Tagged: ross douthat

The Noble Gases of Social Theory

elem_inertgas1“Intellectually inert” is an insult that I reserve only for vast elaborations that present little in the way of new knowledge. I use it sparingly and with hesitation. Ross Douthat usually doesn’t rise to that level, though he does tend to be obsessed with vague theories about the breakdown of traditional (read “conservative”) societal mores and the consequences to modern America.

But his recent blog post “Social Liberalism as Class Warfare” is so numbing in his rhetorical elaborations that it was the only phrase that came to mind after slogging my way through it. So what’s the gist of the post?

  1. Maybe rich, smart folks pushed through divorce and abortion because they thought it made them freer.
  2. But poor, not-so-smart folks lacked sufficient self-control to use these tools wisely.
  3. Therefore, the rich, smart folks inadvertently made poor, not-so-smart folks engage in adverse behaviors that tore-up traditional families.
  4. And we get increased income and social inequality as a result.

An alternative argument might be:

  1. Folks kept getting smarter and better educated (everyone).
  2. They wanted to be free of old stuffy traditions.
  3. There were no good, new traditions that took their place, and insufficient touchstones of the “elite” values in the cultural ecosystems of the underclass.
  4. And we get increased income and social inequality as a result.

And here we get to the crux of my suggestion of inertness: it doesn’t matter whether the unintended consequences of iconoclasty differentially impact socioeconomic strata. What matters is what can actually be done about it that is voluntary rather than imposed. After all, that is what the meritocracy of educated folks do in Douthat’s own calculus of assortative mating. And it won’t be that Old Time Religion because of (1) and (2), above. The alternative is action to try to increase access to education, which will translate into access to those “elite” values, and into a revived family structure based on self-regulation without retreating into a tainted past.

Instrumenting Others

slave-marketJerry Coyne takes down Ross Douthat’s New York Times column in The New Republic along multiple dimensions, but perhaps the most interesting one is his draw-down of the question of what exactly Christian morality amounts to? We can equally question any other religious morality or even secular ones.

For instance, we mostly agree that slavery is a bad idea in the modern world. Slavery involves treating others instrumentally, using them for selfish outcomes, and exploiting their human capacity. Slavery is almost unquestionable; it lacks many of the conventional ambiguities that dominate controversial social issues. Yet slavery was quite acceptable in the Old Testament, with the only relief coming for the enslavement of Jews by Jews with the release of the slaves after six years (under certain circumstances). Literal interpretations of the Bible resort to expansive apologetics to try to minimize these kinds of problems, but they are just the finer chantilly skimmed off human sacrifice, oppression, and genocide.

So how do people make moral choices? They only occasionally invoke religious sentiments or ideas even when they are believers, though they may often articulate a claim of prayer or meditation. Instead, the predominant moral calculus is girded by modern ideas and conflicts that are evolving faster than even generational change. Pot is OK, gay marriage is just a question of equality, and miscegenation is none of our business. Note that only the second item has a clear reference point in JCM (Judeo-Christian-Muslim) scripture. The others might get some traction using expansive interpretations, but those are expansive interpretations that just justify my central thesis that moral decision-making is really underdetermined by religious thinking (or even formal philosophical ones). Moral decision making is determined by knowledge and education in an ad hoc way that relies on empathic and intellectual reasoning. There is no central reason why it should be the way it is, though it is unlikely that a complex and peaceful society could arise at the scale we observe without these ad hoc principles evolving out of the mists of religious and family concerns in the past.

And this brings us back to Sam Harris’ notion of a moral adaptive topography that Jerry Coyne expresses indirect scorn for. If there are ethical stances that result in increased success for large groups, shouldn’t we expect drift along the contours of that topography? It largely doesn’t matter whether such a perspective is objective or relative because the language for formulating that distinction is mostly just pejorative. Instead, the moral perspectives are adapting and changing with a clear utility function that seeks to maximize freedom without compromising the freedom of others. No one is an instrument. All are human.

The Orchard of Belief

CherriesOne of the most important impacts of the “new atheists” was to break religious discussion out of its silos. Before their recent rise, it was easy for the sophisticated secularist to laugh at the Pat Robertsons because they seemed absurd caricatures of Christianity in America. It was equally irrelevant to the Catholic theologian what analytical philosophy was up to in worrying over the meaning of meaning. And Muslims largely kept to their mosques. But with the critiques of the new atheism came a new willingness to hold remarkable, frank, and intelligent discussions about religion and modern life.

Take Andrew Sullivan’s article in Newsweek that attacks a range of Christian movements within the US through the critical lens of the Jefferson Bible. Sullivan promotes the sermon-on-the-mount Jesus as a radical guru focused exclusively on love. The surrounding texts and their subsequent grafting onto church doctrines are the source of strife both within Christianity and in its interactions with other peoples down through history.

And so as Andrew Sullivan cherry picks on Jefferson’s intellectual plantation, Gary Cutting of Notre Dame points out that there is not much fruit on the vine in the New York Times:

Read alone, the Sermon on the Mount will either confuse us or merely reinforce the moral prejudices we bring to it.

The moral messaging is just too diffuse for Cutting to be able to render into a ethical road map: Should we try to maximize happiness or focus on individual rights? Is the state the proper vehicle for charity? Is democracy better than totalitarianism? These are all contemporary notions that are beside the point in the orchard of Sullivan’s love.

We can contrast this sparring with Ross Douthat at Slate in his ongoing debate cycle centered on his new book, Bad Religion, that picks at the same line of criticism as Sullivan with regard to some of the current strains of evangelism in America. In his debate, however, he descends into a familiar line of attack against the non-religious:

Whereas much of today’s liberalism expects me to respect its moral fervor even as it denies the revelation that once justified that fervor in the first place. It insists that it is a purely secular and scientific enterprise even as it grounds its politics in metaphysical claims. (You will not find the principle of absolute human equality in evolutionary theory, or universal human rights anywhere in physics.) It complains that Christian teachings on homosexuality do violence to gay people’s equal dignity—but if the world is just matter in motion, whence comes this dignity? What justifies and sustains it? Why should I grant it such intense, almost supernatural respect?

Much of 20th Century Continental philosophy was built around trying to find a place for human striving in a world that no longer seemed to reflect the simple metaphysical certitudes of traditional life and religion. Isn’t it intellectually repugnant to not try to understand the world without recourse to that certitude?

Moreover, we can easily find justification for absolute human equality in the broader web of enlightenment and scientific reasoning and create a simple enough algorithm:

  1. I don’t want to be harmed or treated unfairly.
  2. Those around me appear to be like me and say they don’t want to be harmed or treated unfairly.
  3. Don’t harm others or treat them unfairly.

We can also start to explain why using evolutionary theory and our understanding of how non-zero-sum cooperation lead to social interactions. We can also bind this all up in the enlightenment liberalism that he critiques: liberty, equality, fraternity. In other words, we get human dignity through reasoning about what others are like and what we can do to make society better. Should there be moral fervor around that? Absolutely, especially when it is driven by a belief that someone is not being treated fairly.

Now it is up to Mr. Douthat to explain why that is not enough and how not applying that algorithm to everyone (including gays) is somehow more metaphysically sound, better for society, and justified by his orchard of cherries.