It’s the epistemology, stupid.

I apologize that this post has little to do with right-now stuff. There’s a lot of right-now stuff happening, and maybe we need some respite.

This actually links into the Bob Massie discussion, and why I got the feeling that he comes from a place I think I understand. He’s an Episcopal priest; I was a religion major (kind of by default, but no matter).

There’s an interesting (to me) thread going on on a few other blogs about the relationship of liberal politics to liberal policy. I feel like liberals have been fighting a rear-guard battle for maybe 30 years, defending our policy achievements against persistent attacks. And now those programs are more vulnerable than ever. And while we talk about how important and effective these programs are in a practical way … the fact is that there’s a large chunk of the population that no longer buys into the consensus-of-values that brought these programs into existence. It’s not simply that old people got health care and black people got civil rights because, well, they needed them. There existed, after a time, a value system of justice, mercy, and fairness that those policies served.

Where did that value system come from? Was it the teachings of Jesus, or “Justice, justice shall you pursue” from Deuteronomy? Was it simple moral reciprocity — the logical “do unto others”? Emerson’s sense — faith, perhaps — that, put too glibly, what comes around goes around?

In other words … why am I a liberal? My parents are liberals; Is it adequate that it’s passed on as an inheritance, like blue eyes or nearsightedness? What’s the moral imperative of liberalism?

I find myself intrigued by this comment at Crooked Timber:

Might it be that one reason why neoliberalism has been historically weak on theories of politics—and consequently often hasn’t been able to really grasp, nor to morally appreciate, the conditions which made the pre-neoliberal establishment viable—is because many, perhaps most, of those drawn towards “technocratic discussion” as a substitute for politics have either abandoned or were never acquainted with the sort of ethical or religious grounding that suggests something prior to discussion? A robust theory of politics is often, perhaps nearly always, animated by a conviction that politics is the means by which human beings can democratically realize certain naturally or philosophically preferred ends. Eliminate a belief in the prior and/or enduring existence of those ends, and maybe politics does seem, to many people anyway, wholly concerned with…well, with just talking, talking as efficiently and responsibly as possible, as each new problem arises. Which maybe works wonderfully while a cultural consensus reigns, but once it is lost, and you’re running up against True Believers, talk as a theory of politics doesn’t produce the same results.Don’t mean to boil this all down to a simplistic point; obviously there are several epistemological shifts going on in the case of the rise (and decline?) of neoliberalism. But for the left, I wonder if there might be a larger connection between a kind of secularity and the decline of an “ethic of ends” (in the Weberian sense) than many contemporary liberals realize.

We get frustrated by politics. It will disappoint, because it is not the realm of ideals or prophecy. Obama said it himself, and — without letting him off the hook — there is truth to that.

And yet there’s a hole in the soul of liberalism right now. “What to do” is only a question that matters after you’ve decided what is good and right and meaningful. If you think that doesn’t matter, look at the shibboleths of culture and symbol on the right — you know, “Faith, Flag and Family” -type of talk, the anti-intellectualism at which we tend to squint and scratch our heads. But see how powerful they are. We may dismiss them as tribalism, superstition, or ignorance … but either way, the values and meaning are the game. And on our side, policies that we support — health care for everyone, sustainability, a peace-oriented, collaborative foreign policy — are expressions of specific values and a contingent sense of the good life. These things are not universally valued; their benefits are not self-evident to all. There are other things to value, eg. war-heroism and self-reliance; and some people value those more.

On the other side, the renewal of interest in Ayn Rand is an expression of a search for meaning. Heroic self-expression and self-reliance, finding your own way, taking yourself seriously, and letting the world go its way, neither giving nor taking from one’s inherent dignity. I feel it’s misguided and self-contradictory on many levels, but it’s something.

Sorry to inconvenience you by asking at this stressful time … Where do your values come from?

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21 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. I'm on vacation, so there's no

    inconvenience. My values come from my family–parents and grandparents–who were very involved civically and politically. My parents are also liberal Democrats. In the 1980s, I was a centrist Democrat with neo-liberal tendencies. Perhaps as a sort of rebellion, I was critical of regular, old liberals.

    I also blame The New Republic–my major source of news and politics at the time–for that orientation. I remember saving a Charles Krauthammer feature on interventionism because I thought it was profound. I told people my favorite senator was Sam Nunn. My neo-liberalism was, however, more of an attitude than an ideology, not much different than the Very Serious People of Washington today. I thought Cokey Roberts was deep.

    By the mid-90s, my dad was giving me copies of The Nation, Z Magazine, and In These Times. My watershed moment was reading a collection of Noam Chomsky’s work. I’m not an acolyte, though Chomsky’s analytic method and anarchism appeals to me. The Bush Presidency did the rest.

    In general, we start out with your family, which provide us with positive and/or negative moral examples. We live within certain cultures (for me, reading, NPR, and friends who were political and liberal and gay. Finally, experiences lead me to define my values further.

  2. Humanism

    At my heart, I’m a humanist. I think the ecclesiastical can be interesting to ponder at times, but the route of such thoughts — the question of what happens after the here and now — all seems rather moot to me.

    Whether the total sum of what we become after death is worm food, or if there’s a pearly gate waiting for us after the here and now (hey, that’d be nice), we have a duty to treat each other and this planet we live on with dignity, respect and — for heaven’s sake — a little empathy.

    We should focus a little less on the particulars of whatever religion we may or may not believe and never allow such beliefs to spill over into anger with each other. What we should focus on is how to make the world a better place, how to ensure that each of us is endowed with certain basic human rights that include things that go beyond just free speech and due process, and include things like health care, a roof over our heads and food in our belly. It should include a government that’s willing to truly fight for jobs and an improved quality of life for everyone, not just the elite among us.

    However we are measured as a species, it is not and can never be the “best” among us — those with the most money, power or influence — but the least among us. Whether someone arrives to that conclusion because they believe in Jesus, Mohammed or the intrinsic value of life doesn’t matter to me, just so long as they get there.

    RyansTake   @   Thu 21 Jul 3:22 PM
  3. I've long thought

    that the “veil of ignorance” made famous by John Rawls’ Theory of Justice is as good a starting place as any for how ideas should inform policy. It’s a simple thought experiment, easy to explain, and fairly easy to talk about – unlike religious debates, which tend quickly to hit insuperable roadblocks because “what I believe” so often does not match “what you believe.”

    Interestingly, “empathy” sometimes gets an (undeserved, IMHO) bad rap in political conversations. But the veil of ignorance idea is, essentially, a fancy way of talking about empathy.

    • Interesting

      I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how our current political rhetoric is defined by a distinct “empathy deficit” — between individuals and also more broadly, as a society. In fact, I’m in the middle of a letter to the editor our fine local paper on the matter, and perhaps I’ll “cross-post” here once I’m done with it.

    • Empathy

      The idea that somehow this is a questionable virtue shows us how far gone we may be.

      And actually, arguments that are on their face against empathy, are actually often directed against *misplaced* empathy, e.g. feeling empathy for criminals at the supposed expense of empathy for victims. (Both are possible at once; the proper actions for the two are different, of course.)

      Let’s defend empathy, if that’s what has to happen. It’s part of being human, and ethical. We’re not sharks — we’re not made just to compete, consume, and die.

  4. As the Dalai Lama has said...

    … of himself, “My religion is kindness.”

    We’re all in this together, and life’s difficult enough for anything else.

  5. At the most basic, values come from within.

    The world’s major religions may all teach us some form of “Thou shalt not kill,” but it’s not as if we all don’t already know this at the core of our beings. Sure, there are aberrant individuals who don’t understand this. But the average human rebels at the thought of killing another, which is why so many soldiers and police officers, forced to kill, suffer from PTSD.

    Likewise, fairness is built-in. In fact, it’s not simply a human trait, but a primate trait. Numerous studies have shown that the higher primates will refuse to participate in cooperative laboratory experiments where one participant receives greater rewards than the other. And it’s not just the one getting cheated who quits. The one getting the better reward will refuse to play, as well!

    Even the much maligned empathy that david mentions is biologically built in to humanity. The brain contains millions of mirror neurons that fire when you see things happen to other people. A small portion of your brain literally can’t differentiate between what is happening to you and what is happening to another. And this is why you might gasp and unconsciously grab your knee when you witness someone fall and badly hurt their knee. Anyone watched the film of Thiesmann getting his leg broken lately? How did that make you feel?

    All this is to say that I think we pretty much all know deep down in our hearts what is right and what is wrong. It’s just fear and tortured logic and outright lies that turn so many of us away from the “better angels of our nature.”

  6. Reinhold Niebuhr & Christian Realism

    “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

  7. Thou shalt not kill

    In fact the major religions teach that there is a time to kill and a time to heal. Maybe the religious teachings that were appropriate during paleo-liberalism are not appropriate now. Maybe the conditions of the world are different.

  8. Good point Charley

    First off let me tackle Rye’s observation

    I think the ecclesiastical can be interesting to ponder at times, but the route of such thoughts — the question of what happens after the here and now — all seems rather moot to me.

    If all that my faith was focused on was the hereafter I would never be a Christian. The whole point is how we conduct ourselves in this life and amongst one another, and how our daily lives are affected and given more weight and meaning by the one who paid the ultimate sacrifice that we didn’t deserve. Pondering that sacrifice and how we will try, even if it is in vain,to live up to that most selfless act in human history, is what should drive the faith, or at least drives me faith. And I am sure acolytes of other traditions can at least back me up even if my example to emulate is different. But it is focused on the here and now. I would argue the hereafter is also important in the sense of knowing that our ancestors are looking down on us and judging us and we will eventually see the consequences of our actions on our distant offspring and the linkage of generations in the shared sacrifice, but its not the primary focus, and should not be either.

    Anyway back to Charley’s point I think liberals should adopt a simply mantra like ‘faith, family. freedom’. I think the four freedoms and restoring them to their rightful place in the pantheon of our shared capital D Democratic and capital L Liberal heritage is essential. We can criticize Reagan from the right as not conservative enough, from the left as too conservative and not too bright, but he understood how to communicate broad ideological ideas into simple digestible concepts. In many ways, having read biographies of both men, its obvious that Reagan never stopped admiring FDR even if he sharply disagreed on policies. He always knew that FDR was ‘with the people’ and he communicated this fact directly. They both were first rate charismatic personalities and second rate minds surrounded by smarter men. And in many ways Faith Family and Freedom is descended from the four freedoms. We need to return to that.

  9. Rear-guard battle

    Yes. But it’s almost 50 years, since Goldwater.

    I want to fight for something new.

  10. For me Christianity does have a lot to do with it.

    Which is why my position over the past few years has changed from one of keeping religion away from politics entirely to now believing that there is both a place and a necessity for a religious left in our political discourse. Here is a website with several articles about why Christianity goes better with liberalism than conservatism.

  11. I think Ryan's mention of humanism

    is at heart of what most of us believe. I’m a secular humanist, but some of us are Christian humanists.

    As humanists, we believe in the dignity of individuals and trying to accomodate individual points of view. Humanity precedes ideals and abstractions for us.

    Anti-humanists favor abstractions and institutions more than individuals. Marriage inequality, for example, continues to make a lot of people suffer, but social conservatives argue that it threatens the moral fabric of society and the family. That argument is crap for a lot of reasons, but rhetorically, it is an example of putting an abstraction before the interests of individuals.

    Much of what’s going on in the national GOP today is anti-humanism.

  12. Yes and no

    I think we are operating under different assumptions of what the word ‘humanism’ means in that context. I would argue that Christian humanism, at least of the Catholic variety that I try to practice, the kind that comes from Petrarch, More, and Erasmus, while it does share prizing individuality and individual action it also looks inwardly toward the human and seeks to impart values of citizenship and love of neighbor. It was also not entirely divorced from institutional norms. It did seek to overthrow staid medieval institutions, primarily academic ones, that were too focused on preparing a rigid set of professionals and vocations (ironically our educational system has devolved back into that standard) and make the individual and his or her relationship with the Church a more accountable one in response to the Reformation, without severing the bond of communitarian interaction that glued the Church and its members together. Humanists like More were definitely loyal to the Church and its values, but they also wanted to instill broader values that created great character, and in this regard their values could transcend religious division. But this conception of humanism is definitely still influenced by Christian conceptions of morality and cannot be purely distilled as ‘believing in the dignity of individuals’ since Secular Humanists believe that agency stops with the individual while Christian humanists have to believe that agency stops with the ‘individual in concert with his/her God’. Both however would be against a rigid Calvinist or pre-Trent Catholic vision of morality that is a theoarchy or a tightly dogmatic direct rule by God who controls all human actions. Humanism in either form embraces the idea of free will, both as an existential concept, and also as essential to the human condition and breeding good character. Where they diverge is the Christian insistence that it is the will to freely do good and the will to freely follow God that is most important, whereas secular humanism severs (from a Christian perspective) or liberates (form its perspective perhaps) humanities connection to the divine.

    • I think of Christian humanism, not in

      Renaissance, but in more contemporary people. Niebuhr and Merton and Tillich combine other traditions perhaps, but they are comtemporary.

      It helps to think of humanism and anti-humanism as a continuum. It’s an oversimplification, but it might place your version of humanists closer to the anti-humanism pole.

      • Anti-humanism

        I never heard of, with or without that fishy hyphen.

        Would it have anything to do with the ‘Inhumanism’ ideoproduct of the late Roberson Jeffers, the doctrine that rugged California landscapes are morally superior to squishy organisms like us?

        Happy days.

        • I never heard of anti-humanism

          until I saw it on Wikipedia. I toyed with using the word “idealism,” but it has too many confusing connotations.

          The thing I don’t like about “anti-humanism,” besides the fact that neither of us had heard of it, is the fact that it sounds negative, which it isn’t necessarily.

  13. Religion and Politics

    Some social conservatives say that their religious beliefs motivate their political positions. Some liberals say their politics is based in their faith. Once politics becomes a matter of faith, debate and compromise are impossible.

  14. A Nitpick

    And by the way, epistemology is the theory of knowledge, not morals or politics.

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