Morality and Politics

One of the most frustrating parts about modern politics (and perhaps politics throughout history) is that it seems to me that behind the scenes, we are still duking it out over some of the oldest moral debates: is something moral because of its results (what we attribute to it), or is something moral in and of itself? In other words, do we construct moral principles or are moral principles discoverable objects of the universe?

It’s very easy to see this in political discourse. There are some certain groups of people who act purely egoistically, seeking their own personal gain and satisfaction purely, even at the expense of vast numbers of people. Think Charles and David Koch, Wall Street bankers, and a significant number of our politicians (if not all of them). There are other certain groups of people who discuss high-minded idealisms, seeking some sort of end goal in society through their political action. Think Occupy (yeah, I know), the Tea Party (yeah, I know), and all sorts of people across the spectrum who are involved in politics to effect some sort of change change in the system. I want to differentiate these two groups from the outset. The first group is purely selfish: the only change they ever seek is change which improves their own personal lot in life. They are nihilistic in the worst way. The other group, regardless of how you feel about their individual beliefs, is revolutionary. Rather than seeking to benefit only themselves, they seek to reach some end goal that they believe is morally better. It is, at least potentially, an altruistic goal.

I want to set aside the egoists for now. As far as I’m concerned, they should have no say in the political system, because we cannot trust their actions or their words. That’s a discussion for another time, though. Let’s focus on the altruists, who I believe are the majority (numerically speaking; by definition the egoists have more money). Within this group, I believe we find the moral debate I referenced in the first paragraph. You have the top-down ethicists (deontologists) who want to enact change based on a set of principles, regardless of their consequences. On the other hand, you have the bottom-up ethicists (consequentialists) who want to enact change based on results. There have been studies that compare people that have found evidence supporting the idea that we might be naturally deontologists or consquentialists, but that’s another discussion for another time. Moreover, I think studies like that might only lend some small amount of wisdom.

I will try to cut through a lot of the less important information and get to something resembling a point. What I conclude from this observation is that even if we adjust for the fact that moneyed interests (egoists) have influenced our political debate in their favor, it seems to me that change is very difficult to enact. This is because agreement is hard to come by. Those of us who argue for results-based policy have a hard time arguing against those who believe in principled policy, simply because a lot of the time we might want results that conflict with those principles. I do think that there is a way out, though. We need to agree on a new set of principles. Behind the scenes, I think that deontologists and consequentialists are secretly envious of the other side. Sometimes we engage in the other’s tactics in order to get our larger point across. In other words, we’re not as intellectually consistent as we pretend to be. Because of this, I think there’s an opening.

What principles should we agree upon? That’s a matter of debate, but I think there’s one that we must all agree upon. I think it’s non-negotiable. I think that without this principle, we are doomed to continually repeat the cycle of oppression and revolution that has existed throughout history. We must value human life above all else. I don’t mean human life in the categorical sense. I mean each individual human life. We must seek the maximization of every individual person. From this, I believe we get certain resultant principles: people shouldn’t harm one another, people shouldn’t seek personal gain at another’s expense, people should treat each other as equals, etc. I think this satisfies both the deontologists and the consequentialists, and if we argue from these principles (and we argue honestly!), we can reach some conclusions upon which we all agree.

It’s lofty. It’s kind of ridiculous, and it will likely not happen. I think it is at least possible, though, and that hope is worth my time and effort. I want to develop these ideas quite a bit further, but I think they should be considered.

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Morality and Politics

Dissonance in Life

The modern mind is filled with incredible amounts of cognitive dissonance. We are inundated with incredible amounts of information, especially now in the era of the internet, to the point that I don’t know if our minds can fully cope. I don’t think this idea is particularly nuanced, but I also do not believe it is very common at all (at least in my own experience). I think one of the major flaws of human thinking throughout the millenia is that we tend to view our own systems of logic and reasoning to be inherently perfect. Even those who did not believe them to be perfect at least usually thought they are fairly reliable. However, such a belief is circular. Even my argument here is circular.

For this reason, then, I find that all human reasoning seems to be circular, at bottom. It is remarkably useful, though, and it at least appears to have a rather excellent track record when we test our reasoning against the world around us and against the reasoning of others. I do not consider this to be really a profound statement at all, but it is still quite humbling to know that, regardless of how intelligent I think I might be, my knowledge cannot be known to be truth. My beliefs are likely to be founded on shaky ground that I do not understand (ground which many of us, and in cases all of us, do not understand). It therefore is, I think, imperative to be glad to hear the thoughts of others, and especially those of people who also recognize the inherent uncertainty of human reasoning.

To return to my thoughts on cognitive dissonance, I believe that the modern society (primarily in the West, with which I am most familiar) is based on an ideal that is almost utopian in thought and militant in action. To preface, I have to mention that I am a major believer in technology, in learning, and in modernity. As much as I enjoy fantasy books, I also very much like to work with computers and to drive a car and have modern medicine. Given that, I also think that we should be careful with technology. Technology should not be an end in and of itself – it should serve the greater good. (I also believe that because we all, in our participation in the economy, enable the use of technology to increase production, should all benefit similarly from that increase in production. That is another topic for another time, though.) I grow concerned that we use the tool for its own sake rather than to benefit from it somehow. Whether that is because we naturally like bright screens or we like sitting around and not doing anything active, it is something we must recognize as detrimental to human health and happiness.

Being constantly hooked into the system, we are susceptible to cursory understanding of things, and therefore are likely to experience cognitive dissonance. We know that television is harmful to our health, but we also love to read culture articles raving about how great House of Cards is. To create a dissonance where we want to avoid television because it is harmful but we want to watch because it’s just so good seems to create almost an anxiety (or perhaps guilt) in people. Understanding that advertisements are meant to sucker us in, and then happily humming along to tune to the advertisement we just heard, is, I think, a form of cognitive dissonance. We recognize the purpose of an advertisement and many of us are able to rebuff it, but we still allow the advertisement to achieve its purpose. The same things are used in politics constantly. When we willfully participate and legitimize a political system we know is corrupt, we create a dissonance that makes us feel entirely helpless. Others happily participate and indeed feel like they are making a positive difference (and hopefully they are!), but often they have to push those feelings of helplessness aside. Perhaps I am wrong about many people, but I think for a significant number, these examples of cognitive dissonance are reality and they are huge problems.

I don’t myself know if the society is so corrupt that there is nothing to be done. Perhaps; perhaps not. I have found that rooting out cognitive dissonance in my own mind is highly encouraging and has helped me to be happier with the world we live in. At some point I would like to post also about my thoughts on human happiness, but I think that I will also save for another time. I do truly encourage you to begin to search for evidence of cognitive dissonance in your life and try to remove it. Being consistent in my mind and in my life has helped me to both be able to analyze the elements of society I encounter, to be a better person, and to simply be happier – a very human, very ethical goal.

Dissonance in Life

Political theatre

I’m borrowing a term that, admittedly, is entirely non-clever and unoriginal for what I’d like to discuss here. The political theatre is probably an unfamiliar term for the majority of people, but I find that there really isn’t anything that’s a better explanation of the way that our modern system operates. However, I mean this a little more deeply than is probably to be expected.

When we talk about the political theatre, usually we use the term just to describe all the things that go along in politics, similarly to when we use the term “the sports arena.” However, that is entirely not the case here, and that is why I am somewhat reluctant to even use it. Politics simply is a theatre. It is an entertainment show, nothing more. It should occur to most people that most of politics seems to be focused on highly polarizing or highly emotional issues. It is not even simply this – political types attempt to focus and proliferate the passion that is associated with different issues in a way that amplifies the negative effects from the strife. For instance, Republicans and Democrats in the United States have been arguing over abortion for decades. The fact that politicians focus solely on this issue so often (think about how Republicans and Democrats get famous – it’s over issues like this [see Wendy Davis for example]) only illustrates the point further that there is an incentive for this obsession: an easy wedge issue for campaigns, and a distraction. These are two things that any politician is more than happy to have.

When you begin to think about it, politics in America (and across the world) has been so dramatized and personalized that now we experience something new – a rising class of elites that is directly pitted against the “little people.” This rising class of elites possesses a significant amount of control straight from the hands of the public because they are elected to act on wedge issues – issues which will never go away as long as these politicians want to hold sway over the public. While we argue about social problems, the politicians continue to get rich and make their friends rich. I have a lot of trouble believing that income inequality in the United States and other Western nations exists for much reason beyond this corruption. The fact that rich folks often pay less in effective taxes than the rest only goes to show that the focus of politicians is not on governing – it’s on wealth.

Insofar as getting out of a hole like this is concerned, I don’t know if there is much a person can do for now. The only way for a few ultra-powerful elites to be toppled is for a vast majority to oppose them. For now, most people would rather play right into their hands. Even now, the elites seize on the income inequality issue and attempt to make little band-aids to fix the “problem” (minimum wage, etc.), when the problem they see is merely a symptom of the pathogen they have injected and inflamed in our society – absolute corruption and greed in the face of all reason and compassion for other human beings. We have a serious problem, and it’s primarily a problem of information. Don’t get caught into the left-right dichotomy that has been set up for us – because it is not truly about left versus right. It has not been for a long time.

Political theatre

An idea on straw men

It is a well-understood psychological principle that humans tend to attribute blame in a very lopsided manner. If you trip over a rock, you are clumsy. If I trip over that same rock, I merely made a mistake. I contend that we attribute an entire pattern of behaviors based on a single action to others, while we excuse our own actions as being entirely individual circumstances.

Why is this even important? I’ve noticed in reading, listening to, and watching various debates and cases made for and against various moral, religious, philosophical, and political ideas and intuitions that people tend to take singular behaviors and statements (x said y, therefore she thinks z) and therefore create a straw man that is not actually perceived to be a straw man. I have noticed that so much of our philosophical and political discourse in modern times is based entirely on knocking down these straw men instead of actually discussing pragmatically and generously the issue at hand.

One of the problems that causes me the most grievance when discussing important matters such as these is that we tend to cherrypick problems with our opponent’s arguments instead of being philosophically generous. To state this another way, in order to actually solve problems, we need to cease being so beholden to our own ideas, which often are not even ideas which originated from our own minds, that we are unable to see another person’s perspective. So often we will be more interested in winning the argument than winning the big picture. We see our opponents as being morally repugnant, when in reality they often merely diverted to a different direction in their logic at some point. Instead of attributing decent intentions to our opponents, we paint them in a light that prevents us from actually getting to the bottom of the problem and finding a solution.

Let me use abortion as an example. This debate is actually one of the few in America which I think there are genuine disagreements about. Some people prioritize the life of a fetus over other priorities, while others do the opposite. However, instead of even attempting to understand the point of view of those on the opposite side, most of us are content to throw insults at the other and develop our own echo chamber so that we feel vindicated. I think there genuinely is a way for us to come to an agreement on this issue. Perhaps it involves compromise. The point is, though, that we cannot come to an agreement if we generalize all anti-abortion advocates as wacky right-wing fundies and all pro-choice advocates as callous baby killers, we will never stop fighting. We will never come to a conclusion. There will never be satisfaction.

To wrap things up, we need to be aware of our tendencies. We need to be aware of our individual psychologies and personalities. We cannot operate in a modern technological society if we are unable to be aware of our shortcomings both as individuals and a species. This is one of the reasons I think psychology should be a mandatory class in high school. We have to learn about ourselves to better understand how to interpret evidence and come to pragmatic conclusions – and how to understand each others and compromise. There’s no other way.

An idea on straw men

The free will fantasy

One of the most common arguments that I encounter as an opposition to a science-based worldview is that science proves a determined universe, and many people are unwilling to accept such a notion. While this argument has nothing to do with the actual truth of free will versus determinism, it is nevertheless something that I think seems to convince a lot of us. For a long time, it was something that bothered me enough that I was rather unwilling to accept the scientific reality of determinism. However, this dichotomy is false. Moreover, the version of free will that we are so used to believing is more than just false – it is impossible and logically incoherent.

Let me illustrate this by bringing up one of the ideas that Socrates had about the goodness of people. Normally I am very anti-Socratic, but this is an idea which definitely resonates with me and with which I agree. Socrates argues in The Republic that people never choose to do something bad. We always make a choice that seems to be the most advantageous to us. While it might be true (and probably most often is true) that we are wrong about what is most advantageous, all of our choices reflect that singular principle: “What will give me the optimal results?” For instance, when I choose to either eat an ice cream cone or some raw vegetables, I weight the consequences. Perhaps I need to lose weight. Perhaps the ice cream cone is less work than chopping up vegetables. Perhaps one is cheaper than the other. Maybe I have a craving for something sweet. There are any number of possible influences on my decision, but they all work their way up the chain and I can choose based on how important all these factors are to either eat the carrots, the ice cream cone, both, or neither.

What is interesting is that many people would say that was a free decision. It was not. I was constrained by all the different factors that led me to make those decisions. I could not choose to change any of those things. I made my decision based on the priorities that I found most important and the way I perceived them to correspond with reality. Let me give another example. As I am writing this post, the record I have playing will stop, and I will have a few options. I can replay it, I can flip it over and play the other side, I can play something else, or I can do nothing. My decision was limited by the inputs into my brain. I am ignorant to innumerable factors that I did not perceive. My decision could have been different had I known something else. Perhaps I had never listened to the B side, I play the B side, and I end up hating it. In retrospect, I wish I had not played it. Was my decision to play the B side free? No, because it was limited by the fact that I did not know I would not like the music on it.

This view of decisionmaking runs entirely contrary to the colloquial idea of free will. We like to think that we are fully in control of our lives, when in reality we are constrained entirely by our circumstances, our knowledge, and other such things. As a result, our actions are entirely determined by the factors that get filtered up to our conscious minds. This sort of free will is entirely a fantasy.

So does this mean that all of our actions are determined and inevitable? Do we really have a choice in what we do? I argue that we still do. The key word here is “inevitable.” Our decisions are not inevitable. Because of the nature of time and consciousness, we of course have the ability avoid certain fates (i.e. our fates are evitable, not inevitable). I can choose to eat the ice cream and change the record. It is my job to determine what priorities are more important than others. Our lives and our decisions are not inevitable, because we still have decisionmaking power and we can avoid consequences.

Think of the brain like a computer program. At the base level we have a BIOS which creates a framework upon which the operating system is situated. These are base-level programs, one on top of the other. On another level we have graphical interfaces. Upon that we have any number of additional programs which can have programs within them. There is no limit. Much like a computer, then, we have various levels of input and output. Our brains are layers of conscious and unconscious thought and perception. The decisionmaking aspect of our brain (our conscious selves) pulls in input from lower-level programs and subroutines and weighs them, analyzes them, and assigns values of priority. That is our job – to weigh priorities and determine what is best. We can change our minds. We can make mistakes. We still get to choose. We are still unique, and we still have free will. I think that is a very beautiful and inspiring truth.

If you have the time and are interested, I would recommend this talk by Daniel Dennett on the matter:

The free will fantasy