Archive for the ‘ethics’ Category
A recent column in the NY Time’s “Opinionator” by Jon Grinspan argued that abolitionism was not a successful movement in the 19th century. I have a different opinion so let’s start with what I think is correct in Jon Grinspan’s column. First, he is completely correct that abolitionism – the abandonment of slavery – was not ever a majority opinion in the US. A lot of people, including President Lincoln, were not trying to end slavery in 1861. Second, Grinspan correctly argued that abolition only became a real policy possibility once war began, which was the result of Southern hot heads – not abolitionists.
So where do I disagree with Grinspan? First, Grinspan is taking an incomplete view of abolitionism by having a domestic focus. The US is one of the few nations in modern history that ended slavery via war. Haiti is another, when slaves led an anti-French revolution. But in other places, abolition came in other forms. Most of Latin America abolished slavery after the 1821 revolution. The British Empire abolished slavery in 1833. The Russians abolished serfdom in 1861.
Second, even within the US, slavery was slowly being ended, one state at a time. My own state of Indiana ended it 1823. A cursory inspection shows that the entire North had ended it by the 1840s and the last slave state would almost certainly be Texas, as there were many attempts to make other former Mexican territory slave free. Without war, I suspect a slow and painful, but eventually successful, erosion of slavery would be imposed by the wealthier and more powerful industrial North.
The arc of history was bent by the abolitionists. Many resisted, but thankfully this ended. The abolitionists can only be seen as a failure if we ignore the overall picture and focus on the South.
Last year, Nicholas Christakis argued that the social sciences were stuck. Rather that fully embrace the massive tidal wave of theory and data from the biological and physical sciences, the social sciences are content to just redo the same analysis over and over. Christakis’ used the example of racial bias. How many social scientists would be truly shocked to find that people have racial biases? If we already know that (and we do, by the way), then why not move on to new problems?
Christakis’ was recently covered in the media for his views and for attending a conference that tries to push this idea. To further promote this view, I would like to introduce Christakis’ Query, which every researcher should ask:
Think about the major question that you are working on and what you think the answer is. Estimate the confidence in your answer. If you already know the answer with more than 50% confidence, then why are you working on it? Why not move on?
Try it out.
When we see an act of political violence, such as last week’s attacks in France, we think the perpetrators were motivated by ideology. Earlier in my career, that is how I thought about a lot of political behavior. People read a book, or learn a system of thought, and they try to implement it. A man reads Das Kapital and tries to topple the capitalist system. The religious militant reads the Koran and runs out to build the next Caliphate.
Surely, there are genuine ideologues who really try to make the world fit their views. But I don’t think that is how most people operate in the world. What happens for most people is that they reinterpret religion, or whatever system they happen to be part of, in ways that fit their own agendas. In other words, religion is used in a highly pragmatic fashion.
I am not original in this thought, but it bears repeating because it helps us understand the world. For example, when I was younger, I wondered how evil people could belong to religions that preached peace. How could American Southerners preach Christianity but hold slaves? How could Hitler go to Catholic mass and be responsible for such large scale murder?
Later, I noticed that the link between religion and violence varied greatly. Every religion seemed capable of justifying evil. Catholics gleefully slayed Native Americans; Christians owned slaves; Japanese militants followed Shinto Buddhism. You could even be atheist and still murder at will. Ask the peasants of the Ukraine, or the victims of the Cultural Revolution in China, or victims of the Khmer Rouge. Religion didn’t seem effective in stopping violence, nor was a lack of religion effective in stopping violence.
In today’s world, we have militants who kill in the name of Islam. Many point to their religion and say that Islam itself is an inherently violent religion. What I would say is that it is like a lot of religions. It’s a bundle of beliefs that people interpret and edit in the way they see fit. For example, the Koran itself doesn’t say that people should be harmed for making engraved images. It turns out that the Koran itself only has an oblique reference to “likeness” – and it is not in the context of making statues. Only the later in the Hadith does the Prophet speak out against images – but it seems to be in the context of speaking out against idolatry, not the banning of ALL images. Not surprisingly, within Islam, there are actually some traditions where its fine to make images and even some religious images. Similarly, there are texts that come down hard on non-believers, but people seem free to come up with all kinds of Islam, including non-violent Ghandian Islam.
The point here isn’t to argue about proper interpretation, but merely to point out that texts are texts and people use their predispositions to assign meaning to them. I no longer believe that religions motivate people to kill. Killers provide justifications for their actions that have legitimacy. If you are in Russia 1919, you can kill “counter revolutionaries.” If you are in Florida in 1685, you can kill in the name of Christ. In 2015 in Syria, you can kill for Islam. Ultimately though, it’s not religion, or lack of religion, that counts, it’s something more profound – respect for other people, even those you hate. And that’s the highest social virtue.
As usual, Frederick Douglass provides moral clarity on the issue of migration. In 1869, he spoke against growing anti-Chinese prejudice:
Do you ask, if I favor such immigration, I answer I would. Would you have them naturalized, and have them invested with all the rights of American citizenship? I would. Would you allow them to vote? I would. Would you allow them to hold office? I would. But are there not reasons against all this? Is there not such a law or principle as that of self-preservation? Does not every race owe something to itself? Should it not attend to the dictates of common sense? Should not a superior race protect itself from contact with inferior ones? Are not the white people the owners of this continent? Have they not the right to say, what kind of people shall be allowed to come here and settle? Is there not such a thing as being more generous than wise? In the effort to promote civilization may we not corrupt and destroy what we have? Is it best to take on board more passengers than the ship will carry? To all of this and more I have one among many answers, together satisfactory to me, though I cannot promise that it will be so to you. I submit that this question of Chinese immigration should be settled upon higher principles than those of a cold and selfish expediency. There are such things in the world as human rights. They rest upon no conventional foundation, but are external, universal, and indestructible. Among these, is the right of locomotion; the right of migration; the right which belongs to no particular race, but belongs alike to all and to all alike. It is the right you assert by staying here, and your fathers asserted by coming here. It is this great right that I assert for the Chinese and Japanese, and for all other varieties of men equally with yourselves, now and forever.
But I reject the arrogant and scornful theory by which they would limit migratory rights, or any other essential human rights to themselves, and which would make them the owners of this great continent to the exclusion of all other races of men. I want a home here not only for the negro, the mulatto and the Latin races; but I want the Asiatic to find a home here in the United States, and feel at home here, both for his sake and for ours. Right wrongs no man. If respect is had to majorities, the fact that only one fifth of the population of the globe is white, the other four fifths are colored, ought to have some weight and influence in disposing of this and similar questions. It would be a sad reflection upon the laws of nature and upon the idea of justice, to say nothing of a common Creator, if four fifths of mankind were deprived of the rights of migration to make room for the one fifth. If the white race may exclude all other races from this continent, it may rightfully do the same in respect to all other lands, islands, capes and continents, and thus have all the world to itself. Thus what would seem to belong to the whole, would become the property only of a part. So much for what is right, now let us see what is wise. And here I hold that a liberal and brotherly welcome to all who are likely to come to the United states, is the only wise policy which this nation can adopt.
“Rights wrong no man.” Amen.
Andrea Campbell has an article in Vox about the often perverse consequences of means testing in social policy. If you really need help, then means testing creates an incentive to completely spend all your assets so you can qualify. She uses the tragic case of her sister-in-law who was left paralyzed after an auto accident and now requires round the clock medical care:
Brian continued: Marcella qualified for Medi-Cal because she is disabled, but because Medi-Cal is for poor people, Dave and Marcella have to be poor to receive it-they have to “meet” the program’s “income test.” Counterintuitively, meeting the income test doesn’t mean having enough income (as in doing well on a test), but rather having low-enough income. The income test is actually an income limit.
Moreover, because Dave is employed, he and Marcella would be in a particular version of the program called “Share of Cost” Medi-Cal. It works this way: as a family of three with one disabled member, they are allowed to keep $2,100 of Dave’s $3,250 monthly earnings to live on. The rest of Dave’s earnings, $1,150, would go to Medi-Cal as the family’s share of cost. That is, any month in which Marcella incurred medical expenses, she and Dave must pay the first $1,150. To our surprise, if Dave earned more money, the extra amount would also go to Medi-Cal: the cost sharing is a 100 percent tax on Dave’s earnings. I figured out later that the $2,100 my brother and sister-in-law are to live on puts them at 133 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of three. Essentially, the way they meet the income test is for Medi-Cal to skim off Dave’s income until they are in fact poor. Brian noted that they are “lucky” that they are allowed to retain that much income; if Marcella weren’t disabled, the amount they’d be allowed to retain would be even lower than $2,100. And this is how things will be indefinitely. In order to get poor people’s health insurance, Dave and Marcella must stay poor, forever.
To make issues worse, California has an arcane system of means tested programs that make it hard to even understand what you might, or might not, be qualified for:
So much for helping my brother and sister-in-law navigate the system. Medi-Cal is a collection of more than 100 programs, each with its own income methodology and rules. A person familiar with Medi-Cal likened the program to the Winchester Mystery House, the San Jose mansion constructed continually over four decades by the odd widow of the Winchester rifle fortune: there is no master plan. “All the ‘rooms’ added on over the years makes it very difficult to see which rules apply to which groups and to follow them all the way through,” this observer told me. And even if Dave and Marcella could retain a bit more income to live on, they are still subject to the asset limit and all of Medi-Cal’s other strictures. They are still trapped in an eccentric’s mansion, where the stairways lead to ceilings and the doors open onto walls.
Campbell nails it on the head when she notes that social policy is a bizarre contraption of programs. Lesson: Make social policy simple and with wide coverage. Otherwise, don’t bother.
In my social theory class, we had a week where we covered theories of sexual identity. A theme in writings from the 1980s or so is that the public adoption of a sexual identity is a political act. To say that one is gay or lesbian is to take a political position. Some people disagreed with that view. The two arguments go something like this:
- One needs to take an open political stance on one’s sexuality because not doing so allows repression. Call this the militant approach to identity.
- One needs to make their identity “regular” – queer people should not confront people so that being gay will be seen as an unremarkable identity. Call this the mainstreaming approach to identity.
This debate has a long history in queer politics, but there is one response that is usually absent, an argument based on game theory. One could argue that given the choice between militancy and mainstreaming, one should employ a strategy that combines militant and mainstream.
How does this argument work? Assume you have two “players” in the model – “society” and “LBGT.” The first mover is society and it can be nice or mean. But you don’t know what will happen. Maybe society is mean today, or nice. LBGT doesn’t find out until they encounter society and they have two responses – militant and mainstream. What does LBGT want? They want a repeated interaction with society that is nice. One strategy that will work is “tit for tat” – mimic what the first player does, hope he gets the message, and then they become nice.
Often people talk about how queers (or other minorities) should deal with allies and enemies. This model suggests an answer that is intuitive and supported by theory and research – tit for tat. Punish bad behavior and reward good behavior.