Post by Category : Morality

Dog Whistle, Part 2

These norms weren’t destroyed because of people with bad values. They were destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another. People got out of the habit of setting standards or understanding how they were set.

Earlier this month, David Brooks wrote a column entitled “The Cost of Relativism”. Clearly, in his view, relativism is a dirty word. He accuses “relativism” of causing poverty but he only defines it as “nonjudgementalism”. Where does one find this “nonjudgementalism”? Who among us is non-judgemental? I would argue that all human beings who can function in their own society are judgmental. Each of us can function only when we can judge what behavior is “right” and what behavior is “wrong” for the kind of people “we” believe we are.

Let’s take for an example a stranger who appears at our front door. This situation calls for all kinds of “judgementalism”. Our visitor is a youngish, white male wearing a porkpie hat and pegged jeans. We have never seen him before, he is a perfect stranger.

First of all, we really don’t want to be surprised by the coming interaction, so we draw on the store of knowledge we have acquired directly about what “we” are like and what “they” (strangers) can be like. We then tap into our store of assumptions and feelings about strangers that we have learned from parents and peers. We need to judge whether our visitor is one of “us”. Based on what we can see, we judge that this stranger on our doorstep is probably American, probably talks like an American and probably will behave as most Americans do in this Seattle neighborhood of ours. We make some preliminary judgements based on gender and race. Because of his hat and garb, we sort through what we know and/or believe about “hipsters”. We whittle our general notion of potential male behavior down to this most specific example. We then begin to choose the “right” behavior that we judge this perfectly pegged stranger might be expecting from us.

New and even more complicated judgements are required if we are to enter into a closer relationship with this hipster. What if, for example, he is answering an ad we have placed for a business partner. Why is he is interested in our business? What are his motives? How might his motives be related to his own personal history, where he grew up and how he grew up? This perfect stranger could become the perfect business partner so perhaps we ought to suspend judgement on his slightly off-putting headdress. We don’t want to be hasty; we want to take his measure and figure out “where he is coming from”. Part of learning how to behave is learning how to juggle our judgements, when to suspend them, when to modify them and when to act on them.

This kind of mundane, daily behavior is simply the “cultural relativism” of anthropology writ small.

The thinkers of the Enlightenment celebrated the ability of human beings to think for themselves. Once unleashed, the power of critical thinking dissolved our devotion to a single “true” church and its pre-ordained world. The Enlightenment (in all its philosophical diversity) allowed us to harness hope to our own critical thinking. That is: If we can think, we can also imagine a better reality than the one we inhabit. Anthropology began as a quest to find out if an “other” might, in fact, inhabit a better world or at least give us some pointers about other ways to be human. Cultural relativism as a stance articulated by Western anthropologists suggests (simply) that in order to understand the “other” we need to suspend some of our judgements and try to understand another culture in its own terms. How do these “others” configure their environment? Order their social lives? What are their motives for why they act so differently? What does it mean to them to be “human”? Adopting this stance entails trying to experience human cultural diversity without (insofar as possible) jumping to conclusions based on our own parochial judgements. Why in hell is he wearing that porkpie hat?

This “relativism” I have described is a stance which allows us to hold our judgements lightly and to get over ourselves just enough to unleash the imaginative ability required to see strange people (the “others”) as fellow sufferers; as humans like us.

Ultimately, it is this basic imaginative ability that threatens David Brooks and the people to whom he is whistling. More to come.

David Brooks Blows the Dog Whistle

I guess I should thank David Brooks for providing the kick start I needed to start posting again. Click here to link to his latest exercise in vapidity, “The Cost of Relativism”. Click here to enjoy Charlie Pierce’s take down.

Not to improve on Pierce’s response but I am compelled to amplify .

I will give David Brooks credit that he has a view of the poor that has at least caught up to the nineteenth century. Prior to the Enlightenment, kings and paupers occupied the social ranks where God put them. After the French revolution, it started to occur to Europeans that poverty was possibly a political and economic outcome. This dawning awareness did not entirely displace God and morality. There remained lingering questions as to whether the poor “deserved” their condition because of private moral flaws (laziness or improvidence). Brooks does perceive that there is a societal problem:

We now have multiple generations of people caught in recurring feedback loops of economic stress and family breakdown, often leading to something approaching an anarchy of the intimate life.

What has caused these deplorable feed back loops? In Brook’s update of nineteenth century thought, poor people now inhabit communities without “norms”. They are still morally lacking (and therefore still somewhat complicit in their own state of poverty) but now, they are also victims. The norms they need to rise above their current condition have been “destroyed” by an outside force:

These norms weren’t destroyed because of people with bad values. They were destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another. People got out of the habit of setting standards or understanding how they were set.

This is dog whistle punditry. Just as the terms “law and order” and “states rights” are smoke signals to fearful white Republicans, Brook’s “relativism” is meant to fall nicely into the ears of the true believer.

Who are the vectors of this plague? and, what, exactly, is “non-judgementalism”?


Click here to link to Ta Nehesi Coates’ piece on what we have learned about municipal government and policing in Ferguson, Missouri. Every person in America should feel the blood rush of shame that our country can spawn such a travesty of governance.

If you haven’t yet bookmarked Coates’ blog for The Atlantic, do it now. Stay tuned to this man’s thought. He is one of the foremost public intellectuals in America today.

What Obama cannot say….

Every American should read this man.

The divide between who we like to think we are and who we are is unbridgeable by our most important leader:

On Monday night, watching Obama both be black and speak for the state was torturous. One got the sense of a man fatigued by people demanding he say something both eminently profound and only partially true. This must be tiring….Black people know what cannot be said. What clearly cannot be said is that the events of Ferguson do not begin with Michael Brown lying dead in the street, but with policies set forth by government at every level. What clearly cannot be said is that the people of Ferguson are regularly plundered, as their grandparents were plundered, and generally regarded as a slush-fund for the government that has pledged to protect them. What clearly cannot be said is the idea of superhuman black men who “bulk up” to run through bullets is not an invention of Darren Wilson, but a staple of American racism.

I have not written in a while because the general state of affairs in this country drained me of hope; a stance I cannot really bear for long.

We cannot act morally if we act without hope. But then it also seems to me that if we do not act, we cannot be truly moral. Most of us don’t try to change anything except the channel.

Winners and Losers

Daumier,  The Burden

Daumier, The Burden

John Rawls thought that political society was a cooperative venture that we all enter into for mutual advantage. He posited that although we can imagine a society in which each individual has equal access to all resources, we are willing to accept some inequality of wealth distribution if it means that everybody is more prosperous. Hence, we accept capitalism. We accept without much reflection that “there will be winners and losers”. We subscribe to the notion that some wealth inequality – that which can be generated by the innovative or the entrepreneurial – is good at a macro level. The success of a Bill Gates floats a lot of boats. This is why the Republican’s mantra “the job creators” has so much resonance for many people. Previous posts here {“The Planet Klepton” & “Americans on Drugs”} have touched on the topic of wealth inequality.
But extreme wealth inequality is not a philosophical problem any longer, there are real life consequences for the haves and the have-nots.
The consequences for the have-nots:

-Children born to low-income parents are twice as likely to end up in special education classes and three times as likely to suffer mental health problems than those in the highest income group.
-Canadians with an income of $15,000 or less have three times the risk of developing diabetes than those who earn more than $80,000.
-More than one in five American children live below the federal poverty level, making them more likely to suffer from asthma and obesity and have poorer nutrition…(and have) less access to health care and lower vaccination rates.
-Children in chronically im­poverished families have lower cognitive and academic performance and more behavior problems than chil­dren who are not exposed to poverty.
-The poor are more likely to be incarcerated and the more people we incarcerate the more poverty we create. This effect is horrifically visible to African Americans.
-The Great American Vicious circle; born poor your chances of completing high school plummet. No diploma, no job. Black American males in their 30’s without a high school diploma are more likely to be in jail than to have a job.

What do the “haves” get out this skewed distribution of wealth? One doesn’t have to be a social scientist to figure what powers are conferred by virtue of great concentrations of wealth. Great wealth can control the media, flood the Intertoobz with disinformation and control what messages the peons will see and hear. Rupert Murdoch has used his wealth to construct an apparatus of propaganda that would put Soviet-era Tass to shame. Oil billionaire brothers can fund climate disinformation and lobby against environmental regulation.Those who inherit billions can afford to give millions to support politicians who oppose estate taxes.

Let us remind ourselves of the founding purpose of this country:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

More that 16 million U.S. children are growing up in poverty. Is this how we promote the general welfare? Five members of the Walton family are have more wealth than the bottom 42% of all Americans combined. Does this state of affairs reflect a “more perfect union? One in three African American males will go to prison in their lifetime. How can this be construed as justice? How are we securing the blessing of liberty for all of our fellow citizens by having the highest incarceration rate in the world?

One last question: how are we setting the stage today for future domestic tranquility?

Ferguson, Missouri.

Hands up, don’t shoot

Detail from Guernica

Detail from Guernica

How can any of us live a moral life in this cruel world that we have fashioned for ourselves?

-We live in a wealthy country where we allow one out of 7 of our citizens to live in poverty and half of the ten richest people inherited their fortunes.
-We live in a country where an 18 year old boy can be shot down in the street by the police, his body can be left in the street for hours and then the “authorities” assassinate his character and memory as well.
-We live in a world where ostensible “human beings” decapitate other human beings over differences of belief.
-We live in a world where our own country’s BFF in the Middle East, turns Gaza into an open air prison; a real life version of “District 9”.
-We live in a country where our congressmen use the appalling Ebola epidemic in West Africa to stoke fear of Central American children fleeing failed states.
-We live in a country that has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners.

Is it moral to compartmentalize? to rationalize? to emotionally walk away from the horrors? I can walk by the homeless. I can put the sign-holding beggar at the intersection out of my mind. Iraq is long ways away; so is Israel and…aren’t there bad actors on each side? One out of 6 African American men in prison? Out of sight, out of mind. I am just trying to live my life. Sometimes I feel like holding up my own hands in the face of this onslaught of the wrong and crying “Stop already”.

Last evening my wife and I were on our way to eat dinner with friends. At 23rd and Union in Seattle we saw a solitary African American man holding up both hands with a sign in one hand that read “Hands up, don’t shoot”. A resonant plea to our own humanity “Stop, recognize me”.

A moving sight, a moral man acting in the world.

The Avatar of Reason (wherein I presume to chide Richard Dawkins)

The Little Owl, A. Durer

The Little Owl, A. Durer

ISIS is beheading Yezidis, Bokul Harum is kidnapping schoolgirls and white Americans are screaming at busloads of children. Most people would agree that these are all extreme behaviors which are, at the very least, immoral. These perpetrators are all zombies; they no longer view their victims as thinking, feeling moral entities. How did they get that way? Could I ever act that way? In earlier posts about climate change I wrote that what we think we “know” about climate change is inextricably bound up with the belief systems we hold profoundly dear. If the cognitive balance between knowing and believing is fluctuant, what does this suggest about the relationship between knowledge and morality?

What do we need to “know” (about ourselves and the world) in order to feel like we are moral entities? We need to know that morality is not character; it is not just how we happen to BE, it is how we think and decide to act. The fundamental moral question -“What should I do?“- makes no sense without our perception that we have a choice between one action and another. Morality then is an activity in which we engage. We think of ourselves as beings to whom moral concepts apply and and we see ourselves as accountable. We create ourselves as moral beings by making choices and acting on those choices and we interact with others as if they are also self directed agents. While I believe that life is a moral venture, for me, the really interesting questions begin when I ask myself, at what level DO I GET TO DECIDE?

Richard Dawkins recently issued some Tweets about rape and Palestine that elicited some strong reactions. His defense in the Huffington Post is simple. His tweets were not interpreted logically. He goes on to decry that

some of us may be erecting taboo zones, where emotion is king and where reason is not admitted; where reason, in some cases, is actively intimidated and dare not show its face. And I regret this. We get enough of that from the religious faithful.

According to Dawkins, a true moral philosopher with “a love of reason” will not fear to tread where reason leads. Dawkins makes a lovely logical point (“If I say A is worse than B, I am NOT endorsing B“) but his larger issue is the unwillingness of some people to endure some discomfort in the pursuit of reasoned discourse. Clearly, Dawkins sees reason as a counterpoise to emotion (and by extension a counterpoise to “the religious faithful”). Reason is the exalted tool that will lead us to “truth”; a notion right out of the Enlightenment. Noting that Dawkins’ immediate goals in this instance are polemical, it should be pointed out that the concept of reason has changed somewhat since the Enlightenment.

Twentieth century history and anthropology teach us that the contingent facts of our race, gender, class and ethnicity predetermine much of who we are. We are not radically free (e.g., I am a white, North American middle class male. I cannot become an Ibo tribeswoman). In a post appropriately titled, “How Politics Makes Us Stupid”, Ezra Klein cites research that indicates that “individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values.” Behavioral economics is teaching us that “the rational man” of neoclassical economics is a chimera (at best). Reasonable people make economic decisions on the basis of rules of thumb, stereotypes and cultural canards. Vagaries of affect are inextricably bound up in our assessments of risk and how we value time (profit now versus profit later). Empirical studies have repeatedly shown that we all have “implicit biases” that guide our judgements but of which we are not consciously aware. Attachment theory tells us (with increasing support from neuroscience) that the earliest dyadic exchanges between mother and infant through gaze and touch will shape the rest of our psychic and social lives in primal, unconscious ways. The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio argues that emotions are not opposed to reason. Emotions are not unruly beasts to be saddled by reason but are in fact the substrate of all cognition.

Another small indicator that reason (logic and critical thinking) is just the tip of the cognitive iceberg may be seen in how we attribute causation to human behavior. We all tend to attribute the genesis of human behavior either to “character” or as a response to the external world. The interesting fact is that we are far more likely to see other people’s behavior as caused by character whereas we will more likely view our own behavior as being prompted by the outside world. We impute causation to disposition because 1) we can’t necessarily see the environmental factors prompting some one else’s behaviors and 2) (more importantly) not one of us likes to caricature ourselves as a thin set of statistically likely responses.(I am not hopping about and yelling because I am needy and want attention, I have been stung by a bee.) We experience our own self as a “neutral” locus of awareness (simply, “who we are”) that reacts to our environment. So, when we face moral choices in our interactions with others are we really understanding their motivations?

Sullied as it is by all these “un-reasonable” forces, what role is left for reason in morality? Does any one of us ever make a rational decision about what we ought to do?

To be truly moral (and to be truly reasonable) requires more activity than simply deciding upon a choice. To be truly moral we need to hold a mirror to ourselves, to bring to awareness the patterns of behavior to which we are prone and look for the warp of our affect even when we are following a weft of reason. To be truly moral means recognizing that the other free agents with whom we interact are also beings whose ability to engage in reasoned discourse is as circumscribed as our own. Professor Dawkins is absolutely right in placing enormous importance on reasoned discourse because it is only through discourse with others that we occasionally can see ourselves from the outside. Dr. Dawkins might have more productive conversations with the “religious faithful” if he thought more about thinking itself.

Even if reason is an infected tool, it is the only scalpel we have available to us.

The Climate in Wyoming

Image Courtesy of L.J. Whitsitt

Image Courtesy of L.J. Whitsitt

Wyoming has politely served itself up as a “model” of climate change denialism. The Wyoming legislature blocked the adoption of national science standards because they involved teaching about the anthropogenesis of climate change. Directly from the Casper Star Tribune:

One of lawmakers’ big concerns with the Next Generation Science Standards is an expectation that students will understand humans have significantly altered the Earth’s biosphere. In other words, the standards say global warming is real. That’s a problem for some Wyoming lawmakers. “[The standards] handle global warming as settled science,” said Rep. Matt Teeters, a Republican from Lingle who was one of the footnote’s authors. “There’s all kind of social implications involved in that that I don’t think would be good for Wyoming.” Teeters said teaching global warming as fact would wreck Wyoming’s economy, as the state is the nation’s largest energy exporter, and cause other unwanted political ramifications.

The chairman of the Wyoming Board of Education provides us with even clearer insight:

And last month, the State Board of Education ordered the committee of science educators to come up with a new set of standards. Mr. Micheli, the chairman and a cattle rancher from Fort Bridger, said he was concerned about any teaching on climate change that did not consider “the cost-benefit analysis in terms of the expenditure of the effort to bring under control global warming.”

Simply stated, capitulating and admitting to the “fact” of climate change might force us to deal with its consequences so let’s bury our heads in the tar sands and keep those pesky facts out of Wyoming.

The wellspring from which this denialism flows is an ideology that so profoundly mistrusts government that it has now come to mistrust any political or scientific discourse that governance may require.

Americans on drugs

I found Bill O’Reilly’s observations on equality refreshing in that he actually opened his ideological kimono and bared the workings of his “thinking”. If you haven’t seen this clip, you should. Bill tells us that “trying to achieve equality is unnatural”. To strive for equality, as does the President, is to live in “an opium laced dream”. Bill himself is not as tall, black or as rich as his “fellow Irishman” Shaquille O’Neal: Q.E.D. there is no equality.


Many of us humbler folk aren’t as confused as Bill about what equality means in our lives. I represent a local labor union; a fairly large and very diverse group of people who work in an industry that requires a wide range of skill sets but which normally does not require any single individual to possess all these skill sets. So my Local provides employers with work crews that, collectively, meet our employers’ range of required skills and abilities. The women and men in my local do not confuse equality with identity.  They are fully aware of the differences of gender, ethnicity, age, personality, religion, aptitudes and work experience that make each of us different. But they stubbornly hold on to the notion (handed down to them from the Judeo Christian tradition and its Enlightenment elaboration) that we should  see ourselves in others; that we see through the camouflage of superficial differences and recognize in others the humanity we feel ourselves to possess. They hold it to be self-evident that they each and all deserve equal protection in the workplace and an equal opportunity to achieve their personal goals. Their equality with each other is a moral commitment to an abstraction.


There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28) Advice from that opium eater, St. Paul.



The Planet Klepton

What the fk is wrong with the Russian people?

Corruption is rampant. Upwards of $400 billion dollars circulates in bribery and other sub-rosa transactions. $15 billion dollars worth of construction work on the Sochi Olympics went to three of Putin’s pals. The average Russian’s wealth is less than $10,000 yet 110 Russians are billionaires. These few Russians lead extravagant lives. They don’t spend money at home, they like to live close to their money* in London, New York and Switzerland. Their humble pieds-a-terre in Hyde Park and Manhattan are celebrated by Architectural Digest and accented with the purchase of neighborhood sports franchises. Their children buy Greek islands. But the king of Russian kleptocrats may be Vladimir Putin himself:

So what evidence is there of Putin’s secret obscene fortune? Let’s start with the small stuff. Putin is known to sport a $150,000 Patek Philippe watch on most occasions and his total collection has been valued at $700,000. He also has full access to a $40 million ultra-luxury yacht that features a wine cellar, Jacuzzi, helipad and outdoor barbecue area. In terms of living accommodations, Putin has access to 20 mansions throughout the world including a lavish ski lodge and Medieval castle. The crown jewel of his property portfolio is a $1 billion palace overlooking the Black Sea that he allegedly owns through an anonymous trust… If Vladimir Putin’s net worth truly sits at $70 billion, that would be enough to make him the third richest person on the planet right behind Bill Gates and Carlos Slim Helu.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, the average Russian is living the Third World Dream.

What other “developed” country would put up with having  the 400 richest people owning more wealth than the bottom 150 million put together? What  other developed country would have that kind of wealth concentrated in the hands of a few when 70% of working age adults have jobs that pay less than $30,000?

The most unequal of the developed countries is the USA. According to OECD data, its Gini coefficient is 0.38, well above the values in the UK (0.34), Japan (0.33), Germany (0.30) France (0.29) and Denmark (0.26). What is more, inequality in the USA has been increasing by an average of 0.5% per annum since the mid 1980s.

According to the United Nations’ Human Development Report 2010, the USA’s Gini coefficient is even higher, at 0.41 (see Table 3 of the report). But this is still below that of Russia, with a figure of 0.44, a figure that has markedly worsened over time, along with those of other former Soviet countries.

Five members of the Walton family are have more wealth than the bottom 42% of all Americans combined.

What the fk is wrong with the American people?


*Nod to my money guru, JG