All posts by Andrew Jason Cohen

Honest Dialogue Needed on Social Media

In my last post, I issued a plea for civil discourse. This post is something of a possible explanation for its rarity on social media couple with a further plea. Most people in the US seem to have chosen sides, picked a team. More than that, they seem to have made their chosen team a large part of their identity—who they take themselves to be. If they see someone post negative things about their candidate, they react against that person. If they repeatedly see that person posting negative things about their candidate (and perhaps positive things about the other candidate), they see the other person as attacking who they are. Or as completely fooled. This is, of course, polarization.

Here’s the thing: in reality, someone who posts only positive things about a candidate and nothing negative, is—at least in the US over the last several decades—not doing what is necessary to be rightly seen as posting truth. If what you believe to be true about the current candidates for president (and thus post on social media) is all one-sided, you’re almost certainly wrong. The duopoly candidates are all bad and have been for years. The truth is complex. Trump has had some good policies and done some good, but he’s also done some things badly and caused problems. The same would be true of a Biden presidency (judging from his history).

I agree that one of the candidates is better than the other. And I voted for that candidate. Honestly, I’ve voted in all or most national elections I’ve been eligible to vote in. I’ve always gotten a kick out of it. I did again this time, but I felt dirty in a way I never have before when voting. (Which is at least partly explained by having voted for third party candidates, skipped votes for some positions, writing in candidates, and never before voting for a whole party line.)

So what can be done? Here’s the plea: post honestly and recognize that if all your posts are pro-Candidate A and against Candidate B, you are not likely posting honestly. Civil discourse requires that interlocutors trust each other to speak honestly. If people see your posts as all one sided, they will rightly conclude that you are not being an honest interlocutor. There are at least 2 possible bad outcomes from that: your social media will become more of a bubble as people for the other candidate unfriend you or you’ll get into unnecessarily heated debates with people seeking to prove you wrong, no matter how futile that might be.

By contrast, if you are willing to see—and show that you see—the faults of the candidate you prefer (even if you think they are great!), you can invite and sustain honest dialogue with others. In all likelihood, you will discover that you have things in common with them even if you disagree about the candidates. The fact is we are all multi-faceted and not well represented by any single label. When we hide behind superficial identities or labels—or force others behind them—we fail to learn who our interlocutors really are. When we do that, we miss out on all there is to discover and make it more likely that we stagnate instead of growing. (For more on this, see Irshad Manji’s Don’t Label Me-CE*.)

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An Appeal for Civil Discourse

Humans were genetically inclined to be intolerant of difference.  They could overcome the inclination, but it was a reality of the Human conflict that they often did not.”  —Octavia Butler

I’ve been binge reading Octavia Butler’s fantastic fiction.  I can’t recommend it highly enough—its been a long time since I’ve so enjoyed an author’s work.  The above is from her Xenogenisis Trilogy-CE* (Dawn, Adulthood Rights, and Amago) in which she presents a post-apocalyptic earth, where we find humans, alien Oankali, and human-Oankali hybrids.  The Oankali saved the humans that remain—absent Oankali intervention, there would be no humans at all.  That Oankali did not do this solely out of altruistic concern, but also so that they would have humans as genetic “trading partners.”  The Oankali are a repeatedly and intentionally evolving species—they evolve by mixing their DNA with that of other species.  Humans aren’t the first and won’t be the last.  Some in the tale appear unable to grasp the incredible benefit the Oankali offer and become “resisters” seeking to maintain their biological humanity at all costs.  They fear their species being lost completely.  Indeed, the Oankali have (reversibly) altered humans to prevent non-hybrid procreation because they see a fatal destructive flaw in human biology—so destructive that they believe that absent intervention, the human race will self-destruct, just as it almost did before they arrived.  The Oankali, though, offer what amounts to significantly improved and lengthened individual life for the remaining humans and their descendants, though not, admittedly, as biological humans.  

Fear of the new and different is natural.  Such fear can, of course, be life-preserving.  It can’t though, be one’s only guide.  Fortunately, fear never dominates everyone.  Perhaps not even most.  There are humans in Butler’s tale that live in peace with the Oankali with little fear.  Most Christians don’t fear Muslims, most Americans don’t fear people in China or Russia, and most rural folks don’t fear city dwellers—or vice versa (for each pairing).  Importantly, most democrats don’t fear republicans and most republicans don’t fear democrats.  But we can all be better off if we increase understanding across the partitions that divide us.

If we do not at least try to better understand those we disagree with, the social and political landscape will only get worse.  The last century and a half has been humanity’s most prosperous.  The vast improvements to human life owe much to greater freedom to trade with those foreign to us, geographically and culturally.  That trade was partly preceded by, included, and followed by, discourse.  Absent discourse, we separate from others, living in isolated pockets (or “bubbles”) with others like us.  That is a recipe for stagnation—a New Dark Age where there is little dialogue between individuals across party lines, political borders, religions, and cultures.  And with that, less trade and progress.  We need more discourse that crosses all of those lines—and that will only happen with civility.  Civil discourse may not be the engine of change, but it’s certainly a prerequisite thereof.  Let’s have at it.  Tell me why I’m wrong.  Don’t tell me “because the so-and-so’s are beyond the pale;” tell me what we can do that would improve things other than engage in civil discourse that improves understanding.  Don’t tell me I’m a so-and-so; tell me why I’m wrong about civil discourse, or what is needed for progress, or why we don’t need progress, or why we’re somehow better off without cross-border trade (geographically, culturally, religiously, politically). 

In addition to leaving the comments open here—my first time doing so on RCL—I note a great new national attempt to improve understanding through civil discourse by the Braver Angels organization.  For the last few years, Braver Angels (formerly Better Angels) has been putting “blues” and “reds” in dialogue with each other to great affect.  They continue to do so, but have a new project meant to address the particular situation we now face.  When the 2020 election is over, many of your friends, neighbors, coworkers, and relatives are going to be upset.  Braver Angels hopes we can get reconciliation across the partisan divisions that have become so much less civil.  They seek to increase civil discourse by encouraging both sides to reach out to each other to discuss how we should all treat one other.  This can help us better understand each other—even those we vehemently disagree with.  I’d encourage you to take seriously the Braver Angel’s “With Malice Toward None” Pledge and, their letter rejecting election related violence. Sign both now.

*Thanks to Christy Horpedahl for helping me make this a better post than it otherwise would have been.

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Schools, Teachers, Parents, and a Bad Assumption

In my last post, I discussed the problems surrounding opening schools and, importantly, how we discuss them. In this post, I want to raise an issue about schooling more generally that is rarely discussed at all. I want to show how our current system encourages a false belief about parents and teachers that has pernicious results.

I begin by noting that my wife is a public school teacher and, given how Georgia is handling the pandemic, I have a clear preference for her to not teach in her school building. I also have a school age child who was, until a month ago, in a private school. The administration of that school is, I think, approaching the situation far better than most, but we still worry about both health and pedagogical risks. Thinking about both returning (or not) to school has me once again wondering about fundamental social problems—especially regarding schooling and parenting.

I think most of us are pretty bad at parenting. (Philip Larkin understood this well, but I should be clear that I think there are a huge variety of ways that we are bad at it—some are overbearing and some are entirely too loose, for opposing examples.) Worries about increased child abuse with school closures are therefore not at all surprising. On the other hand, I also think most K-12 schools are pretty bad at educating. Having served on committees for two charter schools and volunteered and watched at my son’s schools, I’ve been amazed at how unwilling school administrators can be to make use of evidence about best educational practices. (This is sometimes true even when they clearly know the evidence—in such cases, they tend to point out that they are constrained by budgets, politics, etc.) Schools don’t, in my view, offer enough music or art or time to relax, run, and breath outside. They also tend to start too early in the morning, foolishly insist children sit still and at desks, force students to maintain logs of reading, and even penalize students that read unassigned books at the wrong time. Worries about children being stifled and losing their innate curiosity because of school rules are therefore also not surprising.

Many parents are aware of problems with their children’s’ schools. Some even work to correct them. Most, though, seem to “mind their own business”—as if the education of their children were not their business. Indeed, many parents seem to think that because schools are provided and mandatory, they are themselves absolved of the responsibility for educating their children. (As schools feed and medically nurse children, parents may feel absolved of even more responsibility.) Even the best of parents tend to assume their children are being well taken care of at school. Unfortunately, too many parents assume their children are the school’s responsibility during the day. Interestingly, the pandemic helped some see that their school was not working for them. (See this interesting NY Times piece.)

I do not think any of this is surprising or unexplainable. We live in a society wherein government has encouraged parental abdication of educational responsibilities. Parents often rightly feel that they cannot opt out of government run schools. Where they can, they usually are constrained to choose either the local government school or a nearby private school. Only in some locales is there a simple and straightforward process through which you can legally educate your own child. (The option is, I think, available everywhere in the US, but with more or less red tape involved.) Encouraged is a belief that I suspect drives the problems that beset schools: that parenting and teaching are necessarily distinct and must be kept separate.

Our system of K-12 education relies on the idea that parents are not teachers. Indeed, some homeschooling parents have been condemned for thinking they could teach their own children. Parents, on this view, are supposed to feed, clothe, love, and maybe socialize children. Schools, on the other hand, provide teachers to educate children, too often including moral education (and might also provide food and healthcare for the children). And schools—or the administrators thereof (or, worse, politicians)—decide where a child will learn and how. A parent that tries to send her child to a better public school than the one closest may face jail time—because the school system decides, not the parent. (See this and this.) Parents, after all, don’t know about education.

Two problems emerge when people believe parenting and teaching are necessarily distinct. The first, I’ve discussed above: schools operate with a variety of problems and parents don’t work to change them or do so but face insurmountable difficulties in the attempt. When they don’t try, it is likely at least partly because thinking that parents aren’t teachers makes parents think teachers have an authority they do not. And, of course, they assume teachers run schools. The second problem is a corollary: because parents are led to believe schools and teachers have an authority they do not themselves possess, parents don’t think they need be active participants in their children’s education. In short, parents take less responsibility for raising their children, leaving more and more to schools. What society gets, too often, is school graduates who learn to do as they are told, conforming to societal requirements. If parents were more active, we’d get more diversity in how children are educated, resulting in many benefits (though admittedly also costs in terms of equity). I think we are seeing some of this already and hope to see more. We’d get more people contributing in more and more varied ways to society, creating more and more varied benefits for all.

In short, the all too common belief that parents and teachers are necessarily distinct lets parents off the hook for too much and grants schools too much leeway. Challenging that belief would encourage parents to challenge their children’s schools, thereby either improving the schools or having the schools lose students to other alternatives.

The pandemic has forced us to re-evaluate many things. Hopefully, one positive outcome will be a healthier view of the relationship between parenting and education–one that emphasizes parental responsibility and acknowledges the limits of career educators (especially those in what might be called “educational factories”). One might even hope that this would help make parents better at parenting.

(Conversations with my wife and with Lauren Hall, JP Messina, and Kevin Currie-Knight inspired, and helped me with, this post.)

On School Openings

Back in April, I “predicted” we’d see 150 to 200 thousand deaths from COVID-19 in the US.  As we are now in that range, I’m hoping I was right and we don’t go past the 200,000, but of course this is so far outside my expertise that my guess means little.  But here we are and school openings approach.  Some seem deadly afraid of school openings and some seem deadly afraid of schools not opening. (I’m primarily thinking here about K-12, but much of what I say applies to colleges as well—and of course, high school juniors and seniors are more like college freshman than kindergarteners in terms of COVID-19 transmission and symptoms.)

Those conflicting views often accompany two others: that people favoring school openings foolishly think young children are immune to the effects of COVID-19 (or otherwise don’t understand the risks of reopening) and that people opposing school openings don’t care about education (or otherwise overestimate the risks of reopening).  

Meanwhile, I don’t believe any thinking person really thinks any children are immune to COVID-19, despite claims coming from the White House.  Of course, young children do seem to get badly sick from the virus much less than anyone expected back in March.  And there is no reason to believe that those worried about sending kids into closed buildings with hundreds of others don’t care about education.

My biggest issue with discussions about this—and many things—is that people seem unable or unwilling to keep the pros and cons in mind at the same time.  But schools are, by and large, run by groups of people that have to be able to do just that in order to make rational decisions about whether to open, close, reopen, re-close schools—sometimes despite political pressures by governing bodies, unions, parental organizations, and more.

This has to be a hugely difficult question and cannot be made without considering both the costs and the benefits.  At a minimum that includes the following assumptions (yes, I think both of these are true):

-if schools are open, kids and teachers are going to get sick (plexiglass around the kids, masks all day, etc, is not going to stop it). They will also bring the disease to their families, friends, and neighbors.  We’re likely to pass 200k deaths more quickly (and with more children) than we would if schools stay closed.

-if schools are closed, children of working class parents will suffer long term consequences.  Their parents can’t stay home with them and help them with their schoolwork.  Middle class and wealthier parents will hire tutors or join “educational pods” where parents pool resources to monitor children doing school work, but not those from poorer backgrounds.  (And as others have noted, there will be more cases of suicide and spousal and child abuse.)

There are further economic issues that would follow either decision as well, but I’ll not delve into those here.  What I want to urge now is simply (a) not demonizing those you disagree with about this and (b) bearing in mind both the pros and cons if you have decision making capacity here.  

I keep myself limited to those two points as I really don’t know what the best route is for any school (and, of course, different schools in different locales with different population densities and with different student bodies, will be different).  I suspect a lot of thought will be going into it, and not just from current school administrators and school boards.  (And parents—the topic of a future post.)

Hopefully, new ideas will emerge that actually bring new approaches and new institutions that do better for children than schools now do.  Smaller schools with more parental decision making, more variety of teaching techniques, and yes, better use of technology to not merely monitor children and allow for physically distanced communication, but also to spark curiosity.  I can’t predict the innovations; I remain optimistic that they will come and that innovators will consider the many concerns as they seek to appeal to a wide customer base.

This pandemic is going to have long term effects.  We are likely to see more work at home across the board and less use of commercial office space and that may bring new opportunities for housing, lower rents in some areas, and reductions of city populations.  Better systems of education responding to these changes and the above challenges would be a wonderful outcome of a bad situation.

(Thanks to Ronit Elk for the impetus to write this and to  JP Messina for helpful suggestions and comments.)

Post-Modernism and Economics

I’m neither an epistemologist nor an economist; I offer this nonetheless.

  1. Post-modernism is, at root, a rejection of the view that knowledge has foundations.  This does not entail that there is no knowledge or no objective truth.  Nonetheless,
  2. Some post-modernists seem to mistakenly believe there is no objective truth.
  3. Economics, as the study of exchange, accepts—indeed, relies upon the assumption—that people have subjective preferences.  This does not entail that all preferences are equally good or that there is no such thing as “objectively better.”  Nonetheless,
  4. Some economists seem to mistakenly believe there is no objective value.

I’ve long wondered whether those in 4 making the same sort of mistake as those in 2.

Note that for those in 2, there is no objective truth to discover, so nothing other than the (somehow always subjective or inter-subjective) project of learning why people believe what they do and how this affects them. This is, to be sure, an interesting and valuable project, but not one that can be objectively defended if it’s own reasoning is right.

Similarly, for those in 4, there can be no objective defense of their project–whatever value it has is subjective.

Better views of both post-modernism and economics are, obviously, available. Lack of foundations can leave us finding objectivity in coherence, pragmatics, or reliable truth-finding methods (or even correspondence). Reliance on the subjectivity of preferences for one purpose is consistent with objectivity (of the goodness,* for example) of the same preferences for other purposes—and with objective value elsewhere. Indeed, I think the group noted in 2 only includes some (the worst) post-modernists and I think the group noted in 4 only includes a few (and not the best) economists. I worry, on the other hand, that students in many college departments (not, usually Philosophy Departments) do fall into 2 and many economics students fall into 4. We should seek to prevent both.


*People can subjectively value, or not, items without objective value and people can fail to subjectively value items with objective value.

The Quadruple Threat to America Today

America faces a quadruple threat. The four threats are related in various ways, too often mutually supporting. I am not including COVID-19, though it could easily be considered a 5th threat. My reasons for doing this are: (1) it’s a threat everywhere, in no way distinctive of American life; indeed, it would be best considered a global natural disaster; (2) it is related to the threats I do discuss; indeed, like all natural disasters, it’s impact is determined by our responses—and the other threats make bad responses more likely. I offer these for consideration as I think they must all be addressed if liberalism is to survive.

The first threat is straightforward. We might call it xenophobia or extreme in-group bias. It manifests in multiple ways, especially racism, sexism, anti-immigrant biases, and anti-semitism. This may seem to be largely confined to those on the so-called “right,” but it applies to many on the left as well. On the left, one need only think of Bernie Sanders’ anti-immigrant views or Joe Biden’s recent pro-American economic policy; on the right one need only think of talk of the “Wuhan flu” or “China flu” instead of “COVID-19”—both play on the insider/outsider distinction to blame someone else for our problems (or at least prevent outsiders from becoming insiders). Maliciously shifting the blame provides cover for those who seek to refuse to take action to limit the harm. Taking responsibility (not necessarily blame) means working to fix the problem. Many of our governments—and many individuals—refuse to do so. This, of course, is at least part of why the number of COVID cases and deaths in the US is on the rise. Like all natural disasters, how we react to it determines the overall impact it has. Of course, the Black Lives Matter movement is currently the most straightforward evidence of in-group bias, in the form of racism, as protestors correctly point out how institutional racism, especially (but not only) by way of police actions, are extremely unjust and, indeed, a matter of life and death for many. This seems to be a concern primarily of “the left,” but with leading support from libertarians (defying the standard left/right dichotomy). For those interested in that, see Radley Balko’s and Chris Coyne and Abigail Hall’s books (CE*).

The second threat is the economy, as we fail to institute a reasonable response to the COVID-19 pandemic and as we face the repercussions of widespread use of collateralized loan obligations (see this Barron’s piece and this piece in The Atlantic), much as the 2008 recession was at least partly caused by widespread use of collateralized debt obligations. Regarding the latter, it is unfortunate in the extreme that the federal government failed to learn any lessons from the collapse of the housing market bubble or its past support for big banking and the latter’s issuing of bad debt (itself encouraged as the big banks correctly realized that even if the debts really went south, they would be bailed out by taxpayers—because in the US the one thing we like to socialize is big business’s losses). Unfortunately, we may see the same thing repeat. Indeed, it may be worse since there is more invested in CLOs than there was in CDOs and the CLOs largely include commercial debt—and the pandemic is hard on many commercial enterprises. Regarding the government response to the pandemic, we can only note what has been often noted—widespread, enforced, and complete shut-downs of multiple markets may or may not help reduce spread of the disease, but would only do so at the obvious cost of making it more difficult—and more expensive—for people to get necessities. While middle and upper class professionals are often able to work from home with no or little loss in pay, many—especially those in the restaurant and entertainment businesses—cannot. At the end of the day, shutting everything down to save lives is foolhardy as it will cost lives. If markets are all closed, we won’t have food and other necessities. Those who live paycheck to paycheck (and many more) won’t be able to pay rent, etc.

The third threat is authoritarianism, partially with a populist demagogue. We now have a president who is likely more of a demagogue than any president since Andrew Jackson. Of course, he was enabled by changes to the office and the workings of the federal government over the last several decades. The expansion of presidential powers under the past several presidents—Republican and Democrat alike—enabled what we have now. The populism is perhaps as dangerous as anything else—promising voters bread and circuses is always worrisome. Those voters are often not well informed about how government works or about science. Now, of course, we see both the populism and the authoritarianism emerging from the debased Republican Party. The populism is clear in the MAGA crowd’s following their leader in insisting on not wearing masks. The authoritarianism is perhaps worse, as witnessed in federal law enforcement agencies frightening behavior in Portland—with the threat that such behavior will go national. The use of ICE and The Border Patrol Tactical Unit deep within the US Border started months ago (see this in the NYTimes) but seems to be picking up steam—ostensibly because the federal government is so worried about graffiti on federal buildings that they are unwilling to leave such crimes to local authorities. (See Jake’s great piece, which also indicates why this is also about populism.) In reality, of course, this may be merely a piece of political theater, aimed at distracting voters and rallying the president’s base. As already indicated, though, this is not an issue for the current Republican party alone. Presidents Clinton and Obama also expanded their powers while in office. And even now, we see scary authoritarianism from the left, when local authorities claim to have knowledge about what is necessary to prevent further spread of COVID-19 and claim that such knowledge justifies them forcing people to live under house arrest (see this piece about a couple in Kentucky) for refusing to sign a paper saying they would not self-quarantine (whether or not they would self-quarantine). Neither left nor right is blameless and neither seems to recognize that their actions are as scary (at least to their opponents) as those of the other side are (at least to them). Those on “the right” seem to think the Feds behavior in Portland is worthwhile because local authorities aren’t stopping looters. They seem to forget the value of federalism and the freedom of individuals that helps ensure (though they remember it clearly when it serves their interests). Those on “the left” seem to think the Kentucky authorities are doing the work needed given public health concerns. They seem to work with a reified sense of “the public” and forget the freedom of individuals that threatens (though they remember it clearly enough when it serves their interests).

The fourth threat is related to my last post. Its a dangerous lack of commitment to there being anything that is objectively true and to seeking such. Its not just our president that seems to lack any commitment to truth. Our culture is riddled with people who claim their beliefs form “their truth” which may be different from “your truth” or “my truth” but that must be treated as if of equal value. Never mind that there really are experts out there in all sorts of areas. Some believe their views of morality are as valuable as those of academics who spend their lives working out intricate details of moral theories and defending those theories against all manner of objection—though they themselves never subject their own views to criticism. (Why should they, when their view is “true to them,” whatever that means?) No wonder people now consider their views about disease transmission (and curing) as valuable as the CDC’s or Dr. Fauci’s. Or who consider their view of other countries as valuable as people who have actually travelled to or lived in those countries. Or who think their views of politics and economics as valuable as academic political scientists and economists who have been studying these things for decades? Admittedly, insisting that there is objective truth might sometimes sound dogmatic to those who feel insulted when faced with any intellectual opposition—as if insisting that a proposition is true entails rejecting any objection or evidence to the contrary, which it decidedly does not. Giving any belief its due can be considerably difficult. As Schumpter said, “To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian.” We must remain open to the possibility that we are mistaken even when we are convinced we are not—that is what genuine commitment to truth and truth seeking entails.

I’ll end by making some of the connections between the threats explicit: 

-Its easier to favor economic policies that favor the rich (2) when one thinks everyone else is “other” (1). Its easier to favor authoritarian actions (3) when one believes they are only used against people vary unlike oneself (1). Its easier to deny there is any objective truth (4) when one is constantly told those unlike oneself have different values and beliefs (1)

-Its easier to hate outsiders (1) when one mistakenly (4) think they threaten one’s own livelihood and that of those one cares about (2). It is likely easier to endorse authoritarian policies (3) if one thinks they are necessary to maintain economic stability or growth (2). (Less related to this discussion: it is apparently easier to deny there is any form of objectivity (4) if one believes that the only think that matters is subjective preferences (2).)

-Its easier to distrust or hate others (1) or to favor an economic policy (2) when blinded by an authoritarian repeatedly making false statements about them and grandstanding (3 & 4). Its easier, in general, to doubt there is any objectivity (4) when both that same authoritarian (3) and many others—including, if we are honest, many leftist college professors—encourage those doubts.

-Its easier to hate outsiders (1) when one refuses to learn about them (4). Its easier to favor an economic policy (2) when one refuses to consider objections to it (4). Its easier to favor forcing people to live as one thinks they should (3) without doing the hard work of listening to them (4).

I hope its clear we need a response to these threats. Liberalism—and the great American experiment—depend on it.

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About Dialogue

Many people believe civil discourse has deteriorated. I think civil discourse has deteriorated. In this post, I want to make a different point: that what we see today is not merely a deterioration of civil discourse, but a greater and more general loss of genuine dialogue.

Dialogue involves two or more parties.  In genuine dialogue, one party speaks and the other responds, in seriatum.  The second responds to the first and the first responds to the second, etc.  In each of these moves, when one responds to the other, they do not merely make statements—they make statements that directly respond to the last statementThis means, at a minimum, that each successive statement takes into account what was previously said and in some way builds upon it.  The “building” may be a moving of the discussion forward wherein new information is created or shared, or it may be an interrogation of earlier statements that is plausibly expected to lead to clarity such that further building is possible.  

Excluded in genuine dialogue is lying, making statements unrelated to previous contributions to the discussion, mere repetitions of previous contributions (unless used as part of an interrogation meant to allow further building), and tangential statements meant to change the topic.  (Changing the topic is permissible, but doing so means ending one conversation and starting another.)

My contention is simply that these moves that are excluded by genuine dialogue are an extensive part of contemporary conversation.  Putting the point differently, much of contemporary discussion is twaddle rather than genuine dialogue. (This is not an original point; it’s been made many times before throughout history; my favorite statement  about it is by Kierkegaard, in his The Present Age (CE*).)  If this is right, it’s hardly surprising that we have a paucity of civil discourse.  How can we expect civil discourse when people have lost the ability to engage in any real discourse?  When what passes for discourse is “you speak then I speak,” disliking what the faux interlocutor says will not result in honest interrogation or understanding, but hatred.

If you think I am being facetious, consider:

-Walking across a college campus, you might hear someone say “Was your summer fantastic?” Forget the response, what kind of question is this?  What if the person being asked merely had an OK summer?  

-You might here someone say “Its going to rain tomorrow because I looked at the forecast.”  Well…. no.

-Someone might ask a guest if they’d like a drink and receive this reply: “I’m going out to dinner after this.”  This likely should be prefaced with a “No,” but who can be sure?

None of that even touches the fact that some seem to have absolutely no commitment to telling the truth, the results of which is that genuine dialogue can’t progress.  We could, of course, simply look at the White House for examples, but more generally I admit to being flummoxed when faced when someone lies straight to my face—when I realize this is happening, I give up on genuine dialogue with that person.

If contemporary discussion is itself not genuine dialogue, it cannot be civil discourse.  If we care about civil discourse, then, we should work to encourage more genuine dialogue.  That is, we need to encourage people to listen to one another and actually respond rather than merely speak.  (This, by the way, is one reason many of us love university life: at a university, we frequently say “what do you mean by that?,” “can you explain?,” and even “how is that relevant to our discussion?”  We seek and promote genuine discussion all the time.)

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Investigating Mr. Newton’s Residency Status is Immoral

SCOTUS recently sided with POTUS about the rights of certain immigrants who face deportation. The basic point by the court was that “neither the right of habeas corpus nor the right to due process of law requires a hearing before a judge for those turned down in their initial asylum screenings.” (See this NPR story.) I won’t comment here about the legal reasoning; this is a comment about the morality of deportations—or really, the morality of the initial acts that lead to deportations, especially those by I.C.E.

My thinking here was not spurred by the SCOTUS decision but by a line in The Man Who Fell to Earth (CE*) by Walter Tevis. For those who have neither read the book nor seen the movie (CE*), this is a story about a extraterrestrial alien who came to earth and did a fantastic amount of good for humankind—just as immigration is generally good for all humankind. (See this Economist Article, this Michael Clemens JEP article, and Bryan Caplan’s book (CE*).) The good he did was in the service of working toward helping those from his own planet, but was done peacefully—again, the norm for immigrants, who typically work for their own good or that of family in their home country, but do so peacefully. Upon his arrest, the alien—Mr. Newton—asks about the constitutional right to legal counsel. The response is startling: “you don’t have any constitutional rights. As I said we believe you are not an American citizen.” Constitutional rights only apply to citizens, we are told. Indeed, Tevis suggests, constitutional rights only apply to those whose citizenship isn’t doubted by any government officials. If a government official believes you are not a citizen, you have no constitutional rights.

I find this appalling on its own because I value morality for its own sake and only value a constitution—any constitution—if it is in accord with morality. I’d like to think all classical liberals would agree. Unfortunately, I know people with whom I am otherwise in large agreement, who do not agree. I know otherwise solid libertarians who disagree. (That shocked me when I first realized it.) Nonetheless, human persons all have value. They ought all be treated with equal respect. If a constitution suggests it’s ok to treat human persons disrespectfully, it is wrong.

My primary assertion here is simply that it is disrespectful to stop someone to accuse them of committing a crime, or even to question them about a crime, without very good reason. The question, then, is when do we have such reason? I think there are at least two requirements: First, it must be a serious crime, by which I mean someone must have been seriously harmed or be credibly threatened with serious harm. Second, the evidence must itself be both credible and persuasive to the average rational person. Absent either of these conditions being satisfied, no government official should interfere with any individual. (I mean for this to be a beefed up form of probable cause requirement.)

Turning back to deportation actions, consider that every U.S. citizen has rights and is presumed “innocent until proven guilty.” I would think that this entails that we assume those around us are innocent of the crime of entering the country illegally—or, at least assumed innocent absent the satisfaction of the two conditions indicated in the previous paragraph. But note being a resident in the US illegally will never satisfy the first of those conditions—coming into the country illegally does not on its own credibly threaten or cause any individual serious harm. (See Van der Vossen and Brennan book (CE*) and Lomasky and Teson book (CE*).) Hence, we (and the government) should assume those around us are citizens unless proven not to be. (If we do not, we assume some of our neighbors are guilty of a minor, i.e., non-serious, crime—but, again, we are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty and, more to my point, it would be a failure of respect to hassle someone about possibly having committed such a minor crime.) So we should assume that all present in the country are citizens. If we assume that, though, we don’t investigate their citizenship—we assume they are citizens. Mr. Newton shouldn’t have been investigated. He should have been thanked for all that he gave everyone else in the country. So too, we should not have I.C.E. investigate or seek out non-citizens. They should be assumed to be citizens and, indeed, thanked for what they provide the rest of us. Hence, we should not be looking to find anyone here illegally and so should not consider departing anyone.

CE*=RCL earns commissions if you buy from this link; commissions support this site.

Wearing Masks

Given the big issues we face today—COVID-19 and BLM as well as reactions to both—I thought I’d make my first post about a COVID-19 issue: masks (really: face-coverings). I’ve seen and heard a lot of discussion about wearing masks. Some condemn anyone unwilling to wear one; others condemn anyone wearing one. Each group seems to consider the other sheeple. And both seem often to confuse beliefs in moral requirements with beliefs about legal requirements.

Here’s my view: most of us should—that is, I think most of us are morally required to—wear a mask anytime we go into an enclosed space with others. The reason is simple and straightforward: wearing a mask is likely the best way to reduce the spread of COVID-19. (See this Nature article.) Why does this matter? On my view, simply because we have a moral duty to try to not harm others and spreading COVID-19 is a way of harming others.

Many who oppose mask-wearing (and mask-wearers) claim to suffer when they don a mask, indicating difficulty breathing. That sort of claim is best saved for the protests against police officers actually preventing someone from breathing. Face coverings don’t significantly reduce your oxygen intake. (See this amusing piece.) If they did, surgeons wouldn’t be able to wear masks for hours as they do. Still, if you have a genuine medical condition that makes wearing a mask burdensome, the duty to protect yourself by not wearing one likely outweighs the duty to others. I’m not sure what sorts of medical conditions do this, but there certainly may be some (and no one should have to prove they have such a condition). Unfortunately, the sort of racism that might result in real risks to your life if you are African-American and that could be compounded by wearing a mask, gives the same good reason not to. Simple discomfort does not. People wear seatbelts in cars and planes even with whatever discomfort they cause—without complaint—for good reason.

To be clear, I don’t advocate wearing masks outside unless you are in a crowd. The odds of outdoor transmission when you are alone or with your regular intimates is low. (See this Forbes piece.)

Importantly, nothing I said thus far indicates endorsement of a legal requirement. On my view, a legal requirement should only be instituted if we have clear evidence that significant harm is likely to otherwise be imposed on non-consenting others. This is so in large part because a legal requirement involves state power and the force it brings—which should only be used sparingly. Whereas some harm is likely caused if you don’t wear a mask indoors when others are present for more than a short time, the harm is somewhat limited and, on the assumption that others are there voluntarily, not imposed on non-consenting others. However, because the results are extreme for the elderly and those with certain pre-existing conditions, it seems reasonable to legally require masks for anyone entering hospitals, assisted living facilities, etc (where, moreover, the residents can not easily leave). That something isn’t legally required and oughtn’t be legally required does not mean you oughtn’t do it. Apologies for broken promises, e.g, aren’t legally mandated, but are nonetheless morally required or at least advisable. So, wear a mask indoors when others are present. (And if the evidence I’m aware of changes, my thinking about legal requirements might also change.)

It’s also important to remember that private business owners have the (moral) right to require masks in their establishments. Or to forbid wearing masks therein. If you enter a private business, abide by their rules. If you can’t, don’t go into that establishment. And don’t feel insulted or make a fuss because they are insisting on something you disagree with. You make the rules in your house, they make the rules in theirs.

So wear a mask inside when others are likely to be there but don’t advocate for a law—we have too many of them anyway.

ADDITION, 7/22/2020: worth looking at: https://pws.byu.edu/covid-19-and-masks?fbclid=IwAR13dVryaD6RJbEXd4p_KjllGvuCjCh9qBOphqG8X0d5uK6-lu1QzJMLnGo

Introducing Radical Classical Liberals

As many of you know, the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog ran from 2011-2020. At least two blogs are taking up elements of BHL’s project. If you haven’t checked out http://200proofliberals.blogspot.com, we highly recommend it. This, though, is Radical Classical Liberals. Welcome.

A view like that (re)developed and encouraged on BHL is needed in the blogosphere, in academia, and in our broader culture. This blog will provide that—a classical liberal view that maintains a clear and unapologetic concern for the plight of the less fortunate—at a point in time when it seems the world is finally being forced to take those concerns seriously. Importantly, we’ll do so in a way meant to encourage greater civil dialogue. We hope to provide a counter to the sound bite culture so prevalent in contemporary media; we do so in order to provide greater understanding—both to our readers and to ourselves.

We are all academics with an interest in encouraging more informed, reasoned, and civil discourse outside academia as well as inside. A majority of us here are philosophers, some are law professors, some are political scientists, and one is a business professor. Many of us take the original classical liberals—thinkers like John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill—as intellectual heroes. Some also favor Aristotle or Kant. On our pages, you might read about those famous denizens of the history of thought. You might also read about some unfortunately lesser known thinkers—Frédéric Bastiat and Voltairine de Cleyre, for examples. And you may read about difficult issues in academic debates. Most of what you’re likely to see on these pages, though, will be comments about social, legal, moral, and political issues in our society. You are likely to encounter arguments for specific views that one or more of us think follow from our classical liberal commitments. We may also argue with each other about these.

Our hopes for the blog are varied. They include showcasing the attractiveness of dynamic markets and anti-authoritarian solutions to contemporary problems, how these are often the best hope for those concerned with issues of deprivation, exclusion, and subordination, and how, far too often, government solutions are more pretense than substance. We are all concerned to show how freedom (we may disagree about what that is) goes hand in hand with prosperity for all. Putting that differently, we all recognize the value of markets and social justice on some understanding that recognizes (minimally) the basic moral equality of all human adults. Within that framework, our opinions are likely to vary considerably.

We hope to appeal to those who are curious about moral, legal, political, and social thought. While we all have our own existing biases, we hope to be able to bracket our prior beliefs and argue from acceptable premises to important conclusions—all with respectful and reasoned discussion. No doubt you will sometimes disagree with us. We hope to remain intellectually honest, open-minded, and charitable—and to show the value of those virtues.

So, welcome to the blog of Radical Classical Liberals.