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.

Morality and Politics

Fire and Brimstone

The typical sort of campus preachers made their rounds at my school this past week, and normally that wouldn’t be particularly notable. In fact, normally I hardly pay any mind myself. For one reason or another, there was a stronger reaction this semester, which could be due to any number of reasons that I am not particularly interested in exploring.

I have been going to my current school for several years now, the first few as a part time student. Campus preachers are part of the norm, especially during the warmer months of the semester (even God’s chosen apparently can’t handle the cold). In my experience, most people walk away or entirely avoid the quad when the Quad God is out. Thankfully, this semester the preachers have been attracting a large number of people, which I find highly entertaining. If people are arguing, then I have the opportunity to gauge people’s thought processes; if they are mocking and shouting, that alone can be amusing. After class a few days this week I walked out to the quad and observed the goings-on, and I picked up on a few differing points of view.

The most vocal group of people most of the time was of course those who simply reversed the rhetorical strategy of the preacher. By that, I mean that while he was shouting that all sinners were damned, that “homosex is an abomination” (that’s an exact quote!), or that women should “keep their mouths shut,” there were those who would fling right back. Some shouted obscenities, one person plugged in his guitar and amp with some hefty volume and blared noise, and so on. The details are less important than the reaction. The reaction was anger. The reaction was that this person was being offensive, so he ought to be silenced. Indeed, someone called the campus police to remove him. This seems wrong. If I believe that all people should be treated with love and respect (as these people seemed to think), then I am not allowed to renege on my beliefs at some moment at my convenience. That alone is reason enough to give people with even the most vile of speech the right to say as they please.

There were plenty of folks who stopped by out of pure curiosity, yours truly among them. Most in this group seemed content to discuss among themselves what they believed about what people were saying. Some found the situation goofy, others were troubled, and occasionally a few tried to inject some calmer language into the gathering, which brings me to my point.

As the throng ebbed and flowed throughout the afternoon, there was usually one reason that it began to build up: someone had something different to say (and it wasn’t someone screaming about Hulkamania). There seemed to be three distinct responses. The first two I think are actually the most related. Some people claimed to be Christians themselves, but objected to what the preacher was saying. The preacher, they would say, does not know how to win souls – he was condemning people, not loving them. In other words, these people disagreed on a matter of method, not of substance. The second group were irreligionists who rejected outright the claims of God altogether. They also agreed with the substance (that the Bible calls for an eternal hell for the unsaved/unrighteous), but disagreed in that they believe the Bible is not a depiction of truth. These people also agreed with the substance of the matter, and disagreed with the method (they believe there is no need for a method at all, as the substance is unimportant).

There was still a third, smaller group, of which I am a part. These people, by all accounts, were Christians, but they disagreed with the preacher on a matter of method and of substance. At a couple points these people spoke out, but mostly I overheard agreement among conversation. These people seemed inclined towards a belief that “God is Love,” and that the Bible and spiritual experience should be interpreted from that. I want to draw this line quite clearly – they are in opposition to the view of the first group I mentioned. The first group believes there is such thing as a wrath of God (wrath is a sin, no?) and that wrath will be incurred upon people who do not accept Jesus Christ. I believe this is an inconsistent and illogical view, but the reasons for that belong in a separate post. The third group disagree with the first strongly. They believe in the priority that God is Love, and reject the idea of eternal hell (and usually hell altogether). I believe this distinction is of the utmost importance.

My point has been largely made, but I also want to explain one last key bit of information. I do not consider the first group of people to be in favor of tolerance. While a man spouts hatred of gays, women, and all people (dubbed “sinners”), they tell the man, “No, you can’t say that!” When the other groups are saying, “No, you are wrong!” Disagreeing with a man’s vocabulary because it is too offensive does not change the idea behind the words. These people believe that God will overlook the fact that you are gay, that he will forgive when a woman disagrees with her husband, that he indeed does not love all equally, unconditionally. In biting their tongues and playing games with semantics, they prove themselves no allies of love amongst all. I believe this view is cowardly and uninformed. For those who disagree, I welcome you to read the Bible, or at least 1 John 4. If God’s love is truly unconditional, he does not hate, and he does not condemn. Think critically, deeply, and peacefully, friends.

Fire and Brimstone

Hope, addendum

Recently, as I mentioned in my last post, the topic of hope has been something that I’ve spent a lot of time musing over. Because hope is so personal, so human, and yet it can be so rational, it is really quite interesting to me. As someone whose main goal in life is to seek and identify truth, I find it fascinating to mull over the concept of hope because of this seeming contradiction.

Human experience sometimes seems spiritual, as though it is something so innate in ourselves and in our environments that we simply cannot explain it. When I wake up and sit outside with my cup of coffee in the morning, there is something deeply moving and wonderful about that. I experience the world on a new, perhaps better level, one that I normally cannot attain while I go about my daily grind. It is moments like these that I try to create throughout my day, and sometimes they manage to creep in my schedule, when I hadn’t intended on it. I do not think that I can necessarily equate or correlate hope with this kind of spiritual idea, but my level of hope is often affected by my ability to appreciate small experiences throughout my day.

I today finished reading Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell. My opinions regarding religion and his personal views aside, I was utterly inspired by his take on life and people. He was able to absolutely nail many ideas that I struggle to explain, and he took it even further, finding strands in the logical web that I hadn’t even considered before. He latches on to the idea that simplicity and living harmoniously with other people and the world around us is absolutely key, and I cannot agree more. Regardless of how my various opinions change throughout my life, something that has never changed is that I hold to the idea that our culture is too fast. We’re too hasty, too preoccupied, and too selfish. We are so incredibly focused on the task that is before us that we don’t even bother to remember why we’re pursuing it in the first place, and that is a fact that needs to change immediately. It is the idea that money, things, and prestige are our goals that prevents us from simplicity and harmony. This idea transcends all others, I believe. My political views are influenced by this idea, my opinions on religion, my philosophy, the very lens through which I see the world.

How to enable the world to experience this kind of deep harmony is tough. I haven’t experienced enough, nor have I read enough, to know whether the richest can feel it, or whether the starving can know it. I am quite certain that if we can develop a world where the starving are fed and the rich are selfless, that we will finally know harmony, and with it, peace.

That last paragraph is what causes me trouble. I don’t know if it makes me sound naive, too optimistic, silly, or what have you. I just refuse to believe that our situation is hopeless, because without that hope, what else is there? If we are all destined for despair in our very existence, why hope? We don’t just hope because we have to; we also hope because it is there. There is a reason for it. We can fix things. Hope is the feeling that I believe can motivate us to promote greater welfare throughout the world, so that maybe someday, everyone can experience peace. There will always be some element of pain, and I don’t think we can divorce that from our lives. Because it is inevitable, the best way we can deal with pain is to manipulate it to better ourselves. I can’t think of a more noble goal than this kind of betterment of society.

With that potentially convoluted set of thoughts out there, I’d recommend you check out Velvet Elvis. Regardless of your religious views, I think from a philosophical standpoint it is excellent, and you might be able to take something from it.

Hope, addendum