UPDATE - This is now in podcast form! (See music player above). Also, if you're coming back to read this again or linking someone else to it, THERE'S AN ENTIRE NEW SECTION. Its in the podcast, but I've also copied the new text below so if it seems slightly longer and different(er) than you remember, that's why. It's on dogmatism and, frankly, won't win me any friends.
Ah, the life of an intellectual.
The Utility of Caring
I have quite literally no idea where to begin. I think at this point I could start any blog post or podcast with that sentence and it frankly applies universally to all readers or listeners respectively.
I’ve grown up in a fairly fluid political environment. As a kid, politics were only discussed by my grandfather who was decidedly liberal. My parents are – I think – a touch on the conservative side. Well, one is – the other is quite conservative. Siblings? I think you’d find a plurality between myself, my sister, and my brother. As I have in so many disputes, I’m somewhere in the middle of everything.
That was not always the case. Go back on my Facebook timeline far enough and you can see how I “came of age” politically. All of the hallmarks of modern regressive liberal thinking – white privilege (white guilt), shaming of those that support gun rights, empathy in overdrive. I’ve had some very strong words over the years about religion, small government, racism, and taxation. While I don’t think I’ll ever wish to take anything back (after all, I’ve come to my current understanding by fully experiencing my positions), I can certainly look to past comments and interactions as an important light in the darkness.
So I have a whole host of topics to cover and I’m not entirely sure what the best order for covering them is. So why don’t we start with the events that unfolded and some psychological and historical backdrop.
What Brings Us Together
This is being written / recorded in the beginning of October 2017, on the heels of the largest mass shooting in recent US History. A (lone – as we currently know) gunman fired what appeared to be an automatic weapon from the 32nd floor of a casino down toward an outdoor concert being attended by (numbers vary) about 17000 people. As this is on the heels of the event (this writing is less than 24 hours removed from the event), some details are sketchy while even more are sure to come out much, much later. That said, we can reasonably assume a number of casualties involve “crushing” and “stampeding.” The difference, if you’re unaware, is a “crush” does not require anybody to lay on the ground but a crowd of people pushing into a crowd of people that aren’t moving fast enough, ostensibly choking the people caught in-between. A stampede is self-explanatory.
Again, we don’t have any concrete facts about the killer’s motives, but we can reasonably assume that just this sort of venue were hand-picked for maximum carnage. I think it’s unlikely he had a personal connection to the actual place or people involved – it is far more likely he desired something else. What that is, I won’t begin to speculate. But given the close proximity of a very large number of people, we can again reasonably assume that his goal was statistically driven.
Escaping from the psyche and motive of the killer for just a moment, we have to consider the conditions on the ground, specifically for people that survived.
I will attempt to avoid tugging on heart strings (as we will need to be sober for the debate that will follow), but the night of October 1 was probably a whole host of Americans’ introduction to post-traumatic stress disorder. Before I go into that, let’s look at the definition of PTSD to more accurately consider what many people are presently going through. In this case, having an awareness of punctuation is quite instructive, as the “PT” in “PTSD” is actually “P-T” in “P-TSD.” We are not describing how people fair in the real world after suffering some “traumatic stress.” Rather, it is the stress they are now experiencing “post trauma.” It is considered a disorder because of the psychological effects that are not informed by reality. A person exhibiting symptoms of PTSD has a whole host of things that they believe are happening to them that are not – due in no small part to the reality of what they just witnessed. There are multiple “types” of PTSD that we’ll avoid for the sake of any vets that read. The type these victims are grasping is the sudden and violent realization of something they were only slightly aware of in the past – the world is capable of great evil and at some point that evil may affect you directly, though impersonally. In fact, a secondary condition – survivor’s guilt – is related in this very sense. Some great evil rained down from above and killed without impunity. It did not care how good a person you were or how good a person your friend or acquaintance was. The lottery was chosen and your name didn’t come up. You begin to ask why people who had so much to give were and why you, a lowly human being of less quality, were not. You begin to believe that last line.
Everyone is affected by PTSD differently, though nearly everyone responds well to a very carefully regimented practice of talk therapy, or psychotherapy. It’s not enough that a sufferer of PTSD has someone to listen to, they need a trained clinical psychologist to help them overcome the feelings and dissociative effects of having your view of reality so fundamentally challenged.
As social creatures, we have an urge to help our fellow human. I can guarantee you that in times like this, no one running towards the bullets to help people get away bothers to ask if the person they are saving is Republican or Democrat. No one wonders if the person helping them is conservative or liberal, pro- or anti-gun rights. We have an instinct to help each other and, from a purely evolutionary perspective, this has given rise to the most powerful animal to walk the earth.
It is our naturally empathic brain that is largely responsible for the survivability of our species. When times are lean, we have a brain large enough to anticipate it and complex enough to figure out the best way to come out the other side – with the help of others. We offer food and shelter knowing full well that there may come a time when we need it. This is at least a piece of the essence of the human experience and is one of the many images that can move us to tears.
Where Empathy Breaks Down
Empathy has a devastating trick up its sleeve. As categorizing animals, we tend to reduce things to dichotomic categories internally. Can I sit on it or not? Can I hold it or not? Can I break it or not? One of the most classic categories that has helped us survive for millennia on-end is “is this a threat or not?” Threats come in many, many forms and one way it can hack this categorization is in how we classify people. Its one of the many reasons, in my opinion, racism cannot be dealt with by shouting it down but understanding its latent position in our biological makeup. If not raised in an environment with a great deal of diversity, the mind comes to see particularly “different-looking” people as “other.” We are threatened and they are threatening. If you’re a bit on the fence about this, consider how you would describe two groups of people under threat from a fire. Your friends are in one group and the other are all strangers. You will take ownership of “your” friends and try to save them. The other group will have to look elsewhere for help, or you’ll help them if you have the opportunity after rescuing your friends. This is not judging anyone for their choice, but merely calling to light a human tendency – familiarity matters to us and this idea is something we’ll come back to later.
Empathy breaks down when it becomes over-expressed. This, again, is an evolutionary perspective. I referred to this in the last podcast (Red, White, and Black and Blue). There’s a biological tendency to help and a biological tendency to compete within a group – it’s a strange contradiction that we are willing to save the very person we are competing with for something and yet that is exactly how we proceed through life. You wish your opponents less success, but not so much that they fall into ruin.
Similarly, an overabundance of empathy can be emotionally crippling in times of great need. If, moments before some terrible tragedy befell someone, you were overcome with the emotion of the consequences and became crippled with fear (the oft-ignored third evolutionary option – fight, flight, or freeze)? This is not only possible but quite likely. We have plenty of phrases to describe just such a condition. Cold feet. Weak knees. Lack of willpower.
Okay, but what about morally speaking? Does empathy break down there? Let’s discuss what we mean in detail because the morality of empathy is what is going to rationally decide what course of action you deem ethical.
Does Empathy Actually Break Down?
So far as I can tell, most human beings are some form of consequentialist (which is rather advantageous as it’s a subject we are covering this week in ethical theory class!). That is, you’re a consequentialist if you deem an action moral by its consequences, not by its methods. As the saying goes “the ends justify the means.”
I sense trepidation in you. “I’m not a consequentialist! I don’t think the ends justify the means!” No? Do you tell little white lies? Your friend/partner asks you if this dress/shirt makes her/him look fat. In that moment, what do you rationalize? For a large amount of people, the battle that will ensue by telling the truth is not worth the effort. Besides, they will have a psychological episode and it seems cruel to just tell someone something so obviously hurtful. Even if you jokingly say yes, you run that risk. If you don’t, then you know when jokingly saying so, you do not mean it. So what do you mean? The truth, in this instance, is not worth the effort because telling them it makes them look great is the prudent and moral course of action. We have bigger fish to fry.
Well if you tell white lies in this or other situations, you’re a consequentialist, aren’t you?
No? Do you say it because your ethics are based on speaking to other people in a kind, respectful manner, regardless of the consequences? Do unto others? If that is the case, you must agree that there are no situations – ever – that require you to raise your voice. If that is you, skip ahead, the rest of this essay doesn’t apply to you. Though I would appreciate your thoughts on what to do when someone threatens you or your family with violent death.
The most common form of consequentialism that seems to be ubiquitous among liberals is utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is a specific form of consequentialism that states that an act can only be deemed morally “right” by the amount of well-being it produces. In other words, the most good for the most people for the most time. I’ll refrain from an exploration on the intricacies of this ethical theory, but rather think that the above adequately states the thinking well enough for most people to follow. If not – here’s the essence: maximize “the good.”
Utilitarianism is a trait that is almost universally attributed to liberalism (and socialism) and for good reason – one of its most ardent defenders was John Stuart Mill, whose works in both utilitarianism and social liberty are considered fundamental reading for any interested in the ideas. Liberals (and socialists) use the baseline, distilled position of utilitarianism to justify sweeping social change – do the most good for the most people.
Let’s start applying the theory to the gun debate. There will be time to refine our understanding as different issues challenge the theory.
Gun Control – By Conservatives
Nothing has surprised me more than talking to centrist conservatives (and centrist liberals) over gun control. In my prior years (as an outspoken liberal), I took many friends to task for their tacit support of the various mass murderers that have perpetuated terrible atrocities on the innocent. Something I eventually came to terms with is the realization that these people have carefully reasoned, rational defenses of their right to bear arms and not a penis-size complex. What also surprised me was the added perspective that history class gave – and how sympathetic I became to their position.
Let’s make one thing perfectly clear, though – moderate conservatives are not who the NRA represents. The NRA has long-since gone off the deep end tailoring their ads to that group of people likely to stock up on loads of weapons (you might say, they are in the job of selling lots of guns and thus you sell to people that buy lots of guns – there’s a separate argument here for marketing restrictions but we can have that debate another time). They are the lobby that represents the opposition to gun control and as a result all conservatives are lumped in with some of the policies congress blocks. These are policies, mind you, that most conservatives agree are perfectly necessary – keeping guns out of the hands of crazy people. Most conservatives are for extensive background checks.
Then why don’t they launch into opposition of their party?! We’ll get to that.
After talking with most conservatives for a few years, I think most of them would be perfectly happy with extensive background checks, legal registration of firearms, and some limits on assault weapons though – and this is a sticking point – the assault weapon outrage is a point of contention. Why? Again, we’ll get to that, but it has a lot to do with our utilitarian argument.
In attempting to marry our theory – utilitarianism – to the conservative gun control argument we have to consider the future (remember: the most good for the most people over the most time) far more than we consider the present. As is so often the case, if we want to consider the future, we first have to carefully examine the past. That means – you guessed it – reading the actual text of the 2nd Amendment and then considering the historical context under which it was written:
“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
There are countless attempts to form a semantic argument over what “ well-regulated militia” means. WikiPedia actually does a very good job of summarizing this and other nuance surrounding the amendment, but what you need to take away from it is actually quite simple. The Constitution (arguably the greatest document ever conceived by human beings) was written by people that had the luxury of watching Europe go through a number of revolutions – namely the English and the French. The English revolution was characterized by two things – the King’s overreach in trying to rule the kingdom without the authority of Parliament and a country with a growing disparity of religious factions that wanted to dominate social law. The resulting English Bill of Rights (yes, Americans, your “Bill of Rights” isn’t even the first in name in world history) made it abundantly clear that the citizenry need be free to defend itself from a government that grew in power, influence, and corruption. Given the fear-mongering most liberals engaged in (present company included) after the election of Donald Trump, this should be an argument they can at least partially relate to. Imagine if Mr. Trump decided to forcibly deport or enslave all Mexican-Americans. Would you blame them for defending themselves violently if necessary?
The conservative (Republican) utilitarian argument requires another reading of history – specifically the violent socialist attempts to “maximize the good” through authoritarian regimes. Both the Soviet Union (Stalin’s “Great Purge”) and China (Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”) sought to build a better tomorrow by unleashing a horrible today. Mind you, both Mao and Stalin were taking a utilitarian approach – a few years of terrible pain in exchange for many hundreds of years of happiness. This approach was the order of the day during World War 2 – it’s the US rationale behind dropping the atomic bomb.
The only way to gauge “maximizing the good” through the conservative utilitarian argument is by avoiding a United States version of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward.” In effect, we won’t know if they were right until it’s far too late. If, after all weapons have been confiscated, you are being loaded into a cart that will dump your body into a mass grave because you were not “sufficiently woke” to take part in the new world order, there will be no satisfaction in telling Democrats from several years before “I told you so.” The only reason we find this idea ridiculous is the distance we are removed from Revolutionary times. Conservatives and history buffs refuse to un-learn this lesson and it is the strongest reason they do not abandon their party over their pro-NRA stances. The alternative to them is terrifying.
A few phrases to bear in mind, both heavily featured in history classes:
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” – erroneously attributed to Mark Twain
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana
This argument is strong and forms the basis of the conservative support of limited meddling with the 2nd amendment. We will consider arguments against it below.
Gun Control – by Liberals
Take all guns away.
Despite being glib, that’s actually the ideal liberal position. The world should not need guns, jails, or borders. Further, this assumption (and it is an assumption – there’s plenty of evidence that liberals only want assault weapons banned) is supported by the rationale behind banning any weapons that are used to kill people in a high-profile fashion. We will critique this in the next section but for now, we will lay out the liberal utilitarian argument for gun control.
This argument inherently requires a violent awareness of the present time that is uniquely terrible for American citizens versus other democracies. Gun violence in the US has no parallel anywhere else in the world. Roughly 30,000 Americans are killed by firearms – 1/30th of which are civilians killed by police officers – which is a per capita rate of 10.54 citizens per 100,000. This number includes deaths by accident and suicide. The suicide rate is slightly problematic for obvious reasons but if we’re calculating the “maximum good” then we have to consider all deaths that the presence of guns contribute to. Besides – many attempts at suicide fail. Nearly all of them by gun do not.
Our death rate is nearly matched by only one European nation (Montenegro – 8.91), whose rate is over twice as high as the next European nation (Serbia – 3.49). The only countries that dwarf ours have been caught in civil strife and guerilla warfare for years. They’re also mostly neighbors to the south that are a huge source of our immigration issues – Honduras, Venezuela, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, and a host of South American countries. In fact, 10 of the worst 11 countries are in the Americas. What’s worse, because of the United States’ considerably larger population, this per capita number almost domesticates the effect. The crux is people die by guns in the United States at a rate of roughly 80 per day.
Maximizing the good by a liberal definition considers only the death toll in the present and comparing it to a world devoid of high-velocity weapons. With guns, several thousand people per year are killed and several thousand more are injured. Without guns, a considerably lower amount of people will be killed.
One argument conservatives lob regarding the violent crime rate is that other crimes with other weapons (knives, blunt objects) will increase. This is true, but the argument is quite facile. In no country with incredibly strict gun control laws has this effect “made up the difference.” One could make the equally facile argument that if taking guns away reduced deaths by just one (on average) per year, it would be worth it. It’s true and thus seems to “maximize the good” though the day the conservative nightmare of a Leftist Revolution comes true, we will see that our choice – and the consequences of that choice – will not maximize the good.
The Limited Utility of the Utilitarian Argument – for Liberals
I will first approach the counter to the leftist argument as it is fairly straightforward. Let’s revisit the essence of the utilitarian argument – to maximize the good for the most people over the most time. Unpacking should take but a moment but the theory is a bit less obvious than you might imagine. If you win the lottery and decide to give it to the poor, how many poor people do you give it to? If you win twenty million dollars and give it to twenty million poor people, you’ve given each poor person one dollar. So surely just helping the maximum amount of people is limited. What if you give all of the money to one poor person? While a number of questions are raised about the existence of happiness and its own utility, why did it have to be a poor person? Maybe you have a family member that is just above the poverty line but struggling – does it not make sense to take care of them first? In either case, we know that “maximizing the good” does not mean spreading it evenly among everyone nor giving the whole pie to one person. Though, interestingly (if you’re me), it’s difficult to pinpoint where exactly it lies in the middle. We just know its somewhere around there between getting a lot of people help they can actually do something with.
What if you decided on a dollar amount for each person and that number was roughly the same as a great weekend on the French Riviera? You give everyone this amazing weekend – afterward they return to a life of poverty, misery, and suffering. What if the dollar amount supplied them with enough food to live off of for the rest of their life? It would appear we’re getting closer to that middle. The trouble, as it should become obvious by now, is that there are thousands of potential actions that can potentially “maximize the good.” One of the legitimate drawbacks of utilitarianism is this sense of foresight – an act cannot be truly judged as moral until all the cards have been played.
So how do we “maximize the good” with the liberal argument for gun control? The answer is why most conservatives are genuinely leery of liberal socialist policies. The conclusion must be to remove all guns with the understanding that the resultant social sandbox will be considerably safer.
But that’s not the argument, is it? The argument is for “common sense gun laws” or some derivative law that highlights a need to outlaw the ruthless efficiency of assault weapons. While I’m having trouble tracking down statistics of the number of assault weapon deaths (the only seemingly-reliable number is that roughly 2% of American firearms deaths are due to assault weapons), it seems reasonable to say this is but a drop in the bucket of violent deaths in America. A rudimentary calculation puts this number at roughly 120 per year. By comparison, kidney disease kills roughly 50,000.
The conservative counter – that removing weapons (all assault weapons in this instance) leaves us vulnerable to being put down by massive political movements – is that we are saving 120 per year when the proposed calculus is that we could lose millions per year by outlawing the weapons.
This is ultimately where the utilitarian argument (as a whole) breaks down. Clearly we have some innate opposition to specific types of death. As I also stated in my previous podcast, we would fight cancer with considerably more fervor if it had agency in killing us. It is random and murder – typically – is not. There’s a reason we lose our mind and question the value of certain freedoms whenever some person commits an act of violence against another.
This – again, as I stated in the previous podcast – is however taken advantage of by our evolution. As indicated above, firearm deaths account for nearly 30,000 people in the US each year, 120 of which are assault rifles – that’s .04%. Is agency of the killer what is actually in consideration here? Obviously not, the other 29000+ deaths are not random. In fact, they are the opposite. Firearm deaths by handgun are often perpetrated by a killer that knew his or her victim. Assault rifles are often used in crowded conditions with faceless strangers. Are we to suggest there is greater evil in the random killing? Perhaps another conversation for another day – but the point remains. Why do we care about the large, single killing of many and not the slow, methodical killing of many? I submit it is almost entirely down to visibility. This gives conservatives reasonable trepidation on the motives of “common sense gun laws.”
Regardless, the effort to stem the tide of violent murders requires a lot of political clout, demonstration, conversation, and action. If the sum total of our effort saves 120 lives a year while we lose 30,000 to the opioid crisis, 7000 veterans to suicide, 55,000 to the flu because of the limitations of our public political will, I feel we have ethically failed due to, if nothing else, an utter unwillingness to embrace reason in our debate.
The only legitimate defense, then, has to be an abandonment of utilitarian arguments and an embrace of an entirely different ethic. That ethic has yet to be argued effectively.
The Limited Utility of the Utilitarian Argument – for Conservatives
Is the argument against gun control really a utilitarian argument for conservatives? As an admitted classical liberal, I must surrender that my time conversing with them has afforded me insufficient time to learn their motives for their actions. At the very least, one can call upon the Reconciliation Project (the balancing of self-interest and morality) to at least debate that the utilitarian argument informs the needs of the individual. Maximizing the good for those around you affords you more opportunity for happiness and gain. I suppose a key difference between liberals and conservatives would be the size of the circle each group lets in. Conservatives frequently refer to their counterparts as “bleeding heart liberals” and that has a lot to do with the liberal need to help as many people as possible. Conservatives engage in something slightly close to “care ethics” and acknowledge that familiarity and closeness are things to consider. A brief recap of care ethics requires a good old-fashioned utilitarian philosophical dilemma – the burning building.
You’re in a burning building (ah! What are you doing?!) and you have two doors in front of you, you can see through a window into each room. You know that if you open one door, the other will collapse, destroying whatever is inside. What variables you fill each room with determines your commitment to utilitarian ethics (spoiler: most people abandon it). Say there are ten people in one room and one person in the other. In that moment, you are utilitarian and free ten people at the cost of one. What if you know the one person? What if its your partner? Your child? How many people in the next room will make you return to your utilitarian roots? Would you let your child die to save 100 people?
Not sure yet? What if you are an art expert and also a philanthropic superstar and you donate every single penny you don’t need to a charity that literally saves lives (think Effective Altruism). In room number one is a small child and in room two is a Rembrandt – that you would be the rightful owner of and could sell for millions and save thousands of lives. In a choice between a painting and a child, I submit that less than one in a thousand would choose art.
Care ethics has a unique quality in that it makes no presumptions about answering all of morality’s dilemmas but instead offers you an out based on your innate feelings. You feel immensely for those in your immediate vicinity and you’d be forgiven for saving ten people near you at the indirect expense of several dozen later – several dozen you did not actively kill or even cause the death of – but whose deaths you chose not to prevent so that you could prevent the deaths of your own loved ones.
If the conservative argument against gun control is utilitarian, then the counter to this argument has to embrace the changing world we live in relative to the one our founding fathers found themselves in. This argument will not resort to any dumbing down of the Constitution – I will not be using “when they wrote that, they only had muskets” as a premise. The argument for gun control, if done properly, is far more subtle and effective than that.
While he did not discuss specifics, I first became aware of the alternatives to countering the gun-laden south by listening to Bret Weinstein during an interview on the Joe Rogan Experience (also referenced in the last podcast). Bret, an evolutionary biologist, was responding to a statement Joe Rogan made about how terrifying it is that the left, if so inclined, couldn’t fight back against the alt-right because they have the guns. He stated that there are a lot more things “we” could do as a defense that did not involve weapons. By extension, we can also work out what the government could do to its citizenry should it so desire. Given our unique dependency on electricity (for both power and water), it takes little imagination to envision the multitude of ways entire swaths of the country can be cut off and placed under siege remotely. While the “it’s too late anyway” defense of gun control is a weak one, it is one.
That defense becomes ever more solid if we consider just how little difference having “all the guns” actually makes. Again, if we adopt a utilitarian approach, the added bonus of having freedom to procure weapons and thus defend one’s house and state seems a miniscule improvement of the odds of surviving a violent government uprising. If so, then the present state of violence in the country becomes very difficult to justify. Consider, if you’re struggling to comprehend the verbiage, an analogy. If you can barely afford top ramen and so insure your chances of having more money for top ramen in the future by spending more on lottery tickets, is your endeavor worth it? You are increasing your odds of winning by buying more tickets – but at the expense of being able to keep enough calories to stay alive in the short term. If the odds are sufficiently long enough, you’re better off to keep your money and look elsewhere for winning food strategies.
Thus, if the conservative argument is utilitarian, it also breaks down when considering the overwhelming might of the machine brought down upon you by a corrupt state and the resultant superfluous increase of odds at the expense of thousands of your dead countrymen. Lest we forget one of the key reasons the South lost the Civil War – the shortage not of weapons but of hands to shoot them.
An Embrace of A Different Ethic – For Both Sides
If I look back on one ethical theory that I struggled with and found somewhat lacking, it was the idea of care ethics put forth by a few theorists, though we spent time examining Nel Noddings. Care ethics or ethics of care grants “moral significance in the fundamental elements of relationships and dependencies of human life.” In effect, it is what we referred to above when faced with the burning building dilemma. You don’t have a human relationship with the Rembrandt (though some powerful memory associated with an object can have a similar hold in some), but you do with a person. That’s why you save the person and not the painting that could save thousands of persons far removed from you.
This theory more closely ties to how both sides approach the gun debate – but neither can state the exact moral ethic they are following to arrive at their seemingly-opposed conclusions. That has many reasons, not least of which, as mentioned above, care ethics makes no bones about answering any serious ethical questions with any degree of certainty. Indeed, it actually takes aim at any attempt to arrive at an exact “correct” answer to a moral dilemma as a pointless exercise. Ethics of care point out that there is less importance on right versus wrong so much as an act being more or less moral. That is – decision a is a morally acceptable position while decision b is even more morally right. Extract this out to a million decisions and you can see that of the many choices we have, some are more morally correct than others and the exercise of measuring that difference seems futile.
The problem with that flexibility, of course, is the room for interpretation and the shrinking world. The circle of relationships that I am obligated to is different from the circle of relationships you are obligated to and each of us has different strategies to maintain that obligation. It is a supposition of care ethics that each of us are acting morally with one potentially acting “more” morally than the other – though even that moral is entirely subjective.
As a simple example, imagine a time of war where two sides are engaged in a fight they would rather not be in. All of the soldiers would rather not be killing each other but their governments have drafted them and here they find themselves fighting against their will. Your friend is in a standoff where both he and his target have their rifle trained on each other. You see an enemy with his rifle trained on your friend. Do you shoot this person? In this instance, he has every right to shoot your friend and you have every right to shoot him. Care ethics demand that both parties (you and the person shooting your friend) are acting morally relative to their own situations. Further, given the one-to-one nature of this scenario, you would be hard-pressed to prove one is “more moral” than the other.
The wonderful exposition of this entire scenario is that I am beginning to understand that while I consider myself a centrist, I ultimately identify as a liberal and the ethics of care example is illustrative of why. In the previous analogy on the battlefield, I understand the motivations of all parties involved. If I’m extracting that essence to the political battlefield of ideas, I can make the same argument. The nuance of my position is the acknowledgment of seeing a much larger picture that I continually accuse conservatives of being blind to. Further explorations of their position will undoubtedly enhance this view and I will gain more or less respect for them as a result. But one more brief return to the analogy is necessary to further articulate my position.
Suppose I notice, in spotting the enemy that plans to shoot my friend, that this person is someone important to the resistance and his death will cause the fighting to instantly stop – not only saving the life of my friend but also the life of the person my friend is about to shoot (the one he is involved in a standoff with). This acknowledgment does not necessarily make my actions “more moral” as the person I am about to kill may have the same assumption, perhaps wrongly, about my friend. He is behaving in that way that seems moral to him. I suppose my position as a liberal is the innate ability to defend everyone on the battlefield if the opportunity arises. In my view, conservative thought has a genuine conflict with the Reconciliation Project – that attempt to marry prudence (self-interest) with morality. The Hobbesian (behaving morally is in the self’s best interest) conservative approach lacks the extra dimension to see the detail beyond one’s own horizon. The shooter only sees someone about to kill his friend and so acts in his own and his friends’ best interest. If the vision were available to him, he would make the same decision I am making. I argue that the liberal line of thinking slightly increases the horizon of possibility and so sees decisions that benefit all – even his or her political enemies.
The Ethical Objection to Dogma (addendum added to the podcast version)
In taking an ethicist’s approach to this podcast in particular, it dawns on me that most people think with their ethical caps on. Though I don’t think they take a moment to consider putting it on, it seems to take residence on their head without their even knowing it. Further, due to this loose relationship with the ethical perspective (and my loose relationship to this analogy), the hat doesn’t seem to be on straight.
This becomes an exercise in applied ethics, a field I am utterly ignorant of. Consider this section my dip in the pool of experience then. I imagine there are pits and fallacies that I can knowingly avoid and if I do in this argument, they are due primarily to some combination of luck and principled, rational thinking. I intend to be clear in my reasoning but leave open the possibility that my intellectual adolescence may show. Even so, I’d contend my position is still considerably further along than the layman – a layman whose collective personality includes aspects with an urge to say “stick to [insert successful profession here].” It occurs to me that people who say that have a strange logic to why they do it – though I doubt they are availing themselves willingly of that logic.
Which segues nicely into the approach of this section on dogma and its associated fanaticism. I contend that people are utilizing a system of ethical thinking and even go so far as to favor one system over another. Obviously, we’ve gotten to this point by establishing that insofar as political conversations go, liberals mostly stick to utilitarianism (with varying values applied to hedonistic calculus) and conservatives respond more naturally in the vein of care ethics. I think an exploration of how each system can be hijacked by dogmatism is necessary. But we should probably explore dogmatism first. It has been the bane of the philosopher since pre-history. Indeed, Aristotle’s first attempt at ethics – virtue theory – specifically identifies dogmatism as “not good enough.”
Dogmatism, in its most extreme form, is blind obedience. A common saying in western cultures in response to someone that “appeals to authority” (but Joe said it’s okay!) is an equally simple reductio ad absurdum (would you jump off a bridge if Joe said it was okay?). In this case, the person claiming an appeal to authority has surrendered any agency in ethical decision-making. The decision was made by the authority and you only need act in that way the authority commands. The ultimate appeal is known as “divine command theory” and is at the heart of all religious political machinations. Why is this illegal? Because God said so.
A name I’ve probably dropped three podcasts (or four) in a row now happens to think Christians (and other religious followers) are missing the point of the book. There’s a lot of truth in there about how you’re supposed to act. The stories aren’t meant to be taken literally but as guideposts for behavior. I’ll take a short detour to explain one parallel I think Dr. Jordan Peterson would agree with.
Astrology is a common punchline in academic circles and for mostly good reasons. People who read a daily horoscope and think it has any bearing on random chance through their day are confused or ignorant of how the universe functions. However, astrology shares a number of unique characteristics with the Bible. If you’re a Christian, please relax your outrage. The comparison is not meant to invite ridicule but to illustrate the basic principles housed in our cultural DNA and those principles have been honed and shared through the art of story-telling.
Take a look up at the night sky with a star chart or a friend that knows the constellations. They will have you spot things such as “The Great Bear” and “Orion the Hunter” and his trusty dog, Sirius. You’ll likely come to the conclusion that whomever named these things or connected these dots was clearly blind, drugged, or both. The bear, for instance, has a long tail. Orion’s sword dangles between his legs like a… and the dog has a super-bright eyeball and is shaped like any four-legged creature ever. Why is that a dog? What is that a hunter? What does that bear have a long tail like no bear in the history of ever? The answer is found at the dawn of agriculture and civilization – before the days of clocks or calendars.
I learned the first 20 elements of the periodic table by telling a story. An amazing TED Talk by Joshua Foer (one of my favorite) elucidates why – storytelling places objects within a space in our mind. The short crux of it is that language itself is limited. To borrow Joshua’s example, if you tell one person to remember a man named Baker and tell another to remember there’s a man who is a baker, you’ll find the second person (in a trial of hundreds) will be significantly more likely to remember the word baker. Why? Because you attached an image to it we can all see – bakers wear hats, are covered in flour, smell a certain way (I personally also see a moustache) – they are easier to remember. A name attached to a faceless person is hard to remember unless you use a memory technique like Joshua presents. Stories, however short or long, make sense to us and help us remember. So, too, are the stories that told farmers when to plant their seeds – or when to stop. Remember Orion? That constellation represents the hunter and the onset of winter. When the hunter greets you early in the night, it’s the time of year when the hunt must begin to store food for the non-growing season.
This will not be a treatise on the similarities between astrology and Christianity (12 apostles, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 months of the year).
Astrology was the further extrapolation of a series of ideas that worked (telling stories to time food-gathering strategies) and so were also used to notice tendencies of people born during certain times of year. It takes little imagination with an understanding of early childhood development to see how being born during a winter climate (to reiterate, thousands of years before the invention of air conditioning) could cause a baby to be cuddled more (and be more bundled in fragile early growth periods) and being born during a summer climate could also bring it a whole constellation (pun intended) of circumstances that could partially effect the baby’s and eventual adult’s temperament. Astrology has its roots in a rudimentary form of prehistorical psychology. The stars are just the markers under which things were classified, simple as they were. Dogmatism, the belief that the stars held literal power in bringing about flood or famine, is the enemy and we’re getting to the exploration of it soon.
While I contend that astrology was the progenitor to psychology, Dr. Peterson would contend that Christianity’s Bible and a small number of other religious texts are the true birthplace of psychology. Indeed, detailed readings of Karl Jung and his deep explorations of the subconscious mind sees many, many archetypical characters and fears play out in the biblical stories. If astrology is the basis of psychology, the Bible is the first attempt to crystallize it – when language and written history was in its absolute infancy. To further illustrate this point, we can look at vocabulary. If Hebrew, an ancient language that today is made up of many original words and some borrowed along the way, has approximately 35,000 unique words (becoming about twice as large with compound words or word-sets). English has around 170,000. Its likely during prehistorical times that the average person had a vocabulary much smaller than our current native speakers of any language (around 20,000 – 30,000 words). Imagine trying to explain in detail something as complicated as compound interest or love – with less than say, 140 characters?
What I hope to convey is the likely rational origins of the stories we hold in the utmost regard – the bible, the Sutras, the Tao Te Ching, the Quran. Each story, ancient as it is, likely contains powerful stories on how to act and the ability for us to remember these stories as stories is what makes them so compelling. This, by the way, isn’t a refutation of any of these religions. It is, in fact, a subtle defense of them. These are moral systems that, when adhered to symbolically, tend to create loving, peaceful people. One can make a strong argument that only those that seek power (and so claim their “divine right”) are able to subvert the original messages and get followers to read the text more literally – more dogmatically. This interpretation has for me, personally, been rather instructive in developing my more recent tolerance of religious doctrine. There’s a hint of truth that needs to be acknowledged, though I’m in the same breath warning against the tyranny of dogma. Following the stories to the letter is incompatible with life now and, I’d further argue, then as well.
So where does dogma fall on the ethical scale? Citing the simple example I gave earlier of your friend Joe and his approval of jumping off cliffs, it has no place in the discussion. That people still cling to dogmatic positions is problematic and I’m not entirely convinced there is a meaningful way to relax their grip on scripture. Perhaps the reason Catholics (now) are considerably less dogmatic is their priest’s homily – what was always my favorite part of mass. The homily represents the exact reason to worship – taking a complex and often confusing biblical story and distilling the message it represents into a modern, workable solution. If I were an information warfare merchant, I’d be attempting to slip a homily practice into every religious service. Not that far-fetched given how many have something similar enough.
Now if it seems that my crosshairs have been firmly trained on conservatives and their tendency for religion, it is time to turn the dogmatic table on liberals. They are as guilty though they worship at a different altar.
If we backtrack to the “astrology then Christianity then psychology” track of trying to understand the human theory of mind, we can add a fourth step but wedge it between theocracy and scientific theory. This step, formed in the Age of Enlightenment and forged for a few hundred years before history’s watchful eyes seems to have come part-and-parcel with ethical theory and that is modern liberal philosophy.
That people have to be reminded what a classical liberal is (I won’t do that much more here, but I do encourage you to read some definitive literature about it) is slightly disappointing. It’s essence can be distilled into the respect for each person’s inalienable natural rights and that morality is a greater ethic than prudence. This ethic and the utilitarian points I’ve made up to this point can be followed dogmatically and, given the open nature of hedonistic calculus and its subsequent effects on determining moral action, those dogmatic interpretations are truly devastating.
It’s one of the reasons the argument that “Stalin was an atheist” or “Hitler was an atheist” are so tiresome. Aside from being legitimately false in the case of Hitler, Stalin’s belief system being the polar opposite of Hitler’s and yet producing the same self-inflicted death upon his people should be the smoking gun to the cause of suffering in the world. If either ruler, in the exact same point in time, occupied literal polar opposite ends of the belief spectrum and still came to the same end-point, any argument on its cause being religiously-based is doomed to failure. It was, however, dogmatically-based.
Perhaps this is the best path forward in loosening the righteous grip of the dogmatic – an impartial comparison of the utterly irreligious and the devoutly religious performing the same terrible deeds on behalf of the state.
The terrible deeds of dogmatism do not translate into either proposed political ethical theory – and these are ethical theories that are overriding most of the religious (and secular) texts the dogmatists take. The New Testament seems fairly at-odds with a large portion of conservative attitudes toward the poor (Mark 10:17-31), immigrants (Matthew 25:31-46), and violence (Matthew 26:52). If, then, conservatives rally against the teachings of the one they propose to be their final judgment after they die, then clearly another ethic is in place. I again submit that any argument against any position by conservatives must inherit a consistency with care ethics if it is to take any rational hold in their minds. I further submit that it is a dogmatic commitment to care that better characterizes the conservative thinker; a passionate and unwavering connection to the people that are closest to them emotionally.
Similarly, the dogmatic defense of certain liberal principles, namely the need to “maximize the good,” must also characterize rational defenses against it. In liberal circles, “maximizing the good” has been interpreted to an equity of hedonism for all. Rather than raise all platforms to the level of the supreme good, it seems to have settled for a y-coordinate of equity irrespective of quality. That is to say, everyone should be on the same level whether that be several orders of magnitude better than average or a couple of notches above total misery. The historical experiments for equity have been so close to the latter that we neglect to let them run long enough to see if they are able to reach the former. I do, however, believe that a reacquaintance with their utilitarian principles is the most prudent course of action.
Prove that pulling other people down to your level doesn’t raise anyone higher.
The Ethics of Prayer
Perhaps a more obviously contentious issue between liberals and conservatives, however, is regarding the issue of prayer and the use of phrases like “thoughts and prayers” as a catch-all statement. I have often joked that in times of terrible tragedy, everyone becomes a public relations professional. Facebook has further added to this practice by creating inane temporary profile pictures to feed into this madness.
This section, if you’re a conservative, is not a free-for-all on your prayer practices during times of crisis. If you stay with me you’ll find it’s actually quite the contrary though it will come with some bitter aftertaste.
I’ll avoid the egocentric trip down memory lane to provide the backdrop of why my support of public prayer is a huge departure from years past. Suffice it to say, I was a militant atheist and often joined in the jeers and vitriol for people that offered prayers but no action after the latest preventable tragedy (I use preventable in the strictest sense – it is preventable though we disagree on how to prevent it). I will come back to why that position hasn’t actually changed considerably but the way the message is delivered has. You might say I’m embracing a little bit of nuance in how I approach these things.
Prayer has earned a bad reputation and social media certainly must bear a great deal of the blame for it. As a snapshot of statement from someone that does not share their beliefs, it appears they have done absolutely nothing but offer a promise of inaction. This is a supremely shallow way of accepting something that, given with proper care, is an enormously touching gift. If you’ll indulge a little emotional plea, I can explain.
This will come across as somewhat feminist but the messaging is universal. Handing someone an expensive, elaborate birthday card with 100 bucks in it has value, for certain. It sends a message that the sender clearly cares for the receiver. The message, however, increases several thousand-fold if there is a personal note inside the card. If the note inside is exceptionally long and seems to drag-on, that’s a bonus, too. This person put real, physical effort into crafting just the right card for you. If the message is shorter, however, but is deeply moving because it reaches a part of your soul that no one else seems to reach, it can be life-changing. I submit that the reason for this is because you realized the amount of mental effort required to pull this off. It’s one thing to drive several extra miles to find just the right flower and several additional stores to find just the right card. It’s quite another to stare blankly at the ceiling for hours trying to sum up what this person means to you. The card, unfortunately, is proof that this person cared enough about your well-being.
A prayer, as traditionally construed, offers no such proof. The act of saying “I’ll pray for you” offers only the potential promise that someone is thinking about you and what they can do to help you in a way they are not yet certain of. If done properly, it promises a grieving person a candid moment of emotional release. In a way, it communicates an acknowledgment of your pain and a willingness to listen. Even further, the person you’re referring to genuinely believes that a prayer reaches a being they hold in the utmost regard – and that being is aware of the need to lessen your suffering. Never mind your own belief for just one second. If someone does believe, it is an enormously powerful thing.
The bitter aftertaste, for those of you offering prayers, is the manner in which the offer of prayer is delivered. As one of my idols Eddie Izzard so eloquently points out, the more important part of speaking is how you look and sound, not what you say. The almost flippant nature with which the promise of prayers comes out – thrown out in a tweet or Facebook post to anyone in particular – is deeply disingenuous and, I contend, the actual nature of the response from anti-theists.
To be honest, I see psychosis from both sides in both the offering and the shouting down of prayer. As with so many things in our society in modern times, the message is lost in the minutiae. If I may finish off this philosophical essay with the opportunity to pontificate, allow me these final thoughts:
To Christians – the act or promise of prayer is a powerful one in your tradition. So powerful, in fact, that doing it in public can be seen as a form of bragging. If you do not wish to take this criticism from me, then I implore you to review Matthew 6:5-8. The lesson is a powerful one and applies to many more public acts.
To Critics – The anti-theist holds a position of rational superiority as the basis for his non-belief. Most have often spent a great deal of time examining the realities of the world and arriving at a well-thought conclusion that refutes any explanation of reality dependent upon a deity. In your moments of rational criticism of the theist mind, please find time to prove your way of life is, in fact, a better one. You do so by applying your rational morale. I find it difficult to fathom that the best use of time immediately following a tragedy is virtue-signaling and ridiculing those that are attempting to help the aggrieved mourn.
The Path Forward
To tie a nice evolutionary bow on the entire package, I feel the best way forward is first to acknowledge our inherent tribalism. To quote a very wise man, once you’ve pinpointed a problem, the next step is washing it out. Our tribalism and the base-level need to find a group to identify with (Christian, liberal, atheist, conservative, pro-gun, anti-gun) drives our behavior on a subconscious level. Nothing we say or do is productive in this space. We resort to finding a team and forming ranks to protect it. The other group becomes “them.”
Once we have found a way to raise ourselves out of the animal muck we are faced with the difficult and sobering task of looking each other in the eye and figuring out what makes the other person tick. Then you have to look yourself in the mirror and honestly do the same thing. It is only when we spot our common humanity that the real solutions flow. If you are looking for your congress people to do that when you can’t do it yourself, I feel the solutions will be rushed, short-lived, and will only maximize our frustration.
The above are clearly illustrated in classical philosophical tradition. The first, to rise above our base-level tribalism, is to acknowledge the utility of reason and how it alone is what makes the well-being of humans superior to the well-being of other creatures. This is not to say that animals should not be considered for well-being but rather that our capacity for suffering is much greater and so greater care must be considered. Second, to understand your opponent’s (or interlocutor’s) position, you must be able to rephrase their argument in such a way that they either a) completely agree with it or b) find your re-worded summary superior to their own. Third, you must examine your own positions. This includes the rationale behind your morals and what actions must be taken to fulfill those morals. This step often includes natural actions you’ve engaged in before, to further instruct your actual moral position.
When you have performed this careful dance of logic, you can be better prepared for how to arrive at an answer that is true, respectful of all parties, ethical, and consistent with your moral goals.