The achievement of the West and what’s hopefully ahead

Recently I’ve been thinking about Aristotle’s insight that “too much of a virtue turns into a vice. I believe this principle, when it comes to human norms and experiencing outside groups following different norms, has in the past often led to inter-group conflict.

Imagine, for instance, that your tribe has a traditional value (or moral norms) of honoring the family of one’s spouse during the time when two people decide to share their life together (a version of today’s marriage) by bringing daily gifts to the spouse’s family for one full moon (month). Over time, your tribe’s territory expands, and at some point you will likely find another tribe in the territory you’re expanding into. Their traditions differ (surprise!), and given your traditions have served you well (values!), you are convinced you do things right (moral superiority), and so you then feel righteously empowered to proselytize them, up to and including using armed conflict.

That is where God and religion come in: for people to continuously act in ways that–from biological, cultural-, and economic-exchange perspectives–can be considered harmful (being willing to threaten and kill other humans simply over one’s values) requires a “good reason”, and what works better than thinking that this is all based on rules laid out by the Creator of the Universe who has given you (and you alone) the right way of living!?

One big achievement of the West is to recognize that all traditions that evolution sustains over generations contain, at their heart, a (positive) value. Honoring a spouse’s family with gifts can increase community bonds between the families for years to come, for instance. And even a tradition we reject as barbaric and self-destructive–honor killings–may attempt to support a value of not treating romantic/sexual relationships as casual but rather as a source of deep meaning–at the cost of other values, chiefly among them the life of the women, something we find is much more important!

In other words, our Western culture has, over time, recognized that the best way to deal with the fact that values themselves clash–setting up one value as the top priority over all others (i.e. a vice) means those values at the bottom may not be actualized enough to live “the good life”–is not to fight this out between groups (warring between tribes over different values), but rather to incorporate this battle into the individual.

Enlightenment asks human beings to not let virtues (values) turn into vices (warfare) and turn into mono-motivational agents in which a single “cause” (no matter how good) turns into a form of value-despotism. Instead, through millennia-old wisdom (see Aristotle) and reflections in newer religious tradition–what Jordan B. Peterson calls the Christian ideal that being imbued with a fragment-of-God-containing soul means we are “of God”, and thus the focus of attention must lie in individual salvation–we have at last come to a point where values can be balanced within the self.

So instead of an external (omniscient and omnipotent) God whose rules and guidance we are asked to follow, we can experience God (balance of all values and virtues) inside of us, that all we need to do is pay enough attention to all the values we can experience–which, BTW, in Nonviolent Communication is called the manifestation of needs (values) through feelings, in which unmet needs lead to unpleasant and met needs lead to pleasant feelings.

Unfortunately, history is currently making a little detour: our cultural learning has brought back virtue-to-vices identity politics (tribal thinking along with setting certain values paramount). How did that happen?

It is a very old flaw in our evolutionary setup. The function that, within individuals, alerts us that our thinking and acting in the world is not in line with all of our values (negative emotional states, that is feeling bad when we think or act in ways not in harmony with all of our values and needs) requires attentional shifts. Whatever we are doing is interrupted when we feel (emotional) pain, so that we can actually stop what we’re doing, and we re-adjust our behavior to reflect the missing value.

However, this mechanism (attentional shifts towards emotional content) also works when emotions are elicited by externally provided virtue signaling, in which an out-group’s behavior is marked as morally (or normatively) wrong. Previously, it was more difficult to generate this attention to out-groups’ behavior in a sustained fashion–the highest frequency until about 70 years ago was maybe twice a day, when papers had a morning and evening edition. Now we are constantly bombarded with “news” about how other groups or their figureheads “misbehave”, and people have begun sorting more and more rigorously back into tribal units of various kinds.

In the US we have tribes that are “pro-life”, “pro-gun”, “pro-environment”, “pro-social-justice”, “anti-immigration”, etc. Each of these tribes defends their (primary) value against the most opposite-experienced tribe. And this is reflected in many aspects of life, culminating in party ideologies that bundle the spectrum of virtues-turned-to-vices into two broad ideological sides: conservatives (people who believe that the way things are is best, and that a strict order is needed to live the “good life”) and liberals (people who believe that the way things are needs to change as long as people suffer, and that this change requires that the other side give up their current way of life).

And the irony of it all is that, in order to achieve their goals, both conservatives and liberals have turned back to the very mechanism that Western culture tried to leave behind: inter-group conflict based on tribal warfare over different top-priority-values.

My hope is two-fold… First, that Western cultures can evolve one step further, by recognizing the pernicious role that externally elicited emotion (over individually experienced value-based emotion) plays in inter-group conflict via attention–this would ruin the business model of news and social media, but I hope our love for Facebook, Twitter, and cable news stock price will not prevent this rebuke of ideological propaganda’s effect on attention. And second, that the tension we’re currently experiencing, within our nation but also between nations, old human tribal instincts (and religious zealotry) flaring up, is the necessary wake-up call, and that people will wake up sooner rather than later, before we spiral down into a self-destructive mode from which it will be much harder to recover once a sufficiently high number of people will have died from the inter-tribal violence of “who’s right?”

When and how the virtue of academic truth seeking can turn into a vice

This past Friday, I went to the HxA Open Mind Conference 2018. At several moments during that day I distinctly experienced some disappointment and confusion, as I was thinking: “something is missing here“.

It may require some of the frequently invoked academic humility to follow the argument I am about to lay out, as it probably can not be considered an academic one–in the sense that I do not present any empiric study. Instead I rely on my own, anecdotal evidence. And the first question I have is: does personal experience even count? If not, does that not already pose a limitation on the free exchange of ideas, especially when it comes to stimulating new research topics?

For me, this conference–no less of an organization aiming for more viewpoint diversity–was somewhat disappointing mainly for its lack of a kind of diversity that I believe is essential for achieving the overarching goal. Why do I think that way? One thought in support of my line of arguing comes from Aristotle, who observed (probably not proved, mind!) that a virtue is the middle ground on a dimension that, if acted upon “in excess” in either direction (or, as I would put it, at the expense of other virtues or rather values), can become a vice. So what other virtues (or values) can become easily relegated to a second-best place, leading to problems?

The most pronounced experience of disappointment happened during a debate in which it became clear that all participants seemed to agree that “Trump is a bad President.” And even if persuasive evidence for this proposition could be presented, in either an academic or some other way, what are the consequences of believing this proposition, both for the people on stage as well as for people who, in the academy and out, have supported and quite possibly still support Trump?

To make this point, I would have liked to ask the following question at the end of this particular panel discussion: Imagine that I have voted for Trump in the last election. When I now listen to your mocking of Trump on stage, and no-one has the slightest bit of a problem with this, what place do you think I have in your organization or the academy? And if I do not have a place there, how do you believe you can persuade me of any truths that you may discover?

In other words, I believe that while academic truth seeking is an important goal, wherever it (seemingly) collides with or ignores respect (another important value), whatever truth may be discovered will probably not make it very far outside the circle of people the person touting their truth already “respects”.

So the main aspect I saw as lacking at the conference was respect. For what exactly? One of the major themes of critique of Trump for me came across as a variation of: “arguments need to be presented in an academic format, they need to follow reason and logic, and if a person does not use this academic format, their utterances are not arguments but mere opinions, and can be dismissed from the debate.” Put differently, what is happening is the formation of an “academic truth elite” by way of dismissing propositions not stated in “academic language”, creating a group of people who no longer care about the consequences of their attitudes towards those who cannot partake in their activities “on their level”. And to some extent, maybe a better slogan for Trump would have been “Drain the Intellectual Elites!”

The disappointment over this kind of thinking mainly stems from my belief that those conservatives who hold very critical views of the academy (and the scientific research and truth that comes out of arguably the more dogmatic fields, like some social sciences such as gender studies) typically are not in the business of making their arguments in an academic way, and yet I strongly feel that it would be a mistake to exclude their voices from the discourse.

What if, for instance, in an argument about the value of having two opposite-sex parents, a conservative offers the position: “children should grow up with a father and a mother!” In other words, attempting a translation into slightly more academic language: “I believe that men and women have different sets of qualities and traits, and children are better off being exposed to both sets during childrearing, modeled by the two people that most intimately interact with the child.” And if this person is not able to present specific empiric evidence in support of this proposition, does that mean it should be summarily dismissed? What if no-one in the academy is actually interested in studying this in search of evidence for this proposition, because—quite frankly—it would require rehashing long and dearly held beliefs that parents of either sex can perform all essential roles of child rearing equally well?

Importantly, I am not making the argument that gay parents are bad parents, let alone that they should not be allowed to be parents, although it is easy to twist what I said that way… What I am rather saying is that not being listened to when making an assertion for which one cannot produce academic evidence creates resentment.

In short, I was missing a sort of respect for viewpoints that are frequently not presented in an academic form. And the consequence I see, down the line, is that the people whose views are most sorely missed in the academy, something HxA set out to address, will still not be represented, because those views may not have any evidence to offer that satisfies the requirement of academic quality. And excluding viewpoints because they are not presented academically (yet), due to a lack of respect, from my perspective would be a mistake.

What I believe needs to happen is to apply the same rigorous methods of inquiry to positions that one does not agree with, even if they are being expressed in a way that does follow the academic format, particularly for the value of inclusion and diversity!