All up in the philosophy

I got this from Shawn on facebook. But I don’t do much facebook anymore (for reasons mostly relating to the proxy server at the office), so I’m copying this and pasting it here. I stole some responses from Shawn who apparently stole some from Aeon…

This would be good for discussion and comments! (hint hint)

Moral properties Naturalist Moral Realism
Moral knowledge is empirical
Normative ethics Neo-Aristotelian rational self-interest
Animal ethics Whatever the ethics of animals are, they’re not telling. Seriously. Since Animals are non-cognitive, animal ethics are necessarily a subset of human knowledge. What we call “good” is “good” for a particular subject, whatever decisions we make regarding animal ethics are necessarily subject to observational bias. We can decide that it’s OK to eat animals, or not. We can decide that it’s wrong to abuse animals and we can decide what constitutes abuse, but we make those decisions–whatever they are–according to our own criteria for our own purposes and for our own benefit.
Abortion Ethically: Yes, through the point at which the fetus is viable.
Legally: Yes, through the second trimester or in cases where the mother’s life is in danger.
Death Penalty Privatize it. Joking. Mostly. Some people have, in fact, forfeited their right to live, but the State will invariably screw up both the adjudication and the administration.
Political theory Constitutionally limited republican government with separated and enumerated powers and a bicameral legislature composed of distinct houses beholden to separate constituencies. (A house and senate with the additional qualification that only property owners may vote for senate and they may not vote for the house)
Distributive justice “From each as he chooses, to each as he is chosen” (Nozick).
Minds Biological Naturalism. I think Searle is pretty darn close. I don’t think there’s any reason to imagine that the “mind” must necessarily be non-reductive. An emergent process can be wholly reductive and still emergent. Szasz makes good points too.
Qualia produced by interactions of human sensory faculties with objects of world. (Kelley)
Free Will Volitional consciousness: human consciousness has the capacity to focus on this rather than that.
Reasons Humans act on reasons; some of which can be irrational.
Structure of knowledge An integrated whole upon the foundation of the senses.
Acquisition of knowledge Evidence of the senses interpreted through rational faculty
Knowledge of external world See above
Phil of science The scientific method is a reliable way to model the natural world. The progress of science lies in reducing the degree of error in the model’s predictions.
Existence of God A product of human imagination. Except for Thor. Thor was real.
Life after death Only in the memories of those who knew you.
Truth Some kind of correspondence theory. The correspondence need not be either wholly accurate or infallible to hold.
Universals Yes, as epistemological essences (Rand)
Abstract Objects See above.
Time the vector (or rate, depending on usage) of observable causality.
Space orthogonal to time, the limit (or rate) of observable causality.

Yes, I know that any definition of causality depends on concepts of Time and Space and therefore I’m being rather circular. However… I think we have a natural bias to organize our qualia in reference to a limited physiological understanding of causality. I think it’s likely that this base perception of causality lies at the root of our epistemological process and so therefore I’ll treat causality as the epistemic primary and time and space as derivative. But maybe the question is metaphysical rather than epistemological, in which case both time and space are aspects of reality. Time and space exist and they have a particular relationship.

Persistence for a while     : D
Natural kinds Yes.
Composite objects Yes.
Beauty Normative: that which affirms the glory of human life and achievement.
Descriptive: that which affirms the observer’s psychological sense of human life and achievement.

Beauty may arise from either production (art) or active identification (natural beauty).

Artworks Art is the result of deliberate effort to produce beauty.



President Obama

On April 16, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote the following from the Birmingham, Alabama city jail.

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.

Today, Barack Hussein Obama II will take the Oath of Office. Just 46 years ago, the most prominent black man in America was jailed for seeking simple justice. In the space of merely two generations, the most prominent black man in America becomes the 44th President of the United States.

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. — “I Have a Dream

Today’s inauguration represents the culmination of tremendous change and is a testament to the hope and dedication of all the millions and millions of Americans who have ever fought for equality, justice, and liberty. This moment is deservedly historical and Americans are right to be proud, but it is not the culmination of our struggle.

I hope to see more victories like this one. I hope to see the fight against intolerance, ignorance, and injustice continue apace. The first woman President. The first Native-American President. The first Jewish President. The first homosexual President. The first President to embrace sane economic policy.

We will wake tomorrow and today’s problems will persist. Our economy is stagnating, our debt is rising, growth is slowing, discrimination still exists, intolerance and ignorance remain, and we remain the target of barbarous thugs. The struggle continues.

Liberty is not seperable; it cannot be parsed into races, sexes, or categories. We cannot slice our freedom in two, extending “personal” liberty while trampling “economic” liberty. We cannot secure our borders by violating the rights of citizens, and we cannot pursue happiness if we are shackled by rising deficits and growing debt.

The struggle for the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is a struggle against ignorance, prejudice and corruption. The extent to which we cherish reason, respect individual rights, and punish graft and theft, is the extent to which we succeed.

Here’s hoping for more victories.

Constraining Leviathan

There’s an excellent article up at Cato Unbound by Anthony De Jasay. The theme, “Is Limited Government Possible?” touches on the inherent problems of attempting to limit the growth of government when every incentive exists for government to grow. De Jasay is European and his analysis seems to reflect a greater familiarity with parliamentary democracy than with presidential democracy (more on that in a bit), but his central point is perfectly sound.

Essentially, De Jasay argues that the structural limits we would like to enforce upon government are no more than speed limits. Constitutional and other structural limitations rely upon the government for their enforcement and are therefore undermined by their ultimate lack of enforcement. De Jasay likens these limits to a lady’s chastity belt. If the lady has the key, then the belt only delays the inevitable.

He says,

…self-imposed rules attempting to limit the scope of collective choices, such as constitutions, are not strong and though they may be observed if they are innocuous and only forbid government to do what it is not strongly interested in doing, they could hardly be expected to restrain government from doing what it is anxious to do or must do to preserve its tenure of power. The general absence from constitutions of restrictions of taxation lends some verisimilitude to this conclusion, though it would still have to be regarded as tentative.

The US Constitution, for example, prohibited an income tax, until it didn’t. It restrained federal spending and federal intrusion into matters unrelated to interstate commerce, until it didn’t. And famously, the Constitution was silent on the sale of alcohol, until it banned it, until it didn’t.

So what does limit the growth of government? De Jasay argues that there are only a few things: The susceptibility of the electorate to panic (The idea that things sometimes get so bad that everybody gets scared and votes for Thatcher or Reagan); Widely held beliefs (Here Jasay offers the universal, pre-Keynsian belief in the evil of deficits); and Campaign financing.

In the United States, it is still largely individuals and not parties that get elected. Party discipline is loose compared to Europe and candidates raise their campaign expenditure to a large extent by personal effort for their personal purposes. To the extent that campaign donations are sought from higher income donors, a candidate’s program must be more “conservative” and less redistributive than if donations came from all income groups in proportion to their income. If elected, a legislator has both a debt of honor to pay to his high-income donors and must establish a record that will help him gather donations on future occasions if there are any such.

Jasay argues that publicly financed campaigns result in more redistributive polices than privately financed campaigns because publicly financed campaigns tend to decrease the responsibility that a political coalition bears for its policies. It’s an interesting position, and certainly points up the problems inherent in publicly financed campaigns (unless of course, we imagine politics should be devoid of responsibility).

Is there nothing we can do to limit the growth of Leviathan? What about checks and balances? The “separation of powers?” De Jasay is not enthused,

One of the dangerously misleading phrases in this context that has penetrated political thought is the “separation of powers.” It is dangerous because it tacitly suggests that such separation can resolve the paradoxical feature of every constitution which the king enforces against himself (or a government against the mandate of its own majority). Montesquieu uses words that do not illuminate the distinction between separate functions of a government and separate repositories of power under separate control that may act independently of one another or even against each other. The latter kind of separation of what ultimately boils down to armed formations and firepower is difficult to conceive of within a single government. It is fairly obvious that Montesquieu did not mean it, and if we mean it when we use the phrase, it is that we do not really think of what the words could mean. The result is a blind belief that the separation of functions among legislature, executive, and judiciary contains within itself a solution to the constitutional paradox of real, though perhaps not logico-legal, self-reference.

This all seems a little bleak. I’m reminded of a particularly depressing conversation I once had with Robert Higgs (author of Crisis and Leviathan) in which Dr. Higgs despaired of the chances for real reform. Unfortunately, I think both Higgs’s and De Jasay’s arguments are compelling. But I’m an optimist, so I’ll keep plowing on, doing what little I can to try and increase the prospects for liberty.

I also think that De Jasay’s continental focus colors his arguments. In a parliamentary democracy, a government is literally “built” with a coalition of different parties, and aside from the entrenched bureaucracy, the ruling coalition oversees all aspects of the government (legislative and executive with the power of judicial appointment or oversight). The coalition is in complete power and is answerable only to its members and constituents. It is only limited by the degree to which it must appease competing interests within its own coalition.

In a presidential system, however, it is possible that different coalitions may control different parts of the government at the same time. (Just as Republicans control the executive branch while Democrats control the legislature.) In practice this can lead to a substantial reduction in the growth of government. Not actual reduction, mind you, just a reduction in the rate of growth. Bi-partisanism is too easy and too common.

And of course, the founders envisioned an even stronger difference: the Senate and the House were intended to represent fundamentally different interests. But that distinction has been lost for some time. Again, the constitution limited government until it didn’t.

Ultimately I think De Jasay underestimates the potential of structural limitations to slow the growth of government. I think growth may be slowed in relation to the extent that government can be divided against itself. Any successful democratic society must learn to balance interests and if those different interests can be set against each other, then we can hope for at least a kind of detente. (Perhaps akin to the adversarial system we have in law?)

We must recognize and acknowledge that the establishment of government is an inherently precarious business; eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. Erecting institutional and structural checks that serve to balance competing interests may not be a panacea, but it should make radical change more difficult.

The challenge is to devise structural limits that put those interests that are least likely to join together at odds with each other. For example, a wealth qualification that would divide eligible voters; the wealthy vote for Senate, the less wealthy for the House, no one may vote for candidates in both houses in the same election. Those limits, of course, may well appear undemocratic (and decidedly materialistic!), but it may be that pure democracy is not the ultimate goal or good. A stable, healthy republic may serve its citizens better than unfettered democracy (That may sound incendiary at first, but really it’s just common sense. Unfettered democracy allows for the will of the majority to trample the rights of the minority; the central purpose and aim of a constitutional republic is to restrict the power of the majority.)

Of course, there are many difficulties inherent in any attempt to set vested interests against each other, not least of which is the possibility that it may not be possible to divide an electorate into stable interest groups. Class conflicts may not actually exist in such substantial force as to qualify as an effective distinction and it should go without saying that demarcating interests along inessential lines–such as race or sex–is deplorable. Furthermore, it may not be possible to effectively prevent cross-interest collusion–even if such stable and competing interests could be identified. After all, the incentives for coalition building would remain as strong as they are now.

Ultimately, the problem lies in the fact that power creates its own incentives. The greatest restriction on the abuse of power is an informed and principled electorate. Or in other words, ideas matter. Politicians may act to maximize their own influence and power over time, but if such activities were more scorned than applauded, the risk of a politician over-reaching would lessen. (Witness the recent reaction to earmarking.) Public opinion and popular sentiment can and does change. Witness the abolition of slavery and the extension of suffrage to women.

In any event, this analysis only serves to underscore the inadequacy of the current candidates for President. Both Hillary and Obama endorse policies that would further erode what little restrictions currently serve to keep the growth of government in check. And so does McCain.

More Gradualism

Timothy Sandefur has another post up on gradualism, commenting on my response. Sandefur clarifies his point as a criticism of the impulse of some libertarians to invest Hayek’s view of spontaneous order with too much weight. He says,

“[The point of the post] is to point out what I think is a terrible habit among some libertarians and conservatives of abusing the concept of spontaneous order or social evolution, in ways that render the concept trivial, or that just totally ignore the actual ingredients of successful social reform.”

I wasn’t so much critiquing that point as attempting to clarify my understanding of Burke’s challenge to the French Revolution–and emphasizing that grand projects to forcibly remake the whole of society are usually doomed to failure. My point isn’t that constructivist rationalism is any worse than spontaneous order (or vice-versa), only that the institutions of society are abandoned at great peril. Partly it’s a difference between the Enlightenment and the Romantic period. If the American Revolution can be seen as a sort of culmination of Enlightenment thought, the French Revolution is the culmination of Romanticism. Where the enlightenment stressed reason and political liberty, the romantics emphasized emotion over reason and were consequently more concerned with material well-being and egalitarianism than with political liberty. The result was the very romantic notion that both social structures and human nature are mere plastic to be reformed at will by benevolent governors. The problem wasn’t that the French revolution elevated “constructivist rationalism” over “spontaneous order” it was that it destroyed any semblance of spontaneous order and submitted the general will to the constructivist rationalism of a few. It didn’t attempt to make men free, it wanted to make men better–and that’s always a dangerous prospect.

The French Revolution wasn’t bad because it was sudden, it was bad because it didn’t make anybody free. Sandefur says,

“the point is that it is dishonest for Burkeans/Hayekians to use it as an example of the alleged inevitable failure of constructivist rationalism, without also keeping in mind that if nothing had been done—if “gradualism” had been the word of the day—the result would have been more and more death, more and more poverty, more and more oppression.”

But all it resulted in was “more and more death, more and more poverty, more and more oppression.” It was the mere substitution of one tyranny for another. It wasn’t a failure of constructivist rationalism for having been planned, it was a failure of constructivist rationalism because it substituted the command of the tyrant for judgment of the individual. In contrast, the American Revolution, the American Civil War, and the Civil Rights movement represent projects that resulted in greater liberty–they were planned, they were organized, but their goal was to allow the kind of decentralized liberty that gives rise to spontaneous order.

I take Hayek and Burke to imply that social reform must be conducted with deep concern over the freedom of the individual to make his own decisions. Neither Hayek nor Burke suggest that we abandon conscious decision making or forsake deliberate efforts to reform society, rather they remind us that we cannot substitute our own desires and prejudices for the people we purport to set free. In this sense, the indictment against constructivist rationalism is the indictment of the tyrant.

A quick aside: Sandefur quotes my comment about the civil rights movement: “the civil rights movement, while violent, was conducted entirely within the constraints and confines of the law [which is definitely not true, but let’s put that to one side].” Just to clarify, I should not have said “entirely within the constraints and confines of the law.” Sandefur is correct in pointing out the absurdity of that claim. If I could amend my claim, I would say that the movement was conducted largely within the constraints and confines of the law. The movement was at heart a movement of reform, not revolution, it sought a change in the law not a complete destruction of the law.

Sandefur and Gradualism

Timothy Sandefur has an interesting piece up on the “Romance of Gradualism.” His thesis is essentially that while knowledge problems may make central planning more difficult, they do not, by themselves, invalidate the efficacy of central planning initiatives. Or more precisely, his point is that sudden radical, engineered change can accomplish a great deal despite the knowledge problems inherent in central planning.

As evidence of the success of radical change, he contrasts the American Civil War with Jim Crow and Reconstruction, and again with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The Civil War and The Civil Rights Movement, he argues, were engineered changes, brought about through sudden and violent means. They stand in contrast to the failed gradualism of the intervening period. To further illustrate the danger of gradualism, he contrasts the traditional Burkean view of the French Revolution against a quote from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Twain’s a great writer, and the quote deserves copying:

There were two “Reigns of Terror,” if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror—that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.

The Burkean view has it that the French Revolution was a failure because it attempted to remake the entire fabric of society and ignored the accumulated wisdom of the ages. Rather than impose radical and sweeping change, it is better to approach the problem of social change gradually — by working within existing systems, especially the law. Twain’s point makes a different point. The Reign of Terror may have been bad, but it put to death the horror of the previous evil. While the cost of revolution may have been high, it was not as high as the price paid through centuries of oppression and failed attempts at gradual change. Or at least, that’s where Sandefur is going.

The problem is that you can’t really compare the insidious horror of the relatively brief Reign of Terror to centuries of Royal oppression. Had the Reign of Terror lasted as long, the cost would have far exceeded what had come before. But even that is really beside the point. The French Revolution wasn’t a failure simply because of Robespierre’s short and brutal rule. Had France endured that and then emerged free and whole and vibrant, the point–and the comparison to the American Civil War–might be valid. But the Reign of Terror gave birth to Napoleon, not freedom. The French Revolution failed utterly–not because of a madman and a few months of horror–but because it failed entirely to achieve the least of its ambitions. The French Revolution guillotined a king and crowned an emperor.

As for the American examples, the civil rights movement, while violent, was conducted entirely within the constraints and confines of the law. That, I think, makes it a “gradual” movement by the definition of the Burkeans. Rather than throw aside the corpus of the law as the French Revolution did, the movement worked within the law. The Civil War was a tad more…. disruptive. Although I think one could make an argument for the fact that the Civil War was a legal response to a radical and “revolutionary” rebellion and, in a sense, was still conducted within the confines of the law. (Burke’s point about the French revolution applies to the manner in which the revolutionaries abandoned the entire body of society–in a manner decidedly different than the American revolutionaries who went to great pains to preserve existing civic institutions and the English Common Law–including the entire body of precedent.)

The Causes of Terrorism

There’s an interesting article up at The American debunking the myth that affluence reduces terrorism, or that terrorism is a response to poverty.

“The evidence suggests that terrorists care about influencing political outcomes. They are often motivated by geopolitical grievances. To under­stand who joins terrorist organizations, instead of asking who has a low salary and few opportunities, we should ask: Who holds strong political views and is confident enough to try to impose an extrem­ist vision by violent means? Most terrorists are not so desperately poor that they have nothing to live for. Instead, they are people who care so fervently about a cause that they are willing to die for it.”

Krueger, the author of the article, suggests that rather than likening terrorism to crime (where there is a strong correlation with poverty), it is more instructive to liken terrorism to voting and political protest. Krueger’s research suggests that, as with voting and political protest, terrorism is more likely to attract the affluent: those people who can better afford to spend their time committing themselves to abstract political ideals. The author therefore suggests a stronger correlation between political oppression and terrorism than between poverty and terrorism. He argues that relatively wealthy, but heavily oppressive societies–like Saudi Arabia–would tend to generate more terrorists.

That certainly seems plausible to me. I have long wondered if the whole exercise in trying to determine the “root cause” or “root grievance” of terrorism isn’t a little misguided. As Krueger points out, terrorists have diverse motivations. Assuming that terrorism is simply a response to poverty is a project that smacks of simple materialism and has a tendency to obscure issues of moral responsibility and moral agency.

The choice to embrace terrorism is a political choice. It’s the result of accepting a particular ideology, committing wholeheartedly to political and philosophical abstractions and then reifying those abstractions. Terrorism is result of a commitment to dogma, and dogma, as I’ve mentioned before, only thrives where political expression is curtailed.

I know this all sounds a little academic, but this debate matters because it directly affects how we choose to combat terrorism.

If we take the simple materialist stance and imagine terrorism as another version of class struggle, then we’ll be inclined to pursue policies appeasement and wealth transfer. Appeasement because materialism only allows the wealthy the luxury of moral agency, and wealth transfer because redistribution is the only response to the inequities of class. In practical terms, that means offering terrorists gross concessions, like making them part of the government (as in Sierra Leone and Palestine), deliberately ignoring their moral atrocities (as in Rwanda), or conceding to their demands (as in pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan).

But if we take the opposite view, that terrorism is the result of a dogmatic ideology and that the war against terrorism is ultimately ideological–science and reason pitted against fundamentalism and ignorance–then the final battlefield is free public discourse. Dogma withers and dies in light of free inquiry, and free inquiry is only possible in a free society. If we want to win the fight against terrorist dogma, then we must ultimately liberate the people who would be most affected by it.

This is not necessarily to say that America should invade and liberate every oppressive regime in the world, but it is to say that military intervention must remain a valid option in foreign affairs, and it is to say that it should be the avowed policy of US foreign policy to work–through many means–towards the dissolution of oppressive and tyrannical regimes.

Diversity Matters

I’ve been thinking a little bit about diversity lately. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the value that real diversity can bring to an organization, whether that organization is a school, a magazine, a major corporation, a shoe store, or the U.S. Senate.

We hear about diversity all the time. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen standard stock phrases that extol a companies commitment to “diversity in the workplace.” Or notices that “Minorities are strongly encouraged to apply!” But racial, sexual, and ethnic diversity is ultimately a pretty shallow kind of diversity. It very rarely makes any difference to me whether my co-worker, boss, senator, plumber or teacher is a straight Catholic Asian man or a gay Hispanic Jewish woman. What usually matters most to me is whether or not the person is competent.

It is true that in some cases, there’s more at stake than mere competence. I certainly want more than a detailed knowledge of parliamentary procedure from my senator, and I’d like my child’s teachers to have a greater commitment to truth than to mandated curricula. In those cases, a person’s basic ideology makes a difference. A conservative senator can be equally as “competent” a law-maker as his liberal colleague, but the laws they enact can be markedly different.

Ideology doesn’t–or shouldn’t–matter in every occupation or circumstance. I don’t care what the ideology of my plumber is, so long as my pipes don’t leak. In fact, I’d be alarmed if I had cause to know my plumber’s religious beliefs. But ideology does matter in some cases. An art teacher committed to representation and life-drawing and an art teacher committed to abstract expressionism, for example, may be equally competent educators, but the effects on their students will be markedly different.

In many cases, access to different ideologies can be enormously beneficial. In an art department it helps to have faculty with different emphases and inclinations. The scientific community benefits enormously when scientists test competing hypotheses. Likewise, a polity benefits from a certain amount of ideological diversity in its politicians. Different ideas and different points of emphasis can help hone arguments, winnow fiction from fact, expand opportunities and helps to prevent tyranny and despotism.

But that’s ideological diversity. The extent to which racial, ethnic and sexual diversity has value is the extent to which race, sex or ethnicity is a determining factor in an individual’s ideology. (And I would think that we’d all hope to see those kinds of correlations diminish over time.) Too often, a commitment to “diversity” is a sham–a commitment to a simple racial/ethnic/sexual diversity can mask hard, ingrained prejudices that serve to keep organizations ideologically homogeneous.

Take for example, the two highly visible struggles that The New Republic has had with false journalism.

I don’t mean to pick on TNR, nor do I mean to pick on their bias, or suggest that a liberal conviction necessarily implies poor judgment or an abandonment of critical thinking skills. There are slavish dogmatists across the political spectrum. But both the Stephen Glass affair and the Scott Thomas Beauchamp debacle point out the dangers of an ideologically homogeneous environment.

In both cases, reporters for TNR fabricated stories that confirmed the ideological bias of the magazine’s editors, staffers, fact-checkers, and owners. In both cases, the factual evidence for the stories was flimsy and largely unsubstantiated. Had TNR committed itself to rigorous fact-checking, the articles in question would have been discarded before they were published. But the articles benefitted from confirmation bias. It’s not that the editors or fact checkers at TNR were dupes or rubes or dishonest, they simply trusted people who told them what they already believed: that soldiers are crass and uncouth, that republicans are boors, that corporations lie, etc….

Whatever commitment TNR makes to “diversity,” they make no significant commitment to ideological diversity. Of course, they’re not alone. The National Review makes no significant commitment to ideological diversity either. And to a certain extent, these magazines exist as participants in a broader collection of opinion magazines, and there is ideological diversity amongst the magazines. In that sense, a dedicated reader can pit the competing positions against each other within the “marketplace of ideas.”

But if a broad spectrum of journalists are biased in the same direction (as many people believe), then the overall debate will become more and more homogeneous over time. And as it relates to journalism, we do seem to see a trend in that direction. The major media coverage of the Duke Rape Case, the Jena 6, and of course scandals like Rathergate all contribute to a growing sense that journalists are increasingly less likely to rigorously check their own assumptions and instead accept the narrative that best fits with the prevailing ideology. Hence statements like, ” the facts were wrong but the narrative was right” or “ fake but accurate.

This problem, unfortunately, is not limited to journalists. Ideological bias and homogeneity is also a growing problem in American education . The faculty at American colleges and universities overwhelmingly self-report as liberal as opposed to conservative. And they do so in such stunning numbers that even some self-described liberals have begun to wonder whether there isn’t some institutional bias against conservative faculty members.

But it’s only a growing problem to those who recognize that some degree of ideological diversity is a net social benefit. To the dogmatists, ideological homogeneity is a sign of virtue and pride–but that way lies folly. In the absence of sustained criticism, people have the tendency to reify their beliefs. When a mass of people begin to think alike, they begin not only to casually dismiss alternative views, but they more easily dismiss the people who hold different beliefs as ignorant, lazy, stupid, or ill intentioned. This is what happens to people who immerse themselves in dogma; they tend to dehumanize nonbelievers. It’s easy to see when the dogmatists are religious fundamentalists, but it can happen with any ideology, from environmentalism to domestic policy, from foreign policy to privacy rights. The idea that your political/social/scientific opposition must actually be morally corrupt simply because they hold differing views is inherently dangerous.

Now, I’m not a relativist. I don’t think that we should tolerate any and all ideological positions, regardless of their merit, simply for the sake of a healthy debate and vigorous ideological criticism. Some ideas are actually wrong and some ideas are actually right. But the point is that we can only really be sure of which ideas are right and which ideas are wrong by examining those ideas in critical detail. And that examination is impossible without some oppositional position.

It is true that while some belief systems and ideologies will wither quickly away, and some others survive far longer than most people would wish. But for a truly pernicious ideology (like Aryan supremacy) to survive requires that large numbers of people get together to reify their absurdities and actively suppress oppositional ideas. The only way to effectively counter genuinely perverse ideas is to bring them into the light, subject them to criticism, and watch them wither and die under scrutiny. Open and honest debate is what drives the scientific quest for truth, and it’s what drives political, social, and spiritual quests for truth as well.

The hallmark of a crippled belief system is an aversion to criticism. Anytime you hear an advocate ridicule his opposition simply for having the temerity to disagree with “accepted” conclusions, you’re hearing the voice of a dogmatist. It makes no difference what side of the aisle the dogmatist is sitting on, nor does it matter how many people the dogmatist can rally behind his banner–or how pretty and exciting the banner might be. Dogmatists can’t stand dissent, criticism, or sunlight. Dogmatists thrive in homogeneity, but they wither in a ideologically heterogeneous society. And they know this, which is why they’re the first to crucify the heathen, the first to crucify the heretic, and the first to try to silence their critics.

The essential answer to dogmatism, of course, is free inquiry and free speech. But in addition to free speech, society requires a certain level of ideological tolerance–a real commitment to real diversity. Many talking heads have bemoaned the current political strife in America: the degree to which political disagreements seem to have “divided” America. To a certain extent I agree. Although the viciousness in political discourse is nothing new, there seems to be an increasing amount of vitriol from the rank and file, and that smacks of dogma. But there is also a sense in which a society with less political division is itself more averse to change and challenge–and more likely to reify it’s worst tendencies. The biggest problem is not that the Democrats and Republicans don’t get along, it’s that they agree on so many issues and conspire to marginalize criticism of institutional flaws (log rolling, pork barreling, corruption, scandal, fiscal irresponsibility, and general sleaziness). It’s bipartisan agreement that’s the real threat.

So let’s bring on the diversity! But let it be meaningful diversity. I don’t really care how many Transsexual African Mormons there on the masthead or on the faculty, but I would like to see more ideological diversity among the reporters at the New York Times and among the faculty at Brandeis University.