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Why conservatives and liberals talk past each other on moral issues.

Why conservatives and liberals talk past each other on moral issues.

I’ve studied moral philosophy for many years, mostly in frustration. Though many philosophical theories of morality have offered tantalizing glimmers, they ultimately fail to account for the “moral” decisions people make in the real world. Traditional philosophical accounts of morality have appeared especially feeble in light of the ongoing and volatile American culture wars. For instance, some of us claim that torture is OK while others feel that we have a moral duty to impeach the President and Vice-President for failing to stop the torture. Starting with the assumption that both sides to this controversy are sincerely, no philosophical moral system begins to account for both of those positions.

Luckily, we are in a new era with regard to understanding morality. Cognitive scientists such as psychologist Marc Hauser and primatologist Frans de Waal are studying morality with new sets of tools.

Recently, I had the opportunity to read an extraordinary article by Jonathan Haidt (pronounced “height”) and Jesse Graham: “When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions That Liberals May Not Recognize.” This article is written in an easily accessible style and its 16 pages are packed with ideas that bridge Haidt’s theories to the real world. If you’re in the mood to watch rather than read, sit back and view this video of Haidt describing his approach (the 30-minute video moves right along–Haidt is an eloquent speaker as well as a talented writer).

I’m not going to try to hide my excitement at Haidt’s approach. The more I learned about it, the more I thought of the words T. H. Huxley spoke upon learning of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection: “How stupid of me not to have thought of it.”

If you want to test your own moral foundations before proceeding, go to Haidt’s site and take a short test to determine your own moral foundation. Then read on (either read Haidt’s article or come back here).

July 7, 2007 | By | 24 Replies More
The Onion: “Congress Passes ‘America Is #1’ Bill”

The Onion: “Congress Passes ‘America Is #1’ Bill”

Now it’s official.  We don’t have to try any more.  All we need to do is proclaim what we all know in our hearts.  This is a reissue of an Onion story from 1999, even more appropriate in 2007.

July 6, 2007 | By | 3 Replies More
Incompetence as the Basis of Civilization

Incompetence as the Basis of Civilization

I was reading about Gallium metal, and got sidetracked by a debate about math software. The point that got my attention is the contention that civilization is based on an institutionalized principle that we all are incompetent in many important fields. The item being debated was the necessity of children developing skill at long division […]

July 6, 2007 | By | 3 Replies More
Disgust as a basis for morality

Disgust as a basis for morality

It is striking that so many conservatives spend so much energy condemning gays. They don’t just criticize gays; they condemn gays with intense passion. Nor does this process of moral judgment usually involve any sort of delicate weighing process. Too often it is a visceral and unrelenting moral harpooning delivered by the likes of Ted Haggard—or, at least, the sort of judgment previously delivered by the then-closeted version of Ted Haggard, whose name is now synonymous with “reaction formation.”

Many of the people who condemn gays on street corners and pulpits remind me of steam boilers on the verge of blowing up. Anti-gay bigots are rarely if ever attempting to work through the details of any of the three main historical philosophical approaches to morality (consequentialism, deontology or virtue) when they condemn gays. No, there is nothing much philosophical about the way most people rail against the gays. They are not driven by any sort of philosophy. In my experience, they are primarily driven by disgust.

What especially disturbs conservative Christians are images of men kissing men and men having sex with other men. Such images are so incredibly disgusting to those who hate gays that it has become a favorite insult on the streets and in the military to shout “You’re GAY!” And when this insult is hurled in the process of casting moral judgment, it is done by people whose faces are contorted with utter disgust.

Because such condemnations of gays are so visceral, this raises the issue of whether disgust is a valid basis for morality . . .

July 4, 2007 | By | 7 Replies More
Stop using the American flag to fan the flames of virulent nationalism

Stop using the American flag to fan the flames of virulent nationalism

Howard Zinn, writing at Alternet:  On this July 4, we would do well to renounce nationalism and all its symbols: its flags, its pledges of allegiance, its anthems, its insistence in song that God must single out America to be blessed. Is not nationalism — that devotion to a flag, an anthem, a boundary so […]

July 4, 2007 | By | 1 Reply More
Praise hard work, not intelligence

Praise hard work, not intelligence

I just finished listening to a lecture by Carol Dweck at IT Conversations, Dweck, a Stanford psychologist, is the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Dweck’s idea is straightforward, though widely applicable.  She starts with the premise that there are two kinds of people, those with “fixed mindsets” and others with “growth mindsets.”  […]

July 3, 2007 | By | 12 Replies More
Is it time to declare independence from Israel?

Is it time to declare independence from Israel?

It is, indeed, time, according to Chris Hedges writing at Truthdig.com: Israel is currently lobbying the United States to launch aerial strikes on Iran, despite the debacle in Lebanon.  Israel’s iron determination to forcibly prevent a nuclear Iran makes it probable that before the end of the Bush administration an attack on Iran will take […]

July 2, 2007 | By | 4 Replies More
Humble scientists with a sense of wonder

Humble scientists with a sense of wonder

I am tired of reading creationist accusations that scientists are robotic, dogmatic and unfeeling know-it-alls, unredeemable determinists incapable of having any sense of wonder regarding the world. This general accusation that scientists lack any sense of wonder is untrue based upon my own acquaintance with scientists who I know personally as well as those who […]

July 2, 2007 | By | 3 Replies More
Does Bush have ‘presenile dementia’?

Does Bush have ‘presenile dementia’?

Long before political Bush-bashing became popular, or even widely accepted, critics still jabbed him repeatedly for his speech. Books of “Bushisms”, videos of Bush’s misspeakings spliced together, and comedic reproductions of the man’s halting, confused language have always dominated the pop culture reception of the President. I use the word President specifically because Bush didn’t […]

July 2, 2007 | By | 41 Replies More