Brian Green (a commenter here) runs his own blog at The Moral Minefield. Recently, he’s been talking about social psychology and in-group and out-group dynamics. He applied his recent post “Internet In-Group, Internet Out-Group, and Virtue Ethics” in the comments of my yesterday post complaining about PZ Myers picking bad fights.
After reading over his thoughts, I find that they resonate even more strongly with another recent post: the arguments about dismissing some political candidates solely for their religious beliefs. A lot comes down to the question of how pivotal religious beliefs are. Are people who disagree with us an existential threat? Are disagreements about religion really just different preferences, not much more consequential or meaningful than allegiances to different sports teams? If the divisions are deeply important, it’s more reasonable to refuse to endorse someone on the other team in any circumstance, even if the issue at hand isn’t relevant to your disagreement.
Green wrote (and I excerpted, so for fairness’s sake, click over and read):
While religion and politics may seem to us like good things to schism over, why are they any more important (in terms of schisming, i.e. “why schism at all?”) than type of computer or baseball team? I think it’s fairly obvious that we can say this: the content is almost beside the point. The point is that humans split based on commonalities, and ideas seems to be the prime commonality to split over. Group-dynamics are psychology. Group-splitting is innate to us, an irresistible proclivity. Might as well ask dogs to not like fire hydrants…
Enter here: virtue ethics. And it’s all to do with the group, again. Virtues and vices have a bad tendency to be set by whatever group happens to have them. Person approaches group. Group sets standards for membership. Walk like this, say this, graffiti this. Now you are a loyal one of us. Go write a mean comment on that out-group blog! (PZ Myers’s community does this all the time.) Hurt others and you are really one of us. Just like a gang.
This is the pitiable state of humanity where this is considered normal, even as we are surrounded by the riches of technology and thousands of years of culture and science. We can talk to anyone in the world and we choose to be rude to them. What small hearts we have. We can seek truth in conversation with others and instead we see who can land the best verbal punch. Thus we gain the approval of our in-group and validate our beliefs against those of our out-groups. Little dopamine receptors get stimulated in our brains and we get all happy. How embarrassing.
Although I agree with Green’s conclusions that we do wrong to try to win praise from our team by brutalizing the opponent, I still think there’s a qualitative difference between groups that coalesce around, say, devotion to a particular piece of Harry Potter fanfiction, and those that are rooted in a teleological claim. Although I may think you’re totally missing out if you don’t share my reading preferences, that’s a long sight from the terrible privation ascribed to the people you diverge from on the big questions. Teleological beliefs make more urgent claims and these claims are assumed to be relevant to out-group people. In the case of simple preference or arbitrary affiliation, the stakes are not anywhere near as high.
If ideas have consequences, and we’re trying to seek truth, some amount of schisming is going to be necessary to better define the ideas we’re trying to defend and explore. Think about how the wishy-washy catch-all of “Spirituality” can make it impossible to have any conversation about it. The group marching under that standard has an ideology too diffuse to be answerable or substantive.
For me, the goal is not to ignore consequential division in the name of tolerance. I want to find a way to confront opponents without totally reducing them to enemies. The goal is to become a happy warrior for truth, not for our team. Learning to not let compassion for the other side quench a fierce commitment to truth and to not allow frustration and contempt to blind us to any data that do support the other side.
Any suggestions on how?