Thursday, September 7, 2017

Hopes and Dreamers: DACA and the Purpose of Morality

With the fates of 800,000 DACA applicants on the line, I wonder if it’s a good time for Americans to reflect on the moral issues at stake in this situation. These days people on either side of the political spectrum tend think the other side is simply amoral. But that’s usually not true (even if a few on both sides really are amoral). Most people on different sides of the political spectrum actually think morals (or ethics, I’ll use the words interchangeably) are crucially important, but they think of morality in fundamentally different terms. The words “morality” and “ethics” mean something very different to conservatives than to liberals. This isn’t just my opinion--there’s a lot of psychological research to back this up.

The DACA issue highlights these different ways of thinking about ethics or morality. For example, you’ll hear many liberals (including me) and moderate conservatives saying that Dreamers did nothing wrong. They were brought here by their parents, they had no choice in the matter, and often barely remember the country they came from. But you’ll hear other conservatives saying, “The law is the law. They’re here illegally.” For them, that’s the critical moral fact. These folks may actually believe that morality requires that Dreamers be deported. They’re not trying to be evil (how many people really try to be evil?) As hard as it is for liberals like me to imagine, most are actually trying to do the right thing, within their moral framework.

But a lot of pain in this world has been inflicted by people trying to do the right thing--that’s why it’s so important to consider carefully what the right thing actually is. So let’s do that. If different sides are framing morality in such different terms, then maybe it would be helpful to lay these different approaches on the table and compare them. To put it another way, maybe this is a good time for Americans to think about what morality is fundamentally about. What’s the stuff actually for? What’s the point of being moral or ethical in the first place?

I once spent a couple of years reading everything I could about ethical theories, but I finally realized that for me, ethics boils down to something very close to the Golden Rule: treat others as I would want them to treat me. When in doubt about the right thing to do (and there’s often doubt) err on the side of compassion. As I see it, the fundamental fact that even makes ethics necessary is that other people have feelings. They have pleasures and pains, and hopes and dreams, just like I do, and theirs are just as intense as mine. I can’t prove that, but I think it’s an extremely safe assumption. (I should also say I’m not that good at following the Golden Rule, but I should be, and this is why I think so.)

Anyway, if ethics is fundamentally about the fact that other people have hopes and feelings, the next question is: who should I treat ethically? My answer is: anyone capable of pleasure and pain, and hopes and dreams. In other words, any human being (and many animals, too, but that’s another topic). That means how I treat someone shouldn’t depend on what language they speak, or what God they do or don’t pray to, or what country they were born in, or live in now. Those things don’t matter. What matters is that they are human, and have feelings and hopes just as intense as mine.

Some people will be reading all this and shaking their heads, because again, many Americans fundamentally disagree with my view of what morality is about. For them, morality is about other things: maybe it’s about following rules or laws scrupulously, or purity in sex or language. Maybe it’s about doing what they believe God wants, or making sure people get the rewards or punishments they deserve (an eye for an eye, etc.). For many people, a crucial component of morality is in-group loyalty: watching out for “your” people, and being suspicious of others. They actually see that as the right thing to do. Again, that's hard for liberals to remember, so we risk falling into the intellectually-lazy habit of thinking they are simply amoral.

Of course, not all conservatives think in these “if you’re not one of my people, you matter less” terms, but many on the far right do, and it’s not hard to find examples. Not long ago a guy told me he would rather see a million foreigners die than one American. A million! I’ve heard similar sentiments all my life. They’re not uncommon. And for some people with that outlook, it’s a pretty narrow group that counts as an American. You can see this if you drive down the interstate and see those motel billboards that have the little Christian fish on them, or say “American-owned”. That’s to tell travelers that the motel isn’t owned by immigrants with non-English accents and “foreign” religions. It doesn’t matter that those immigrants are most likely naturalized citizens who therefore ARE Americans, every bit as much as I am. They don’t match some people’s image of what an American is, and very often that means they don’t get the same moral consideration. They’re seen as “other”, and you better believe that makes a difference in how some people treat them.

But the fact is, most people have trouble empathizing with people who are different from them (I’ve already noted how hard it is for liberals like me to remember most conservatives believe they are doing the right thing.) Maybe it just requires more imagination to put ourselves in such different shoes, or maybe it’s human nature. Everyone does it, to some extent. But for some on the right (notice I didn’t say “all”) that basic human tendency is something to be embraced. They think it’s just self-evident that “our people” deserve more moral consideration than “others”. They also tend to think rules or laws should be followed scrupulously even if they cause human suffering.

I think both of these assumptions need to be seriously questioned, because they’ve both caused an enormous amount of pain in this world. That’s why I think people need to stop and ask themselves something they may never have asked before: what is morality really about? Why be moral at all? What if the reason rules and laws exist in the first place isn’t for their own sake, but for the sake of making the world a nicer place to live in; to make societies more conducive to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? And what if all people are, in fact, created equal? What if whether you should treat someone decently doesn’t depend on whether they are “your people”, but whether they’re human beings with hopes, dreams, and feelings? Because that’s exactly what they are, and the hopes and dreams of 800,000 human beings are riding on how people answer these important moral questions.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Thoughts on Ideological Purity

A couple of times recently I've heard the phrase "ideological purity", and thought, "That's really what some people want, isn't it?" Part of the reason our country is so polarized, I think, is that there are vocal minorities on both sides of the political spectrum who insist on ideological purity. They have an orthodoxy, and they try to enforce it. They view moderate and independent members of their own party as heretics (or at least dangerously lapsed), and they view the other party as infidels and villains so irredeemable that it's a waste of time to engage with them.

On the far right is a vocal minority that refuses to compromise on anything, and attacks more moderate conservatives, calling them "Republicans in Name Only" or even "cuckservatives". Or they accuse them of being slaves to political correctness. 


Which brings us to the far left. While some conservatives have distorted the meaning of political correctness beyond recognition, and claim they're "not bowing to political correctness" when they're really just being rude or hateful, some on the left really do insist on a rigid form of political correctness. It is an orthodoxy, and they do try to enforce it. After all, the literal meaning of the words "politically correct" implies that there's a political viewpoint--and manner of speaking--which is indisputably the "correct" one. We've all seen the conservative speakers shouted down on liberal campuses, and even "ideologically impure" liberal professors have been targeted for their heresies. And have you noticed there's a whole genre of articles circulating on social media entitled "Why You Need to Stop Saying ________."?

Some on the far left really do try to tell others, across the political spectrum, exactly how they should be thinking and speaking. It may be worse on the left than the right, and I say that as a moderate liberal. Even as I write this, I'm wondering who will be offended by it, and whether they will write me off as a heretic. Do moderate conservatives have similar fears?

In any case, I think there are many problems with these attempts to enforce orthodoxy. One is that more moderate and independent types on both sides (who are actually the majority) are afraid to speak their minds, not for fear of being attacked by the other side, but for fear of being attacked by the orthodox wing of their own side. So there's fragmentation and bad blood within as well as between political parties, and the country grows more fragmented and dysfunctional. 

But there's another problem with ideological orthodoxy that I want to focus on here, and it is this: Once you declare that one particular stance on an issue cannot be wrong, and should not be questioned, you have stopped reasoning about that issue. And once you declare that others can't question an ideology, you've said that they must stop reasoning, too. People with rigid ideologies may still be "thinking", in the sense of spending mental energy defending or elaborating that ideology, but if there is no possibility of changing their ideology, they aren't really reasoning. Because the whole point of reasoning is to discover truths you didn't already know. Isn't it?

And chances are, there's a lot we don't already know. What are the chances that either extreme on the political spectrum (which is an artificial construct anyway) in this particular country, at this particular time in history, has finally got it figured out? Not very high, if you ask me. The universe is far bigger and more complex than our little primate brains can easily grasp. I have undergraduate and graduate degrees in psychology, and if there's one clear lesson to be learned from psychology it's that the human mind is easily fooled. Our senses are woefully limited, and we fall prey to dozens of different perceptual illusions, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies. As a species, our ability to see the world clearly is so pitiful that for most of human history we didn't know the shape of the planet we spent every day of our lives on. We were so sure it was flat that we attacked the people who said it wasn't. We probably burned a few at the stake for it.

We know more now, of course (and we're slightly more tolerant of opposing views). There are things we can be confident of, but they're mostly things which can be empirically verified. We're confident enough now that the world is round, for example, that we can call it a fact. But most ideologies aren't entirely, or even mostly, factual. They're full of opinions about complex systems like economies and social dynamics that can't easily be pinned down empirically, as well as value judgments and ethical stances that may never be empirically testable. But you wouldn't know this when talking to the ideologically orthodox on both sides of the the political spectrum. They sound for all the world like they're talking about established facts, when they're usually just expressing opinions and forgetting the difference. (I've been guilty of this myself, of course).

And perhaps we can be confident of some things we can't really call facts. As I stop and think this over (that's the main reason I write these--to clarify my thoughts), I suppose there are some moral opinions that we can be pretty confident in, too. We can be confident that murder, rape, and slavery are wrong, for example--confident enough to enforce legal penalties against them. But these are clear cases that most people agree on, whereas many of the opinions people express as though they were facts really are just opinions, and not ones that most people can agree on. 

So here's the question I want to ask people at both far ends of the political spectrum: Are you really that sure that your opinions are right? So sure that you can stop reasoning about them? So sure that you can tell others to stop questioning and reasoning as well? Should anybody be THAT confident in their opinions?

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Sagan's Dust Mote: An Evening Reflection

Tonight I sat on my couch just as the evening sun was streaming through my west window, and I noticed a few dust particles glowing and dancing in the light. It made me think of Carl Sagan's famous reflection comparing the Earth to "a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam."

His comparison was inspired by a photo of the Earth taken by the Voyager 1 space probe in 1990, just as it was leaving the solar system. That's it, in the image I've posted here. That little dot in the band of light at the top is Earth, as it looks from beyond the orbit of Neptune. The "sunbeams" are actually bands of refracted sunlight created by the camera's optics, but that's a justifiable bit of poetic license. After all, Earth really is suspended in sunlight.

As I watched the dust motes in my living room swirling in that same sunlight, I thought about Sagan's comparison, and wondered how accurate it was. Is our whole world--the home of every known living thing--really that tiny? To find out, I did some figuring. I'll spare you the math and skip to the results--I think you'll find them impressive.

Imagine the Earth really were the size of one of those dust particles floating in my living room--a big one; about 30 millionths of a meter across. That speck of dust would be about 15 inches from the sun, which would be about the size of a BB. Neptune would be orbiting that BB at a distance of about 37 feet.

And the nearest star? It would be 63 miles away.

That's about the average distance between all the 100 billion or so stars in the Milky Way galaxy. If Earth were a speck of dust, the Milky Way would still be over a million miles across. And that's just one galaxy, in a universe filled with uncountable galaxies.

It seems, then, that Carl Sagan wasn't exaggerating at all. If anything, he was being too generous. On the scale of the stars, our planet is unimaginably tiny--a little speck of nothing. And yet, it's not nothing; not to us. But don't listen to me. Listen to Dr. Sagan, because he said it better than I ever could:
Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar", every "supreme leader", every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. 
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. 
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. 
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand. 
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.