Improve Schisms, Don’t Close Them

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?

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://www.ordinary-gentlemen.com/alexknapp Alex

    Most spats between theists and non-theists have very little to do with the teleological, and everything to do with the trivial issues of cultural identity.Drop out of the tribal game. There's wisdom to be found everywhere.

  • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com/ Brian Green

    Here's a totally insubstantive response, but don't underestimate the power of sports teams for causing harm! Some Dodgers fans nearly killed a Giants fan in LA a few months back (he's still in a coma). This caused a huge incident between the two cities, and a lot of effort to help the two sides heal, and this is ongoing.The Byzantines burned down half their city because of chariot races. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nika_riots . The Aztecs regularly killed people over ball games. Don't underestimate the power of stupid (to ineloquently paraphrase the philosopher Hans Jonas).Yes, some things are worth arguing, even fighting, over but why is metaphysics one of them? Is it only insofar as those beliefs have consequences? That, to me, is a very interesting question.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00681934865643964687 JSA

    The phrase "ideas have consequences" is often just a cry for tribalism against people who have the wrong ideas. What if it's tribalism that causes the bad behavior, and not ideas?Before I jump on a bandwagon, I want to know if it's really the ideas that are causing people to do bad things, or whether they are just professing the ideas as a way to excuse bad behavior. I find that I jump on fewer bandwagons these days.

  • Anonymous

    Alex has the right idea. It's impossible to get everything right or everything wrong. Don't even think about groups of people with particular ideas as "sides" – they're all people we can learn something from.Brian Herzog

  • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com/ Brian Green

    As for suggestions how, I would just say politeness is the right start. Manners are morality in ritualized form. Sort of.But Ms. Manners always gives better advice than the advice columnists in the newspaper, I have found. The reason that is so is because she is trying to properly moderate human interactions, which is of course the realm of ethics. Other advice columnists tend to advise things that can be rather selfish, because they are more concerned with being happy (and with a wrong construal of happiness), not being polite.The tension I am seeing in you post is between being a fierce yet happy warrior for the truth. If you want to be fierce, then perhaps one must also be fiercely polite. Like the Japanese perhaps, who are extremely polite, and perhaps with good reason: when honor and death are concerned (as in the Japanese past), you act nice. The internet is the complete opposite. No death or honor at stake, so rudeness prevails. There is a joke about academia: "Why is academia so competitive? Because the stakes are so low." The internet may be the same. Except the stakes should not be so low, at least when it comes to the highest matters. Ethics is about how to live a good or a bad life, the very meaning and purpose of life itself. That ought to be important. Worth forming factions over, perhaps. But why must we form factions at all? That was what I was trying for in my post. It's psychology. Universal allegiance seems to not work for humans, or if it does, those people are out actually doing good deeds and are invisible to us internet-chattering classes. So here we face the doxis / praxis problem. Is it better to talk (or type) about this stuff or just go live it? But how can we live it if we do not first know it? And how can we know it if we are not first taught it by those who surround us, AKA our group. Thus we are poisoned again. There is no way out of this except constant seeking and questioning, but even then theory can fail. Practice is where the reality of an ethic is known as true or false. Ethics is the study of good action. It must be learned as action, more like a sport or musical instrument than math. No classroom can do that, only life itself can. And if part of your life is a blog, then live the good life through your blog. Model good behavior, not only for others, but for yourself. You are training yourself for virtue or vice with every action you take. But you already know this. So continue. As a last note, I think the virtue of humility is vastly underrated. The point of humility is to make oneself amenable to correction, to neutralize pride and thus become teachable. Pride is interferes with all the virtues because it makes one blind to all one's faults. We all suffer from it. I'm working on it too.All right, really last thought. Perhaps we ought not think of each other as "opponents" but rather as friends seeking truth together with different starting points. When travelers meet on a road they do not need to argue about origins, but destination. How long will they travel together? Can they convince others to come with them to where they are going? They should not be "opponents" because the argument should not be won in a zero-sum way, with a winner and a loser. The argument should be won in a way that all feel they have won together. That's a victory where enemies become friends.And, all easier said than done.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00681934865643964687 JSA

    "As a last note, I think the virtue of humility is vastly underrated. The point of humility is to make oneself amenable to correction, to neutralize pride and thus become teachable. Pride is interferes with all the virtues because it makes one blind to all one's faults. We all suffer from it. I'm working on it too."Wow, this is excellent. Humility is one of those virtues we can recognize even if we suck at it.

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