Political correctness and moral dogmatism

A new podcast from the University of Macau, featuring philosophy professor Hand-Georg Moeller and doctoral candidate Dan Sarafinas, focuses on “virtue speech,” which is Moeller’s philosophical term for political correctness.

Moeller connects virtue speech to civil religion; in the United States, civil religion begins with the fundamental dogma contained in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” According to Moeller, this dogma is written so you can’t argue with it; all you can do is interpret it. (Although as Moeller points out, there are all kinds of ways you can argue with this statement; for example, Europeans like Moeller are not likely to believe in a Creator, let alone a Creator who endows human beings with unalienable rights.)

Virtue speech — politically correct speech — starts with this fundamental dogma and interprets it by applying it to specific situations, such as the MeToo movement, or Black Lives Matter. While Moeller says he’s generally supportive of the MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter, to someone who believes in the Enlightenment ideal of the use of reason, virtue speech is going to be just as much of a problem as fundamentalist Christianity: both are founded on dogmas that require you to accept them without reasoning. Moeller points how virtue speech subverts well-reasoned argument:

“Most of these people who are attacking virtue speech, who are attacking political correctness: in the beginning they’re just appalled by this virtue signaling. They’re appalled by this self-aggrandizing moralism or the moralists. But then they start thinking, ‘OK, I’ll prove that their morality is wrong.’ And then they get drawn into a moralistic, dogmatic discourse, because they start talking about the issue. They come up with very indefensible positions, even.”

Moeller’s title for the podcast is “The Issue Is Not the Issue.” He doesn’t want to get involved in moralistic, dogmatic discourse himself. Instead, he wants to point out the problems with dogmatism:

“The point is not to deny the values of liberty and equality, but to understand and critique dogmatic speech, no matter what the issues are. That doesn’t mean that these things are wrong. It’s just to point out the problems of engaging in dogmatic speech.”

While I highly recommend this podcast, I think it will be very challenging for many religions liberals. In their religious life, religious liberals studiously avoid dogmatism, but in their political life too many religious liberals engage in dogmatic speech with little consciousness of what they’re doing; indeed, many Unitarian Universalist congregations, while eschewing religious dogmatism, are hothouses of political dogmatism.

You can listen to the first episode of “The Issue Is Not the Issue” here.

What is a species?

What is a species? In a field ornithology class, I was taught that a species is a unit of biological classification (a taxon), a set of organisms whose members can interbreed with each other; but if one species interbreeds with another species, they will produce either no offspring, or infertile offspring. A species, then, is defined (so my professor said) by the possibility of successful breeding.

There are other ways to define what a species is. In his book The Social Amoebae: The Biology of Cellular Slime Molds (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ., 2009), John Tyler Bonner outlines two other ways of defining a species:

“The tradition for cellular slime molds’ classification is entirely based on their morphology. I can remember way back discussing this point with Kenneth Raper, who himself discovered many of the new species, and he was quite adamant that the classification of the group was for the purpose of making them easy to identify; it said nothing about their phylogenetic relations. This is in the spirit of Linnaeus, who thought each species was created by an act of God, and who has been the basis of taxonomic keys beloved by some (not me!) through the centuries.” (p. 19)

In other words, a species is a conceptual tool for making classification easier for the scientists who study organisms. Or, a species gives us insight into the act of God which created that species; it is a kind of category of theological ontology.

And there is yet another way of looking of species: a species is defined by common ancestors:

“For taxonomists, the ultimate goal is to classify every plant according to clean monophyletic clades, in which each group contains all the descendants from a common ancestor and none from parallel lines.” Thomas J. Elpel, Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification 6th ed. (Pony, Mont.: HOPS Press, 2013, p. 22).

In other words, organisms within a given species will share a common evolutionary ancestor; and the further classification of that species into genus, family, order, etc., gives us insight into how that species evolved. This helps us understand that a species is not a static category. A species is not, as Linneaus thought, a static insight into the way things were created in the past and always will be in the future. For example, the Iceland gull (Larus glaucoides) complex, comprising subspecies L. glaucoides glaucoides, L. g. kumlieni, and L. g. thayeri may represent speciation in action: subspecies that are evolving perhaps into becoming full species. More broadly, the genus Larus consists of closely related species some of which have only recently evolved into separate species. Thus, sometimes species give us a look at evolution in action.

Generational viewpoints

Zoe Samudzi, doctoral candidate in sociology at UCSF, on class and race:

“I think it’s really telling about the kind of limitedness with which we understand wealth redistribution because of the ways we refuse to understand white supremacy as a necessary part of capitalism and race as the kind of anchoring structure through which resources are inequitably redistributed.” (interview in Geez magazine, winter, 2018, p. 42)

Adolph Reed, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, a Marxist who specializes in race an American politics:

“Anti-racism — along with anti-sexism, anti-homophobia, etc., as well as diversity as the affirmative statement of them all — is a species of a genus of social and economic justice that is utterly compatible with neoliberalism: parity in the distribution of costs and benefits among groups defined by essentialized ascriptive identities.” (interview in Platypus Review #75, April, 2015)

I feel that Samudzi represents a younger generation of thinkers and activists who have abandoned traditional Marxist critiques of capitalism in favor of critiques based on identity politics; Reed represents an older generation of thinkers who continue to extend Marxist critiques of capitalism and who criticize identity politics as neoliberalism, which is to say, another form of capitalism. As someone who had training in the Frankfurt School as an undergrad (under a black Marxist professor, interestingly enough), I’m aligned with Reed’s generational cohort. But the zeitgeist is now blowing in the direction of Samudzi’s generation.

Clergy hit a new low in perceptions of ethics and honesty

Gallup has been polling people in the U.S. since 1977 about perceptions of the honesty and ethics of various professions. These Gallup polls rate the perceived honesty of professions as “very high/high,” “average,” or “very low/low” (with the obvious addition of a choice for “no opinion”).

In Gallup’s most recent poll about perceptions of the ethics and honesty of various professions, the nursing profession again tops the list, with 84% of people giving them a “very high/high” rating, 15% giving them an “average rating,” and 1% giving them a “very low/low” rating.

By contrast, only 37% of people give clergy as a profession a “very high/high” rating for honesty and ethics; 43% give an “average rating,” 15% give a “very low/low” rating, with the remainder offering “no opinion.” In their report, Gallup made a special note of the decline in the perception of clergy honesty and ethics:

“Gallup has measured Americans’ views of the clergy’s honesty and ethics 34 times beginning in 1977, and this year’s 37% very high/high rating is the lowest to date. Although the overall average positive rating is 54%, it has consistently fallen below that level since 2009. The historical high of 67% occurred in 1985. Positive views of the honesty and ethics of the clergy dropped in 2002 amid a sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, and although positive ratings rebounded somewhat in the next few years, they fell to 50% in 2009 and have been steadily declining since 2012.”

However, although the Catholic sexual abuse scandal is foremost in many people’s minds, evangelical Christian blogger Warren Throckmorton notes that there are other clergy scandals affecting some people’s perceptions of clergy. Throckmorton specifically mentions the recent accusations of clergy financial misconduct at Harvest Bible Church, an evangelical Christian megachurch near Chicago: when some whistle-blower bloggers made those accusations public, rather than addressing the accusations, Harvest Bible Church sued the bloggers for defamation. Throckmorton contrasts Harvest Bible Church with Willow Creek Church, another big evangelical Christian megachurch which recently ousted its founding pastor after credible allegations of misconduct; subsequently the entire leadership team resigned, realizing their leadership had been compromised by their poor handling of the allegations, and realizing that the church needed to get a fresh start. (Throckmorton’s most recent blog post about Harvest Bible Church, which links to the Gallup poll, is here.) We could add more examples from outside evangelical Christianity of how organized religious groups respond poorly to accusations of ethical lapses and dishonesty: the many accusations against the Church of Scientology and their opaque responses come immediately to mind.

One thing that I get from Throckmorton’s post is that poor governance goes hand in hand with decline in trust in clergy. And we should distinguish governance from polity. The hierarchical polity of the Roman Catholic Church should in theory be more effective at removing unethical clergy than our Unitarian Universalist congregational polity; more than one unethical Unitarian Universalist minister was able to continue their unethical ways because the Unitarian Universalist Association cannot prevent a local congregation from hiring whomever they want as minister. However, all too often the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy covered up clergy misconduct. The Unitarian Universalist Association, by contrast, has recommended that search committees carry out careful background checks of potential new clergy hires; in Unitarian Universalism, the failures in governance too often take place at the local level, representing the biggest weakness of congregational polity is dealing with ethics; but on the whole, despite the weakness of its polity, Unitarian Universalists have a somewhat better record of dealing with clergy misconduct than the Roman Catholic Church. Again, my point here is that no type of polity is immune from ethical lapses; the real issue is good governance practices within whatever polity a religion might have.

I suspect, therefore, that the decline in the perception of clergy honesty is linked to a wider decline in trust of organized religion — a decline that in many cases is deserved. Lay leaders and clergy, regardless of our polity, need to be scrupulously careful about maintaining good governance practices that are transparent and that strengthen accountability; and when ethical violations arise, we need to address them quickly and transparently.

Your CEO has already earned more than you

According to the BBC:

The date of 4 January is marked as the day when CEOs of Britain’s biggest companies already earn what it takes an average worker to make in a year. But British CEOs are not the only ones who out-earn their workers so quickly. An analysis of the wage gap between CEOs and workers in 22 countries by the financial and media company Bloomberg shows that executives in the United States and India can get the average worker’s yearly wage even faster.

In Great Britain, CEOs make 201 times the average workers salary; in the United States, they make 265 times as much as the average worker. So if you live in the U.S., Great Britain, or India, your CEO may already have made two or three times your annual salary.

Silicon Valley has a high concentration of CEOs living here (that is, one of their many houses is located here). We also have a heck of a lot of homelessness here — people living in RVs, people couch surfing, people living in tent encampments, people living on the street, people living in homeless shelters — because of the high cost of housing, which has been driven sky-high in part by demand from people who have lots of money to spend on housing.

Which means if we want to solve the homelessness problem, it’s not enough to build more housing (the supply-side solution). Cutting CEO salaries, and the salaries of all the top 1/10%, is a good first step; Safra Catz, CEO of Oracle, is not worth $40 million a year, nor does she need that much money, nor does she deserve it when her salary means that lots of people have to live on the street.

This also means that it’s not enough for Democrats to get angry with Donald Trump. The Democrats have been trying to ally themselves to Silicon Valley, but in terms of inequality of wealth the Silicon Valley execs are just as evil as Mr. Trump.

Kinds of atheism, kinds of theism

Elisa Freschi, a philosopher specializing in Indian-subcontinent philosophy, has written an interesting post about atheism, in which she says: “in European history, atheism is the refusal of theism as conceived in modern times, with God as one ‘thing’ among others.” Thus if you refute a theism in which God is a “natural cause” — which is mostly what modern atheism does — you wind up with modern atheism, which can be defined as atheism-as-naturalism. However, such atheism-as-naturalism doesn’t have much to say about the God of Meister Eckhart.

In Indian philosophy, according to Freschi, when people talk about God, “God” may have at least four different meanings: the devatas (the mythological gods); the isvara (the God of rational theology); the Brahman (an impersonal deity); or the bhagavat God (the God of personal devotion). Freschi contends that “atheism in India is mostly targeted at two concepts of god, on the one hand the gods (devata) of mythology and on the other the Lord (isvara) of rational theology.” Freschi goes on to outline how in the 13th to 14th centuries C.E., Indian philosophers such asĀ  Venkatanatha responded to the atheism of the earlier Nyasa school by developing new forms of theism, which Freschi calls “post-atheism theism.”

This discussion becomes relevant to Unitarian Universalism when one considers that many current arguments against theism in our congregations are arguments for naturalism; that is, arguments for modern atheism, which considers God as a “thing.” These arguments become less intelligible when considered as arguments against, e.g., Martin Buber’s conception of God as “Thou,” or God considered in panentheist or pantheist terms.

Another way of saying this is that when using the English-language term “God,” you have to be careful to define in what sense you are using that term. When you argue against God as a thing which is a natural cause, your arguments will have little effect on those for whom God is defined in terms of a personal devotional relationship.

Furthermore, if a modern atheist winds up arguing with a mystic, someone like Henry David Thoreau or me, they might find they’re arguing with a religious naturalist who agrees entirely with their naturalist arguments, but who does not define God as a thing which is a natural cause. If we don’t clarify which definition of God we’re using, the argument is going to get confusing very quickly.

Why capitalism sucks

You’ve been trying to explain why capitalism sucks, but when you use the term “alienated labor,” people just roll their eyes and appear bored. So maybe you should say “shitty jobs” instead, which is what Natalie Wyn does on her Youtube video “What’s Wrong with Capitalism, Part I.” Wyn gets extra points for being funny, for knowing her Marxism (she dropped out of a PhD program in philosophy, so she really does know Marxism), and for having a good eye for the medium of video.

Maybe Wyn loses points because Youtube sticks an advertisement at the beginning of her video. Or maybe she gains points, because it’s so ironic: an advertisement preceding a video in which advertising is revealed as a tool for irrational manipulation. In any case, Wyn does lose points for comparing capitalist overlords to reptiles; I happen to like reptiles, even snapping turtles, more than I like Donald Trump and Mark Zuckerberg. Though even I have to admit, her reptiles are hilariously funny.

Bottom line: if you’re trying to explain to someone why capitalism sucks, don’t hand them Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, show them this video.

Universal concepts — or not?

Are the concept of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding universal and shared across different cultural and religious traditions? Or are there no important philosophical concepts that are shared among people in all cultural and religious traditions?

The interdisciplinary team of the Geography of Philosophy Project aim to find out. They’re taking an empirical approach, and just opened a Web site where they plan to report at least some of their progress. Not much there yet, but I plan to keep an eye on the Go Philosophy Web site.

(Thanks to.)

Progressive Confucianism

Progressive Confucianism is a new Web site, primarily in Chinese, though with a small amount of English-language content as well. I wish I read Chinese, because the material on Progressive Confucianism in English makes the concept sound pretty interesting, such as this passage:

“The idea that ethical insight leads to progressive political change, which in turn leads to greater realization of our potential for virtue, lies at the heart of Progressive Confucianism.”

(Thanks to.)

Identifying postmodern approaches to truth

“Truth isn’t truth,” said Rudy Guiliani on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He later tried to clarify that his “statement was not meant as a pontification on moral theology.”

Actually, I would argue that Guiliani’s statement has more to do with philosophical epistemology than with moral theology; that is, with the philosophical study of how we know the world. I would further argue that Guiliani’s statement reveals his indebtedness to the philosophical stance of postmodernism. To see what I mean, the first paragraph of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on postmodernism may prove helpful:

“That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.”

The relevant point here, I think, is that post-modernist statements such as “truth isn’t truth” and “alternative facts” can be considered attempts to destabilize the concept of epistemic certainty and univocity of meaning — that is, these are attempts to upset my sense that I can know something to be true, and to upset my sense that truth is the same for all reasoning beings. Statements such as these are trying to make us feel that we do not know the world adequately, and that we cannot know the world adequately through use of reason.

Guiliani’s statement is notable for its lack of nuance. I also think we’re seeing an uptick in fascist politics in the United States, a politics which increasingly seems to rely on postmodern destabilization of epistemic certainty. I see this as a troubling trend: a link between fascism and the denial of epistemic certainty.

At the same time, I’m also thinking that some discourse by political liberals may also prove destabilizing to epistemic certainty, though with different intention and probably different ultimate effects. Some varieties of identity politics may involve assertions that person within one identity group cannot fully understand persons in another identity group, which assertions, if nuanced, may be useful and reasonable. For example, a woman could say to me, with great reasonableness, that because I’m a man I cannot understand many aspects of what it’s like to be a woman. Usually, there are several levels of understanding implicit in such a statement, e.g.: that while a man can’t understand fully what it is like to be a woman nevertheless a man can reason out something of what women experience (as exemplified by male novelists who write reasonably convincing female characters); that a transgender person who transitions from male to female can experience something of both male and female directly; and so on.

In a similar vein, scholar of religion Stephen Prothero asserts in his book God Is Not One that religions have different goals and different end points — and he also makes it clear that it’s possible to engender understanding between different religions, and between practitioners of different religions. In sum, then, one can assert that certain kinds of understanding between different persons may never be fully possible, while at the same time leaving room for the possibility that significant understanding may happen with effort. As a man I’m never going to experience what it’s like to bear a child, but there are conditions under which I can reason out or empathize with that experience. As a Unitarian Universalist, I’m never going to experience the submission to Allah characteristic of Islam, but there are conditions under which I can reason out or empathize with that experience.

But here’s where it gets tricky. I think political liberals have to be careful of how they use identity politics. Identity politics has been rightly critical of those who assert truths that are self-serving, as, for example, male scientists who assert that it is a “truth” that fewer women are capable of being scientists. This kind of argument is effective when it it appeals to reason, e.g., by pointing out how one’s bias can affect how one interprets data, i.e., how bias blinds one to reason. On the other hand, identity politics can move into the realm of postmodern destabilization of epistemic certainty, for example with assertions that different identity groups have different truths that can not be mutually understood. If one is going to assert “Your truth isn’t my truth,” one must be careful to explicate how that statement is different from “Truth isn’t truth.”

Postmodernism and postmodern ideas are widespread in our society, and in our public discourse. We are all affected by them. The point I’m trying to make is that we have to be critical of our own discourse, and be aware of how we’re being affected by postmodern efforts to destabilize epistemic certainty. Because no one wants to wind up like Rudy Guiliani, saying in a public, “Truth isn’t truth.”