Monday, April 17, 2006

This Atheist's Moral Grounding, or Why I'm a Liberal

Empathy and sympathy are the foundation of my personal code of morality. Although many are uncomfortable without even the ideal of an objective morality, empathy and sympathy are all I can come up with. Beginning with those as axiomatic, all of my moral beliefs follow more or less logically. (I'm not prepared to defend them against a professional philosopher, but I've given it enough thought to be confident enough to act.)

Let's look at some issues which are paramount in the USA.

Health Care

I empathize with those who need health care for themselves and their loved ones. While there are of course tradeoffs involved (health care for more people == less money for other things) there is no question in my mind that the richest country in the world has an obligation to at least provide health care for every citizen.

Taxation

I believe in progressive taxation because I have more sympathy for those in lower income brackets than those in higher ones. I believe Americans who have gotten wealthy in America (or have accepted the benefits of residency/citizenship) have an obligation to give back to those less fortunate, through taxes and through other means. I have less sympathy for millionaires who have to pay a higher percentage of their income simply because they have more than enough.

Gay Marriage

I empathize with people who want to marry the one they love. I have no sympathy for those who wish to deprive other people of rights they themselves hold. I don't believe that there is a significant downside to gay marriage in the form of harm to children or society so for me it's an easy decision.

Religious Freedom

I empathize with people who hold strong beliefs. I am therefore for total freedom OF and FROM religion for all. (However, your right to freedom ends when it curtails other people's freedom. Forbidding other people to marry because of your own religious beliefs is not acceptable but wearing a burqa, yarmulka, cross, or whatever should always be allowed.)

Abortion

I sympathize with the teen girls, the rape victims, and the single women without sufficient income or health care more than I can sympathize with a fetus which has no self-awareness and can't even feel pain. Therefore I am strongly for legal early- and mid-term abortions. (Probably late-term ones, too, but that's touchy. I'm not totally convinced either way.)

Gun Control

I sympathize strongly with victims of gun violence. However, I also sympathize with those who need to defend themselves and I sympathize with the American people for whom the Second Amendment may ultimately provide the last defense against tyranny. I remain ambivalent.

Illegal Immigrants

I sympathize strongly both with people trying to make a better life for themselves and for people who may be hurt by illegal immigration. My belief, however, is that, on the whole, more good than harm would be done by granting illegal immigrants work visas and a path to citizenship.

Flag Burning

Almost every election cycle, the Republicans bring out the Flag Burning Amendment. I have little sympathy for people offended by the burning of a flag (just as I have little sympathy for people offended by drawings of Mohammed) and I have a lot of sympathy for people in general, who require free speech, especially free political speech, in order to ensure the most just government possible. I therefore strongly oppose this ridiculous amendment.

Ten Commandments Monuments, etc.

I have no sympathy for people who want to make it look like their religious beliefs are the beliefs of all Americans. I have a lot of sympathy for the people who history and current events alike show are much better off when church and state are separate.

Conclusion


For whatever reason, on the overwhelming majority of issues, the liberal position fits better with a morality based on empathy and sympathy for all. This is not to say that all conservatives are lacking in those traits -- there is certainly a subset of conservatives who honestly believe that conservative policies are better for all and that therefore being a conservative is the empathetic and sympathetic choice. However, I believe that most conservatives believe either that (1) what God wants, as they understand it, trumps sympathy or empathy, (2) that it's a dog-eat-dog world and economic freedom trumps helping the less fortunate, or (3) that some people are less deserving of empathy and sympathy than others.

29 comments:

JDHURF said...

Wow, I agreed with every one of your pieces there; very nice. I had no idea there was a constitutional amendment explicitly banning the burning of flags, how inane. As George Carlin once said “flags are symbols and I leave symbols to the symbol minded.” Also I have noticed that even within, otherwise liberal, sets and groups (an atheist group I’m a member of for example) the immigration debate has created a furor; it seems that ethnocentrism escapes no group, however *open-minded* they may be. Very good and concise “staking out” of the liberal position, I believe this calls for a “here here!”

CyberKitten said...

Probably agree with 95% of that......... rather unsurprisingly!

Good post.

BaconEating AtheistJew said...

I agree with most of that. I did a similar but lengthier piece earlier this year.
You left out the War on Terror, Iraq War, etc, as this a major issue.
As far as morality goes. There is a well known Atheist who thinks morality is abolute. Hellbound Alleee. I think this philosophical debate of hers will interest you immensely.

Laura said...

You get no arguments from me. Except for the gun control one. I think that people have the right to own guns for self protection and hunting - but those stupid laws in Florida allowing someone who feels "threatened" to shoot first and ask questions later are a lot nutty.

You forgot one thing in your conclusion:

A lot of conservatives think that just because they were able to "overcome" their humble beginnings that everyone who doesn't is somehow not trying hard enough. I guess that goes with #3, but I hear this argument a lot and it just gets under my skin.

Jewish Atheist said...

BEAJ:

You left out the War on Terror, Iraq War, etc, as this a major issue.

Good point. I have much sympathy to go around on these sad issues. Sympathy for the Iraqis who lived under Saddam, sympathy for the dead, wounded, and psychologically damaged American soldiers, sympathy for the dead, wounded, and grieving Iraqi civilians, sympathy for future victims of evil we cannot prevent due to spending our political capital and international goodwill in Iraq, sympathy for Iraqis today who are worse off than they were under Saddam. The whole situation sucks and I don't know if it will turn out better or worse because we invaded. I suspect "worse," but I'm not 100% sure. Whatever the result, it's clear that Bush willfully misled both the American public and the world at large (those who believed him, anyway.) He's the president who cried wolf and now that there's a real wolf out there (Iran) who knows what we're going to do?

I generally refrain from commenting on the Israel/Palestine debacle, but there's way too much sympathy to go around on all sides there as well. I'm in favor of the unilateral withdrawal and ambivalent about the wall. I have little sympathy for settlers who willfully settled areas of dispute for political purposes. I have no sympathy for suicide bombers and am ambivalent about many Israeli military strikes.


laura:

A lot of conservatives think that just because they were able to "overcome" their humble beginnings that everyone who doesn't is somehow not trying hard enough.

True. That's a big sub-group of (3), although they might fall under the "genuinely think conservative policies are better for all" group.

BaconEating AtheistJew said...

My take on Iraq: I'm optimistic that the attack had a larger scope. To tell Islam they must reform. I'm hoping that is what will come out of this. Libya stopped their nuke aspirations as soon as Iraq was attacked, and in a poll I saw in October, many Arab countries are actually gradually adopting more Western values (which I see as a good thing).
As far as Israel goes. I have no sympathy towards settlers who are opposed to the government that put them there in the first place. I really don't think that the average settler really gave it much thought when it came to going to the West Bank or Gaza. The government is to blame. They subsidized, promised jobs and security to many new settlers. The settlers were just looking for a chance at a better life, not thinking they were pissing on the Arabs.
I think the settlements were a terrible mistake but I also view the settlement issue as a Red Herring. Just look at the Gaza withdrawal. I don't see any appreciation or hope. They voted in Hamas right after that.

Juggling Mother said...

I agree with most of that.

gun control is a completely different issue in the UK - I don't think anyone here would like to see the public allowed fire-arms in the way you guys have it! I am probably on the more restrictive end of the UK debate, so am a raving commie to Americans:-)

"The settlers were just looking for a chance at a better life, not thinking they were pissing on the Arabs"

Sorry BEAJ, but that statement is absolutely untrue for every settler I met, and the prospective ones I spoke to, as well as any I have ever seen intervied by the media. They went into disputed areas specifically because they were disputed, and to deliberately make a political statement. Living in Israel for 6 months certainly changed my views of what was/is going on there. I am against the wall too.

Wandering Coyote said...

Great post, JA. You and I seem to be on the same page except, like Laura, on the gun control issue.

Jewish Atheist said...

Laura, WC:

Yeah, I part with many fellow Democrats on guns. I just can't get past the inalienable right to life (i.e. self-defense) or the second amendment.

CyberKitten said...

JA said: Yeah, I part with many fellow Democrats on guns. I just can't get past the inalienable right to life (i.e. self-defense) or the second amendment.

I find it quite frankly astonishing the kind of offensive weapons that are available to the public in the USA.

Is the 2nd Amendment (which as I understand it was to do with raising a militia in time of war) worth 30K deaths a year from firearms?

Still agree with you on the rest of the topics though... [grin].

Stephen (aka Q) said...

I agree with you on most of your positions, too. The exceptions would be gun control (like most of the commenters) and abortion. But I hasten to add that no one should suppose that criminalizing abortion constitutes a solution to the issue. Abortion is a social problem, in my view, and requires a range of social responses; your reference to health care for single moms is a good example. The least constructive part of any response to the unacceptably high rates of abortion in the USA would be criminalization.

I'd also like to take a step back from the specific issues you discuss.

You propose empathy and sympathy as the basis of an ethical system. But then you start saying, "I have sympathy for" group X but "I have no sympathy for" group Y.

Clearly you're making ethical decisions on some prior basis, which results in sympathy for some groups but not others.

Jewish Atheist said...

You propose empathy and sympathy as the basis of an ethical system. But then you start saying, "I have sympathy for" group X but "I have no sympathy for" group Y.

Clearly you're making ethical decisions on some prior basis, which results in sympathy for some groups but not others.


Yeah, I guess I'd need to explain *why* I have more sympathy for some than others. It's so easy to take our own assumptions for granted. Mine include things like all people are equally deserving of rights, etc., that one person's health is more important than another's luxury, etc. I suppose this stuff could be the basis for its own post.

Jack's Shack said...

I have less sympathy for millionaires who have to pay a higher percentage of their income simply because they have more than enough.

I have a problem with this. I don't disagree that we have a social responsibility to look out for others and that we should try to give back, but I am not in the habit of deciding who has more than enough. It is not a statement that we can make easily and in light of the current housing market I would be even more hesitant to say that someone who is worth a million dollars has enough.

A lot of conservatives think that just because they were able to "overcome" their humble beginnings that everyone who doesn't is somehow not trying hard enough.

That is because there is opportunity to succeed and it is much more prevalent than some people want to admit. It doesn't mean that life is always fair or that everyone is able/capable of overcoming the challenges they face.

However the reality is that if you set higher expectations many people will rise to meet them.

There is a lack of balance right now. I believe in limited welfare. That means that we should set up a system that has real oversight and management.

People who are capable of working should not be on welfare forever. There should be a time limit.

We have to do better than we are doing.

dbackdad said...

Great post JA.

I believe the NRA and similar guns' rights groups completely misinterpret the 2nd amendment. As it was framed, it was more about preventing federal interference in state milities. It was not so much about individual gun rights. The text says, "A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed." -- somehow from that little sentence, nut jobs feel they have the right to have semi-automatic weapons. That this amendment is still looked to so much is ridiculous. We completely disregard the 3rd amendment now because it is simply outdated and not relevant to our modern times, "No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law." -- We can only hope that the 2nd amendment would suffer a similar fate.

Jewish Atheist said...

Jack's Shack:

It is not a statement that we can make easily and in light of the current housing market I would be even more hesitant to say that someone who is worth a million dollars has enough.

We're talking about income, not net worth. If you're earning a million a year, you have enough. Unless you have thirty children or something, maybe.

However the reality is that if you set higher expectations many people will rise to meet them.

Maybe. Maybe you have to help people reach higher places.

People who are capable of working should not be on welfare forever. There should be a time limit.

There is, isn't there?

We have to do better than we are doing.

Agreed.


dbackdad:

You have a good point about the "well regulated militia" clause, but I can't agree that Amendments can just be seen as out of date. I guarantee you if the army tried today to force people to house soldiers it wouldn't stand up in court.

dbackdad said...

JA,
I don't mean to imply that people shouldn't have guns. I believe that hunters can serve a useful purpose in conservation. I honestly believe that there can be a great partnership between sportsmen and environmentalists that's beneficial to both. A historically conservative magazine, Field and Stream, agrees:
Conservation -- they've been greatly criticizing this administration's policy of giving away public lands to the energy companies.

I just can't hold with those that froth at the mouth over the thought that the government would take their uzi from their "cold dead hands" yet they have no problem with the government and the Patriot Act taking every other right they have from them.

Jack's Shack said...

We're talking about income, not net worth. If you're earning a million a year, you have enough. Unless you have thirty children or something, maybe.

Sorry, we disagree on this one. IMO there are limits on what kind of determinations we can make about others.

This is a slippery slope. If I can decide when you have enough what is to stop me from taking that into the rest of your life. Why can't I say that you don't really need two cars, that you don't need more than one CD (you can only listen to one at a time) or that you really don't need more than two pairs of pants.

It may sound ridiculous, but I am very hesitant to go down this path.

You never really know what a person might do given the ability to provide funds for various causes.

There is no bigger philanthropist than Bill and Melinda Gates.

Jewish Atheist said...

This is a slippery slope. If I can decide when you have enough what is to stop me from taking that into the rest of your life.

It's not so much that *you* can decide, it's that *we* as a society can decide. People who choose to live in America agree to follow the rules. Once we can grant every American the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we can grant the super-rich the quicker pursuit of super-duper-happiness. Remember, I'm not talking about taking everything over $1 million, I'm just saying the rate for that bracket should be higher than it is.

There is no bigger philanthropist than Bill and Melinda Gates.

Which is why we have tax write-offs. Those who want to contribute on their own get tax breaks.

Jack's Shack said...

Once we can grant every American the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

This is not something that needs to be done because it already exists.

Jewish Atheist said...

Language games. Does the right to life include a reasonable expectation of decent healthcare, a safe environment, and a lack of industry deception about health risks? Does the right to liberty imply that working two jobs should let you live a decent life? What does the pursuit of happiness imply?

Orthoprax said...

JA,

You have to be very careful when evaluating political issues with just your empathy and sympathy at work. For any worthy cause it might seem right to just throw money at it but you give too much money and you can destabilize the system entire.

For example, sure I sympathize with those folks without health insurance, but if you create a new and very large government bureaucracy to manage it then you're increasing the very cost of health care for everyone and for the state. And you haven't taken into consideration the effects that such a system may have on those interested in going into a health career.

You might be losing a bunch of great people who could be excellent doctors because they don't want to run their whole lives being worried about malpractice suits (of which they pay a very high premium) and endless paperwork, not to mention Big Brother looking over their shoulder. You'd effectively be decreasing the quality of medical care overall.

Of course, these are just points to consider, not necessarily a judgement on the whole issue. The point is that running on just sympathy and empathy may make you miss a lot of the important technical side implications.

On a different issue, I sympathize with every person living in poverty in the whole world. Surely you could give up 90% of your income and still have a quality of life better than most of them. You could potentially help hundreds or thousands of starving children in Africa. By your measure of sympathy and empathy don't you feel obligated to donate almost all of your income to charity?

And if not, why not?

Orthoprax said...

JA,

You might also want to consider the Objectivist's point of view. Is it better to give a man a fish and become dependent on your handouts or to give him a chance to become independent and learn to fish for himself?

It may seem nice to guarantee each person a certain quality of life under your government, but what if it turns your country into a bunch of dependents without the self-respect or the inclination to do a fair day's work? Take a lesson from the dearly departed USSR.

How does pure empathy and sympathy not turn into a utopian dream of communist comradeship?

Jewish Atheist said...

Orthoprax:

I meant that empathy and sympathy form the basis of my morality. Starting from that point, of course, one still needs to use reason and empiricism to figure out which course of action will best accomplish what we're trying to accomplish. Of course there are tradeoffs. If universal health care would in fact bring the whole system crashing down (something I don't believe) than it would be immoral to support it.

On a different issue, I sympathize with every person living in poverty in the whole world. Surely you could give up 90% of your income and still have a quality of life better than most of them. You could potentially help hundreds or thousands of starving children in Africa. By your measure of sympathy and empathy don't you feel obligated to donate almost all of your income to charity?

This is a tough one for me. Often, I do feel obligated (although I don't donate anywhere close to what I absolutely could without starving to death.) I talked about it a while ago here.

Orthoprax said...

JA,

"I talked about it a while ago here."

See, this is why people don't respect subjectivist ethics. Talk is cheap.

Jewish Atheist said...

See, this is why people don't respect subjectivist ethics. Talk is cheap.

It's cheap for the other guys, too. How many prominent Christians have been proven corrupt, womanizing addicts?

Having your morality is based on a perceived objectivist basis rather than a perceived subjectivist one doesn't make it any easier to walk the walk.

David said...

Health Care
So, the richest country has an obligation to provide health care for every citizen. How much? And, when you say "the richest country," you mean the citizens of the country, right? So, if you're 86, am I obligated to pay for a liver transplant to keep you alive another 2 weeks? Devil's in the details; fortunately, since you're an atheist, there is no devil, right?


Taxation
Tax policy based on sympathy? Is that a joke? I thought taxes were to raise revenue, but you've abandoned all pretense of that, and now you're advocating taxation for the sole purpose of punishing people for producing wealth (formerly considered a good thing). Any thought as to the economic impact of your policy, or is this just about that good feeling you get from making everybody the same as you?

Gay Marriage
Awww. Marriage to the one you love. Why the "one?" Why not polygamy or polyandry? Oh, and if you "love" a nine-year old, how about that?

Religious Freedom
My right (as a member of society) to forbid something based on my moral religious beliefs is void, but your right to dictate the extent of my authority is valid? Why is marriage so important that it must be exempt from regulation by the majority? And who are you to make that call? Are your beliefs so special that they trump everybody else's?

Abortion
Teenage girls can suffer; fetuses don't feel pain. Therefore, a fetus' life should be ended to avoid causing the teenage girl any angst. Have I got you straight on that? Hey, what if I can painlessly kill the teenage girl and deliver a healthy baby? That would seem to satisfy your scruples, wouldn't it?


Ten Commandments Monuments, etc.
"I have no sympathy for people who want to make it look like their religious beliefs are the beliefs of all Americans."

That's got to be your best line yet. Don't you realize that people who want to impose their beliefs include you among their number?

Conclusion

Government by empathy and sympathy is a really, really scary idea.

Egoist Paul said...

Empathy and sympathy are emotions and are not good foundation of morality. Morality is a guideline for a person making choices in their life. Using emotions as a guide, you will be under the control of your heart. Talmud says, "The wicked are under the control of their heart, but the righteous have their heart under their control."

I think it is a good idea for you to find a new alternative foundation of morality.

Joshua said...

Wonderful! I will definitely be a regular visitor to your blog. I was not raised Orthodox, rather conservative but I sympathize and feel much as you do on all issues.

Joshua said...

As an atheist who has an Orthodox brother, I often get upset about our differences. We love each other but some of the things he says and is commited to are terribly upsetting to me.