Saturday, January 28, 2006

Bush Adopts Kerry's Iran Strategy

Donklephant has a nice round up of quotes from conservative commentators during the 2004 elections condemning Kerry's plan to allow Iran to have fissile materials, then monitor strictly how they are used. This is essentially the Bush plan, with the added twist that Russia will help monitor the enrichment.

Not that the administration shouldn't be able to change its policy if the situation changes, but I would like to see an explanation from those who enthusiastically decried Kerry as being soft on nuclear proliferation as to why we should allow Iran to have fissile materials now, when it was a gross error of judgement in 2004.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Is it better to be evil or wrong?

Conservative psychoanalyst Shrinkwrapped writes that "Liberals think conservatives are evil; Conservatives think Liberals are wrong."

While many conservatives do see adherents to pro-Choice or radical Marxian movements as evil, I think that by and large he is right. Conservatives tend to think that they have a view of reality and how to achieve a better society that is superior to the limited scope of Liberals' vision, fixated as they are on micro-problems and individual issues. Liberals believe that Conservatives are more or less able to comprehend reality but either choose to hold certain views out of self interest, or are imbibed with a near-pathological hate of something (racism, homophobia, classism) that they allow to color their beliefs despite the clear voice of reason.

And the internet is a prime place for those very biases to be played out, as the palimpsest of a message board helps one to conflate all the qualities one hates about the 'other side' into an easily recalled mental image.

People who subscribe to either label are right to call the other side on the limitations of its worldview. I more often am annoyed by the Liberal habit of focussing on fixing a symptom (eg. make stiffer regulations to clean up a polluted river) rather than a system-based problem (eg. fear of lawsuits makes incentive to minimize ongoing pollution rather than acknowledge it and openly develop cleaner practices). This frustration betrays an underlying conviction that I understand the broad sweep of reality better, but a Liberal might reasonably point out that consequences can be measured by varying degrees of time course, and the short term gain of lawsuits preventing the most egregious polluters to be brought to account might be valued high enough to outweigh the long-term though uncertain benefit of developing new cleaner practices.

On the flip side, Liberal people note rightly that the Conservatives who stand to gain from pro-business practices are their most energetic proponents, in keeping with the idea that Conservatives decide on their self-interest first, and their philosophy follows. Undoubtedly this formulation rings true for some Conservatives. But consider that it is a self-fulfilling prophesy that the population of people who value economic achievement--entrepreneurs, managers, people who organize people--will by definition be enriched for people who hold pro-business ideas about how government should act. There's no way to prove this, but I think the vast majority of pro-business Conservatives honestly believe what they do because they think that it will benefit society, just as the majority of Liberals working in homelessness programs believe that increasing funding to social services will benefit society, though it may also incrementally benefit themselves.

We are all evil; we are all wrong. It is time to give each other the benefit of the doubt.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

MRI Study: Partisanship is Emotion Driven

When committed partisans were asked to evaluate quotes showing either Bush or Kerry had flip-flopped on prior statements, they were subjected to functional MRI that locates which areas of the brain are most metabolically active. NYT reports:

After the participants read the contradictory comment, the researchers measured increased activity in several areas of the brain. They included a region involved in regulating negative emotions and another called the cingulate, which activates when the brain makes judgments about forgiveness, among other things. Also, a spike appeared in several areas known to be active when people feel relieved or rewarded. The "cold reasoning" regions of the cortex were relatively quiet.

Researchers have long known that political decisions are strongly influenced by unconscious emotional reactions, a fact routinely exploited by campaign consultants and advertisers. But the new research suggests that for partisans, political thinking is often predominantly emotional.

It is possible to override these biases, Dr. Westen said, "but you have to engage in ruthless self reflection, to say, 'All right, I know what I want to believe, but I have to be honest.' "

This is a preliminary study not yet being published, only being presented at a meeting, but the findings are clearly provocative. It's hard to draw specific conclusions about the specific areas activated, except that I would point out that in general, limbic system structures were active, while presumably the author implies that frontal structures used for reasoning were silent.

The limbic system is not simply the 'emotions' system producing minute-to-minute emotional states; its function also relates to forming long-term attachments to important people in our lives. To me, this study speaks to the powerful biological and psychological attachment that people have to political parties and their leaders, akin to the phenomenon of transference (when feelings toward a strong love-object like a parent are transferred to a psychotherapist).

It is nearly impossible for 'reason' alone to override these types of primal loyalties and attachments, because one cannot win over someone whose root valuations radically differ from yours, no matter how artfully you turn a phrase or construct syllogisms. And it is very difficult for cognitive theories like Lakoff's to account for behaviors arising primarily from emotional processes or predict them with any accuracy.

The implication for centrist politics is that drawing people to the center may need to rely more on personalities--candidates with charisma, resonating with regional cultural sensibilities, or a strong military record-- than the modality of 'cold reasoning' that perhaps many centrists are the most comfortable with by their psychological makeup.

Hat Tip: Centerfield

Sunday, January 22, 2006

US Military Looking for a Few Good Bloggers

Wa Po reports the US military is looking for bloggers to be fed 'content' regarding the Iraq War. What a ham-handed misunderstanding of how blogging works, and why it is valuable. I doubt many bloggers will agree to become mouthpieces of the Defense Department, but probably a few will, and shame on them.

VT Sex Offender Sentence Controversy

I have been appalled by the political posturing in the wake of the controversial sex-offender sentence Vermont Judge Cashman recently issued. The law would not allow the offender to receive treatment in jail, so the judge made the best decision he could with a poorly written law by giving a relatively short jail term and mandating treatment. I don't have much problem with the judgement; I have a problem with the how the law is written.

Calls for the judge's resignation by state legislators and the governor himself should be seen as what they are--attempts to turn outrage over the sex offender's light jail term into personal political advantage.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Centrist Blogs--Bellwether of Realignment?

The Moderate Voice has reproduced a New York Sun article describing the rise of centrist politics in the blogosphere. I won't reproduce it here out of respect for their copyright, but I encourage you to take a look.

Centrists (loosely defined as voters open to the idea that some of their ideas might be wrong) by their nature as such lack a stable organization like a political party to amplify their efforts. That's why I think it behooves us in the blogosphere to use our sites as links between commentary and action. In other words, when commenting on a particular issue, include a link to the politician involved (or to a congressional directory) to make it easy for those you've convinced to write a letter or donate money in response. I have done this on issues like redistricting reform and bioterrorism defense, but it would be a much more powerful strategy if adopted more widely.

The danger here for a given site would be a slide from news/commentary to political activism that loses reader credibility, so the tone of such posts would have to be low-key; simply add an invitation to action at the end of a regular, sober news analysis. And it should not be done too frequently, to avoid saturation. But since centrists lack systematic political coordination, ideas must tie themselves to action.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Unitary Executive Theory Does Not Predict Future Rulings

Much of the Alito hearing questioning has centered on the constitutional debate over the extent of the president's executive power, specifically the unitary executive theory. From the Boston Globe:

Adherents of the theory say that the Constitution prevents Congress from passing a law restricting the president's power over executive branch operations. And, they say, any president who refuses to obey such a statute is not really breaking the law...

In a speech in November 2000 before the conservative Federalist Society, Alito said he believes that the Constitution gives the president "not just some executive power, but the executive power -- the whole thing."

Many worry that adhering to the unitary executive theory would make Alito an overzealous defender of the president's powers in wartime.

But Committee for Justice shows how adhering to the unitary executive theory does not necessarily predict that a judge will consistantly side with the administration, in a number of situations:

1. Executive Control over Inferior Officers. While Congress has substantial power over the appointment of executive officers, unitarians believe the Constitution’s silence about their removal means that the President can remove the ones who won’t follow his orders. Most adherents of the unitary executive, very likely including Judge Alito, therefore question the constitutionality of so-called independent agencies and the Office of the Independent Counsel. Here, however, the consensus ends.

2. Enemy Detention. In Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, Justice Scalia—one of the most prominent supporters of the unitary executive—announced his opposition to the indefinite detention of American “enemy combatants.” His argument is based on the Habeas Suspension Clause, which he reads, in light of originalist evidence and its placement in Article I, to give Congress alone power over detained persons' access to courts. Because the meaning of the Suspension Clause is clear to Justice Scalia, the teachings of unitary executive theory—that the executive gets leeway in hard cases―doesn’t come into play for him.

3. Search and Seizure. Nor need fans of the unitary executive support the NSA spying program. If you believe the Fourth Amendment applies to any surveillance of domestic residents, then both the President and Congress must adhere to its basic logic: that searches and seizures be reasonable and reviewable by courts. When a search implicates national security, a unitarian may think the executive deserves some deference when determining what’s reasonable. But he might also argue that an executive interpretation of the Fourth Amendment isn’t reasonable if the executive doesn’t supply an intelligible principle that limits executive discretion or that makes independent judicial oversight possible. Because the NSA program doesn’t meet that standard, it would fail—even giving all possible leeway to the executive.

4. Torture. Here, a unitarian might turn to the Define and Punish Clause, which says Congress has the power to define and punish offenses against the law of nations. It is now commonly believed that Congress’s control over such offenses reaches treatment of captured belligerents during hostile action. Just as Justice Scalia considers the Suspension Clause a bright-line carve-out from executive discretion, a unitarian might consider the Define and Punish Clause another “carve out.” Because Congress has primacy in this area, the executive wouldn’t be able to evade limits on interrogation methods enacted by Congress. Other provisions that apply to the President and Congress equally—including the Eighth Amendment and the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause―might also impose limits on executive interrogation methods.

5. Military Tribunals. A unitarian might give the executive some discretion to try belligerents captured outside of U.S. territory. But, again, some unitarians might consider the Define and Punish Clause a “carve out” that limits executive leeway to define the international laws triable in such commissions (or to set procedures that may affect the outcome such cases). Unitarian theory also doesn’t speak to the scope and content of the Confrontation Clause and Due Process Clauses. Indeed, those clauses (Define and Punish, Confrontation, and Due Process) underpin the arguments of Neal Katyal, the professor (and former Department of Justice official) challenging the military tribunals in Guantanamo. Katyal is a self-described believer in the unitary executive.

I don’t know what Alito’s views are on these questions. But the simple fact he believes in the unitary executive doesn’t tell us much.

I strongly believe that robust checks on executive power are needed, perhaps especially in wartime. But I suggest that looking at the man's record and the substance of his judicial reasoning is more useful than the specific legal theories he holds, assuming they are within the mainstream. The great jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, remember, simply held a moral relativism with the sole exception of government action that made him "puke". It was not his theory, but the substance of his decisions that made him great.

Bird Flu Threat Estimate

Apparently taking a cue from the now-legendary Department of Homeland Security color-coded threat chart, the WHO has constructed this barometer to track the threat of avian flu.

Hat tip Medpundit

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Oregon Death with Dignity Law Upheld

The Supreme Court narrowly upheld Oregon's physician assisted suicide law.

I'm chagrinned to see that it's the liberal contingent of justices that sided with the state's right to regulate the practice of medicine (a power never given to Congress by the Constitution, thus reserved to the states). Though I have reservations about such 'Death with Dignity" laws, I think this was the correct ruling on federalism grounds.

Justice Roberts, Thomas, and Scalia, is this strict constructionism?

Unfortunately, this case comprises just more evidence of political agendas leaking into jurisprudence at the highest levels.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Alito Will Almost Certainly Be Confirmed

Law professor Ann Althouse writes:

Alito really did have a perfect strategy to win in his showdown with the Senators. And it wasn't devious or evasive. He insisted on talking about the issues they raised in the terms of a judge's careful legal analysis. This analysis tends to be rather tedious, even when you speak crisply and avoid any padding. Proceeding in this fashion, Alito looked smart and scrupulously judicial, yet he powerfully thwarted his opponents -- by boring us! The Alito hearings will stand as a model for how an unglamorous nominee -- a not-Roberts -- can prevail.

Differ as you may with his politics, he seems to base his decisions on rather sound legal reasoning rather than ideological grounds, and the fact that the Democrats have had so much trouble pinning him as an ideologue seems ample confirmation that he is not, at least in the court of public opinion. Without grassroots support for a filibuster, there's really nothing in the way of his confirmation.

MLK Day Quote

"The good neighbor looks beyond the external accidents and discerns those inner qualities that make all men human and, therefore, brothers."

Martin Luther King Jr., 'Strength to Love,' 1963

Friday, January 13, 2006

Is the Culture War Ending?

After the Future thinks the culture warriors of both sides are off target:

I've believed for some time that the religious right is fighting an enemy in secularism that is now a paper tiger. The culture war between the religious right and the secular left has more to do with the past than the future--it was a modern battle, and we are no longer moderns. It seems to be a fight that people who undertake it enjoy because it makes them feel as though they stand for something, but it's as pointless as standing for monarchy.

We are entering an era in which anything goes--we're already in it. It's an era in which there will be no consensus about anything, and people will believe pretty much whatever they want, whatever suits them. The human mind is ingenious and endlessly inventive. It can come up with the cleverest ways to justify the most absurd ideas. All any argument needs is a splinter of truth, and with it an elaborate fortress of delusion can be built...

The problem with this arguement is that you have to be a post-modernist in order to buy it--you have to believe that there is no common space for dialogue between disconnected worldviews. And that is precisely the assertion under debate, between the Western liberal tradition and fundamentalists of all stripes. Liberal democrats believe that space exists in the public sphere and that secular democratic processes can and should contain those debates; fundamentalists believe that their worldview should defeat the falsehoods of outsiders on its own terms.

It may be true that the only solution to the culture war is to show its premises to be absurd, but that synthesis will have to evolve out of the interaction among the players, not be imposed by a theory from the outside. In other words, sorry folks, we're going to have to keep talking about euthanasia, school prayer and abortion to people we disagree with for a very long time.

Hat tip to Ambivablog

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Mindfulness and the Self-Improvement Demagogues

I've recently become interested in popular figures promoting various plans for self improvement--what makes them work, and for whom, and what makes some more popular than others.

For example, Dave Ramsey has created a financial planning franchise centered on the idea that budgeting and avoiding consumer debt, coupled with a particular structured plan of incremental savings can get people financial freedom. Or Fly Lady, who helps clutter-prone people keep their homes neat by starting with shining the sink every day and gradually building a routine of 15-minute cleaning sessions to conquer clutter.

What these plans have in common is incorporating clever schemes of operant conditioning along with an easily taught method of breaking complex problems into smaller, simpler ones. These plans often provide some mechanism for clients to participate in some sort of community that fosters a sense of belonging and support, whether online or in conventions and classes.

I've also noted a theme of intentionality which reminds me of Shambala spiritual practices of meditative flower arranging, etc. That is, by deliberately budgeting, scheduling cleaning time, or planning meals in advance, one has a sense of being present in the moment, rather than allowing time to just happen to you in an alienating way. It can be a meditative, spiritual exercise.

It's not clear to me whether charisma of a plan's leader/originator has more to do with the plan's actual effectiveness, or just its popularity. But I suspect that these sorts of plans fill in a void left by the dwindling of extended family, and of community and religious institutions in America.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Turley on Alito

In case you missed the USA Today article by GW University law professor and Clinton-era pro-impeachment talking head John Turley, here are choice quotes:

Despite my agreement with Alito on many issues, I believe that he would be a dangerous addition to the court in already dangerous times for our constitutional system. Alito's cases reveal an almost reflexive vote in favor of government, a preference based not on some overriding principle but an overriding party.

In my years as an academic and a litigator, I have rarely seen the equal of Alito's bias in favor of the government. To put it bluntly, when it comes to reviewing government abuse, Samuel Alito is an empty robe.

...Alito would supply the final vote to shift the balance of power toward a president claiming the powers of a maximum leader. Alito's writings and opinions show a jurist who is willing to yield tremendous authority to the government and offer little in terms of judicial review — views repeatedly rejected not only by his appellate colleagues but also by the U.S. Supreme Court.

As an assistant solicitor general, Alito strongly opposed the ruling of a court of appeals in the seminal case of Garner v. Tennessee. In that case, a police officer shot and killed an unarmed 15-year-old boy when he fled with $10 from a home. Alito supported the right of the officer to kill the boy for failing to stop when ordered, a position ultimately rejected by six members of the Supreme Court and decades of later decisions...

As he did as a Reagan administration attorney, Judge Alito often adopts standards so low that any government excuse can overcome any government abuse.

For example, in Doe v. Groody, Alito wrote a dissenting opinion arguing that police officers could strip-search a mother and her 10-year-old daughter, despite the fact that neither was named in the search warrant nor suspected of crimes. The majority opinion was authored by fellow Republican and conservative Judge Michael Chertoff (now serving as secretary of Homeland Security). Chertoff criticized Alito's views as threatening to "transform the judicial officer into little more than the cliché 'rubber stamp.'...

The Alito vote might prove to be the single most important decision on the future of our constitutional system for decades to come. While I generally defer to presidents in their choices for the court, Samuel Alito is the wrong nominee at the wrong time for this country.

I'm honestly still on the fence about Alito, but these are harsh words from a man otherwised not disposed to trash conservative judges on the basis of their willingness to limit government power.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Hedgehog and the Fox

Psychologists have long known that expert predications are not necessarily the most likely to be true. Philip Tetlock invokes the fable of the hedgehog and the fox in his new book, Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?. He describes the characteristics of predictors in a longitudinal study where subjects were asked to make predictions of political events, then followed up for 20 years:

Low scorers look like hedgehogs: thinkers who “know one big thing,” aggressively extend the explanatory reach of that one big thing into new domains, display bristly impatience with those who “do not get it,” and express considerable confidence that they are already pretty proficient forecasters, at least in the long term. High scorers look like foxes: thinkers who know many small things (tricks of their trade), are skeptical of grand schemes, see explanation and prediction not as deductive exercises but rather as exercises in flexible “ad hocery” that require stitching together diverse sources of information, and are rather diffident about their own forecasting prowess.

I think this finding has implications in every field. Prediction is everyone's business, but surprisingly little work on the topic has been made widely available. The Western scientific method of reductionism is very effective at identifying genes and proteins, but it is "ad hocery" that allowed Crick and Watts to predict that nucleic acids would form a double helix encoding the genetic code. Businesspeople with MBAs know a lot about what they studied, but having an MBA does not predict business success over time.

The temptation to overvalue facts and concepts relating to your own area of expertise is overwhelming, which is why training to be an expert makes poor training for business or poltics. The difference is the ability to operate on the appropriate scale of system hierarchy. While a cell biologist would have much more understanding of programmed cell death than a clinical neurologist, you wouldn't want him treating your Parkinson disease. Similarly, an academic expert on Russia would not necessarily be the best person to be the ambassador to the UN, or even to Russia, since he is too attached to his own theories and less likely to think flexibly about national politics and international relations.

The problem arising is how these findings feed into American anti-intellectualism. But there is a difference between allowing technocrats to become surrogate decision makers, and using them effectively to gather and synthesize data in the service of decision makers. Losing the resource of specialist insight through the intellectual laziness of policymakers or public mistrust would be a great mistake.

Hat tip Centrist Coalition

Monday, January 09, 2006

RINO Hall of Fame

Conservative journal Human Events published what was meant to be an enemies list, but I'll join Charging RINO and cite it as a hall of fame:

1. Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R.I.)
Once approached by Democratic Leader Harry Reid to switch parties, Chafee has long supported liberal policies. He backs legal abortion, gay rights, federal-funded health care, strict environmental protections and a higher minimum wage. Opposes ANWR drilling. Also was the only Republican in Congress not to endorse the President’s reelection and one of three who tried to gut Bush’s tax cuts.

2. Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine)
A self-described “centrist,” Snowe scored a 100% pro-choice voting record as scored by NARAL and consistently votes with Democrats on social issues.

3. Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.)
“Snarlin’ Arlen” warned Bush not to nominate judges who might overturn Roe v. Wade, joined Chaffee reducing tax cuts and supported Democrats on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, HMO and overtime regulation. Also opposed school choice in Washington, D.C.

4. Sen. Susan Collins (Maine)
Voted with liberals on the 1999 tax cut, campaign finance reform and the partial-birth abortion ban. Also advocated “pay-as-you-go” tax cuts with spending increases in 2004, leading to a budget never agreed upon between the House and Senate.

5. Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.)
He led the House fight for McCain-Feingold campaign finance “reform.” He’s also prone to back environmental causes, gun control and abortion rights. He had no GOP challenger in 2004, but narrowly escaped defeat, 52% to 48%, by a Democratic opponent in the general election.

6. Gov. George Pataki (N.Y.)
Helped unions raise pay and unionize Indian casinos. Has said, “I believe in a limited government, low taxes, a tough approach to crime. ... But I also believe in an activist government. I’m not one of those laissez-faire types.”

7. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (N.Y.)
Over the course of his 23-year career, he’s gained considerable power (chairman of the Science Committee), despite amassing one of the most liberal voting records of any House Republican. Fought back conservative challengers in 2000 and 2002 and could face a GOP challenge in ’06.

8. Gov. Mitt Romney (Mass.)
Has said, “I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country.” Supports civil unions and stringent gun laws. After visiting Houston, he criticized the city’s aesthetics, saying, “This is what happens when you don’t have zoning.”

9. Rep. Michael Castle (Del.)
As president of the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership and key player in the so-called Tuesday Group lunches, he is a ring-leader of RINOs. He’s teamed with Democrats to make federal funding of embryonic stem cell research one of his top priorities.

10. Rep. Jim Leach (Iowa)
One of only six House Republicans to vote against the Iraq War resolution in 2002, he was also the only Republican to vote against President Bush’s 2003 tax cuts. His support for environmental causes and abortion rights has won him liberal fans.

Conservatism, 1940s Style

Check out this piece from the Atlantic Monthly written by a 20-something conservative in 1940, in the middle of a notably bad stretch for conservative politicians and intellectuals. A few choice quotes for historical interest, and then a discussion of why this exposition of conservatism is enlightening:

We are witnessing strange and terrible events. It is the deluge time, the time of the breaking of nations... I write from the point of view of millions of ordinary young college graduates trying sincerely to answer two questions: What values are enduring enough to survive all these crashing panaceas? What means must we use to save these precious values?

What do I mean by 'conservative'? Conservatism must include what Thomas Mann calls humanism: the conservation of our cultural, spiritual, and individualist heritage. Common sense is notoriously the oracle of conservatism. But, at its best, common sense means no mere unimaginative shrewdness. It means the common and universal sense of mankind, the common values basic to every civilized society and creed. These human values are the traffic lights which all (even 'mass movements') must obey in order that all may be free...

The conservative's principle of principles is the necessity and supremacy of Law and of absolute standards of conduct. I capitalize 'Law,' and I mean it. Suppose it were proved that the eternal absolutes do not really exist. Instinctively we should say: So much the worse for them. But now we must learn to say: So much the worse for existence! We have learned that from sad experience of centuries. Paradoxically, we have learned that man can only maintain his material existence by guiding it by the materially nonexistent: by the absolute moral laws of the spirit.

By 'Law' I do not mean all existing laws. All are not necessarily good. By 'Law' I mean the legal way as a way to whatever goals we may seek; I mean it as a way of living. This way is necessarily freedom's prerequisite. In this sense, Law must tread pitilessly upon individuals, nations, classes. It must trample with callous and sublime indifference upon their economic interests yes, even their economic interests- and their 'healthy instincts of the race.'

You weaken the magic of all good laws every time you break a bad one, every time you allow mob lynching of even the guiltiest criminal. I said 'magic' deliberately. Social stability rests to some extent on the aura surrounding our basic institutions. Such aura-wreathed pillars of tradition in various modern nations are the United States Supreme Court, an established Church, monarchy, a nonpartisan civil service and the aristocracy trained from birth to fill it. This social cement of tradition is too essential for every well-meaning, humanitarian Tom, Dick, and Harry to tinker with. It keeps us from relapsing into the barbarism inherent in our simian nature and in all mob 'awakenings.'

As menacing as open anarchists are those who discredit traditional institutions, not by attack, but by excess exploitation. The man who uses our institutions and Law as a barrier to, instead of a vehicle for, democratic reform is the real anarchist. I don't care a hoot whether any country, including ours, decides to use capitalism or socialism or any other material-ism, so long as it is attained through the vehicle of the traditional framework; so long as it is orthodoxly baptized and knighted by the magic wand of tradition; so long as it does not live 'without the Law.' I repeat: if moral absolutes do not exist, it is not so much the worse for them, but so much the worse for existence.

While I do see the wisdom in a concern that freedom must exist in the context of culturally appropriate order, here is the problem with the heart of his thesis: if moral absolutes do not exist, it is not so much the worse for them, but so much the worse for existence.

Besides the fact that the statement reflects little more than an assertion of his strong wish that these absolutes exist, the very statement implies there is a choice we have in accepting or selecting among a menu of moral absolutes. It is precisely this ability to accept or reject individual absolutes that proves that conceiving of morality in this way is absurd.

Let us put it another way, as Sydney Hook points out, in any moral decision there is a tension between two possible moral principles. Choosing what to do is elevating one principle above the other. Therefore, any moral system with more than one principle must allow that some principles are weighted more than others. But as soon as you allow that, then the whole concept of an 'absolute moral principle' becomes absurd--there is instead a graduated hierarchy of principles, and we are each left to determine where the principles in tension fall on the hierarchy. This situation is functionally the same as moral relativism.

I am not a moral relativist (I favor something like John Dewey's ethics) but I recognize the logical absurdity of moral systems that purport to exclusive claims to truth. There can be a conservativism that aligns itself with the roots of wisdom in our civilization's institutions without falling into dogmatism, if it renounces the claim to metaphysical grounding.

That is to say, one can believe in marriage as an institution but still realize the needs of gay couples need to be met by our societal institutions in some way; marriage is a tool to create families and protect interpersonal love, not an end in itself. One can revere the Christmas holiday as a national and cultural festival while remaining mindful that the themes of its root metaphors--hope, light--are incompatible with the idea of their competing with other festivals celebrating the same things.

Those of us who would follow a moderate way, cherishing our roots in American culture and institutions with the same intensity that we use them to claim the future as our own, need to articulate this vision better, or the loudest voices will be the extremes--of those who cannot see the possibilities of human agency acting upon tradition, or of those who would shed the accumulated wisdom of the years in a self-defeating quest for ungrounded abstractions.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Heresy and Healing

Many people became Unitarian-Universalists as an alternative to faiths of origin that no longer rang true. As Rev Thom points out, there are a number of ways to be a 'heretic,' some more constructive than others. But the most difficult heresy is one that returns to orthodoxy and reexamines it.

If you are or have ever been in a close relationship, I want you to imagine that. It can be your husband, wife, partner, boyfriend, girlfriend, even a real close friend, or a relative. Now imagine something that you are different, or opposite about... In relationships, we do this, don’t we: I’m messy; she’s clean. I’m a morning person; he’s a night owl. I’m organized; she’s disorganized. Got it? Take a moment and come up with your own example? I want to propose that some of these dualities we think of are not absolutely true, but are for us sort of a myth. That we are not really all the time either one thing or the other, but we are a lot of times both. And your partner is both too. Most people are both messy and clean. Both outgoing and shy. Both reserved and adventurous. Sometimes one and sometimes the other, but that within each of you individually there lies some trace of both of these. However, we tend to polarize our differences to construct our own identities, but these identities, in turn, don’t allow us to be wholly who we are.

I’m proposing that we are all, in a way, actually both orthodox and heretical...

This is perhaps the greatest heresy of all. The heresy that ever seeks to expand upon any belief system or doctrine or religious institution, the heresy that proposes that yet more may be possible. The heresy that may bring back as new what had formally been rejected, that sings old words but sees them made new. The heresy that connects things and makes them whole, and frees us from assigned roles, frees us from reactivity and rejection, that frees us even from the new roles and definitions we’ve constructed for ourselves.

The whole sermon is interesting, so I do suggest following the link...

But I find the idea of radical heresy freeing ourselves from our own constructed roles and definitions very compelling. For when we become too enamored of the products of reason, that is where dogmatism, stubbornness and strife begin to grow.

Here is a practical example: global warming. The old orthodoxy was that technological progress is beneficial, and that the earth is resilient. The heresy came when environmentalists asserted the earth's ecosystem can be damaged if we're not careful. However, the greenhouse effect has become orthodoxy both within and without the scientific community, despite a number of serious logical flaws (most saliently, in my mind, is the lack of temporal correlation between global temperatures and atmospheric CO2 levels during the 20th Century). I don't know whether the industry-->CO2-->climate change causality chain is true, but I do know that I will be regarded as a heretic by questioning it.

What Rev Thom is saying, though, is that if a global warming believer will have the most success by re-engaging the idea of technological progress and commercial activity as having the potential to benefit the world rather than rejecting them altogether; not least because it is impossible to do so.

We had a service in my UU church this week about global warming, and if you replaced the words 'greenhouse gasses' with 'sin' it would have had both the tenor and the content of an evangelical revival meeting. This service lacked the sensibility to meet the 'nonbeliever' half way, and see what kernel of truth might lie in doubt. When we have shed all doubt, we have shed the capacity to reason.

Monday, January 02, 2006

On Evolutionary Psychology

Robert Kurzban at Penn is an evolutionary psychologist--he studies how behavior can be explained from an evolutionary context. This is different from 'Social Darwinism'--it is an experimental project without a presupposed racial or political ideology, though conclusions with societal implications may be drawn.

Here are some highlights from a post by TDAXP:

Men are more cooperative than women. Dr. Kurzban talked about "competitive cooperation" as the basis for social cohesion. If a group of people are playing a game against each other, they will be fractious regardless of their gender make-up. However, if the players learn there is another group, all-male groups quickly settle their internal differences and cooperate with each other, without being told that they will be competing against the other group.

Racism exists as long as it is cheap. People can fall into racial roles when a group is playing with itself. However, once the other group is learned about, racial roles go away. The drive to prepare for competition against the out-group with the in-group by cooperating within the group overwhelms pre-existing racial treatment.

Women scramble social hierarchies. As part of their rapid cooperation in the face of competition, all-male groups establish a clear and consensual social order. This does not happen in mixed-sex or all-female groups. The situation in integrated or all-female groups is closer to anarchy, with no clear order-of-dominance ever being established.

People love to punish wrongdoers, especially when others are watching. Dr. Kurzban described a trust game, where Player A could split $20 between himself and Player B, or give it to Player B and have it double. Player B could then keep almost all the $40 for himself, or split it evenly with Player A.

After Player A and Player B left, Player C was brought in as a "judge." In places were Player B kept most of the money for himself, ignoring the trusting Player A, Player C could use some of her money to punish Player C at a 3-to-1 ratio.

This was done under three different conditions. In all three Player C would have to write down his judgement on a sheet of paper.

Player C gave his answer through a complicated system that guaranteed no one would ever know if and how much he punished Player A. Player C's decision was completely anonymous.

Player C wrote down if and how much he would punish Player A, knowing a researcher would look over the answer "just to make sure the paper was filled out correctly."

Player C announced his decision in front of the other players

In all three cases Player C tended to punish Player A. Player C punished the least when it was secret, a lot when just one researcher knew, and a little bit more than that when everyone knew.

I leave it to the reader to speculate on any political implications of these findings.

Also, I would add that some believe that the inciting motive for inter-group ape violence is pre-emption. If the deepest human psychological motive for war is pre-emption as well, perhaps the most high-yield international convention possible would be to proscribe that particular justification for war as indefensible.

Chinese Economy Growing but Not Menacing

Happy New Year everyone, I'm back from my holiday break and writing again.

Bloomburg's John Berry writes that China's economy is nowhere near matching the US's and that China's main presumed strength, its population, will become a shrinking factor in years to come.

Partly as the result of continued immigration, legal and illegal, U.S. population is increasing by 0.92 percent a year... With no net immigration and with its government's harsh rule of one child per family, China's population is expanding at a much smaller 0.58 percent rate. Surprisingly, given the enormous difference in current populations, Census Bureau projections show that between now and 2050, the U.S. population will rise by 124 million while the Chinese population will increase slightly less, by only 118 million. If those projections prove accurate, the Chinese likely would have no great advantage in terms of a burgeoning labor force as an ingredient for economic growth.

These observations are in the same vein as those from a previous post.

If we allow ourselves to be overcome with fear of foreign competition, we could be tempted to enact protectionist legislation that is harmful to both the US and Chinese economies in the long run.