Secular Liberalism Misunderstood

15 10 2010

The ABC site, The Drum Unleashed, posted another of my missives, this time on the merits of secular liberalism, regardless of one’s spiritual (or otherwise) persuasion. And already the comments are flowing. I’ll attempt to respond to them in this post as they roll on.

First up, to those who have criticised my term “believe in atheism”, you’re right. That was a poor turn of phrase on my behalf. Should properly be “whether you believe in God or are an atheist”. Doesn’t affect my argument though. Okay, moving on.

To those who suggest that Richard Dawkins isn’t seeking to abolish the teaching of religion, rather he seeks to abolish the indoctrination of children into a particular religion – I agree that he is in favour of the teaching of comparative religion, as well as the teaching of the Bible as an historical text. However, he has made strident claims against religious teaching of the, well, religious flavour. While I oppose supernaturalism, I would suggest that any attempt to banish religious education would be problematic, as I’ll elaborate below.

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The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas

3 10 2010

It is both surprising and thrilling when I happen upon a passage from some thinker that more eloquently sums up my thoughts on morality than I ever could. I have, to date, had several such experiences, inspired by the writings of David Hume, John Mackie, Jonathan Haidt, Michael Ruse, Kin Binmore, Isaiah Berlin – and now, Edward Westermarck, sociologist and author of this post’s namesake, The Origin and Development of Moral Ideas, published in 1906.

Edward Westermarck

I have read references to Westermarck before, mainly concerning incest avoidance, but never a passage that so lucidly captures the spirit of my thesis on the nature of morality as this:

The emotional constitution of man does not present the same uniformity as the human intellect. Certain cognitions inspire fear in nearly every breast; but there are brave men and cowards in the world, independently of the accuracy with which they realise impending danger. Some cases of suffering can hardly fail to awaken compassion in the most pitiless heart; but the sympathetic dispositions of men vary greatly, both in regard to the being which whose sufferings they are ready to sympathise, and with reference to the intensity of the emotion. The same holds good for moral the emotions. The existing diversity of opinion as to the rights of different classes of men, and of the lower animals, which springs from emotional differences, may no doubt be modified by clearer insight into certain facts, but no perfect agreement can be expected as long as the conditions under which the emotional dispositions are formed remain unchanged. (Westermark, 1906, in Singer’s Ethics, 1994)

Here Westermarck, who had first-hand experience of moral diversity in the world, hits upon one of the key sources of that diversity: the emotions. Following a Humean telling of moral psychology – which recent research has largely vindicated (Greene, 2001; Haidt, 2001 & 2003) – he suggests that even with agreement over pertinent facts there will still be moral disagreement by virtue of the diverse emotional character of humans. This, 100 years before the recent resurgence of interest in moral emotions. Bravo, Westermarck.

All I’d add is a short tale of how evolution shaped our moral sense – including our moral emotions – to make them operate such, and a brief note on how such disagreement is not entirely a bad thing, and that’s my thesis. Oh, and a remark or two about how this view presents an alternative to an objectivist moral realist stance that hopes moral disagreement is soluble through sufficient application of fact and reason, instead replacing it with a pragmatic moral pluralism that hopes to advance human interests without recourse to absolute moral truths.





Liberalism and Value Pluralism

25 09 2010

Does a commitment to normative value pluralism logically entail a commitment to liberalism? Isaiah Berlin is a known proponent of both pluralism and liberalism, and at times he’s appeared to suggest there is a logical connection between the two – although at other times he suggests the connection is only a psychological one; that it’s choice that makes human beings human, that we’re made pluralistic, and liberalism is the best system to enable these two psychological forces to coexist.

Isaiah Berlin, from Steve Pyke's collection.

I had the opportunity last night to attend a debate between two leading Isaiah Berlin scholars on this notion of the link between liberalism and value pluralism, Beata Polanowska-Sygulska from Jagiellonian University in Poland, and George Crowder from Flinders University.

I have to profess a vast ignorance when it comes to Berlin’s work – he doesn’t feature prominently (or at all) in the philosophical texts I’ve been wading through, although his views about pluralism and liberalism appear to be remarkably close to my own. I shall have to read his work more thoroughly before I complete the normative chapter of my own thesis on evolution and moral pluralism.

From the outset, I can pick one stark point of difference between mine and Berlin’s views: he believes in a plurality of incommensurable objective values, such as equality and liberty, whereas I don’t believe any objective values exist. However, that’s not a show stopper, as I think you can extricate the objectivity from Berlin’s values without too much trouble (and call it a fictionalism, if you will) and the crux of his argument will remain largely the same – the only difference is in some distant metaphysical justification for his pluralism.

On the connection between pluralism and liberalism, I have a slightly different take from those advanced last night. Mine is, unsurprisingly, informed by evolution and moral psychology. It goes a little something like this:

Humans have been grappling with the problems of social coordination for hundreds of millennia. These problems are effectively: how do you get large numbers of unrelated individuals to live and work together in a way that advances their interests (biological and psychological) without suffering the ill effects of socially disruptive behaviour, like cheating or ‘defection’ (in game theory terms), and without  succumbing to invasion by outsiders.

Evolutionary forces have worked such that those individuals who were able to solve these problems more effectively were able to leave a greater number of offspring for future generations. Thus, those individuals who evolved the psychological mechanisms that promote prosocial behaviour and censure socially disruptive behaviour, were lent a selective advantage. These psychological mechanisms include the moral emotions, problem solving heuristics and moral reasoning.

However, there is no one solution to the problems of social coordination that works best in every environment, particularly as the environment is also made up of the other ‘strategies’ employed by others, thus is dynamic rather than static. As such, evolution has not settled upon one set of psychological mechanisms or predispositions, for to do so would have been unstable and left that population prone to ‘invasion’ by other strategies – invasion from within, through mutation, or from without by other individuals with different psychological makeups.

The upshot – and Edward Westermark acknowledges this as early as 1906 – is that human psychology varies (genetically as well as a result of environmental influences), and this variation yields a broad spectrum of moral outlooks and values. Westermark’s passage is as follows:

The emotional constitution of man does not present the same uniformity as the human intellect. Certain cognitions inspire fear in nearly every breast; but there are brave men and cowards in the world, independently of the accuracy with which they realise impending danger. Some cases of suffering can hardly fail to awaken compassion in the most pitiless heart; but the sympathetic dispositions of men vary greatly, both in regard to the being which whose sufferings they are ready to sympathise, and with reference to the intensity of the emotion. The same holds good for moral the emotions. The existing diversity of opinion as to the rights of different classes of men, and of the lower animals, which springs from emotional differences, may no doubt be modified by clearer insight into certain facts, but no perfect agreement can be expected as long as the conditions under which the emotional dispositions are formed remain unchanged.

As such, value pluralism is an empirical fact about human psychology. But it’s more than just psychological; just because evolution has primed us with this variation, it doesn’t mean it’s good. There could be one moral value that actually serves our interests better than others. However, I don’t believe this is the case. As I mentioned above, there is no one solution to the problems of social coordination. And if you take solving the problems of social coordination to be important, then you will also find pluralism to be important, as it allows a range of solutions to arise, one of which might be the best in any particular situation.

On to the strengths of political liberalism: I don’t actually think it’s promoting autonomy that is the fundamental justification for liberalism, instead it’s that promoting autonomy allows the pluralism of values (or ‘strategies’) to work in tension with each other, thus preventing any one strategy from dominating and causing the society to become unstable (or to be in disequilibrium). Autonomy is a second-order value, but one that enables first-order values to be promoted most effectively.

Thus liberalism is the most effective political framework (that we know of to date) that allows the various strategies for social coordination to balance each other out, and best enables a society to meet the challenges of social coordination. It’s not without cost; as Berlin states, there will be situations where values conflict and you’ll inevitably get dilemmas with no perfect solution. But that’s the price you pay, and it’s a smaller price than adopting a monist approach and, say, placing egalitarianism or order, above all other values.

I suspect that Berlin would have disagreed with several points in my account of liberalism, but I think they’re largely detail. On the whole, I think my account is very similar in action to Berlin’s, although I’ll have to read a great deal more of his work to know for sure.