Liberal and conservative morality

Every community is exposed to two opposite dangers: ossification through too much discipline and reverence for tradition, on the one hand; on the other hand, dissolution, or subjection to foreign conquest, through the growth of an individualism and personal independence that makes co-operation impossible. –Bertrand Russell.

Jonathan Haidt argues in The Righteous Mind that morality has evolved so that people can work together in groups. He discerns six foundations of our morality, which conservatives value equally but progressives value differently.

He says progressives value Care/Harm, the emotional feeling we get from someone in need, or providing for them. Conservatives value fairness/cheating to a greater extent. I observe this depends to a great extent on trust, in individuals and in larger consequences. If a man has been claiming sickness benefits for ten years complaining of back pain, progressives trust that he is telling the truth, and conservatives do not; progressives trust that no great harm will come of believing him, because enough people think it better to work than claim on the sick, and conservatives do not. Progressives do not like cheats, but are less prone to see cheating. As neither group will always get it right, the question is which mistake do you want to make- only paying to the deserving poor, so failing to pay some who cannot prove their pain, or only refusing payment to clear malingerers, so that some malingerers get through.

Both value liberty/oppression, but differently. I consider this as a trans woman: my liberty to transition harms no-one and I count it as essential to my thriving. Moral codes should not constrain me. But the numbers in need of care are so great that government should tax and redistribute. Conservatives would be happy to support social cohesion through common understandings of what Manliness is, greatly increasing my suffering, but not want to pay the necessary taxes. Many well-off progressives are happy to pay higher taxes.

Haidt, a social psychologist, sees differences in personality: do you find new experience stimulating or threatening? How sensitive are you to possible threat? Montaigne wrote, The only things I find rewarding are… variety and the enjoyment of diversity. Conservatives would be happier in a more ordered society, with proper respect for authority. Progressives can find that stultifying, and seek to subvert the controlling ruler. Haidt’s Authority/Subversion foundation pits us against each other. How can we make things better, by finding what is wrong with the current ways and improving them? How is the leader wrong, and how may s/he be challenged?

Conservatives value sanctity far more, he says. I doubt this from my own experience. People value different things differently. I tend to feel what I value has value- the biosphere, the planet- and what they value has not- the Bible, traditional family structures, unwanted blastocysts. I can see that valuing particular things can promote societal cohesion, but I feel those things could be chosen rationally. Fracking, damaging the water table, is obscene. Early termination of pregnancy, disposing of an aggregation of cells which could spontaneously miscarry, is not. But I accept his moral foundation of sanctity/degradation: I may cut down a tree, but should not poison it, because that is dishonourable or unseemly.

I also feel that I, as a progressive, have loyalty/betrayal more attuned to reality than the conservative has. Whistleblowers show a higher loyalty, to the good of the group gained by acknowledging truth and making necessary change. Cover-ups stultify, and are a greater threat in the long term, though challenges to leadership can seem like a threat- we realise we do not understand the world, which is unsettling. However the book gives a way to see the opposition as arguing from different ideals, rather than necessarily blind or wicked.

I enjoyed the book, with its explanation of group selection over individual selection. Multicellular organisms are groups, the necessity as life becomes more complex is to ensure co-operation. A woman told him that groups gain success in the competition through breeding more children, rather than through war.

He also describes what he calls the “hive switch”, that moment when we feel part of something greater than ourselves, which we can attain at a rave or in a cathedral. One attained it through endless marching round a barrack-square: as the marching became more unified, he gained a sense of well-being. Collective ritual can achieve that. So religions can make groups cohere, refuting Prof. Dawkins’ idea of a meme, a set of ideas parasiting on groups of people.

People are selfish, he says, caring more about their reputations than their integrity, but also groupish, concerned for the interests of their group. We form groups easily, and create ways of identifying within them.

People are not rational. We make decisions on instinct, and then rationalise them. Hence confirmation bias. His image is an elephant, with a small rider, the rational mind: the rider is there for the elephant’s good.

Bloodless moralism

In First Things, Helen Andrews criticises consequentialist morality. It is no longer sufficient to know that something is wrong, one must give a reason based on outcomes, she says, decrying that. It is a long essay, and summaries of what she thinks is bad or good might be a straw man, but she made me think of One instinctively knows when something is right, which Google tells me was an advertising slogan for Croft Original sherry. One grows up in the right schools with the right education, reading the classics, drinking proper sherry as soon as one is old enough, worshipping in the Church of England, and the decency of ones elders rubs off on one.

There was a man who wanted to learn about jade, so the expert gave him a piece of jade every day to examine. After a few months he gave a green stone which was not jade, and the man expostulated, “You tell me nothing, you just give me pieces of jade, and now you give me a stone which is not jade!” Of course, he knew it was not, instinctively. Andrews praises Christopher Hitchens, who she says was not an expert in anything, but people cared what he had to say for two reasons: It was evident that he had read widely, and he expressed himself beautifully. Both of these are forms of authority.

She argues that social science research into good policy for good aims does not work. She cites the Doll tests, which she says were so flawed in their method as to be scientifically worthless. I could not comment- but if they are shown to be worthless, it is by other social scientists honing their methods, and finding better ones, or at least the pitfalls to avoid. That social science is difficult does not mean it is not worth trying.

The doll tests were used as evidence in Brown v Board of Education, mandating the racial integration of US schools. She approves that decision, but not that particular evidence. She does not say how she would have decided it- perhaps with Quemcunque miserum videris hominem scias,  a quote from Seneca, or Jesus’ teaching on who is my neighbour, to include the Samaritan, the hated outsider/foreigner. I am glad she approves the Civil Rights struggle, but judge her commitment to racial equality on her attitude to people of colour’s struggle now- this dismissive aside on “LGBTQ identity politics and black lives matter antics” may indicate that.

So her apparent belief in deontology may be naturally conservative, better at seeing when something has been recognised as right, than finding ways of improving culture. A good education is no guarantee of morality. People quoted the Bible to justify slavery. Perhaps the divide should be between those seeking to improve the whole society through moral action and those merely in it for themselves, rather than by the tools we use to find that moral action.

Or deontology works when we have an idea that something is right, but could not quite put a finger on why. It may be that I had a rule inculcated as a child, or a Great Ape instinct that this is beyond the normal behaviour of my species.

Philosophers could debate whether necessity or coercion ever justified theft without ever looking at consequences, either those imagined as likely or shown by social science evidence. People make slippery slope arguments which are later shown to be unfounded. My own morality is a mix of consequentialism, deontology and virtue ethics, half understood, inconsistent, and almost certainly at least partly self-interested, but eliminating consequentialism would not improve it.

On the train, a woman could not sit by her ten year old daughter, so sat beside me. I offered to swap seats with the daughter so they could sit together, and she accepted, gratefully. It cost me nothing, benefited them both, and still gives me pleasure a week later, and I cited that pleasure when Andrew raised evolutionary arguments against altruism. “Not everyone would feel it,” he said. Those of us who do should stick together.

Bloodless Moralism.” I found it through Ross Douthat.

Why do people transition?

Why do people transition? Because we are human. No more precise answer is possible- because we are complex organisms in complex social structures. But transition continues to shock and distress trans folk and others. Because I wanted to is not a good enough answer for me, because I feel I have suffered because of transition and life might have been easier without that desire; and not for other people, because they want to debate what rights I get as a transitioned woman.

The answer “Autogynephilia” is given by people who want to treat trans women as men, limit transition, and exclude us. So it matters whether that is scientific or not. It isn’t. Haters insist on it, though.

The answer “because I have a woman’s brain/spirit, because I am really a woman” would give us full rights, but I don’t believe it myself. Women’s brains are not particularly different from men’s, trans women’s brains are not clearly closer to cis women’s than cis men’s, it is not clear what differences would be relevant to transition, and brains are plastic, changing throughout life. “Gender essentialism”, the idea that women are in some way innately feminine, is offensive to women who reject femininity but are clear they are women. I observe gender non-conforming people who do not transition, and conclude the idea that people with ovaries are fundamentally different from people with testicles, with the exception of trans people who are really in the other group, is ridiculous.

There is nothing which is a virtue in one sex which is not a virtue in the other; no characteristic which one has but the other has not, apart from those reproductive differences.

“Should a trans woman be allowed in women’s space?” should be addressed without a definitive answer to whether we are women or not. Socially and legally we are women. At worst, we should be pitied and tolerated, for we are mostly harmless. Some say we are men, so should not be there; but society is too complex for such a simple answer. Most people answer the question by imagined consequences: male abusers pretending to be trans to enter women’s space, or cis women seeing trans women, thinking they are men, and being retraumatised over past male violence; but most people either don’t care, or see that the gain in allowing us to lead productive lives as members of society outweighs such imagined problems.

A trans person just transitioning might need to justify that to themselves. I wanted to believe I was really a woman. I feared transitioning if I were simply an autogynephiliac pervert, consumed by my sexual fantasies. You doubt yourself, so other people’s opinion that you are a man hurts- it was as if I wanted the whole world to say I was a woman because I could not trust my own judgment and any doubt of it confused depressed and terrified me. But you doubt yourself, then you transition, or you don’t. It is hard to be a campaigner when you need affirmation, because you will meet the opposite.

Now my answer is It was the best I could do at the time. I look back on the difficulties, but with effort I also see blessings, and I may have been worse off if I had not transitioned. It is part of forgiving and acceptance.

A friend said Those who look for a cause are looking for a cure. That was in the nineties, when gay people questioned their own orientation. This is who I am, they should say. Gay Pride. I still looked for a cause. Transition is such an odd thing to do.

Sexual morality

-Why is it wrong to steal?
-Because you might get caught.

Is it wrong to have a date with someone who has a partner? Well, have I any obligation to that partner? No, though she has; and she might hurt herself, too; though this might be the destructive act she needs to take to decisively move on with her life. Then again, if he might get angry with me that might be a practical rather than moral consideration. Even if we were to get involved, I might have no obligation to protect her from harm, only not to deliberately harm her myself. That sort of protecting could be enabling bad behaviour and encouraging unhealthy dependence and so, er, wrong. It is better to treat each other as adults. So it is her obligation to consider any duty to her partner, not mine; but seeing that she did not value that obligation I might choose not to get involved.

I could meet her, though, simply out of interest. People are interesting. No-one can be summed up on a side of A4.

I am interested in moral considerations. What is right? I will feel uncomfortable with something I think wrong, though might persuade myself it was not. Or I could meet her simply for a coffee and a chat- or tell myself that; but while the frontal lobe was telling itself one thing the amygdala might be doing something entirely other.

All this is apropos of nothing at all.

Moral considerations are separate from impulse. Something happens and all your attention is engaged. Hang the consequences. A friend said, “Of course you still fall in love; but you don’t act on it, because you are in a partnership”. This is a matter of self-interest, not just noble self-sacrifice. Then there are practicalities; and finally concepts of right and wrong. “I hurt you because I want to and I can” revolts me, and contradicts Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law. Though that may be slave morality, for the good of the community rather than the nobility of the strong.

Oh! Why can’t we all get along!

It seems to me that I am a communal body, that I want people to support each other, to bear one another up with a tender hand, and I suppose that could just arise from circumstances rather than being a character trait. “Can I get away with it?” I am nervous round that question. The allegation against the Christian is that he makes a virtue of his weakness, but in the war of all against all we all suffer. One answer is that there is no possible overarching understanding, and that moral frameworks are only there to make us feel better, until we want to break them; whereupon we need only a new rationalisation. I am quite clear that physical intimidation is wrong in a civilised society- but then, I am not physically intimidating.

Happiness II

Happiness is dangerous. It is a threat. I might do something in spontaneous joy, and it would be silly, and I would look a fool, and that would be a complete disaster!

It is strange that when I drag the Foundational Truths of my Existence into consciousness, and examine them, they appear so wrong. I don’t think I have exaggerated this. I would far rather be right than Happy.

And yet recently I have had moments of Happiness, and- the world did not end.

The heart of the human is Love, and love is simple. It is unaffected. It is effortless. It is me.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, the mystical marriage of St Catherine

“Rather be right than happy.” Mmm. So “right and happy” is possible in some situations, but we are discussing situations where it is not; and both “right” and “happy” have to have some meaning.

If “right”, I am in a place of intellectual understanding which I can justify by rational argument to myself. It’s not what works, because we work with other people; rather it is what ought to work, what by my own moral judgment ought to be accepted. That is, my right is judged by others to be wrong, but that is OK, because they are wrong.

I would rather be right. I would rather be alone with an understanding which no-one else accepts, with a plan which does not work, than surrender my understanding and-

I am working this out as I go, here. The alternative to my rightness is shadowy, I can’t quite picture it, but I know my rightness is Wrong. It is treasuring my comfortable resentment. It is what I have always known, it is where I am now, lonely yet keeping myself to myself, retreated to my living room.


Stupidity is doing the thing which you know does not work. Yet if I have an idea of how to achieve something and it does not work, I would be happier doing it again, like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the Hill-

for Sisyphus defied the Gods, sought Control in defiance of Reality-

so I try my plan again, and though it does not work, again, it is my plan, it ought to work, I am safe in my comfort zone. Happy enough, or as happy as I can be, even though miserable.

I would rather be Right, because Right is what I know. Opposed to this is the strange, shadowy concept of-


My immorality

To see oursels as ithers see us…

I fear that your lawyer’s mind is far too supple and devious for me to cope with; it is, indeed, beyond my ken. Oh dear. So our friendship is over, and he does not want to see me again. He continues, his position was there were no absolute moral laws or absolute moral values. I think you agree with him. My contempt for him knew no bounds.

Our disagreement was about tactical voting. In 2010, at the election, the Tory majority in my constituency was 1,951. At the by-election, the Labour majority on a much reduced turnout was 7,791. I read somewhere that the likelihood of a Tory victory was 12%, a suspiciously precise figure and too high for my liking. The other candidates are unlikely to win. I proposed voting Labour, because the Labour candidate is preferable to the liar.

R resigned from the Green Party because he was considering voting tactically in the neighbouring constituency. He thought it dishonourable of me to consider voting for another party while remaining a member.

Well, I don’t. I don’t want a Tory MP, so want to use my vote in the best way to prevent that. My reason for voting Green would be that I favour their policies, and want to improve their national vote share, not because I think I could elect an MP. I also support the party with my membership, being part of the “Green Surge” and such leafleting as I have been doing (not a lot) in a neighbouring constituency. I am unsure whether my favouring the Greens is Moral, in the interests of the Country, or merely self-interested.

So I looked at him on Tuesday, as he expressed his disgust for my considering voting tactically, and wondered whether to explain. He counselled against, as it might increase his disgust. He thought of walking out, there and then. I thought of lying by stating that I would vote Green, definitely, or even changing my voting intention, but something, whether pride or morals, made me dislike these ideas. His email ending our friendship came on Thursday.

I find this deeply hurtful and inexplicable. I thought of phoning my friend with the Aspergers husband, but that would do no good: it is not because of Aspergers, nor can she necessarily get me a handle on how he will behave. I want him to back down on this, but can’t see any particular way to make him so will not respond.

The considerations are so small. My vote will have negligible effect, and I am unsure I want a Labour MP: Labour needing SNP support would be better than a Labour majority. Yet it matters to me, and I do not want to be told what to do.

I emailed the woman who ended her friendship with me, and had a moderately friendly exchange of emails.

The green sofa  *oil on canvas  *65.4 x 92.4 cm  *signed b.r.: J. Lavery

My morality

Conceptually, my morality is a mess, but it works for me.

I had thought I was so Consequentialist that my response to, say, deontological ethics was, well, what good does the rule do? I have to define what is good: whatever promotes the flourishing of human beings and the good of the biosphere. As a queer, I have enemies and persecutors and I want them corrected; but assert that is for their own good.

My morality is about balancing conflicting principles. It is good to live in a State with laws to protect us, so I should obey the law; but nuclear weapons are abominable, so I would break the law to resist them, if I see a worthwhile opportunity. My morality is contingent. Yes, Universalisability; but circumstances will be so varied that I can always find something to distinguish my situation from another’s.

Thinking of deontology, though, there are rules which I accept. Formerly, it was important to me that my morality was my own: I choose rules and assent to them, rather than having them enforced on me. I tend to feel don’t lie, don’t steal are good rules. I am fascinated to learn of virtue ethics. I see that virtues may be developed as habit, particularly virtues of courage or persistence. I love Aristotle’s Golden mean, the virtue between two vices, though the only one I could think of was courage between cowardice and foolhardiness, and that was the first on Wikipedia too. Eventually I found this.

I want what is fitting and honourable, paying proper respect to myself and the World, partly as an end in itself and partly to see myself as a good person. “I am the kind of person who…” keeps me on the right track, or attempting, or pretending. Virtue and rules may affect me more in the moment of impulse, performing an act or making a choice.

Thinking of decisions, I am more consequentialist, though I have a sense of what is fitting, what is ugly or beautiful in conduct.

Quite probably I rationalise in favour of my self-interest; but that includes considering others.

You see? A mess. But then life is complex, not to be reduced to an understanding expressible in words.

John Lavery, Evelyn Farquhar

Monkey ethics survive, I need others in my community to show empathy, the ability to learn and follow social rules, reciprocity and peacemaking. So do other primates. The beginnings of our ethics and morality help a group in a social species flourish.

Other primates show reciprocity: If two monkeys perform the same task in an experiment, and are rewarded unequally, the one who is rewarded better is as angry as the one rewarded worse.Chimps are more likely to share food with those who have groomed them, than those who have not.

They show empathy: Given the chance to obtain food by pulling a chain which gives another an electric shock, rhesus monkeys will starve for several days. When two chimpanzees fight, others will console the loser, but among macaques a mother will not even console her injured infant. Consoling another requires a level of self-awareness and empathy only great apes possess. Female chimps will attempt to reconcile competing males, and prevent fights by taking stones from the males’ hands. So explains Frans de Waal in his book Primates and Philosophers, reviewed in the New York TImes.

They show a sense of social rules: where a chimp refused to share bananas he has found, the rest of his group punished him. I got this last from Stand to Reason, a Christian site which seeks to mock the idea of monkey morality: morality comes from God. It points out that in making moral judgment, we assess motive and intent, but asserts that we cannot infer that from the chimps’ apparently punishing behaviour- though it does not posit an alternative explanation for it. Strange to see the God of the Gaps argument trotted out, when it has failed so many times before: especially when it is already failing in this instance.

There are disputes among evolutionary scientists: EO Wilson believes that the better survival of some groups than others can drive evolution, as the survival of the fittest individual can, a view Richard Dawkins derides. Hume believed that moral views derived from emotional states, but Kant derived them from reason, which other animal experiments demonstrate animals using. Hume appears in “Stand to Reason” too: you cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, it asserts. It is my feeling that my support for the woman’s right to choose derives from an empathetic emotional response to the woman’s need, and I then apply reason to justify that in argument. Kant opposed lying in all cases, regardless of anticipated consequences. (I know this because many non-philosophers like me find that view inexplicable, because we can imagine consequences we find revolting. Note the conflation of reason and emotion in that last sentence.)

For de Waal, morality is a sense of right and wrong that is born out of groupwide systems of conflict management based on shared values. All great apes manage conflict in this way.

Born that way a comment here, Coleman Glenn explains why, unless you see gay lovemaking as morally neutral, the “born that way” argument fails.

He is careful to say that he does not think homosexuality is anything like paedophilia, because paedophilia has a victim. He thinks gay sex harms those who practise it, though he does not say why. He says that “attraction to children” is classified as a mental illness in DSM5, and that arguably people are born with that orientation. But we who accept equal marriage would not accept that those attracted to children should act on their desires, and therefore for someone who believes gay sex is wrong, the “born that way” argument does not make it right. Let us debate other reasons why gay couples should be left in peace.

Well. Coleman is a Swedenborgian, and all I know of Swedenborg is that he was some kind of Christian whom William Blake despised- much of “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” is against Swedenborg. As a Christian, Coleman would value “It is not good for the man to be alone” and “it is better to marry than burn”. So, when I say that gay people are born that way, I argue that the person to assuage my loneliness, or the person who could stop me burning, is one of my own sex. So the “born that way” argument should work against Christian objectors to gay people, which explains the energy they put in to trying to argue we are not, in fact, born that way.

“Born that way” should also work against atheist objectors, if there be any such: if from your own experience you believe it is better to be part of a couple than not, “born that way” shows that gay people form couples which are- gay.

The real problem with the “born that way” argument is that it gives credence to people bleating that there is something wrong with equal marriage, or that gay one night stands might in some way be worse than straight ones. No. Really, no. Come up with some moral argument, and I might engage. Bleat that gay sex is wrong or icky without such an argument, and I have better things to do with my time. The homophobe has failed the basic test of human empathy, so the “born that way” argument will not work on him or her.

Added, late: if you came here from Facebook, please let me know how the comment thread there went.

The Benefits of Nazism

My friend’s school put on The Producers recently. Perhaps they thought it edgy for a child who learned German at his mother’s knee to wear a Nazi uniform, but with the grandchildren of combatants now in middle age, it is time to see the benefits of Nazism. I don’t mean all we have learned from them- “First they came for the Jews”, and I know that it is for me to do something about that, because I am a Jew- we learned that from their opponents. The Nazis were so wrong that what is right became crystal clear. The Nazis- testing the Wrong Way to destruction, so no-one else need ever go there. What I mean is all that is tempting about their ideology.

One tempting thing is the Ourselves Alone loyalty. So Foreigners are dangerous, and must be restricted: David Cameron portrays Romanians as benefit scroungers, and seeks to have them excluded from the country, playing on our fears and resentment.

Another is the black and white morality. Anti-abortionists can get together and feel one with the Group, a powerful and delightful feeling, and feel Right, which is even better. They are divorced from reality, but their feelings are wonderful. This causes suffering for others. The Northern Ireland Justice Minister is consulting on extending the category of permitted abortions from pregnancies which threaten the life of the mother to pregnancies where the baby could not survive outside the womb.

That anyone could imagine it was right to force a woman to go through with a pregnancy where the baby could not survive outside the womb is horrifying: and the other political parties have expressed opposition to the extension of the law.

There are extreme cases in the abortion debate- partial birth abortion at 38 weeks, where there is no threat to the mother or foetal abnormality, say- and in my pro-choice position, I swither between a pragmatic view that such extreme cases are so rare that I need not have a position, most abortions take place before twelve weeks, and a clear view that the woman has the right to choose. But this is not the tempting moral simplicity of the anti-abortionist, but a refusal to make a judgment on the woman, who will have feelings for her child, and will only have an abortion if she cannot see an alternative. It is not for me to decide. I refuse to define myself against the Outsiders, the Bad People.

I am not saying Mr Cameron is a nazi, merely that he had adopted a central plank of the nazi world view, rather than a peripheral one like Hitler’s vegetarianism.

Springtime for Hitler and Germany!
Tomorrow belongs to me!