Empathy and epistemic closure

The wonkier blogs of the left and right have been discussing what they're calling "epistemic closure" among American conservatives.

It's a criticism of the way the activist, indignant right has begun to cut off and cauterize whole realms of thought and inquiry — purging dissent, punishing questioners, banishing internal critics.

The recent conservative opposition to empathy might seem like a symptom of this epistemic closure, but I think it's more than that. I think it's a cause — maybe even the root cause.

Empathy, at its most basic level, is epistemic. It is sometimes discussed as though it is identical to love, respect or regard for others, but really it precedes that. It is what makes such love, respect or regard for others possible — what informs it. Empathy is a way of seeing, and therefore a way of knowing. To avoid empathy is to limit one's own perspective to only one's own perspective — to choose not to see and therefore to choose not to know. Worse than that — it is to choose not to be able to know.

Empathy, in other words, makes you smarter and wiser. Rejecting empathy makes you dumber and more foolish. To choose not to see what empathy shows us is to choose stupidity.

Stupidity has become a major, if not wholly acknowledged, theme in recent American politics. From Arizona to Massachusetts, it is a glaringly obvious fact of our political discourse, but one that is rarely spoken of directly.

Let's set such timid delicacy aside and state the obvious: The tea partiers are stupid. Look at them, listen to them — these are stupid people behaving stupidly. They are hideously ill-informed and monstrously unconcerned with the fact of their being so ill-informed. Their stupidity fuels their anger and their anger fuels their stupidity. Spend five minutes listening to them and the overwhelming impression of resentful stupidity will only be reinforced. Spend hours listening to the speakers receiving the cheers at their rallies and hours more listening to Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh or any of the other demagogic leaders of this mob of a movement and the conclusion becomes undeniably confirmed: Stupid, stupid, stupid.

It is widely regarded as impolite, or uncharitable, or counterproductive to speak of this egregious stupidity. To call it what it clearly is is considered "condescending."

But to view this as condescending is to misunderstand and misrepresent the stupidity of the tea partiers as something both innate and intractable. It is neither.

These stupid people do not have to be stupid. Their stupidity is a choice, an act of will. Or, rather, an ongoing series of acts of will. And their only hope for liberation is for them to make better choices — to choose to see what can be seen if only they would stop actively choosing not to see it. To choose, among other things, to be receptive to empathy.

The stupidity of the tea partiers has nothing to do with innate intelligence or with acquired intelligence. It has nothing to do with smartness or brainpower or where anyone falls on the bell curve of Stanford-Binet test scores. It is, rather, a moral stupidity, a moral imbecilism that produces simple imbecilism — the inevitable intellectual consequence of a selfish refusal to listen to what empathy is shouting from all sides.

The correlation between bigotry and stupidity has been widely observed, leading to much speculation that there is likely also a causal relationship there. I believe there is, but I think many observers get that causal relationship backwards. Stupidity does not lead to bigotry. Bigotry leads to stupidity. Bigotry causes stupidity. Bigotry is a choice — a series of choices. And each of those choices makes the chooser a little bit more stupid. Cumulatively, they make the chooser a lot more stupid.

One might argue that I have here merely replaced intellectual condescension with moral condescension — replaced "I'm more intelligent than you" with "I'm more virtuous than you." But the message here for the tea partiers is not "I'm smarter than you" or "I'm better than you." The message, rather, is this: You're smarter than you and you're better than you. Right now, you may be selfish, angry, unhappy and really, really stupid. But you don't have to be like that. You can be better and smarter. You ought to be better and smarter. And you can become so without any help from me, just by choosing to be so.

That message is radically egalitarian — the opposite of condescending. It is a call to repentance, and an invitation to reality. In reality, it says, the tea partiers could be smart, decent people. But in the unreality in which they are continuously choosing to dwell they cannot be.

In the terms of the discussion I referred to at the beginning here, "epistemic closure" makes you more ignorant and less wise. It makes you, in a word, stupid. Selfishness and chauvinism require massive, ongoing epistemic closure. Selfishness and chauvinism make you stupid. Really, really stupid. Tea-party stupid.

But such stupidity is a choice that can, at any time, be unchosen.

  • hapax

    how all self-harm is immoral, am I obligated
    I think that here I should interject that determinations of morality do not necessarily entail determinations of obligation.
    Unless you’re Kant. But that’s why nobody wanted to eat lunch with him.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/spectralphoenix Count Zero Interrupt

    Yes, and no. Actually, mostly no. I am saying that I have a radically egalitarian notion of moral authority – that is to say, everyone has the authority (perhaps even the duty) to say what it is they believe and pursue it. I also believe however, that some of us are going to be more right than others, and we have to convince and yes, sadly sometimes even compel each other of our rightness. In the abstract, there is something about reality itself that dictates, however weakly the moral orientation of existence, but it can be overborne by human frailty and will. So, if your objection essentially is that I’ve left us completely the dark and the beliefs I’ve suggested are rife with the potential for abuse, I suppose you’re right.
    Well, in that case (going back to the beginning of this discussion) you’re going to have to provide some sort of legitimate argument that incest is wrong, beyond the notion that it violates a vague “law of the universe.” You can’t just claim you’re right and we’re wrong and be done with it.

  • K.Chen

    There are kinds of self-harm that don’t, of course, and people practice them every day. Some of my friends smoked heavily until a couple years ago. I don’t always make the best nutritional choices. If we’re going to start flapping about how all self-harm is immoral, am I obligated to live according to strict Surgeon General’s guidelines? To never read a trashy novel when I could be improving my mind with Dickens? To stop staying up late and talking about boys with my friends?

    Why would any of that follow?

    Because if so, I’m back to the paraphrased argument from Billy Joel: I’d rather be a sinner, ’cause they’re *way* more fun.

    So… because there might be a dimension of morality in how we treat ourselves, you’re going to align “fun” with immorality, and then go for “fun?” Wouldn’t it make as much sense if not more to say you have a moral position that fun is a moral imperative?

  • http://profile.typepad.com/metabug Bugmaster

    Why would any of that follow?

    I can’t speak for Izzy, but she (or maybe he, I forgot, sorry Izzy) pretty much summarized my own thoughts on the matter, so I’ll reply. I think the confusion stems from the fact that you declared, a priori, that self-harm is always immoral, without offering any qualifications or reasoning. Since Izzy can’t attack your reasoning (because you didn’t offer any), she chose to use reductio ad absurdum to demonstrate where your argument ultimately leads. Indeed, it seems that if self-harm is immoral, then smoking and eating cake are immoral activities (especially smoking, seeing as it causes cancer and all). If you disagree, you’re going to have to expand your argument substantially.

    Wouldn’t it make as much sense if not more to say you have a moral position that fun is a moral imperative?

    Er… no ? Or maybe yes ? I think you lost me there.

  • Rebecca

    Izzy pegged it.
    Did she now.
    …sorry. *hides*

  • http://profile.typepad.com/metabug Bugmaster

    Did she now.

    Hahaha, Rebecca said what I was thinking… Only I didn’t voice it because I didn’t want to go into hiding. And now no one will believe that I thought of it first. Rebecca is the Leibniz of innuendo !

  • http://funwithrage.livejournal.com Izzy

    Hapax: Sure, I’ll give you that. But when it comes to intervening personally in the lives of random strangers…eeesh, I don’t think that’s anyone’s place, and it’s certainly not anyone’s duty. Although you’ve covered the duty thing with Kant, and hee, and yes.
    K.Chen: Pretty much what Bugmaster said.
    It makes as much sense to say “eating this cheeseburger is immoral because it’s harming a human being” as it does “dwelling on how I suck is immoral because it’s harming a human being”. If there’s reasoning that distinguishes the two, you haven’t provided it.
    So… because there might be a dimension of morality in how we treat ourselves, you’re going to align “fun” with immorality, and then go for “fun?”
    Well, it’s more that if anything and everything bad for us is immoral, than by being strictly moral, I’d be missing out on a lot of good times.
    Wouldn’t it make as much sense if not more to say you have a moral position that fun is a moral imperative?
    If that floats your boat.
    Bugmaster: She, but yeah.
    Rebecca: Hee! I neither confirm nor deny.

  • Launcifer

    dwelling on how I suck is immoral because it’s harming a human being

    Then I’d respectfully suggest that yer doin’ it wrong.
    Ahem.
    Sersiously, it feels a bit like we’re arguing semantics here, if only because there’s not really been any concrete attempt to establish ground rules. Not that you really could, obviously, without wandering into people like Kant (and Beckenbauer, but that’s something of a surprise inclusion).

  • K.Chen

    Well, in that case (going back to the beginning of this discussion) you’re going to have to provide some sort of legitimate argument that incest is wrong, beyond the notion that it violates a vague “law of the universe.” You can’t just claim you’re right and we’re wrong and be done with it.

    I don’t have one. My intuition says its wrong, and I trust it, and I have absolutely no adequate means at my disposal to come up with a decent argument otherwise – and as I’ve argued, the ones I’ve heard don’t cut it either.

    Why would any of that follow?
    I can’t speak for Izzy, but she (or maybe he, I forgot, sorry Izzy) pretty much summarized my own thoughts on the matter, so I’ll reply. I think the confusion stems from the fact that you declared, a priori, that self-harm is always immoral, without offering any qualifications or reasoning. Since Izzy can’t attack your reasoning (because you didn’t offer any), she chose to use reductio ad absurdum to demonstrate where your argument ultimately leads. Indeed, it seems that if self-harm is immoral, then smoking and eating cake are immoral activities (especially smoking, seeing as it causes cancer and all). If you disagree, you’re going to have to expand your argument substantially.

    My burden is to try to prove whatever points I’m try to prove, not create a comprehensive moral system. In fact, I’ve already conceded that the system of morality I envision doesn’t lend itself to one.
    I’ll address the substantive point anyway though. Even if we accept that we need to judge all things that can be called self harm as morally significant decisions (which doesn’t really follow but whatever) there are still issues of balancing tests. My own poor eating habits are “immoral” in the sense that I’m putting myself well on the way to health issues, but they are “moral” in the sense that I enjoy myself and the good company that comes with food – and that pleasure is itself also moral.

    Wouldn’t it make as much sense if not more to say you have a moral position that fun is a moral imperative?
    Er… no ? Or maybe yes ? I think you lost me there.

    I’m implying Izzy is being silly to equate fun with immorality and morality with draconian self-loathing over poor personal care. That is in fact, backwards.

  • K.Chen

    It makes as much sense to say “eating this cheeseburger is immoral because it’s harming a human being” as it does “dwelling on how I suck is immoral because it’s harming a human being”. If there’s reasoning that distinguishes the two, you haven’t provided it.

    Likewise stealing is immoral and so is mass murder. I don’t suppose I’d need to give the reasoning as to what distinguishes the two.

  • hapax

    Indeed, it seems that if self-harm is immoral, then smoking and eating cake are immoral activities
    I’m not K. Chen, but as a reductio it’s pretty absurd. That conclusion only follows if one determines that the putative harm involved in the carcinogenic smoke or fat and sugar outweigh the benefits of “fun”, including the physiological and psychological bonuses of chemical stimulation, socialization, pleasure, relaxation, not to mention the potential for motivating one to go out and “exercise away that slice of cake”, and so forth.
    I’d have to have a pretty simplistic definition of “harm” to go that route — which is why it can be a good idea to tango a bit with the angels on the head of that pin, to establish ahead of time what *really* underpins my moral framework, before I’m called upon to make the really tough decisions.

  • http://funwithrage.livejournal.com Izzy

    Launcifer: Hee!
    And good point.
    In that case, I’m out. Never was much for the abstractly philosophical anyhow, and I’ve got session summaries to write. God help me.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/metabug Bugmaster

    I don’t have one. My intuition says its wrong, and I trust it, and I have absolutely no adequate means at my disposal to come up with a decent argument otherwise…

    Then there doesn’t seem to be a reason for me to take seriously anything you say on the matter. Hmm, that sentence came out a bit harsher than I would’ve liked, but still — an appeal to intuition is a rather poor argument to use in a debate. I’d argue that it’s also a rather poor tool to use for most important decisions (*), given its less than perfect track record.
    (*) Except for those that are time-critical, such as “do I jump away from the tiger’s open maw or toward it… let me pause to think… OM NOM NOM”.

  • hapax

    Now that we’ve strayed from incest to orgies to poor nutrition, and I’ve been forced to forced to imagine poor Immanuel pondering whether or not I CAN HAZ CHEEZBURGER*, may I say I just love the folks around here?
    *please create me this lolkant, someone with better Photoshop skills than I

  • http://profile.typepad.com/metabug Bugmaster

    lolkant

    My coworkers are looking at me funny as I’m cracking up, and I can’t explain to them why. Well done, hapax. Well done.

  • K.Chen

    Then there doesn’t seem to be a reason for me to take seriously anything you say on the matter. Hmm, that sentence came out a bit harsher than I would’ve liked, but still — an appeal to intuition is a rather poor argument to use in a debate. I’d argue that it’s also a rather poor tool to use for most important decisions (*), given its less than perfect track record.

    Well, thats your decision, and its not like I was trying to convince anyone that incest is problematic. The chances that my persuasive skill on that point, at this forum, is going to have an impact on policy on that point is as close to nil as one can get. So there isn’t an “appeal” to intuition at all in that I wasn’t appealing to anyone elses intuition, or asking them to trust mine.
    As a n aside, appeals of that sort are the most persuasive sorts of rhetoric, assuming you hit your mark in the first case, and have sufficient credibility in the second.
    As for making decisions – our intuition serves as a launching point for most of our important decisions. If nothing else, the vast majority of people I know in happy relationships trusted their gut feelings, and the vast majority of the people I know in unhappy relationships logic-ed themselves into their misery.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/metabug Bugmaster

    Well, thats your decision, and its not like I was trying to convince anyone that incest is problematic.

    I thought you were trying to convince us that harming yourself in the dark where no one will ever see, or observe the results, is problematic. In any case, the problem with using intuition to convince people of something, is that it only works on those who are already convinced.

    If nothing else, the vast majority of people I know in happy relationships trusted their gut feelings…

    If this were true, then dating would not exist. People would just look at each other, trust their gut feelings, and marry on the spot if their feelings matched. Actually, in this case, we could very easily implement marriage via chatroulette.

  • Lee Ratner

    Don’t worry Bugmaster, you are not alone. Maybe the best sexual etiquette is just for everybody to shut up about their sex lives or lack their of. Sexual education would be factual to the extreme and not praise or criticize sex in anyway.

  • CaryB

    Hapax:
    Your wish is my command.

  • K.Chen

    If nothing else, the vast majority of people I know in happy relationships trusted their gut feelings…
    If this were true, then dating would not exist. People would just look at each other, trust their gut feelings, and marry on the spot if their feelings matched. Actually, in this case, we could very easily implement marriage via chatroulette.

    So, because people don’t marry via chat roulette, the people I know in happy relationships did not trust their gut feelings?

  • http://profile.typepad.com/metabug Bugmaster

    So, because people don’t marry via chat roulette, the people I know in happy relationships did not trust their gut feelings?

    Pretty much, yeah (*). I am guessing that these people went through a period of dating before marriage. During this dating period, they learned about each other’s habits, likes and dislikes, personal quirks, hobbies, and many other features that comprise a human being. Eventually, they decided that they really do want to spend the rest of their lives together. In other words, they collected some data, evaluated it, and made a decision backed by empirical evidence. Sure, they weren’t formally scientific about it, and sure, some gut feelings were involved; but to say that their decision was based entirely on gut feelings would be a major overstatement.
    Ok, I should add a disclaimer that I don’t know anything about your friends personally; I’m just talking about humans in general.
    (*) Though, to be fair, given that these are the Internets, I can virtually guarantee you that there exist a few people who do marry via chatroulette. Fur suits optional.

  • jemand

    I think I want to attend a chatroulette wedding. with popcorn.

  • lonespark

    Huh? Orgies?
    What I meant was, when I was 15 I thought sex was totally not worth it without a lot of preparation and protection and being able to trust each other and blah blah backed up birth control blah. And when I was 25, my reaction to being accidentally pregnant was to go bugfuck insane for several years. So obviously my license to screw should have been revoked somewhere in there.

  • Anton Mates

    During this dating period, they learned about each other’s habits, likes and dislikes, personal quirks, hobbies, and many other features that comprise a human being. Eventually, they decided that they really do want to spend the rest of their lives together. In other words, they collected some data, evaluated it, and made a decision backed by empirical evidence.

    I’m not trying to defend K. Chen’s thesis on the utility of intuition here, but your conclusion doesn’t necessarily follow from the dating history of these people as outlined. One could as easily conclude that they were exposed to each other’s habits, likes and dislikes, hobbies, etc., and that this exposure eventually induced the gut feeling that they should be spending their lives together…without any rational analysis or conscious weighing of evidence.
    In other words, trusting your gut feelings doesn’t mean making snap decisions. Sometimes your gut feeling starts out as “not sure, proceed with caution,” and over days/weeks/months gradually morphs into “oh hell yes/no.”

  • http://profile.typepad.com/metabug Bugmaster

    One could as easily conclude that they were exposed to each other’s habits, likes and dislikes, hobbies, etc., and that this exposure eventually induced the gut feeling that they should be spending their lives together…without any rational analysis or conscious weighing of evidence.

    Sure, this is possible, but with two caveats. Firstly, this process still required an accumulation of evidence, so it’s not an entirely snap decision as K. Chen seemed to suggest (and I think you agree). Secondly, we humans are thinking creatures, and thus while your scenario is definitely possible, I find it somewhat unlikely.

  • Anton Mates

    Firstly, this process still required an accumulation of evidence, so it’s not an entirely snap decision as K. Chen seemed to suggest (and I think you agree).

    I do, I just don’t think K. Chen was suggesting that. The distinction s/he was drawing was logic vs. intuition, I think, not deliberation vs. snap judgments.

    Secondly, we humans are thinking creatures, and thus while your scenario is definitely possible, I find it somewhat unlikely.

    So do I. But we’re both thinking and feeling creatures, and while I’m sure that K. Chen’s happily-paired-up acquaintances (whom neither of us knows personally, of course) applied some amount of logic to their relationships, s/he may be quite right that they made their gut feelings the ultimate arbiter when logic and intuition clashed.

  • K.Chen

    Anton’s got it right.

  • ako

    At this point, I think it would be fairly useful indeed if I had already spent some time in my life pondering abstract questions of life, value, duty, and personhood.
    This is interesting, because the more I contemplate the abstract questions, the less I can find useful answers to anything. I can find useful answers moving from the tangible to the general, but I get a bit lost on the abstract, and when I start by going “What, on an absolute level is duty?” it only really drives me to read philosophy tomes and be confused. It doesn’t actually give me any useful ideas on how to address practical problems, and when someone else steers the direction of the debate towards answers, they tend to feel wrong and unsatisfying.
    Possibly it’s just because I haven’t been working hard enough at philosophizing, but I suspect there’s certain differences in mental framework that are fairly integral to personality. Where a lot of people see absolute truth, I see something that looks to me like an elaborate mental game, and where I see the realest and truest things I can find, other people see imperfect reflections of some supreme Oneness. It makes for some very confusing attempts at moral discussions. I keep wanting to go “Look at these people, right here, right now” or “If there were a person in this particular situation, what would be right by them?” and not getting the importance of the abstractions.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/metabug Bugmaster

    s/he may be quite right that they made their gut feelings the ultimate arbiter when logic and intuition clashed.

    Well, I don’t know his friends, so it’s not for me to say. It is entirely possible that they made their life decisions based entirely on intuition. I do know that none of my married friends acted in quite the same way; in fact, at least one person chose logic over feeling: “I really like this guy. This guy behaves exactly like my last boyfriend did. My last boyfriend ended up being a total bastard. I still like this guy, but I don’t think I’ll marry him”. Perhaps we just hang out with different people.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/metabug Bugmaster

    @ako:
    I agree with almost everything you said, but I’d like to add that I have never received any practically useful information from people who did “see the absolute truth”, philosophically speaking. When it comes down to the wire, and I ask, “ok, so according to your philosophy, what should we do right now, in this specific situation”, the answers usually end up being along the lines of “it’s all a beautiful mystery” or “I need to study more”, or even “there’s no right answer, really, because everything in the world is subjective”. Such answers may be deep, profound, and philosophically elegant, but they’re utterly useless for making decisions about your real-life actions. So, it’s not merely the case that I am unable to comprehend the exquisite grandeur of abstract philosophy, while others can; it’s also the case that if abstract philosophy does have applications, they exist in some realm other than our own. That has been my experience, anyway.

  • http://j.com/ Tonio

    there exists a moral dimension between an individual and that individual’s self. What I do, in the infinite privacy of my mind still carries a moral dimension. It is right that I love myself just as, not because, it is right that I love others.

    That sounds almost like a duality between the individual and the self as if that is equivalent to interaction between people. Izzy’s point could be restated to say that it’s beneficial and healthy for (the hypothetical) me to love myself. But I see no context there for right and wrong.

    I frame the quintessential moral question as one of aesthetics – what actions make us more like the creatures we should be?

    My concern with that would be the same general one as with honor, which wrongly treats moral questions as being about the self instead of the treatment of others. And “should” in this context implies an objective standard or goal.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/raouldes Socks of Sullenness

    In other words, trusting your gut feelings doesn’t mean making snap decisions. Sometimes your gut feeling starts out as “not sure, proceed with caution,” and over days/weeks/months gradually morphs into “oh hell yes/no.”
    Or sometimes you can consider all the logical/practical angles, and decide that this man has all the attributes you want, and none of the known disadvantages, so you are just about to accept the proposal and your Gut says “NO!”
    Reader, I would not marry him, no matter how good he sounded on paper.

  • hapax

    Thank you CaryB! Hee-hee.
    @ako: I keep wanting to go “Look at these people, right here, right now” or “If there were a person in this particular situation, what would be right by them?” and not getting the importance of the abstractions.
    For me, personally, both are important. It’s sort of like looking at a door and a piano and trying to figure out if the latter will fit through the former. I could just shove this particular piano through that specific door and see; or I could compare them both against an abstract standard of measurement.
    Both work fine. However, you are absolutely correct if you think that pondering the whatness of the inch isn’t particularly useful if you don’t use the ruler for anything concrete.
    @Bugmaster When it comes down to the wire, and I ask, “ok, so according to your philosophy, what should we do right now, in this specific situation”, the answers usually end up being along the lines of “it’s all a beautiful mystery” or “I need to study more”, or even “there’s no right answer, really, because everything in the world is subjective”.
    There’s a bit of a difference between asking people who have seriously grappled with abstract ethics, and asking stoned freshman at three in the morning. Just sayin’. :-}

  • MaryKaye

    I’d reject the principle that moral duties are always owed to others and never to oneself on the purely pragmatic grounds that it too easily leads to kinds of self-sacrifice that do *not* really promote the overall good. It’s too ready a tool in the hand of a potential abuser–”You don’t owe yourself anything good”.
    I have, I think partly from my religion, a basic sense that one should try to be a more capable, wise and smart person as well as a more truthful, kind and just one. Maybe it’s not “morality” but it’s very hard to separate from morality. Fred’s original posting was about choosing to make yourself stupider. It’s hard to do that without making yourself more wicked as well.
    My initiation as a pagan involved several gentle and wise Christians, one of whom said “You can’t offer your soul to God until it belongs to you.” That was helpful. If God, or other people, assume such a pre-emptive claim on your soul that you never own it yourself, you’re (as far as I can see, or maybe feel is a better word) not able to make the meaningful choices at all.
    The other distinction I’d like to make in this thread–I think it’s getting missed–is the idea that something can be virtuous without being obligatory. Some things are just good–I, at least, want to call them morally good–even though there’s not a moral obligation to do them.
    As an example, you don’t have to study CPR, and I would never criticize someone for not doing so. But if you do, just so you can try to save someone’s life, that’s a virtuous deed.
    My Christian upbringing had way to little of “There are many good things you can do. Pick some; don’t torment yourself over the others. And remember that your joy counts too.”

  • K.Chen

    That sounds almost like a duality between the individual and the self as if that is equivalent to interaction between people. Izzy’s point could be restated to say that it’s beneficial and healthy for (the hypothetical) me to love myself. But I see no context there for right and wrong.
    My concern with that would be the same general one as with honor, which wrongly treats moral questions as being about the self instead of the treatment of others. And “should” in this context implies an objective standard or goal.

    My problem with that is if you eliminate the self from moral calculus, and you further believe (as I do, and I’m sure many others do) that things that are moral carry greater obligations than things that are amoral, then the self is always placed out of reach, because there is an infinite number of moral things one can do in this lifetime. To me, what is beneficial to the self can also be part of what is moral about the self, and only by understanding what we do for our self as moral beings, can we actually attempt to balance what we do for our self and what we do for others by whatever moral calculus we have.
    Imagine for a moment that there are only two relevant people in existence. The hypothetical you, and your best friend. You want that person to be happy, and at that point there is a moral dimension to that other person’s happiness. Is there suddenly less value, or as I would put it, morality, in that person’s happiness? Or lets flip a bit and make that person your worst enemy whose happiness makes you unhappy.
    While the thought experiment is obviously an abstraction that will hopefully never happen, I think its actually a more accurate model to sort through these inquiries than actually trying to approximate the world as it is. Our lives are more like a series of tiny self contained environments with only a handful of people at a time, and in many of these environments, we are alone, in the dark where the real world becomes the abstraction, and the temporary abstracted loneliness is our whole reality.
    Also, upon closer inspection, MaryKaye seems to have stated everything I wanted to state, but much clearer.

  • Tonio

    I’d reject the principle that moral duties are always owed to others and never to oneself on the purely pragmatic grounds that it too easily leads to kinds of self-sacrifice that do *not* really promote the overall good.

    That principle is not what I was arguing. My point was that it seems misguided to frame treatment of one’s self in terms of right and wrong and not in terms of well-being – these are two different value systems.

    I have, I think partly from my religion, a basic sense that one should try to be a more capable, wise and smart person as well as a more truthful, kind and just one. Maybe it’s not “morality” but it’s very hard to separate from morality.

    The former qualities are about the individual and the latter qualities are about the individual’s interaction with others. No argument that the former can promote individual well-being and can have other benefits for interaction. But the “should” seems misplaced to me. Obligation is an interactional concept. If Person A tells Person B that he should work to be more capable, wise and smart, that involves A’s defintions of those qualities and not B’s. B might have a different idea on what it means for himself to be capable or wise or smart, but that might not meet A’s requirements.

    As an example, you don’t have to study CPR, and I would never criticize someone for not doing so. But if you do, just so you can try to save someone’s life, that’s a virtuous deed.

    While I agree, I wouldn’t frame that in moral terms of right and wrong.

    To me, what is beneficial to the self can also be part of what is moral about the self, and only by understanding what we do for our self as moral beings, can we actually attempt to balance what we do for our self and what we do for others by whatever moral calculus we have.

    One can value one’s well-being and still do right by other people. I would agree that this involves a balancing act. But framing that well-being in terms of right and wrong implies that the framing would still apply if, say, one lived in isolation from the human race. In that situation, harming one’s self may not be beneficial or virtuous, but it wouldn’t seem to be evil or wrong.

  • K.Chen

    If Person A tells Person B that he should work to be more capable, wise and smart, that involves A’s defintions of those qualities and not B’s. B might have a different idea on what it means for himself to be capable or wise or smart, but that might not meet A’s requirements.

    Well, yes. There will be variations, but its not like hypothetical Person A isn’t going to be aware of that. Plenty of wise capable and smart A’s are also going to have the definition. “capable, wise, and smart, as you (B) see them.” My parents, bless their hearts, told me to “grow up.” I may not have done exactly what they imagined that means, but that doesn’t mean they think I haven’t grown up.

    In that situation, harming one’s self may not be beneficial or virtuous, but it wouldn’t seem to be evil or wrong.

    We’ve clearly got a non-compatible definitions issue here, because I don’t think the concept of virtue has any meaning outside of morality.

  • Tonio

    We’ve clearly got a non-compatible definitions issue here, because I don’t think the concept of virtue has any meaning outside of morality.

    I’m using virtue and vice as value terms for individual well-being. I’m arguing against the idea that for our hypothetical human in isolation, a vice can be evil or wrong. I would invoke that value system only if the human lived among others and his virtues or vices had effects on others.

  • lonespark

    But I thought the whole point of virtue, especially in stuff like virtue ethics, was that it is more independent and self-justifying than other kinds of ethics? I’m not sure you can be virtuous in isolation, especially. Certainly there are many fewer virtues you can practice as a lone human (hospitality is out, unless you count animals…I suppose you could construct versions of most virtues that related to animals and nature, but they’d be a bit off the from the standard human society version). But in theory you can be especially honest (to yourself?), industrious, fair-minded, whatever.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/metabug Bugmaster

    Serendipitously, another quote from Lord of Light that I randomly saw in someone’s sig reminded me once again of the difference between abstract and concrete discussions:

    “It appears that our minds will never meet on this subject.”
    “If someone asks you why you’re oppressing a world and you reply with a lot of poetic crap, no.”

    Anyway, back on the main topic:

    To me, what is beneficial to the self can also be part of what is moral about the self, and only by understanding what we do for our self as moral beings, can we actually attempt to balance what we do for our self and what we do for others by whatever moral calculus we have.

    I don’t understand why this is necessary. I agree that improving yourself is a good idea, but I don’t think it must necessarily be seen in moral terms — unless you believe that moral ideas are the only good ideas, and the other ones either don’t matter or are downright bad. I’m not sure if that’s what you meant, though.

  • David C – Chicago

    I’m not convinced that empathic awareness can be taught or changed. I theorize that this is a genetic trait that has both positive and negative aspects. If you don’t empathize, you can more easily do things and not feel so bad about it that it prevents a successful pattern. If you do empathize, you can become frozen, with an inability to choose the greater evil when that is all you’re faced with.
    The problem is that when groups of people with a lack of empathic awareness come together, they can do great things. Great good and great evil.

  • Tonio

    Now I’m really pissed off… I wish I had written the question below.

    Maryland: I am sorry but your answer of “I think the political class is afraid of the Tea Party movement. After all, we get people out as volunteers and get them to the polls. For them, it cannot be the same as usual in D.C. A lot of them are going to be unemployed after the first of the year and that does scare them” is really offensive. This us vs. them mentality is really repulsive to me. I am a hard-working middle class American and I don’t agree with anything you are saying, and I have a right not agree with you. But you spliting the citizenry into classes of “elites/political class/Washington insiders/liberals” vs “real Americans” is just plain wrong! and that’s the problem with your movement.
    Liberals are just as American as you are and you and your movement has no right to question people’s patriotism or Americanness just because they disagree with you.
    Judson Phillips: Yes we do. You folks in the left do far worse. Patriotism is not something that cannot be measured. It can be. And you folks on the left, as a general rule are not patriotic. You do not love this country. You are embarrassed by us.
    I hate to tell you this, but those of us in fly over country are the real americans.

  • Andrew Glasgow

    If Patriotism can be measured, surely he can give us what units it is measured in (perhaps the Patrickhenry could be the SI unit for whatever it works out to be), whether it is a vector or a scalar unit, whether it scales linearly or logarithmically, and exactly what apparatus or procedure one performs to measure it.
    No? I guess he’s just talking out of his ass then, because you can’t say “Patriotism is something that can be measured” (WTF double negative?) if what you really mean is “I think I’m more patriotic than you are.” Because that’s obviously what he means.
    I’m willing to accept, guardedly, that there are degrees of patriotism. I’m willing to accept that Judson Phillips is by some value structure more patriotic than some (e.g. Faisal Shahzad) and less patriotic than others (e.g. Patrick Henry). I’m not willing to accept Judson Phillips as an authority of the definition of patriotism, however. Nor Rush Limbaugh, nor Newt Gingrich, nor Sarah Palin. Nor, for that matter, Barack Obama, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, or myself. However, it should be noted that none of the latter are attempting to define a group of American citizens as unamerican.

  • Community Jane

    Just thinking that if empathy is such a wonderful quality to embody (and I think it is) how would it be possible to empathize with the Tea Partiers?

  • Ursula L

    Just thinking that if empathy is such a wonderful quality to embody (and I think it is) how would it be possible to empathize with the Tea Partiers?
    Well, we see Fred do it here all the time. He empathizes with their fear, the burden they carry of deep-seated prejudice, the loss of intellectual autonomy that comes with being brainwashed.
    Empathizing with someone doesn’t mean that you agree with them. Sometimes it means recognizing that the things that separate them from reality are real inside their heads, and a compassionate response to help them relearn how to judge the world by what it is instead of by their fears is needed.

  • Wareq

    It’s like they take pride in being ignorant, to quote candidate Obama.

  • gfranklin

    @CaryB, I recommend you check out the HSTs, K Vonneguts and Bill Hicks of today: Lewis Black, John Stewart, and most of all, Stephen Colbert, when it comes to this topic. Check out http://www.comedycentral.com (video streaming only available in the US).

  • Morrow Hall

    I’ve always thought that the difference between ignorance and stupidity was intention. Stupid people are intentionally ignorant. I agree to some extent that the Teabags are stupid, but I think their driving concern is fear: the fear of people who are different (Black, Jewish, Mormon, homosexual, educated (Adlai Stevenson was blasted by the Right for being an “egghead”), disabled, or whatever). Where were these yoyos when George Bush was leading the country into bankruptcy? Well, he was a White guy and I’d like to have a beer with him, so he must be OK. They only precipitated when we got a president with some African ancestry. The quintessentially stupid Rep. Michelle Bachmann actually told a crowd that Barak Obama was the country’s “first non-American president.”
    As a result of this fear, and the Republican mongering that feeds on it, the GOP is excluding and repulsing more and more US citizens. Our young people are particularly unresponsive to bigotry, thank God, and the people who used to support rational Republicans like Arlen Specter find themselves excluded as well. But, luckily, the ideological cleansing that is going on in the GOP results in a purer (Whiter, richer, and, yes, stupider) party but a much smaller one. My only concern is that the Democrats might be inclined to follow suit. Move-On and other groups have been funding efforts to get rid of Blanche Lincoln and other moderates. I think we Democrats must be more inclusive, allowing the disaffected middle to join our conversation. If we do that, the Republicans will be nothing more than a chapter in the history books in a few years.
    There will always be people willing to listen to and believe such rabble-rousers as Limbaugh and Beck, but they are in the minority. I hope the rest of the country has had its fill of them by the time November rolls around.

  • Philip

    I agree with much of what is stated with one or two slight modifications.
    First, the “brand” of stupidity may be preceded by bigotry. But bigotry is caused by -ignorance-. Whether or not one believes stupidity and ignorance are synonymous will only create more discussion. But, ignorance is caused by either sn inability to understand, (intellectual and/or mental capacity), lack of education, or, as with many within the tea party, a choice not to listen, believe in or care about -reason-. And, in this, I entirely agree with the thesis herein.
    Many tea party participants are well educated and otherwise, stable. But, the habitual propensity to react emotionally is a human trait that is aquired by upbringing that says, “follow the easiest most comfortable path.” is palpable among these people. The result is a mindless migration towards an event, policy or leader is always caused by shutting down one’s cognizance. Those most susceptible to this are not only the uneducated, but – those of whom are educated to be a cog in the machine; trained to fit into a slot in their family and community! The cause here are close minded alpha patrons and patroneses of familial units, extending to church leaders, parochial and even some public education and other communal organizations that stifles individuality, critical and creative thinking. Later in adulthood, even the best educated will succumb to the drone of fear based marketing through media, religious indoctrination, demagogs and mob based mentality.
    The tea party and many conservatives fall into this trap (and unfortunately, quite a few liberals as well). If we examine the religion-conservative emperitive to “focus upon the family”, (a ruse of actual familial bonding), is examined, the tea party is as an inevitable result as was the third riech a response to the poverty of the depression in Germany. The tea party is not that dangerous as of yet. But, it -is- a mob, by any definition, and demagoguery is a possible future if allowed to go unchecked.


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