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Archive for the ‘Comparative culture’ Category

Jonathan Haidt is everywhere these days, giving interviews and TED talks, promoting his working papers in the media, writing for the websites yourmorals.org and civilpolitics.org, and publishing The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012). A moral psychologist by training, Haidt has successfully cleared the jump to public intellectual, now dispensing didactic advice to Americans about what ails their politics. The Righteous Mind reflects those aspirations, not just summing up his own original research on the psychological foundations of political ideology for a general audience, but also shoehorning in some surprising interpretations of moral philosophy and conjuring out of the whole stew some advice for American politicos (and what could be more important than that?).

Did you know that moral philosophers do not believe in intuition? Did you know that David Hume thought that reason was weak and ineffectual against the tide of passions? Did you know that Bentham and Kant were probably on the autism spectrum, and that that fact explains their moral philosophies? Did you know that Kant was a philosophical rationalist, and that philosophical rationalists think that morality is all about justice and fairness? Philosophical rationalists also think that children learn about morality through experience, just like Lawrence Kohlberg, Haidt’s nemesis in moral psychology — and totally not like Hume.(*)

If you did not know these things, which might especially be the case if you are a moral philosopher, Haidt is here to enlighten you. As he helpfully informs us, he took a couple of philosophy courses as an undergraduate, before he realized that it was all bunkum.

Haidt begins (more…)

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David Brooks reviews Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart in today’s NYT. Brooks has high praise: “I’ll be shocked if there’s another book that so compelling describes the most important trends in American society.”

Back in 1963, where the story begins:

Roughly 98 percent of men between the ages of 30 and 49 were in the labor force, upper class and lower class alike. Only about 3 percent of white kids were born outside of marriage. The rates were similar, upper class and lower class.

The Brooks review provides a few striking examples of the differences that have emerged since then with respect to male workforce participation, marriage rates, births out of wedlock, church attendance, etc., and some of the comparisons he draws are difficult to reconcile with the dominant narratives on the Right and the Left.

Brooks notes that Murray’s comparisons are “mostly using data on white Americans, so the effects of race and other complicating factors don’t come into play” (indeed, his book is subtitled: “The State of White America, 1960-2010). My guess is, none of this will matter to the critics, who have dismissed every word that Murray has written since Losing Ground and (in particular) the Bell Curve. From my own interactions with colleague/critics—an admittedly small sample–it appears the more clamorous they are in their rejection of Murray, the more likely it is that they have never read a word he wrote. Why would they start now?

Nonetheless, my order has been placed.

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I recently came across this interesting, five-year-old interview with law professor William Ian Miller on “talionic” law in the Middle Ages, which specified literal “eye for an eye” justice. Talionic law developed in societies that lacked stable state institutions, like Iceland and early England. As such, it was embedded in strong extended-family institutions that used tit-for-tat strategies to keep order.

The traditional understanding of “eye for an eye” justice is that it is retributive, that is, that its motivating principle is punishment of the wrongdoer, pure and simple. Miller, however, makes a persuasive case that such systems are actually restitutory, that is, aimed at making the victim whole. In that sense they are much more humane than much contemporary criminal law, which ignores the victim and unproductively locks away criminals. An excerpt that makes the argument in a nutshell:

Your book argues that we often use the term “eye for an eye” to describe a harsh kind of justice from the past. But talionic societies could be said to put a higher value on human life and the human body than we do. They were much more committed to finding the exact worth of body parts and lives. So, let’s say you poke out my eye…

Then, instantly, my eye becomes yours. To get the value exactly right, we say an eye is worth an eye. You have a right to my eye. Now you can say to me, “I’m going to take your eye.” Then I’m going to say, “Hey, what would you be willing to accept instead?” It becomes an initial bargaining position.

If you want victims to be more highly valued and you want real, adequate compensation, this is how to do it. Now if I offer you what some lousy insurance company says your eye is worth — say, $100,000 — you’ll say, “No way! I would never have let you take my eye for that.” Instead, you can be sure I’ll put the same value on not losing my eye that you would have put on yours, and I will pay you that amount to keep my own eye. How about $5 million? Let’s start there. And we’ll bargain it out.

The book mentioned is this.

So how about it – should we return to the lex talionis?

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The Seattle Times, Slate, and other outlets have run interesting stories in the last couple of days discussing a new initiative that will appear on this November’s ballot in San Francisco–and hold onto your privates, gentlemen: It would ban circumcision for all minors (under age 18), rendering it a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail or a $1,000 fine. It would contain no religious exemptions. While this is just a ballot initiative–not yet an approved ordinance–the mere threat of its enactment (and the fact that its supporters managed to get over 7,000 signatures) bothers my libertarian soul.

Media reports obsess about the First Amendment implications of such an ordinance, though honestly, since the Supreme Court’s decision in Employment Division v. Smith (1990), any state or local law of “general applicability” that burdens the free exercise of religion will be subject only to low-level rationality review (federal actions are subject to more rigorous review under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act). Since the supporters of the proposed circumcision ban claim that circumcision is a form of “genital mutilation” that is painful and unnecessary, it would seem to sail easily over the “rational basis” hurdle.

So frankly, I’m not all that interested in the First Amendment implications, though Smith is an intriguing case worthy of reconsideration. Instead, I’m struck by the lack of attention given to the individual liberty (substantive due process) implications of San Francisco’s proposed circumcision ban. I had thought it long settled that parents have a broad (though admittedly not limitless), presumptive liberty to raise their children as they see fit. Circumcision may indeed be painful to an infant, but is it any more so than piercing a little girl’s ears? Or tattooing your child? In either case, there is temporary pain and an extremely low risk of serious harm. In both cases, the procedure is undertaken to satisfy the parents’ own cultural or aesthetic preferences.

Supporters of the ban try to analogize circumcision to female genital mutilation, but I’m just not buying it. Female genital mutilation involves cutting out the clitoris, rendering the girl disfigured and permanently unable to have a normal, healthy sexual life. Circumcision obviously has no such long-term effects, as the 80 percent of U.S. men who’ve undergone the procedure can attest. Moreover, circumcision may actually have health benefits for some– it has been considered a way to lower the risk of AIDS in African communities ravaged by that disease.

On a broader level, I’m bothered by the fact that–particularly in an ultra-progressive city like San Francisco–there’s a decent degree of support for nanny-state restrictions on individual liberty, particularly when it relates (at least tangentially) to an individual’s choice of something so fundamental–“deeply rooted” in our history and tradition–as to what medical or aesthetic procedures to undergo. I know we are talking about minors here, but again–parents are presumptively allowed to make medical and aesthetic decisions for their children all the time. But then again, progressives are just as aggressive about nanny-state intrusions into individual liberty as conservatives, when it suits their agenda–witness progressive-supported bans on foie gras in California beginning in 2012 and the FDA’s recent decision to revoke approval of Avastin as a treatment for breast cancer.

Would love to hear others’ thoughts.

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Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk has been one of my favorite authors since I read Snow a few years ago. Snow is an atmospheric novel set in ethnically mixed eastern Turkey (the city of Kars). The novel paints a picture of a “frontier” city’s characters, political and religious intrigues, dilapidated architecture, climate, and topography. While the novel is political, even featuring a comic-opera municipal coup d’état, it is not ideological. Pamuk seemed to put ironic distance between himself and every one of the ideologies running through the city’s overheated atmosphere: Kemalism, Islamism, Kurdish nationalism, even the protagonist’s confused “Westernism.”

Lately I’ve been reading Istanbul, a nonfictional meditation on Pamuk’s home city cum memoir. So far the memoir parts are rather dull, but the analysis of Istanbul’s spirit and history is interesting. It is in this book that Pamuk declares his localist sympathies (5-6):

I’ve never left Istanbul, never left the houses, streets, and neighborhoods of my childhood… [F]ifty years on I find myself back in the Pamuk Apartments, where my first photographs were taken and where my mother first held me in her arms to show me the world… Conrad, Nabokov, Naipaul–these are writers known for having managed to migrate between languages, cultures, countries, continents, even civilizations. Their imaginations were fed by exile, a nourishment drawn not through roots but through rootlessness. My imagination, however, requires that I stay in the same city, on the same street, in the same house, gazing at the same view. Istanbul’s fate is my fate. I am attached to this city because it has made me who I am.

This passage reminds me a great deal of Bill Kauffman’s arguments for local patriotism in Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette, an account of the people and goings-on of Batavia, New York. Dispatches is actually a more entertaining read than Istanbul, and its politico-economic analysis of a city’s decline is more compelling. Of course, there are vast differences between Istanbul and Batavia. Istanbul is home to more than 13 million people and former capital of a great empire. Batavia is a small town of less than 20,000 in upstate New York. Istanbul has been rapidly growing, while Batavia has been static. But both cities have experienced the loss of aesthetic and “spiritual” treasures that define them – Istanbul with its cobblestone streets buried under asphalt and old mansions burnt down and Batavia with its decimated, “urbanly renewed” Main Street. To no small degree both cities are defined by what they’ve lost, and both writers constantly refer to these losses in explaining the present.

There is something to the idea that the cultural diversity prized by cosmopolitans is wholly dependent upon the continued existence of people like Pamuk and Kauffman: people rooted in the local knowledge and customs of one place.

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