Approaching the moral perils of the day, Part I

It’s been a few years since I’ve been here. It’s my loss: I have a very busy schedule now. But Bob has been asking me to come back and contribute something, and a couple of  days ago he gently requested, for what was not the first time, that I come by and talk a little about some hot button topics I’ve briefly discussed with him, including some questions touching on the morality of the #MeToo movement.

Calling these topics ‘hot button’ is quite an understatement, actually. Present the right view and you are roundly ‘liked’ and feted, and more so if you can distinguish yourself from the crowd by going even further than anyone else in your comments and sentiments. Present the wrong view and you can plant the seeds of your own ruin, and that ruin may be swift. Those who have read Jon Ronson’s important book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, will need no clarification or convincing on this point. Those who have not read it should pick it up with all speed and read it through (it’s quite a page-turner). Combine these two facts with the presence of a number of  radicals patrolling (anti-)social media on a moral crusade — ‘If you’re not joining us in beating up the evil ones, then you’re clearly a defender of evil (and we’re coming after you next)’ — and you have a very, very dangerous situation in which to stand up to the status quo. And yet, it is just in the face of such proud and confident moral crusades, which are quite possibly the most flagrantly immoral enterprises of all, that speaking up against what is going on, or at least planting some seeds of doubt, is objectively the most important.

I’ve decided to limit myself here, as much as possible, to just raising questions rather than providing answers to them. The sorts of issues I think Bob wants me to talk about here — the right response to sexual harassment allegations, the best ways to accommodate diversity, and so on — are complex and multifaceted and require careful attention to many considerations in thinking them through, and I don’t feel I have an adequate solution to the problems. But, as Socrates said, I at least know that I don’t know, whereas others give evidence of not having thought these issues through very well but still insist on moral claims that they just can’t be justified in asserting. The most I’d like to do in the things I’ll write about here is to draw attention to some of the considerations that seem very important but are being entirely or almost entirely neglected in all the public discussions I’ve seen. I’d rather leave it to others to figure out how to resolve the tensions. I hope they provide stimulating bases for conversations here.

When I raised a question about due process and fair dealing on Facebook recently, I was angrily attacked by someone who sneered at my comment, reading the worst motivations into it, and then sarcastically concluded “but it was never really about due process, was it?”

What I’m concerned with is very much about due process. Due process, fair dealing and self-critical investigations are the cornerstones not only of reasoned inquiry but of a civilized society. They can be attacked by mobs from the political left or the political right, by religious mobs or atheistic mobs, and by any demographic you care to name. The details of this particular instance of the attack on the pillars of civilization are of much less concern to me than the fact that they are under attack yet again in familiar ways. So I’d like to approach these issues by way of many broader, less ‘hot button’, difficulties that I think underlie the current instantiation of the war on fairness, reason and due process.

To set the mood, here’s a personal anecdote and a couple of online essays I think will be helpful.

The personal anecdote: I grew up in a Jewish family in Vancouver, and attended a Jewish day school. I had a brilliant 3rd grade teacher — Gita Kron was her name — who had survived the Nazi holocaust. More than any other teacher, she instilled in me the philosophical spirit. She insisted that we think for ourselves and not blindly trust her authority or anyone else’s. I came to think later on that she may well have come to adopt this approach because of the horrors she had witnessed, and in particular the easy ways in which ordinary and even highly educated people, at the same time pulled along by and  pulling along the spirit of their times, can become a pack of vicious animals with horrible moral blind spots and empathy gaps that nobody in the pack notices until the dust settles years later. And the deeply nuanced story of the Nazi holocaust, like the story behind any other moral panic (and yes, I see the Nazi holocaust as a moral panic on the part of the Nazis — Peter Hayes’ masterful Why? Explaining the Holocaust makes that case well) is a wonderful object lesson in the perils of such moral crusades, and how these particularly nasty forms of evil can arise so quickly from seemingly noble and innocent beginnings. This is a lesson so infrequently learned: how often, in the very act of rallying the mob to punch and kill Nazis, one creates and becomes the next round of Nazis. The Nazis, after all, saw themselves as doing what they could to stand up for the poor, neglected, unfairly wronged, underprivileged demographic to which they belonged, and to do what they could to stand tall in the face of a privileged elite that had been running the world and keeping them down for too long, and had betrayed everyone else. To achieve that end, quaint quibbles about due process and fair treatment, and about the need to spare all the innocent and treat even the members of the powerful subgroup as worthy of dignified treatment, had to be waved aside, and those who refused to wave them aside were merely declaring themselves as enemies. Sound familiar? Oh, of course the Nazis were factually mistaken in their Jewish conspiracy beliefs, so we can blame them for that today, because we would never make such mistakes, right? After all, unlike the Nazis, we get our sociological information from reliable processes that depend on free, fair, and open debate, in which all views, however contrary to the prevailing ethos, are given equal weight. Don’t we?

But I digress. I had thought that this was clearly the lesson Mrs. Kron wanted us to take away from her classes: that the future of civilization, and our humanity even today, are fragile things that depend on our ability to question ourselves, to see ourselves objectively as best we can, and always try to do better; to engage thoughtfully and sympathetically with one’s interlocutors as a check on overconfidence and  misrepresentation of the other side, and to play devil’s advocate as well as can be done if nobody else is taking on the sacred role of critical opposition: and to realize that moral crusades are fraught with corrosive danger.

Armed with this disposition, I became perhaps the first in my extended family to have meaningful conversations with Arab Muslims, including Palestinians. I was very curious to hear their views on the Israel/Palestine conflict, even though it made me uncomfortable to do so (but how can one ever make progress on topical moral and political issues if one is too squeamish about being uncomfortable or making others uncomfortable?). I debated, I investigated, and I came to feel things were not as simple as I had been led to believe. When a distant relative sent along a report on the Israel/Palestine conflict that I found to be seriously lacking in nuance, I argued against it, naively thinking that I was simply applying the principle we  had all agreed upon. As a result, I came to be regarded by some in my extended family as brainwashed at best and morally compromised at worst. I tried to argue my way out of this black sheep status with reasoning and evidence, only to find that nobody was interested in playing by those rules. And later, I met some other students of Mrs. Kron from a different year, and discovered that the great lessons they had learned from her were tribal rather than universal: they saw her great teaching as  being a conviction that the Jews had to do what they could to look out for themselves in a hostile world, whatever it takes.

I’ve now come to feel that that difference — between those who interpret the lessons of history in a universal way and those who think that the greatest lesson is to stick with one’s  tribe and smash the outgroup when the tribe feels threatened, which is  pretty well always to a tribalist– is perhaps the most important of all.

With that as background, I present two essays. The first is a more abstract one about the growing turn toward the subjective, and indeed a growing inability and unwillingness to see the world in a non-tribal manner (ah, for the days in the early part of the century when this awful subjectivist tendency seemed to be dying…)

The second essay is a personal account of a very disturbing trend in academia (and increasingly elsewhere) today: the turning  away from the altruistic, morality of fairness and universal consideration of others toward the narrow and self-absorbed, to the point where many in academia can (amazingly enough) no longer even understand the principle of equal treatment that makes morality morality:

More when I have a moment for it! Best to all.

9 thoughts on “Approaching the moral perils of the day, Part I

  1. In these times of high anxiety, battles over “free speech”—on college campuses, in corporate offices, on airwaves and the internet—can seem extremely myopic from a certain perspective. The perspective I mean is one in which a disturbing number of messages broadcast perpetually to millions of people bear little relationship to scientific, historical, or social facts, so that it becomes increasingly difficult for many people to tell fact from fiction. Debating whether or not such speech is “free” outside of any consideration for what purpose it serves, who it harms, and why it should drown out other speech because it appeals to widespread prejudices or powerful, monied interests seems grossly irresponsible at best.

    Bertrand Russell advised:

    When you are studying any matter or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only, and solely, at what are the facts.

    The moral thing I should wish to say to them is very simple. I should say love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world, which is getting more and more interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way. And if we are to live together and not die together, we should learn the kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.

    Watch Russell here.


  2. Hi, Bob.

    Could you please expand on this sentence? I’m not yet sure what you mean by it. “Debating whether or not such speech is “free” outside of any consideration for what purpose it serves, who it harms, and why it should drown out other speech because it appeals to widespread prejudices or powerful, monied interests seems grossly irresponsible at best.”


  3. There are, of course, many kinds of speech acts. We USE language in many ways (I still read Austin!) I was thinking of the vast amount of BS confronting us each minute of each day – of the way we Facebook users are commodities – of the many instances of Fake News that are really fake that arrive daily in our inboxes – of the warning in Frankfurt’s paper on BS.

    Truth decay, as I suggested recently, at a Philosophers’ Café is spreading rapidly!


  4. 1. I am using the phrase “truth decay” all the time now! Thanks.

    2. In the Finne essay, she concludes with this: I am in no way disputing that our societies have operated unjustly insofar as gender, race, sexuality, religion and so forth have ranked higher than capability and content of character in determining life chances. That is not, however, solved by a reliance on subjectivity. It is solved by insisting upon the primacy of the objective approach.
    Throughout time humans have responded to emotion more than to reason, I would suggest. I watched the anti-gun speeches yesterday and found that I was moved to tears by some of them – I also agree with them about gun control.

    3. I am hoping that those kids can do what reason has not been able to do.


    • Remember the Phil 111 recipe?
      X is true iff:
      1. I believe that X
      2. I have good evidence that X
      3. X is true
      1. is subjective, but is a necessary not a sufficient condition for the truth of X.

      I too watched some of the speeches. Powerful indeed.

      Liked by 1 person

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