Updating your moral software

Oct 23 JDN 2459876

I’ve noticed an odd tendency among politically active people, particular social media slacktivists (a term I do not use pejoratively: slacktivism is highly cost-effective). They adopt new ideas very rapidly, trying to stay on the cutting edge of moral and political discourse—and then they denigrate and disparage anyone who fails to do the same as an irredeemable monster.

This can take many forms, such as “if you don’t buy into my specific take on Critical Race Theory, you are a racist”, “if you have any uncertainty about the widespread use of puberty blockers you are a transphobic bigot”, “if you give any credence to the medical consensus on risks of obesity you are fatphobic“, “if you think disabilities should be cured you’re an ableist”, and “if you don’t support legalizing abortion in all circumstances you are a misogynist”.

My intention here is not to evaluate any particular moral belief, though I’ll say the following: I am skeptical of Critical Race Theory, especially the 1619 project which seems to be to include substantial distortions of history. I am cautiously supportive of puberty blockers, because the medical data on their risks are ambiguous—while the sociological data on how much happier trans kids are when accepted are totally unambiguous. I am well aware of the medical data saying that the risks of obesity are overblown (but also not negligible, particular for those who are very obese). Speaking as someone with a disability that causes me frequent, agonizing pain, yes, I want disabilities to be cured, thank you very much; accommodations are nice in the meantime, but the best long-term solution is to not need accommodations. (I’ll admit to some grey areas regarding certain neurodivergences such as autism and ADHD, and I would never want to force cures on people who don’t want them; but paralysis, deafness, blindness, diabetes, depression, and migraine are all absolutely worth finding cures for—the QALY at stake here are massive—and it’s silly to say otherwise.) I think abortion should generally be legal and readily available in the first trimester (which is when most abortions happen anyway), but much more strictly regulated thereafter—but denying it to children and rape victims is a human rights violation.

What I really want to talk about today is not the details of the moral belief, but the attitude toward those who don’t share it. There are genuine racists, transphobes, fatphobes, ableists, and misogynists in the world. There are also structural institutions that can lead to discrimination despite most of the people involved having no particular intention to discriminate. It’s worthwhile to talk about these things, and to try to find ways to fix them. But does calling anyone who disagrees with you a monster accomplish that goal?

This seems particularly bad precisely when your own beliefs are so cutting-edge. If you have a really basic, well-established sort of progressive belief like “hiring based on race should be illegal”, “women should be allowed to work outside the home” or “sodomy should be legal”, then people who disagree with you pretty much are bigots. But when you’re talking about new, controversial ideas, there is bound to be some lag; people who adopted the last generation’s—or even the last year’s—progressive beliefs may not yet be ready to accept the new beliefs, and that doesn’t make them bigots.

Consider this: Were you born believing in your current moral and political beliefs?

I contend that you were not. You may have been born intelligent, open-minded, and empathetic. You may have been born into a progressive, politically-savvy family. But the fact remains that any particular belief you hold about race, or gender, or ethics was something you had to learn. And if you learned it, that means that at some point you didn’t already know it. How would you have felt back then, if, instead of calmly explaining it to you, people called you names for not believing in it?

Now, perhaps it is true that as soon as you heard your current ideas, you immediately adopted them. But that may not be the case—it may have taken you some time to learn or change your mind—and even if it was, it’s still not fair to denigrate anyone who takes a bit longer to come around. There are many reasons why someone might not be willing to change their beliefs immediately, and most of them are not indicative of bigotry or deep moral failings.

It may be helpful to think about this in terms of updating your moral software. You were born with a very minimal moral operating system (emotions such as love and guilt, the capacity for empathy), and over time you have gradually installed more and more sophisticated software on top of that OS. If someone literally wasn’t born with the right OS—we call these people psychopaths—then, yes, you have every right to hate, fear, and denigrate them. But most of the people we’re talking about do have that underlying operating system, they just haven’t updated all their software to the same version as yours. It’s both unfair and counterproductive to treat them as irredeemably defective simply because they haven’t updated to the newest version yet. They have the hardware, they have the operating system; maybe their download is just a little slower than yours.

In fact, if you are very fast to adopt new, trendy moral beliefs, you may in fact be adopting them too quickly—they haven’t been properly vetted by human experience just yet. You can think of this as like a beta version: The newest update has some great new features, but it’s also buggy and unstable. It may need to be fixed before it is really ready for widespread release. If that’s the case, then people aren’t even wrong not to adopt them yet! It isn’t necessarily bad that you have adopted the new beliefs; we need beta testers. But you should be aware of your status as a beta tester and be prepared both to revise your own beliefs if needed, and also to cut other people slack if they disagree with you.

I understand that it can be immensely frustrating to be thoroughly convinced that something is true and important and yet see so many people disagreeing with it. (I am an atheist activist after all, so I absolutely know what that feels like.) I understand that it can be immensely painful to watch innocent people suffer because they have to live in a world where other people have harmful beliefs. But you aren’t changing anyone’s mind or saving anyone from harm by calling people names. Patience, tact, and persuasion will win the long game, and the long game is really all we have.

And if it makes you feel any better, the long game may not be as long as it seems. The arc of history may have tighter curvature than we imagine. We certainly managed a complete flip of the First World consensus on gay marriage in just a single generation. We may be able to achieve similarly fast social changes in other areas too. But we haven’t accomplished the progress we have so far by being uncharitable or aggressive toward those who disagree.

I am emphatically not saying you should stop arguing for your beliefs. We need you to argue for your beliefs. We need you to argue forcefully and passionately. But when doing so, try not to attack the people who don’t yet agree with you—for they are precisely the people we need to listen to you.

Oppression is quantitative.

JDN 2457082 EDT 11:15.

Economists are often accused of assigning dollar values to everything, of being Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic, someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. And there is more than a little truth to this, particularly among neoclassical economists; I was alarmed a few days ago to receive an email response from an economist that included the word ‘altruism’ in scare quotes as though this were somehow a problematic or unrealistic concept. (Actually, altruism is already formally modeled by biologists, and my claim that human beings are altruistic would be so uncontroversial among evolutionary biologists as to be considered trivial.)

But sometimes this accusation is based upon things economists do that is actually tremendously useful, even necessary to good policymaking: We make everything quantitative. Nothing is ever “yes” or “no” to an economist (sometimes even when it probably should be; the debate among economists in the 1960s over whether slavery is economically efficient does seem rather beside the point), but always more or less; never good or bad but always better or worse. For example, as I discussed in my post on minimum wage, the mainstream position among economists is not that minimum wage is always harmful nor that minimum wage is always beneficial, but that minimum wage is a policy with costs and benefits that on average neither increases nor decreases unemployment. The mainstream position among economists about climate policy is that we should institute either a high carbon tax or a system of cap-and-trade permits; no economist I know wants us to either do nothing and let the market decide (a position most Republicans currently seem to take) or suddenly ban coal and oil (the latter is a strawman position I’ve heard environmentalists accused of, but I’ve never actually heard advocated; even Greenpeace wants to ban offshore drilling, not oil in general.).

This makes people uncomfortable, I think, because they want moral issues to be simple. They want “good guys” who are always right and “bad guys” who are always wrong. (Speaking of strawman environmentalism, a good example of this is Captain Planet, in which no one ever seems to pollute the environment in order to help people or even in order to make money; no, they simply do it because the hate clean water and baby animals.) They don’t want to talk about options that are more good or less bad; they want one option that is good and all other options that are bad.

This attitude tends to become infused with righteousness, such that anyone who disagrees is an agent of the enemy. Politics is the mind-killer, after all. If you acknowledge that there might be some downside to a policy you agree with, that’s like betraying your team.

But in reality, the failure to acknowledge downsides can lead to disaster. Problems that could have been prevented are instead ignored and denied. Getting the other side to recognize the downsides of their own policies might actually help you persuade them to your way of thinking. And appreciating that there is a continuum of possibilities that are better and worse in various ways to various degrees is what allows us to make the world a better place even as we know that it will never be perfect.

There is a common refrain you’ll hear from a lot of social justice activists which sounds really nice and egalitarian, but actually has the potential to completely undermine the entire project of social justice.

This is the idea that oppression can’t be measured quantitatively, and we shouldn’t try to compare different levels of oppression. The notion that some people are more oppressed than others is often derided as the Oppression Olympics. (Some use this term more narrowly to mean when a discussion is derailed by debate over who has it worse—but then the problem is really discussions being derailed, isn’t it?)

This sounds nice, because it means we don’t have to ask hard questions like, “Which is worse, sexism or racism?” or “Who is worse off, people with cancer or people with diabetes?” These are very difficult questions, and maybe they aren’t the right ones to ask—after all, there’s no reason to think that fighting racism and fighting sexism are mutually exclusive; they can in fact be complementary. Research into cancer only prevents us from doing research into diabetes if our total research budget is fixed—this is more than anything else an argument for increasing research budgets.

But we must not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Oppression is quantitative. Some kinds of oppression are clearly worse than others.

Why is this important? Because otherwise you can’t measure progress. If you have a strictly qualitative notion of oppression where it’s black-and-white, on-or-off, oppressed-or-not, then we haven’t made any progress on just about any kind of oppression. There is still racism, there is still sexism, there is still homophobia, there is still religious discrimination. Maybe these things will always exist to some extent. This makes the fight for social justice a hopeless Sisyphean task.

But in fact, that’s not true at all. We’ve made enormous progress. Unbelievably fast progress. Mind-boggling progress. For hundreds of millennia humanity made almost no progress at all, and then in the last few centuries we have suddenly leapt toward justice.

Sexism used to mean that women couldn’t own property, they couldn’t vote, they could be abused and raped with impunity—or even beaten or killed for being raped (which Saudi Arabia still does by the way). Now sexism just means that women aren’t paid as well, are underrepresented in positions of power like Congress and Fortune 500 CEOs, and they are still sometimes sexually harassed or raped—but when men are caught doing this they go to prison for years. This change happened in only about 100 years. That’s fantastic.

Racism used to mean that Black people were literally property to be bought and sold. They were slaves. They had no rights at all, they were treated like animals. They were frequently beaten to death. Now they can vote, hold office—one is President!—and racism means that our culture systematically discriminates against them, particularly in the legal system. Racism used to mean you could be lynched; now it just means that it’s a bit harder to get a job and the cops will sometimes harass you. This took only about 200 years. That’s amazing.

Homophobia used to mean that gay people were criminals. We could be sent to prison or even executed for the crime of making love in the wrong way. If we were beaten or murdered, it was our fault for being faggots. Now, homophobia means that we can’t get married in some states (and fewer all the time!), we’re depicted on TV in embarrassing stereotypes, and a lot of people say bigoted things about us. This has only taken about 50 years! That’s astonishing.

And above all, the most extreme example: Religious discrimination used to mean you could be burned at the stake for not being Catholic. It used to mean—and in some countries still does mean—that it’s illegal to believe in certain religions. Now, it means that Muslims are stereotyped because, well, to be frank, there are some really scary things about Muslim culture and some really scary people who are Muslim leaders. (Personally, I think Muslims should be more upset about Ahmadinejad and Al Qaeda than they are about being profiled in airports.) It means that we atheists are annoyed by “In God We Trust”, but we’re no longer burned at the stake. This has taken longer, more like 500 years. But even though it took a long time, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this progress is wonderful.

Obviously, there’s a lot more progress remaining to be made on all these issues, and others—like economic inequality, ableism, nationalism, and animal rights—but the point is that we have made a lot of progress already. Things are better than they used to be—a lot betterand keeping this in mind will help us preserve the hope and dedication necessary to make things even better still.

If you think that oppression is either-or, on-or-off, you can’t celebrate this progress, and as a result the whole fight seems hopeless. Why bother, when it’s always been on, and will probably never be off? But we started with oppression that was absolutely horrific, and now it’s considerably milder. That’s real progress. At least within the First World we have gone from 90% oppressed to 25% oppressed, and we can bring it down to 10% or 1% or 0.1% or even 0.01%. Those aren’t just numbers, those are the lives of millions of people. As democracy spreads worldwide and poverty is eradicated, oppression declines. Step by step, social changes are made, whether by protest marches or forward-thinking politicians or even by lawyers and lobbyists (they aren’t all corrupt).

And indeed, a four-year-old Black girl with a mental disability living in Ghana whose entire family’s income is $3 a day is more oppressed than I am, and not only do I have no qualms about saying that, it would feel deeply unseemly to deny it. I am not totally unoppressed—I am a bisexual atheist with chronic migraines and depression in a country that is suspicious of atheists, systematically discriminates against LGBT people, and does not make proper accommodations for chronic disorders, particularly mental ones. But I am far less oppressed, and that little girl (she does exist, though I know not her name) could be made much less oppressed than she is even by relatively simple interventions (like a basic income). In order to make her fully and totally unoppressed, we would need such a radical restructuring of human society that I honestly can’t really imagine what it would look like. Maybe something like The Culture? Even then as Iain Banks imagines it, there is inequality between those within The Culture and those outside it, and there have been wars like the Idiran-Culture War which killed billions, and among those trillions of people on thousands of vast orbital habitats someone, somewhere is probably making a speciesist remark. Yet I can state unequivocally that life in The Culture would be better than my life here now, which is better than the life of that poor disabled girl in Ghana.

To be fair, we can’t actually put a precise number on it—though many economists try, and one of my goals is to convince them to improve their methods so that they stop using willingness-to-pay and instead try to actually measure utility by something like QALY. A precise number would help, actually—it would allow us to do cost-benefit analyses to decide where to focus our efforts. But while we don’t need a precise number to tell when we are making progress, we do need to acknowledge that there are degrees of oppression, some worse than others.

Oppression is quantitative. And our goal should be minimizing that quantity.

Beware the false balance

JDN 2457046 PST 13:47.

I am now back in Long Beach, hence the return to Pacific Time. Today’s post is a little less economic than most, though it’s certainly still within the purview of social science and public policy. It concerns a question that many academic researchers and in general reasonable, thoughtful people have to deal with: How do we remain unbiased and nonpartisan?

This would not be so difficult if the world were as the most devoted “centrists” would have you believe, and it were actually the case that both sides have their good points and bad points, and both sides have their scandals, and both sides make mistakes or even lie, so you should never take the side of the Democrats or the Republicans but always present both views equally.

Sadly, this is not at all the world in which we live. While Democrats are far from perfect—they are human beings after all, not to mention politicians—Republicans have become completely detached from reality. As Stephen Colbert has said, “Reality has a liberal bias.” You know it’s bad when our detractors call us the reality-based community. Treating both sides as equal isn’t being unbiased—it’s committing a balance fallacy.

Don’t believe me? Here is a list of objective, scientific facts that the Republican Party (and particularly its craziest subset, the Tea Party) has officially taken political stances against:

  1. Global warming is a real problem, and largely caused by human activity. (The Republican majority in the Senate voted down a resolution acknowledging this.)
  2. Human beings share a common ancestor with chimpanzees. (48% of Republicans think that we were created in our present form.)
  3. Animals evolve over time due to natural selection. (Only 43% of Republicans believe this.)
  4. The Earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old. (Marco Rubio said he thinks maybe the Earth was made in seven days a few thousand years ago.)
  5. Hydraulic fracturing can trigger earthquakes.(Republican in Congress are trying to nullify local regulations on fracking because they insist it is so safe we don’t even need to keep track.)
  6. Income inequality in the United States is the worst it has been in decades and continues to rise. (Mitt Romney said that the concern about income inequality is just “envy”.)
  7. Progressive taxation reduces inequality without adversely affecting economic growth. (Here’s a Republican former New York Senator saying that the President “should be ashamed” for raising taxes on—you guessed it—”job creators”.)
  8. Moderate increases in the minimum wage do not yield significant losses in employment. (Republicans consistently vote against even small increases in the minimum wage, and Democrats consistently vote in favor.)
  9. The United States government has no reason to ever default on its debt. (John Boehner, now Speaker of the House, once said that “America is broke” and if we don’t stop spending we’ll never be able to pay the national debt.)
  10. Human embryos are not in any way sentient, and fetuses are not sentient until at least 17 weeks of gestation, probably more like 30 weeks. (Yet if I am to read it in a way that would make moral sense, “Life begins at conception”—which several Republicans explicitly endorsed at the National Right to Life Convention—would have to imply that even zygotes are sentient beings. If you really just meant “alive”, then that would equally well apply to plants or even bacteria. Sentience is the morally relevant category.)

And that’s not even counting the Republican Party’s association with Christianity and all of the objectively wrong scientific claims that necessarily entails—like the existence of an afterlife and the intervention of supernatural forces. Most Democrats also self-identify as Christian, though rarely with quite the same fervor (the last major Democrat I can think of who was a devout Christian was Jimmy Carter), probably because most Americans self-identify as Christian and are hesitant to elect an atheist President (despite the fact that 93% of the National Academy of Sciences is comprised of atheists and the higher your IQ the more likely you are to be an atheist; we wouldn’t want to elect someone who agrees with smart people, now would we?).

It’s true, there are some other crazy ideas out there with a left-wing slant, like the anti-vaccination movement that has wrought epidemic measles upon us, the anti-GMO crowd that rejects basic scientific facts about genetics, and the 9/11 “truth” movement that refuses to believe that Al Qaeda actually caused the attacks. There are in fact far-left Marxists out there who want to tear down the whole capitalist system by glorious revolution and replace it with… er… something (they’re never quite clear on that last point). But none of these things are the official positions of standing members of Congress.

The craziest belief by a standing Democrat I can think of is Dennis Kucinich’s belief that he saw an alien spacecraft. And to be perfectly honest, alien spacecraft are about a thousand times more plausible than Christianity in general, let alone Creationism. There almost certainly are alien spacecraft somewhere in the universe—just most likely so far away we’ll need FTL to encounter them. Moreover, this is not Kucinich’s official position as a member of Congress and it’s not something he has ever made policy based upon.

Indeed, if you’re willing to include the craziest individuals with no real political power who identify with a particular side of the political spectrum, then we should include on the right-wing side people like the Bundy militia in Nevada, neo-Nazis in Detroit, and the dozens of KKK chapters across the US. Not to mention this pastor who wants to murder all gay people in the world (because he truly believes what Leviticus 20:13 actually and clearly says).

If you get to include Marxists on the left, then we get to include Nazis on the right. Or, we could be reasonable and say that only the official positions of elected officials or mainstream pundits actually count, in which case Democrats have views that are basically accurate and reasonable while the majority of Republicans have views that are still completely objectively wrong.

There’s no balance here. For every Democrat who is wrong, there is a Republicans who is totally delusional. For every Democrat who distorts the truth, there is a Republican who blatantly lies about basic facts. Not to mention that for every Democrat who has had an ill-advised illicit affair there is a Republican who has committed war crimes.

Actually war crimes are something a fair number of Democrats have done as well, but the difference still stands out in high relief: Barack Obama has ordered double-tap drone strikes that are in violation of the Geneva Convention, but George W. Bush orchestrated a worldwide mass torture campaign and launched pointless wars that slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people. Bill Clinton ordered some questionable CIA operations, but George H.W. Bush was the director of the CIA.

I wish we had two parties that were equally reasonable. I wish there were two—or three, or four—proposals on the table in each discussion, all of which had merits and flaws worth considering. Maybe if we somehow manage to get the Green Party a significant seat in power, or the Social Democrat party, we can actually achieve that goal. But that is not where we are right now. Right now, we have the Democrats, who have some good ideas and some bad ideas; and then we have the Republicans, who are completely out of their minds.

There is an important concept in political science called the Overton window; it is the range of political ideas that are considered “reasonable” or “mainstream” within a society. Things near the middle of the Overton window are considered sensible, even “nonpartisan” ideas, while things near the edges are “partisan” or “political”, and things near but outside the window are seen as “extreme” and “radical”. Things far outside the window are seen as “absurd” or even “unthinkable”.

Right now, our Overton window is in the wrong place. Things like Paul Ryan’s plan to privatize Social Security and Medicare are seen as reasonable when they should be considered extreme. Progressive income taxes of the kind we had in the 1960s are seen as extreme when they should be considered reasonable. Cutting WIC and SNAP with nothing to replace them and letting people literally starve to death are considered at most partisan, when they should be outright unthinkable. Opposition to basic scientific facts like climate change and evolution is considered a mainstream political position—when in terms of empirical evidence Creationism should be more intellectually embarrassing than being a 9/11 truther or thinking you saw an alien spacecraft. And perhaps worst of all, military tactics like double-tap strikes that are literally war crimes are considered “liberal”, while the “conservative” position involves torture, worldwide surveillance and carpet bombing—if not outright full-scale nuclear devastation.

I want to restore reasonable conversation to our political system, I really do. But that really isn’t possible when half the politicians are totally delusional. We have but one choice: We must vote them out.

I say this particularly to people who say “Why bother? Both parties are the same.” No, they are not the same. They are deeply, deeply different, for all the reasons I just outlined above. And if you can’t bring yourself to vote for a Democrat, at least vote for someone! A Green, or a Social Democrat, or even a Libertarian or a Socialist if you must. It is only by the apathy of reasonable people that this insanity can propagate in the first place.