Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Libertarianism and Morality

On April 25th 1990, the long awaited Hubble space telescope was launched. In the planning stages since 1967, delayed in deployment for 4 years by the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, scientists were ecstatic at its potential to view deep space as never before from above the atmosphere's distorting optical envelope. Within days their excitement turned to dismay, as pictures from Hubble returned out of focus.

The giant mirror, 94 inches in diameter, had a spherical aberration. When the mirror was being polished to its correct shape, the device used to test its curvature — called a null corrector — had been made to the wrong specifications. Thus, when the null corrector indicated that the mirror was perfect, it was in fact slightly aspherical. The extremely faint light of distant celestial objects could not therefore be sharply directed to the focal point, resulting in a halo effect and a fuzzy image. Upon investigation, the problem was found to be due to the interchange of metric and English measurements when engineering the testing device. Subsequent space shuttle repairs rendered the optics perfect again, giving rise to the spectacular photographs which the Hubble telescope has since obtained.

In the case of Hubble's mirror, an inadvertent change of standards, resulting in an aberration 1/50th the diameter of a human hair, nearly doomed a multi-million dollar space project. Consider the likelihood of success if each of the engineers on the project had been allowed to use their own set of standards. Yet in the realm of human behavior and morality, an idea preposterous to a scientist is widely accepted as legitimate, even desirable.

Dale Franks, writing in the excellent libertarian Q and O blog, reviewing a recent Tom Wolfe book in his post on Morality and Society, poses the following question:
God, as Friederich Nietzsche famously said, is dead. But what is rarely appreciated is that Nietzsche wasn’t very happy about it. It wasn’t a statement of triumph over the stultifying hand of religion, but rather a complaint that caused him to question how we would, in the absence of a God-given standard, find our moral way in a world where a transcendent standard of right and wrong had been obliterated.

Of course, he went on from there to muse about the rise of a new superman, and his will to power, and a lot of other spectacularly silly stuff, but the initial question, the subject of his lament about the passing of God as a giver of moral standards, remains.

This question should be one of special concern to Libertarians. Most libertarians have the idea that the government should have no place in regulating morality. The government should confine itself to enforcing laws only against those that physically harm the person or property of another, non-consenting person. Under such a regime, a huge swathe of current law would be swept away. No more drug convictions, no more prostitution stings, you know the drill ... The trouble with the argument that we should all be free to work out our individual morality as best pleases us is that we don’t all live alone on an island. We live in a society. We are social beings who are happiest when we have intercourse with others. And the type of society we build is directly related to the moral sense we create in it.

Our culture is increasingly drawn to the idea that the individual should be the final arbiter of his or her own morality. Behavior formerly judged to be aberrant or wrong is now by default tolerated and even celebrated under the umbrella of "diversity". The only standard is that "no one gets hurt" - although the definition of "hurt", and whom might be so affected, is similarly left up to the individual to determine - generally using the narrowest and most self-serving criteria.

There are two fundamental approaches to defining moral values. Moral behavior may evolve as consensual in a culture, arrived at by experience, whereby the needs of the many overrules the contrary tendencies and demands of the few, enforced over time by social pressure, ostracization, or overt punishment. Conversely, moral standards may proceed from a higher moral source, hopefully one of pure goodness with the best interests of man at heart. Such moral standards are enforced by delegated authority - typically religion or government - much as a parent guides and disciplines a wayward child. At a higher and more sublime level, the moral code will be inculcated and infused from its higher Source into the heart and fiber of the individual, by instruction or spiritual transformation. Such is the ideal framework for a civil society, for moral restraint then lies within the individual, rather than being coerced. Government and the rule of law are thereby not the source of morality, but are delegated to the lesser role of admonition and correction of the remaining moral shortcomings and excursions of man from the transcendent ideal.

Morality derived from consensus of the many alone, without reference to a higher Source, can function reasonably well in a homogeneous society with strong cultural and family ties. Their self-referential standards, while functional at some level, may ultimately prove to be errant, however, in the light of cultural enlightenment or scientific progress. They may in fact bring considerable harm over time to the culture and its members, such as mores permitting cannibalism, polygamy, slavery, or predatory sexual behavior, for example.

In advanced cultures such as the West, the consensus approach is far less workable. Family and ethnic ties break down rapidly in cultures with rapid transportation and information exchange, as people move, travel, and exchange ideas far away from their moral center of gravity. As a result, cultural moral consensus becomes individual moral autonomy, with increasingly chaotic and disruptive effects.

The problem with individual moral autonomy is mankind's inborn self-centric bias. Our formidable intellectual capabilities allow us to use advanced psychological tools such as denial, rationalization, and minimalization, yet are not advanced enough to perceive the wide-ranging personal and social implications - both short- and long-term - of our moral decisions and behavior.

Consider the sexual revolution of the 1960's, for example. Launched by the technological advance of readily-available and reliable birth control, nurtured by the anti-authoritarian environment of an unpopular war and a universal military draft, conventional wisdom evolved to the point where sexual activity between any two "consenting adults" was permissible and desirable - as long as "no one gets hurt". The consequences of millions of individuals defining sexual morality in such constricted and self-referential terms is nothing short of staggering: spiraling rates of divorce and sexually transmitted diseases (including AIDS); exponential growth of children raised in single-parent homes or born to unwed mothers; breakdown of families with deteriorating educational systems and outcomes; increased rates of juvenile crime and drug use; epidemic levels of domestic and child abuse. Whatever benefits may have accrued from this moral earthquake in the areas of sexual repression and prudishness are swamped by the adverse consequences - consequences never even imagined by those making these individual moral choices.

This is one of my main objections to the libertarian idea of individual moral decision-making as the foundation for a free society: it ignores (or minimizes, at best) the profound effect that our individual moral choices have on on other individuals and society as a whole. When your airline pilot or surgeon smokes pot every night in the privacy of their own homes, the resultant long-term impairment of reflexes, judgment, and decision-making ability may have potentially disastrous consequences on lots of other people. When you choose to have a child as a single mother, the high likelihood of poverty and social disadvantage affects your child, his peers, the society he grows up in, and the child's future children, in countless ways you cannot anticipate, and which are very likely negative.

The libertarian opposition to the government imposition of morality through regulation is one for which I have considerable sympathy, but which I believe is misdirected. I'm no cheerleader for excessive government regulation, by any means: as a physician, I am watching my profession crumple under its weight like a Datsun under Godzilla. Yet, as I pointed out in my earlier post on The Law of Rules, excessive government regulation is not the disease, but rather the symptom of a culture where individual moral restraint is deteriorating.

The resistance to the idea of God as the Source for universal moral standards comes from many directions: the projection of human failings on God, perceiving Him as vindictive, capricious, angry and judgmental; the resistance to constraint on our behavior which we justify as moral but know to be morally suspect; the confusion engendered by different religions and theologies. Yet if we posit a higher being who is morally pure and good, all light and no evil, with a love and caring for His highest creation in man, it should not be unreasonable to conclude that such a being would desire that this creation behave in ways which are beneficial rather than destructive, guiding them toward light rather than evil. The challenge for such a God would be to overcome our own limited sight and moral failings while respecting our freedom to reject such guidance - the very prerequisite for the love He desires returned from us.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

The Religion of Politics

FlowersThe year was 1914. The Great War was raging in Europe, with America as yet spared its suffering. For the followers of Charles Taze Russell, the war was but one sign of a far more portentous event: 1914 was the predicted year for the parousia, the visible return of Christ in power.

Russell, a clothing merchant and self-proclaimed "Bible student", had become interested in the teachings of William Miller - founder of the Adventists. Picking up the pieces of Miller's failed chronology, which had predicted Christ's triumphant return in 1844, Russell's "new light" blended Miller's chronological formulas from the Bible with measurements from the Great Pyramid at Gaza and other numerology sources to conclude that Christ would return visibly in 1874. When this prediction likewise failed, he quickly revised his revelations to conclude that Christ had come invisibly in 1874, and would surely come visibly in power in 1914.

Anticipation among his followers was intense as 1914 drew to a close. When the New Year dawned with no Jesus in sight, disappointment and anger were widespread among Russell's followers. Many fell away, recognizing the emptiness of their trust in their charismatic-but-disgraced leader. One of Russell's most loyal and dedicated followers, Judge Joseph Rutherford, was unwilling to reject the teachings of the man he regarded as a prophet, and saw an opportunity to change the subject and re-energize their discouraged followers. He launched a vitriolic attack on the churches and clergy of Christendom, whose opposition to and exposure of the false prophecies of Russell led so many to abandon the Truth. Those who had left were branded apostates, and shunned. Rutherford succeeded in salvaging and reinvigorating the religion, and became the father of today's Jehovah's Witnesses.

So what does any of this have to do with politics? Bear with me a moment.

Religious cults like Russellism and its offspring, the Jehovah's Witnesses, centralize all their faith and hopes in one person or group, who acts as the sole spokesman for God. When prophetic predictions by leadership fail to materialize, followers are faced with a difficult choice: to admit that the authority in which they have placed so much trust and invested so much energy is a sham, and therefore conclude that they themselves are fools, or risk the wrath and rejection of a group they believe to be their only salvation. Such conflict produces severe cognitive dissonance, and often results in thought patterns, rationalization, and behavior which the outside world will view as bizarre or irrational.

Now, politics is not religion, much less a cult. But there are many in the political arena, both right and left, for whom politics and political power represent the only hope and salvation for mankind's problems. They invest in their political vision, and in the power necessary to impose it (governmental and judicial), enormous energy and commitment. Among some Christian conservatives, this manifests itself through the political imposition of morality. Although authority is nominally attributed to God, in practice righteousness must be imposed on society by the election of morally upright representatives, the opposition to morally abhorrent legislation and societal practices, and the rapid attribution of adverse social or political events to the judgment of God on the wicked. The progress of spiritual transformation on an individual level, one person at a time having their lives changed by God, is far too imperceptible and untrustworthy for such folks, like waiting for continental drift to change your zip code. There is little perspective on how disastrous the imposition of morality through politics has been throughout history. Fortunately, most people of faith eschew purely political solutions to society's problems, having experienced far more personal success with individual redemption and spiritual change.

On the secular side, where God does not exist or is an ineffectual (though sometimes useful) concept, change can only come through raw power, as there exists no authority wiser nor of sufficient potency to bring about the changes seen necessary to better ourselves and our society. One's political and social philosophy therefore becomes both the ultimate authority and judge of a societal direction and morality. Opposition to such well-intentioned and enlightened purposes represents not merely a difference of opinion, but instead a force of ignorance and hate to be opposed at all costs. The opponents of your politics are the personification of evil, the enemies of men's souls.

This worldview is rarely as clearly demonstrated as it has been in the reaction of the secular Left to the recent election. Convinced of the rightness of their cause, the stupidity, corruption and mendacity of the President and his administration, they were certain that the time for deliverance from the Neanderthals and their hordes was at hand. How could the enlightened people of America not heed the call to such a shining city on the hill? Reinforced by the echo chamber of the mainstream print and television media, the parousia of political deliverance surely seemed close at hand.

When the harsh reality of November 3 struck, the idea that America had rejected their political vision proved a devastating blow. The possibility that they themselves might be at fault - that their enlightened vision of America was flawed and unacceptable to the electorate - was too much to bear. There had to be another explanation, since the vision itself could not be questioned. Cognitive dissonance had arrived in spades.

Of course, there was the obligate back-biting about the ineffectiveness of their candidate, and conspiracy theories abounded: the evil genius of Karl Rove, the veracity of the pro-Kerry exit polls overwhelmed by massive voter fraud and intimidation of voters, and even theories about Republican origins of Osama bin Laden's tape. But the wide vote margin refused traction to the idiocy so manifest in Florida in 2000. The answer, however, came quickly and intuitively. Like Nero, having torched their own city, who better to blame for this disaster than the Christians?

Lest you think I am overstating my case, consider the following. The delightfully-but-inappropriately-named Jane Smiley, writing a post-election analysis in Slate, says the following:
Here is how ignorance works: First, they put the fear of God into you-if you don't believe in the literal word of the Bible, you will burn in hell. Of course, the literal word of the Bible is tremendously contradictory, and so you must abdicate all critical thinking, and accept a simple but logical system of belief that is dangerous to question. A corollary to this point is that they make sure you understand that Satan resides in the toils and snares of complex thought and so it is best not try it ... The history of the last four years shows that red state types, above all, do not want to be told what to do-they prefer to be ignorant. As a result, they are virtually unteachable... when life grows difficult or fearsome, they ... encourage you to cling to your ignorance with even more fervor. But by this time you don't need much encouragement-you've put all your eggs into the ignorance basket, and really, some kind of miraculous fruition (preferably accompanied by the torment of your enemies, and the ignorant always have plenty of enemies) is your only hope. If you are sufficiently ignorant, you won't even know how dangerous your policies are until they have destroyed you, and then you can always blame others.

Gary Wills, writing in the NY Times, says this:
Can a people that believes more fervently in the Virgin Birth than in evolution still be called an Enlightened nation?
... The secular states of modern Europe do not understand the fundamentalism of the American electorate... In fact, we now resemble those nations less than we do our putative enemies. Where else do we find fundamentalist zeal, a rage at secularity, religious intolerance, fear of and hatred for modernity? Not in France or Britain or Germany or Italy or Spain. We find it in the Muslim world, in Al Qaida, in Saddam Hussein's Sunni loyalists.

Maureen Dowd, in the NY Times:
The president got re-elected by dividing the country along fault lines of fear, intolerance, ignorance and religious rule. He doesn't want to heal rifts; he wants to bring any riffraff who disagree to heel.

Donna Brazille, in Slate:
When one of my sisters-who, coincidentally, is a recovering Republican-was told in church that she would go to hell if she voted for Sen. Kerry, she stood up and denounced the preacher's message ... despite our personal differences on matters of faith and religion, we believe that in order to be good disciples of Jesus, you have to not only know his words but also perform his deeds. That is where we draw the line with those who spend hours and hours in church, only to come out and hate everyone around them.

Imagine for a moment, that Kerry had won the election. Consider the reaction if the Wall Street Journal and National Review had published opinion stating the same things about any other group which supported Democrats - African Americans, Hispanics, Jews, labor unions. Called them ignorant, unteachable, hate-filled, the moral equivalent of Al Qaeda. Can you imagine the sheer outrage, the 'round-the-clock news coverage, the 60 Minutes specials on bigotry and intolerance? Yet for the secular Left, this is not bigotry; it is Truth.

When politics is your religion, rejection at the polls is more than a disappointment; it challenges the very core of your enlightened belief system, your very soul. It is the failed prophecy, the betrayal by the ignorant and unfaithful, the repudiation of your core being, the smashing of your dreams. The Vision is Truth; the enemy who impeded its inevitable and righteous triumph must be identified, hated, repudiated, scorned. Only then can the True Believer be at peace again, in the assurance of their moral superiority and the destiny of their dominance.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

The Left Shift

PoppiesThe talking heads of the mainstream media are echoing the refrain that President Bush - having won by a significant margin in the popular and electoral vote, as well as significant gains by his party in Congress - should recognize the bitterly divided nature of the electorate, and promote healing by adopting a conciliatory philosophy of governance. This presumably would include the appointment of liberal federal and Supreme Court justices, avoidance of controversial policy initiatives such as reforming Social Security, increasing taxes, and reaching out to our aggrieved-but-eager-to-help allies such as France and Belgium.

Can we have a reality check here?

First of all, if Kerry had won, would anybody be saying such things? Would we expect a Kerry administration to promote pro-life issues, or submit conservative (or even moderate) judges for appointment, to help salve the divisive wounds of the nation? Why do only conservatives and Republicans have to change to reduce the bitterness? Will there be no turning down the volume of vicious rhetoric by the Michael Moores, the Moveon.orgs, the Hollywood loonies? Will CBS and the NY Times stop their hit pieces and look for common ground for the good of the country? Don't count on it. What the liberal Democrats and their supporters in the mainstream media could not convince the majority of Americans to support in the voting booth, they will attempt to impose on the electorate through guilt, media assault, judicial fiat and coercion.

Secondly, that's just the way it goes in a democracy: the winner gets to set the agenda. In any national election, a whole bunch of folks - slightly less than half the voters - are very unhappy with the outcome. Conservatives were stunned and depressed when Clinton won in 1992 and 1996. Tough cookies - suck it up. Your options in this uncomfortable dilemma are straightforward: try to get more people to agree with your party, policies and candidate the next time around, and in the meantime you get to block or alter the governing party's policy initiatives through the Congress, which directly represents the people. Staggered elections provide another outlet - some House and Senate seats come up for election every 2 years. The opportunities to change the system on a frequent, regular basis are legion. Furthermore, the courts serve as the final check, when one party dominates both branches and moves too far outside the lines.

The problem for the Democratic Party is that they have been drifting farther away from the mainstream of American thought - or, perhaps more accurately, the majority of Americans are moving away from their ideas. Bitch-slapped into reality by watching 3000 Americans die in horror on 9/11 - ironically shown to them in vivid detail by a media which still fails to grasp the implications of this seminal event - many Americans have been reassessing their priorities. The environment, health care, racial inequality, day care and school lunches are important to many, but don't mean squat if bin Laden or some other Islamic fanatic slips a nuke into Boston, or crop-dusts anthrax over Atlanta.

The pundits are correct: there is a sharp divide in America, and like shifting tectonic plates, there's a lot of heat at the interface. But what is striking is where this division occurs: it has shifted sharply to the left.

When I first discovered the blogsphere, I was struck both by its depth and resources, but also by its tendency to be an echo chamber. You could surf to a dozen like-minded blogs, and find the same links and quotes discussed. I began to seek out diversity of opinion, but found that on the left, the same was true - albeit with far more emotion and vituperation, and far less reasoned thought or plausible alternatives for the realities of the post-9/11 world. As I continued to read, however, I noticed that many writers who understood the harsh realities of a global terrorism war would have been my political and philosophical opponents in the 9/10 world; we would disagree on a host of issues, from abortion, to stem cell research, to the role of faith in the public square, to the size and involvement of the federal government in our lives. Yet these individuals, by and large, were supporting Bush and the war on terror - albeit often with spirited differences on its execution and priorities, some with clenched teeth and near revulsion at the thought.

The center has shifted, and the division between opposing views of America lies farther to the left than ever before. The majority of Americans - Right, Center, and Center-Left - understand that the paradigm has changed. Despite misgivings and fears of the journey into preemptive war, the murkiness of non-national enemies, concerns about balancing civil rights while unmasking lethal enemies who hide behind them, despite our enmeshment in the hornets' nest of the Middle East, a growing majority now understands what is of prime importance. Increasingly marginalized are those on the Left who could be tolerated when it mattered little, but who today often undermine our national integrity and align themselves with those committed to destroying us. They are a diminishing minority, yet they have become the financial and philosophical heartbeat of the Democratic Party. It is only through the amplification of the media megaphone, screeching at rock-concert decibels, that the increasingly marginal supporters of the current Democratic Party can pretend to represent anything like a significant portion of voting America.

How long this realignment lasts, and whether the Democrats have the wherewithal to divorce their fringe and return to the mainstream, remains to be seen. Republicans and conservatives have an opportunity in the meantime to tackle a whole host of recalcitrant national problems: the entitlements, the tax code, a failing public education system. To tackle these third-rail issues will be noisy, and heated, and stormy, and will require a courage heretofore lacking in the Republican Party. The outcome may or may not be satisfactory, but it will surely require input from widely varying perspectives. And if it does not turn out well, the American people can choose an alternative philosophy of governance. I for one welcome a strong, engaged Democratic Party, willing to persuade rather than demean, to construct rather than condemn. Perhaps from our common roots in opposing and destroying the merchants of terror can such a Phoenix be resurrected.