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Talking Values, Part I: We’re All In This Together

After three weeks reviewing books on economics, this week Morning Feature shifts focus to moral values. Today we discuss why moral values are the core of political dialogue, and look at the moral value We’re All Here, Together. Tomorrow we’ll talk about Do Unto Others. Saturday we’ll conclude with We the People.

Just the facts?

As progressives, we think government policy should work to help real people solve real problems, or at least not make those problems worse. Well-considered theories that enable reliable predictions help us develop policy, but the test of whether a policy works ultimately comes down to facts. Are the problems that policy was designed to solve better, or worse? Is unemployment up or down? Are more people sicker or healthier? Is crime increasing or decreasing? Is our environment more or less hospitable?

Yet each of those questions presumes that the facts to be presented would offer answers that should satisfy the listener. Each presumes the listener agrees This is better than That, and These are more important than Those. Most progressives agree on core values, so our debates tend to focus on the facts: Does the policy make This more likely and That less likely? Does it foster more of These and fewer of Those? So we search for reliable sources, though we may disagree on what is or is not a reliable source. If we can’t get an exact source, we can estimate based on other measures, though we may disagree on our estimates. We try to narrow our disagreements by researching more and better facts. And while you might not think so based on the attention we and others pay to the disagreements we haven’t yet resolved, progressives get along fairly well when we focus on facts.

That is … we get along fairly well with other progressives who agree on our core values. Then we talk with our archetypal median voter Fred, who doesn’t have an overarching political worldview. Fred may or may not agree This is better than That and These are more important than Those, depending on how the question is framed and which voices currently dominate the dialogue. Even more frustrating, we may talk with conservative Charles, who has an overarching political worldview and it’s different from ours. Charles often does not agree This is better than That and These are more important than Those.

Because we’re used to talking with other progressives, we follow the rhetorical patterns we’re used to. We offer facts to show the policy we’re discussing would make This more likely and That less likely, and foster more of These and fewer of Those. If Fred is unconvinced, we find cite still more facts. If Charles disagrees, we nitpick his facts as he nitpicks ours. We finally walk away, frustrated or even angry that Fred or Charles could not or would not get it. We had the facts!

A Pale Blue Dot

Without a foundation of shared moral values, the facts are irrelevant. That’s why astronomer Carl Sagan – a scientist whose life’s work focused on theories tested against facts – wrote and spoke about a pale blue dot:

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us.

On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors, so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Our lifeboat

That’s a good place to start any discussion of moral values. As progressives, we’re about We. The sick who can’t afford to see a doctor, the hungry who can’t afford food, the homeless who can’t afford shelter, the parents who can’t assure their child a good education, the workers who can’t bargain together for better pay and working conditions, the undocumented immigrants forced to live in the shadows for fear of deportation, the person of color who feels ignored or pushed aside, the gay or lesbian teen who feels bullied and alone, the Muslim who feels he must look over his shoulder before going to worship …

… they, We, are all here, together. On this pale, blue dot. Our lifeboat.

We can discuss how best to share what we have on this lifeboat, how best to care for everyone. But as a progressive, I will not discuss who gets thrown over the side. No matter how elegant the theory, how accurate the measure, or how rational the argument, throwing people over the side is immoral. And a lot of conservative arguments crumble right there.

We’re all here, together.

On this pale, blue dot.

Our lifeboat.


Happy Thursday!