Monday, May 29, 2017

Moral Tribes

I generally liked Joshua Greene's Moral Tribes. He is one of those characters I want to like, even when he causes me to sigh.  He is a liberal who clearly tries to understand conservatives, and sometimes gets it. His political leaning were clear even in the introduction, where he constructs an extended metaphor on northerly, easterly, southerly, and westerly tribes, with the northerly being more competitive/capitalist and the southerly being more redistributive. He fails to notice that in western societies, the capitalist tribes are already nearly as redistributive as the southerly, the remaining questions not being either-or but increase-decrease our redistribution. His example of the opinions of the Northern Herders, as he calls them, is not merely Ron Paul in an interview with Wolf Blitzer, but people shouting out from the crowd in that interview. He gives an example of misrepresentation and deception in the run-up to the ACA of the opponent's claim of Death Panels (which is actually not entirely false), but allows that if you like your doctor you can keep your doctor also turned out to be deceptive.  Well, thanks. I wish you had done better, though Joshua.  there was more material to work with there.

So even though he didn't acknowledge his own leanings until a fair bit later, I kinda guessed already.

When I hit this point in most books, I no longer push on without checking. Life is too short.  To the index! The index actually turned out to be encouraging.  In particular, his comments about Jonathan Haidt, who I like, were approving and seemed to be reciprocated.  His last chapter is a comparison with Haidt's ideas and why he likes his better. That's fair.  He writes a good deal about the ubiquity of bias; Marx, Rousseau, and communism get no mention; Aristotle comes in big in the end. So I tried again. I put the book down a few times, shaking my head, but I thought there was value anyway. He tries really hard to be even-handed to the people he disagrees with, and sometimes even succeeds. Usually not, but I've seen worse (far worse), and I haven't seen many conservatives make as much effort on their side to do the same.

What he arrives at is something he calls Deep Pragmatism.  My summary version of this would be Utilitarianism Informed By Virtue Ethics. Not attractive to me as a rule for living, but not a bad way to run a government.


Christopher B said...

Utilitarianism Informed By Virtue Ethics ... but not a bad way to run a government.

I might be misunderstanding what you mean by the phrase but it seems to me that governing by prioritizing the appearance of doing good for people who need it, regardless if the outcome is really to their benefit, while hurting the majority just a little, and the people we don't like a lot but it's good for them, is exactly how we got into this mess.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

That's not how I see Utilitarianism. We may have different definitions of that.

Grim said...

That sounds to me like the late period of JS Mill. By the time he wrote "Considerations On Representative Government" he had abandoned strict rule utilitarianism for a sense that human society should be ordered in part by a notion of human flourishing.

Grim said...

That said, pragmatism is generally thought to be a particularly American approach to philosophy. William James is the most famous name, and the other famous names are Americans too.

I once knew an advocate for pragmatism as a mode of philosophy. When asked to defend the proposition, he said, "Well, I suggest you give it a try. If it doesn't work out for you, try something else."

Texan99 said...

I just read "Tribes" by Sebastian Junger, a short book. He's mostly talking about the importance of belonging to a community. Oddly enough, although he suspects that welfare and the cult of the victim undermines community, he can't get over the idea that the real problem with the U.S. is our failure to punish the bad financial gurus who caused the 2007-2008 recession and therefore did more to steal from the public than the welfare cheats he otherwise considers to be a real threat to communal cohesion. He comes back to the point repeatedly, whenever he seems to be headed too far down a conservative path. He even throws in an anecdote about a virtuous businessman who got his employees to take a 10% paycut to avoid layoffs, and who then quietly stopped collecting a salary for himself, and explains that "although he was a Republican," the guy actually disapproved of those bad financial gurus. Everything Junger says about the need for a meaningful community, however, seems spot on.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

There is a tradeoff, probably an impossible one, in giving out benefits at all. People deserve anonymity for their bad luck, bad relatives, embarrassing situations, etc. It's none of your damn business much of the time. OTOH, the person(s) paying the bill deserve an accounting. Giving to people who don't have to answer to society, just to a form and a set of guidelines absolutely reduces communal cohesion. But so does prying into other people's business in order to kick them when they are down may be worse. A lot of the outrage comes from people who are not paying a lot of the taxes supporting the recipients, but who feel they are working hard to not become a public charge. They feel they deserve some credit, often experiencing similar obstacles to those receiving. And they do deserve some credit.

As for needing to blame the rich, I continue to think this is a hard-wired primitive part of our brains, back into the small-band economies where if someone had hugely more than the others he probably was cheating the tribe. The arguments keep being advanced that seem much more focused on punishing those people than on maximising the revenue.

RichardJohnson said...

He can't get over the idea that the real problem with the U.S. is our failure to punish the bad financial gurus who caused the 2007-2008 recession and therefore did more to steal from the public than the welfare cheats he otherwise considers to be a real threat to communal cohesion.

Apparently he can't grasp the idea that a big part of the 2007 financial crash was government muddying the regulatory waters. Reckless Endangerment, my source on the crash, pointed out that in addition to the government pushing handing out mortgages to those not financially qualified, CT Senator Chris Dodd added to the FDICIA of 1991 a clause which increased Fed assistance to insurance companies and investment banks in the event of financial crashes. That encouraged reckless behavior, as they figured whatever they would do, the Feds would back them up.