The Open Mind VII – the One and the Many: Riposte

ShrinkWrapped has responded to my opening post of The Open Mind VII. Comments on his post are closed here and should be left at ShrinkWrapped. All previous rounds in this series can be found at the right of the horizontal drop-down menu above.

The Open Mind VII – the One and the Many: Riposte

There is much to enjoy and appreciate in Jay’s post in which he attempts to delineate the socio-political philosophical underpinnings of his Liberalism.  In his discussion of the tension between the individual and the community’s (contra collective’s) interests, Jay falls back on one of his principles,worth quoting in full:

Technology increases affective connections, which are loosened by the distance that technology narrows. The greater the affective connection, the greater the sense of mutual moral responsibility. Notions of discrete and separable, autonomous individuality, neither responsible to nor the responsibility of others, are irreversibly challenged by population density and technology, and the increased effect of human actions on other humans. It is necessary to define what core autonomy need be protected, as an essential human good, but earlier stages of political relation, of individuals to each other, and of individuals to the commonweal, will not be recovered.

From this vantage point, in the comments, a discussion emerged concerning the wisdom of basing one’s moral and political system upon affective connections.  As usual, the comments to Jay’s post are enlightening and very helpful in organizing my own thoughts about his presentation.  There is a great deal of merit on both sides of the issue.  Without any affective connection, reason alone will be insufficient to redress injustice.  For example, the plight of the victims of the Congolese Civil War, which has already taken upwards of 5 million lives, or the genocide in Darfur, the horrors in Burma or North Korea simply do not touch enough people for us to undertake whatever means might be necessary to redress these evils.  Further, Realpolitik suggests that these victim do not have enough strategic importance to the United States, and indeed the Civilized World, for us to become more directly involved.  Their only hook is our morality and ethics, and without a more profound affective connection, this is insufficient to mobilize the West with anything more than the occasional cross word for the perpetrators.  In the Congo, Darfur, Burma, North Korea, et al, the victims are far away, geographically, genetically, and psychologically.  We tend to have a stronger and deeper affective connection to those with whom we share significant genetics (ie, our extended family/tribe, which is, after all, what ethnic groups are),  psychology and propinquity.  This is not a controversial point; we have more concerns with those who are like us than those who are unlike us; this is one of the difficulties facing the American Indians in their quest for justice (the level to which they are entitled being a matter of some distinction between Jay and me, though admittedly I have not given the issue a great deal of thought over the years, as Jay has.) It is also why Polar Bears are the poster children for the AGW people, rather than the equally threatened frogs and lizards whose decline is at least as connected to climate change as the (non)-decline of the thriving 11 out of 12 distinct Polar Bear populations.

[Of note, this affective bond can be a negative bond as well.  Merely consider the Passionate Intensity which the Jews arouse in the Left.  Their negative passion, ie hatred, impels them to give far more time, attention, and energy to fighting the “evils” of the Jews than redressing conflicts in which the evil is far more profound and the victims an exponentially higher number.  The Narcissism of Small Differences, also discussed here, is a significant factor in this as well.  Love and Hate are simply mirror image passions with the valences reversed.]

Gloria made a provocative (as in thought provoking) comment which led to some illuminating discussion to Jay’s post:

Whereas affects are natural givens, a “sense of moral responsibility” is a cultural invention. We see this distinction in our empirical world in animals. All mammals (but no reptiles) have affects. (Reptiles have no affects because they don’t have a limbic system.) But the only mammals that have “moral responsibility” are humans. Animals have no sense of The Moral, or as Plato called it, The Good.

You have presented us with a philosophy which tries to connect affects (an aspect of the natural world) with a phenomenon, moral responsibility, which does not and cannot be described as a natural phenomenon. In sum, you have tried to naturalize morality or ethics and that is both logically and empirically impossible. The natural sciences can explain affects, but they cannot explain moral responsibility. My feelings about something have nothing to do with whether or not I am responsible or should be responsible for that something.

Your particular discussion of the one and the many, however, is extremely useful in understanding the liberal position on many things. You have presented a naturalized ontology of the world. I suppose one could say it is a completely materialistic ontology. It is instructive for me, as an atheist, to see that a completely materialistic ontology is fundamentally flawed logically and empirically. I don’t think I have to turn to the idea of God, however, in order to explain how and why it is necessary too have a “sense of moral responsibility.” I think such a “sense” can be argued for on the basis of reason.

[As an aside, I would welcome a discussion by Gloria about how a sense of moral responsibility can be argued for on the basis of reason alone.  I am not clear how morality divorced from the (hypothesized) Divine can operationally be anything more than a complex system for rationalizing the gratification of our desires.  Consider this an invitation to guest blog such a post or posts here, Gloria.]

A politics based primarily on Affective ties can easily lead to a society that tramples on the rights of those whose hold on our empathy are minimal (today “Capitalists”, Jews, Bankers, Oil men; in the past Indians, Jews, Blacks, Italians, Irish) in the name of championing the rights of the victim classes.  Yet we also know that a culture organized around reason alone can become even more monstrous; the National Socialists killed millions in the name of a rational state;the atheist heirs to Scientific Socialism killed even more millions.

In reality it is impossible to divorce rationalism and affectivity.  We need a synthesis of the two.  There are disadvantaged communities which would never succeed purely on the basis of their affective pull on our empathy  Yet, if the state, which after all is based on consensus coercion and force, insists we devote more than what is “fair” to the needs of those to whom there is little affective connection or an inimical connection, the seeds of resentment and revolt are sewn.

Which brings us to the crux of the mater.  What is “fair”?  As a traditional liberal I have always been comfortable paying my taxes knowing some of it was being misused to support drug addicts and welfare queens but appreciating that the majority of the recipients of my largess via the state were deserving of my help.  As my taxes crept up, my resentment also crept up.  I see more and more abuse and gaming of the system firsthand as time goes by and a culture of entitlement spreads.  I have also reached the cut-off point.  I do not think it is sustainable or fair for anyone to pay more than half of his or her income to support others.  My effective tax rate in the most liberal of states, New York, is at or close to 50%.  This seems to me to be a reasonable cut off point for the state’s ravenous appetite.  In reality, higher rates of taxation have been shown to be counterproductive since they encourage those who are able, to devote their efforts toward minimizing their taxes rather than toward more productive endeavors.

Ultimately, although I believe the Conservative position that elevates the individual above the community is theoretically preferable to the Liberal position which privileges the community, either side taken to extremes is problematic.  As I noted in my long ago post on The Narcissism of Small Differences, both sides of the divide have had many of their baseline positions accepted:

My suspicion is that the rage fueling both the left and right shares some fundamental characteristics and is a result of the (partial) triumph of their ideologies.

It is easy to see that the basics of liberalism have been adopted and are no longer really questioned by almost the entire society.  We would all agree that an adequate safety net is a fundamental prerequisite for civil society.  Almost everyone would agree that government’s role includes regulating the exercise of capitalism in order to ensure a reasonably level playing field.  Most of the right’s arguments with liberalism concern the various threshold limits for invoking the safety net and the level of intrusiveness of the regulations acceptable for a dynamic economy to function at its best.  On the far left, the dream of a socialist or communist Utopia have been crushed, and the moderate middle has very little interest in experimenting with socialism.  The moderates will elect a quasi-socialist but only when they disguise their socialist proclivities for general consumption.  Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are not going to publicly run on the slogan, “Vote for Hillary/Barack to Socialize Medicine-Bureaucracy is Healthy for You.”  Some of their policies may well push us toward socialized medicine but it will be incremental and when it fails, we will move away from their prescriptions.

That is just one policy area but should illustrate the point.  The arguments within the parties are on the margins.  Ideology purity, either left or right, is incompatible with electoral acceptance by the broad middle.

At the same time many of the core Conservative formulations have also been accepted by the vast majority.  We are unlikely to see national gun control.  Abortion is becoming socially less acceptable and the extreme positions, of abortion on demand until the moment of birth, have been repudiated.   Lower taxes are here to stay.  This may be overlooked by those who do not recall 75% marginal tax rates, but today’s discussions revolve around the cost/benefit of 38% versus 35% for the highest rates.  We are not likely to see 75% or 91% income tax rates again, any time soon.  The consensus has spoken.

Obama’s malefic failure has been to destabilize that consensus.  He has not attempted to manage from the center, shifting the polity slightly further to the Left.  He has overtly attempted to govern form the far Left, abandoning traditional consensus positions and alienating more and more Americans by the day.

I believe that Jay remains a principled Liberal which means that our differences, operationally, come down to disagreements over where the balance should settle between the individual and the community rather than on the necessity of such a synthesis.  We shall see if he agrees.

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