Monday, September 27, 2010

Back to Aristotle

There was an interesting piece at National Review Online the other day titled "The Politics of Empathy."   by pollster John Zogby and a colleague of his.  The article is a synopsis of a study they conducted in which they tested the notion that ideological differences between people might be more simply explained by considering not their geography, ethnicity, or lifestyle, for example, but rather their latent sympathies instead. That is, when you measure the degree of sympathy a person is inclined to express toward something, you can go a long way toward predicting their political ideology. 

They presented respondents with seven generic categories (infants, animals, drug addicts, foreigners,  criminals, homeless, and American soldiers) and asked them to express, on a scale of one to ten, their relative degree of sympathy for one category when comparing it to another.  In the case of infants, for example, it turned out that those who expressed relatively more sympathy tended to be ideologically conservative, while those who expressed relatively less tended to be liberal.  By contrast, when they measured their sympathy toward the homeless, they got the opposite results. (Be careful! This did not mean that liberals had no sympathy for babies nor conservatives any for the homeless.)

While this section of the essay was interesting enough, the more interesting part, for me anyway, came when the authors proceeded to tackle another, larger, issue suggested by the study.

As you might have expected, among the biggest differences between conservatives and liberals was the  measure of sympathy they were willing to express toward American soldiers versus foreigners, a distinction commonly associated with relative levels of patriotism.  Sure enough, those who expressed more sympathy for the American soldier, not only tended to be conservative, but also tended to believe their level of patriotism higher than the norm.  The exact opposite was the case for liberals.  It thereby begged the question, why is this so, why are conservatives relatively more patriotic and liberals less so?

Here Zogby and his colleague offered an interesting answer.
A popular idea among progressive intellectuals for many years has been that of the “expanding moral circle,” most famously articulated by Peter Singer. According to this view, the conventional morality of any given era is predicated on arbitrary distinctions that serve to justify our differential treatment of different groups (such as foreigners or animals). On this view, our civilization’s moral progress essentially consists in obliterating these artificial boundaries and expanding the circle of inclusion. Since we were once wrong to draw a morally significant distinction between black and white Americans, the argument goes, “speciesism” must eventually give too. The same holds for patriotism — an inclination to value one’s compatriots’ lives more than those of foreigners based on the concept of citizenship.
Consistent with this observation, our empathic profiles show a greater range of sympathy among conservatives than among liberals, at least when it comes to groups to which the expanding moral circle is usually meant to apply. At the most elementary level, it seems that sometimes where liberals see universals, conservatives see particulars. In fact, one of our surveys showed that conservatives are more likely than liberals to agree that “different people can be very different.”
That all men are created equal has been the bedrock principle of the Western conception of justice for several centuries. Our system of laws has been designed to treat — and is for the most part extraordinarily effective in treating — every individual equally, regardless of his class, gender, or relationship to the judge. This emphasis on equal rights is, at the same time, the cornerstone of formal ethical approaches: The same rules must apply to all.
Yet there is scarcely a single person on earth who treats everyone equally. Adam Smith long ago observed that even a decent man would suffer more if he knew he was to lose his little finger tomorrow than if he knew that a hundred million Chinese he never knew perished in an earthquake. Unlike abstract moral norms based on equal rights, conventional moral norms put great weight on the principle of not treating everyone equally. We expect a mother to care more, in most cases much more, about her own child than about a random child on the street. We expect the American president to care about the good of Americans more than that of the Chinese. (my emphasis)
Here, I think, the researchers go too far.  While their observation about distinctions between universals and particulars may account, in some measure, for the differences between conservatives and liberals with respect to patriotism, it's too much of a generalization to capture meaningfully many other distinctions.  To pick just one easy and obvious example, as we know, conservatives tend to be pro-life, while liberals tend to be pro-choice.  But here the universalizing and particularizing inclinations seem to be reversed.  That is, conservatives are pro-life because they tend to universalize their sympathy towards infants, while liberals are pro-choice as they seem less inclined to do so.

Nevertheless, what the researchers noticed is, I believe, significant, and it was first noticed more than 2,000 years ago by the Greek philosopher Aristotle.  In Book III of his Politics, in a discussion on the meaning of "justice", the preeminent political question, Aristotle noted the following:
For all men cling to justice of some kind, but their conceptions are imperfect and they do not express the whole idea.  For example, justice is thought by them to be, and is, equality, not, however, for all, but only for equals.  And inequality is thought to be, and is, justice, neither is this for all, but only for unequals.
I can almost hear your immediate response to that passage: "Huh?"  The syntax is a bit convoluted, but what Aristotle is saying is that we all cling to a more or less similar notion of justice, we just don't express it adequately.  What we mean to say is that justice is achieved when we treat equals equally and unequals unequally.

Another "Huh?" perhaps?  While I suspect you have no problem with the proposition that justice is somehow about treating equals equally, treating unequals unequally probably makes you flinch.  It shouldn't.

If you'll indulge me for a moment, consider every public toilet in America.  What is common about at least one stall in all of them?  They are fitted for the handicapped, correct?  Why?  Because those who suffer some physical disability and those who do not are unequal and there would be something unjust about not recognizing that inequality and compensating for it in some way.  And as long as we're thinking of bathrooms, why do we distinguish between men's and women's anyway?  Because at least in this respect we are unequal and in order to pursue justice, we must recognize and attend to that inequality.

These examples are of course trivial, but you can see how it would be easy to produce other more serious and controversial examples.  I say controversial because that, in fact, largely explains our political dynamic, the abiding struggles between, for example, liberals and conservatives.  While we hold a common view of justice, to treat equals as equals and unequals as unequals, we disagree, and sometimes do so with extreme passion, about just how equal and unequal we are and therefore just how equally and unequally we should be treated.

Now, if you will, please thank Aristotle, even if he is a dead white male, for pointing this out for us so very long ago.  Class dismissed.

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