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June 12, 2008

What we can agree about—and what we can’t (and shouldn’t try)
Posted by Patrick at 08:13 AM * 76 comments

Two ways of making the same point. Both worth your time. Discuss.

Comments on What we can agree about--and what we can't (and shouldn't try):
#1 ::: Alex Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 09:21 AM:

The second article is fascinating.

I might try to make a distinction between appreciating, or even valuing, an axis of morality and basing a political program on it. I have a Shi'ite friend and I'm certainly impressed with how he follows his authority. It's not my authority, and I certainly wouldn't want it to be, but I don't have a problem saying that I think he's a good person because (in part) he lives by his rules.

This is perhaps just another way to interpret the "I disagree with him on X but understand that his position is honestly held." I've always found that to be used almost exclusively to describe right-conservative positions, and found that annoying. Perhaps this article might provide a lens to explain that.

Of course, the final irony would be that even if this program was adopted, liberals would be the ones speaking respectfully of other people's purity/authority/ingroup values, while non-liberals would of course disparage liberal ingroup values as being essentially evil.

#2 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 09:41 AM:

moral intuitions along five axes: harm reduction, reciprocity and fairness, purity, respect for authority, and in-group loyalty

These are instinctive. People are born with them, some more than others. And once born, these instincts evolve and are transmuted through experience, through context.

What the guy is talking about is basic human, personal, development.

The thing is that there's a too much and not enough issue with each axis. If someone is born without the capacity for emotional empathy, they can grow up to be a sociopath, completely unable to put themselves in anyone else's shoes. If someone is born with too little empathy, they might grow up to be a racist, able to identify with people of their own race, but unable to view people of different races as anything but "other". Then again, too much empathy can actually cause someone to defer to others too much, to take care of someone else, to their own detriment. And then there are folks who have a negative identity towards themselves and their ingroup, they feel shame, and project that lack of value onto the group.

I think if you look at empathy, developed to a certain level, you will find a person exhibiting in-group loyalty. The question becomes how to determine if that level of loyalty is "fair" in any other context, any of the other axis. Finding a point where all the axis line up and all the ordinates say "this is justice" or "this is fair" or "this is right".

But appealing to a single axis, in a vacuum, appealing to something like "in group loyalty" with no regard to the other realms, can only lead to one sort of fascism or another.

If you only worship "harm reduction", you might end up like certain flavors of libertarians I've been running into lately who worship "freedom choice", who are convinced beyond any doubt that they've got a perfect moral system based on total harm reduction by requiring the system to only do things to people that they "choose" to do. The state is not allowed to do anything to anyone unless that person agrees. And they are certain this will be a "just" system.

If you worship nothing but "respect for authority", you get tyranny. If you worship only reciprocity, you might become a communist or maybe an ultra capitalist. If you worship only purity, you might become a theocrat. If you worship only in group loyalty, you might become a fascist. If you worship only "fairness", you might support the idea of philosopher kings.

These axis are all instinctual, we are all born with varying levels of each one of them. And I think the idea would be to find the point where they all intersect, at which point you might find that place where "justice for all" actually means justice and actually means all.

#3 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 09:47 AM:

That second link doesn't work for me; anyone else having a problem? (I even googled it and checked the Wayback Machine.)

#4 ::: Keith ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 09:50 AM:

Any political program focusing on, or giving any real weight at all to, purity, respect for authority, and ingroup loyalty is going to have to select a favored ingroup, and disadvantage everyone else: not purity in the abstract, but purity by that group's standards; not loyalty generally, but loyalty to members of that group; not respect for authority generally, but respect for the leaders of that group.

A lot of Conservatives cannot disentangle respect for authority from their particular authority figures. So they end up shouting, "Respect Mah Authority!" ala Cartman rather than the more evenhanded, "Some authority figures have the cultural cache that has earned them respect, let's see what they have to say on matter X and weight he options."

But then I'm a dirty old liberal so of course I'd say that.

#5 ::: Sian Hogan ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 10:14 AM:

Yeah, that second article is interesting. What struck me, reading it, is the way that the first two axes seem the basis for my (public / voting) morality, and the last three for my private morality, governing behaviour.

But I'm not quite sure the divide should be simple. Whilst there will be differences in what authorities two people choose to respect (just as there may be differences in what they think is fair or equitable), surely a requirement of living in a single society is some degree of respect for shared authority? Whether that's a constitution, a system of laws, or a type of government.

What's interesting to me is that I think my (public) respect for authority is very small, with "respect-for-law-as-law" having been replaced, to some extent, with my own opinions on equity and fairness. I suspect I'm not alone in this, and that there are some laws for most people (whether about speed limits, intellectual property, drinking ages or whatever) that don't really "count". Because respect for authority (even of law) isn't a moral imperative in the way it used to be. I'm just not sure it's a good thing, though, because I think perhaps people do need to subscribe to a shared system. I'm not sure.

#6 ::: Virge ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 10:30 AM:

@Greg #2 'These axis are all instinctual, we are all born with varying levels of each one of them. And I think the idea would be to find the point where they all intersect, at which point you might find that place where "justice for all" actually means justice and actually means all.'

I'm pretty sure you won't find justice for all at that intersection, because

Instinctual != good

The biases we have may be natural but that doesn't make them good for an overpopulated urban world. Our natural loyalty to in-group and distrust of out-group leads us to polarized non-communicative groups. Our natural respect for authority leaves us vulnerable to the opportunists who can manipulate our fears and filter what reaches our perceptions.

There are very good reasons not to let natural biases control our morals. We have instincts but we are not slaves to them.

We shouldn't try to find any natural balance between these instinctual moral intuitions; we should actively educate ourselves to emphasize the ones that improve our cohesion in a modern society, and train ourselves to overcome the intuitions that have shown themselves to lead to error or needless conflict.

#7 ::: paul ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 11:07 AM:

Those axes (especially "purity") are incredibly socially constructed. They may be important or even useful, but calling them instinctual is an insult to real instincts.

#8 ::: Evan Goer ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 11:20 AM:

Getting back to the first link, it's interesting that in the intro, Obama lists out "non-believers" right alongside Christians, Jews, Muslims, and everybody else. Compare that to Romney's remarkably small-minded speech about his faith.

#9 ::: Michael Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 11:26 AM:

I think I'm in love with Barack Obama. (When did it become so refreshing to hear someone advocating, well, American democracy?)

#10 ::: Michael Weholt ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 11:27 AM:

Just the way my mind works, I guess... but I think Obama's speech says it all in a much more straightforward and accessible manner. But in my liberal, pluralistic way, I'm glad the second approach works for others. :)

I wonder if I will ever live to see an American elected President who says the things that Obama says in his speech, and then is able to convince the rest of the country he is right.

I certainly hope so. It will be a jubilation.

#11 ::: Michael Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 11:29 AM:

Evan @8 - Yeah! It's, like, revolutionary! (Although I notice he kinda soft-pedaled it there. Go ahead, Barack, call us atheists. You'll have our votes for that alone, just acknowledging that we don't deserve to be burned at the stake and can be mentioned in polite conversation.)

#12 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 11:50 AM:

Riffing off this: I'm currently in greater or lesser arguments with multiple people, in multiple directions, about Obama's meeting with evangelical leaders on Tuesday. I don't trust evangelical leaders because I view them as people who want theocracy and want to force me to believe as they do. By now I'm gunshy about political leaders talking seriously to evangelical leaders.

But Obama's talked enough sense by now (see video) that I don't believe he's "selling me out," as one commenter at my place asserted (I know a lot of people who are convinced that Obama is a secret right-winger and that I'm stupid and naive to think he's a good Democratic candidate). I just want to know what he's up to, and I don't want him to give too much, since I know they may be pushing for the five-axis basis for politics....

#13 ::: A.J. ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 11:53 AM:

Michael @ 11

FWIW, non-believers is a more inclusive term than atheist. There's a lot of squishiness in the middle.

#14 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 11:57 AM:

A.J. @ 13... There's a lot of squishiness in the middle

Reverend Philip Shooter: Oh, you're an agnostic, then?
Dr. Robin Hatcher: [calling out] I think I've got a cream for that!
(To Simon Pegg's character in Hot Fuzz.)

#15 ::: don delny ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 12:11 PM:

A lot of Conservatives cannot disentangle respect for authority from their particular authority figures.

I've seen that. It's very like how some people don't understand the idea of boundaries; in other words, they have a hard time distinguishing between themselves and other people's being. [Similar to, but distinct from "if you do that, it will reflect badly on the family", rather it's more of a "if you do that it's as though my right hand is rebelling against me."]

Anyway, if you are really tightly integrated into a social system of authority there is no distinction between respecting authority and respecting an authority figure, since there may be a diminished sense of self as separate from the authority figure/family.

#16 ::: Russell Letson ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 12:43 PM:

Obama's speech is a very good compendium of the rational arguments against sectarianism in public life. Unfortunately, its rationality will not penetrate the armor of moral absolutists of any stripe, those whose first (and sometimes only) response is to reiterate their possession of The Truth.

The Haidt approach is abstract and analytical (and thus irrelevant to the presentational front end of practical politics). Still, it's intriguing, and I wonder about the angles at which those moral axes sit relative to each other--and whether and where they might intersect. The three that he says liberals de-emphasize would seem to be close to each other, as part of inward-looking monkey socio-politics, and "reciprocity and fairness," being strongly relational, would be pretty close by--but outward-oriented. "Harm reduction" is a bit farther off, since it can be applied to entities outside the monkey troupe.

Greg@2: "Instinctive" is a pretty strong term, which may be why Haidt (or the Unfogged poster at least) called the axes "intuititions." While I find Paul@7's characterization of them as "incredibly socially constructed" a bit too postmodern for my taste, there's good reason to be chary of using "instinct" as a descriptor for phenomema this far from the bare neurological metal. But these axes do seem to decribe a significant part of the attitudinal/behavioral space in which our species operate.

#17 ::: Russell Letson ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 12:48 PM:

Phenomena. Type that five times fast. (or one time accurately.)

#18 ::: A.R.Yngve ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 12:51 PM:

A.J. is right that "non-believers is a more inclusive term than atheist." It is neither cowardly nor unreasonable to claim a "squishy" stance... such as, for instance:

"I simply do not know what God is, or what relationship dogma has to an actual God, so I can't prove what difference a faith -- any faith -- makes. Hence, agnosticism."

You can make countless different "squishy" arguments.

#19 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 12:58 PM:

Russell Letson @ 16:

Phenomena. (Doo doo doo doo doo....)

(Yes, I know you corrected it. Couldn't resist singing.)

#20 ::: Russell Letson ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 01:03 PM:

But what's the tune for the s-v agreement error in the last sentence? (O for an edit function!)

#21 ::: miriam beetle ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 01:11 PM:


at least you didn't say phenomena when you meant phenomenon. i hate that fad.

#22 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 01:17 PM:

I can't see the Obama speech, which is blocked from my office. The second article is terrific and I agree with it.

I don't trust Obama on religious freedom issues. He's too busy playing for the votes of people who have to be convinced he's not a Moslem. I also haven't forgotten his offensive remarks about the Pledge of Allegiance (which, now I know more about it, I will never say again).

Evan 8 (isn't 'evanate' a word? It should be): I wish I could see that speech. "Everybody" else? Or just Abrahamics and the non-believers? Does he mention Hindus and Buddhists? I'm absolutely certain he wouldn't have mentioned us Wiccans, because it would be political suicide, and I bet he didn't mention the Asatru either.

Michael 11: Not only is A.J. 13 correct, but also some atheists are annoyed by the term (which was, after all, originally the name of a crime). One I heard on the radio said "I don't have a special term for the fact that I don't believe in ghosts, and I don't see why I need to be labeled because I don't believe in God."

#23 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 01:18 PM:

I could sing tunes for "your" vs. "you're," "its" vs. "it's", and chatspeak, thanks to Strong Bad, but I can't come up with one for subject/verb agreement. Pout.

miriam beetle, who does that? Why would anyone do that? There's a singular! There's a plural! They're not the same! RAWR!

#24 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 01:33 PM:

Once again, the conversation turns toward drawing a distinction between morality and ethics. It's an old game philosophers play: when you're faced with a conundrum— the conundrum here being: how do we make moral judgements in cases where we have conflicting value systems?— then draw a distinction. Sadly, there are a whole lot of people for whom there is no conundrum.

Unfogged sez, "Liberal morality doesn't focus on harm reduction and fairness arbitrarily, it focuses on them because they are the only bases for morality that function reasonably when you are trying to consider the claims of people outside of your own ingroup."

The conundrum only arises when you find yourself concerned with finding a basis for morality that functions reasonably when you are trying to consider the claims of people outside of your own ingroup. If you never need to consider such claims, then you never need to care whether your basis of morality functions reasonably in that situation. For a lot of people, it makes perfect sense to hold people outside your own ingroup to an unfair standard, just as it also makes perfect sense to expect people outside your own ingroup will hold you to an unfair standard in return. For some, it's not just that it makes sense— they're commanded by God to do so. The question is: how do you get those people to go along with a liberal social order.

I think my short answer is: force them to choose between A) adopting liberal ethics, or B) being oppressed by a dominant liberal class. Sadly, I don't think I have an answer for what to do if the vast majority of them choose door number two. That's a conundrum.

#25 ::: paul ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 01:37 PM:

I don't really like "non-believer" as a term, even if it's nominally more inclusive than "atheist". I believe in a lot of things, including ones I can't see or define very well like "truth" and "justice" and "goodness" and delicious food. I even believe in some kind of ineffable qualities about the universe. But as long as I don't believe in a specific set of mostly-anthropomorphized supernaturalisms, I'm a "nonbeliever".

Ugh. I'd almost rather be a "bright".

#26 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 01:41 PM:

Xopher @ 22... I also haven't forgotten his offensive remarks about the Pledge of Allegiance

What did he say? Nothing against One Nation in a dirigible, I hope.

Seriously though.. Let's not forget that he is a Democrat. Democrats aren't in the habit of wearing their faith on their sleeve, or of trying to ram it down other people's throat and yes, I know that sentence has one (involuntary) pun in it.

#27 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 01:42 PM:

Also, Xopher @22, interestingly enough the person who is arguing that I ought to want religious leaders brought into the fold and my mistrust is misplaced, is Wiccan, and ze says "I don't know, as a religious person it makes sense to me that he should meet with them." I found that to be a really interesting statement.

(Ze is also arguing that evangelicals as a community are really more about social-justice issues than you'd think, and the stereotypes of the religious right aren't any more fair than rap representing all POC. That's an interesting tack to take, especially for someone who isn't Christian. It's certainly shaking me up, because I grew up and live in the Bible Belt and I haven't seen a lot of evidence of that, but now I'm wondering. I know some radical peace-and-justice Catholics, because I was raised among them, but they tend to be considered, and sometimes to consider themselves, pretty fringe. And Catholics are generally not considered evangelicals, at least not down South.)

#28 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 01:55 PM:

Caroline, they know there's a singular and a plural, but they mix them up. They think -n like 'children' and assume the word that ends in it is plural. Some people actually use both words, but with their numbers reversed.

#29 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 02:00 PM:

Xopher @ 22

He mentions: "Jewish, Moslem, Buddhist, Hindu and non-believers."

He follows by saying that even if the US were a Christian country (only), "whose Christianity would we teach in the schools?"

I find this pretty heartening.

#30 ::: Keith ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 02:13 PM:

Paul @25: I feel the same way. Unfortunately, all the descriptors for such people like us have been demonized through decades of strawman arguments and false comparisons. For many, being described as a Humanist (secular or otherwise) is now on par with being described as a recreational puppy kicker and amateur goat molester.

I'm a humanist! I believe in things, honest. And I have never seen that goat before in my life.

#31 ::: Michael Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 02:15 PM:

Xopher, yes, he mentions Buddhists and Hindus specifically, I believe (although I might now be filling in something that wasn't there.)

I'm aware, pace all, that non-believers is a more inclusive term. I'm also aware that the concept of "atheist" is a high-voltage term in American politics, even though it shouldn't be. "Non-believer" sounds like maybe I just haven't had the time to make up my mind. "Atheist" sounds (to me) as though I have done my homework, thought about it a couple of decades, and decided what I actually believe -- I believe there is no God. (Which actually doesn't make me a non-believer, does it? It makes me a believer-non, if anything.)

I dunno. "Non-believer" just sounds tepid and apologetic. I don't like it, as though I should apologize for wanting to participate in my nation's democracy even though I don't believe in an invisible sky being who knows better than everybody.

#32 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 02:23 PM:

Xopher @ 28, hm, logical. Like fiction and non-fiction getting reversed in some people's minds (because they remember "not real" and associate that with the "non-" prefix).

#33 ::: A.J. ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 02:23 PM:

Non-believer is a bit dull-sounding. But it's a legitimate category, and I wouldn't be surprised if non-believers outnumbered every other category. What Obama is arguing, I'd say, is that the non-believer stance is normative, as far as public policy goes.

If you like, you could say that non-believer means that I've done my homework, thought about it for a couple decades, and decided I don't give a shit. In particular, decided that the truth of religious propositions has no relation to the functioning of my government.

#34 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 02:31 PM:

Am I the only one who doesn't buy the clean division of liberals/conservatives along these lines?

For example, "respect for authority" seems to me to mean respect for institutions (like the US form of government and the constitution) at least as much as respect for the current guy in power. (This distinction is the reason we don't have regular coups here.) I've seen some pretty passionate defenses by liberals for respecting the authority of the constitution and the Law.

As another example, how would you describe the (mostly liberal, to the eternal shame of the conservatives) reaction to our use of torture? It sure looks to me like purity is an issue here--for every one person saying "torture isn't a good way to get information," ISTM that I see dozens saying "using torture marks us out as barbarians." Much the same kind of argument comes out w.r.t. the death penalty. And a great deal of the support for civil rights came out of something similar, I think--whites feeling soiled by seeing the kind of nastiness needed to keep blacks "in their place."

Democrats aren't the same as liberals, but the recent primary battle between Clinton and Obama sure looked to me to have a lot of appeals to in-group loyalty and group identity. Certainly, black conservatives are often attacked, more-or-less, on the basis of their failure to be loyal to their group. And the common arguments for when it's acceptable to out someone are pretty much entirely based on a notion of ingroup loyalty that's demanded.

Additionally, folks in the US seem to me to have at least one additional large moral axis that comes up often in politics--the idea of intergroup fairness, or group-oriented deserts. If you watch a debate about affirmative action programs, you're likely to see conservatives/libertarians arguing from harm reduction and individual fairness/reciprocity, and liberals arguing from a kind of group-oriented view of fairness. That almost feels like it overlaps somewhere between the reciprocity and fairness axis and the group-loyalty axis, but with the twist of a kind of outgroup loyalty.

#35 ::: paul ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 02:47 PM:

Albatross @ 34:

before you talk about "outgroup loyalty" you're going to have to figure out who people think of as their ingroup and whom they think of as out...

Of course, in biblical terms we used to get endless exhortations to remember that "neighbor" didn't mean just that freakishly tall professor who lived next door...

#36 ::: bellatrys ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 02:49 PM:

Why on earth is venerating Authority in the abstract supposed to be a good thing?

IIRC, G.K. Chesterton had some pretty strong things to say about that. And he wasn't exactly a stereotypical Farleftecularhumanistliberal out to destroy Western Civilization (TM) per se...

#37 ::: bellatrys ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 02:53 PM:

Likewise the Angelic Doctor had something to say about legitimate authority, if I remember my long-ago Metaphysics course readings correctly.

#38 ::: Keith ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 02:54 PM:

bellatrys @36: I don't know, Chesterton did write a book about Anarchists...

#39 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 03:02 PM:

Keith @ 30... I have never seen that goat before in my life

Meanwhile, I found the following today on the San Francisco Chronicle's site. He's not a liberal, or a Democrat though, but a conservative appointed by Ronnie Raygun who was about to preside over an obscenity case.

Chief justice of appeals court in S.F. is in hot water over site featuring nudity and bestiality.
#40 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 03:08 PM:

#39: And nude women painted to look like cows.

I was just over at Boing Boing looking at a "Ren and Stimpy" script storyboard. Now I'm thinking: A judge obsessed with cows would fit right into that show.

#41 ::: Keith ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 03:15 PM:

Serge @39: Once again, reality out paces satire.

#42 ::: Rex ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 03:34 PM:

Here is the full text of the speech that is excerpted in the YouTube video:
Call to Renewal

The excerpted portion starts about halfway through, although the entire speech is well worth reading.

The speech was the first thing I'd heard from Obama and it really sold me on him. He displays such a high level of cluefullness that it hit me like a bolt of lightning. For once, a man I can vote FOR rather than just settling for the "lesser of two evils".

#43 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 03:34 PM:

How about "irreligious", or if that sounds too confrontational, "non-religious"?

To me, it seems most of the terms that could be used suffer from correlation, positive or negative, with religion. We could do with a term for something like this:

"Which God do you worship then?"
"Whats a God? What is this religion thing you are talking about?"

#44 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 03:49 PM:

and Keith... It's either a Ren & Stimpy homage, or a Far Side obesssion taken a little too far. Reality is becoming hard to satirize.

#45 ::: Debbie ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 04:02 PM:

Behind the concepts of non-belief and non-religion lies a whole spectrum of folks -- all the way from people who are generally seeking/interested, to those who have some beliefs but who don't buy into classic religions and their practices, to people who are frankly indifferent to the whole thing. I'm not sure whether a single unifying label is either possible or desirable.

#46 ::: Edward Oleander ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 04:03 PM:

#12 - Caroline - Just so you can be sure your uneasiness about evangelicals is not misplaced, read this...

#47 ::: Alex Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 04:19 PM:

He's not a liberal, or a Democrat though, but a conservative appointed by Ronnie Raygun who was about to preside over an obscenity case.

This is a bit of an unfair characterization. Kozinski is one of the strongest defenders the First Amendment has in the Federal court system, plus someone firmly in line with the Lessig/Doctorow axis of limiting the scope of intellectual property laws: "All creators draw in part on the work of those who came before, referring to it, building on it, poking fun at it; we call this creativity, not piracy."

Read his dissent in White v. Samsung.

If he's knocked off the court as a result of this, I believe it will be a severe blow to the the judiciary.

#48 ::: Alex Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 04:26 PM:

One more good Kozinski quote (again, from White):

Intellectual property rights aren’t free: They're imposed at the expense of future creators and of the public at large. Where would we be if Charles Lindbergh had an exclusive right in the concept of a heroic solo aviator? If Arthur Conan Doyle had gotten a copyright in the idea of the detective story, or Albert Einstein had patented the theory of relativity? If every author and celebrity had been given the right to keep people from mocking them or their work? Surely this would have made the world poorer, not richer, culturally as well as economically.

And of all places, Making Light should appreciate that Kozinski is one of the clearest and most dynamic writers in the Federal courts.

#49 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 04:33 PM:

Alex Cohen... I stand corrected. And properly chastened.

#50 ::: Chris Quinones ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 04:34 PM:

Xopher 22: I only saw a bit of the beginning of Obama talking, but he did mention Buddhists and Hindus. (I just refreshed the screen and saw this has been answered, but what the heck.)

My issue was his fudging the question of when the US ceased to be a Christian nation, but he'd probably be vilified if he said it never was, correct answer or not.

#51 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 05:14 PM:

albatross, #34: And the common arguments for when it's acceptable to out someone are pretty much entirely based on a notion of ingroup loyalty that's demanded.

That's not how I hear it most frequently. It's okay to be in the closet as long as you don't actively work against civil rights for other gay people. It's active hypocrisy, not the mere failure to be proactive, which most people see as making it okay to out someone.

Serge, #39: *Googles* *boggle*

#52 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 05:42 PM:

Obama's speech is firmly in the tradition of Locke's Letter on Toleration, at least to my mind. For some reason, it also put me in mind of Max Weber's "Politics as a Vocation". Specifically, those parts of the essay about how politics is to be engaged in: with passion, reason, and a willingness to compromise.

#53 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 06:13 PM:


If liberals are often heard waxing poetic in re: respecting the authority of the U.S. Constitution, isn't it because the U.S. Constitution is written to be a bastion of fairness? And if liberals are against the death penalty and against torture, might this not fall under the rubric of harm-reduction more than that of purity? And organics can be described as a purity standard, sure, but it's one with its origins in the desire to cause as little harm as possible to the Earth, to our habitation, and to our bodies.

It's my impression that liberals don't so much dismiss the in-group axes so much as they subordinate them to the plays-well-with-others axes. Fairness and harm-reduction are yardsticks used to determine whether an authority deserves respect or an in-group deserves loyalty or a purity standard is worth keeping.

Or, one might say that liberals are just as much about the in-group axes as conservatives, but they identify with a much more universal group. I would say I am fairly loyal to the in-group called "denizens of planet Earth," for instance. (Should life from other planets make itself known, I will probably find myself expanding my concept of "in-group" further.)

#54 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 07:33 PM:

I'm pretty sure active benevolence should count as a sixth axis. I don't see that any of the other five quite cover it.

I really appreciate that Obama isn't just intelligent-- he clearly expects his audience to be intelligent. It's very refreshing.

#55 ::: Chris ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 07:58 PM:

My views on the five axes (for what they're worth):

harm reduction,

A good idea, but tends to suffer from definition problems (is recreational drug use "harm"? What about BDSM? Suicide, assisted or otherwise? Dangerous hobbies?). A hefty dose of letting people judge their own welfare should be applied, IMO. (And the fact that their decisions are different than yours would be is not grounds for labeling them insane or incompetent to decide.)

Of course this isn't a problem when you're discussing harm to nonconsenting others - go ahead and reduce that. (But only with cures that aren't worse than the disease, please. This self-limiting aspect of harm reduction contrasts with purity, which people may be willing to go to unreasonable and counterproductive lengths to enforce.)

reciprocity and fairness,

I'm for it. There actually *are* people who are against fairness - because they expect to get the right end of the unfairness - but I'm not one of them. It annoys me that there are unfairnesses I benefit from involuntarily, and if I could eliminate them, I would. (Preferably in the direction of extending the benefit to everyone, of course.)

Suffers from even bigger definitional problems than harm reduction. 6 billion people on Earth, probably 7 billion ideas of what constitutes purity. Making something the basis for any kind of law or public policy when nobody can even agree on what it *is* is a recipe for disaster.
respect for authority,

This is often confused with/defined as "deference toward authority", which I think is actively harmful. If the President lies, or makes mistakes, we have not just the right but the duty to say so. Similar remarks apply to other authorities. Deference interferes with attempts to find the truth.

So what is respect when it isn't "don't criticize authorities in any way"? If it's courtesy, then you can (and usually should) offer that to anyone, authority or not. If this is intended to mean some kind of double standard - behave one way toward authorities and another way toward peons - then it clashes with the fairness axis.

in-group loyalty

If you define your in-group materially more restrictively than "sentient beings", I think this one is also actively harmful - it directly conflicts with the fairness axis, and often, harm reduction as well. It's fine to look out for your friends, but not at the expense of strangers. In practice this axis leads to horrible results (historical examples too numerous to list).

Overall, I think several of these axes may well collapse to Altemeyer's RWA axis - it's what the article is getting at with its "liberal-conservative" distinction. Possibly even all of them (the opposite of harm reduction is wanting to harm some people, which when you tie it into the purity and ingroup axes, gives you classic authoritarian aggression.) I don't think the five "axes" are genuinely orthogonal; they can probably be fit into a manifold of considerably fewer dimensions.

#56 ::: 'As You Know' Bob ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 08:33 PM:

I've been Big on Haidt for a few years now, ever since I found this interview in Believer magazine.

A conservative pal and I were debating same-sex marriage, and talking past each other:
"It'll destroy the institution of marriage!"
"But how? Where's the harm?"

and Haidt's explanation seemed to explain the phenomenon.
So I tend to think there's something to it: liberals and conservatives are talking about different things when we talk about "morality".

At the very least, Haidt's idea of "five axes" is a plausible explanation for this sort of l/c failure to communicate.

#57 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 08:36 PM:

That Unfogged article by "LizardBreath" is nifty, because it supports a conclusion I've been coming to for some years now: That human ethics are ultimately grounded not in reason, but in multiple, conflicting, sub-rational impulses. I suspect those impulses may be instinctual, though they may also just be emergent properties of other aspects of human biology. The author (or Jonathan Haidt, who the author cites) has done me the service of actually teasing out some of these impulses.

And they are conflicting. The most obvious conflict is in-group loyalty versus fairness, though each of the other three can easily conflict with any of the other four.

I think most current political tendencies are combinations of two or more of these impulses. Greg (#2) sees "libertarian" absolutism as a case of harm-reduction gone amuck, but I see it as mostly a purity issue, with harm-reduction and fairness taking supporting roles. Albatross (#34) sees purity in some anti-torture arguments, I see maybe a side-order of purity alongside an entree of harm-reduction and fairness.

#58 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 08:48 PM:

Rex #42 -- That means the excerpts Patrick just linked to approvingly are from the very same speech that inspired him to write "Why Barack Obama can kiss my ass" way back when.

Patrick, everyone's got a right to change their mind, but you missed a golden opportunity for some kind of "turning the other cheek" pun.

#59 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 09:09 PM:

From Obama's speech, I would (tactlessly) call this the "money shot" with regard to church-state separation:

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason.

Naturally, this also applies to those whose concerns come from secular but esoteric sources -- if the science behind a decision or goal is incomprehensible to "normal folks", that's a problem when setting public policy.

#60 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 09:35 PM:

And now I've seen the Obama speech. Dayum. I'm SO gonna vote for him.

Did you notice that at the end there's a pentacle and "The Open Source Religion"? Never thought of it that way, but Wicca is an (if not THE) open source religion! I love that.

#61 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 11:07 PM:

Xopher's reaction is much like mine, and why I get a little disconcerted at some hair-splitting. Is it possible to formulate a stronger, more thoroughly inclusive statement on religious neutrality in civil government? Yes. But is this by far the most articulate, cogent, and genuinely constitutional take on the separation of church and state we have heard from any presidential candidate in decades? Yes. Is it a direct rebuke, not just to the religious right, but to Democratic pundits like Amy Sullivan who insist that Democrats have to be more tolerant of the bigoted theocratic impulses of people she thinks we ought to be courting for votes? Yes!

If Obama wins, this will become part of an altogether new baseline for talking about religion and politics in American life. I am happy to savor the prospect for a little while, and worry about what might still have to be built on it if and when this step gets taken.

#62 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 11:22 PM:

Virge@6: I'm pretty sure you won't find justice for all at that intersection, because Instinctual != good

From #2: once born, these instincts evolve and are transmuted through experience, through context.

The axis don't move. We move our position on the axis as we grow. We are born at one location, and as we grow, and learn, and experience the world.

Russell@16: "Instinctive" is a pretty strong term ... as a descriptor for phenomema this far from the bare neurological metal

mirror neurons are purely neurological and would explain a large portion of in group loyalty, etc.

#63 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 11:50 PM:

paul, #25, second time today I've seen "brights" and I looked it up. Argh. There's a good chance I agree with what they believe. But I'm not calling myself a bright!

In fact, I can't accurately call myself nonreligious, nonbeliever, atheist, or anything like that because they only involve religion. I don't believe in gods, fairies, angels, ETs on earth, ghosts, etc. I don't believe in the supernatural and I think humans are the top of the food chain in our solar system, at least, although even if there's smarter aliens out there, we'll probably never see them, much less meet them. (This usually gets me Humanist at the top of those web quizzes, with Atheist second.)

Down here in the South, when asked, I usually say I'm a "godless heathen" because it makes them laugh and then they realize what I mean and I can expand. To say I'm an atheist would make people mad; they take it as a personal insult.

#64 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 12, 2008, 11:54 PM:

AYKB, #56: I think another useful way of looking at the difference is laid out in the essay Red Family, Blue Family (note: PDF).

The relevant bit (paraphrased): Conservatives tend to believe that in every family there must be a Husband/Father and a Wife/Mother; these roles are fixed, non-negotiable, and inseparable from gender. Liberals are more likely to believe that there are certain tasks which must be done to make a family structure work, but those tasks can be apportioned as the people involved see fit and are not specifically coupled with gender. So when conservatives think about same-sex marriage, their brains run aground on the question of "who's the husband and who's the wife," and they can't get beyond that point. (My addendum: they rarely phrase it in those terms because they don't fully articulate it to themselves; it's just one of those things that you believe bone-deep without words.)

#65 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2008, 01:36 AM:

Chris @55:

I'm not sure you got the point there. That model is an attempt at empirically describing how people's value systems tend to work, not a philosophy class proposal for how they should work. So you're kind of talking about a different issue than the one that article talks about.

#66 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2008, 03:07 AM:

albatross @ 34: "For example, "respect for authority" seems to me to mean respect for institutions (like the US form of government and the constitution) at least as much as respect for the current guy in power. (This distinction is the reason we don't have regular coups here.)"

We aren't discussing just any respect for authority here--it is specifically respect for authority as a moral intuition. There is a difference between respect for authority because those authorities are mutually agreed-upon sources of arbitration and order, and respect for authority because authority is to be respected. It's very possible to arrive at a respect for authority because of one's intuitions about harm reduction and fairness, but that isn't the same thing as treating respect for authority as an unquestioned first principle.

Which isn't to say that there aren't some liberals who espouse 'liberal' moral values with all the fiery intolerance of the most fundie of fundamentalists. I find it weird and shocking, but it's certainly there. (PETA leaps to mind.)

(I'm sorry for disagreeing with you on just about every thread these days, albatross. It's just that you're wrong in such interesting and thought-provoking ways!)

#67 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2008, 07:59 AM:

I like to say I'm a materialist and, if there seems to be some doubt as to what I mean, continue to say I don't believe in anything supernatural or outside the physical world.

It's so much nicer than saying I'm not superstitious.

#68 ::: R. M. Koske ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2008, 08:48 AM:

Lawrence Lessig had some interesting things to say about the Kozinski mess.

#69 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2008, 09:25 AM:

Marilee @ 63

I'm basically in agreement with you on that list of things you don't believe in, and yet I don't like calling myself an Atheist because I do have a sense of spirituality, that there are aspects of my relation to the universe which are not strictly physical or measurable*. If you want a not-very-accurate but succinct analogy, think of the relationships that arise between emergent systems at levels of organization above the level of the components of those systems. You could also say that I don't believe in souls but I do believe in consciousness;I don't know what it is**, but I know a lot of things it isn't.

And I don't call myself a Humanist either, because I really don't agree that "Mankind is the measure of all things", or even that "we're at the top of the food chain". Our place (well, my place, at any rate, YMMV) is a lot more subtle than that, starting with the fact that I may eat chicken, but bacteria can eat me. Not only that, but bacteria can be me; how do I differentiate "myself" from my gut bacteria or my eyelash mites, or even my mitochondria? And the universe is s very big place, and we don't really know that much about how it began, how it got to where it is, or where it's going, which doesn't leave us in much of a position to make claims about our place in the scheme of things.

* And what I'm talking about has nothing to do with gods, souls, ghosts, paranormal forces, or religion in any sense that most people would recognize.
** I have my suspicions, of course, but that's for a much longer post when I'm not so tired.

#70 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2008, 11:44 AM:

Bruce Cohen (#69): I'm with you, regarding that "sense of spirituality" that can't get pinned down as a religious belief. It's a *sense*, and that's about it. As for atheism, non-believers, etc., my favorite term is still agnostic -- where it means something like "Don't know (but that doesn't mean my mind is entirely closed)".

In science, admitting ignorance of a subject can be the first step toward learning more. Maybe that doesn't apply to theological matters, though it would be interesting if it did ... somehow.

#71 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2008, 01:28 PM:

Faren #70: ISTM that the religious adults I know and respect freely admit large areas in which they (we) don't understand things. People and intellectual movements that feel the need to claim answers to all questions spend a lot of time chasing their tails, and usually make fools of themselves in the end. An honest acknowledgement of ignorance is a good start toward either finding out a real answer, or figuring out why it will be hard to get one.

#72 ::: Russell Letson ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2008, 04:21 PM:

A strong "yeah, me too" to John@67 and Bruce@69--for me, careful naming reflects careful thinking (or maybe just the effects of literary/linguistic/theological training on a mildly obsessive-compulsive personality). After decades of trying to explain my deviation from my Catholic upbringing to my puzzled siblings, I came up with "secular materialist," with appendices as required, pointing out how the first term deals with politics and the second with metaphysics. (It's also nice to have a position half of which is not expressed as the contrapositive of someone else's.)

I have also come to avoid "humanist," because of the historical baggage it carries (though my Jesuit mentors weren't afraid of it) and because I can't see us as the crown of creation. (I very much like Bruce's vision of himself as a kind of anthology organism.)

"Agnostic" is appropriate but tricky because it leads to complicated and often tiresome discussions of epistemology (currently further muddied by postmodernist mystifications from the left)--and I can never shake one of my favorite theological jokes: "An agnostic is someone who says he doesn't know whether there's a god, and you don't, either."

#73 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2008, 11:03 PM:

Bruce, STM, #69, I don't mean top of the chain as who can eat whom, but as intelligence.

#74 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2008, 11:28 PM:

My church does an introductory session for prospective members, and one of the activities is an exploration of what people believe.

I'd never quite put it this way before then, but it came to me then and there what I believe in is stories and people, not necessarily in that or any order.

Oddly yet fittingly enough, next Sunday's sermon is titled "Finding Our UU Common Ground: Getting Past the List of Things We Don't Believe to the Things We DO Believe!"

The week after: "Starry Skies, Fiery Sunsets, and Clear Blue Mornings: Things I Believe"

These should be fun.

I will now end my proselytizing* moment.

*Funny how we can find qualities in ourselves that make us seem different from others.

#75 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2008, 12:21 AM:

heresiarch #66:

I'll do my best to keep being wrong in interesting ways, rather than falling back to being boringly right :)

I suppose it's hard to work out exactly what are the moral intuitions or underlying feelings that drive political arguments--all I can see are the actions and arguments made, and I have to guess at the internal motivations.

Think about the torture debate[1]. The people arguing for torture have been using arguments based on harm reduction (the ticking time bomb story) and on reciprocity and fairness (emphasizing that "harsh interrogation methods" are done only to "the worst of the worst"). Surely, much of the moral intuition supporting this among a lot of conservatives comes from a kind of in-group loyalty, as we mostly don't expect "us" to be the ones getting tortured to death. And there's clearly a big helping of respect for authority (trust the guy in charge in time of crisis). But I don't think those two would carry much weight without the other arguments.

By contrast, opponents of torture[2] seem to me to be reacting on purity, and you can see that in much of the language used. "This is what we've become" isn't a phrase you use to complain about the suboptimal reduction of harm provided by some policy. In terms of harm done, torturing a few hundred (or even a few thousand) people can't possibly compare to the millions dead and many millions more whose lives have been torn to shreds by the war in Iraq, yet there's something different in my own visceral reaction to our use of torture, and in what I perceive from the reactions of others. I think most of us who oppose torture don't give a damn whether it yields usable information (harm reduction), or whether there's some argument to be made that the people being tortured deserved it (fairness).

I think racial issues are another area where liberal moral intuitions aren't primarily along harm-reduction or fairness/reciprocity lines. A fair bit of reaction to overt racism seems to me to be based on purity, as with people who don't even want to be associated with racists. It would be hard for me to explain the reaction to that idiot shock-jock and his "nappy-headed ho" comments in terms of harm-reduction or even fairness. (It surely was unfair to say, but no more than all kinds of other crap his kind of person says all the time.) That looks like something else.

[1] Some part of me still can't believe that this is a political debate in my country.

[2] Which includes plenty of non-crazy, non-evil conservatives, as well as liberals, libertarians, and various other somewhat civilized folks.

#76 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2008, 12:19 AM:

albatross @ 75: "I'll do my best to keep being wrong in interesting ways, rather than falling back to being boringly right :)"

I appreciate the sacrifice! Though I don’t mind when you’re interesting and right—that’s fun too =)

"Think about the torture debate[1]. The people arguing for torture have been using arguments based on harm reduction (the ticking time bomb story) and on reciprocity and fairness (emphasizing that "harsh interrogation methods" are done only to "the worst of the worst")."

I don't disagree, but the moral philosopher was arguing that liberals don't intuit the importance of purity, in-group loyalty, and respect for authority, not that conservative arguments are never built on fairness or harm reduction. This is his point--conservatives use a wider range of arguments than liberals, including the arguments that liberals use.

That said: do you find their harm reduction or fairness arguments very persuasive? I don’t. To me, their “harm reduction” and “fairness” arguments don’t stand without some fairly major support from in-group loyalty. Look at their take on the “fairness” argument. Can you imagine a scenario where conservatives would consider it fair for their enemies to torture an American? The idea is silly, isn’t it? If anyone else tortured one of their own, they’d hold it up as evidence of their enemy’s complete inhumanity. Fair? Only in a world made up of Us and Them. It's a view of fairness so distorted by in-group loyalty that it would collapse without the assumptions it supplies.

"By contrast, opponents of torture[2] seem to me to be reacting on purity, and you can see that in much of the language used. "This is what we've become" isn't a phrase you use to complain about the suboptimal reduction of harm provided by some policy."

Yeah, I agree that the purity axis is a much less clearcut case than in-group loyalty or respect for authority. There are definitely some “liberal” causes that seem to be very purity-based—PETA leaps to mind. I’d be interested to see the data: I’d guess that purity was a lot closer to evenly-split than any of the others. Still, I’d give conservatives the edge on purity-obsession, going off their preoccupation with sexual morals.

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