Lamenting Grandstanding and Stopping It

I’ve just finished reading Grandstanding by my friends Brandon Warmke and Justin Tosi. It’s a marvelous little book and is both well-written and well-argued. I did find myself a bit saddened by the book because I tend to think I ought to do all I can to attribute good motives to others, even if I end up having some falsely nice beliefs about them. But Brandon and Justin have convinced me that I need to rethink that. I need to downgrade my opinion of the moral worth of human behavior.

One reason I try to think well of others is because thinking poorly of others can often lead to broken relationships, and needlessly broken relationships. Brandon and Justin argue persuasively that we shouldn’t accuse people of grandstanding because it generally won’t do much good. But now I’m worried I’m bound to do less good because I now find myself generally thinking more poorly of others. I feel more suspicious, and less committed to bringing people together. How can we bring people together when much of their behavior is driven by base motives, motives that they often do not recognize, or would refuse to admit to were they to realize it?

One thing I have learned in my life, especially as of late, is that reconciliation is a two-way street. However open you are to reconciliation, and however much you desire it, and indeed however much you offer the chance to heal with those you are divided from, you may still be turned down. Things are worse in cases of grandstanding, since you’re dealing with people you don’t even really have a relationship with and will probably never meet. How on Earth can we hope to develop and sustain things like relationships of civic friendship and solidarity if our public actions are aimed at something other than agreement, persuasion, and/or the common good?

The most obvious thing to do is to stop your own grandstanding. You remove some cruelty, condescension, deception, and self-deception from the world. In some cases, that is all you can do.

You can also stop rewarding others for grandstanding, though without openly accusing them of doing so. That can play some small role as well.

But I also wonder if there isn’t an additional duty or at least good one can do by trying to create social media environments that do not reward grandstanding, such as private groups on Facebook dedicated to valued, common tasks, like close professional networks dedicated to improving one another’s work, or committing to meeting in person with people more often, where grandstanding is often easier to identify and discourage. Finding organizations with a common task that people have to contribute to with effort can lead people to invest their efforts in activities other than grandstanding.

But I admit, these are very small things we can do to improve public discourse and avoid the pain, hurt, and division so often found in these sites of social interaction. But if all you can do is a little, a little is all you can do. To micro-reconciliation!

Avoid Cancel Culture Because You Don’t Know Why People Disagree With You

One of the important features of cancel norms is that cancelation is a punishment. The “cancelers” aren’t in the business of simply shutting down a line of argument, or silencing a publicized view. The goal is to make the person less influential by penalizing them for violating some kind of norm (often a new and controversial norm that exists within sub-groups, but not outside of them). Once we see that cancellation is punitive, we have a method of morally evaluating it, for a punishment is only appropriate when a norm violation is culpable. If someone violates a norm by advocating a view that is out of bounds morally speaking, but they are not culpable, then attacking them, trying to harm them financially, or something of that sort is immoral. It’s a form of brow-beating and authoritarianism. Cancelation is only legitimate if the person has engaged in some kind of moral failing for which he or she is morally responsible.

Now, what is the ratio of apt cancelations to total cancelations? What percentage of canceled persons were culpable for the norm they were canceled for violating? I think that’s hard to determine because I think it is hard for cancelers to know why the “cancelee” is violating the relevant norm, and so how culpable the cancelee is.

I think this is because the reasons that others disagree with us are frequently unclear. There are both epistemic and metaphysical reasons that people  deeply disagree that will often absolve them of culpability for what they believe. The epistemic reasons, following both John Rawls and F.A. Hayek, are that many social and political issues are challenging, and involve complex assumptions that we are frequently unaware of. Consider, for instance, the metaphysics of gender. I’m a philosopher, indeed a value theorist, and I just don’t know how to settle certain currently controversial topics, like the metaphysics of gender. I find it very difficult to say not only which views are true or false, but which views only a morally flawed person could hold. And so it seems to me that people, generally speaking, should not be canceled because of their position on the metaphysics of gender. It’s a hard issue.

I also affirm the broader point: I usually don’t know why people believe what they believe because their life experience and thought processes differ greatly from my own. I’m not in a position to judge that someone believes something false because of some kind of moral vice. So I’m hesitant to cancel anyone for a view that they hold, even views that strike me as odious.

Perhaps I’m really weird in this regard. I have a diverse range of friends on Facebook, many of whom have unfriended one another on social issues. I enjoy sitting back and encountering diverse views, even ones I think are crazy, and, in a few cases, views that I think are probably evil. But again, I am usually not in a position to determine whether I should blame people for the position that they hold.

Maybe the cancelers are just really good at discerning moral vice in persons who defend the positions that merit cancelation. Perhaps they have enough insight that they can see that anyone, anywhere who holds a certain position simply must be at fault to such a degree that they should pay crippling social costs.

I’m prepared to grant that some people are good at this in day-to-day life where they know someone well and interact with them a lot, like family or friends. But on social media, we usually know very little about those we interact with. This is especially true on Twitter because the expression of ideas is highly truncated, and so seldom represents a person’s full position and relays only the smallest bit of content about how they think.

So I doubt that most cancelers are in a position to determine that canceled persons are culpable for their beliefs. And if the cancelers are not in a position to determine the culpability of others, it seems obviously wrong to cancel people.

I think the Harper’s Letter demonstrates the reality of cancel culture and widespread shaming for expressing certain kinds of opinions. And I morally condemn cancelation unless the cancelee is reasonably thought to hold the forbidden position based on some kind of moral vice, rather than an innocent mistake. And I morally condemn cancelation in general because I think we are seldom in a position to determine why people hold the positions that they do, especially on Twitter.

Open up the range of expressible opinion. Fight views you hate with arguments, but be wary of canceling others. It often indicates a lack of epistemic humility.

It helps even more to remember that human beings were placed on this earth to love one another, and that the primary factor that makes a life go well is how loving a person is. Canceling others, I think, is bad for the soul, and makes the canceler’s life go worse. Of course, I know this last point is controversial, but it is true!

Suppose I Wrote a Book on Integralism: What Should I Cover?

As I finish copyediting and page proofing for my next book, Trust in a Polarized Age, I’ve been thinking about my next big book project. I’ve become increasingly interested in exploring illiberal political perfectionism, the view that the ultimate duty of the state is to promote the good and the good life for citizens, but where the good life is described not as a life lived autonomously, but as one that participates in some kind of communal and/or religious value, like a relationship with God. Illiberal perfectionism includes all theocratic states, but also anti-liberal ideological states, like China.

The prime new form of illiberal perfectionism that people are talking about is Catholic Integralism, which I have blogged about quite a bit here. The view, in short, is a Catholic illiberal perfectionism, where the state, subordinated in some respects to the Catholic Church, organizes law and policy to help man attain eternal salvation. I’m no integralist, but I’m fascinated by it for reasons I’ve outlined, and I’ve found that many other non-integralists are as well. So I’ve put together a book proposal on integralism, and I’m wondering what sorts of subjects and arguments I should cover.

Right now the goal of the book is to critique integralism with a just the arguments approach. I’m not going to insult integralism or degrade it in any way. And I will do best to render their arguments as powerfully as I can. I also want to avoid focusing entirely on the practicality of integralism in, say, the United States. What I’m interested in is whether integralism is a political ideal and whether we ought to pursue that ideal when we can.

I also won’t focus on whether Catholicism is true, or whether Catholicism dogmatically required integralism (it doesn’t require integralism, but it does require some practices that are more consistent with integralist political theory than alternatives). I’m an Eastern Orthodox Christian, of a fairly theologically orthodox sort, so I don’t disagree with Catholics about all that much about the good life.

Given these restrictions, what I want to know is the following: is an integralist political regime the proper political ideal if Catholic Christianity, or something near enough, is true? In brief, must the state be Catholic?

My answer is that integralism is not the proper political ideal. I have a number of reasons for thinking so. But here is a brief summary of the arguments I find persuasive. Let me know if you find them of interest.

  1. Baptism and Religious Coercion: integralism faces an unresolvable tension between its commitment to protecting extensive religious freedom for the baptized and restricting the religious freedom of the baptized. They need to show that baptism generates an enforceable duty of fair play, but it probably can’t be done.
  2. Diversity and Instability: even if we could reach integralism, it is a feature of human nature to deeply disagree about ultimate matters, and an integralist regime will have to suppress that diversity in ways that either contravene natural law or undermine the stability of the regime.
  3. The Common Good: much of the drive towards integralism is that it is the best way to realize the true common good. I argue that the common good includes respect for the dignity of the person as a proper part, implying the existence of natural rights associated with that dignity. For this reason, the common good might have internal deontic principles incompatible with integralist coercion, so integralists can’t rely so heavily on the common good as the normative foundation of their view.
  4. Reciprocity: integralism states that what justifies political power is the state promoting the correct conception of the good. I argue that in doing so, integralism ignores the natural law of reciprocity, which requires that justifications for political power by reciprocal, ones that all can recognize as valid. The problem, in short, is that integralism violates the Golden Rule: integralists would not like to have other sectarian values imposed upon them, and so should not insist that others abide by theirs.
  5. Reaching Integralism: integralist regimes have existed in the past, and for long periods of time. So we know how integralism would look to some degree, and we can anticipate the kids of policies that would be required in order to get there. Or do we? Perhaps as integralists succeed in closing American society, their ability to figure out how to institutionalize integralism would degrade because closing down open societies can often reduce our knowledge about how to improve our social institutions. This isn’t a mere pragmatic point; it is a barrier faced by any attempt to realize integralism.

So, I know those are pretty vague, but do they sound of interest to people?

Important Religious Liberty Victories at the Supreme Court

Important victories for religious liberty today, but the Little Sisters decision far from settles their “legal odyssey” (as Alito puts it). All that happened is that the Court let the Trump Administration broaden the exemption from what the Obama Administration offered. From what I can tell, you’d need new litigation to stop a future Democratic administration to re-narrow the exemption again, but someone correct me if I am wrong. Here are some of my quick reactions. (I’d write in more detail, but I’m knee-deep in copyediting for my next book, Trust in a Polarized Age.)

1. The good news about today is that the large majority of the Court is prepared to defend religious liberty, and to force the federal government to seek other methods for facilitating contraception access, LGBT equality, and so on besides compromising the liberty of religious institutions. That’s essential for justice, and the political stability of the country. Progressives, you’ll govern the vast majority of American public institutions in accord with your conception of equality; you just have to make some exceptions for the sake of peace and mutual respect.

2. These religious liberty issues are part of the basis for Trump’s support, and I hope my progressive readers will factor that into account in deciding how hard to fight these battles. For me, the contraception mandate was the deciding factor in my decision to vote for Romney in 2012. I didn’t vote for Trump, but I was not able to oppose him with my whole heart because of these issues. There are many like me, progressive friends. We want to join you, but not when you ask us to choose between opposing Trump and harming the Church. 

3. Most of my readers are secular, so let me quickly review how I think about the morality of the Little Sisters case (the details of which are more complicated than you may initially think). Basically, the case at issue, if you describe it in terms of the perspectives of groups like the Little Sisters, is that the federal government is forcing them to choose between a divinely-given vocation and imperiling their souls. Contraception, for some of these groups, is often seen as a *mortal* (roughly, damning until confessed) sin, and facilitating contraception in any way is also a mortal sin. So basically, from these groups’ perspectives, the feds are pressuring them into the possibility of an *infinite utility loss*. I know what it is like to fear for your soul. It might be the worst thing ever. And it’d be nice if the feds would find a way to ensure contraception coverage that didn’t have this implication. I hope my secular friends will try to take our perspective here.

4. I actually think when you get into the details, the Little Sisters themselves may not even be the subject of these legal strictures since their insurance provider is exempt, so it is kind of misleading to make them the public face of the religious liberty side of this case. But the other side is in many ways worse, claiming that women would be harmed by these exemption but were (from what I can tell) unable to find an instance of it. So the case is more political than I realized at first, which dampens my enthusiasm somewhat. So that needs to be said. But remember that this isn’t the end of seamless contraception coverage. The feds just have to pay for it directly, rather than making religious institutions into their instruments.

5. I agree with David French that Gorsuch may well have a plan to impose a religious liberty compromise on the country that is probably a good idea, and not unlike the Utah Compromise, where LGBT people come under equality before the law in employment, but extensive religious exemptions are provided to institutions that have a traditional view of sexual morality. I think it is a stable legal equilibrium, one that makes neither side happy, but the legal settlement that is most likely justified to the widest group of people. I don’t like that the Supreme Court is imposing the compromise on the country, but neither of the major parties are willing to compromise on the matter, and so at least we’re getting the right result, if in a non-ideal way. But Gorsuch may be intent on making the religious liberty/LGBT liberty less red hot, and as someone who believes in the values of peace, trust, and mutual respect, that gives me some hope. This is what reconciliation often looks like, folks. It isn’t victory, there is loss, but there is a beauty to it.

Should Pro-Lifers Support TRAP Laws?

TRAP laws (Targeted Regulations of Abortion) have become an important policy tool for the pro-life movement at the state level. They’ve used these laws to effectively close many abortion clinics, based on the dubious claim that the regulations that led the clinics to close were necessary to protect women’s health. The Supreme Court just struck down a TRAP Louisiana, as they did in Texas a few years earlier.

For the purposes of this post, assume the pro-life position is correct. Should pro-lifers support TRAP laws? On the one hand, the answer seems to be yes, because stopping abortion is a moral emergency, and shutting down abortion clinics probably reduces the abortion rate somewhat.

One might reply that deception is wrong even in the favor of one’s most important political objectives, and even when your opponents do it. But stopping abortion might be so morally urgent that deception can be justified. So this point will probably only succeed for pro-lifers who think deception is always prohibited (like orthodox Catholics).

The better argument against supporting TRAP laws is that doing so discredits the character of the pro-life movement. Recall that the average pro-choice activist doesn’t usually want to talk about whether the unborn are persons; they seldom want to talk philosophy with pro-lifers. Instead, they usually to talk about whether pro-lifers hate the poor and want to control women. I know many pro-choicers who are absolutely convinced that pro-lifers *must* be badly motivated. Why? I can’t tell. But here’s my guess. If pro-lifers are sincere in their love for the unborn, and virtuous in fighting for their cause, they are harder to dismiss, and their arguments are harder to dismiss. And this in turn raises the possibility that pro-lifers might be right. Scary stuff for progressives who tend to think of themselves as on the right side of history.

That’s why I think pro-lifers should want their political and rhetorical strategies to be above reproach, to show those on the fence that pro-lifers aren’t monsters, that they don’t hate women, and that they support the poor. So perhaps the pro-life movement went down the wrong road in these cases.