Here's an interesting post by Arnold Kling, who's commenting on a paper by Dan Klein. Basically these guys are thinking about why Progressives, Libertarians and Conservatives are disposed the way they are. Both make some really interesting points. First, because human beings are meaning-seeking creatures, progressives find meaning in the state, which symbolizes their aspirations for a kind of collective good. This is no less a cognitive shortcut than the conservatives' inclination to contract with a "spirit-lord," a term that made me chuckle. A quick, dirty and probably unfair characterization might be: leftists worship Government and conservatives worship God.
When it comes to progressives, I'd want to include some discussion about an excessively pronounced inborn guilt/envy/indignation disposition, which I call the Stone Age Trinity and that I elaborate on here. (I'll return to this in a moment...)
But Kling's post (as well as thisNY Times Magazine piece by Steven Pinker) reminds me of that little bit of meta-ethics philosopher W.V.O. Quine did when he was alive. Quine said that ethics was basically a "transmutation of means to ends" and had little else to say on matters of right and wrong. He was a philosophical naturalist to be sure. And Quine thought ethical dispositions usually amounted to cultural mores that had been transmitted, via nature or nurture, from a time when the means were critical to a people's survival or flourishing. For example, the natural consequences of sex with a sibling was increased likelihood of birth defects and harm to the clan. While that taboo exists today, we can imagine scenarios in which that risk would be close to zero (birth control, prophylactics, etc.) The basic idea is that the moral value, the taboo, (or whatever) is what gets turned into the object of moral reverence or of tabooization after running the gauntlet of life and the world--often in very different contexts. They are epiphenomena of learning how to survive in the real world. But the world changes and sometimes the moralisms hang around anyway.
Back to my point about the Stone Age Trinity: On the paleolithic steppe, it made much more economic sense - i.e. was "rational" - for members of a clan to engage in reciprocal altruism, which is a fancy way of saying to share and share alike. But this only works as a rule when a group is pretty small (less than about 150) and food stuffs rot in a couple of days. As populations grew, our market economies evolved and gains from trade could be realized across greater distances, share and share alike became a rule that worked less and less well. Trade generated more prosperity. But both the evolved instinct and the cultural moralisms of sharing have hung around. None of this is to say that sharing is BAD. But government bureaucracies engaged in forced "sharing" over a population of millions just doesn't work very well for a whole host of reasons--from the government failure a la public choice theory to concerns about competing values like individual liberty. While the instinct of sharing may be satisfied by sanctimony in the opinion pages or voting booth, it works better closer to home and community. Knowledge is local. And so, frankly, are the folks tethered to one's heart. But the means of surviving on the paleolithic steppe have been "transmuted" into a political end. That's why politics will not be without struggle for a very long time. And that's why I find it interesting that "social justice" is little more than cave man instincts with fancy verbiage woven around it.
In any case, these are just a couple points of confusion I'd toss into the mix as we try to unpack why people think the way they do politically.
(Addendum: Not to be too harsh, but one of the less interesting (but popular) theories about political disposition - from a couple of leftists - is summed up here. Weiler and Hetherington purport to measure and aggregate the degree to which people are "authoritarian"--which is an unfortunate and inapt term for one's propensity to be stark, simple-minded and Manichean (i.e. seeing the world in black and white or good and evil). They then compare the authoritarian scores to party affiliations and conclude that a) the country is more stratified today than it was a couple of decades ago and b) Republicans are way more "authoritarian". I'll leave this mostly for the reader to consider. But I'd say there are much richer theories out there about political dispositions than one that views the political landscape through such a monochrome filter as relative "authoritarian-ness". For two guys who claim to be on the Blue Team of Nuance, they seem pretty darned reductionist to me. (Social science as scientism rears its head again.))
I have a piece over at TCS, which you may enjoy. Here is a sliver:
We aren't rats. Nor are we children. But Congress and the Obama Administration seem to think so. From Cash-for-Clunkers to the idea that all Americans should be forced to buy health insurance, our leaders are moving away from stewardship of the Constitution to a rewards-and-punishments government. "Stimulus and response" meets "hope and change". It's for your own good. But the idea that they can subsidize and tax their way to utopia has its roots in a discredited theory from early 20th Century—the psychology of B. F. Skinner.
I've been writing about the free will issue for a while and, by gum, I'm still a determinist libertarian. I may be the only one. Passing over the apparent paradoxes, I recently came across this piece thanks to Tom Clark of Naturalism.org. In it Sue Blackmore of TheGuardian writes:
For example, our legal system is largely based on belief in free will, which leads us into all kinds of tangles. For example, we accept that people who are too young or mentally disturbed are not responsible for their actions and should not be punished, while everyone else is. But then along comes evidence that, for example, Mr G carries the "murderer gene", or Ms T's kleptomania was caused by pre-natal trauma, or that Mr F couldn't resist the advertisements for sweet foods that made him violent. What do we do? We try to protect the idea of free will, while the possible space for its operation shrinks. The combine harvester comes round again and the terrified field mice squeal "But you can't take away our consciousness and our free will! The world will fall apart, our legal system will be destroyed, all hell will break loose."
Like many naturalists, I say it won't, and it is high time we faced up to the changes we need to make. We can do this personally by practising not thinking in terms of free will. We can do it communally by realising that our legal system can punish wrongdoers not because they could have done otherwise and freely chose to be bad, but because some punishments are effective. Indeed, I believe this approach would be better. Instead of asking how much punishment someone deserves, we should ask what actions we can take to make this person behave better in the future, and others not follow this bad example. More constructive use of prison and other kinds of sentences might even result.
I largely agree. I might even take it further: I think it's high time we pass to a condition in which we moved away from the criminal and toward the clinical. That's not to say there won't be "tangles" here too, but it's to argue that if, in principle, there are physiological underpinnings (whether due to nature, nurture or a mix) to violent or harmful behaviors, then these are in some sense "curable." Just as not all diseases are curable in practice, not all criminal pathologies/congenital illnesses will be either. But they are in principle at least--which should should set us on a path to looking for remedies. Therefore, it's also time we moved ourselves closer to a research paradigm in which people are actually investigating these "illnesses." Whether we look at violent offenses as the result of moral failings or psycho-chemical compulsions, offenders should still be removed from society. So what does mens rea add in these instances?
Lest I run afoul of any Szaszians, let me say that the relationship between neurochemistry and behavior is very close and this relationship offers us something more than folk psychology (cum the 1950s lobotomy) to justify treatment. Indeed, that's the whole idea. Science has come a long way and can go a lot further. Anyway, more on this later. I should admit I am somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of a board of appointed neuroscientists empowered to determine folks' fate outside the judicial system. I agree this presents problems of a legal and political nature. Though ones not insoluble, perhaps.
Note: I like seeing all these evangelical atheists like Blackmore and Hitchens in the press lately, though I'm not one. Spread your wings. My Christian friends and I prefer that we tolerate each other mutually, which is good for me being in an athiest minority. But I did squirm enough as a child being "witnessed to" and so forth by fundamentalists--enough to appreciate a little theological tit for tat in the press. In any case, Sue Blackmore, who has a great combine harvester metaphor in the piece cited above, would have much more fun writing in the States than in Britain. There's just so much more fodder here. Or should I say there are more "field mice"? Our free market in religion (separation of church and state) has ensured religious flourishing, for better or worse. In any case, trying to convince the deluded that they may also be delusional is much more important when it comes to those who worship Government. Those who worship God aren't really doing anyone any harm, these days.
Recently, I've had some thoughts about the relationship among virtue ethics, utilitarianism and Kantianism. My hope is, from this relationship, we can develop a kind of non-linear libertarianism, whereby our ethical intuitions about freedom are simultaneously reinforcing and constraining -- which is to say they 'cohere' well -- making us more balanced advocates of freedom. None of this is an attempt to ground ethics or propound Truth, but rather to think about freedom more holistically.
(Full disclosure: I am a metaethical skeptic, which is to say I don't think one can ground ethics, nor do I believe there are ethical truths 'out there' to be discovered. Nevertheless, I hope the following is a useful way of thinking about freedom.)
Let's take the three major categories of ethics: consequentialist-, non-consequentialist- and virtue ethics. Consequentialists think along these lines about freedom: 'Free societies tend to bring about some aggregate happiness, or prosperity.' Non-consequentialists tend to think like this: 'Freedom is good for its own sake and is not merely a means to some end.' And virtue-ethicists tend to think freedom 'enables one to live purposefully by engaging in activities that move him (and thereby society) towards both excellence and happiness.'
Now, I look at these three ethical intuitions as being like a triangle. But not just any triangle (say right or isosceles), but an equilateral triangle. The latter triangle (as a symbol for balance) shows that each angle of the triangle constrains and supports the other angles. This is the start of making our ethical intuitions cohere, as well as making them non-linear.
Consider that the linear way of talking about consequences is incomplete standing all on its own. "Freedom first" libertarians (rightfully) fret about the worrying contingency built into consequentialism, i.e. that if we could prove that freedom-destroying acts yielded greater aggregate prosperity (good social consequences), then individual freedom could be tossed out with the proverbial bathwater. On the other hand, we can't simply argue that freedom (rights) is simply good for its own sake, because we open ourselves to charges that freedom - come what may - not only challenges our sense that we should live purposefully (i.e. get our faces off the bong long enough to feed the kids), but that consequences matter. And of course, questions of virtue have built into them considerations of both excellence and happiness, which are more-or-less consequentialist notions (never mind that excellence at trimming one's fingernails, or doing some activity that adds no societal value, is probably not virtuous in any sense we can all agree on). Upon a little reflection, the mutually challenging and reinforcing aspects of these three libertarian intuitions aren't tough to spot, but we tend to think of these three different types of ethics as silos, i.e. mutually exclusive (with ethical kooties, cross-contamination, and so forth). For one to be right, the other two have to be wrong.
Maybe these three ethical types don't have to be mutually exclusive, though, but rather mutually constraining. We can successfully build in reasonable premises about consequences, the human desire for freedom and virtue/eudaimonia without committing to one or the other as the ULTIMATE foundational premise. Instead, we should learn how to speak the language of all these ethical dimensions as libertarians, without dogmatism -- allowing them simultaneously to support and constrain each other. In doing so, we may persuade others that freedom is both beautiful and multi-dimensional. Most importantly, we'll persuade others that freedom is worth having. Because that's really what it's all about.
So how does virtue figure in? This is not easy. But borrowing from the above:
I know that there is happiness to be found in purposeful living. When I am productive and end-driven, particularly in intellectual and career pursuits, I tend to find a kind of satisfaction I can't get from "baser" pleasures (although those are nice, too). The wider project of excellence - at least striving for excellence - is ongoing, and the purposeful life is fulfilling as motion towards (never really as an arrival at). I tend to feel hostility towards forces that interfere with this process of continuous becoming. Similarly, I feel hostility to those who use government power to take my freedom and destroy societal value. I also realize that the question of my excellence is determined mostly by others (agreeing intersubjectively). So, while I am freely going about my eudaimonaic pursuits, I am also, paradoxically perhaps, serving others. If I am not, then I am on something of a gerbil wheel. If I can find happiness in moving another human being with my (freely chosen) efforts, it compounds my sense that freedom, freedom's consequences, and virtue can be a three-fold cord (like an equilateral triangle). But what does this cord do? Does it argue in a circle? Does it offer us a guide? I'm not sure.
Perhaps we'll come back to this idea of a holistic, mutually constraining libertarianism. Instead of trying to ground our philosophy in something, we should instead think of our worldview as a framework or something like Neurath's boat. Maybe, after it's all said and done, we'll find a raw, naked anti-authoritarian disposition and nothing more.