After this post, I hope to leave off religion and politics for a while. I’m a liberal and liberal apologist but also a philosophical conservative, meaning I’m more into Adam Smith than Karl Marx, more into Plato and Lao Tzu than Nietzsche. But don’t let me do your homework, please. Read widely.
I’m bugged by the logical fallacies and dissembling self-described liberals engage in. When we stray from logic and the facts, we give our opponents ammunition, end up being unfair, and generally sabotage the whole project of making the world better.
First off, I think we need to regard conservatives as dialog partners and not our enemies. Conservatism is good where it consolidates the hard-won gains of civilization on which to build more and better civilization. Liberalism is good where it opens us up to badly needed new ideas. Conservatism has the longer tradition and is an easier fit with our evolved cognitive biases, but politics needs to move forward, and the best foundation for that movement is the flexible Golden Rule of doing as you wish to be done by and a skeptical, scientific worldview that constantly revisits our assumptions. The universe has some hard laws and cold equations, but naive conservatism just won’t do. The map is not the territory. Laws need interpretation, and they need to change when society changes.
I’m a liberal because we have real injustice to fight, and science and technology have opened up new opportunities for making the world a better place, to challenge our old assumptions about how to share wealth and negotiate gender roles.
But liberal philosophy as widely promulgated needs a housecleaning.
Atheism and Moral Relativism
We should not pretend that atheism is a substitute for religion. It’s not. We should not pretend that religion serves no purpose. It does. Religion is a formal practice of values, and establishes the moral axioms of civilization. The instincts can’t fill this role. We should not pretend that human nature and the instincts are inherently good. They aren’t. What’s natural is neither inherently good nor bad.
I really enjoy listening to the New Atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. They’re great at attacking morbid religious literalism, and they do it with an even hand. But a project to spread atheism on its social merits really is absurd if you think about it. Atheism is a value-neutral position.
You’re an atheist in the same way that you’re someone who hasn’t visited Albuquerque, or Neverland if you like. Atheism is simply having no experience of God or gods. If atheism led to bad things, would you somehow become a theist? Maybe, but then you need to ask yourself if your “atheism” is really a political, or even religious, position.
Let’s not pretend atheism is a moral position one way or the other. At this point, I anticipate someone will say, “Hold on, I arrived at atheism by logic. I hold that logic is a good thing, and therefore standing up for atheism is standing up for logic. So atheism is not value-neutral.” But logic is itself value-neutral. You must have some moral axioms on which to base your logic. There is no compulsion in logic itself to favor what is good or bad. Eventually, you need to take an irreducible position, like even Sam Harris does when he says that universal good is the opposite of universal suffering. He invites people to imagine a situation where everyone suffers the worst suffering imaginable, and he says that what is good is movement away from that suffering. This is a decent position from which you can make logical arguments. But it’s also a position that is axiomatic, and, I dare say, religious.
I am not picking a fight with atheism here. And, anyway, how can you pick a fight with a neutral part of someone’s personal experience or lack thereof — with something that isn’t even a belief — unless you’re trying to convert them to your religion? I do not try to convert people to religion, but we need to understand religion and its function within society. By acting on our imagination, religion pits the instincts against each other to help us get along. It promotes our capacities for building civilization, like altruism and self-control. It’s not the same as superstition, but it often leans on superstition. See this article on cognitive biases and religion and my post “Born Religious.”
There’s a popular quote by Penn Gillette that’s often shared around on one graphic or another: “The question I get asked by religious people all the time is, without God, what’s to stop me from raping all I want? And my answer is: I do rape all I want. And the amount I want is zero. And I do murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero. The fact that these people think that if they didn’t have this person watching over them that they would go on killing, raping rampages is the most self-damning thing I can imagine.” (I’m suspicious of Gillette’s framing — that religious people really say “all I want” — but let’s take his word for it that people really pose the question to him this way.)
Seems reasonable, but if you take the implications very far, you run into the naturalistic fallacy where you equate what is natural with what is good. Gillette insinuates that as a healthy individual, he naturally has no desire to rape or murder. His natural instincts are good, and presumably his audience’s are too, because he expects them to be receptive. But instincts are neither good nor bad, as I’ve argued before in other posts. It’s how we handle our instincts that involve us in good and evil. And there’s no instinct ordering the other instincts. Socialization defines what is good. How do we address the real problems of rape and murder? The appeal to instinct does not work.
For most of us at most times, it is natural to be altruistic and to refrain from casual violence, but unless we do so out of principle, we are not actively being good, just operating within our comfort zone. We have to actively insist that altruism and forbearance are “good,” not because they are easy and natural, but because sometimes they are hard.
If you are a conservative reading this and basking in your confirmation bias that the “liberal mind” is weak, then you’re overlooking a lot of hypocrisy. Conservative Christians have attacked my statements about evolution using the naturalistic fallacy, claiming that if evolution is true, then the Nazis had a point with their race-cleansing and eugenics. No, the theory of evolution does not prescribe any moral position. Scientific facts in and of themselves are not moral positions. We all need to forswear the tortuous logic that tries to make them moral positions.
Political Versus Objective Mode of Discourse
We should not pretend that all discussions are political.
Politics is about negotiating power. Some liberals would have you believe that no one ever opens their mouth except to negotiate power. This is wrong. There is what I call an objective mode of discourse, among others. This is the mode that teaching should be about. It’s the mode of exploring facts and imparting knowledge. In the objective mode, you don’t have any agenda except to learn, or at least you keep the discussion clean of agenda, even if you’re secretly gathering facts for some ulterior purpose.
Back in college, I was taking a literary critical theory class taught by a visiting professor from Brown University. Over several weeks, I began to peg him as trying to indoctrinate us. It all came to a head for me when he declared, “Every categorical statement is political.”
Everyone else seemed to lap this up, and I said, “Including that one!”
He got angry, and shouted, “Bob, there are real problems that need to be solved out there!” (And he clearly was not out there solving them.)
What I should have said to his statement that all categorical statements are political is that there’s a mode of discourse other than the political: the objective mode, which is truth-seeking and scientific. His statement implied there was no objectivity at all, and that the truth was subordinate to its uses. At that point, he really had ceased to teach and was indoctrinating.
The political mode is not wrong in itself — this essay is in the political mode, not the objective — and I’d be lying if I said I never get partisan. For example, I argue capitalism has overreached with wealth inequality and we need a serious correction, with higher taxes on the wealthy and stronger measures to keep money out of politics. I argue we need tougher laws to help change gun culture. I’m political about these things. I admit there’s another side to these issues, even a valid side, but I still take a stand.
The political mode recruits some facts and ignores or downplays others. Since its goal is social-norming if not actual legislation, it is going to put the hurt on someone. That’s okay if it’s honest. Civilization requires we spread costs around, but it doesn’t require we willfully deceive people about the costs.
Facts are not subjective; the idea of facts is really not up for debate. The scientific method is not valid in one culture and invalid in another. Holding facts to be subjective is a totalitarian position. I didn’t come up with this formulation on my own. George Orwell observed the same thing when he had Winston Smith say, “Freedom is the freedom to say that 2+2 = 4.” It’s what Hans Christian Andersen was saying, in part, with “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”
To be a liberal, you don’t have to insist that the political mode is the only one out there, or that the truth is a white, Western, patriarchal conceit. I’d argue just the opposite. To be a liberal, you respect the scientific method, which depends on observation and testing to discover pre-existing facts.
The Politics of Race and Gender and “Privilege”
We should not prejudge people based on their race and gender, yet many self-described liberals have formulated ways to rationalize this behavior. Instead of using identity politics to attack prejudice, we use it to promote prejudice with concepts that depend on mind-reading. It’s a mistake to shift focus from attacking obvious injustice to attacking people’s privilege, because we don’t always know people’s situation or even if we do, we don’t know how that situation impacts their thinking. Sure we can look for evidence of “privilege” in what they say, but this is rarely a rigorous, scientific exercise. Are they really speaking from privilege or are we just projecting our own issues?
The concept of “privilege” is a mess.
Imagine that you’re a white woman happily married to a non-white man or the doting white parent of a non-white child and you get in an argument to defend someone accused of being a racist. If your opponent is a nominal liberal who doesn’t know that you take race issues personally, there’s a good chance they’ll try to hit you over the head with “white privilege.” Your identity as a white person is assumed to taint your sensibilities, and that’s not always fair.
Conservatives know this very well, and conservative or not, people remember when someone unfairly accuses them of arguing from a privileged position. I happen to be neutral in the Hillary vs. Bernie debates. I think Hillary Clinton is a fine presidential candidate, but I’ve seen it widely claimed that liberals who support Bernie against Clinton are misogynists. This news must generate a lot of angst among Bernie supporters who were feminists in good standing up till now.
Identity politics only make sense when they’re used to attack prejudice, not when they’re used to promote it. If you view someone as an emissary for their race or gender before you get to know them, you’re being prejudiced. It’s that simple.
Negatively prejudging a white individual for their whiteness can be racist. Negatively prejudging a man because he’s a man can be sexist. It’s a nonstarter to claim otherwise.
Of course, prejudice isn’t always wrong. If a big, strange dog walks toward you down the street, shouldn’t you consider it a potential threat? If a man walks toward you down the street, shouldn’t you be more wary than if a woman is walking toward you, given that men are more likely to physically assault people? Sure. But in a debate, we can only judge people based on what they actually say, which is why the over-application of “mansplaining,” for instance, is so infuriating. The term is useless unless it means more than explaining something while being a man. It’s useless even if it means being condescending while being a man. It seems to me that its only proper use is to criticize a man for trying to explain a woman’s own experience of womanhood to her.
Whatever the topic, when a man holds forth among women in a patronizing or even socially insensitive way he might be “mansplaining” and exercising male privilege. And, yes, being an oblivious blowhard is more typical of males than females, but this use of “mansplaining” is subjective and better characterized as condescension or hogging the floor. In any case, an accusation of mansplaining isn’t likely to move a conversation forward.
The Cultural Construction of History and Biological Drives
We should not pretend that the instincts do not influence human behavior, that the sexes are psychologically homogeneous, and that biology and the environment didn’t oblige us to assume certain sex roles. Any fool can see it just ain’t true.
We are a social species, and our culture influences our behavior, no doubt, but it does so by pitting the instincts against each other, getting us to see consequences. Biology does not always determine our actions, but it does influence them to various degrees, from near compulsory to just a bit. This should be a reasonable position to hold, but for much nominally liberal philosophy, it doesn’t seem to be.
History is not merely a record of arbitrary power relations. There’s a great deal of plain physics and math involved. Let’s state the obvious about gender roles. Women bear children, and up until fairly recently women frequently died in childbirth and most children did not survive to adulthood. A woman had to have half a dozen children, on average, just to maintain the population, and without modern conveniences, bearing and raising children was a full-time job that needed support from the tribe, especially from men.
The gender roles of patriarchy were never wholly arbitrary. Even where food was plentiful, predators few, and the climate mild, people faced threats from competing tribes. Patriarchies would out-compete those who experimented with other gender roles. Men hunted the game and fought the battles. Women were too valuable in their capacity as mothers to always be doing this. Sure there could be exceptions, but necessity dictated the general breakdown of roles.
These are hard facts about the past. But like all facts, they are value-neutral. There is nothing inherently proper about these facts, and thanks to modern medicine and labor-saving technologies, thanks to the peace dividend that exempts most men from war, we can renegotiate gender roles. Men don’t have it as rough as they used to, and women shouldn’t either, at least in the West.
Some of patriarchy’s former strengths have become weaknesses. The population is grown, and women can now participate more in building and governing society. The strong economies of the West owe a great debt to women in the workplace. In the modern world, patriarchy squanders the capacities of women. Whether gender equality will now win out for the first time in history is an open question. There is always a threat that it will be out-competed by population-growth strategies that want to return us to the old cycle of baby-making and warring conflict. And insofar as it doesn’t make allowance for replacement-level baby-making by supporting families, it’s a regressive meme.
It does not help to define gender as purely a cultural construct or patriarchy as some arbitrary insidious force that brainwashes people from birth. Such positions drag us all down in the long term, just like all half-truths do.
For one thing, it’s clearly not true that the sexes are psychologically homogeneous. And because the concept not only doesn’t fit people’s daily experience and intuitions but is contradicted by scientific study, it’s not the platform to stand on when arguing for social policy.
I am not a Men’s Rights Activist, and I’m completely against anyone who advocates for men by attacking women as a group. I believe that we as a species have a long way to go to eliminate arbitrary, destructive patriarchy, and I think we must if we’re going to survive. The earth has reached carrying capacity, and because of technology, war is now an existential threat. Yes, we need humanist advocacy for people in general, but we also need advocacy for women as women and men as men. I think gender politics in the West are deplorable, but sometimes necessary, not because men and women are psychologically and biologically the same, but precisely because they have different needs that must be fairly negotiated.
I’ve been watching the videos of Karen Straughan, a self-described anti-feminist (again, not a position I hold). A few of my close male friends refuse to watch her. One says that she seems combative and her arguments one-sided. Another doesn’t like the men she’s aligned herself with. Fair enough, but her arguments are also cogent and well-packaged, and I think they deserve engagement.
Here is one of her videos on objectification. She argues that differences in male and female feelings about objectification are not so much rational as rooted in evolved cognitive biases. Her language is not polite, and she’s very definitely arguing in a political mode, so if you’re not up for that, skip the link and read on.
Straughan claims that our evolved objectification biases are now diametrically opposed to the relative risks we incur. Objectification by the wrong man threatens women on a deep visceral level because in the ancestral environment, sex was much more dangerous for women than men, whereas objectification by the wrong woman was not much of a threat to a man; but now with birth control and other technologies and with laws requiring men to support children, it is men for whom sex is most risky. Both men and women need to treat their emotions with skepticism and avoid projecting their own attitudes toward sex on the other gender. Just because we evolved a mental orientation is no reason to indulge it. Biological drives are not inherently good, and there’s no sense arguing that they are.
On the other hand, while I agree with what Straughan observes, the picture is complicated. For one thing, women who are objectified still run the risk of attracting a dangerous man who will not back off, and men do tend to be more sexually aggressive and dangerous than women. If the West were truly an unjust patriarchy, the law would side with harassers and rapists against women who dress sexy, and that does not generally seem to be the case. However, patriarchal attitudes still exist in the West, and and are still negotiated in law and in how laws are enforced.
If we hope to move beyond the footing of constant reproduction and war that has characterized the past and has become an existential threat, we need women’s concerns to be strongly represented. Women have new privileges in sexual advertising, and men just have to exercise more restraint. Yes, we should keep in view that socialization cannot erase the underlying drives, but that’s not an argument in favor of patriarchy. It’s just the truth, and the truth makes no arguments. We don’t need to pretend that instincts are just a social construct. We can still argue for strong laws and censures to curb men’s behavior. Again, what is good is not good because it’s natural and easy; civilization actually requires effort.
In the long run, dissembling with half-truths only hurts liberal agendas. You’ve probably encountered the argument that rape is a crime of violence and has nothing to do with sex. It sounds reasonable. What right-minded man would rape? Or woman for that matter? None. But however much this half-truth about rape and violence serves to get men — in particular — to examine and rein in their sexual behavior, it undermines the credibility of whoever spreads it. One of my friends shared with me a devastating take-down that he attributes to cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker: “If rape is only a crime of violence and never about sex, then sex is the one thing that men want that they will never use violence to get.” “Rape never has anything to do with sex” is just not true, and it doesn’t need to be true for us to condemn rape.
A gender feminism that discounts evo-psych hypotheses out of hand is not a liberal position, nor is it the only feminist one. To promote gender equality, we don’t need the idea of patriarchy as an arbitrary yet somehow mind-controlling fog.
The Blank Slate
Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate describes how arguments that discount the role of biology in human psychology can go too far, and have arguably gone too far in liberal discourse and in academics. Most liberals will admit we have evolved modes of perception and cognitive biases. After all, it’s clear that babies come equipped with neural circuits for seeing faces, and studies on brain-damaged people reveal much about how the physical brain organizes experience. Still, those same people often take philosophical positions that depend on blank-slate assumptions.
I recommend The Blank Slate and Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel to everyone who wants to better understand humans and history and to confront racism and sexism with logical rigor.
Politics is about the negotiation of power, and negotiating power is not strictly logical. Every political interest group is susceptible to playing loose with logic and for prolonging battles past the point of fairness. In the long run, it’s best for the health of our liberal politics for us to be logical and reject expedient ploys.