On who I voted for, the liberal democratic tradition, and words for bad things

(Alternative title: “Philosophical-political blog post that attempts to combine three blog posts into one.” It’s funny if you get the reference to Spinoza’s Treatise.)

It’s proving harder than expected to balance blogging with SIAI work, so I’m going to try something new and combine what would normally have been three blog posts into one. I’m sort of surprised by how well the ideas came together. The three blog posts are:

First of all: yup, cast an absentee ballot for Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein. Voted for the Democrats in the House and Senate races, and ignored local races because I hadn’t really been following them.

This is something I was deeply conflicted about, for reasons that are summed up here and here and the rest of this post will say more relevant things, but to put it on a postcard: Basically, considering only Obama and Romney, I would much rather Obama win. But I would also very much like it if Democratic pols lived in fear that, if they fuck around on things like basic civil liberties, some chunk of their base will vote third-party or just stay home on election day.

Now for Patheos Election Month. I haven’t been responding to these questions, and at first this one seemed especially hard to answer, because the lone idea “there aren’t any gods” isn’t a “tradition” whose members have any reason at all to agree on what the “key issues” are (even if we agree on things like “the government should treat us atheists nice.”)

But reading Leah’s post on sanctions and drone warfare, it occurred to me that “tradition” didn’t technically specify “religious tradition.” So let me talk about another tradition I belong to: the liberal democratic tradition, which not only stresses the importance of electing your governments, but also having limits on government power once they are elected.

It’s hard to figure out cause and effect for big historical changes of the sort that only happen once, but Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature makes the case that liberal democracy has been an important part of making the world a better place. This seems independently plausible: the places that are nice places to live tend to be liberal democracies, and it’s hard to think of historical examples of truly benevolent dictatorships.

Probable reasons for this include something I’ve written about before:

Evolution has no way to give us nice impulses for the sake of having nice impulses. Theory predicts, and observation confirms, that we tend to care more about blood-relatives than mere allies and allies more than strangers. As Hume observed (remarkably, without any knowledge of Hammilton’s rule) “A man naturally loves his children better than his nephews, his nephews better than his cousins, his cousins better than strangers, where every thing else is equal.” And we care more about ourselves than any single other individual on the planet (even if we might sacrifice ourselves for two brothers or eight cousins.)

Most of us are not murderers, but then most of have never been in a situation where it would be in our interest to commit murder. The really disturbing thing is that there is much evidence that ordinary people can become monsters as soon as the situation changes. Science gives us the Stanford Prison Experiment and Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority, history gives us even more disturbing facts about how many soldiers commit atrocities in war time. Of the soldiers who came from societies where atrocities are frowned on, most of them must have seemed perfectly normal before they went off to war. Probably most of them, if they’d thought about it, would have sincerely believed they were incapable of doing such things.

This makes a frightening amount of evolutionary sense. There’s reason for evolution to, as much as possible, give us conditional rules for behavior so we only do certain things when it’s fitness increasing to do so. Normally, doing the kind of things done during the Rape of Nanking leads to swift punishments, but the circumstances when such things actually happen tend to be circumstances where punishment is much less likely, where the other guys are trying to kill you anyway and your superior officer is willing to at minimum look the other way.

Applied to dictators, or anyone else in government given too much power, the conclusion is that if there isn’t something stopping them from using their power to benefit themselves at others’ expense, they will very likely do so. Hence the importance of liberal democratic traditions limiting the power of government.

And it’s important that part of what we need is norms governing the use of government power. No, I don’t think we could do away with things like bills of rights and constitutions by setting up a program to raise designated future leaders with the right norms. But Pinker argues that norms matter. This isn’t really surprising: the best set of laws in existence would do no good if they existed only in government archives, without the support of some kind of “respect for the law” norm.

So the problem with Obama’s drone warfare campaign doesn’t come from the crude math of casualty statistics. Viewed through that lens, drones are clearly morally preferable to nuclear weapons and indiscriminate firebombing, and probably an improvement even on the “smart bombs” of Bush’s Shock and Awe campaign in Iraq. Of course, if he’s killing people for no good reason that would be bad even if it’s just a few people, but that’s not what I think is most worrisome.

What’s most worrisome is Obama’s claim that he can kill anyone, anywhere, at any time, without due process, and keep it all secret. (I can’t decide on one link for that point, so I’m just going to tell you that if you haven’t been reading Glenn Greenwald, you should be.) That seems a clear step backwards from where we were in the Clinton administration. Notice that it’s not the laws that have changed, but how the government interprets them, reinforcing the above point about the importance of norms.

Not that I think drone warfare is a sign we’re headed towards a dystopia. As Pinker argues, backwards steps tend to be temporary in the grand scheme of things. But I don’t think that’s grounds for complacency. The fact that trends have been overall positive in the past doesn’t mean they’ll be continue to be positive even if, say, we all decide to stop caring about civil liberties and human rights.

So there’s your answer: what are key issues this election for people in my tradition, which I’m conveniently interpreting for my purposes as the tradition of liberal democracy? Civil liberties and human rights and especially how they’re affected by the dubiously named “War on Terror.”

(Aside for philosophy nerds: even on pure act consequentialism, decisions to promote, maintain, and enforce norms are still actions that need to be evaluated for their consequences, rather than ignored in favor of paying attention only to things with strong immediate effects like whether you should order a particular drone strike. Yvain may be suspicious of giving this much weight, given the difficulty of quantifying the effects of norms, but if Pinker and I are right, their effects are sometimes profound.)

Now I finally have enough background to explain what’s wrong with Yvain’s objection to my post on why abortion isn’t murder. Well, one point I already made in a comment reply to someone else, but the big point here is that “the idea of words as concept-handles rather than as objectively correct portals to truth” (as Yvain put it) doesn’t remotely entail the idea that we should always let people define words however they want in every argument.

Eliezer’s “tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?” example (which Yvain linked to) and Yvain’s own “someone trying to redefine giraffe to include Mitt Romney” example are both disanalogous to many important examples of how words get redefined in political debates. Consider the Bush administration’s attempt to redefine “torture,” and the attempts of Christian apologists and Turkey to redefine “genocide.” On the one hand, they’re both farther outside accepted usage than anything anyone in Eliezer’s example claimed about the meaning of the word “sound.” On the other hand, unlike Yvain’s example they’re not so obviously absurd as to render them harmless. They’re both dangerous attacks on important norms.

Similarly, you could come up with a definition of “murder” that will make “abortion is murder” true by definition. Maybe something like, “any action that directly or indirectly leads to the death of something with human DNA.” But I wouldn’t assume that’s the definition anti-choicers have in mind when they say “abortion is murder,” and we certainly aren’t obliged to play along if they explicitly try to redefine words to make their point.

(Closing aside for philosophy nerds: I wonder if any consequentialists will question my voting decision. But the effects of any one person’s voting decision are likely to be small, even compared to the effects of writing this post, right? On the other hand, the effects of publicly questioning someone’s voting decision are a third separate issue…)

Content Director’s Note: This post is a part of our Election Month at Patheos feature. Patheos was designed to present the world’s most compelling conversations on life’s most important questions. Please join the Facebook following for our new News and Politics Channel — and check back throughout the month for more commentary on Election 2012. Please use hashtag #PatheosElection on Twitter.

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