Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Why All Moralities Are Not Equal, Redux

Today brings the news that Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania has just switched from a Republican to a Democrat. He said that his former party has simply moved away from the center, leaving him more closely aligned with the Democrats. Hmmm. Perhaps this will please not only the Dems but the Republican base, as well. After all, they are the champions of the morality of "purity". Doesn't the departure of a member who did not hew to a strict conservative line leave their party more pure than it was yesterday? Sounds like a win-win to me.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Why All Moralities Are Not Equal

In an article published by Alternet titled, Conservatives Live in a Different Moral Universe--And Here's Why It Matters, Tom Jacobs expounds upon the morality theories of psychologist Jonathan Haidt to the effect that the problem with liberals is that we fail to understand--and, therefore, discount--the moral values of conservatives when making our cases for our favorite policies. In the article, Jacobs, quoting from Dan McAdams, Northwestern University research psychologist and noted author, describes the "five foundational moral impulses" as follows:

  • Harm/care: It is wrong to hurt people; it is good to relieve suffering.
  • Fairness/reciprocity: Justice and fairness are good; people have certain rights that need to be upheld in social interactions.
  • In-group loyalty: People should be true to their group and be wary of threats from the outside. Allegiance, loyalty, and patriotism are virtues; betrayal is bad.
  • Authority/respect: People should respect social hierarchy; social order is necessary for human life.
  • Purity/sanctity: The body and certain aspects of life are sacred. Cleanliness and health, as well as their derivatives of chastity and piety, are all good. Pollution, contamination, and the associated character traits of lust and greed are all bad.
According to Haidt (and I don't think many folks on the right or left would vehemently disagree), liberals tend to feel strongly about the first two in the list but often feel cold or even negatively about the last three. Further, Haidt argues that his studies have indicated that conservatives are drawn to loyalty, authority, and purity--thought of as outdated or backward by liberals--while acknowledging the importance of preventing harm and being fair.

The article by Jacobs began with him telling a story about Haidt--how, though a liberal himself, he would fly almost into a rage over bumper stickers on "Volvos" such as, "Support Our Troops: Bring them home!" or "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism." What upset Haidt was that, in his view, liberals were thus being disingenuous for claiming to be patriotic or supporting our troops when we were, in fact, being critical of our government because our moral system doesn't value loyalty to nations.

Well, gee, we ARE talking about a bumper sticker! I don't see a lot of balancing of competing moralities on conservative's bumper stickers, either. (America: Love It or Leave It! comes to mind.)

The issue here isn't really bumper stickers. It's whether or not the five moralities which Haidt describes--and for which he believes it is incumbent upon liberals to account--are all equal. If there are moralities among the list which can lead--inevitably--to the diminution of any of the others, then we should not pay as much homage to those. I would argue that, if history has anything worthwhile to teach, it is that a morality based upon the word "should" should (irony intended) be taken with a grain of salt.

Example 1: In-group loyalty. I see this brand of morality as virtually worthless as a moral compass. In fact, I would say that it is greatest force for evil in the world (unless your cousins in a strange city insist that you attend a football game with them and not rooting for their team would jeopardize family ties (another questionable, but arguably discretionary, loyalty)). If you doubt what I am saying, let me remind you that Hitler was really, really big on in-group loyalty--as are the Taliban, the Mafia, and others of that ilk. Unless you're talking about Nobel Peace Prize winners, almost all in-groups have nothing at all to do with moral meritocracy; they are about circumstances over which the individual members have absolutely no control and have few requirements for membership beyond happenstance.

Let me say, as forcefully as I can, that I do believe in patriotism. But it is a patriotism based upon merit and not "My country, right or wrong!" This is why liberalism is morally superior to conservatism. In fact, the Jacobs article admits as much when he quotes Dallas Morning News columnist and BeliefNet blogger, Rod Dreher, "an Orthodox Christian, unorthodox conservative, and Haidt fan" as saying, "Look how horribly the GOP had to screw up [during the Bush II years] to alienate many conservatives. In the end, the GOP, the conservative movement and the nation [emphasis added] would have been better served had we on the right not been so yellow-dog loyal. But, as Haidt shows, it's in our nature [emphasis added]."

Here's the question I would have for Mr. Haidt: Should liberals pay lip service or make any kind of concessions (other than the merely semantic ones) to people who cling foolishly to their senseless false morality that places personal vanity and pride over the welfare of the country?

Example 2: Authority/respect. I believe that most all liberals have a full measure of deference to authority. After all, we seem to be just as successful at business and non-profit enterprises as conservatives. Obama ran a superlative and very successful campaign with his staff stuffed with liberals. His White House seems to run in a tight and disciplined manner. As far as I know, FDR was a pretty good manager and his staff got the job done as he wished.

I think the difference between liberals and conservatives might be that liberals seek to work for people that they admire; respect must be earned. I would guess that conscientious objectors tend to be liberals. Those Germans, Austrians, Poles, Danes, and Dutch who harbored Jews from the clutches of the Nazis were probably liberals. Most of them were not Jews themselves. (What does that say about the morality of in-group loyalty?) Liberals know when the righteous bounds of authority have been breached and it is time to withhold respect. Would there be any whistleblowers without liberals? Would we have known about My Lai?

Robert Oppenheimer worked diligently on the atomic bomb and contributed a great deal toward the success of that project. Yet, he spent the rest of his life, much of it black-balled, because he regretted what he had done and sought to put an end to proliferation. Oppenheimer was a liberal who did his duty to country, despite his personal morality that valued "do no harm" more. It nearly destroyed him.

Example 3: Purity/sanctity. As Jacobs admits in his piece, the notion of purity has been, since the early 1900's and the advances in science and medicine and to quote a noted conservative in the Bush II Justice Department in an entirely different context, made "quaint". As Jacobs suggests, it is most likely to rear its pugnacious head in defense of one of Haidt's least favorite human characteristics--disengenuousness (remember his bumper sticker diatribe). To argue that gay marriage--one of Haidt's examples of this morality coming into play--somehow taints the purity of the institution of marriage or the family is like saying that allowing African-Americans full citizenship will destroy Western civilization. It really isn't about "purity" or "sanctity" at all. It's back to the old, rotten-to-the-core idea of in-group morality. The "institution" of marriage has undergone more transformations than music. In most states, it is easier to get a marriage license than a driver's license. As for family values, well, I think we've heard enough news stories about infanticide, matricide and patricide to know how far that notion will carry you.

Here's a new Dot for all my [three or four] readers: Liberals are the ONLY ONES in our society who worry about how to reach across the aisle toward those of different moral points of view. Conservatives may understand liberal morality more than liberals understand theirs (as Jacobs contends), but, if so, their tendency to remain loyal to country, party, class, sect, family, faith, and quarterback keeps them huddling inward and not facing outward toward the world. In that posture, it's a little hard to feel caring or empathetic about your fellow humans. What usually happens is that they only hear the play as called by the quarterback, then break for their set positions.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Viva Olbermann!

Along with Jon Stewart, he's the best thing to happen to TV in my lifetime. And kudos to him for pulling the whole network (MSNBC) with him. Maddow is a great addition, just as Colbert was a great offshoot of Stewart's show.

People need to speak out against the atrocities, and these folks are doing so. If the country is going to move in the right direction, the truth must be spoken on TV...

Sunday, April 19, 2009

4 Electoral Groups & 2 Power Blocks

This is a follow up to my previous post -- Four Economic Flavors.

I've changed the name of the far right political block to "social conservative" (was "Republican"). So now I see the following four electoral blocks, each with about 25% of the electorate:

  1. Social Conservative
  2. Economic Conservative / Libertarian
  3. Moderate
  4. Progressive

Obama is firmly in the "Moderate" group, which is where the much of the power lies. Speaking of power, here are 2 powerful special interest groups:

  1. Wall Street
  2. Military-Industrial Complex

Is this a reasonable description of where power and opinion lies in our country? What could change the balance for better or worse?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Obama's Grasp on Power

Some political observers have been impressed with how much Obama is taking on, and there is a lot on his plate -- health care reform, renewed focus on Afghanistan, fiscal stimulus, carbon cap and trade, new dog, etc. But some of us progressives are looking at the power interests that is unwilling to confront at present:

  • Wall Street
  • Intelligence community

With regard to Wall Street, I have previously posted that I feel Obama is in dangerous territory with regard to his embrace of the status quo as embodied in the policies of Summers and Geithner. Here's further commentary along those lines:

I don't generally overreact to news (from the NYT this morning, on the AIG-Goldman connection that runs through Edward Liddy's stock ownership), but this has gone far enough. Have we completely lost of sense of what is and is not a conflict of interest? ...

If the Obama Administration thinks this is a storm in a tea cup, think again (I'm sure Valerie Jarrett gets this, but someone please check). Straws may or may not break camel's backs, but simple symbolic issues - that millions of people can understand and relate to - can bring major political damage in the midst of a broader, more complex economic fiasco.

With regard to the intelligence community, torture, and possible Bush Administration crimes, Keith Olbermann blasted Obama last night...

In a "Special Comment" regarding the release by the Obama Administration of "the remainder of this nightmare of Bush Administration torture memos," MSNBC's Keith Olbermann offered the current Commander in Chief some praise for going "half-way," then blasted him for issuing a statement which said that "nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past."

"This President has gone where few before him, dared," Olbermann said Thursday night. "The dirty laundry — illegal, un-American, self-defeating, self-destroying — is out for all to see."

Olbermann continued, "Mr. Obama deserves our praise and our thanks for that. And yet he has gone but half-way. And, in this case, in far too many respects, half the distance is worse than standing still... Mr. President, you are wrong. What you describe would be not "spent energy" but catharsis. Not 'blame laid,' but responsibility ascribed."

While I tend to agree with Olbermann on Bush era crimes and with those who would have Obama take on the Wall Street titans, I have to wonder whether or not those are battles that Obama can win at this point in his presidency. My observation is that presidents are always embattled, and Democratic presidents especially. Carter was overwhelmed by reactionary forces, and perhaps from the intelligence agencies in particular. Clinton, of course, was impeached following years of being hounded by the political opposition. Perhaps the only reason he ultimately survived was that he was "bi-partisan" and not actually that much of a threat to the powers that be.

So I think we need to cut Obama some slack and give him a chance to consolidate some power before taking on Wall Street and the Cheney faction of the military-industrial complex...

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Minority's Dilemma

The following is from an email sent today by former Colorado Senate Majority Leader and Democrat, Ken Gordon, of Denver. Ken is far more prescient and introspective than most politicians that I know and I thought his piece would be of fairly broad interest:

The Minority’s Dilemma: It seems that a majority of the country is willing to give President Obama a chance. Most Americans recognize that he came into a difficult situation and they are hoping his program will be successful in helping with the economy, the war, the environment, etc. Yet Republican elected officials seem to be less supportive.

I was in the minority in the Colorado Legislature for ten years so I have some familiarity with the quandary facing minority parties.

I think it is useful to create a decision box. On the vertical axis we have two possibilities. The minority can either support the President’s program or they can oppose it. On the horizontal plane we have two possibilities as well. The program can either succeed or fail. So this creates four boxes--

1. The minority party supports the President, and the plan is successful.
2. The minority party supports the plan, and the plan fails.
3. The minority party opposes the plan, and the plan succeeds.
4. The minority party opposes the plan, and the plan fails.

Let’s assume that some of the Republican elected officials have a partisan interest. That is, their principle goal is to win more seats in the next election, and defeat the President in 2012. Which of the four possibilities is most likely to help them reach their goal?

If they support the President and he is successful, they may have done the right thing for the country, but the President will get most of the credit. So supporting the President when he is successful won’t hurt, but it is unlikely to help them pick up seats or defeat the President in 2012.

If they support the President and he is unsuccessful, they won’t get a benefit because they were advocates for the same unsuccessful policy.

If they oppose the President, and he is successful, they will obviously receive no benefit from that approach.

However, if they oppose the President, and his plan is unsuccessful, they can say, more or less, “We told you so.” This will benefit them.

As you can see, this analysis does not consider the merits of any proposed program. It is an analysis that the minority can use regardless of the merits, and I believe that it is what leads so many elected Republicans to relentlessly oppose whatever the President and the Democrats in Washington, or Denver for that matter, propose.

The only political advantage they can receive is for them to oppose the Democratic program and have it fail.

Now there are quite a few Republicans who do not go through this analysis. They make their decisions based on a genuine examination of the merits of a proposal seen through the light of their values. But unfortunately there are enough who only care about the politics so that every talk show has no trouble finding knee-jerk opposition to every Obama or Democratic proposal. It is disheartening for those of us who would like to see the country come together in the face of our serious challenges, but there it is.

By the way, when the Democrats are in the minority, I am sorry to say, there is no shortage of knee-jerk opponents as well.

I have been troubled by the opposition to Obama, who in my view is making a good faith effort to deal with a difficult situation. I had hoped for more of a “country over party” position from the minority. Perhaps we will get there someday.

I hope you are doing well. As always do not hesitate to write back with comments or questions and feel free to forward this email to anyone you think might be interested or to republish, with attribution, in any blog or other publication.


Ken Gordon

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Four Economic Flavors

It occurred to me that are 4 sets of opinions in the public discourse regarding our current economic situation:

  1. Republican. This viewpoint, embraced by current & former Republican leaders including Dubya and McCain, is totally disconnected from reality. These people had no idea that the economic crash was approaching, and I have no respect for their opinions. However, they remain a serious danger since they will try to regain power should the economy fail to recover in a timely fashion.
  2. Status quo. This includes most of Obama's economic team. It also includes much of the mainstream media including NPR (for the most part). While much better than the Republicans, this elite group failed to anticipate the severe economic recession we are now in. Erstwhile moderate Republicans are in this group along with the powerful Wall Street Democrats such as Summers and Rubin. This group was riding high in the latter years of the Clinton Administration, but now seems out of touch. There is a revolving door between the Wall Street investment firm Goldman-Sachs and the Treasury Department. These people mean well, but they also mean to keep their elite status. They are fat cats and many have inappropriately benefited from the recent government bailouts of the financial sector. There are numerous disturbing conflicts of interest in this group.
  3. Pissed off conservative. There are many conservatives who could see that the Bush Administration was screwing up, and now have the same opinion of the Obama Administration. Some of these people were correct in predicting the financial meltdown and ensuing economic distress. Think Ron Paul. So these people have a good track record in that respect. They hate the subsidies to the big banks and their voices will become more influential if the recession worsens.
  4. Progressive. Most of the media that I follow are skeptical of the Obama Administration's efforts to rescue the economy by providing subsidies to the giant financial corporations. Some are downright hostile toward the Obama Administration, but most are just plain worried that we are going in the wrong direction. I am in this camp myself. I half-heartedly want Obama to succeed in rescuing Citibank and Goldman Sachs so that he will continue to be a popular and powerful president. But I am worried that this will falter and that all hell will break loose as Republicans and conservatives smell blood and progressives won't really be able to defend the corporate elites behind the Obama plan.

Will the center hold? The progressives and conservatives that I follow have a much better track record in predicting the path of the economy than do the mainstream Democrats and their Wall Street teammates. The voices I respect the most are calling attention to the severity of this downturn and warning that it won't be over anytime soon. If this is the case, then the public may lose its patience with the status quo leadership. If Obama tries to ride out the storm with Geithner, Summers, and the other insiders, it could be his undoing. I love Obama and I think he'll be able to adjust should the current plans start to unravel. I hope to see him move strongly in a progressive direction should that happen. Then we'll be in for a real battle, but at least the lines will be clearly drawn...

Sunday, April 12, 2009

How to Change the World

First -- To see how not to change the world, I recommend this speech by Joe Bageant. Mr. Bageant says that "We've Let Corporations and Media Rob Our Souls -- It's Time to Do Something Meaningful" and proceeds to belittle American society.

Here are some of the remarks that may turn off readers:

  • "This financialization of our consciousness under American-style capitalism has become all we know."
  • "Corporations are, of course, deathless and faceless machines and have no soul or human emotions. That we look to them for so much makes us a corporate cult and makes corporations a fetish of our culture."
  • "Yet you and I are not unique in the least. Despite the American yada-yada about individualism, you are not special. Nor am I."
  • "The fact is, you will seldom, if ever, make any significant material or lifestyle choices of your own in your entire life."
  • "We are all replaceable parts in the machinery of a capitalist economy."
  • "Citizenship has been reduced to simple consumer-group consciousness. Consequently, even though Americans are only 6 percent of the planet's population, we use 36 percent of the planet's resources. And we interpret that experience as normal and desirable and as evidence of being the most-advanced nation in the world. Despite that our lives have been reduced to a mere marketing demographic."

Certainly, there is a germ of truth in all these points. But constructive criticism requires some connection with the listener beyond utter debasement of his or her culture.

The last point, about American's consuming more than our share of the planet's resources, is one serious point I want to address. I dare say that this statistic is losing its luster as far as I'm concerned. News flash:
SHANGHAI (AP) — Preliminary figures show auto sales in China reached about 1.03 million in March, exceeding U.S. sales for the third month in a row, state media reports said Wednesday. Associated Press

Are we getting better because our share of world consumption is going down?

Bageant's point is that the whole world is going to capitalist hell, but he offers not even a glimmer of an alternative. The best he can do is suggest that we might be better off moving to Belize and living as simple peasants. This happens to be what he has done, and his smug superiority really turns me off. He doesn't provide a solution; rather he congratulates himself on having moved outside of American society, and suggests that we will all be happier, and the world will be a better place, if we do the same. That may be true, but I doubt it, and it's not going to happen.

Rather than attacking all of society, I suggest that the battle be more focused. Perhaps we could start by dealing with environmental issues, including threats posed by modern weaponry such as nuclear bombs. One doesn't have to buy all the generalizations about how we're all pawns in the capitalist game to believe that it makes sense to protect the environment. Even our corporate masters do not want to destroy the environment. After all, a healthy environment is necessary to sustain a healthy corporation.

I'm intrigued by the idea of treating environmental debates as a kind of warfare. What if we applied the principles of warfare, as outlined by Sun Tzu in The Art of War to fighting political battles over how to preserve the environment? A winning strategy will require sound planning and coordinated effort.

Look at the recent Iraq War. Bush failed because he didn't unite the country (USA) behind him in this war. His team belittled moderates and didn't listen to opponents. The worst mistake we can make in fighting our environmental foes is to rant and rave and say that you are either with us or against us.

At least, that how I see it right now...