Friday, January 14, 2011

Krugman's Two Moralities

Paul Krugman recently had an editorial in the New York Times called A Tale of Two Moralities. It's an interesting read, and it's basically Krugman's argument (or what I took to be his argument) as to why the President (and the upper level Democratic leadership, in general) need to sort of abandon the idea of encouraging cooperation between the left and the right and instead focus on the idea that vitriolic, inflammatory speech (especially the sort of political speech that might incite others to violence) will not be tolerated. Krugman's main point is that the differences that currently divide our country aren't the sort of trivial points of disagreement that can be smoothed over through greater attention to manners or a a greater display of niceties. Probably correctly, Krugman points out that the differences between the right and the left actually derive from differences in deeply held moral beliefs and in essential differences between the ways that progressives and conservatives see the world (to quickly summarize: Krugman characterizes progressives as seeing a moral imperative in preventing suffering among the poor, especially given that we live in a relatively affluent nation where some live lives of excess and abundance while others are wanting in terms of basic necessities. Conservatives, by contrast, are characterized as seeing personal property rights and freedom from intrusion as their most precious, fundamental rights, and they tend to see any governmental action which interferes with those rights as a form of theft, with private property being stolen- or at least wrongfully taken- from them.)
Krugman sees the differences between these two viewpoints as being of a quintessential difference in morality, and he seems to see the tension and hostility between the groups as being all but intractable (Krugman leaves little room for settling differences between the two sides short of legal action).
In a lot of ways I see Krugman's point (especially his larger point about the need to put limits upon inflammatory rhetoric), and I can certainly see how these differing viewpoints might seem completely irreconcilable to a banner-carrying progressive like Krugman who has spent decades defending liberal positions and serving as a lightning rod for fiery criticism, vitriol, and animosity from the right. I would imagine that many right leaning pundits probably have similar sentiments about the possibility of reconciling conservative viewpoints with those of progressives)
I've been spending some time pondering his underlying suppositions, though- in particular his assertion that these two moralities, each supposedly fundamentally different, must inevitably lead people to polarized viewpoints that are so antagonistic that there's really no point in trying to harmoniously reconcile the two belief systems. In Krugman's view, it seems, the best that we can hope for is to recognize that there will always be these two opposing sets of moral beliefs, and then go about trying to learn to live with each other even though each side believes the other to be morally inferior and, thus, more or less undeserving of mutual respect (am I overstating Krugman's position? Maybe to a slight degree, but if so, not by much). Such thoughts, in a best case scenario, lead to a sort of truce or cease fire, with neither side ever really trusting or respecting the other because each believes that the other side is, at its core, simply wrong and flawed in some way. In this sort of world, it seems like we're destined to continually be at each other's throats, taking momentary respites to calm down (as in the wake of a mass shooting or the attempted assassination of an elected official) before slowly ratcheting up our rhetoric again until the next disastrous, priority-adjusting calamity occurs.
But I just can't buy the thought that Krugman can be right on this.
After all, I work, live, and hang out with conservative people with different political ideologies than my own every day- coworkers, friends, and family. I'm actually really close to some of them, and they're important people in my life. Am I only able to get along with these people because I avoid ever talking about politics or anything else that's important to me?

Now granted, as most readers of this blog know, I can get pretty worked up (and become pretty argumentative) when it comes to politics, but I still really can't bring myself to believe that I'm only able to live with the conservative people in my life because we avoid ever talking about important things.

Part of what I think that Krugman gets wrong is his characterization of morality and his assumption that we'll inevitably react in a certain way to reasoning which reaches different moral conclusions than our own. Part of what I, personally, think that this country needs is a greater willingness to respect and try to understand the moral reasoning of other people instead of simply passing judgment on others because the end product of that reasoning (in this case, their political views) ends up being different than our own.

Yeah, yeah. I know I'm often not all that great about this myself. But I'm trying to get better. Really!

What I'm saying is that, even though we may ultimately come to different conclusions as we work our way through moral problems, we ought to be able to have a greater degree of respect for another party's position if we can understand and respect the moral principles that they have applied in coming to their conclusion. If their reasoning is sound and they're basing their reasoning on rational principles (notice that I didn't say those principles had to be identical to our own), then we need to be able to give their judgments a fair amount of deference and at least treat their argument with respect. I know that this idea isn't exactly rocket science, but it just seems like we've really lost sight of these things somewhere along the way.
And let's say we take Krugman's assertion (implied if not overt) that conservatives place a greater value on their own personal property rights than they do upon empathy (or sympathy) for others. First of all, most conservatives will be quick to deny this characterization, while some progressives might quickly move to a moral judgment finding the people holding such a belief as selfish or self centered. But, when pinned down on a point by point analysis of the moral reasoning that led to that belief, many liberals will have a hard time quarreling with many of the simple underlying principles utilized by conservatives. (and, of course, conservatives will argue that insisting on freedom from government intrusion doesn't amount to a lack of empathy)
So liberals might acknowledge, "Yes, I believe that people have a right to own their own property without having it seized or interfered with. Yes, I believe that it's wrong for the someone to appropriate someone else's property if the property holder hasn't agreed to relinquish it. Yes, I believe that people should strive to be self sufficient and responsible for their own well being. No, I don't think it's fair to take property away from a person who has worked for it so that someone else can enjoy it."
Of course there are a million special exceptions and qualifications and reasons why liberals and conservatives might disagree about the how, when, and why of how these principles should be applied, but the point is that some basic underlying principles between the left and the right are there the entire time, and many of the differences between the two opposing viewpoints come into play in terms of how much weight should be placed upon various principles, the cases in which exceptions should be made in terms of these various principles, and how these principles should be applied.
In the same way, there are probably a fair number of principles held by progressives that most conservatives would find hard to refute on some level.
"Yes, it's a good thing to make sure that the the people within our community who are incapable of helping themselves are cared for on some level. Yes, there are a few situations where the need to protect people overcomes simple property rights. Yes, we live in a society that is governed by laws and which seeks to protect its citizens on some level, and some amount of resources are required by the community in order to accomplish that task."
Once again, there are some principles there that even conservative would probably have to grudgingly accept, but the quarrels begin once we get into arguments about exceptions to the rules, cases where the rules have been applied too broadly, and debates about which principles should trump each other (that last one's a biggie in terms of generating argument).
Anyway, I guess my point is just that there's still a very real, very legitimate underlying moral framework there which leaves room for civil debate and respect for the other side's position, even when the other side has decided to weigh certain things differently.
I'm not saying that we shouldn't be arguing over this stuff, but I'm just saying that we're often, in actuality, arguing about matters of degree and about the specifics of how moral principles are applied rather than about whether certain moral principles exist at all (neither side seems to be advocating an absolutely zero sum game, after all, where everyone is forced to earn and live on exactly the same amount of money or where rich people are given inherently different rights or privileges than poor people).
I just think Krugman has gone too far. People are polarized, it's true, but politicians have playing to their respective bases, and we haven't nearly often enough heard from leaders who've been willing to say, "Now I understand that you're angry, and I don't agree with what the other side is saying, but here's why they're saying it..."
Essentially, each side needs to just be more willing to say that while they don't agree with the opposing view, the other side does have a point. We might disagree, but the other side isn't totally crazy.
Don't get me wrong, I don't want my leaders to quit fighting for me, but at the same time we really need to find a way to get back to having a culture that involves at least some modicum of respect. Of course, in order to pull that off, you need cooperation from both sides, and that cooperation has to come at the same time from both ends.
I don't know, maybe it's a byproduct of having been a lawyer for a while and arguing on a regular basis with some people that I genuinely like and sometimes even admire, but I really do think that it's possible to pull off this whole mutual respect thing will simultaneously continuing to fight pretty hard for the causes that we believe in.
The fact that we've come to different moral conclusions doesn't mean that we can't have respect for the moral reasoning on the other side of the aisle, and, perhaps naively, I still tend to think that we've still got some room to find compromise in those areas where moral principles overlap. But we have to find ways to like each other more, even when we disagree.
I'm not sure what's going to happen if the country keeps splitting farther and farther apart, but in the end I just think it's not going to be very good at all for any of us.

Blah, blah, blah, I know.

I just think we can do this. Krugman lives in a world of angry pundits, and he probably deals regularly with some of the most extreme political thinkers out there. I just want to believe that the rest of us, the people who live every day with people who have different views than us, are a little different. When Krugman states that there' no middle ground between progressive and conservative viewpoints, I just balk at that statement. While pundits and professional mouthpieces might see their political views as absolute positions with no middle ground that allows for compromise, I just believe that most of the rest of us needn't feel compelled to feel that way.
It's still okay for the rest of us to say, "I can't agree with you, but I see your point," and the simple ability to concede the validity of someone else's argument, even while disagreeing with their ultimate conclusion, represents a hope for a social and political climate in which, hopefully, we can respect each other well enough to not have to rely only upon rules, laws, and regulations in order to reign in vitriolic speech.

Okay. I'm done. Everybody hug each other and sing Kumbaya... ;-)

No comments: