Sprouting New Moral Foundations

There are a lot of important ideas in Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, which I just finished reading. He makes a descriptively compelling case for how WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) most of the readers of his book are, myself included, and how we should take our own moral intuitions with a grain of salt, knowing how different they are from those of people in most of the world.

In light of this, it is valuable for all of us to question our moral intuitions and understand those of others, so you know why other people think and act the way they do. This seems especially true given Haidt’s finding that liberals are worse at answering questions like conservatives than the reverse (that is, they are worse at ideological turing tests). And why is this?

Haidt’s research has found that humans tend to think about morality on six axes (from Wikipedia):

  1. Care/harm for others, protecting them from harm.
  2. Fairness/cheating, Justice, treating others in proportion to their actions (He has also referred to this dimension as Proportionality.)
  3. Liberty/oppression, characterizes judgments in terms of whether subjects are tyrannized.
  4. Loyalty/betrayal to your group, family, nation. (He has also referred to this dimension as Ingroup.)
  5. Authority/subversion for tradition and legitimate authority. (He has also connected this foundation to a notion of Respect.)
  6. Sanctity/degradation, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions. (He has also referred to this as Purity.)

Except that apparently, liberals care primarily about the first three, seeing 4-6 as morally less relevant, where conservatives care about all six. You can see where you fall at YourMorals.org.

These are my results. Probably not surprising.

These are my results. Probably not surprising.

I certainly fall into the pattern for liberals – whether something disgusts me isn’t relevant to how I judge it morally, at least when my System 2 is doing the evaluating. And it’s even worse than that; as a utilitarian, I’m really choosing to focus on care/harm and forget all the rest. Now, utilitarians have a long history of skirting that issue by simply saying that we care about 2-6 insofar as other people care about them. If degrading what is sacred to others makes people less happy, then, huzzah, we also care about sanctity. And even if disrespect for medical ethics makes sense in one particular case, such as using medical professionals ostensibly giving vaccines in Pakistan to sniff out Osama bin Laden, we can claim to take a longer view, noting that people may no longer trust those handing out vaccines.

That’s one of the primary strengths of utilitarianism; much like rationalism, it can simply absorb critiques and adapt to “care” about whatever other people seem to care about. On the whole, this is great, and utilitarians can learn a great deal from Haidt’s findings. It’s much easier to make people happy (or satisfy their preferences, or make them live better lives) if you know what those things mean. We ought to note that people like living in moral communities, where some things are held sacred, and some people are held as authority figures, even if those axes don’t mean a lot to some of us personally. As a plus, the research indicates that people behave better and give more to charity when they inhabit communities like this, since they are surrounded by people keeping them accountable to their professed values.

But none of this is the same as actually understanding what it would be like to feel that a standard of purity, or loyalty, or authority is a viscerally important ethical fact. What would that feel like?

My first instinct with regard to is to say it would feel like letting all of your lowest, instinctive feelings come through. Elevating the glimmer of disapproval I’ve had when I see women dressed “overly” sexily, or “too young” to an actual ethical consideration. Letting myself wholly disapprove of people when I feel that sense of disappointment that they don’t agree with all the liberal positions I thought they did. Hell, even chastising people for consuming too much low art: too much tv, not enough books; too many romance novels, not enough Jonathan Haidt. (It’s important to note that all of these would entirely condemn me as well). Even more grotesquely, it could start to look like The Gag Reflex, an article arguing for the value of letting our “natural” disgust at gay sex inform our moral sense about it. (Descriptively, several studies indicate that some significant portion of anti-gay attitudes are related to disgust). Sure, there are steelmen of these ideas, but these aren’t moral positions I want to get anywhere near.

Attempt 1:

But to really try, I might venture to say that there’s something beautiful or comforting about a natural order (whether from religion or from a secular teleology), which promises stability and contentment, if everything is in its place. Depending on what that order consists of, I might be comfortable with being concerned that my own actions or those of others are disrupting such an order. Conservatives do a lot of this, especially with regard to sexual morality, but I can imagine utilitarians and economically minded people thinking the same way about everyone working in a field where their comparative advantage lies. If we were really committed to the kind of world where everyone did what they do best and contributed the most, seeing someone do something where they weren’t would seem kind of…low, kind of missing the point of what you’re supposed to do with your life. How’s that for sanctity?

Attempt 2:

Or if you really believe, in a secular virtue ethical kind of way, that people seem to be happier and more fulfilled when they take steps to interact with other people around important issues, or spend time with nature, rather than watch Netflix or spend the day indoors? Or even the question of doing something active (blogging, exercising, reading) over something passive (sleeping, watching tv); I don’t hold by this, but I could imagine what it would be like to want to push people to the “higher” things over the “lower” things.

Attempt 3:

If you’re in an Effective Altruism community, you might think that most of the focus is on Care/Harm, since you’re trying to help the most people with your money. However, Leah Libresco has pointed out that features of that world harken closely to the purity axis, since every part of your life now becomes up for critique as “the best thing you could be doing with your time and money” or “not the best thing you could be doing with your time and money.” We could extend that further; if I lived in a community where everyone committed as much money and time as they could to saving lives, and someone didn’t, they wouldn’t just be impure; they’d be disloyal: to their cause, to their community, and to the global poor that this community has claimed as their sort-of-in-group.

Part of the philosophy is how people tend to do philosophy and charitable giving incorrectly.

Attempt 4:

In some of the best examples of moral communities the liberal world has to offer, communities of political activists and secular/humanist groups, respecting authority could mean that it’s important to give your president or humanist minister the benefit of the doubt, and questioning what they want us to do on Sundays, whether it’s go to a march in Ferguson or go to a blood drive, would be undermining the very moral communities that research has shown us are so important. There are so few strong secular or progressive moral communities, someone might say, it would be such a shame to divide this one by not letting the duly selected leader do their best.

I have the podium! Listen to me!

It is easy for people on the left side of the political spectrum to find issues with every example I’ve constructed. It would be awful to coerce people into choosing jobs that made them unhappy just because it’s what they’re best at. There are dozens of reasons, including issues surrounding physical and mental disability, why it would be terrible to stigmatize “passive” activities and elevate “active” ones. And few of us would want to be in a secular community where people shushed us for questioning the leader; that attitude is why so many left religion in the first place. I’ll examine examples like these in the next piece.

But these are, for me, examples that at least make it plausible that Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity could be ethically relevant in my life. If you agree that it’s important to understand where other people are coming from and why they think the way they do, what worlds would activate the moral axes that you usually dismiss? What features do they have? What can we learn from them?

The Caring Less Game

Let’s talk about the Game Where You Pretend You Care Less, explained succinctly by Thought Catalog: “The person who cares less has all the power. Nobody wants to be the one who’s more interested.” Is it just me, or does this game *suck*?

I know, as a long time player, that it doesn’t always feel like a choice, and that not playing can be incredibly painful. But I also know what it’s like to be on the other side, to have the sinking feeling that you don’t care for someone quite the way they care for you, and to have that make you wonder what’s wrong with you and why you can’t just be happy. It makes you feel like you don’t deserve this person’s care and affection. And it doesn’t make you feel powerful, unless you’re a special kind of manipulative narcissist. Quite the opposite; when you like someone more than they like you, at least you’re aware and you can decide what to do. Often you don’t wish you liked the other person less; feeling love is it’s own kind of beautiful thing, desirable in its own right.

When it’s the opposite, it’s always felt to me like everything would be better if they just didn’t like me quite so much, and yet I am powerless to make that happen. It feels like it’s my fault that everything is going wrong and that the relationship, romantic or otherwise, is inevitably going to fall apart. Worst of all, I become increasingly uncomfortable just being in their presence, no matter how much I care for them, because the sheer weight of their liking me more than I like them is overwhelming. And that discomfort morphs into pain, which begins to hurt them, and then we are both hurting, and damaged, and why couldn’t I have just liked them more?

Which is all to say that a relationship where there is this kind of asymmetry of feeling isn’t a relationship with unequal power, unless one or more people are using that asymmetry to make power plays, which is a case of abuse, not someone losing the Caring Less Game. It feels like unequal power to the person who feels that they care more, because they are hoping and pining and the other person seems just fine. But that person doesn’t feel thrilled and in control as a result, as you imagine they will from the other side, at least not in my experience. They are just as likely to feel frustrated and unhappy. There’s no winning this Game. No one ever wins.

Which means that the view of relationships as being one where you win the game by caring less is terrible. It undermines our ability to empathize with both sides of a difficult situation, and also normalizes a very unpleasant dynamic. Certainly, there are times when it’s reasonable not to want to overwhelm or scare someone (such as at the beginning of a relationship), or respect their wish for something less emotionally intense, but those are clear exceptions to what sometimes feels like the crushing nonchalance with which this Game is accepted as normal.

Instead of constantly playing the Caring Less Game as if it were the price of admission to a romantic relationship, it might be better if we took it as a bad sign, and looked instead for people who were head over heels for us, and we for them, and no one afraid to say so.

What are other people’s experiences with this dynamic? How has playing or not playing the game affected your relationships?

Excuses, Excuses, and Blogathon Begins!

As with all intrepid warriors on a quest, I encountered obstacles on my way to beginning Blogathon this morning. My dragons were CTA closings, Sunday train schedules, and my complete inability to distinguish the Purple Line from the Yellow Line. All intrepid heroes go to Skokie on their way to Evanston, right? For those of you who don’t know quite what this says about me, I’ve screenshotted a map of the route I was supposed to take. Note Skokie off to the west. Yeah…

evanston

Combine that with a few bouts of very bad internet luck, and you have my promise to start Blogathon at 10am in tatters. So the new plan is to blog from noon to sometime in the mid-evening, with a post every 45 minutes to make up for the late start.

And as I did last year, I’d like to take the opportunity to talk about why I’m doing this.

I know first-hand what incredible resources religious students on college campuses have at their disposal. Houses, mentors, communities, internships, jobs, educational and entertaining programming, spiritual and emotional support, student groups, money, encouragement are all awaiting a Jewish or Christian student upon setting foot on most college grounds. Clubs, ministries and houses of worship all bend over backwards to ensure that religious students have the best possible experience (religious or not, often) throughout their college careers. Just at the University of Chicago, there are about 10-12 Jewish events going on every week. That tells me, as a Jew, that I am welcome, and that there are resources for me.

Secular or nonreligious students have none of these. Of course, they have access to the same nonreligious student clubs as everyone else: dance, debate, political clubs and cultural groups are available to all. But any religious student engaged in religious life knows that there is often something special about having a group centered about that part of their life. I think that secular students deserve that community, too. And that is why I am a huge supporter of the work the Secular Student Alliance does. They work tirelessly to provide the resources that allow students on college (and high school!) campuses to create and foster those communities. They provide group running guides, tabling supplies, meeting ideas, and tons of support so that secular students can, on their own, create the kind of organization that religious groups do with ten times less funding and institutional support.

I am so thrilled to have been President of my school’s Secular Alliance for the past two years. I hope that I’ve provided a community that atheists, agnostics, deists, pastafarians and freethinkers at the University of Chicago have been happy to call their own. I am excited to see what it does in the future. But none of it would have been possible without the Secular Student Alliance.

If you believe in that vision, or you feel sorry for me for going all the way to Skokie this morning, I ask you to donate to the Secular Student Alliance. Even $5 helps.

Green Donate

Of Foxes, Hedgehogs, and Radicals

There is a famous essay by Isaiah Berlin about hedgehogs and foxes, based on a line by the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

Hedgehogs, as Nate Silver describes them in his The Signal and the Noise, are people who “believe in Big Ideas–in governing principles about the world that behave as though they were physical laws and undergird virtually every interaction in society.” He asks us to “Think Karl Marx and class struggle, or Sigmund Freud and the unconscious.” They are essentially narrative-driven thinkers.

Foxes, on the other hand are “scrappy creatures who believe in a plethora of little ideas and in taking a multitude of approaches toward a problem. They tend to be more tolerant of nuance, uncertainty, complexity, and dissenting opinion.” Presumably we’re here asked to think of, oh, say, Nate Silver.

I think these adorable animals can help us answer what to me is a burning question: What is the difference between radicals and non-radicals?

For instance, what differentiates Sheryl Sandberg of Lean In and PIV-critical, kink-critical tumblr feminists?

Or, what is the nature of the gap between this “neutral” response to Politically Incorrect UChicago Confessions and this criticism of the very idea of neutrality?

And even, what is the difference between Christians who wish to legislate from the Bible and those who take a more secular approach to government?

If we’re talking about good forms of each argument, then I think what we’re looking at, broadly speaking, is hedgehogs and foxes.

(Note: Of course, this is an oversimplification. In practice, most people do have multiple ways of looking at the world. This is a typology, not a dichotomy.)

Non-radicals, sometimes called liberals (as in liberal feminists versus radical feminists), sometimes simply moderates, see facts about Big Issues like racism, sexism or God as facts among others. Certainly, there is truth to be discerned on an issue like racism: an empirically verifiable history of discrimination against people of color, internment camps, studies demonstrating the relative likelihood of employers hiring people with “black” names versus “white” names and so on. There are also facts about how to change the facts. Does affirmative action work to promote the economic and cultural success of people of color? How about job training?

There is plenty of disagreement over these facts, to be sure, but the fact remains that these questions are empirical ones that have factual answers, and non-radicals tend to treat them as such. Non-radicals also see the facts of the case, whatever they may be, as just that, facts. They are part of a universe that also contains facts about consciousness, facts about political realities and facts about organic molecules. All facts need to be worked together and be weighed against each other. The facts of racism must be balanced against the facts of the costs of anti-racist public policy. The facts of sexism must be considered along with the facts of the way that economies respond to regulation. And my guess is, for some theists, the facts about God’s law must be taken side-by-side with the facts about living in a pluralistic, generally progressive country like America. This is a fox-like approach.

But of course, that doesn’t make sense to some people. It doesn’t really make sense to me. If you really believed that racism was deeply enrooted in our political realities, how could you then say, “Ah, but there are other things to take into account”? If you truly thought that sexism affected every social interaction, would it be rational to say, “But perhaps the costs of fixing that are too high”? And if you thought that God wanted a certain vision of America, would you, could you, tell yourself to wait until a more favorable congress? There seems to be something deeply wrong with that.

From this way of thinking we get hedgehogs. Hedgehogs, or radicals, ask us to take all of the facts we have in our arsenal, and build something deeper, more powerful with them. There aren’t just facts about how, on average, certain sectors of people of various non-white races have been treated in America; there is, above and beyond those facts, a long-standing history of deeply entrenched racism in almost every facet of American life. Facts about sexism, the pay gap, misogyny, rape statistics, aren’t simply listings in the Great Morally Neutral Book of Facts About the World; they tell a broader story about the treatment of and attitude toward women. And the existence of God, if true, cannot possibly just be an isolated fact about the universe. I’m reminded of a conversation from Orson Scott Card’s First Meetings in Ender’s Universe:

John Paul digested this. “Some people think God doesn’t exist.”

“That’s true,” said the woman:

“Which?” he asked.

She chuckled. “That some people think he doesn’t exist. I don’t know, myself. I don’t have an opinion on the subject.”

“That means you don’t believe there is a God,” said John Paul.

“Oh, does it?”

“St. John Paul II said so. That saying you don’t know or care about God is the same as saying you believe he doesn’t exist, because if you had even a hope that he existed, you would care very much.”

Indeed, radicals care very very much about their given causes. And at least part of the reason why, I think, is that their deep stories, their overarching narratives, are not and cannot be value neutral. A non-radical may consider Larry Summers’s comments about women sexist, but not feel compelled to take action as a result. A radical cannot. Seeing sexism in every part of society: law, politics, employment, family, and more, and acknowledging its virulent harm demands a fight to end it. Same with racism, and presumably, the same with sin.

These are the characteristics of a hedgehog. Sin, bigotry, environmental negligence, injustice, or fill-in-the-blank; there are Big Governing Principles of the world. Not only are these principles more than just mere facts, they are the lenses through which all other facts may be understood. Sin explains all degradation and harm and moral decay in the world. Feminism gives us the framework to fully understand social and political interactions. And so on and so forth.

Nate Silver doesn’t much like hedgehogs, as we saw above, but I don’t think these views are wrong, necessarily. I do think they are risky. Anti-racist hedgehogs may well be right about the world we live in. Racism and race relations may well be the only (or the primary) lens that properly makes sense of my experiences and known empirical facts. After all, I am white, which gives me privileged status in American society. So all of my experiences are affected by that fact. My experiences in stores, not being followed around. My experiences in classrooms, being listened to more seriously. And so on. I agree with all of this.

And yet, there is the risk. Because what we end up getting from hedgehogs, in fact, is a kind of deontology. The fact of your moral obligation to oppose racism is a logical deduction from properly understanding racism. Any other approach cannot account for this rigid logical connection, so it cannot be trusted. Therefore, anti-racists have to be absolutely right about the nature of racism and the effects it has and its primacy as the lens through which I should understand the world, or they have thrown away all other possible forms of analysis in vain.

This deontological radical position compels me to certain political and social stances on issues even before I have examined them individually. If an issue involves race/sex/religion, my position is known. It cannot be otherwise, because I have a largely unchanging approach to the world, and that approach morally demands my backing whenever it is called into play. Because I am against racism and I am against sexism and religious people are against sin. And that might be right! If we really had a Theory of Everything, we wouldn’t need to analyze individual cases! Absolutely!

But this is a very troubling approach.  Because these lenses, these Big Governing Principles, might fail me, and I will have rejected any other – science, utilitarianism, political pragmatism, hell, even virtue ethics – that might have helped me or given me another perspective. And then it would be incredibly difficult to admit the the Big Governing Principle has failed. The list of men’s rights issues feminists care about in this otherwise great article demonstrates this perfectly; some of them are completely correct, but some of them push far beyond what I think is reasonable, in what I see as an attempt to bring all facts into the same explanatory rubric.

There are many models of how the world works, and blending them in just the right way is part of the difficult work of building a worldview. If you have one that works for everything, whether it’s simply your chosen approach towards the world or one built on other principles (like reason or empiricism), more power to you. If you’re right, about God, about power dynamics, about the unconscious, then you’re going to get all the answers right, and well done.

But I’m skeptical. I think all of us would be much better served by becoming more foxlike, by being comfortable with many different types of thinking and models of the world, and then using models only where they’re best suited and throwing them out where they’re not.

I’m a feminist, sure, and that helps me analyze all kinds of situations in the world I couldn’t without feminism. I think racism exists, too, and ditto. Intersectional social justice activists have been doing excellent work on blending these types of models, and acknowledging that they don’t all work all the time. But I’m also a utilitarian, and there’s a point where, for instance, I wouldn’t support public policy that could help women but might overly hurt the economy. The world is a complicated place, with many competing interests and an overabundance of competing narratives. The truth is that all facts are relevant facts, and we have to learn how to balance them effectively. If our thinking is primarily narrative-driven, we’re likely to be led to wrong answers that we can’t account for and then can’t adjust to correct.

I, for one, would rather be a fox.

Stop FAPing!

If a female Graylag Goose sees an egg outside of its nest, she will initiate a series of behaviors intended to get the egg back into the nest with her beak. She will complete these same actions if she sees an egg-shaped object outside its nest, like a golf ball or a door-knob. But far more hilarious than that, if the goose starts bringing the egg into her nest, and the egg is taken away during the process, the goose will not stop until she is done bringing the invisible egg into her nest. It’s behavior that simply does not adjust to new stimulus. This is what’s called a fixed-action pattern (FAP).

You may think you’ve never seen such a bird in your life, but I assure you that you have seen a very similar behavior, which I call a fixed-argument pattern (FAP). You see, if a FAPer sees a conversation or argument taking place about a topic on which s/h/ze has a strong opinion, s/h/ze will make their favorite argument. Even if the argument is actually only shaped or colored like the argument they thought it was. Even if the argument ends, or becomes about something entirely different. It doesn’t matter. A FAPer will continue to make the same argument they always make, bravely undeterred by the inappropriate context or situation. Now I bet you’ll agree that you’ve seen this kind of FAPing going on in all kinds of arguments and discussions, on-line and off-line.

That guy on facebook who comments on every atheist-related status or discussion with an extended analysis of how you are sure to find God eventually or why the dinosaur bones are there to trick us, even if you were talking about North Carolina trying to institute a state religion or the importance of Bayes’ rule?

FAPer.

The woman in your social circle who always manages to work into a discussion that the Democratic and Republican parties are identical, corporate-owned cesspools of hypocrisy and mendacity, even if you were talking about comparing the intervention in Libya to that in Bosnia, or whether or not Hillary Clinton will run in 2016?

FAPer.

The genderqueer person you know who, seemingly upon hearing just the phrase “power of suggestion” will start quoting Tim Minchin’s Storm at full volume and railing against New Age things, even if you were having an utterly different conversation about the incredibly interesting world of nocebos, or harmful placebos?

FAPer.

What all these people have in common is that when they see a discussion going on about a particular topic, they seem to think to themselves “I know an argument about that topic!” and then proceed to give it, whether or not it’s appropriate or relevant. FAPers see making their argument as so important that it doesn’t matter whether it adds to the discussion or not.

It’s often with good intentions. I’m sure that the Christian in the first example really wants to save my soul, even at the cost of my conversation, which he’s just irritatingly derailed. I see feminists on the internet all the time giving Feminism 101 lectures in cases where it wasn’t appropriate, or where it would have been better to address more specific or nuanced points. Of course they want to convince others of their entirely valid points, and for good reason, too. It just may not have been the occasion.

In fact, we’re probably all guilty of FAPing at some time or another, because we thought we had a point that was too important not to say, even if it was only tangentially related to the argument at hand. But even when it comes out of good intentions, FAPing is a bad habit.

Why FAPing is Bad

1. It is selfish. It makes the discussion entirely about the argument the FAPer wants to make instead of what has organically come out of the group up to that point.

2.  It confusingly and irritatingly violates the Gricean Maxim of Relevance, in which we all tacitly agree to only add to conversation with relevant things.

3. It’s really bad and unproductive arguing. FAPers fail to listen to what other people are saying, and as a result, don’t address any of their arguments. People tend not to get convinced that way. FAPing also often demands an all-or-nothing approach, where the opponent must agree immediately or be subject to a repeat of the fixed and unchanging argument.

4. FAPing is way less interesting than thinking about how to address the specifics of a particular argument. FAPing may as well be just copy pasted from a google doc, or a playing of a voice recorder. As a result, FAPers tend not to learn new things from arguments, since they’ll say the same thing no matter what.

4.b. I think FAPing can add to burnout, since FAPers are guaranteed to have the same arguments over and over again, since they’re making the same arguments over and over again. People who are responding to the particulars of the argument they’re in are probably going to be less frustrated with the miserable and unproductive monotony of never having a novel argument.

How to Fix It

If you notice yourself making the same arguments over and over, or being accused of saying things irrelevant to the argument, try to stop yourself. Even if you think what you have to say is really important, if you find yourself thinking of how to shoehorn your point in, rather than thinking about to respond to what’s going on, take a step back. You might be FAPing. How to stop yourself? Think about what’s going on in this argument, not all the similar ones you’ve seen and been in, even if you know exactly where the argument is going. Try to respond to the argument this person is making, not all the ones it sounds like. I promise it’s more interesting that way.

If you notice others FAPing, ask them (charitably, kindly) to respond to the arguments that you or others have made that they haven’t responded to. Make sure to ask people on “your side” as well! Ask them what their opinion on the particular issues at hand are, and ask them to stay on topic. If they continue not to, delete!

So let us go forth, and FAP no more!

————————————————————————————————————

For another random animal-related piece of rationality advice, check out Julia Galef’s video about Sphexing.

Why Politically Incorrect UChicago Confessions Sucks

There is a new UChicago-related facebook page created expressly for the purpose of sharing “UChicago-related, politically incorrect thoughts and feelings.” As any rational person might expect, the page sucks. It asked (in its original description) for racism, homophobia and sexism, and it got them. I learned, through perusing this page, that as a woman I’m bad at math and as a Jew I have taken over the University and advocated murdering palestinians. As a liberal Jewish math major often critical of Israel, I was pretty surprised to learn these things. And those comments were far from the worst. As also might be expected, the vast majority of the disgusting comments were about people of color. People of color not being quiet enough, smart enough, English-speaking enough. But I don’t need to explain the precise fashion in which all these comments are offensive. The people who wrote them wrote them because they were offensive, and the people reading them are largely rightfully horrified. What I do feel the need to explain is why the page is terrible, causes harm and should be taken down by any entity with the right and power to do so.

To demonstrate this, let’s ask ourselves why this page should exist. What good does it do? By and large, the answers given are: free speech is important, it’s good for people to have a place to express these emotions so there can be discussion and education, and that it’s good that people express offensive opinions openly so that they don’t go underground and get worse.

First, the ever present free speech argument. Everyone has a right to free speech, at least as far as the federal government is concerned. We do not have a right to the existence of a facebook page, if it is against their policies, nor do we have a right to our university not taking action against such a page, if that is in their policies. So far, my hope is that University of Chicago students are sophisticated enough in their thinking to be on board. The question that follows, then, is, do we want facebook to be a place where such pages exist? My answer is assuredly not, though others’ may differ. Similarly, do we want this page to be part of and affect the University community? Again, in my opinion, no. I will defend both of these opinions later. All that matters here is that everyone agree that these are the relevant questions, and if the answer to them is no, it is entirely reasonable for either facebook or the University of Chicago to take the page down, and if the answer is yes, it is wrong of them to do so. But none of this really has to do with free speech, so much as the question of what the reasonable bounds of discourse in a university community are. That is a much more interesting question, though as far as I’m concerned this page still clearly falls outside of it.

Second, that it’s good for people to have a place to express these sentiments, so that we know who the racists and sexists are, or so that we can shoot down their arguments together as a community, or so they don’t repress their opinions and become more racist and sexist.

Ok, this is where is gets interesting. If anyone said most of the things on the Facebook page in person, most of us would, at the very least, give them a shocked, irritated or disgusted look. We might say something critical or negative about their remark. We might get into an argument with them. All of these actions are ways of indicating the moral paucity that such a comment suffers from. They express social and moral disapproval of the comment. They make use of shame and condemnation to change the behavior and belief of the person making the comment. This is to the good. This is how morality works. We teach and enforce morality through social means. It starts when our parents tell us that hitting is wrong, and it continues every. single. time. we give someone a dirty look for saying something racist, sexist, bigoted or otherwise awful. Because we want people not to say or think such things. This is the way we stop people from saying or thinking such things. And all of us do this entirely naturally, without giving it a second thought. This is how social disapproval makes the world less bigoted.

This social disapproval is what people are referring to when they talk about political correctness and the lack of free speech. What they mean is that they can’t express morally bereft opinions without someone pointing out how morally bereft it is. That, I’m afraid, is what it is to live in a social community with moral standards. What’s the point of moral standards, after all, if we don’t make them known? No one is exempt from disapproval by dint of being part of a community. In fact, it is by dint of being part of a community that you make yourself subject to the moral standards of that community. And in this way, we have already made it clear (so we don’t need to do so again on a Facebook group) that the community does not approve.

Of course, there are other tools, like education and other social pressures, to fight bigotry, and I am in favor of using them, but I think social disapproval is the one with the widest-ranging effects, since everyone is immersed in it their whole lives. I also think that social disapproval does not merely stop people from saying things they believe, but also affects their thinking and attitude towards the world. Community standards have a huge effect on how we are taught to think, and so good community standards can improve a community through changing how it, for instance, sees people of color and women, in addition to removing the harm from people saying or doing sexist and racist things.

But I do care that people have a chance to give opinions that might add something new to the community, even if they are wildly unpopular. Even if they are racist or sexist or awful. But a public facebook page that presents itself as representative of the University of Chicago is 100% not the place.

  1. Firstly, it hurts the people of the community. It hurt me, and all the other women here in math, to learn that some calculus TA doesn’t think women are good at math. And I don’t mean just that it offended us, though it certainly offended me. Stereotype threat is real, and it definitely hurts women in mathematics to learn that they’re not considered good at math. That’s why it’s great that saying that women are bad at math is socially unacceptable. And I really cannot begin to imagine the harm done to the people of color at UChicago to be hearing these opinions, for these opinions to be given a soapbox, so they can hear all of the ways their community doesn’t want them or like them or appreciate them. That is real, tangible, harm, and the creator of this page, as well as the commenters, is responsible for that harm.
  2. Second, public pages like this normalize bigoted opinions. Even with all the critique in the responses to them. We know that having opinions like this publicly and shamelessly expressed makes it seem to others who hold these opinions that they are acceptable and reasonable. That’s not ok. We don’t want people to think that the opinions are acceptable or reasonable. That’s why we have such a thing as social disapproval. I, Chana Messinger, hold bigoted opinions. I have racist thoughts, and sexist thoughts, and all kinds of other thoughts. It is a good thing that I don’t feel comfortable saying them in public. That means that (re: #1) I’m not going to go around hurting people as if it doesn’t matter and doesn’t have an effect, and it also means that I’m going to learn that those opinions are unacceptable.

But I might never know why, right? I might not learn, or get the chance to be educated about my prejudices, right? That’s possible, so here’s where we get back to the part where I do care that people have a place to learn.

  1. Now, firstly, people can always learn on their own. I typed into google “why is it bad to say” and the first thing that popped up was “why is it bad to say you look tired to a girl” and the first result was this yahoo answer with some excellent responses! Hooray, self-education!
  2. Secondly, yes, I am in favor of spaces where people can go and ask “offensive” questions and get charitable, thoughtful, educated responses. Some do exist. They are very clearly very different from this page. Spaces like that have moderators (because speech causes harm!), they have educated people giving educated answers and lots of links to valuable resources. They are places to talk, to discuss, to be educated. They are again, not this page. They are places where the harm from the speech is minimized so that the benefit from educated discourse can outweigh it.

Not only are there online spaces of this kind, but many social spaces as well. Parents, teachers, friends, advisors, people who might think differently but are willing to talk. What’s the difference? The difference is that the person with offensive questions doesn’t end up hurting a whole university community, the atmosphere is much more conducive to productive discussion and most importantly, the person is forced to ask questions in a thoughtful and useful way. They would have to say,

“Look, I’m a calculus TA, and I notice the women don’t do as well in the class. What should I be taking from that?”

instead of

“After TAing for calc 130s for years I can safely say that women, gays, and premeds are terrible at math.”

And then someone could say, “Well, historically women are told that they’re not as good at math, they are pushed away from the field, you’re tutoring the lowest level math which might give a selection bias, it’s bad to say this to others because it will perpetuate stereotype threat etc. etc. etc” and then everyone would learn something. Or they’d have to say,

“Look, I notice that people of color in the library tend to be louder. Is that just my perception? Is there a cultural explanation? What’s going on there?”

instead of

“Not limited to just this subset, but if I direct this at the black girls in the MacLab: shut the fuck up. It’s not a place to socialize, watch american idol, and be loud as fuck. Go back to your dorm/apartment/whatever. Of course if I tell you in person, I’m a ‘racist white bitch.’”

And then an educated person can explain what’s going on. Think that’s a weakened form? Well, I’m happy to have people kowtowing to empathy and accuracy.

And thirdly, anyone is always welcome to express their opinions, even anonymously, on facebook or twitter or elsewhere. The difference is, when there’s not a page encouraging you to express whatever comes to mind in the edgiest, most attention-getting way possible, and especially when your name is attached, you actually have to make an argument. You have to present data and ideas. You have to show humility. You have to admit you don’t know the answer. All of that is good for everyone, and anyone who expressed their opinion that way should be afforded all the charitable and thoughtful responses we can muster.

That’s simply not what’s going on on this page. This page is causing harm, and limiting, rather than expanding, discourse. It’s making our community worse. That’s why the page is terrible, and should be taken down as soon as possible, preferably by the creator themselves.

—————————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

UPDATE: The creator of the page posted on it, saying, 

Hello everyone,

It has come to our attention that this page has come under attack from numerous parties for “promoting hate speech.” This was surely not the original intent of this page, and we regret that there are many bigoted people out there who chose to abuse the service. We are currently conducting a review of all posts, previous and future, and will remove any that do not comply with the following rule:

“Any content that is considered hate speech or otherwise violates the Facebook Community standards will NOT be tolerated.”

Much appreciated, creator!

Emotions, Emotional Training and the Right Way to Feel

Some emotions are better than others.

Is that controversial? I’m not sure. I think as a culture, we’re pretty confused about it. On the one hand, we tell ourselves and others that emotions are always legitimate, that we have a right to feel how we do, and that it’s wrong for others to tell us to feel differently. This is how we feel when others tell us to be less angry, or that it’s wrong to be upset or sad about something that makes us feel that way. On the other hand, we know that we shouldn’t be happy if something bad happens to a friend, and that there are things we shouldn’t be upset about. So how do we reconcile these?

I’m sticking to the claim that some emotions are better than others, which is to say that for a given situation, with a given set of facts known, some emotional responses are better to have. Some emotions may be more reasonable than others, an idea expressed, for instance, in accusing someone of overreacting. Some emotional responses may be more comfortable for everyone involved, as anyone who’s been in the same room as a screaming toddler knows. And sometimes certain emotional reactions are more appropriate, such as disgust for immorality or gratitude for favors done.

Now, it’s clear that enforcing this understanding of emotional reactions can be harmful and itself totally inappropriate. Watching people on the internet or in real life criticize the emotional responses of others, telling them they’re too angry about an issue or too sympathetic to an institution, is as cringe-worthy as anything I can think of. For one, emotions are utterly personal; they almost are our person, so criticizing them is a recipe for causing a lot of hurt and frustration. Second, telling people their emotions are wrong is probably one of the least productive ways to get them to change them, not only because you’re almost guaranteed a bad reaction, but also because emotional responses, if they can change at all, take a good long time to do so. And third, of course, these arguments are often incorrect; they criticize emotional engagement when it is neither morally incorrect nor inappropriate, but simply uncomfortable since it brings up difficult issues.

But if we maintain that for a variety of reasons, some emotions are better than others, then it must be the case that there are obligations in certain circumstances to change our emotional responses if they aren’t optimal, and also to change the emotional responses of others, as hard as both of those processes are. What does that look like? I don’t know, but I have a few examples and not totally coherent thoughts.

Becoming a skeptic or rationalist comes to mind as a good example of this. Sure, transitioning from believing things that aren’t true to things that are true is in part about the change of beliefs, but as most everyone would agree with, it’s in larger part about a change of approach. It’s learning to question instead of accept, to notice rhetorical tricks and logical fallacies and to think of the world as naturalistic and comprehensible. And a huge part of that is emotional training. We have to train ourselves to not feel defensive when offered evidence against our position. We have to notice the kinds of ideas to cause us to flinch away, and learn to lean into them. We have to cultivate the desire to investigate further and ask more questions when we notice something’s awry. We have to learn to be happy to be proven wrong. These are not strictly necessary to being a skeptic or rationalist, I suppose, but they make it a great deal easier. Furthermore, anyone who became offended and frustrated upon learning they might be wrong would likely be seen as a very poor kind of rationalist. Affect is part of the intellectual approach.

So it’s reasonable to expend effort on making ourselves better at having the emotional responses that help us become better rationalists. (It’s one of those bizarre habits of self-proclaimed rationalists that they deride the emotional life that might help them become better rationalists). We should work at being less emotionally attached to our beliefs and more happy to change our mind. And furthermore, we should be encouraging others to do the same. We can do this not by telling people that their emotions are wrong, but by modeling the emotional reactions we would like others to have, by extolling the virtue of those emotional reactions and by praising those who have them. This may sound manipulative, but it is no different than the way we encourage people to not get offended by reasonable accusations or to be disgusted by horrific crimes.

This approach makes sense for any ideological or epistemological framework, or really, any opinion at all. Democrats are best served when people are happy about tax increases and sad about gay marriage bans. Being a good Democrat might very well mean getting emotionally on board with that if you aren’t already, and it’s reasonable for Democrats to cultivate those feelings in others through emotionally laden advertising and rhetoric. And if you’re bothered by that, it’s your job to get in the game and convince people to have better emotions.

As an atheist, the community I inhabit tends to have not only strong opinions on the ill effects of religion, but strong feelings, too, feelings that they would prefer I share. As most who know me know, I don’t happen to share all of those sentiments (I like ritual and ceremony and holidays and practice). Now, I think I’m a perfectly good atheist anyway, but other atheists don’t like my approach at all. I think their emotions are wrongheaded and unhelpful, but since they’re trying to dismantle religion as a system, it’s pretty damn reasonable for them to want everyone to be disgusted and incensed by it. Moderate sentiments, like mine, do them no good. Hence the public shaming and the pope song, to get people to have different emotions than they do now. And maybe they’re right, not only on questions of facts but also of feelings.

Is it so wrong that this is the only bread I’m eating this week?

Sort of similarly, there was a recent debate about emotional attitudes towards the verdict in the Steubenville rape case. How should we feel about the victim, Jane Doe? Certainly not the way these people did, with dismissive, disgusting callousness. But then, how are we to feel towards the rapists? With sympathy, like this CNN reporter seemed to? Well, that got a lot of criticism, for exactly the reasons I’m explaining here. People who want to make rape as infrequent as possible (like me, and hopefully all of you), want everyone to be really, thoroughly disgusted with the kind of people who violate the boundaries, agency and autonomy of other people (see what I just did there?). No one gets a free pass on just “feeling how they feel.” Of course, people will feel how they feel, and it’s not their fault, per se, but emotions aren’t morally neutral here. They have an effect on people’s thinking and actions. It is therefore not only reasonable but morally required to try to shift the emotional responses of others. Of course, there are other goals at play, which is why some have tried to cultivate sympathy both for the victim, who obviously deserves our sympathy, but also the rapists, who are still teenage boys going to prison. This tangled question of how to feel is not purely subjective nor unimportant. How people feel matters in terms of their own moral standing, it matters to all of the people who know of their emotional state, and it utterly shapes the public discussion.

The debate about proper emotions is not so different than the debate about proper opinions, and not just because they inform each other so heavily. It’s a debate that is had in public and in private, through argument and through custom and through praise and condemnation, just as with matters of opinion. It also goes without saying that those who win the debate of emotions tend to win the debate of opinion as well. And just as we each individually seek to have opinions that best line up with reality, so too ought we to be cultivating the emotions that are best suited to the circumstances in which we find ourselves and the kind of people we want to be. Our emotions are not incidental to our actions and our opinions. They affect them tremendously. They are matters of ideological consistency, intellectual commitment and moral standing. They matter.