In this post I’d like to finally get to the meat of this project: a systematic construction of rational and honest views on current topics of ethical importance. I’ve felt it necessary to build a strong foundation about my ethical system before diving into specific ethical issues, which I have preliminarily done here, but it feels appropriate to move into phase 2, given the pace at which real life is throwing us ethical curveballs. I suspect I will get through at least preliminary comments on the following topics by the end of tonight: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, Islamophobia, border vetting, and culture.
First, as an overview of the ethical principles I will take as granted from here on out:
- Reasoning is the foundation of ethics, given that ethics deals with values and behaviors at the societal scale, and to have alignment of individual values and behaviors across a society, you have to be able to give “reasons” to others for why you believe what you believe, and why you do what you do. That is the essence of reasoning.
- I believe there is fundamentally one line of reasoning (an “escalator”, in Peter Singer’s conception) about values that leads us inevitably to the ethic of universal well-being. I believe this strongly enough, at this point, that in principle I shouldn’t have to explain this (but I can dwell on this more in future posts, if desired); the degree to which you accept the expansive circle of well-being is, in my view, the degree to which you are truly reasoning. I don’t mean that to be condescending; in truth, the vast majority of our life circumstances do not require us to truly reason (imagine the obnoxious child in your life that keeps asking “why” over and over again; that is the only kind of person who is “truly” reasoning at peak performance, while the rest of us have fallen into states of ignorance, dishonesty, rustiness, or a combination of all of the above). And, in fact, many of our “cultures” and “customs” actively obviate us of the responsibility of reasoning, by design. So back to the point of this point: there is an objective “right” direction to ethical reasoning, in my view, and it’s the equal consideration of the well-being of all beings of equal consciousness (and less conscious animals, accordingly).
- The best thought experiment I have heard of to explain the “rightness” of this ethical system is the following: for any ethical view you are debating, simply imagine that once you have conceived of the version of society you believe is “right”, then you are assigned at random to live in that society. This automatically aligns your thinking with the common sense criteria that your “ethic” cannot be individualistic, and must work for all people in a society (which, as I have already pointed out, is part of the literal definition of an ethic). Imagine creating a “perfect” world, with the caveat that once you have created that perfect world, you are born into it at random. If you truly hold yourself to that thought experiment, I can’t imagine much variation in what we would conceive that “perfect” world to be like. It would be a world in which everybody has equal opportunity, and likely equal outcome to some degree as well. If you have an interesting argument against this, I would be very interested to discuss it.
- The challenge, of course, is whether we are able to accurately measure the increase or decrease of universal well-being comparatively between any two ethical scenarios (say, yes or no on abortion, or yes or no on gun control). This is where “rationality” and “empiricism” enter the fray as the best tools we have to make those ethical judgments. I am of the opinion that we must always employ the best reasoning we are capable of to make our ethical decisions, and that dogma of all forms (across the entire political spectrum) is at odds with rational thinking.
- For the current topics I will consider, or any kind of debate I enter with colleagues, I would like to employ the following strategy. First, we have to agree on our fundamental areas of agreement and disagreement. That means distilling our views to their fundamental values and assumptions. If we find that our values are at odds (i.e. at different points along that arrow of reasoning from localized, gene-focused well-being to universal well-being), then that is the most fundamental area of disagreement, and we’d have no good reason to argue further if we cannot reach agreement there. If, on the other hand, our values are aligned (i.e. both believing in the equal value of all beings), then our disagreement can only be in the assumptions we make to calculate well-being. That disagreement would ultimately stem from different facts (which of course must be vetted for accuracy, a question of science), differences in methods of calculation, or different heuristics around uncertainty if we do not have the facts.
- At a high level, any disagreements I expect to have with people around religion and political ideology are very likely at that core level of value difference (and I invite you to consider this very, very seriously before arguing out of principle). Once we’ve gotten past those spectra of polarization, which I think are the root disease of our public discourse, then we can get into the truly interesting, wonky, and vital questions of calibrating and testing our methods of reasoning. My final point I’ll make here is that I think of debate not as a zero-sum game of someone winning and someone losing. If you think a debate is zero-sum game, you probably are arguing about that core value system of selfishness and selflessness. But if we are having the kind of debate that I would like to have, we are in a non-zero-sum game. We are debating in order to co-discover truths that will lead to greater universal well-being. I’d like to think this is a really inviting and liberating motivation for us all to pursue intellectual honesty.
Alright, so now that those premises have been covered, let’s dive into the weeds…
Freedom of Speech
I agree with Sam Harris on the idea that freedom of speech, our first amendment in the US, is the most important right we have as human beings. I may even go so far as to say that it is the only fundamental liberty we should guarantee in societies, besides the other rights to life and pursuit of happiness. This is because, as I will paraphrase of Harris’s view, communication by writing or speech is the only means we have to reason with one another besides violence. When you do not have the right to argue your viewpoints, then you may be compelled to assert those views through physical force. So I am unequivocally on the side of free speech as it applies to current events (the case of yelling “Fire” in a theater, or hate speech where the negative impact on well-being is immediately causal, are specific cases which are perfectly OK to penalize without compromising on freedom of speech in the society at large). That means that I am for cartoons that depict the Prophet Mohammed in less-than-favorable ways. I am for somebody like Milo Yiannopoulos speaking at Berkeley or Stanford, and against the idea of “safe spaces” on campuses, and am appalled by so-called “liberals” who illiberally restrict the fundamental right to free speech. If you have a problem with the ideas being presented, then your weapon should be the same right to free speech, not a physical weapon. If we want to resist bad ideas like white supremacy or Islamic fundamentalism, then our society should trust that the social cost of reputation will be a powerful enough disincentive. If not, then I think we have to improve our institutions of knowledge and reasoning, without resorting to violence.
Freedom of Religion
Now things get trickier. As I said, I’m all for freedom of communicating ideas, regardless of how “right” or “wrong” those ideas are. But given my ethical system, I do have deliberate criticisms of religions, which to me are institutionalized ethical systems based on dogmatic (disprovable) ideas most often manifested in “sacred” texts like the Bible or Quran. I can get much deeper into arguments on religion, and would like to do this systematically with reasonable religious people as part of this writing project, but for now I’ll just say that my views on “freedom” of religion are very complicated. I’m not sure if it’s as clear-cut as freedom of speech, because of two main problems. First, fundamentalist religions can be directly against freedom of speech. If you cannot speak against Islam in a fundamentalist state in the Middle East, for fear of literally being stoned to death, then that is incompatible with freedom of speech, and I cannot advocate for the rights of that religion to exist. So any version of Islam that follows the strict principle of violence against Muslims who have apotheosized, or more generally preaches systematic violence as part of its divine ethical system, cannot be practiced as a “right”, in my opinion. In this case, a “sterilized” version of Islam, as most of us have encountered through Muslim friends in the western world, and pretty much every modern version of Christianity, Judaism, and Catholicism, do not violate this problem. But that brings me to my second problem with freedom of religion. Our culture has embedded religion into childhood education, through family or through school (as has been the core value of the religious Right, and as will certainly be championed by Betsy DeVos). Given the natural malleability of ethical values in children, and the powerful grip of religion as a culture, I think we can hardly say that children in religious upbringings are “free” to hold beliefs and values that are contrary to that religion. So while I don’t think I can rationally be opposed to the freedom of people to believe disprovable things in a structured social institution, I do think the exception can be made to prevent inculcation of dogmatic ideas into children through our educational institutions, and to break up (like we break up monopolies) religions that promote ideas that are at direct odds with the well-being of others, and of course, separation of church and state.
To connect this more broadly to the timely question of a Muslim ban, I will share a few remarks. First, I think Islamophobia is a really sloppy liberal label to throw onto a complex and serious set of ideas in our global society that deserve rational discourse. I say this to try to provide as much of a buffer against that immediate reaction to my next few remarks. While I do not support a “Muslim ban”, I would support a “terrorist ban”, as I hope everybody else would. The issue, of course, is the degree of certainty we can reliably have about that profiling, which fundamentally is a question of how much we can ascertain about somebody’s beliefs and values at the border. This, of course, is the essential goal of “vetting”, which absolutely must happen at a border if we have laws which resist certain ethics like murder. No matter how “tolerant” you are as a liberal, you cannot be “tolerant” of somebody who vows to kill homosexuals, so you have to seriously consider the degree to which you may be dogmatizing your concept of tolerance to the point of it actually contradicting true liberal values. So, as a citizen of a liberal society, I do believe there are ideas which we cannot accept as part of our vetting process for immigrants and refugees. But unless somebody flat out tells a CBP official at the border that they “vow to kill homosexuals”, actual terrorists are of course likely to lie about their views. Therefore we have to be strategic in our design of vetting procedures so as to be as confident as we can about our identification of people who harbor ideas that are actually illiberal. Here, I agree with Sam Harris that there are many types of questions that are truly reliable points of information to have, at least compared to not having them. I do think that a question about religious affiliation is perfectly reasonable at the border, because we can see how powerful religious convictions can be (enough to be the only type of belief system that reliably leads some people of specific affiliations to kill themselves in suicide bombings; and if you don’t agree with this, we have a lot to debate about reasoning in a follow-up conversation). But of course the label “Muslim” is way too broad! In fact, Muslims who don’t believe in honor killings and jihad are literally the most important people to give refuge to in America, because they are the ones who should ultimately lead the reformation of their own religion, the invalidation of politicized illiberal interpretations of their sacred texts, just as the Anglican faiths have been reformed over many centuries of monumental human suffering. So in summary, I obviously think that the specific ways in which the Trump administration has gone about dealing with border vetting have been outrageously poor and seeped in all other kinds of dogmatic prejudices or plain stupidity. But I am afraid that the Left is veering away from the “right” answer if it cannot reason through the fundamental issues of illiberalism at hand. In fact, if the Left continues to resist reason on this topic, we are unfortunately left with the Right being the only political ideology that has a potential to be reasonable on this issue — and that’s a scary thought.
On Culture and Identity
I know some of the views above, if read at lighter-than-face value, may lead to accusations of me being a bigot or Islamophobe, which I am fully prepared to challenge (perhaps leading me to discover true bigotry in the views expressed so far). But to place myself on firmer (or shakier) footing, I’ll end this section with some generalized views. The Left is notorious for respecting “culture” and “identity politics”, and while I consider myself progressive in many ways, I cannot accept this typical “social justice warrior” mentality. First, I would urge for a rethinking of what we mean by identity, as it relates to rights. I think there is a major difference between identity that is natural and identity that is constructed. Identity that is natural is not your choice, like your race, level of ability/disability, gender (biologically at birth), sexual orientation (as we understand it), etc. Given my ethical system that values every human equally, the only way we can maintain that is by making sure that differences caused by natural identities do not lead systematically to differences in well-being. Hence racism and homophobia being fundamentally illiberal problems in our society. But I would put constructed identities, like religion and, as it appears, some “gender identities” (which, I’ll admit, I am very uninformed about, and would graciously accept education from somebody who is an expert on these recently discovered “other genders” or “gender fluidities” that appear, by my powers of reason, to be more constructed than not), on the list of “cultural phenomenon” that should not necessarily be granted the same rights of equal treatment and equal outcome. More broadly, I must say that “culture” is not something I value innately. Culture is simply a series of popular ideas and values; nothing in culture is inherently “right” in my ethical system. Cultures can be systematically compared using ethical reasoning, and one culture can be determined to be more “ethical” than another. Of course, there are many micro cases in which it is difficult to make that comparison, but other comparisons should be fairly black and white, even for the dogmatic. The best example, in a modern context, I believe is, again, fundamentalist Islam. I am perplexed that feminists can be anywhere close to supporting of women living in Islamist societies which force body veils and female genital mutilation, and condone honor killings, and would seriously want to debate this if somebody is willing to enlighten me with good reasoning (of course, I support the freedom of women in the US to wear hijabs, because they literally have the choice to wear them or not to wear them; that’s what’s critical). So, in summary, I do not believe the Left’s dogmatic tolerance and protection of “culture” and “identity” to have merit in its current form, and hope that honest conversation and reasoning about this can occur without the righteous pre-labeling of bigotry.
I think it would be prudent for me to stop here, if not sooner. I will probably let the reaction to this post dictate the order in which I revisit these arguments with much greater detail and reasoning, as I have proposed to do systematically. And I fully anticipate and hope to have my judgment changed on at least a few issues, as that is the outcome we must allow rational debate to yield if we are ever to empower our societies to flourish through conversation and not violence. Otherwise, the next chance I get to write, I’d like to get into other topics like environmentalism, more on culture, and Trumpism.