Absolution and Responsibility

Among the civilizing aspects of modern culture is the fact that ancient traditions of personal retribution have been supplanted by a socially-administered system for public accountability. Victims and their families may no longer take the law into their own hands by seeking vengeance on predators.  Instead we, as a society, promise to see justice done on their behalf.

But that is a compact that goes both ways:  if society demands authority over the administration of justice, then it also assumes responsibility for it.  If we have promised to see justice done, then delivering anything short of justice is a breach of that promise.

Within such a system, justice demands that sentences we assign are and should be proportionate to the moral severity of the crimes committed. Ensuring, then, that those proportionate sentences are, indeed, carried out is how we fulfill society’s moral obligation to the victims.

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What picture of America do we carry in our heads…?

In today’s Wall Street Journal, in an article about the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, Peggy Noonan asked this question:

Why did the White House think the 20th anniversary of 9/11 was the right date for a pullout? What picture of America do they carry in their heads that told them that would be symbolically satisfying? It is as if they are governed by symbols with no understanding of what the symbols mean.

It occurs to me that the question — “What picture of America do they carry in their heads…?” — is much broader than the context of our policy in Afghanistan. It is, in fact, the question at the heart of nearly all the cultural and political divisions rending America these days.

The right asks that question of the left.  The left asks that question of the right.  And both left and right — and the vast middle that both left and right disdain and ignore — fear and despise the answer that they think and feel — or, all too often, imagine — the other side would offer if it was ever to be explicitly articulated.

That is, perhaps, the most important conversation of our generation: What picture of America do we carry in our heads? And can we come to some, if not consensus, then at least forbearance on what that picture looks like?

If not, we are truly lost…

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Risk, Part 2: Fear and Control

Part 2 of a 2-part sequence on different aspects of how American society deals with risk:

It seems that government policy – and social convention, and cultural aspiration, and the tyranny of public opinion expressed through social media mobs – is now all too often fashioned by a destructively self-reinforcing partnership between those, on the one hand, who have lost all trust in their fellow citizens and who want so badly to be protected from risk, and even from discomfort, that they will trade away almost any freedom for a promise of a bit more security; and those, on the other hand, whose innate and fervent proclivity is to tell everyone else, with great piety and self-assurance, how to organize and operate their lives.

The more we have come to – and the more we have been taught to – rely on government to regulate the behavior of others, the less we have come to rely on – and the less we have been taught or practiced – the virtue of regulating ourselves. The more success the solipsistic fringe – economic more than cultural on the “right”, cultural more than economic on the “left” – has had in attacking and emasculating the economic and religious and social and cultural mores that historically disciplined such self-control, the less able we are to count on self-regulation and the more pressure there is to empower government to impose yet more external regulation upon us.

We can no longer negotiate and compromise – we can no longer embrace a shared process for governance rather than seeking a raw power over others – because we no longer trust each other either to have empathy or, more importantly, to act in good faith.  Why are we intolerant of risk?  Because we feel a lack of control.  Why do we feel a lack of control?  Because we don’t trust each other to do the right thing, either as individuals or as a polity.  In the absence of trust, even small risks loom large.

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Under Color of Authority

The police act on our authority and in our name.  That gives us a corresponding responsibility to act, as well, when they step beyond reasonable bounds we have set.  And, if we don’t act – if we relax and extend those bounds, either intentionally or simply by failing to accept the responsibility to rein them in – then we are, as well, responsible for the consequences.  The color of authority becomes actual authority if we acquiesce to it; and, therefore, the moral stench of that authority, when exercised indecently, adheres to us as much as it does to whoever exercised it on our behalf.

The protesters want justice, but not the kind that a court can give them by convicting a particular villain.  Their protests are not really directed at the police or at the courts or at the politicians: they are directed at us.  And what they are demanding of us is simple: “Step up!  Stop accepting the unacceptable! Rein in those who claim to act in your name!”

That is, indeed, our responsibility.  How can we do less?

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Risk, Part 1: Trade-Offs and Value Judgements

Part 1 of a 2-part sequence on different aspects of how American society deals with risk:

…we all intuitively understand, even if we can neither articulate nor rationalize the precise placement of the implied ethical boundaries – or are loath to admit to them – that the trade-offs in risky human activity between the potential for loss of human life and the potential for benefit, economic or otherwise, are not as stark and as obvious as the simple and common mantra –that saving human life is always worth any cost – implies.

To be blunt: there is, indeed, some upper bound on how much cost, either in economic benefit or in liberty, represents a fair trade for a statistical human life.  And we all personally adjudge where that bound lies, implicitly if not explicitly, many times per day, every day, as a matter of routine. We all take risks and impose risks on others because we think we will reap some economic or physical or emotional or social or moral or spiritual reward from doing so…

There is a legitimate, important, and ongoing debate that we may and should have over where, on the continuum of behavior, the margin lies between prudent risk-taking and reckless disregard. But we must acknowledge that there is a continuum, not a simple border: not all risks are reckless ones and there are costs sufficiently dire, and benefits sufficiently valuable, that they may, indeed, justify the risk of precipitating some generalized and arbitrarily-distributed human suffering in order to forestall or foster them.

For those who have taken the position that no relaxation of the lockdowns should be even contemplated while any significant risk remains, that means accepting and acknowledging that zero risk is an unrealistic and unachievable standard.  It means acknowledging that reducing risk for some causes real and consequential harm to others and that, at some point, the harm of incremental gains in risk reduction exceeds the incremental harm of the virus, itself.  We can’t live in lockdown forever; and, in the absence of an effective vaccine or a cure, widely deployed to create widespread immunity, the lockdown will, indeed, stretch on forever because there will never be a time when releasing it will seem propitious and wholly safe.

For those who have been advocating for a quick and complete re-opening – and especially for those actively protesting the imposition of various modest public safety measures like the wearing of masks – that means accepting that we all have responsibilities commensurate with the rights we so self-righteously defend.  What we do affects the community.  Yes, we have the personal right to accept a risk of catching the virus in pursuit of some other reward.  But, assuming risks for yourself – by exposing yourself to disease carriers – and imposing risks on others – by carrying the disease to them despite their own best precautions – are two very different acts and should fairly be judged by different criteria, the latter more stringent than the former.  Whether you like it or not, in a world of pandemic you have a moral responsibility to protect others against the possibility of your own contagion.  If you cannot willingly and diligently assume that responsibility, then your moral claim to a “right” to be free of restraint is little more than a hollow defense of self-indulgence.

And for all of us, that means taking each other’s concerns seriously, with empathy rather than with contempt.  The pain people are expressing is real, not imagined.  What you find comforting, others may find distressing.  What you find to be reasonable precaution others may experience as destructive overreaction.  Neither side may or should presume they hold a monopoly on truth or on wisdom.  We are, indeed, in this together because this is a contagion.  But that doesn’t mean we all experience that contagion in the same way or bear its burdens in the same forms or to the same degree.  The fact that someone disagrees with your value judgements about those burdens means they and their circumstance are different than you and yours.  It doesn’t mean they are right.  But, it also doesn’t mean they are wrong.

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Why Do Mass Murderers Murder?

What most mass murderers — and, for that matter, ordinary murderers — share is a form of solipsism, a mental landscape in which other people have no innate value but exist, rather, merely as props to facilitate the action in the murderer’s own self-scripted and self-focused drama.

That would appear to be the result of a moral disease, not a psychological one.

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Trump is Reprehensible: Does That Create a Moral Duty to Vote for His Opponent?

To use an analogy that is, admittedly, intentionally, and consciously way over-the-top in order to make the point utterly unmissable:

Yes, Trump is Hitler. But, if the choice you offer me is to get rid of Hitler by embracing Stalin, can I be blamed for, instead, wishing that a pox descend upon your house as well as his?

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Socialism, Capitalism, and the Liberal Republic

It is true that people — not only ignorant self-described “conservatives” but also many ignorant self-described “Socialists” — often throw the word “Socialism” around without seeming to understand what it means.  But,it is also true (OK, it is at least my not-so-humble opinion) that the many articles published recently trying to explain why various brands of “liberalism” are not actually the same as “Socialism” have been overly narrow and parochial in their view of what Socialism is and entails, limiting their argument to the simplistic (and flawed) formulation that it can’t really be Socialism if the government doesn’t “own” the means of production.

But, if that isn’t the defining nature of “Socialism”, then what is? For that matter, what is the defining nature of “Capitalism”? And how do either interact, for better or worse, with the moral premises and practical structures of our Liberal Republic?

In six parts:

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An Open Letter to the Republican Party

For as long as I can remember — and my memory goes back to Lyndon Johnson – the electoral message of the Democratic party has included, fairly prominently, the following proposition:

Vote for me! I’ll give you something and make somebody else pay for it!

In recent elections that proposition has not only been featured prominently, it has been the highlight. Remember the 1%? Remember how “the rich” are not paying their “fair share”? Remember Thomas Frank’s lament, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” What was his argument?

Hey, we promised to give you something and make someone else pay for it! You must not have been listening!

Yes, the Republican Party has been featuring its grumpy old men and its “back in the day…” cultural attitudes, and it has paid for that. Yes, it needs to have a serious internal conversation about what really are the core Republican principles, to differentiate them from the cultural and emotional fetishes that seem to absorb its “activists”.

But, in the end, even if they could get past all that, the question remains: how do you convince people to refuse a free lunch? How do you counter the allure of getting something for nothing?

You have to explain why that can’t work!

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Security, Liberty, and one of my “Triggers”

That is why America is more risk tolerant than other countries and societies in the world: because to guarantee security you must always sacrifice some amount of liberty; and, in assessing that sacrifice, Americans have traditionally factored liberty higher in the equation than have most other peoples.

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