What are Extremists? A Follow-Up Post, In Which I Leave Myself More Confused Than Ever

Matt Lind, an old college friend, and the person whose Facebook comment I was partially taking off from in my last post, left a comment that I couldn’t help replying to. Because I found that comment growing into a monstrous tumor of opinion, and because I also found myself going into greater detail about philosophical stances of mine that have confused some readers in the past, I thought I’d just let this comment spread its wings and fly… fly! … [CRASH]

Matt writes: 

Phil, I like that you made this a critique of language policing generally. I agree that my comments were sloppy. I think that when I think of extremism, though, what I mean is someone, whether left or right, who does not believe in evidence and mathematics. If your argument is purely and lazily anecdotal, or worse, counterfactual (read, American Sniper), then you meet my definition of an extremist.

My main point of disagreement with you here is that I no longer find any virtues in moral certitude. What I think unites extremists is their opposition to reason, i.e., recognizing that perfect is not an option or real. Rather there is merely better or worse. Also, in my mind, supporting gay marriage because you think the Bible supports it is just as dangerous as opposing gay marriage because you think the Bible opposes it.

Well, Matt, first of all, thanks for playing along gracefully. I felt almost a little mean using a Facebook status as an example of The Problems With This Debate. Social media posts are revealing because they show the language closest-to-hand in any situation, the issue-framings we almost can’t help using. But there’s also something uncharitable about treating them as if they are well-thought-out statements (like, say, a BLOG COMMENT, amirite?). But your comment stuck in my head and I kept mentally arguing with it, and that is where my essays tend to come from, for better or worse. Thank you for not taking offense at being thus used. I hope you’ll excuse these further liberties.

When I know that yours is the definition of “extremist” that’s in play—uninterested in evidence, dismissive of facts and logic—then I, too, reject extremism. I don’t know whether that’s the meaning the word has in most peoples’ minds. Maybe it is. I could be inferring a different meaning than a lot of people here; I honestly don’t know. I also wonder whether “extremist” may be like “pretentious,” “elitist,” “condescending,” “hipster,” “moderate,” “cool,” “it is what it is,” etc. in not having much determinable meaning anymore. (In that case, I’m not blaming you; that’s just language.)

Re your second paragraph: Hmm. I bet there are strong (i.e., reasonable) philosophical arguments that “reason” does not equal “recognizing that perfect is not an option” (and also that “not an option” does not equal “real”), but I’ll leave that aside, because I don’t feel like doing that research, let alone deciding whether I agree with those arguments today right now this minute. I’m just sticking a Post-It on something that I think may be a harder problem than it looks.

When it comes to politics, I share—deeply—the belief that it is definitely best to think in terms of “better and worse.” Many folks who are labeled extremists do so, though, including the folks under discussion in Chait’s essay, so I’m not sure that’s exactly where your (our) issue with them lies. In fact, I can definitely think of a reading of “language policing” in which it’s seen as a giant left-wing throwing-in of the towel, an abandonment of the struggle for perfection. We can’t get a living wage; we can’t get folks to think seriously about the humanity of black people in prison; we can’t get people to see why it’s good for health insurance plans to deliver a suffering soul from the horror that is gender dysphoria (seriously, I’ve heard it described as feeling like you’re looking at your own body after a massive car accident, twenty-four-seven, for years. That sense of sickening wrongness. No wonder trans folks find themselves committing suicide at wildly disproportionate rates.). We can’t get people to believe that “common good” is a thing. We’ve given up on persuading the broader society of any left-wing vision whatsoever. So instead we’ll pester people already more or less in our circle about what they call other people until at least that is “fixed.” That’s not aiming at perfect. I’m not sure what it is.

But notice that I’ve already contradicted myself a bit: I say it is “best” not to think in terms of “best.” How would I know? I thought there was no “best”?

I also would quibble with the language “supporting gay marriage because you think the Bible supports it.” The kind of Christian I was describing there is somebody who already maybe has abandoned simplistic statements about what the Bible “supports,” given that it was written by multiple hands over a long time period and changes position blatantly on several things (“Eeeewww, eunuchs! Aaaaahhh hates eunuchs!”/”Nevermind, I love eunuchs! They’re my special little guys!”). You believe enough of it to want a relationship with the God it is talking about, in its wildly varying ways. You like the glimpses you see there (in the feeding of the five thousand, in Mark’s subversive resurrection account, in Joseph’s reunion with his brothers, in Paul wishing himself damned if that would save other people) of a being, a personality, enough that you’re willing to stake your life on the questionable possibility that that person even exists. Because to be human is to stake yourself on things that can be questioned. (I’ll get back to this in a minute.)

So it’s not the painting but the person painted.

But even if I DID accept that description of how I believe, I’m not sure why “I think the Bible says this, and I find the Bible reliable, so…” would be more dangerous than…whatever you’re proposing I base my conduct on instead. I could make some guesses about what this is—human rights, democracy, Enlightenment goodness, whatever—but I don’t want to put any more words in your mouth than I have to. Certainly these discourses, much as I admire them and use them, are a) awfully indebted to Christianity and b) perfectly liable, like Christianity, to abuse and fanaticism. The Iraq War was sold far more in terms of “spreading democracy” than in the explicitly religious “crusade” language that Bush also used, for example. (And Bush’s people were also wont to explain themselves in terms of a pomo relativism straight out of a graduate seminar room, something else I always want to point out when people talk about that White House’s noxiousness as the sole product of fanatical Christianism. Cards on the table: I think if George W. Bush were actually gripped by the conviction that Iraqis were made in the image of God, which is basic Christian doctrine, we wouldn’t have heard word one about that God-damned monstrosity.)

Maybe the thing that you find less dangerous as a basis for conduct is something else. That’s fine. My God is a debatable God (that’s kind of part of the point) and I have a pretty ready sympathy for people who can’t swallow those convictions—or who have never even given them a second thought. (I think that’s charity, which is something else I find in my religion.) I do hope, though, Matt, that you’re not going to come back at me with some version of “I think you should get your values from Science.” I hope you won’t do that, because I’ve always been enormously fond of you and I hate it when people I’m fond of lapse into word salad. Every few years a pundit writes a book about how science can replace philosophy and religion, how we can cross the Is-Ought gap; I still haven’t heard a version of the argument that I can even laugh at. I honestly find “Palestinian peasant gets pregnant with God” easier to swallow.

We’ve all got our little black box of convictions, even if yours is just “convictions are dangerous.” (I’d like to see the math formula that gets a person all the way to that one without any element of the arbitrarily believed-in.) We get to all of them by a leap of faith, a decision. (I’m not saying that to demean logic and math; I’m just saying they operate within one of many structures they don’t themselves make.) We change them the same way. Personally, I think most people get theirs partly from their environment, partly from disposition, partly from acting on them and viewing the results, and only partly from reflection of an abstract kind. They’re all probably potentially dangerous, too. We’re bumping around in the dark here, doing the best we can, trying not to trample anyone. We hear rumors of light. Presumably some of those rumors are true. But which?

As to your comments on “moral certainty.” I’m not sure I want to fight about that. (Though, again, I can’t resist pointing out the paradox that this conviction against certainty is one you seem fairly certain about.) I find moral certainty unattractive. But even as I say that, I think of five or six morally certain people that I find very attractive indeed. We’re back where we started: is it certainty that’s off-putting, or is it the content of the certainty? Or is it that some morally certain people are also dickfaces, but that their dickfaceness is unrelated to their ideas (because, again, ideas are simply not the sole influence on human conduct)?

Lastly, Matt, you may continue posting Jon Chait pieces to my wall to your heart’s content. I am not morally certain that every last word he writes is bad. In fact, I downright enjoyed this. He needs to leave Jeet Heer alone, though.

4 responses to “What are Extremists? A Follow-Up Post, In Which I Leave Myself More Confused Than Ever

  1. Once again, my comment was sloppy, but I appreciate the eloquent, thorough, and charitable reply. I think this argument has all of a sudden come to what I believe is the absolutely most interesting disagreement between “conservatives” and “liberals,” if I may indulge in that trite bit of manicheism.*

    Anyways, I think that the only coherent non-supernatural way to make universal or even local norms for human behavior is to reference what does and does not make people happy or sad in reality. In that sense, Mill has gotten closer to the “truth” than anyone else.

    I make this bold claim because I think it is descriptive of how humans actually make moral arguments. I think that any moral philosophy that does not have a reference point in reality is useless for settling moral disputes. Also, I cannot think of a coherent argument why the way human beings are is not the way we should be.

    In fact, I think the most “conservative” view of morality is to scientifically ascertain where morality came from, and to create the most simple moral system possible, based on that knowledge. I think there is overwhelming evidence that humans need morality as much as they need food and shelter. Therefore, failing to provide morality is a failure to provide a basic need of humanity. I think that, no matter what ultimate definition of morality one goes by, a failure to provide a basic need is immoral.

    That said, humans have made remarkable progress in limiting violence and expanding civil rights to broad categories of other people and even animals. While I have heard the arguments from some religious liberals that this has only been made possible by various religious traditions, I would respectfully submit that this is false. This has been debunked elsewhere, and I will be happy to debunk this later.

    Whatever the current theories in sociobiology, I think it is an undeniable fact that altruism is hard-wired into human beings. To suggest that evolution has made us brutal killing machines is as counterfactual as suggesting that oral tradition is a reliable means of sharing information.

    The fact that human beings are not only capable, but hard-wired to be compassionate is, I think, something that should give us hope for the future. The fact that some humans, including many powerful ones, lack compassion is troubling. However, I would argue that this trend is slowly AND painfully changing.

    Therefore, I once again suggest that, while true, intelligible consequentialist ethics as envisioned by Mills are still a thing of the future, the state of modern behavioral sciences are getting us closer and closer to a time where we really can rationalize ourselves into happier and healthier living.

    Also, however, cartoonish my portrayal of your worldview, I still think the fundamental weakness of any religious worldview is a lack of the exact kind of point of reference I describe here. While I certainly acknowledge that there is no absolute SHOULD hanging out there in my worldview, I think I have provided intelligible, universal arguments for why there can be local SHOULDS hanging around in our communities.

    However, I would pose some questions to you? I hope you do not take them as a sign of disrespect. These are questions I take quite seriously, and I think demand serious answers. I only ask them of you, because I am willing to hear your answers to these questions, even if they disagree with my preconceptions.

    In what sense are you a Christian if you ignore the Bible? How do you know right from wrong? Are you not merely engaging in the kind of reasoning I describe here? Or is there something accessible about Christian moral truth that I have been missing?

    *Note, actual Manicheists were probably not manicheists. Please consult the internet for more information. Individual results may vary.

  2. Let me make something clear. I know my argument is inherently circular. I don’t see this as problematic. I think the argument for religion is circular as well. Godel’s incompleteness theorem would have it no other way.

    • I want to restate this more formally and simply.

      Happiness and sadness evolved as a means of allowing living creatures to learn about and adapt to their environments.

      Morality evolved so that mammals could maximize their abilities as social animals.

      Morality uses positive and negative emotions to alert mammals to prosocial and antisocial behavior.

      Ergo, humans typically make moral judgments based on what will make them happy now and later.

      Sometimes these judgments are sacralized by making reference to a deity, but these arguments are still intelligible solely with reference to human feeling.

      Moral arguments that solely make reference to a deity or sacred belief system, can lead to behaviors that cause sadness and suffering.

      Moral judgments that make reference to evidence, mathematics, and human happiness have generally made people happier and healthier.

      For humans to successfully adapt to social living, overdetecting intention was selected for.

      Belief in the intentionality of inanimate objects or incorporeal forces is a natural outgrowth of that overdetection.

      Belief in such things, is therefore, evolutionarily advantageous but highly likely to be wishful thinking.

      Traditions attesting to deities are highly unreliable.

      Humans need morality to live successfully as social animals.

      The highly unlikeliness of a deity does not take away a need for morality.

      Since morality is still intelligible, just with reference to human feeling, it is still possible.

      Since there are no absolute moral prohibitions, using human feeling as a replacement for a metaphysical belief system cannot be wrong.

      It also cannot be right.

      Therefore, moral judgments made with reference to human feeling are tentative. The needs of others, such as other living and nonliving things can make a claim with equal, but not greater, moral force, since there is no moral force.

      The “best” we can get is an increasing moral equilibrium, where as many needs are respected while intruding on as few as possible.

      Science, evidence, and mathematics have the best track record of approaching this equilibrium.

  3. One more clarification, if I may be permitted:

    When I say using human feeling as the basis for morality “cannot be” wrong or right, what I mean to say is that it is “highly unlikely to be” wrong or right.

    Also, when I say “there is no moral force,” I mean, it is highly unlikely for there to be an absolute moral argument that does not make reference to human or other feeling.”

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