Thursday, June 10, 2010

For those with questions about core values...

I enjoy reading Greta Christina's work...but this one is special:

I can't begin to thank her enough for so beautifully summarizing the very reason my own views changed (something I've been struggling to do for ages).


  1. I was a bit disappointed by the article, especially by the comment about libertarian extremists. If you are going to even mention libertarians, don't just list a fringe minority that aren't even real libertarians.
    We libertarians want LIMITED government, not NO government.

    Further, I'm really tired of the labels like liberal and conservative. I'm socially liberal, but financially conservative. Which means I don't fit in either "camp". I think that using the terms liberal and conservative (or left vs right, etc) just perpetuate an "us vs them" mentality.

  2. Well, as someone who would describe himself as a staunch conservative (proof: my opinions are pretty universally disagreed with here), I was surprised by this article. I'd come down on the side of fairness and lack of harm any day.

    Where *I* would have said the difference lies is in our very *notions* of fairness, for example.

    A fair fraction of Huffington Post commenters on the Paula Deen jewelry theft story blamed "Deen* for the theft, for leaving her jewelry laying out where the housekeeper could be tempted. To me, that's not a fair assessment at all.

    I think the death tax is unfair. Taxes were paid when the money was earned; why tax it again at death?

    The point is not to debate these two issues, but rather to illustrate the different perspectives on what is "fair".

    And, finally, if you read the article the author cites, you find that she's misrepresenting things to aid her point. The article says that conservatives place a moderately high weight on *all 5* ideas, while liberals highly weight fairness and (lack of) harm, while downgrading the other 3. She also denigrates those 3 values as "not universalizable", which is not what the article says at all.

    (And yes, I know better than to debate Matt on morality -- call it a death wish ...)

  3. I'm shocked that a libertarian objected.

    Oh, I'm not.

    It's not the labels that divide us, it's the values - and that was the point. When you have two groups with dramatically different values, you have a real conflict a real "us vs. them" scenario, not one that is contrived simply because of labels.

    I've identified as socially liberal and financially conservative (or moderate) in the past, so I can understand the frustration there. On the other hand, I also recognize that this combination puts one in the "have your cake and eat it too"'s not as easy to separate social and financial as many people would think.

    If you feel an ethical obligation for some social program, I'd argue you have an ethical obligation to finance it. While I'm a fan of the free market, it's not always able to solve social issues.

    I'm also a fan of limited government and it's annoying how both Republicans and Libertarians want to paint Democrats as people who want huge governments.

    The difference, I'd bet, is on how limited we think it should be...and that's a result of what we think the government should be doing.

    But I don't have any idea how far apart we are. I'm not even sure how close to being a libertarian I might there doesn't seem to be much agreement among libertarians.

    I don't mean to sound insulting, but about half the time I get the distinct impression that when someone says "I'm a Libertarian" it's because they're fed up with Democrats and Republicans and went looking for any other label that fit their "none of the above" frustrations.

    I'll have to do more research. But as far as this article is concerned, it addressed specific gaps that had bothered me (and, evidently, Greta). I've now got a better foundation for explanations and possible arguments to enlighten others - and that's exactly what I was looking for.

  4. Peter that reminds me of the part in the Illuminatus! trilogy where one of the characters identifies himself as a "political non-euclidian", stating that if you subscribe to the simplistic two-dimensional political spectrum you merely wind up with the either/or choices that were implicit in the system to begin with...

  5. I think she was really grasping to criticize purity (by assuming that people interested in purity would show reverence for those who exemplify their values and then saying "Ha! Inequality"), but in all other respects, it was a very interesting article.

  6. The author seems to be a bit confused:

    "core ethical values, hard-wired into our brains by millions of years of evolution" - so what, how does evolution have any say in this? Is something 'right' because evolution shaped it such? Isn't this the argument from nature that people used to persecute homosexuals?

    "ethics and values aren't entirely relative" - and then goes on to prove that that is EXACTLY what they are. Or subjective at least.

    "Fairness and harm are better values -- because they can be universalized." - sorry but it's not that easy. Fairness is relative: is it fair to force (childless) me to pay for someone else's education? Is it fair to allow people to become rich while others starve? Fairness is much more complicated than this article allows for.
    Harm? Isn't that just a bit vague? We're all for minimising harm, but is it all harm, is there a level of harm we'll accept to increase other's well-being? Is there a trade-off between harm now and harm later?

    And it seems the term 'liberal' is being mis-used, liberal comes from liberty and means freedom. Most 'liberal' policies of recent years have not been about freedom but about social justice. Also, conservative tends to mean unwilling to change, a fan of the status quo, not authority, loyalty and purity lovers. The fact most US conservatives are both does not mean you get to redefine what conservative (or liberal) means.

    True conservatives and liberals have to take back their labels. Conservatives have to stop being tarred as church-loving, USA #1-ers and call those people out for what they are - sheep. Likewise, true liberals have to stop allowing big-government-loving, politically correct people to be called liberal and call them what they are - socialists.

  7. @Matt - I should have been more clear. I do agree with many of the things in the article, but I was just disappointed with the couple things I mentioned.

    As far as I've seen, Libertarians generally want to see a more limited role of the Federal government, with more freedom given to the states to do as they wish. It should be the role of the Federal government to remove obstacles to people's pursuit of happiness, but not to provide it.

    Peronally, I would like to see the Federal government phase out welfare, medicaid, medicare and social security. It should be left to the states to determine if they want to provide these things for their citizens.

    I think the military budget should be cut in half and we should remove our military presence from countries like Japan, Germany, the Philippines, etc.

    I also would like to see all schools be privately run, but perhaps with some level of government providing financial assistance to parents who can't afford tuition. Education is one of the few things I the government should make sure everyone can afford as this directly affects our future success as a nation.

    I'm not sure if that describes Libertarians in general, but these beliefs of mine are why I identify as a Libertarian (although I'm registered as Independent).

  8. At the end of the day it is these damn labels, and people's insistence on identifying as those labels (like it's their football team), that is causing problems.

    The "no true Scotsman" fallacy is in abundance here. The only way round it is to treat yourself like an individual and stop using them so passionately. That way you won't get so defensive when people decide to pigeonhole everyone based on their own (often two dimensional) perception of what that political ideology means.

    For instance, I am currently similar to Peter. I lean slightly towards economically liberal (he called it financially conservative). I am also very socially liberal (i.e. Libertarian/Anarchist).

    But due to the fact that I can think for myself, and everyone seem to be using the terms differently, there is no sense in labeling myself with any political ideology that has become more of a tribalistic symbol than anything else.

    If someone wants to ask me what my political views on specific topics are, they are going to have to ask me and not make assumptions.

  9. As a German, I kind of envy you for having different parties at all. We basically have two social-democratic parties, one of which is a little more catholic than the other.
    And then there are some smaller parties sometimes tagging along but never really doing anything.
    On the other hand, considering the state of your Republicans right now... I guess you really don't have much of a choice, either.

  10. Professor Jonathan Haidt has done a lot of the research in this area regarding the "five moral foundations." His website is here:

  11. I completely concur with the notion that we're generally drifting more socially liberal, as a species, over time.

    Every generation of conservatives that are born are born into a world that generally accepts issues like gay marriage, and they can't help but be used to that a little more than the previous conservative generation.

    i.e. - Today's conservative was 100 year's ago liberal. Yesteryear's conservative would be aghast at the condition of today's as being way too liberal.

    I'm mostly talking out my ass here, but I agree.

    I can only hope it's a similar trend with religion in general.

  12. Based on reading this, I would conclude that Greta has never met an articulate, self-aware, forthright Conservative in her life.

    The whole tone of the piece is "Gee, I always knew I was right... but now I know I'm also better!"

    As for how she knows, well... Did I miss something, or does she never actually mention which "research" this is based on?

    Is she talking about the "values" presentation that Jonathan Haidt recently made at TED?

  13. This is a labels and definitions issue.

    The terms 'conservative' and 'liberal' have a very different meanings depending where in the world you come from.

    It really depends on your baseline measure of political values within your society.

    I will give and example from my home - The UK.

    In the 1980's the conservative party lead by Mrs Thatcher privatised many parts of the the economy that were previously under state control (telecoms, utilities and transport to name a few).

    One thing that was not touched was the socialised medical system (NHS).

    Even this would be too far for most right wing mainstream politicians in the UK.

    Was Mrs Thatcher a socialist for supporting socilised medicine?

    Labelling is tricky and often inaccurate.

  14. @March Hare
    I agree with some of the things you say. What is fair can be hard to pin down, and I wouldn't presume to know what constitutes fair or unfair in any and every situation, however I do think there is an ideal of general fairness we aspire too, and I do take exception to a few of the things you say.

    ”Is it fair to allow people to become rich while others starve? “

    I think that its unfair that people starve. And our societies make great attempts to try and curb things like starvation and homelessness. There is a minimum level of living quality and treatment for a fair functioning society. I can't remember which philosopher said it (peter singer maybe?) that the moral measure of any society is how it treats its least fortunate members. And I think most societies (western anyway) would say that starvation isn't fair. However that seems to a separate issue to how rich someone is. If what you really meant is ”if it's fair to allow people to become rich while others are poor? “ Then I don't see how its relevant to fairness. There are a number of ways how this could happen. Some people work harder. Some people have better more lucrative ideas. Some people are born into money. Hey, some people are born into wheelchairs. Its unfortunate, but I don't see how its relevant to an argument of societal fairness. Its just the way the world is. And without dragging it out too long because its an entire discussion unto itself, in almost ever case its ever been put into practice, free market has been shown to be more fair than communism (which is essentially what this line is arguing for) despite how they both look theoretically on paper. I think a good counter to your rhetorical question that puts this into perspective is “is it fair to that two people are paid the same when one works twice as hard as the other?”. I'm guessing your answer would be 'no', in which case you must accept that its ok for some people are richer than others.

    “is it fair to force (childless) me to pay for someone else's education?”

    I actually see this line as the very anti-thesis of fair. I may have misinterpreted what you're saying here, but it basically sounds to me like “Despite the benefits this society gives me, why should I support and participate in it if parts of it don't directly benefit me and mine?” I see this as horribly flawed. Whether you have children or not is irrelevant. What is relevant is that you grew up in a society that offered you an education (even if you're parents didn't take that offer and chose to send you to a private school) and that as beneficiary of that society that offered support to you, you're now obligated to support that society as it offers those same opportunities and support to others. Even if you don't have children yourself.

    As for the article itself, I agree with parts of it, disagree with others, but I'm really surprised at something that seemed blatantly obvious to me but didn't get mentioned. I don't think you can so easily split values into 5 equal categories like fairness, avoidance of harm, loyalty, authority and purity (whatever the fuck purity actually is or has to do with the issue. I didn't quite get that myself)

    Fairness and avoidance of harm should be informing your actions of loyalty and authority. These values are operating at different metalevels and in my opinion are in no way equal. From either the liberal or conservative perspective. I don't think the issue is anywhere near as simple as Christina is trying to make it sound.

    It kindof reminds me of the bogus anti-evolution arguments where people (creationists) divide evolution into genetic drift, mutation, natural selection carry on about “what are the chances of all these things happening the right way” completely ignoring the fact that genetic drift and mutation are SUBJECT to natural selection rather than on equal footing with it.

    Well, that's my two cents anyway.

  15. At the risk of sounding like a "liberal" automaton, I can't really find any points in Greta's column with which I disagree. It did bring to mind the discussion over Sam Harris' Ted talk and upcoming book, and while I don't want to say that this lays the foundation for a science of morality, it could provide a framework establishing possible "universal" values if not objective ones.

    As for the discussion about labels, I agree that they can be misleading and confining, but we can't do without labels. There are times when group identification using common labels is useful and necessary. The problem with labels is that they are misunderstood and misapplied. The solution isn't to stop using them, but to reclaim and/or redefine them to make them useful again.

  16. I don't know that I agree with the notion that how universally applicable a value is determines how ethical that value is. Simply put, that's like saying fairness trumps all other values.

    And in any case, the values labelled as being more conservative are universally applicable. You just have to have a more nuanced view of them than a one-word description. e.g., Authority - The decisions of those who are evidentially shown to more responsible and competent at leading in a given arena, generally resulting in a better outcome, should be given more weight (and followed more) than those which haven't.

    That said, the following evidence-based, rhetorically-sound conclusion is the heart of the article's argument:

    "...any moral progress humanity has made ... every example I can think of where our morality is a clear improvement over the morality of the past -- democracy, banning slavery, religious freedom, women's suffrage, etc. etc. etc. -- the core values being strengthened have been the values of fairness and the avoidance of harm: the liberal values ..."

    That is what made me like and agree with it in the end. Thanks for sharing, Matt.

  17. "Based on reading this, I would conclude that Greta has never met an articulate, self-aware, forthright Conservative in her life. "

    In her defense, George, while I immediately thought of this as well, I have interacted with many conservatives and including you have found oh...MAYBE three I would consider that qualify.

    I agree with the idea that fairness and justice are the more important values, but I've found the more I interact with liberals on the net the more I agree with George that there is a lot of hypocrisy amongst the self declared demographic when it comes to certain things. I'll say A LOT of liberal believers are as much if not more nasty towards non-believers than conservatives. The only difference i've seen in some liberal christian places is that they go by the Saving Grace TV show theology, "You can believe in anything as long as you believe. the only unacceptable choice is atheism". Conservative believers tend to just be intolerant of everyone but them. So while I disagree that liberals live up to this claim of values, I don't disagree with the values themselves. I think the biggest problem is that liberals seem to pride themselves on holding said values...and don't worry so much about following through or being consistent with them.

    So yeah I agree with those values being good/having precident...not necessarily that liberals are the best at it.

    Going by trends not outliers of course

  18. This article is absurd and its bias undermines any point it could have made.

    First, we have an appeal to the naturalistic fallacy. Evolutionary explanations and consistent application through cultures mean dick as far as which values are better.

    Then we have a complete misframing of the study. That liberals prioritize fairness does not mean that they value it more than conservatives. We don't know the differences for each level of priority, and it is irresponsible to assume a significant difference.

    We have a claim that universal application to the individual is the sole determining factor of "better" morality with inadequate justification.

    We have blatant hypocrisy in an assertion that the impure would be less equal than the pure with not so much as a blink for the notion that those who do harm could be less equal than those who do not.

    I don't care for authority, loyalty, or purity, but the article is full of shit. It's a one-sided hack job.

  19. Ok, I went back to take a second look at this and gave it as fair a reading as I could. I showed it to two politically-active friends (one leftward of me, one rightward) and our mutual conclusion was that Greta is out to lunch... yet in a familiar way.

    Something about that nagged me, but I couldn't place it until my left-ish friend bull's-eyed it.

    "It's the fish and water thing," he sighed.

    There's an old line that goes, "Whoever first discovered water, it wasn't a fish."

    Greta has been marinating in Leftism for so long that she has ceased to recognize it as such, instead seeing her politics as the incarnation (See what I did there?) of transcendent principles.

    She's supports Law X because she's for justice.

    She opposes Referendum Y because she believes in compassion.

    She hates the outcome of Supreme Court case Z because she wants to prevent harm.

    Now, by itself there's nothing wrong with this. I dare say most people would claim they're not just cheering for their own side, that their politics manifest a coherent, ethical worldview.

    The trouble comes with proprietary morality - when people start claiming ownership of certain values.

    For example, I could make just as strong a case that "avoiding harm" is a core Conservative value - indeed, the motivation behind Conservatives' oft-criticized skepticism towards social or legal change. Don't rock the boat. Don't fix what isn't broken. Don't change just for the sake of change. Look before you leap.

    Of course, this can be (and has been, historically) taken too far. Appropriate caution can ossify into reactionary opposition to needed reforms or long-overdue fixes for genuine problems.

    All this flies right by Greta, it seems. Like a lot of ideologues, she doesn't want to admit she actually has an ideology. Therefore she recasts her politics as not politics.

    "How could you oppose Affirmative Action? Don't you believe in fairness?"

    And if one doesn't think it IS fair? What then?

    The other side does the same thing... for example, by wrapping themselves in the flag.

    "Close the Gitmo prison? Don't you believe in protecting our country?"

    The objective here is to place one's position beyond criticism. Are you cold-hearted? Do you want your fellow citizens to be attacked?

    I could go through her list of values, one by one, and give both the Conservative and Liberal cases for it. I suspect anyone reading this could as well.

    We would shortly discover that many of them are interrelated. Justice and fairness, for example, are hardly separate, let alone opposite, concepts.

    The fish/water thing also results in Greta having a blind spot I could drive a truck through.

    For example, the idea that Leftism somehow inoculates ones against undue deference to 'authority' or the reckless pursuit of 'purity' at the expense of real human suffering is vaporized by even a cursory examination of history and politics since the French Revolution.

    Greta also does not seem to understand Libertarianism, taking it beyond what it actually concerns - power relationships between individuals, each other and the State.

    Then there's the matter of defining what a Conservative or Liberal actually is, historically vs currently, and what amount of credit for which achievements belongs where.

    That's a major project in and of itself.

  20. While I have little to say about the article that hasn't already been said by someone else here, I do have a question for Peter (or any other libertarian.)

    Bearing in mind that all of my previous interactions with libertarians have been with the bat-shit loonie branch of libertarianism who are little more than anarchists with an attitude of, "well I'm all sorted, fuck the rest of you," and this has definitely coloured my opinion of libertarians to the point where I cannot trust myself to judge the non-extreme individuals.

    When you say you want limited government, do you include local government? Also, are you taking into account the size that government needs to be in order to maintain a healthy society, or does the desire for smaller government take priority over that?

    Personally, I believe that government should be as big as it needs to be to maintain the healthy society and no bigger... I'm not sure if that makes me a sane libertarian or just sane? (Yes, that was a 'subtle' jibe... forgive me, I am tired and some of the alarmist-sounding headlines in the sidebar of the linked site have pissed me off. Stupid journalism. What's wrong with just presenting news and allowing us to react as we will?)

  21. It seems to me that you can't avoid the authority, loyalty, and purity. Fairness and harm? How faithful should we be to those principles? (Loyalty) What are we to make of ourselves when we don't live up to them? (Purity) And who says so, anyhow? (Authority)

  22. @Spoondoggle
    I can't speak for all Libertarians, but my view is that the concept of "limited government" is mainly at the Federal level, specifically with reference to the 10th Amendment to the Constitution.

    The background behind this reasoning is that when the Federal (or any) government tries to do too much, it becomes overly complex and inefficient. Take for example the recent financial crisis. To quote a recent CATO article -
    Financial services have long been subject to detailed regulation by multiple agencies. In his book on the financial crisis, Jimmy Stewart is Dead, Boston University Professor Laurence Kotlikoff counts over 115 regulatory agencies for financial services. If more hands in the pot helped, financial services would be in fine shape. Few believe such is the case.

    To me, it seems that the government is too complex and needs to be vastly more streamlined.

    Also, I can't really respond to your comments about a "healthy society" because that description is too vague. All I can say is that I think gov't should be there to protect people (from all threats foreign and domestic) and it should work to remove all barriers to people's pursuit of happiness.

  23. @Spoondoggle

    "Personally, I believe that government should be as big as it needs to be to maintain the healthy society and no bigger"

    That sounds about right for me. But then the measure of a healthy society is rather subjective. There will be extreme socialists who regard their own vision of big government to be necessary for a healthy society.

    Be careful with the Libertarian label. It has been hijacked by the right wing in America. But internationally and historically it is used to denote social liberalism only. You can either be a left wing libertarian or a right wing libertarian.

    Personally, I am slightly to the right economically. However I am not nearly so adamant on this as I am about my "Libertarian" values. That is that I believe in the rights of the individual and I say that government should keep out of our private lives. eg I strongly believe in the legalisation of all drugs, prostitution, the right to free speech, the right to walk down the street naked etc etc

  24. Spoondoggle, government should be as small as it is possible to be while maintaining law and order and protecting people's rights and doing anything else that people think can only be done by government.

    I think most libertarians (i.e. non-anarchist libertarians) would actually much prefer local government to central authority wherever possible.

    I understand how it must be difficult to never have engaged with a sensible libertarian - the movement either requires some deep thought or, as is more common, an anti-government reactionary stance. Have patience, the sensible libertarians are out there and their non-rabid arguments will eventually win out.

  25. This sort of reminds me of the bullshit book "Liberal Fascism" where the argument is that all fascism is liberalism...they make this argument by defining fascism to be liberalism and then count the hits (every fascist government) and ignore the misses (every non-fascist progressive government).

  26. Something similar enough to my position as a (small-l, non-dogmatic, but nonetheless probably having views on things like sex, drugs, and the economy that would get me classified as an "extremist" by people on both sides of the imaginary fence) libertarian has already been adequately said, and George From NY's comment was also WONDERFUL, but I would just like to say that I'm fine with advancing social justice.

    What makes me uneasy is the underlying fact that when liberal talk of things "we" should do to make the world a better place enters a conversation about government, it ultimately means such proposals, if enacted, are to be implemented or enforced by the threat of violence.

    Like I said, I'm not dogmatic about libertarianism, and some social welfare proposals might be a good idea, but the reality of where government authority comes from means (in my view) that we need to at least take a very sober look at any proposed law, and I think both self-described liberals and conservatives get way too excited about most proposals for government-based solutions.


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