally, I find myself confused about your concerns of an "entrenched and militant" liberalism. Are you saying that forceful rejection of fascism is equally bad as fascism?

    You have already laid the groundwork for the refutation of your claim. As you stated, it is clear that systems are not functionally equivalent. All you need is a definite criteria for what "better" means, and we already have that. Better means fairer. Consider it: try to come up with a situation in which the most moral choice is not also the fairest choice.

    Once you've established that being fair is in fact what we mean by being moral, then conservative authortarianism is quickly revealed as less functional than liberalism. (I am curious what theoretical aspects of conservatism you find admirable, and whether or not that admiration will hold up to inspection.)

    In any case, it doesn't even matter. We both agree that nature picks the bigger, stronger dog. My entire point is that fairness is the bigger, stronger dog. The success of the American empire and the social technology (democracy) it exported is proof of this. That our "betters" in Europe came to ape us, that we defeated the finest collection of tyrannies ever created, even that Europe has gone on to improve the technology we gave them, all stands as a proof of the power of fair societies to produce wealth.

    And in the dog-fight of nations, wealth equals power. "Money is the sinews of war," after all.


    To sum up, I don't think our differences are as great as you think they are. Really, once we establish an objective measure of "better," and once we establish that the heart of moral reasoning (for humans) is fairness, then everything else falls into line. Of course I object to rabid Political Correctness, hypocritical multiculturalism, and internal contradictions. To the extent those exist in the liberal position they need to be addressed. And I freely admit I have met so-called Progressives who wanted a fascist state; their only complaint with conservatism was the particular lines along which that state would be built.

    But ultimately, as empiricists, we both agree that moral claims must be confirmed by the real world. From that essential agreement I believer our differences are resolvable. I would also point out that conservatism, particularly the religious kind, rejects that principle at the outset. To the religious, morality must be confirmed by supernatural concerns, not merely empirical ones. This is a position you cannot possibly accept; and so, even though you would like to remain neutral, you are inevitably compelled to choose the side that isn't bonkers.