Illiberal Political Philosophy

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Both what we popularly know as “liberalism” and “conservativism” are positions within a broader tradition of liberal political thought. We can understand a political philosophy as laying within that broader liberal tradition when it gives priority to the liberty of individuals as a political value. Illiberal political philosophies will just be those that reject the rights and liberties of individuals as being of paramount importance. I originally prefaced this chapter with a discussion of Plato to provide some historical perspective, some appreciation for how recent an ethical innovation it is to treat individual rights and liberties as important in political thought. Over the past few years, though, the broad tradition of liberal political thought that has guided this country since its inception, in both its “liberal” and “conservative” variants, has come under threat. So, a few cautionary words about illiberal ways of thought are in order.

Political observers have recently heard lots of talk about authoritarianism, populism, nationalism and other assorted “isms.” I’m not going to take up a detailed analysis of these here, but I do want to address an underlying current common among them. Authoritarianism, as the term suggests, prioritizes the will of an authority figure. But for an authority figure to gain and sustain power, he must have the support of a sizable chunk of the population. So, would-be authoritarians will need to appeal to the concerns of ordinary people and make themselves popular (and this is what populism is). So, populism can lead to authoritarianism, though that depends on the concerns of the people appealed to. If ordinary people to care most about individual rights and liberties and have some ability to defend themselves against the rhetorical trickery of a demagogue (a leader who appeals to people through emotion and prejudice rather than rational argument), then populism won’t provoke a turn away from individual rights and liberties. But people have concerns beyond individual rights and liberties and these can eclipse the tenets of liberalism.

We’d be hard pressed to explain how popular opinion could turn against the broad tradition of liberalism if varieties of illiberalism had nothing to offer people. Mass movements in support of nationalism (which prioritizes national interest over individual rights and liberties), offer the powerful appeal of a shared identity and the social cohesion of a common cause. Indeed, one of the classic criticisms of liberal political thought is that it fails to provide shared ideals that can be the basis of a sense of shared identity, purpose and community. Liberty alone is thin gruel for those seeking a sense of meaning and purpose in life. And prioritizing liberty as a political value requires taking a fairly neutral political stand on a broad range of other values and conceptions of the good life. Pushing a specific further set of values in the realm of politics as the basis of community and shared identity is bound to marginalize and threaten adherents of other value systems, But the whole point of liberal values like freedom of conscience is to avoid this.

Conservative political thinkers like Edmund Burke and the contemporary writer David Brooks have sought some middle ground, like upholding liberty as a primary political value while supporting the development of community built around shared values beyond the realm of politics.

Communism also held the appeal of a shared identity based on commonly held values to its adherents in its heyday. In direct opposition to liberal traditions, both communism and nationalism prioritize the good of a collective over concern for citizens as individuals. Fairly recent history is rife with examples of how collectivist thinking, both on the left in the form of communism and on the right in the form of nationalism, have licensed extreme brutality. I won’t pursue historical examples or details here. But it should come as no surprise that prioritizing collectives over individuals is liable to be pretty hard on individuals.

What I do want to say in the way of caution concerning collectivist ideologies of all stripes is mainly that collectives don’t suffer. The very idea of a collective is an abstraction. A collective has no existence beyond the individuals that make it up. And so, it is hard to see how a collective can have any value of its own. My intuition is roughly Kantian here. People have intrinsic moral worth. Not nations. America is not a human being. But we might consider making America humane again.



Trump Addresses Climate Change

There is so little regard for well established truths in Trump’s statements on climate change that it would be painful to listen to even if the fate of human civilization didn’t hang in the balance. Trump admits that the climate is changing but denies that we know what is causing it. Leslie Stahl appeals to the authority of scientists and Trump impugns the motives of scientists, accusing them of being politically motivated. So let’s just digest this much for starters.

We know human activity is causing climate change and we’ve known this for a good while. It’s a pity the 60 minutes format doesn’t afford the few sentences it would take to explain this. We know that burning fossil fuels results in CO2 emissions. Your car emits several tons of CO2 per year. We know that CO2 traps heat energy. This is easy to demonstrate in the laboratory. And we know that the extra energy that gets trapped in the atmosphere as a result of our CO2 emissions has to go somewhere and do some work, which means changing the rhythms of nature human flourishing depends on. This is the first law of thermodynamics. From here the implications are clear. This much is basic physics and chemistry. The level of scientific literacy required for understanding how human activity is changing the climate is basic.

And yet, the standard journalistic move when confronted with climate skepticism is to appeal to the authority of scientists. This move opens the door to the ad hominem fallacy that our president perpetrated in this interview.  Scientists, it is alleged, are just another special interest group lobbying for their economic interests. This canard has been around for a while, but the lie is transparent. Smart people who care more about money than truth don’t go into any branch of science. They go into IT, engineering, law, or better yet, finance. Scientific research is hard, often tedious work that usually doesn’t pay very well. You have to be interested in figuring things out to take research up as a career. It’s sometimes hard to tell what motivates people. This is not one of those times.

Finally, true to form, Trump views the politics of climate change as a zero sum game, where we are being asked to forego our best interests for the sake of  others. This, however, is a case where we the others are our children. Poker is a zero sum game. Being a parent, a citizen, a part of human civilization, is not.

Andrew Light

Andrew Light (George Mason University and World Resources Institute) will be speaking on Climate Justice here at Bellevue College on Friday, October 19th, 2018 at noon in Carlson Theatre. His talk will kick off the 70th Annual Northwest Philosophy Conference which will wrap up on Saturday the 20th with a public lecture by another noted climate ethicist, UW’s Stephen Gardiner (whose work I’ll discuss in another post)

I got to know Andrew Light early in my career at BC when he was the environmental ethicist in UW’s philosophy department. Professor Light had risen to academic prominence for his foundational work on Ecological Citizenship. In the 1990s, a debate raged in environmental ethics about whether restored land could be deemed to have the sort of value attributed to intact natural ecosystems. This was an issue with political stakes, since, if we granted the same sort of value to restored land that we do to wilderness, developers and extraction industries could cynically exploit this in arguing that they do not destroy nature and ecosystems, but only temporarily disrupt them, ultimately to bring back something as good as they dismantled through environmental restoration. On the other hand, if we don’t see value as nature in restored lands, then extraction industries could argue that they should be let off the hook for rehabilitating lands they had already plundered.  Light argued that aside from the question of when land should be valued as nature, we should recognize another kind of moral value in environmental restoration. Specifically, we should see value in the community building that occurs among people and between people and their environment when environmental restoration is taken up as a community effort. Light studied, participated and wrote about a variety of community based environmental restoration efforts including community gardens in New York, Oak Savannah restoration near Chicago and storm water management in Seattle.

As the effects of climate change are becoming distressingly visible around the globe, debates about preserving the value of pristine nature have largely subsided into irrelevance. The entire world is now an artifact and no area of land or sea is spared marks of human interference. Still, the questions of what sort of world we are going to make for ourselves and what sorts of value we can find in doing so are now all the more pressing.

Light’s work on Ecological Citizenship constituted an early foray into the realm of policy and the processes involved in seeking practical solutions to environmental issues. As Light puts it in one paper, “Much of my own work in environmental ethics has been devoted to the claim that the field is failing as a discipline that has much to say about the actual resolution of environmental problems” ( Seeking actual productive resolution to environmental processes led Light well beyond the traditional boundaries of academia and into documenting and contributing to efforts to improve the environmental conditions of communities.

After leaving UW and moving back east, Light launched a second career in policy which ultimately led him to serve in the State Department during the Obama administration as a lead negotiator of the Paris Climate Accord. More specifically, Light served as Senior Adviser and India Counselor to the U.S. Special Envoy on Climate Change. India on its own constituted one of the 7 global negotiating blocks in the Paris process. Quoting from Lights George Mason University Bio:

In recognition of this work, Andrew was awarded the inaugural Public Philosophy Award, from the International Society for Environmental Ethics — which henceforth will be designated the “Andrew Light Award for Public Philosophy” — in June 2017, the inaugural Alain Locke Award for Public Philosophy, from the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy in March 2016, and a Superior Honor Award, from the U.S. Department of State in July 2016, for “contributions to the U.S. effort that made the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris, where the landmark Paris Agreement was concluded, a historic success.” (

Most Americans have heard that Trump has “withdrawn” the US from the Paris Agreement. Rather few are aware that negotiated into that agreement is a four year process for withdraw. Under President George Bush, the US had already established a track record as an unreliable partner in efforts to address climate change and the Obama administration along with the global community of nations took this measure to provide some insurance against further US backsliding.

Many Americans, including many climate activists are also of the opinion that the Paris Agreement was doomed to be ineffectual since the commitments made by countries to lower CO2 emissions were voluntary and no specific penalties are imposed for failing to meet those commitments. Rather few are aware that the process leading up to the Paris Agreement included a global effort to infuse climate into all aspects of international diplomacy. Formal penalties for failing to meet emissions targets could easily be dismissed as part of the cost of doing business as usual. Such teeth would be small and dull in an international effort to address climate change. What we have instead as a result of the Paris Accord is an international diplomatic framework where a nation’s failure to live up to its commitments in addressing climate change renders it a pariah nation, not to be trusted in trade agreements, defense and security arrangements or international efforts in other areas. Of course some will worry that Trump has already done so much damage to the US on the international stage that the consequences of leaving the Paris Accord will be relatively inconsequential. We will only know as Trump’s first term draws to a close and the process of leaving the Paris Accord reaches its conclusion. In terms of our international standing, we don’t know where the bottom is. We don’t yet now how isolated the US can become.

Andrew Light is unique among contemporary philosophers for his hands on contributions to policy on the global stage we well as his notably practical contributions as an academic. It is a rare opportunity to have him here at BC addressing the intersection of our own core values of justice and sustainability.

Here is Andrew Light’s talk at Bellevue College:

Race and Political Correctness

A few brilliant recent essays in the NY times on these topics. I’ve become a admirer of Charles Blow’s work lately. He illuminates some important points in moral psychology in this editorial. The key insight here is that moral injury and moral outrage are not the same thing and should probably be kept separate. Blow explains his lack of any sense of injury from racist comments as follows:

You see, racism is a moral corruption built on an intellectual fallacy and exists as a construction invented for the very purpose of violence. So, when people demonstrate that they subscribe to theories of racism, they have shown their hand, and I am immediately roused by the euphoric understanding that they are compromised, diminished and assailable. Instead of reducing me, their racism reduces them. That is the ironic, poetic justice of it.

Of course, one only has to think about it for a moment to find the enormous hole in the logic that racism morally weakens the object of the sickness rather than the possessor of the sickness.

Still, from a position of moral strength, Blow goes on to explain how he feels outraged by expressions of racism, especially from people in positions of power. One can be outraged at injustice without feeling victimized or playing the victim. It might be asking a bit much to expect reactionary voices to track this difference. But it remains important for the rest of us to track this difference. When moral outrage is intermingled with a sense of personal injury it becomes hard to focus on moral considerations that can appeal to the better nature of everyone without injecting special pleading for the dear self. Leading with a sense of injury can appeal to those who readily identify with us or our cause while at the same time creating deeper divisions between us and those we really need to be reaching. The injured don’t fight well, rhetorically or otherwise. The racist elements in our society get this at some level. The troll’s game is to undermine those working for justice by instilling a sense of injury in them. This is a game that can’t be won and is best not played. We do better when we fight for justice on the basis of justice and keep our wounds out of the arena.


Next, I’m happy to be learning from Lindy West about the chimera of Political Correctness. As a philosopher who does metaphysics, I love the “What is that?” questions. In several classroom discussions I’ve asked students just what political correctness is. Once we press past examples in seeking a more general account of the “essence” of political correctness, or some understanding of what political correctness is about, we’ve invariably settled on something to the effect that the point of political correctness is just to encourage treating different kinds of people with the sort of dignity and respect we’d expect for ourselves. Hard to see what anyone would find objectionable about this.

While I think this exercise has been useful and I’ll continue having this conversation with students, I can also see that it fails to diagnose the insidious rhetorical role talk of political correctness plays in our public discourse. Have I too been duped into treating political correctness as if it were a thing, the nature of which we might look into? Here’s Lindy:

The term “political correctness” (much like the slimy “pro-life”) is a right-wing neologism, a tactical bending of reality, an attempt to colonize the playing field, a bluff to lure dupes into dignifying propaganda. True to form, the credulous left adopted it wholesale in the early ’90s, electively embroiling us in three decades of bad-faith “debate” over whether discouraging white people from using racial slurs constitutes government censorship. Of course it doesn’t. Debate over. Treating anti-P.C. arguments as anything but a shell game props up the lie that it is somehow unfair to identify and point out racism, let alone fight to eradicate it. Pointing out and fighting to eradicate racism is how we build the racism-free world that all but racists profess to want.

The anti-P.C. set deliberately frames political correctness as a sovereign entity, separate from real human beings — like an advisory board or a nutritional label or a silly after-school club that one can heed or ignore with no moral implications — as though if we simply reject political correctness we can still have “Roseanne.” But the reality is that there’s no such thing as political correctness — it’s a rhetorical device to depersonalize oppression.

So, as a metaphysics guy, I must also profess my distaste for “re-ifying entities” (that is, making stuff up, or treating nothing as if it were something).




Some thoughts on Free Will, Causation and God


Obviously we are able to make our own choices about many things. Hume thinks this is all there is to talk of free will. If your action is caused by your choice and not by external factors (being hypnotized or coerced), then youf action is freely performed. But this is pretty minimal. Hume’s understanding of free will is quite compatible with your choice being fully determined by prior causes beyond your control (your genetic makeup, factors that have influenced you intellectually or psychologically, etc.). For this reason Hume’s understanding of free will is a “compatibilist” view, as it’s known in the free will literature. It’s a view on which having free will is compatible with causal determinism.

But compatibilism seems at odds with the intuitions many of us have about free will. Many want to hold that having free will means that you could have chosen differently even under the very same circumstances and the very same prior causal influences. That is, many would maintain that having free will is incompatible with your actions being causally determined. Descartes and Spinoza both had this more robust idea of free will in mind. On this more robust conception of free will, your will is in some way an un-caused cause of your actions. You cause you actions through your willing. But the way Descartes sees it, your willing is not itself caused (various factors may influence you in one way or another, but no combination of these determines your will).

This more robust idea of free will is also wrapped up in Christian religious thought. God is supposed to be just in rewarding the good and perhaps also punishing the bad. But it is hard to see how this could be just if we lacked free will in the more robust sense of our will being uncaused by factors beyond ourselves as agents. But there is something deeply puzzling about this. We have a hard time accepting that some things can just be so without there being some causal explanation for why they are so. Indeed this is a common reason for thinking there must be a God.

Note that this reason for thinking there is a God (there must be a cause) is quite at odds with Descartes’ pretty intuitive understanding of free will (your will is not causally determined). So it would seem that something has to give here. But then while this tension seems to undermine one line of argument for there being a God (if we are already committed to some things being uncaused, like our will, then why not allow that the world itself is uncaused as Spinoza does), it also helps to explain the sort of uncaused cause religious belief buys into. The only sort of uncaused cause that seems intuitively plausible to us is the action of the will. So if there must be something that causes things but is not itself caused, a God with a will like ours seems like a pretty good candidate.

Aristotle was the first to hold that the causal order requires that there be something to get the ball rolling, what he called an unmoved mover. Thomas Aquinas adapts this idea to an argument for the existence of God that still has strong appeal to many. But there remain deep mysteries here. We have no model or theory of “agency causation”. That is, we have no viable account to offer of how the will can be uncaused and yet caused. How would the action of such a will differ from just a roll of the dice (that would hardly be free will since here again the configuration of our will would not really be “up to us”.

And finally, our notion of causation is partly a temporal notion (as Hume will point out this week). But asking for causes of the universe in this sense stands in conflict with well settled physics (Einstien’s theory or relativity, in particular). We are rapidly closing in on a pretty clear understanding of the age of the universe. In fact just yesterday I attended a fascinating lecture on how the discovery of gravitational waves in just the past few years is helping us close in on a pretty precise age.

But this history of the universe is in part the history of time. What Einstien showed is that there is no absolute framework of time and space in which events unfold. Rather space/time comes into existence with the energy and matter of the universe. So our request for causes of the universe are just confused and misguided in light of Einstien’s discoveries. There just is no “before” in which to locate such a cause, supernatural or otherwise.

Oh, and by the way, BC has a recent hire in the physics department that has worked on the LIGO project detecting gravitational waves resulting from the collision of black holes. Fascinating stuff.

Why do many people prefer moral absolutes? Why do many others prefer moral relativism? Same answer: Self-Righteousness

People tend to have a very big stake in their own goodness. So it figures that they’d really want moral truths to be simple and clear cut, and the less they’ve thought critically about hard moral issues, the simpler and more clear cut the better. But if we step outside our tendency towards self righteousness for a minute, there is really no reason to expect ethics to be somehow more simple and straightforward than, say, physics or chemistry. Most of us don’t have a hard time admitting to ourselves that we don’t know all that much about physics or chemistry. But to admit that we don’t know so much about what’s good or right is much harder. That would cast some doubt on our own goodness and many people find this intolerable.

This tendency towards self-righteousness also explains much of the appeal of moral relativism. Moral relativism rejects moral absolutes and fans of moral relativism see this as promoting more open minded and tolerance of those with other views. There are good reasons to doubt that moral relativism delivers the goods on the virtues of open mindedness and tolerance. Moral relativism is the view that what is right relative to a group (culture or individual) is whatever is deemed right relative to that group (culture or individual). But there is nothing in this view that speaks against a group (culture or individual) deeming narrow-minded intolerance a good thing. Moral Relativism deems bigotry good relative to the bigot.

But let’s focus on the role of self-righteousness here. Moral relativism deems everyone (or every group) right relative to themselves. On this view I can maintain that I am right (no matter how narrow-minded and uncritical my view is) so long as I’m only asserting that right just means right relative to me (or my group). So moral relativism invites everyone to be perfectly self-righteous relative to themselves. And it thereby prevents reasoning about ethics from playing any useful role in adjudicating conflicts. What tools does this leave us for dealing with conflicts? Well, there is always power politics, or if that doesn’t work, brute force.

An alternative to both moral absolutism and moral relativism would be to take inquiry into morality seriously. That is, to take morality to be the sort of thing we can learn about through critically examining evidence and argument. But here’s the catch: taking inquiry into morality seriously requires acknowledging that maybe we don’t already know what is good and right. That is, it requires abandoning our self-righteousness.

Individualism vs. Love

There is a kind of rugged individualism that is quite in vogue in our culture. It’s not surprising that people prize feeling powerful, self sufficient and independent in a culture where everyone has their own job, car and the world at their fingertips through their phones, laptops etc. We live like gods, all knowing, all powerful and, of course, perfectly good. This seems often to be the picture we paint for ourselves and the sort of existence we aspire to.

I fear that the sort of life this aspiration leads to will ultimately be rather barren, lonely and nihilistic. But aside from that, the independence aspiration involves a good deal of self-deception. We are in fact vulnerable, needful things that can hardly survive, never mind flourish and be happy, without caring relationships. I wonder if part of what makes the rugged individualist self-deception so appealing is the very fact that deprived of our technological conveniences, nearly all of us would be far less prepared to fend for ourselves than just about all of our ancestors. Having it so easy makes it easy to forget just how much we depend on others to meet our needs. In every past culture and time, people’s need for each other would have been a central and well recognized social reality. This is the first moment in history that very many people can afford to question whether it makes sense to care for others deeply. The temptation will be there since to love another person brings with it tremendous vulnerability. It requires a good deal of trust. It will change you in ways not completely in your control. It will compromise your autonomy in all manner of ways (any parent can confirm that). Love is a fearsome thing. It does not always go well. For most of us, failed love will be the biggest trauma we ever endure. And yet we pursue love. For most of us, its a need that simply will not be ignored.

So given all of this, it makes an awful lot of sense for us to love carefully. By that I don’t mean love cautiously. Once we are honest with ourselves about the stakes, it should be clear that there is no such thing as caution in loving another. To love another human being is an audacious and daring thing to do. What I do mean is that we should love with great care. We should cherish and take good care of our relationships and their participants, of each other and ourselves. The need for this caring on our part will be all the more clear if we are also honest with ourselves concerning our own very mortal vulnerability and needfulness. It’s tempting to think that the best way to take care of ourselves is to fortify defenses around any possible vulnerabilities. This is the lonely path of the individualist. But given our nature as needful social beings, the more sure and rewarding path to having our own needs met, to being taken care of, is to take care of others who reciprocate and care for us in turn. The way to be safe and secure, and not alone, is to be audacious and daring in generously caring for those we are close to. This is the sweet paradox of love.

Jordan Peterson’s analysis of Political Correctness

Peterson’s Straw Man diagnosis of campus social justice activists is concisely put here:



Peterson attributes a fairly sophisticated, if utterly wrong headed, theoretical framework to so called SJWs. He sees Political Correctness as based on an impure amalgam of Marxism and Postmodernism. I too think that Marxism and Postmodernism are terrible things and not just for the reasons Peterson articulates so well. But I think he is mistaken in his blanket attribution of Marxism and Postmodernism to social justice activists. I think Peterson hasn’t done enough field work to give an accurate diagnosis of the psychology and motivation of the average social justice promoting member of the campus community. For there just aren’t that many social justice activists that are this theoretically committed. However, social justice activists do tend to be pretty evidence based in ways Peterson’s analysis completely ignores.

What is most present to mind among, say Black Lives Matter activists is the historical legacy and ongoing perpetuation of a clearly unjust and often brutal practices. The specific injustices complained of would be clear injustices on any number of theoretical approaches, but perhaps not clearly so unjust on a marriage of Postmodernism and Marxism. In any case, theoretical commitments aren’t what really matters to the social justice crowd, at least not on my campus.

Trans people not getting murdered matters. Black people not getting harassed by the police matters. Women not getting sexually harassed in the workplace matters. You certainly don’t need to think that the interests of groups supersedes that of individuals to make sense out of this. The more noxious forms of Identity Politics occasionally make brief appearances in the form of uncritically invoking some hackneyed relativistic cliches, but we’d just be mistaken to attribute sophisticated if incoherent and self-defeating theoretical perspectives to folks on this thin basis.

Of course we do talk about groups in diagnosing systemic injustices, especially those groupings that have have served as the bases of historically well documented injustices. But this doesn’t demand that we take groups to matter more than individuals. We can quite coherently contend, as most people ordinarily do, that groups are mere abstractions, having no real existence apart from the members that make them up, and still be on the look out for unfair disadvantages that people face because they are black, or trans, or women. Even the current slogans avoid the mistake of reifying groups. Its, “Black lives matter” not “Blackness matters” and its “me too”, not “please also consider the collective identity of women.”


The Emotional Roots of Prejudice and Bigotry

At the social level, bigotry and prejudice are tools of oppression where in groups dominate and exploit out groups. But analysis at this sociological level leaves important questions unanswered about why people are are so prone to in group – out group thinking in the first place. Note that the most stridently prejudiced are often not those who benefit significantly from exploitative power dynamics between groups. Prejudice, bigotry and discrimination have deeper emotional roots in individual psychology than sociological analysis can fully illuminate.

We are familiar with fear mongering in racist demagoguery and fear often does play a central role in othering The Other. We see this in the long history of racial prejudice against African Americans and more recently against Muslims. This fear is irrational given that the perceived threat is largely based on fantasy stereotypes. But fear does little to explain misogyny or other cases of discrimination like anti-semitism in Nazi Germany or the caste system in India.

Disgust, according to Martha Nussbaum, does shed broader light on the psychology of prejudice. But what exactly is disgust? And how does it lead to prejudice, discrimination and oppression? These are the questions I will briefly explore in this essay. But first, I want to mention that the occasion for this reflection was a wonderful event at Seattle Town Hall the other night where Martha Nussbaum spoke about her new book, Aging Thoughtfully, co-authored with Saul Levmore. The full event is online here. While the main focus of the evening was ageism, her discussion also explored disgust and its role in prejudice and discrimination more generally.

We should also note that Nussbaum is a cognitivist about the emotions. That is, she thinks that emotions aren’t just feelings, but that emotions have at their core a cognitive element of judgment or belief. At the core of fear, for instance, is the judgment that something or someone presents some kind of danger. Similarly it would not make sense to understand a person as experiencing grief unless that person believes they have lost something or someone dear to them. Having this cognitive component means that emotions can be well grounded or irrational. A person’s fear, for instance, is rational to just the degree that the perceived threat is real. A fear based on distorted or fantastic belief is not rational. So, given this theoretical context, exploring the emotional roots of prejudice in no way excuses prejudice and discrimination as somehow beyond the scope rational critique. To the contrary, exploring the emotional roots of prejudice will be an attempt to get at what is going wrong in the mind of the bigot or the misogynist. The goal here is to illuminate the irrationality of prejudice.

So back to disgust. Nussbaum takes disgust to be aversion to contamination. In particular, disgust is repulsion against things we associate with decay, disease and death. What Nussbaum calls primary disgust probably has a biological basis. It’s easy to see how evolution would favor a strongly felt repulsion from things like rotting flesh or signs of communicable disease. Disgust in these cases is rational, just like our fear of tigers. Of course even here we often find overriding reasons for caring for the sick or facing down our fear of the tiger.

But then, people also suffer what Nussbaum calls “projective disgust.” As she puts it, “people seek to create a buffer zone between themselves and their own animality by identifying a group (usually a powerless minority) who can be targeted as the quasi-animals and projecting onto that group various animal characteristics, which they have to no greater degree than the ones doing the projecting: bad smell, animal sexuality and so on.”

Projective disgust is neither rational nor obviously adaptive from an evolutionary standpoint. So how do so many people across so many cultures become saddled with this irrational, socially problematic emotional attitude? Well, as slightly rational, self-aware beings, we must somehow cope with the foreknowledge of our own eventual decline, decay and demise. Gifted self-deceivers that we are, a widespread strategy for dealing with this long run crisis and the anxiety it can provoke is to deny and distance ourselves from our own animality and mortality. Indeed most of our major religious traditions seem to be overly concerned with assimilating us more closely to God or gods and thereby distancing us from our essential nature as mortal, disease prone, biological organisms.

Projective disgust is a dishonest mode of dividing the person against its self, cleaving our elevated, rational, self-aware minds from our ultimately decaying flesh. Descartes had it hard wired into the nature of reality. But the comfort of this dualism comes at a steep price. In elevating ourselves as something more than animal and mortal, we extend this elevation only to those we can readily identify with. Others can be literally left to rot. And so we other The Other. There are no doubt assorted other ways in which we other The Other, but failing to come to terms with our own humanity, and our own animality and mortality in particular, is surely among the deepest and most universal. Prejudice and bigotry is, in varying degrees, grounded in self-deception aimed at evading self-loathing. But if we can muster the courage to see ourselves with clear eyes, susceptible to all manner of corruption and decay, ultimately destined to demise, we might also hope to get over our disgust and find ourselves, along with all our fellow vulnerable, decaying, mortal organisms, as lovable all the same.

James Baldwin invokes this wisdom in connection with racism in America when he writes,

White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this – which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never – the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.


Leaving Paris

I’m opening this thread for discussion of the US leaving the Paris Climate Agreement. I don’t imagine many of you appreciate the historical significance of this event yet. But you will soon enough and it would be an oversight on my part not to address it in the context of ethical inquiry. In short, what happened on the 1st of June 2017, is that the US federal government abandoned a global effort, one supported by most American citizens, to avert a global calamity that has the potential to destroy human civilization as we know it along with much of the other life on the planet. In doing so we have abdicated our position of global leadership, undermined our own power and influence as a nation, and handed the economic benefits of deploying the technology that can and hopefully will sustain humanity to other nations and people. So this move was highly self-destructive as well as destructive to life on the planet. We will all have the rest of our lives to see how this plays out in the short to medium run. But we won’t have to wait long:

Of course it isn’t that every flood is caused by climate change. But every flood from here on out happens in the context of climate change and the destructive power of floods, fires, droughts and heat waves is thereby amplified.

Our president didn’t mention global warming in his announcement of the US departure from Paris. But clearly his sense that this is the right thing for America to do is rooted in ignorance about the science. Lest that be a stumbling block, you might start here:

As sad as it is to see such ignorance about basic science in a world leader, the greater flaw in this administration’s thinking, the one that makes this move so self destructive as well as environmentally destructive, is ethical. In short, our leader seems to see every situation as a zero sum game, where the only choices are winning at the expense of others or losing to their benefit. Given this mindset, ethical considerations are merely obstacles to winning. Ethical considerations aside, this kind of cynicism turns a blind eye to the assorted ways in which selfishness can turn out to be irrational even in terms of self-interest. Building flourishing societies in the context of climate change is not a contest to be a winner instead of a loser. It works a little more like this:

Conservative columnist David Brooks captures the basic ethical flaw of our current leadership very eloquently in this morning’s NY Times (fake news):

Do pass on further interesting commentary as our society tries to digest this bitter pill. Including from those who think this is sweet candy. I’ll comment as I can.