Lessons for Liberals

Let’s begin with what Liberals know to be self-evident: All current Liberal views are true and all non-liberal views are false. Let’s add to that what everyone on the Right knows: All Liberals hold exactly the same views on all issues. There are no divisions. No subgroups. And there is certainly no nuance.

So, here’s the problem for Liberals. How do we communicate the Truth to all those backward non-liberals? (If you’re on the Right, simply swap ‘Liberal’ with ‘political Right’ .)

Here’s what I want to think about. Suppose you had no reason at all to doubt even in the slightest your views on morality and justice. How should you go about communicating with people who hold mistaken views? In suggesting an answer, I’ll touch on three interrelated themes: the means by which we communicate moral knowledge, the relationship between moral knowledge and the good life, the nature of knowledge

[This is a short portion of a paper I’m working on so many arguments aren’t fully elaborated and several possible objections are left out].

Pumping Intuitions and Cultural Precedent
Why should I spare words? They cost nothing. I cannot know whether I shall help the man to whom I give advice; but I know well that I shall help someone if I advise many. I must scatter this advice by the handful. It is impossible that one who tries often should not sometimes succeed.
–Seneca, Letter XXIX paraphrasing the view he opposes.

Sometimes philosophers construct fanciful thought experiments to illustrate a point. With that in mind, please indulge me…

Suppose there were a group of people who believed that God himself spoke to them. With unwavering certainty they insisted that He taught them what is just and unjust, true and false, moral and immoral.

Upon hearing God’s words, these crusaders of Truth and Justice went out into the world spreading the ‘good’ news to all. Some groups employed the tactics Seneca condemns above: They spread the word indiscriminately to everyone–ignoring varying degrees of receptivity, social context, or norms of discourse. They showed no concern for how others might perceive God’s messengers and how that might affect receptivity to the message. Furthermore, those who hesitated to immediately recognize the Truth were condemned as foolish and stupid (at best) or evil.

Instead of engaging in patient thoughtful discourse that demonstrated mutual respect and recognized the concerns of others, many resorted to shaming, name-calling, and bullying tactics. Those who were most certain of the Truth would hold signs kinda like these…

Let’s pause here to illuminate an argument that’s being assumed in the background. First, knowing the truth about morality and justice is somehow important to living well. This idea has its (Western) roots in Socrates for whom knowledge, truth, justice, and the good life are deeply intertwined. A good life requires we understand the content of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and that we correctly apply them in our daily actions. A life lived contrary to justice can never be a good life.

The above view implies it would be a bad thing if you held false beliefs about justice–not just for others but for you as well. It follows that we do good when we correct other people’s false views and teach them the true views.

However, as the hypothetical case above illustrates, some ways of communicating moral truth paradoxically cause people to turn away from the truth–even if it comes direct from God’s own sweet lips.

Lessons for Liberals:
The knowledge of sin is the beginning of salvation. 

At this point, some of you may have caught on to what I’m rambling about. We all know that the Liberals have the monopoly on moral truth. This isn’t the issue. Liberals need to think carefully about how they convey that truth because if they don’t, they will come off very much like the people above. And the outcome, with respect to conversion, is negative and predictable. In fact, there’s growing evidence that it’s counter-productive.

[Note: If you’re uncomfortable with applying the concept of truth to justice and morality, simply substitute it with the notion of justification. I take it to be uncontroversial that some moral beliefs are better justified than others.] 

Lesson 1: 
How you treat others with whom you disagree affects how receptive they are to your message. This is true regardless of how wrong they are and how right you are. 

From the point of view of people who aren’t on the Left, many on the Left behave just as badly as those in the example above. To the heretic, both appear just as smug, and they are both just as willing to condemn to damnation those who refuse to recognize it. A functioning democracy requires that people at least be open to changing their views. Part of this involves creating a dialectical environment in which people can be open to criticism and new ideas. 

How can we do this? The first step is obviously some baseline of civility and respect. The second is to initially acknowledge your interlocutor’s concerns even if, ultimately, you don’t think they merit it. You can evaluate their concerns later once you’ve established some good will. No one is going to be receptive to anyone who’s first move is to dismiss their concerns out of hand.

A common objection appeals to the virtue of anger in the face of injustice. Failing to be outraged by injustice (to oneself or to others) is itself morally troublesome; you’re complicit by omission. Furthermore, demands for civility unduly burden the oppressed when engaging with their oppressors. There’s much to say here but I’ll tender only a brief reply. 

The attitude we choose ought to be guided by what we hope to achieve with our moral and political speech. Anger in the face of injustice and unjust ideas signals disapproval and–increasingly–group membership. If that’s all you intend to do, by all means, express your anger. But to the person who doesn’t already hold your values, your outrage is uncompelling as a reason to abandon their view and to endorse a new one. Also, in some circles, Liberal outrage is cause for delight. Worse still, moral outrage can have the paradoxical effect of galvanizing support for the practice in question where it didn’t exist previously.

If, however, I wish to persuade those who don’t already hold my view I must offer them arguments and reasons. Most importantly, my arguments must begin from premises my interlocutors also accept. You can’t drive someone to your destination if they never get into your car. And, they’re not going to get into the car if you’re yelling insults at them.

In short, if you purport to persuade, arrest your anger. Better yet, remain respectful. Whatever you do, do not confirm your outgroups’ (negative) biases of your group.

(If someone’s not being respectful to you, you can always walk away. I’m not sure we owe everyone respect. My point is only applies if you wish to persuade someone of your view.)

The Nature of Knowledge
“Man, the rational animal, can put up with anything except what seems to him irrational; whatever is rational is tolerable.” –Epictetus

Two competing accounts of the source of knowledge run throughout the history of philosophy. The ancient Greek philosophers argued that Truth is accessible to everyone because, as rational creatures, we are sensitive to argument and reasons; that is to say, we are all sensitive to the means by which assertions are justified. Logic is objective. Argument forms are either valid or invalid. Anyone, with a little training, can evaluate the validity of an argument. Hence, everyone is equipped (when they so choose!) to evaluate arguments for what constitutes justice and for when that concept is correctly applied. This epistemological assumption inspired the Enlightenment and continues in its contemporary progeny.

On the other hand, in The Republic, Plato remarks that “there is an old quarrel between philosophy and poetry.” Here we have the other strain of epistemology: one that appeals to emotion, inspiration, revelation, or personal experience. These sorts of justifications for belief escape and obscure the objective lens of reason and logic; they aren’t publicly scrutable. Hence, they are at least controversial as sources of justification. Nevertheless, at least some knowledge is irreducibly subjective. Historically, Romanticism, existentialism, and post-modernism all claim subjective knowledge epistemically legitimate or valuable. 

The core philosophical issue here is whether access to moral knowledge is universal or not. Some Liberals have adopted the latter view (#NotAllLiberals): Certain groups at the intersections of race and gender have privileged access to moral knowledge. I suggest, that even if true, this is a strategic error.

Lesson 2
If we want people to know (and adopt) different moral views, we cannot do it without offering reasons and arguments that are publicly scrutable. 

Just how compelling are divine revelation or appeals to ‘inspired’ texts to the atheist? Liberals who rely on privileged access to moral truth engage in the same failed tactics as the kind-hearted Mormons who visited me last week.  As I sat there listening to them in my living room, I was reminded something Thomas Kuhn wrote: “Yet, whatever its force, the status of the circular argument is only that of persuasion. It cannot be made logically or even probabilistically compelling to those who refuse to step into the circle.” 

By extension, telling people that their race or gender renders them incapable of grasping moral truth is self-defeating. If they’re incapable of grasping it, it’s unreasonable to expect them to in the first place. Moral outrage is misplaced. 

Excluding subjective knowing comes with a caveat. Some knowledge is surely subjective and morally relevant. What it’s like for me to experience the world or how others’ actions and words affect me aren’t obviously evaluable through objective reason and argument. They’re my experiences. Many these experiences do matter morally. If our theory of justice tells us that we ought avoid institutions, policies, words, and actions that make people feel as though they are being dehumanized or less-than then this subjective data matters.

But appeals to subjective experience on its own can’t be the end of a discussion on justice. Many white Christians evangelicals feel as though they are a deeply persecuted group in America. Is it true? After all, until recently, they risked imprisonment for uttering “Merry Christmas.” If subjective experience is our only epistemic standard, the conversation ends here: They have experiences as though they are oppressed, therefore they are oppressed. 

Yet, we know that simply feeling outraged does not on its own justify the outrage. Justification depends on how well the response ‘fits.’ People can be mistaken about the fit of their subjective judgments about and emotional responses to occurrences, intentions, harm, to name a few. 

Surely there are features of being oppressed or unjustly treated that, although subjectively experienced, can measure up to some publicly scrutable standards of ‘fit.’ Is there a(n unjustified) power imbalance? Is one treated differently than one’s peers? Is there a reasonable possibility to meaningfully shape the public institutions that govern one’s life? Is one disproportionately excluded from certain opportunities or public resources? Is one group disproportionately negatively affected by what is supposed to be an impartial law or policy? These are all standards within which we can begin to evaluate subjective claims of privilege, discrimination, benefit, and burden.

The idea that moral truth is accessible only to members of a select group is the secular equivalent of divine inspiration. Particularly in a democracy, pronouncements on justice demand justifications accessible to all except perhaps the most extreme and recalcitrant partisans. The alternative leads us away from democratic values and into authoritarianism–which is great when your team’s in power but not so great when the pendulum inevitably swings. 

In closing, indulge me one last thought experiment: Suppose there is some truth to what I have said so far. A) How we treat people affects their receptivity to our message even if God’s whispering it in our ear. B) Relying exclusively on a subjectivist/privilege epistemology is self-defeating. 

Now consider your actual epistemic situation. Consider all the beliefs you hold and have held, and all the competing possible beliefs held by others–present and future. What are the chances that, right now, you are the first human being to hold all and only true moral beliefs while everyone else, including future liberals, hold some false beliefs?

In other words, if we take seriously the non-trivial possibility that some of our current moral beliefs are false, we should be even more cautious in berating others who hold beliefs contrary to our own. Not just because of the reasons I’ve already suggested above but because we should think about how we will want to be treated when the inevitable happens: I.e., when someone on Twitter points out to us why we are mistaken. 

Do you treat others how you would wish to be treated if you turned out to be wrong?

I leave you with Seneca:
Do you think that the man has any thought of mending his ways who counts over his vices as if they were virtues? Therefore, as far as possible, prove yourself guilty, hunt up charges against yourself; play the part, first of accuser, then of judge, last of intercessor. 
–Seneca Letter XXVIII

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