Thursday, May 17, 2012

Justifying Republican Morality Through Science

A common theme runs through the books written about the psychology of political beliefs, and it concerns their attempts to explain why some people possess "liberal" beliefs and why others possess "conservative" beliefs. Such a dichotomy, goes the prevailing explanation, is a consequence of innate differences (whether biological or cultural) between how the "liberal" mind and the "conservative" mind construct politico-moral judgments on any given issue. For George Lakoff, for instance, the difference is a consequence of "framing"; where liberals will frame issues in terms of care and compassion, conservatives will frame them in terms of responsibility and obligation. For Drew Westen, on the other hand, the difference between the two worldviews is best explained by the primacy of emotions in conservative politics as compared to the cool, rational, detached methods of the liberals (to the latter's great deficit). In the most recent book I've read on the subject, Jonathon Haidt argues that there are six different foundational systems which constitute moral thought, all of which are relevant to conservative thought but only three of which are relevant to liberal thought.

In each of these cases, the differences are portrayed as entirely natural, largely inexorable and - therefore - exculpatory. If the difference in worldview that separate liberals from conservatives are as truly pervasive and pre-rational as these authors argue, then we cannot look down on conservatives for having different moral beliefs. Such beliefs are merely an extension of the moral matrix they happen possess that is no more or less valid than that of liberals. When a conservative inveighs against homosexuals or Muslims, he is simply drawing on his more highly tuned "Loyalty foundation" that identifies and scandalises those who dissent from the norm; who are we, therefore, to judge?

I am growing a little weary of such attempts to rationalise the existence damaging beliefs (in politics, religion etc.) by simply noting that they may have a natural origin. That they do have a natural origin must warn us against simply confronting or denigrating those who disagree with us - as such approaches will likely be futile or counter-productive - and it may also (rightly) encourage us to see a given issue from the perspective of the other side. Having said that, we must also be careful not to submit to the pretense of moral neutrality where our worldview is in conflict with those of other people. That something is natural, first of all, doesn't make it right. This is the naturalistic fallacy writ large: there may be good social or biological reasons for the persistence of conservative beliefs, that doesn't mean they make society a better place. The fact that people are capable of changing their minds on important issues should also indicate to us that these "moral matrices" are not so inflexible as we might otherwise imagine.

A further difficulty is that each of these books are extremely American-centric. The American system is highly polarised1, so it makes sense to break moral-outlooks (and political beliefs) down into just two, largely non-overlapping groups. How accurate is this dichotomy, however, when applied to political systems (such as those in Europe) that are far more pluralistic? Furthermore, the analysis fails to take into account the uniqueness of American conservatism when applied to the political beliefs of conservatives elsewhere. In UK and Australia, for instance, the conservative parties - for all their faults - are still grounded and reasonable. Even where one doesn't agree with their policy, an honest and fair-minded person can at least see the rationale that might have led to its formation. Extending such generosity to the policies of Republicans, however, is far more difficult. The party has been shunted so far the the right that it fails to resemble any mainstream political ideology in any country that I am familiar with. Given that the parochial, highly anti-intellectual posturing of Republican politicians would have them laughed out of the room in any other country in the world2, regardless of how avowedly "conservative" that audience may claim to be, how can the analysts attempt to explain Republican positions purely in terms of some (universal?) psychological dichotomy?

But it's the increasing gulf separating Republicans from reality that really makes a mockery of such disinterested political psychology. With regards to taxation, for instance, Haidt might be correct in suggesting that differences in policies advocated by Democrats and Republicans are simply reflections of different approaches to fairness in the "moral matrices" of the adherents of the two parties: for Democrats fairness rests with equality, for Republicans fairness rests with proportionality (i.e. people should be entitled to the fruits of their labour, and it is not fair to disproportionately tax our most productive citizens). So far so good. Such differences, however, fail to account for the popularly held belief amongst Republicans that Obama is a socialist who has greatly increased taxes when - objectively - this just isn't the case. The rabid and entirely dishonest attacks against Obama in this regard can't simply be rationalised away as some blameless difference in worldviews. These are views predicated on mindless, tribal antagonism and cannot be treated seriously. One must admit that there is room for informed disagreement on issues such as taxation, but that in no way legitimises obscenely disingenuous position presently espoused by Republicans.

In fact, on virtually every issue the Republicans seem content on positioning themselves against objective reality. If political stances were entirely a matter of moral preferences then perhaps the difference between Democrats and Republicans could be explained as a phenomena derived from our inherently different psychological constitutions, in which case neither side could be truly "right" or "wrong", merely individuals with different (though equally moral) priorities. There are some political stances, however, that can be objectively evaluated - where the truth of the matter is clear and unequivocal - and on these stances the Republicans invariably take the wrong side. Look at their stance on evolution, climate change or virtually any other issue related to science, for instance. Look at their claim that "abstinence-only" education will lead to reduced teen pregnancies and STD rates, or that "socialised" health care in inherently less efficient. Look at their claim that the institution of marriage has remained static throughout history, or that the Founding Fathers established the US as a Christian nation. All clearly and demonstrably false, yet they are central planks of Republican thought.3

If would be difficult to neutrally explain such pathological indifference to facts through a mere "difference" in world-views. The present Republican insanity has a rather more contingent origin, and it stems from the proud American tradition of anti-intellectualism. If one accepts that one's intuitions about the world are not necessarily true, and undertakes an honest appraisal of one's views by actively seeking out objective facts to confirm or disconfirm one's views, then it becomes possible for one to discard incorrect assumptions for more accurate ones and - in doing so - come to reconcile one's beliefs with objective reality. If one believes that one's common sense and intuition is sufficient (or even morally superior) as an epistemological strategy, then one will resist science, facts and logic until one's dying breath. The consequences of such thinking are plain to see. While the former individual might never be able to claim to be in possession of "the truth", her method will (ideally) move her towards positions that are objectively true, as her baseless intuitions and prejudices come to be displaced by more considered positions. The latter can only reach "objectively true" positions by pure, dumb luck; that is, while one could never say that the positions of the "gut" thinker are inherently false, they could only have arrived at the truth by complete accident.

This process can be seen clearly in the context of history, where the progressive causes - though usually fiercely resisted at the time - generally come to be accepted as the prevailing, unquestioned truth in subsequent generations. Causes like women's suffrage, the civil rights movement, the general push towards democracy and individual liberty were - no matter how reconciled they may be with modern conservative thought - once considered dangerous and unduly progressive ideas that were strongly and sometimes violently opposed by the conservative thinkers of the day. That such progressive ideas, borne largely of facts and reason, came to win the day is no accident: they were thought upon, disseminated, tested and perfected over time until their truth became so obvious that even the most reactionary ideologue was forced to accept their validity. The opposition to these movements may well have been sincere and motivated by genuine moral concerns predicated on a certain psychological disposition, but that doesn't preclude us from making the judgment - admittedly with the benefit of hindsight - that such opposition was horribly and unequivocally on the wrong side of history. What grounds might we have for thinking that modern conservative movements will suffer a less ignominious fate, given their identically reactionary philosophy?  

But history aside, there really is something particularly and especially wrong with the modern Republican Party. Present-day Republicans have long since abandoned reality for the warm, safe world of partisan political acrimony. Their positions are unjustifiable in and of themselves, which leaves them only with the myth that every issue must have two sides and that both sides are therefore inherently worthy of consideration, respect and equal airing in a public forum. The implication made by these political psychologists, that there is any aspect of the Republican Party in its current guise that is capable of contributing anything of worth or value to the current political climate, is just plainly and dangerously wrong. Let's not make excuses for these people: they have the same capacity for reason and compassion that the rest of us have, so let's encourage them to use it. The solutions to a great many problems will not be found until the Republican Party joins the rest of us in this great, majestic expanse known as reality, so let us hasten their journey.


(1) - At the risk of being seen to be indiscriminate in my criticism of the GOP, I think the blame for the current polarisation really does lie predominantly with Republican electoral strategies. The Republican Party is comprised of a number of ideological sub-factions who - left to their own devices - probably would have torn themselves apart long ago. What, for example, do the libertarians have in common with the social conservatives? The corporatists and the Evangelicals? The neo-cons and the isolationists? The simple answer is that they are all - to one extent or another - anti-liberal. Keeping all these groups together necessitates the construction of an enemy - one that doesn't really exist - to unite them in common hatred. This explains the irrationally hostile and adversarial nature of the American right, and the current strategy of the Republican congress to just say "no" to everything the Democrats deign to propose.

(2) - With the possible exceptions of Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.

(3) - This is without even mentioning some of the more "fringe" theories, such as those concerning Obama's place of birth or religion.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Archaic Language and Religious Authority

As I have previously posted, the language of religion is often fundamentally different in nature to that of everyday language. Whereas everyday language encourages explicit and unambiguous expression (in fully-propositional forms), religious language is far more regularly composed using semi-propositional forms, which permit a greater multi-valency of meaning at the expense of specificity and exactness. I also suggested that this may partly explain the reason for the persistence of archaic language within religious traditions, as the incomprehensibility of the ancient language lends itself well to the fundamental ineffability of religious claims. There is, however, a second reason for the preservation of archaic language in religious expression, and it has to do with authority.

Every literate religious tradition is fundamentally conservative with respect to its attitude to scripture. While it is possible for attitudes towards such literature to change over time, and even for certain texts to fall into disuse, as a general rule the amount of new, authoritative textual material added to religious traditions dwindles to nothing given enough time. As such, the scriptures themselves slowly come to be treated with a veneration that transcends what they merely say. They are "fetishised", for want of a better word, and the style of language they employ becomes frozen in the traditions and rituals of the religions themselves, even if this same language falls into general disuse. These texts come to form the foundation of subsequent theology (this is especially true within the Abrahamic traditions) and therefore constitute a kind of theological constitution; a largely insuperable doctrine that all subsequent developments in the tradition must not find themselves to be in conflict with.1

This progressive sacralisation of the texts presents its difficulties, however. For instance, why is it specifically these texts that we should treat as normative to the exclusion of all others? By what means can we assume these texts to be "true" (in a religious context) in a sense that other, later texts are not? For the latter question, we (or rather the believer) must rely on the legitimacy of revelation and prophecy, such that one must accept the premise that certain texts are just simply derived from the mouths of gods, or else some other similarly supernatural origin. Certain "prophets" (or oracles, or soothsayers, or witchdoctors...) are imagined to be particularly inspired in this regard and it is their proclamations that come to be regarded as especially authoritative over and against the proclamations of others (if this processes seems a little arbitrary, that may well be because it is). In literate religions, the effective preservation of ancient prophecies lend them an inherent and timeless authority over a long-enough period, one that slowly excludes the legitimacy of newer prophetic claimants. As such, to answer the former question, it is the ancient texts, produced by men whose prophetic legitimacy has grown to be unquestioned, that comes to form the normative textual basis of all literate religions.2 

This is possible within religious traditions because - as per my previous post - there is little in these "inspired" texts that can be treated as unambiguously true or false. That is the nature of most religious language. As such, the tests of the legitimacy of religious claims in literate religions often depend upon their longevity. The early Christians, for instance, are suspected to have preserved the Septuagint within their nascent canon as a means of establishing their link to much older traditions, in defence of the claim raised against them that they represented a new (and therefore perverse and dangerous) religious cult. The identification of ancient pedigree was apparently an important factor for the Romans in determining the legitimacy of the many religions that were practised within their empire and I'm sure they were not alone in this philosophy. If "ancientness" is truly an important prerequisite for the perceived legitimacy of a religious practice (in the absence of the possibility of any other kind of truth claim), then it is not difficult to see why the ancient languages that originally gave rise to these traditions are preserved conterminously. 


(1) - In most cases the flexibility or indeterminacy of religious language makes this process quite easy. "Heaven", for instance, began as the literal kingdom of YHWH in Jewish thought, and progressed in later Christian thought to a destination for departed souls. Now, in modern Christian theology, we might expect to see it defined far more abstractly as a state of being in which one finds oneself in the presence of God. Although the "original" meaning of heaven has been lost, the inherent ambiguity of religious language allows the modern Christian reader to derive any number of equally salient (and valid) interpretations from a Biblical expression like "the Kingdom of Heaven dwells within you" that would possess little intersect with the interpretations of ancient Jewish readers.

(2) - Even if the texts were not actually written by these "prophets" originally, their names are frequently attached to them post hoc. So Moses' name was attached to the Pentateuch, the apostle John's name was attached to the otherwise anonymous gospel and so on. A similar trend can be seen in the formation of the ahadith in Islam and the sutras in Buddhism, both of which can only be assumed to be traceable back to the "original" source if one treats the texts with extreme credulity. Sometimes outright fraud is evident in this quest for authority, such as the early Christians who wrote in Paul's name (i.e. the Pastoral Epistles) or the intertestamental Jews who wrote in the names of Enoch, Tobit and so on.