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.


  1. A long post! I won’t attempt to defend Ms. Christina, but I will attempt a defense of her position, insomuch as it is also mine. I will respond to three separate posts, two specific areas that I feel require some discussion and then return to the main point.


    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.

  2. Abortion

    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.

  3. 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