The science of morality

Short post tonight.

As a follow-up to my posts on morality here and here, I just wanted to call out this essay from “The New York Times Magazine”. It’s an overview of the latest scientific findings on the moral sense inherent in human beings. It’s fascinating, and I hope to take get a chance to look back at my posts through the lenses provided in this article. I think scientific research into our morality in invaluable, and I hope to highlight it in my blog as I spot things.

By the way, if you’re interested in the secular humanist/rationalist viewpoint, there’s a great podcast called Point of Inquiry produced by the Center for Inquiry. You can find an interview with the author of the New York Times piece, Steven Pinker, on the show here.

See you tomorrow.

Some great stuff

Today, I’m just going to post some useful items that relate back to my posts so far.

Here are some great books that I think help point the right way for the Progressive Movement, in alphabetical order:

“How Would a Patriot Act?”, Glenn Greenwald
“How Liberals Can Speak Without Boring Everyone to Tears”, Thom Hartmann
“Thinking Points”, George Lakoff (this one is available entirely online here)
“Being Right Is Not Enough”, Paul Waldman
“The Political Brain”, Drew Westin

Also, check out these think tanks:

Center for American Progress
The Commonweal Institute
The Rockridge Institute

Also, something I haven’t really talked about, but I think is likely at the center of all of our problems, is a creeping authoritarianism in American culture. I’ll post more about this idea as time goes on, but here are two great books:

“Conservatives without Conscience”, John Dean
“The Authoritarians”, Bob Altemeyer (this one is also available entirely online here)

Lastly, if you’re looking for a couple of slightly older but still great articles on liberalism to buck you up, check these out:

“The Word ‘Liberal’”, Eric Alterman
“This Is Your Story”, Bill Moyers

Have a great weekend!

It’s the morality, stupid! 2

Yesterday, I made the argument that the Progressive Movement first needs to figure out and articulate what it stands for morally before going on to stories, issues, policies, electoral strategies, etc.

After writing such a thing, I feel obligated to try to lay out where I’m coming from morally. Please don’t expect a comprehensive or simple statement. If it were that easy, human beings wouldn’t have been working on the question “What is right?” for thousands of years. I’ll present some basic ideas, and you’ll just have to keep reading the blog to see my thinking play out over time.

First of all, I start with the inherent dignity, value, and rights of the individual person. Obviously this is a big moral theme in the western tradition and the history of the United States. It’s even been accepted by the rest of the world.

But rights are one side of the coin – with rights come responsibilities. Having freedom also imposes duties to others.

And lastly precepts need to apply equally to everybody. It’s Kant’s categorical imperative, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Power, position, or being part of a different group just shouldn’t matter.

Now, for me, those three basic ideas can play out in a lot of different ways that don’t fit comfortably into standard definitions of liberal or conservative. For example, I am not a supporter of the unlimited right to an abortion. However, it is the responsibility of each and every person – society, that is – to make sure that every person has a shot at a dignified, decent life. That’s why I support universal education and health care. I will say this, as well, about our current politics. Torture and suspension of civil liberties are immoral. Period.

Now, to finish up, let me get cheeky for a moment.

As I am reminded everyday by raising two little kids, all I really need to know I learned in kindergarten.

Notice that I do not think that so-called “free” markets have all of the answers.

And as for the Bible, puh-leaze! But that’s another post (or two)…

It’s the morality, stupid!

In my last post, I laid out some criteria I have for my own beliefs. I want to call out one of those today.

I mentioned that beliefs have to be morally sound. Though I mentioned this one last, I think it’s of primary importance, especially for the Progressive Movement.

In the worlds of politics and economics, there are plenty of policy ideas and prescriptions. And individuals and organizations all have their interests, the specific things they want or want to get done for their own reasons.

But none of those things addresses what should get done: what is the morally justifiable way to behave, policy to put in place, or interest to hold?

Tough questions, of course, but to my mind, as the Progressive Movement takes shape, these questions should be at the root of the enterprise.

This is not some flaccid call to appeal to so-called “values” voters. This is not a pitch by a political operative that members of the Progressive Movement need to figure out ways to speak to “people of faith”.

It is, one, a recognition that all healthy, mature human beings strive to act in accordance with what they see as morally right and, two, that having something morally justified can be a huge motivator to act.

Some of this work is already being done. There is a recognition in the Progressive Movement that it needs a compelling story – a simple tale it tells about the world that puts people, institutions, and policies in a cohesive, compelling, and morally satisfying whole.

This is important work that must continue. I just want to make the point that the hardest and most important work needs to be on making the moral case.

What is it about the Progressive Movement that distinguishes it from the Conservative Movement? And why does that matter? What’s at stake? What does the Progressive Movement’s moral case say about it and the people that support it? And in turn, what does it say about the people who identify themselves with the Conservative Movement?

As you might guess, I have some answers to these questions. I’ll lay our some preliminary thoughts tomorrow. For now, I just want to get across that I think we who identify with the Progressive Movement and liberalism need to start thinking about morals and get busy articulating what those are.


Regarding my post about populism the other day, more proof that it’s populism that’s the real problem for many right-wing organizations and writers.

To see what is in front of one’s nose…

“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” – George Orwell

I see this quote used so often that it strikes me as cliché to lead off this post with it, but sometimes, to use another cliché, the shoe just fits.

One of my goals for this blog is be able to articulate exactly what it is I believe. It’s easy to have set of unexamined and unsupported beliefs. But it’s far harder to have clear, consistent, well-reasoned, evidence-based, morally sound beliefs.

For example, in an earlier post, I produced a laundry list of issues or “-isms” that, to my mind, swirl around the gravitational core of the new Progressive Movement.

But for me, a laundry list isn’t good enough. It has to make sense. It has to be coherent. And most important of all, it has to have evidence to support it. In other words, it has to have deep roots.

Coming to this kind of understanding is incredibly hard to do, especially when one tries, as I mentioned in my first post, to be open and intellectually honest.

In keeping up on current events, it’s hard to avoid the sense that at all times you’re just being played. It’s standard fare in our political discussion to be disingenuous; that is, “not straightforward or candid; insincere or calculating.” Too often we get intellectually dishonest opinion or just straight-forward propaganda. Many times the goal of much of this talk is simply to confuse, so as to leave the reader or listener paralyzed. An ill-informed, fuzzy-headed, paralyzed electorate is ripe for manipulation.

And that’s where we come back to George Orwell. To say it again, it’s damn hard work to separate the good arguments from the bad ones, the honest claims from the dishonest ones, the truth from the lies. But each one of us – as individuals, as employers and employees, as parents, as consumers, as citizens – owes that to ourselves and our nation.

The real threat is Populism

As a general rule, I try not to track punditry as it relates to political contests. It strikes me that a lot of what’s said following the results of something like, oh, let’s say the Iowa caucuses, proves to be spectacularly overblown if not just outright false.

I understand why they write and/or broadcast it. I’m a journalist, of course, and I’ve covered elections in the past. Something has to fill all of those column-inches or minutes of air, so you take your best stab at what it all means and lay it out, even though “only time will tell” who’s right in the end.

All of that said, I did read some of the post-Iowa punditry, and it was interesting to find out how much agreement there was on one point: The victories of Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee revealed a dark threat in our current politics, and that threat is Populism.

Conservative commentators seem to be especially upset, including George Will and Jonah Goldberg.

I’ve never understood the passion that Populism brings out among its opponents. It seems to be essentially American and democratic – putting policies in place that first look out for the average person, and then look for ways to keep the elite of society happy. But nearly every time something with a Populist bent is brought up, elite commentators get fired up. Politicians, of course, are more subtle about it because they depend upon our votes. But the pundit class has no problem writing screeds against people who at least say they would stick up for the rest of us.

By the way, a writer named David Sirota is an avid defender of Populists and Populist policies. Here’s one article he wrote on the Iowa contest.