Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Morality: depolarizing the culture war debate with "psychological economics"

About a decade ago, on Monday, August 11, 1997, shortly after publishing my book after I returned from a weekend touring the Cold War bomb shelters in Greenbrier, W Va, there was a team building event at work, three weeks before I would transfer to Minneapolis. That evening we went over to Great Falls, MD on the Potomac for an evening of kayaking. Most of the people were gung-ho for it, and a couple of them were accomplished kayakers and river swimmers. I, of course, am not. The evening was to start with a “lesson” in which I had to demonstrate that I could emerge from underwater if the boat flipped. Of course, given my lack of “physical courage” (maybe I am too much like Robert Ford in a recent hit film) I failed out on that and had to sit out the evening as a spectator. It looks back to olden days, which I was the “last picked”. I’ll come back to this.

This posting is an overview of our moral thinking. I’m particularly concerned about what personal moral standards are expected from those of us who are somewhat “different,” when it is still clear that others feel we do not pull our weight and have a disparate impact on those with more “responsibilities.” So this comes down to a common denominator of "earning one's keep" in a non-monetary system of merit and personal values, a kind of "psychological economics."

Back in 1997, I wrote this in my book’s Introduction: “do we believe in the principle that every adult person is totally responsible for himself or herself?” That, in theory, sounds like a foundation for liberty, at least in a libertarian perspective. Furthermore, our legal system has, over the years, come to work as if this were a central principle. We have adult individual sovereignty, equality before the law, and personal responsibility as an individual granularity as a central principle – in most things. Libertarian notions of harmlessness, non-aggression and honoring voluntarily entered contracts form the core of this view of moral thinking. It gets nebulous on family matters. What’s becoming clear is that many people don’t fully accept this idea, and believe that socialization and “fitting in” to the general good are moral imperatives, too.

The lynchpin for more collective thinking seems to be religion, and the demands of God. In fact, the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament seem in some ways to be anti-individualist. They stress forgiveness and placing others ahead of oneself in line. Yet, the also have a paradoxical libertarian underpinning, as in Jesus’s parables like the story about the wages for workers in the vineyard. Early Christians lived a large communal, socialistic existence and practiced “Kingdom economics.” The overriding concern seemed to be living in a hostile world, where individuals had to cooperate to survive. The question is whether the sharing was just a matter of pragmatic flexibility, or a deeper acceptance of the goals of others when society did not offer the freedom – or stability -- to pursue one’s own. Judeo-Christian society would somehow overcome this paradox and develop strong ideas about individual freedom, where as Islam, for example, seemed to retreat into collective obedience. Is this intrinsic to the faiths or just historical outcome? One paradox that Christianity would have to face is that freedom itself can be misused and re-impose oppression from unexpected sources.

Political systems have had to deal with social justice, inequality and unfairness. Progressive political reform has tended to stress group measures (such as tax-funded programs) as a way to rectify huge injustices. Yet, philosophically, one has to track unfairness back to the behavior of individuals. In the 60s and early 70s, one often heard indignation on the far left about “undeserved” personal wealth (such as “inherited wealth”) along with calls to expropriate it. The many atrocities committed against innocent people, by governments, asymmetric non-state actors and sometimes unstable individuals, usually reflect a conviction in the minds of the perpetrators that they are exacting some kind of “moral” justice, however unacceptable their thinking or acts may be in the modern democratic world. But in general, the public seems concerned, with moral aims, about how risks and burdens are shared among individuals, more than perhaps the law itself expresses. Ken Burns makes this point in “The War” about how past generations, compared to ours, shared sacrifices; Ross Perot talked about this in his 1992 presidential campaign. Morality used to encompass this kind of issue, and it seems like we’ve had been forgetting this until 9/11.

On a personal level, most wrongdoing (the “Cheating Culture” described by David Callahan in his 2004 book) is ego-related, but in conventional society it is often “rationalized” by providing more for one’s family, or pretending to do so. The need to keep a relationship and have the affections or attentions of another against the will of another, and jealousy, also drive much wrongdoing. These sorts of acts often come from people who have relatively limited expressive talents of their own and who place a great significance on social position and on the loyalty of others.

Sometimes the opposite can occur. One can have talents and an expressive world, but not reach others, and develop a fantasy world that seems odd to others but that sometimes looks dangerous or threatening. Such persons may seem personally “selfish” but they typically don’t seek direct power over others or become jealous. They may be easily undermined by outside external forces that they cannot control, and not have social relationships (or faith) that would give their lives meaning in difficult circumstance. The latter situation applies more to me. Being "wired" differently would not "excuse" me from paying back "moral obligations" of social responsibility to others.

Much of the “moral” dilemma that I face concerns the family. Others may feel that the expressive freedoms that I claim (largely within the law, as shown by the COPA litigation, elsewhere on these blogs) interfere (by distraction and by competition) with intergenerational and interpersonal responsibilities and commitments, especially lifelong marital commitments necessary to raise children. I went through this in detail on another recent posting.

While this seems to focus on homophobia, it really is broader than this. Most people perceive family as an experience that has a meaning in social and perhaps religious context, beyond. It is a natural function leading to natural rights and responsibilities. On the surface, it might seem to some people that everyone has a “natural” (or Biblical) obligation to procreate, but responsible science (even with many animal species) doesn’t back that up. True, the “immutability” arguments don’t “excuse” harmful conduct, but anti-homosexual arguments seem to lead back to the not evenly shared encumbrance that society seems to place on many people in raising their kids. Nature is more like a Mandelbrot set, needing diversity, sometimes in ways that appear regressive at first, in order to flourish. The overall result of such a philosophy is that society could expect “outliers” (gays, extreme introverts, or others disinclined to parent) to behave in a manner that is supportive of, rather than competitive with, the families of others. The celibate priesthood and convents in the Catholic Church (however justified theologically and however flawed in practice) reflect this notion.

Some of the "gender responsibility" training ("girls first") seems related to an overall sense of accountability to others (my life is not completely my own if others raised me, and others need differentiated responsibilities from me), and some of the socialization, or responsiveness to people, seemed predicated on the idea that it would generate "normal" heterosexual interest and family responsibility--the acceptance of which comes across as a moral justification for having more than other people in a competitive world. Maybe all of this makes sense, but it won't preclude homosexual interests or upward affiliation.

It’s reasonable to survey a lot of different personal moral codes around the world, and come up with a list of common principles.

Some of these would seem to be
(1) Avoidance of bad karma. That is, don’t predicate your advances on the unseen sacrifices of others (pretty hard to meet)
(2) Reproducibility. That doesn’t necessarily mean reproduction. But it does mean that a lifestyle shouldn’t be predicated on processes that can’t be continued indefinitely. This keys into the “living off current sunlight” problem in the global warming issue.
(3) Empathy. One should have some connection to the emotions of others.

One can imagine how these “moral” concepts drive many religious and more fringe-like political groups.

More practical rules would be something like (I’ll indulge and address the reader in the second person.) One can cogitate on how these can become practical expectations even in a libertarian government, and not necessarily be legislated. But they would be expected of those who want to be respected.

(1) Even if “you” don’t have your own children, you don’t get out of family responsibility. Filial responsibility laws may well become more important in the future. And sometimes childless people wind up with other people’s children (in the movies and soaps, at least). Fighting for other people can be very difficult if one hasn’t one’s own lineage going forward. Everyone should be comfortable with childcare and care for and “connection to” others at different life stages. Those who do not have personal responsibility for the next generation in some way may be expected to make "sacrifices" for those who do.
(2) Yes, responsibilities for things like national defense and other kinds of service should be shared.
(3) “Pay your dues.” Do your share of the grunt work, the graveyard shifts, and don’t become too dependent on others to do it for you. (This affects the immigration debate; and it drove far left wing experiments such as the Communist Chinese “Cultural Revolution” of the 60s. But it was also the genesis of making kids comfortable with doing their share of chores and “manual labor”.)
(4) Accept the idea that you may have to learn interdependence with your biological family (whether “yours” or not), neighbors or community in a real externally-driven crisis.
(5) Your work should do observable good for specific people. As a corollary, if you take advantage of new technology to promote yourself globally, be accountable to someone. At times, you may need to prove that you can support others besides yourself. (I recall an edict in a televised 1999 sermon from a non-denominational Bible church in Minneapolis, out of character for the area as whole, "find somebody to be accountable to.")

The last point is tricky, to say the least. It suggests one of those theorems that go in both directions (with a true converse). Use of skills and abilities to affect the world “globally” ought to be mediated by family responsibility and accountability – as a break on the dangers of asymmetry. (History shows that these dangers existed long before the Internet.) But, conversely, civilization needs more that reproductive family: it does need science, ideas, culture, philosophy; otherwise it can degrade into tribalism and superstition. Man cannot live by brawn alone (“Into the Wild”) but not by brains alone either. Morally and ethically, it turns out that the balance of the two matters.

American law (to a lesser extent, the laws in other western countries) stresses free speech, with a growing emphasis on individual speech. Constitutional battles over Internet censorship (like the CDA and COPA) have led to the general conclusion that the “free entry” offered by the Internet and exposure of children does not justify outright censorship; a large amount of responsibility for protecting minors must rest with their own parents. How much the rest of us should restrain ourselves and "play family" (or "play church") sounds again a bit like this “village” question, but the practical challenges to less computer literate parents are daunting. Individuals who feel “connected” to other generations in a “village” sense may show more restraint and be willing to accept the neighbor-directed Biblical responsibility of being their "brother's keeper". Those appearing less connected might be viewed as contemptuous and inclined to attract enemies, a serious concern.

An important aspect of global speech is the relationship of the content to the speaker. We’ve learned that from the concerned way employers react to content that they find on social networking sites. Although content may be legal and acceptable to a large public audience, it might lead others (stakeholders) to make inferences about the speaker, that he or she cannot continue to work in a particular place in good faith. Therefore, speakers must always consider their responsibilities, which may be greater than they think or want, when they speak globally. There has always been a question about suppression of speech: why are politicians so afraid of it? Why was sedition once a crime and a mortal sin? (Woodrow Wilson, remember, would jail people for criticizing the draft.) One reason is that speech – even pamphleteering on the margins – today that’s blogging and profiling – is sometimes very effective. You can have it both ways.

This all leads back to me and the kayaking, I suppose. I have encountered some difficulties with all this; and in recent years certain parties have not respected me, as if I were automatically a second class citizen to live at the disposal of others because I had not married, had kids, and procreated family responsibility on my own. I do have my own emotional world, however inward-looking and aspergian; I do need to figure out how to sell this mass of interconnected dots that I’ve talked about. Ultimately, a pamphleteer needs to prove that others will pay for what he or she says, to do good for others. I would be more credible if I had done the manly things when I was a boy – one does need to learn to do them – and if I had followed my first choice of passion for a life’s work – music. I was a bit chicken then because of the draft and Cold War, a burden of my time that had to be shared.

But it is also true that full legal equality in areas where one serves the public good (like the military -- remember "don't ask don't tell", and family matters, like marriage and adoption) would make it easier for individuals like me, otherwise very much second class citizens, to do so. There is a paradox and a synergy: one needs these kinds of “rules” to depolarize the political climate, but one needs the equality to follow the “rules.”

Update: Dec. 30, 2007

A reader questioned whether I can "practice what I preach" (and so also for Anderson Cooper) and grab a hammer and go down to New Orleans. Look at the comments to the Aug. 29 entry on my TV blog, link here.

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