Opening of chapter 7 in Joshua Greene's Moral Tribes:
[Obama] Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion specific values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or [invoke] God's will- I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.
[Greene] "As Obama's remarks suggest, modern herders need a common currency, a universal metric for weighing the values of different tribes. Without a common currency there can be no metamorality, no system for making compromises . . .
The most fundamental challenge comes from tribal loyalists. Obama urges religious moral thinkers to translate their concerns into 'universal' rather than 'religion-specific' values. But what if you firmly believe that your specific religion delivers the universal moral truth. In that case, the distinction between universal and religion specific values makes no sense. (Obama is aware of this problem.) Santorum, declared that Obama's position makes him sick to his stomach. “What kind of country do we live in that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case?' Santorum is overstating. No one said religious people can't make their case. Instead, says Obama, they must make their moral cases in secular terms. But to many religious moralists, that's like telling a ballerina to dance in a weight-suit. Try translating 'The gay lifestyle is an abomination against God 'into secular terms. No wonder Santorum feels queasy.”
I liked much of Greene's book, and this was an enjoyable anecdote of U.S. Politics. There are things that are missing in the book, generally speaking, of which much of this blog is a counterpoint to.
The idea, Obama's here, that democracy as a whole should be based on secular reasons as agreed upon by the public, instead of on shared values of the majority, shows that what we (most of us) mean by democracy is really secularism. That is, we mean a politics devoid of cultured or religious positions. The idea that anyone's belief systems or political positions can surpass that kind of cultured washing, such as the way in which many of our values are just given by our culture or by religion, seems a far stretch. Not to mention that it is a stretch that Greene is trying to come to grips with throughout much of his book. It is also to worship at the altar of Reason, where we believe that hyper-rationality is a consistent and appropriate stance that can soak through our decisions. In the end, there may be nothing else to believe or no way for two people to come to discuss broad social issues other than through some kind of secular reasoning, but it is questionable whether it makes sense to try to define what is happening in our societies or our political systems as working within such.
The moral of this story is that if you really want to be a good utilitarian, you have to forego not only religion but culture and social institutions in a larger respect. Likewise, it was something that Rawls's original position did not do very well, nor did socialism or communism do very well. Neither reached into the fabric of our socially mediated identities to then make judgments about the kind of beings that we are and thus the kind of social structures we could erect or would want to erect. They left off the difficult part about the interplay between our social structures and who we are, and thus even the rationality and discourse framing that we would find moving. Where they held useful political positions, it was not from a sacredly-removed understanding about the nature of human beings, but was instead a parochially positioned structure given the embedded culture that they were arguing within. There were many other equally moving social positions or rationalities that one could take (say gender and sex institutional makeovers), but such positions were not considered.
As we start delving into more of our identity and our social institutions, we can then use even broader positions to ask appropriate questions about what we want. Which again, given the tenor of much of Greene's book, say a broad-based progressive-liberal-utilitarianism, there are places of our identities that he is unwilling to ask about. He is unwilling to come to grips with certain social contingent facts about our identity and the kind of social structures and political reasoning that we may embark upon, once we lay such social contingencies on the table. There are important reflections that he, like Rawls, is unwilling to engage in.
On a further note, some of Peter Singer's work pushes a hyper-rational utilitarianism to the extreme. One example is the idea that we should ignore natured/cultured emotions when our own 1-year-old is dying and instead save two foreign 10-year-olds (or even one other 10-year-old). Many naysayers believe that natural identity structures (say the emotion that nature has provided us of impassioned love for our own children) is a good thing, helps society tick, and is impossible to reflect upon or change. Again, much of this blog is counterpoint to the notion that such a nature exists within our identities, and that often subtle cultural structures are erected upon such emotions or body structures.
I believe that a culture and identities that were awash in our best understanding about the self-awareness of 10-year-olds versus 1-year-olds, understood the structure and reasons of our natural inclinations, were more capable of prying apart social institutions that nestle onto such genetic structures; such selves would be more capable of making the more appropriate, utilitarian judgment about how to structure societies and how to make such judgments. And they would be more capable of making decisions that supposedly cuts against such indelible natures. Outcries like “I would do anything to save my child” or “I think my emotion to want to thoroughly harm some one who has hurt my child is a good thing” are outcries from positions that are weak at reflecting on who we are and what we can be. Such positions buy into a socially conservative position that cannot imagine selves or societies structured very differently. Many of the claims from evolutionary psychology (etc.) help bolster this unthinkable idea about the existence of different selves and different reactions to events. Lastly, it is one thing to say that for the time being we need to continue allowing these emotions to guide us, or to say that politically this is what I think best for us to continue to reproduce in society and identities. It is an entirely different thing to believe that we have found a basis of human nature or have something upon which we can erect moral responsibility.
Importantly, in the end, all children would lead far better lives if we came to embrace such a cold understanding of who we are. There would be better focus on socialization and education of every last member. Accepting the kinds of machines that we are, individuals who can see beyond “death-to-my-child's-murderer” are individuals who know that individual love is an insane position to allow for the arising of the kind of disparate environments we allow around different developing machines. This includes not just between the haves and the have-nots, which disparity is of course absurd. But it also gives us better focus on the vastly disparate developmental programming we put around most adequately wealthy children. That is, when we take arbitrariness of differential developmental programs off the table, ignore the emotionally-structured belief about parent-child guided arrangements, we will see the basic necessity of appropriate programming for every last individual. As we move into our best naturalistic understanding of our world, I am confident that this is the understanding that we will eventually embrace. It will erase U.S. processes of socialization/education and familial structures, but it will also erase other social systems that believe they are erecting a fair meritocratic program of achievement, one where everyone has the “opportunity for success.”
So, when our best and brightest cling to their supposedly natural or culturally-induced emotions, and say this is just how humans are suppose to be, we have good reason, that in the end, our world will see beyond such people. We will see beyond the social structures (moral responsibility, e.g.) and the selves that such people think necessary to erect or to reproduce.