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Morning Feature – Good and Evil, Part III: Beyond Personal Morality (Non-Cynical Saturday)

December 1, 2012

Morning Feature

Morning Feature – Good and Evil, Part III: Beyond Personal Morality (Non-Cynical Saturday)

Conservatism judges individuals’ decisions as if each individual can choose equally. Progressives recognize that people make choices within social and political systems. (More)

Good and Evil, Part III: Beyond Personal Choices (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature unpacks Evan Sayet’s 2007 Heritage Foundation speech Regurgitating the Apple: How Modern Liberals “Think”. Thursday we explored Sayet’s central thesis: that by refusing to discriminate progressives invariably choose Evil over Good. Yesterday we saw what Sayet’s speech reveals about conservative moral reasoning. Today we conclude with how progressive moral reasoning focuses includes systemic factors and questions of practical efficacy that conservatives prefer to ignore.

Who ‘chooses’ substance abuse?

Psychologists and social commentators have offered at least eight models for alcoholism, ranging from moral deficiency to disease. So-called “dry” moralists hold that alcoholism is the natural penalty for drinking, while “wet” moralists hold that alcoholics violate the rules of socially acceptable drinking. Some argue that alcohol abuse is a learned behavior, while others discuss it as self-medication of other emotional issues, and still others attribute it to genetic predisposition.

Obviously, how we attempt to prevent and treat alcoholism and other substance abuse depends in part on whether we frame it as a moral failure or a medical disease. So what should we conclude from a study that found blacks in the U.S. and Caribbean who report the highest levels of racial discrimination are also the most likely to be chronic substance abusers? One common response, of course, is the derision we find in this famous scene from West Side Story:

The morality of personal morality

Such dismissals usually include the obligatory counterexample: the child from a crime-riddled ghetto who grows up to be an intellectual or political leader or – less often – the child of an idyllic suburban family who becomes a serial killer. Conservatives use such stories to ‘prove’ that everyone has the same opportunities and that success or failure is a product of personal morality.

Indeed, new research shows that framing a question as ‘moral’ influences how we make decisions. The researchers found that almost any question could be framed in moral (“is this right?”) or practical (“will this work?”) terms, and that subjects tended to make ‘moral’ decisions faster, be more certain they were correct, and more likely to believe others should make the same choice.

If we believe more deliberate, cautious, fact-specific decisions are more likely to produce good outcomes, does this study suggest we should avoid moral framing? What should progressives make of research by George Lakoff or Jonathan Haidt, who argue that all decisions are rooted in moral judgments? Should progressives make explicitly appeals to moral values, as Dr. Lakoff urges? Or should we recognize, as Dr. Haidt writes:

Sharing moral commitments helps teams to function cohesively, but it also blinds them to reality. They select arguments and narratives that support their preferred policies while denying facts that threaten or contradict their commitments. They sometimes vote for symbolism over substance, even when it harms their material interests or long-term goals. High-stakes negotiations are hard enough, but when sacred values are in play, the odds of success go way down. (Just ask the Israelis and Palestinians.)

And if progressives make practical, data-driven while conservatives frame their positions as moral absolutes, does that make it harder for us to build support with independents like archetypal Fred when the most effective ‘Fred Whispering’ builds on shared moral values?

Beyond personal morality

First an admission: I framed those questions in a conservative, either/or model. The questions presumed that policy issues, solutions, and the arguments we make must be either moral or practical.

In fact, progressive ideas should be both moral and practical, because progressive morality extends beyond personal choices. Progressive morality recognizes that we make decisions within cultures. We use mental shortcuts and make common mistakes. And how a decision is offered influences the choices we make.

Although Sayet and many other conservatives criticize progressives as childish or utopian, in fact their arguments show a shocking naïveté. When the Governor of Mississippi says “the problem is teenagers do not care enough” about birth control, without questioning how his state’s abstinence-only sex education programs influence that decision, one is left to wonder whether he has ever read research on adolescent brain development, or indeed whether he’s ever heard the phrase “peer pressure.”

Denying teens access to accurate medical information about birth control and blaming them for ignoring billboards showing a stretch-marked belly with the caption A baby is FOREVER – while ignoring evidence that shows states with abstinence-only sex education have the highest teen pregnancy rates – manifests a childish belief in the efficacy of moralistic dogma.

Progressives recognize the limits of personal morality. We do make moral arguments, but we also advocate for systemic changes that make better decisions easier and better outcomes more likely for more people. Yes, that flies in the face of Sayet’s conservative cult of discrimination, which favors a riskier society where more will fail and the few that succeed can congratulate each other on their presumed moral superiority …

… but we progressives think more people living longer, happier, more productive lives is better – more moral – than tens of millions needlessly suffering the sneering glances of the One Percent Mutual Admiration Society.


Happy Saturday!

  • swaminathan

    Excellent article. Thanks for the “and” concept (morality and practicality), particularly the idea that moral decisions are made within cultures, and that systemic factors and constraints influence “moral” choices.

    • NCrissieB

      Welcome back, swaminathan! 😀

      Thank you for the kind words, and I agree it’s important to move beyond the artificial choice of personal or cultural or systemic moral factors. Yes, we make choices, but we make them within our cultures and the influence of what Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler call “choice architecture.” To hope moralistic dogma will yield the most best choices is to ignore human history.

      That does not mean we progressives abandon morality. Far from it. We broaden morality to include the cultures and systems that influence personal decisions and, when we can, weigh alternative solutions based on data that show how humans actually behave … rather than ideological tales of how humans ‘should’ behave.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • winterbanyan

    I suspect that one of the biggest (and maybe most unrecognized by them) objections some conservatives have to progressive thinking is our combination of practicality with morality. Morality should be an absolute, to their way of thinking, anyway.

    The problem, for me, begins when you stop right there, on some moral mountaintop, without considering consequences and practical results and impacts. Like the teen abstinence thing. That’s the high moral peak untempered by reality: more teen pregnancies occur among teens who receive neither education on how their bodies work, nor access to birth control.

    We progressives may level that moral mountaintop a bit, and disturb conservatives seriously by our reasoning: Teen pregnancy is bad, but teens will be teens, and therefore should have knowledge and access to the means to prevent pregnancies. That doesn’t sound like the high moral ground, even though it is actually the high practical ground.

    I can see why they might find that offensive. Still, we need to live in reality, not dogma.

    • NCrissieB

      That’s an excellent example, winterbanyan. If there were data showing that states or nations with abstinence-only policies reduced the rate of teenage sexual activity, those policies would be worth considering. We would still want to balance that benefit against the harms inflicted on teens who are sexually active … but at least there would be a benefit on the other side of that scale.

      In fact the data show that abstinence-only policies do not reduce the rate of teenage sexual activity. (Studies show teenage sexual activity is down, but that trend is nationwide and no better in states with abstinence-only policies than in states that teach about and ensure access to birth control.) As a practical matter, abstinence-only policies simply make sexual activity more harmful for more teenagers.

      In the conservative framework of punishing Evil, that looks like a moral good. In the progressive framework of making Good Outcomes more likely, that is a moral evil.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • addisnana

    If conservatives only frame is either/or it will be a long slog to discover shared values. Those fast moral judgments are harder to change. If you see yourself as right or in the right morally, you probably don’t see the need for flexibility or negotiation. What I see as a total refusal to negotiate may just be a standing on principle posture.

    I hope there is still some room for shared values and compromise.

    This reminds me of learning to drive a car and having my dad yell stop at a green light. I, new young driver saw the green light and was going through because those were the rules. My dad saw a car running the red light. I remember my dad saying, “You never want to be dead right.”

    • NCrissieB

      This is an excellent story and example, addisnana:

      This reminds me of learning to drive a car and having my dad yell stop at a green light. I, new young driver saw the green light and was going through because those were the rules. My dad saw a car running the red light. I remember my dad saying, “You never want to be dead right.”

      My driver’s education teacher made a similar point in saying “‘But he had the right-of-way’ is a sad thing to read on a tombstone.” The story works as an example of progressive moral reasoning because we’re taught to slow down and check both ways as we enter an intersection – even if the light is green – because we know some people will ignore red lights.

      Yet few of us quite go all the way to the simplistic mandate of defensive driving instructors: “Assume every other driver on the road will make the worst possible decision at the worst possible time.” If we took that literally, we couldn’t drive at all. Instead, if we drive well, we balance systemic precautions (e.g.: safe speed, space cushion) with careful observation of patterns and individuals’ behaviors.

      If I’m driving on my residential street and see two children playing with a ball in their driveway, I slow and begin looking for at least one of them to chase the ball into the street. I’m sure their parents have taught them to stay out of the street if there are cars around. I’m equally sure they’ll forget that lesson if their ball rolls into the street … and I have a responsibility to drive based on how they’re likely to act, not on how they ‘should‘ act.

      To reduce that danger still more, my community could (and does) have open play areas, away from high-traffic roads, with fences … so fewer children play ball in their driveways and dash out in front of cars. That’s a classic case of a progressive, community-based, moral solution to an individual behavior issue. Simply telling children “Stay out of traffic!” is not enough.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • Jim W

    I remember when Joseph Fletcher introduced Situational Ethics into the moral discussion.

    He provided a Christian frame for the discussion.

    • NCrissieB

      Sadly, the phrase “situational ethics” has become a moral epithet over the years. In part that’s because many people used the theory as an excuse, and in part because others cited those excuse-making examples as proof that we need simple, clear, constant moral rules.

      Okay, sure, until you’re facing a social or legal sanction. Then, history shows, you’ll want a chance to explain why you acted as you did, and others may well agree that you made the best choice available, even if it violated some rule.

      As one of my law school professors put it: “Everyone wants the law to be simple, clear, and constant … for everyone else.”

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::