Coalition of opposites

One group of individuals is systematically oppressed by another group of individuals. Two witnesses to the oppression are offended and moved to stop the injustice, but for opposite reasons.

The first witness sees the rights of individuals being violated by other individuals.

The second witness sees one group violating the other group’s right to equality.

What is the injustice?

For the first witness, the injustice is focused on the attempt to strip individuals of their status as citizens and to impose a different status upon them. In a liberal democracy only one category matters: citizen.

For the second witness, the offense is focused on the power imbalance between the two groups. Justice demands equality among groups.

When the two witnesses discuss the oppression, they seem to agree.

The first witness sees that the power imbalance between groups is what makes the oppression of individuals possible, and agrees with the second witness that this inequality between groups must end, but (and this is left unsaid) for the sake of the individuals whose rights are violated.

The second witness sees that the rights of individuals are being violated, and that no individual should be subjected to such indignities, but (and this is left unsaid) because no group is inferior to any other group.

Both witnesses agree that the oppressed should unite and stand together to oppose their unjust treatment. Isolated individuals cannot overcome the oppression of another group. Only individuals functioning as a group can effectively resist another group.

In the urgency of stopping the immediate oppression the two witnesses fail to notice that their differences are greater than their commonalities.

When the political conditions shift, the coalition fractures.

The first witness is shocked to discover that the second believes that all members of the oppressing category are responsible for the current crime and the entire history of oppression perpetrated by its category. The justifications are a drawn from the social sciences, but the moral impulses driving those justifications (the “motivated reasoning” as they say) are now far too close to those of the oppressors: individuals are understood as manifestations of a group, and never mind that such justifications are persuasive only to those who share that impulse, the truth is self-evident and everyone whose opinion matters sees this to be true — and now our group has the power to impose these categories.

The second witness is shocked to discover that the first witness wants to defend the rights of individuals to think whatever they want, even to believe in an essential inequality among groups, even to publicly state these opinions, even to state them with the intention of inflicting emotional distress on other groups, or even to try to persuade them of their own essential inferiority! What is not permitted is any effort, whether by an individual or group to violate any other individual’s rights.

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Political Platonism

When one person commits a crime against another, a liberal habitually sees an individual criminal and an individual victim. You can conceptually thematize the parties involved in the crime and the nature of the crime itself in myriad ways, but ultimately it is an individual responsible for the action. Liberalism views the world in terms of responsible agents with specific rights, not as examples of categories.

Whenever I hear illiberals describe crimes, I hear something very different. An example of a category has done something bad to another example of a category, and it seems that the crime is viscerally felt as a manifestation of an enduring crime of one category against another. It seems to be some sort of political Platonism where what happens on Earth is just a reflection of the real events in Heaven acted out by archetypes who are the real villains and victims who matter.

Even our differences in choice of Heavenly ideals is the action of archetypes.

When a Liberal (in the popular vulgar sense) sees a crime of White against Black or Man against Woman, a Conservative sees Liberalism once again committing its crime against America. When a Conservative sees a crime of Foreigner against American or Muslim against Christian, a Liberal sees Conservatism once again committing its crime against equality.

Very few people feel individuality anymore. What we feel far more intensely is categories and concepts.

A literary friend of mine tells me that even our novels are no longer centered on individuality. Readers want moving tales about instances of categories suffering as their categories at the hands of instances of other categories.

And increasingly we see ourselves as manifestations of categories and concepts, and we take aggressive exception to anyone who does not.

Most of us have lost our taste for individuality — and we’re too busy, scattered and degraded to notice.


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Problems, living and non-living

I do not do well when my thinking loses direct contact with my own core moral impulses. And by moral impulses, I mean whatever it is behind my mind that invests the world with purpose and value. My moral impulses drive me to pursue problems I feel as live problems.

Problems that feel insignificant to me even while I factually understand  and acknowledge their importance cannot become my problem, no matter how much I want to “own” them. (Unless I somehow manage to link them to one or more of my live problems, something I’ve gotten pretty good at.) These problems are not alive to me, and I have difficulty mustering attention and energy for them, and I can’t make myself remember their content no matter how hard I try. My mind seems to resist and expel “non-living” problems

A decade ago I viewed such problems with contempt and disparaged them as trivvial chickenshit. I viewed my live problems as vastly important, not only for me but for the world.

But now the conclusions I’ve reached pursuing my live problems forbid all contempt for what others value. However, if I am not alert this principled respect can  tempt me to lapse into respecting their contempt for what is simportant to me, and what still seems to me to be the most important problems in the world*. I still do not believe the importance of these problems is an artifact of my personal taste.

I have rejected contempt as a self-defense weapon, so I cannot actively disrespect unphilosophical contempt for philosophy. But that does not entail respecting it.

* I believe every one of the crises the world faces is a consequence of philosophical degradation. Humanity cannot solve its biggest problems because it still misdiagnoses design problems as technological ones. (That is, people tend to fixate on what objective systems need to be engineered, and fail to consider the hybrid objective-subjective systems upon which engineered systems depend. They see the engineered system as primary, and design as a superficial “layer” that can be added and tweaked — not as the foundation upon which engineering problems are defined. And the toughest design problems are tough due to the toughness of philosophical problems that defy crisp design problem definition: “How do we even think about this problem?”

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What isn’t religion’s purpose?

What isn’t religion’s purpose? Here is a partial list:

  • Religion’s purpose is not to give us true beliefs.
  • Religion’s purpose is not to get us to act some particular way.
  • Religion’s purpose is not to make us feel some particular way.
  • Religion’s purpose is not to comfort us.
  • Religion’s purpose is not to help us form a personal relationship with God.
  • Religions’s purpose is not to put us in contact or communion with higher being or beings.
  • Religions’s purpose is not to bring us to a different state of consciousness.
  • Religion’s purpose is not to inspire us to serve our needy neighbors.
  • Religion’s purpose is not to provide us a supportive community.
  • Religion’s purpose is not to give us a sense of meaning.

These things are all means to another end, another purpose.

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America’s new religion is Antiracism

John McWhorter has observed that America’s new religion is Antiracism:

…they have developed a new religion. That religion is antiracism. Of course, most consider antiracism a position, or evidence of morality. However, in 2015, among educated Americans especially, Antiracism—it seriously merits capitalization at this point—is now what any naïve, unbiased anthropologist would describe as a new and increasingly dominant religion. It is what we worship, as sincerely and fervently as many worship God and Jesus and, among most Blue State Americans, more so.

For the most part, I agree with him, but, being a disagreeable type of person, of course I am compelled to split some hairs: What McWhorter describes in his article is not a religion, but a fundamentalism. Anyone who knows me at all knows that I consider fundamentalisms to be pseudo-religions that work against the purpose of religion. It would be more accurate to call fundamentalism an anti-religion.

This morning, talking with Susan about a paper on diversity and multiculturalism she is writing for one of her ESOL certification courses, I had an insight. I could never understand why, despite my efforts to study, wrestle with and actually practice pluralism in my daily life, the adherents of Antiracism I’ve known have rarely been interested in what I’ve learned or what I have to say on the subject of alterity. They usually just avoid conversation, but when I do engage them, they condescendingly speak to me as someone who doesn’t yet understand what they just know, without any trace of recognition that their assumption of epistemological privilege is both odd and unsupportable. I have put many hundreds more hours of work into understanding these issues than they have. Wouldn’t it make sense to at least entertain the possibility that these hundred hours produced something worthwhile? And given the difference in motivation to learn, can they really claim to care more than I do?

But now McWhorter has helped me see what is going on: this is a religion vs. fundamentalism conflict. This is how it always goes: There are the religious people who live their religion with their whole being — feel it, love it, breathe it, and allow it to soak into their lives and to transform them. And there are those who adopt and enforce the conventional opinions, customs, language, symbols, rituals and behavioral norms of the religion and assume all deviations from these conventions must be symptoms of defective faith, or even heresy. My genuine religious faith in Pluralism looks like heresy to Antiracist Fundamentalists.

And really, I see no less irony in the puritanical, inflexibility and intolerance toward doctrinal otherness of today’s multicultural monolith than I do in the hostile insularity most Christians make of Jesus’s teachings of transcendent love.

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Why our ideas diverge

What are the personal differences that produce pluralism? Here’s a list off the top of my head:

  1. What is our stock of life experiences, which serve as points of reference and call for explanation?
  2. What is our schema of relevance (which determines what draws our attention and what remains unperceived)?
  3. What is our conceptual repertoire (which limits the questions we know how to ask, the answers we can conceive, and which ideas are inconceivable)?
  4. What are our prior conceptual commitments (which limit the range of philosophically acceptable answers to the questions we ask)?
  5. What questions do we habitually ask?
  6. When faced with competing criteria of theory choice, which are given relative precedence?
  7. What is our perplexity tolerance (which limits our appetite for novel questions and philosophically unacceptable answers)?
  8. How do we approach the unanswerable questions of metaphysics?


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