Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Spotting the embarrassing

Political classifications

Some of us see morality as something given to us by some authority. Some try to derive it logically from first principles. Some base it on intuitions and feelings.

Of course all of us believe that we are right and that those who disagree with us are wrong. Of course some of us have to be wrong. Some of us will see some of our opponents as people who have made mistakes but have in good faith tried to find out what is the right thing to do. Some of us will see some of our opponents as people who have made culpable errors that have led to erroneous beliefs about what is right and wrong. Some of us will see some of our opponents as people who know what is right and wrong and simply ignore it. And unfortunately some of us believe that anyone who opposes us must be acting in bad faith. People who believe this have usually stopped reflecting on their own beliefs and do not seek to really understand adversaries. In fact the shrillest attacks on opposing viewpoints seem to come from those who have in large part adopted a viewpoint for personal reasons that they have not examined.

What I want to do in this post is to examine what the moral assumptions are that underlie some political positions. Then I want to look at how our moral assumptions can distort our view of our opponents and of the world. I believe that if you cannot see why a reasonable person might disagree with you then your own opinions are on shaky ground. You might still be right but the reasons for your beliefs could be bad ones. If this is so then you can become a liability to your own side and you are likely to make enemies where there would otherwise only be adversaries.

I will classify political viewpoints by their attitude to the authority of large scale organizations that can be seen as the embodiment of their society. I will then cross-classify by the degree of their belief in the possibility of using these organizations to improve their societies. I think this classification is more useful than left or right for clarification of adherents aspirations and motivations. This classification is designed as a description of viewpoints within Western societies. Movements in other societies may not fit as well into this classification.

The first group are the conservatives. They identify strongly with their nation. They tend to see the state as the embodiment of their nation. They often also identify strongly with other society-wide structures such a church. They tend to see respect for authority and the law as a good in itself, not just as an instrument serving other purposes. They regard the state more as a means to prevent harm rather than as a means to do good. They value what social institutions have created so far and are pessimistic about their ability to radically improve things. They believe that what improvements are possible are generally small evolutionary steps initiated by private individuals. Economically they support mixed economies with the private sector dominant.

The second group are the fascists. Identification with nation and state are even stronger than with conservatives. There is often a strong racial aspect to their loyalties. There is a strong emphasis on respect for the authority of leaders but not on respect for the law. They are utopians who believe that they can use the power of the state to radically improve things. Economically they support highly regulated mixed economies with a strong public sector role.

The third group are the pragmatists. Identification with nation and state are relatively weak (but usually still stronger than in many non Western cultures). They identify with a way of life as much as with their nations. Authority and the law are seen as necessary evils. They have little faith in the ability of anyone to radically improve things by using the power of the state. They agree with conservatives in supporting evolutionary bottom-up changes and in believing that attempts at top-down change will generally make things worse. Economically they support mixed economies with the private sector dominant or laissez-faire.

The fourth group are the progressives. Their attitudes to nation, state, law and authority are instrumental like those of the pragmatists. Their see their loyalties as being primarily to humanity as a whole and to the movement that they are part of. They believe that they can successfully use the power of the state to bring about major beneficial social changes. Economically they support highly regulated mixed economies or socialism.

I have tried to use labels that these groups would accept as a reasonable description of themselves. Liberal is a term mostly claimed by progressives nowadays but historically it belonged to what I am calling pragmatists. Pragmatists sometimes call themselves classical liberals. Many call themselves conservatives these days. This reflects the fact that this is a movement that has accomplished most of its political goals. Pragmatist is a term that does under play the degree to which their beliefs are a matter of coherent principles.

What follows is a very broad brush treatment. Not everyone will fit all aspects of these descriptions. Many people will be near the boundaries of my categories. Nevertheless as generalizations I think they are right.

Associated moral attitudes

These viewpoints tend to be associated with different moral approaches. They may differ in the balance between emphasis on one's own well being, the well being of those close to you, the well being of one's society and the well being of the whole of humanity. They may differ in what things they see as morally obligatory and what they see as morally desirable. They may differ in the degree to which the they think morality is a matter of making self-consciously moral choices rather than having moral values a part of ones unconscious actions. They may differ in the relative emphasis on doing good and on combating and avoiding evil. They may differ in whether they see morality as rules or as guidelines. They may differ in the emphasis that they place on equality. They may differ in how they see competition. They may differ in the circumstances under which they would use violence.

They also differ in what they believe should be planned and done by a whole society and what should be planned and done by individuals. Should defense and law enforcement be handled by the state? Everyone except anarchists will say yes. Should the state be involved in education? In health? In the environment? In welfare? In communications and transport infrastructure? Should the state be involved in general production of goods and services? Many will argue that some of these need to be tackled at the level of whole systems not piecemeal. Many will argue that the attempt to plan some of these for a whole society will lead to inefficiency and corruption.

Most people's idea of what the balance between state and individual planning and action should be agrees with what they believe is most efficient. Too well! People often do some wishful thinking here. Some pragmatists and conservatives will often seek a market solution when a society-wide solution is necessary. Progressives and fascists will refuse to see that a market solution is more efficient than their proposed state-run solutions. There are too few people who will grit their teeth and support a solution because it is right if it goes against their inclinations.

Conservatives tend to see morality as a set of rules. Most (not all) ultimately derive their principles from a religious source. They mostly believe in absolute right and wrong. Unfortunately too many (not all) of them think that it is always easy to distinguish right from wrong, that moral rules are simple one sentence statements. On the other hand some have a very good appreciation of gray areas and complexities. They just believe that sometimes over simplified rules are an unfortunate necessity. Believing in human limitation and fallibility they seek solutions that will work reasonably well despite the failings of those carrying them out. Most will see moral choices primarily as a matter of resisting temptation. If a solution has worked tolerably well in the past they are often inclined to keep it and not recognize its flaws.

They see avoiding and combating evil as having a higher priority than doing good. They do not necessarily see combating evil as more important than doing good. They do see it as more urgent. They believe that if evil is not prevented then the harm done will swamp any good that you are trying to do. They believe that doing good can sometimes prevent evil and sometimes it can't. They believe that the main means of preventing evil is by deterring or forcibly stopping it. They have little hesitation in using force to prevent harm. They are often willing to use compulsion to prevent people from harming themselves and are often willing to be the judges of what constitutes self-harm. Some are be very judgmental about others failings.

If acting through a corporate entity such as the state or a company they are likely to deny their personal responsibility for their actions. They shift the responsibility for any harm done to the corporate body thus holding no one responsible.

They make clear distinctions between what one should do in crisis and normal situations. In a crisis they place the well being of the nation higher than that of kith and kin, which in turn they place higher that of themselves. Since their primary loyalties are to their nations it is difficult to persuade them to act on a global scale. There are no international institutions of a type that they feel comfortable acting through. In normal situations they believe in emphasizing their own well being and that of those around them. Even in a crisis most of them do not believe that one's obligations to one's nation completely swamps everything else. They do believe in balance and the reciprocity of obligations. Loyalty to the state depends on the state doing its job or at least trying to.

They do not place a high emphasis on equality other than equality before the law. They accept some people will be lucky and some not, some will be capable and industrious and some not. They tend to believe that a wealthy person has probably either deserved their wealth or been lucky. They believe that either way resentment of another's honestly obtained wealth is wrong. They do not like taking away from one person to benefit another. Since they focus on avoiding harm rather than on doing good they are sensitive to the harm of robbing Peter and get less satisfaction than a progressive would from the good of paying Paul.

They believe that most of the time people can look after themselves. That the state's role is less promoting success than removing obstacles to success. That attempts to look after people can end up doing more harm than good. That if charity is needed then better that it be private than state. In part this is because they see charity as desirable rather than obligatory behavior and believe that those providing the resources deserve acknowledgment. If government welfare is necessary it is regarded as a regrettable necessity rather than as a good thing.

They regard some competition as a necessary and inevitable part of life but most are not obsessive about it. There are some who see competition as a good in itself and life as a competitive game. Most will see economic competition as the most the most important kind. They believe that without such competition most people would be much worse off. There is a tendency to believe that those who do well in economic competition deserve to because they have either been cleverer or more industrious. Most will not place much emphasis on competition between nations.

Some will support class systems. Some will not. Some are racists. These days most are not. Their sex role and sexual morality expectations tend to be more traditional than those of pragmatists or progressives.

Most conservatives value stability and predictability, especially in public life. They like to know where they stand with others. As a rule comfort is preferred to excitement. This leads to a preference for seeing morality as a set of clear rules. This also leads to conservatism being attractive to people such as small business and farmers who already have what they see as too much uncertainty in their lives.

For many conservatives much of their sense of purpose in life comes from religion. The most important other main contributor to sense of purpose is usually family. Things like career, nation and friendships also contribute to a lesser but significant degree.

Fascists have little capacity for self-criticism. Public actions are guided by expediency rather than morality. Advancing the cause and serving the race or the nation are automatically right. They will attribute evil to others rather than look at their own actions. Public behavior towards outsiders is, when you come down to it, sociopathic. Most are not religious but some use religious rationalizations for their beliefs and behavior. Islamism is related to and partially derived from fascism but is not quite the same thing.

Morality in private life seems to combine the conservatives' desire for simplicity and predictability with the progressives' sense of entitlement.

They believe that the everything will be all right if only the right people are put in charge and given the power do whatever is necessary. They do not recognize the effect that unaccountable power has on its possessors. They do not see their leaders as fallible human beings. They try to create what they see as an ideal society. (Everyone else sees their ideal society as anything but ideal.)

The main focus of loyalty is the nation or race. The leader and perhaps the political party are seen as the embodiment of the nation or race. Family matters but less than nation.

They believe that their agenda can lead to greatness for their people. It is an agenda usually adopted in response to a perceived national failure or threat. It is the movement of the self-pitying.

They are inegalitarian. They are usually racists or chauvinists believing in either the superiority of their race or nation and believe in demonstrating this. They seem to be ambivalent about social class. In the name of racial or national solidarity they downplay class differences. However there is a focus on the leaders that potentially could lead to class stratification. However fascist regimes usually fall before power can be transferred to a new generation thus they never develop mechanisms to handle the transference of power and the class stratification does not have a chance to develop. The main reason why they fall is that they are too aggressive, make too many enemies and are bad at actually fighting wars.

They are generally the worst when it comes to rigid and exaggerated sex roles. There is usually a very strong need for the men to prove their masculinity. There is a strong association between violence and masculinity in their minds. It is a romantic movement offering the excitement of a grand cause.

They do not encourage economic competition. They support highly regulated economies. They see this as encouraging national solidarity and the economic security of citizens.

They tend to see relationships between nations in terms of competition, even conflict. They see this as way of asserting national identity.

They don't clearly distinguish between emergency and normal behavior. They use methods really only appropriate for an emergency all the time. They see the military as a model for the whole of society. They have a love of grandiose public projects requiring a marshaling of resources only really appropriate for an emergency.

There is a high emphasis on publicly funded welfare but only for the in-group. (Look at how the Nazis treated retarded people.) People who want to be protected from failure find it attractive. And of course they are really into scapegoating.

Pragmatists vary in the sources of their moral principles. If they support absolute rules they are likely to be complex and subtle ones. If they see morality more as a matter of principles, attitudes and guidelines they are likely to put a high importance on sense of proportion, circumstances and consequences. They tend to take an unselfconscious approach to morality believing that ideally moral values should be second nature. Generally they regard rightful actions as being those where the intent was benign and appropriate consideration was given to potential harm. In other words they will agree that there are actions that are just plain wrong but that there are a lot of times that it is difficult to decide what is the right thing to do. Like conservatives they expect minimax solutions from social institutions. That is they want social institutions that will work reasonably well even when the wrong people are in charge and they want institutions to be able to readily correct their mistakes.

They make strong distinctions between what is morally obligatory and what is morally desirable. They emphasize avoiding doing harm more than doing good. They certainly regard avoiding harming others as morally obligatory. They require quite a bit of convincing to move an altruistic act from the praiseworthy and desirable category to the morally obligatory category. As a result of this they believe that they can only make limited demands on others for aid.

Since they place less emphasis than conservatives on rules they are more likely to pay attention to extenuating circumstances in the case of wrong doing than conservatives. They are usually less judgmental and more sensitive to the provocation and harm done by people enforcing inflexible rules or acting out of expediency on the behalf of the state. Thus they are more concerned about the possibility of force intended to prevent harm backfiring and provoking harm. Still there are limits and they will not hesitate to use force if they think it is necessary to prevent on person harming another. They are reluctant to judge what constitutes self-harm and will seldom use force to prevent it. They believe that they don't have the right to do this.

They often question whether the state should be seen as the embodiment of a society or nation. Some will question whether society or nation should be seen as anything but a collection of individuals. Being skeptical about the mystique of the state and the law they are less likely than others to excuse wrongs committed by and through the state.

Their main loyalties are to themselves, people around them and their values and way of life. Loyalty to the state is contingent on the state representing and defending their values and way of life. They are skeptical about authority and regard state and law primarily as instruments to serve certain purposes.

While they are more willing to act collectively in emergencies they tend to be less willing to make sacrifices for the common good than people of other viewpoints. Being less nationalistic than conservatives they are in principle more willing to act globally. However they are still doubtful about existing international institutions.

They have little faith in the state's ability to create a better world. They believe that attempts to create a better world by using the state usually backfires. They tend to be more optimistic than conservatives about the possibility of improving the world by private actions such as changes in attitudes or by technological improvements.

They don't make a big deal about equality. They support equality before the law but are more concerned with maximizing than with equalizing opportunity. They certainly do not expect equality of outcomes. They do not like wealth redistribution. They want welfare to be a safety net if that.

Like conservatives they see competition as necessary and inevitable. They tend to be uninterested in competition between nations. They support economic competition and are more likely than conservatives to be obsessive about it. Some will almost deify it believing that if something comes about as a result of fair completion then that's the way it should be.

They believe in giving people the chance to look after themselves.

They are opposed to racism but are reluctant to use the state to oppose it. They believe that it is best opposed by changing people's attitudes. Their sex role and sexual morality beliefs are usually more liberal than those of conservatives.

Generally they expect that there will be much privately driven change. They are concerned with removing obstacles to change. There is perhaps too little questioning of whether some market driven changes are undesirable and should be opposed.

Their sense of purpose in life can come from any of a wide variety of sources. It is an outlook that does not provide people with a sense of purpose but rather demands that they find or create their own. While some are religious many, perhaps most are not. This is not a belief set that lends itself to being used as a religion substitute. It also downplays nation as a source of identity and sense of purpose. It can leave people without a sense of any large purpose. They generally get most of their sense of purpose from the values that they uphold, their careers, family and friends. There is a tendency for some not to have a sense of purpose. It is particularly attractive to people with inherently satisfying jobs that can provide some of their sense of purpose and to the wealth obsessed.

Progressives generally see morality more as a matter of intent and consequences than as a set of rules. That is an act is right if it proceeds from what they regard as acceptable motives or it has what they see as desirable consequences. In particular they emphasize empathy as a basis for morality. This is a generalization and there are many who do see it at least partially as a set of rules.

Such an approach should lead to them being less judgmental and to people have an appreciation of the difficulty of some moral decisions. For some it does but many others descend into self-righteousness.

The virtues that progressives usually focus on are tolerance and benevolence, especially the latter. The virtues that conservatives and pragmatists prize most are usually integrity and honesty. They emphasize doing good more than fighting evil. Indeed some seem to regard fighting evil as a distraction from doing good. They believe that one can usually prevent evil by acting justly towards others.

They usually do not distinguish as sharply as others do between acts of commission and acts of omission or between morally desirable and morally obligatory acts. They often see not aiding someone as equivalent to harming them. However there is no obvious limit to how much of ones resources one can devote to helping others and it is not obvious which others one should help first. Few are willing to impoverish themselves but few can explain their criteria for setting priorities and limits.

They tend to believe in human perfectibility. That if you treat people properly and inculcate the right attitudes and beliefs you can eliminate most human vices. They see the state as a means through which they can bring about radical improvements in the world. That what you need is to have people in charge with the right agendas and with the power to do what is necessary.

They see their primary loyalty as being towards the whole of humanity. They see themselves as acting on this loyalty through their loyalty to the progressive movement or to the political party or organization that they belong to. Some disdain national loyalties, other subordinate them to loyalties to cause and whole of humanity. Many downplay the importance of family and the individual, perhaps more in practice than in principle.

They strongly emphasize equality. They are opposed to racism and class systems. They support sexual equality and usually have liberal attitudes towards sex roles and sexual morality. Many support equality of opportunity. Many go further and seek equality of outcomes. In the cause of remedying past injustices many will try to use the power of state to try to bring about equal outcomes. This can be a violation of equality before the law.

They are not into the mystique of authority, nation, state and law. There is however a tendency for them to idealize their leaders even though this would seem inconsistent with their emphasis on equality. This looks like a romantic attempt to see the leader as the personification of a cause.

Most moral systems seek a balance between one's own needs and the needs of others. You will not find pure altruism seriously considered as a moral system in any course on ethics. It does not make sense as it is a system that you violate if you allow it to benefit you. However what many progressives advocate almost amounts to this.

Many progressives expect acting morally to help them feel good about themselves and to bring them recognition from other progressives. This leads to them emphasizing acts done for another's benefit. This in turn can lead to them seeing things in ways that give them the opportunity for altruistic acts. If they can see someone as a victim of oppression then they can play the role of champion of the underdog. I am not suggesting that their concern for others is not real. I am suggesting that there are other reasons involved as well, ones which they will not admit to themselves but which can be obvious to outsiders. This can lead to them taking moral positions which do not make sense except as ego support and status seeking. This tendency is perhaps worst in progressive intellectuals in the humanities, journalists and media personalities. Politicians and the rank and file are less likely to act this way.

If one sees moral behavior as a means of feeling good and gaining status then one can be attracted to asceticism. The more a moral act is seen as being difficult or requiring sacrifice the more virtuous it can be seen as being. Thus morality becomes a conscious foreground issue. Some other progressives along with more conservatives and even more pragmatists think morality should be second nature. That ideally one should be doing the right thing because that is one's inclination. This approach leads to morality becoming an unconscious background issue. If morality is mostly a matter of automatic actions then it is less likely to be used for ego gratification and status seeking.

They are supporters of extensive welfare systems. They see state run welfare as an opportunity to do good and having weaker or even no sense of private property are not disturbed by obtaining the resources required through taxation.

They often see economic competition as something nasty and undesirable. It seems to be a matter of an ideal of harmony and of looking down on self-interest . However they certainly do plenty of competition for status.

They are very variable in the circumstances under which they will use force. Some are pacifists or near-pacifists. Some such as the communists can be extremely callous in furthering the cause. Some get carried away with the excitement of violence. Since they are a Utopian movement they can believe that the violence they use now helps banish or reduce future violence forever. This encourages some to use measures that no one who did not believe that what they did would permanently change the world could justify.

Since many are looking for chances to do good they are likely to try to prevent self-harm.

This is a romantic movement offering excitement and an opportunity to leave a mark on the world. They are too likely to not leave well enough alone because they want to believe that they can improve things. It is an ideology that appeals to people whose job is basically helping others such as teachers and welfare workers. It also appeals to people who feel that the market does not give them the status, influence and relative wealth that they feel entitled to such as some academics and journalists.

Effect of moral approach on perception of others

We're all prone to wishful thinking. Some of us try harder than others to stop it.

Our moral convictions can lead to us taking certain things for granted. We might assume that others are seeking to gain the same things from their actions as we would gain from the same actions. We might put issues in certain terms oblivious to the fact that there are other ways of look at things.

Some of the problems that I will discuss below are inherent in the political viewpoints discussed. Most are not but the predisposition towards and risk of them is. Some are the result of personal motivations that attract people to particular viewpoints rather than being the result of the viewpoints themselves. Some of these problems are violations of the principles professed by the people concerned.

Conservatives tend to value comfort and certainty in their beliefs. They often cannot comprehend how someone can live without something that they gain comfort from or can live in uncertainty.

This is especially so for many religious conservatives. The comfort that they gain from a belief in a God who is looking after them, from the sense of purpose that their religion brings and from the belief in an afterlife is immense.

Some do not accept that people could actually not believe in God. The "There are no atheists in foxholes." slur. They do not understand that some other people might not want to have a God looking out for them, might get their sense of purpose elsewhere and actually might not want an eternal life. They do not understand how someone might want these things but reluctantly come to the conclusion that there is no evidence that they are true. They do not comprehend that someone might refuse to seek comfort from their beliefs. In other words they don't understand integrity.

Others will try to describe the beliefs of those who disagree with them as being faith based even when they are not. Creationists are the obvious offenders here. Once again they don't understand that there are people who regard seeking truth and seeking comfort as separate activities that can conflict.

Many religious conservatives believe that morality can be completely encapsulated in a set of rules and that God is the only possible source of a moral code. They fail to see that for others citing God as the source of morality is begging the question. Is a divine command morally right by definition? In fact many, perhaps most people argue in the opposite direction. They judge supposed divine commands by using beliefs about morality that have different origins. If a purported divine command seems, to them, to be immoral they doubt its divine provenance.

They do not see the difference between a religion putting down a moral code and religion being the origin of morality. And they underestimate the proportion of our moral code that come from sources other the Abrahamic religions. Much of it comes from Greek and Roman civil and philosophical traditions, especially Stoicism, and from the civil traditions of the Celtic and Germanic tribes.

Many expect a moral system to be always able to tell you easily and with certainty whether an act is right or wrong. They claim that a system that does not do so is not a moral system at all. They denounce as relativism systems that take context into account and do not offer certainty. They do not see that while other approaches to morality do not offer certainty in many areas there are many things that most will agree there is no doubt are wrong. There is no moral system worth mentioning that would not describe the Holocaust as evil. That you can do the right thing most of the time without being completely certain. And that in seeking certainty that one can suppress mixed feelings about an action. That sometimes there are no good choices and it is bad to try to see the lesser of two evils as a good.

Many conservatives want quick simple solutions to threats, both internal ones from criminals and external ones from other nations or from terrorists. They want to try to solve these problem solely by the use of force and believe they can be solved if only enough force is used. There is an element in this of "Just make the problem go away.". A bigger one is an exaggerated faith in effort. The more effort and resources you throw at a problem the greater the chance of success. This can ignore diminishing returns and the possibility that there might be flaw in your approach.

But the main reason is that doing something other than using force can feel as if one is conceding that the criminal or the enemy might be at least partially justified in what they are doing. That not lashing out is slighting the victims and doubting their righteousness and one's own. This belief confuses extenuating circumstances with justification. It is an evasion of the obligation to ask the questions "Am I in the right?" and "Will this work?".

Trying to solve a problem solely by force and not questioning one's rightness leads to running the risk of loosing one's sense of proportion and doing more harm than can be justified. This includes such things as draconian sentences, recklessness about the risk of punishing the innocent and disproportionate collateral damage in war.

In the current conflict with Islamism most conservatives do not see Islam itself as the enemy. Most see the enemy as a widespread disease within Islam. It is a toxic cocktail of some weaknesses within Islam, some widespread flaws within Arab society, some flaws in the culture of the desert tribes, some bad ideas taken from Western fascist and progressive movements and some original contributions from the Islamists themselves. Most conservatives want to get the rest of the Muslim world to isolate and turn against the Islamists. They realize that this is a difficult project and will take a lot of time. But some conservatives are impatient and want the simplicity of seeing the whole of Islam as the enemy. They demand that moderate Muslims either openly attack the Islamists now or be seen as the enemy. They do not recognize the difficulties and dangers for moderate Muslims in doing this and are unwilling to try to put themselves in their place. They also undervalue the support that we do receive from moderate Muslims. (Where do they think we get most of our intelligence from?) Granted some of this comes from the words of moderate Muslims being under reported.

Over optimism about the efficacy of force is not a problem confined to conservatives nor does it affect anywhere near all conservatives but it is a more serious problem with them than with pragmatists or progressives. And it is a violation of the conservative principle of making allowance for human limitations and fallibility.

A related problem is respect for authority leading to them being unwilling do admit that the police or the courts might be the ones actually in the wrong.

Since they value social cohesion most will support measures designed to prevent the emergence of an underclass with no hope and no stake in the society. The most important of these is the provision of education. They will generally also support a welfare systems designed to protect victims of misfortune. There is a strong preference for helping people to help themselves rather than simply helping them directly.

They frequently have a blind spot in this area. Many will be unwilling to admit the part chance plays in determining peoples well being. There is a tendency to think that one can always create one's own opportunities. There is often an over optimistic view of the importance of ability and the efficacy of effort. People may want to take all the credit for their being well off. This can lead to them being unwilling to see the part that bad luck and circumstances plays in the life of others.

One's sexual orientation is not a matter of choice. Some religious conservatives don't want to admit this. They see homosexuality as a sin and see acceptance of homosexuals as giving homosexuals an opportunity to recruit. The see homosexuals as recruited rather than born. If they saw homosexuality as an unchosen inclination they would find it harder to justify demanding that homosexuals give up their behavior.

For similar reasons there can be a refusal to admit that many unusual sexual urges are not matters of choice. They don't want to believe that not everyone can be happy with a conventional heterosexual marriage and family life no matter how much they try.

Conservatives want people to have the opportunity to gain wealth and look after themselves. They prize human effort and accomplishment. Thus they are very skeptical about things that put limits on opportunity and deny the ability of effort to solve a problem. Also they prefer solutions that depend on private initiative to government run solutions and especially to international government run solutions.

Some conservatives face up to environmental threats. Some others look for reasons not to believe in them. This can turn into clutching at straws in the hope that they will not have to give up doing anything. Some of this is reaction against doom-saying and tree-hugging. Some of it is not wanting to admit that environmental considerations do put limits on opportunities.

Farmers, fishermen and woodcutters do not like hearing that putting more effort and resources into their work will only bring better returns for a limited period and will eventually reduce or even eliminate their returns. They can be unwilling to accept that limits can be set by nature rather than by their efforts. Nationalists do not like the idea that global warming or the depletion of oceanic fisheries are problems that require international solutions.

Fascists are obsessed with martial strength and try to make society resemble their idea of an army. But they are bad at actually waging wars. (The Nazis were dangerous because of what they took over and inherited, not because of what they created. They took over a large country with a very strong industrial base and military forces with a massive bank of accumulated skills.) They have a romantic idea of war which places an overemphasis on the skill and valor of individual warriors and under emphasizes such things as logistics, resources and the part played by those not doing the actual fighting. This actually undermines military professionalism. Also since they see conflict as a way of asserting their worth they look down on people who try to avoid conflict. This leads to them underestimating the determination and skill of their enemies.

Pragmatists often have similar blind spots to many conservatives when it comes to looking at the role of chance and effort in human lives. They often also have blind spots about the environment.

Often they undervalue social cohesion. Some do not place enough importance on common effort in an emergency. Some, especially libertarians are too likely to stand on what they regard as their rights at an inappropriate time.

Many over emphasize such things as competition and ambition. Combined with an under emphasis on social cohesion this can create opportunities especially in corporations for non-criminal sociopaths. The bosses from hell. While these particular noxious creatures can occur under any system pragmatism does give them more opportunity and rationalizations for their behavior than other systems.

Progressives see themselves as the champions of rationality, benevolence and equality. While these beliefs are genuine the emphasis on doing good makes the movement a standing invitation to the self-righteous, the ones who want to feel good. Much of the obnoxious behavior and most of the failure to understand others comes from this source. Self-righteousness is not an inherent feature of progressive ideologies but it is an inherent risk.

Many see their beliefs as the only ones that a rational person could come to. These people cannot understand how a reasonable person could in good faith oppose them. They often think that their opinions have more scientific justification than they actually have. Thus they believe that anyone who opposes them must be doing so for irrational reasons. These progressives are generally opposed to religion seeing it as an enemy of reason. They often see more religious influence behind opponents positions than is really there. Some of these such as communists can end up with beliefs that are more religion-like than they would like to admit. These people are often trying to gain from a political movement what others might gain from religion.

Many progressives see themselves as anti-authoritarian. They see respect for authority within families or nations as irrational. Some feel that their loyalties to something above nations and to a better future make them superior to those who place high priorities on such petty loyalties.

The problem is that these progressives are not as rational as they think they are. No one has come up with a completely rational basis for morality and hence no one has done so for any political system. What reason can do is to check a political system for consistency. This is not done enough. It can also show where a set of political premises leads. Sometimes logical extrapolation of political premises leads to conclusions that should cause us to recoil and reexamine the premises. Sometimes this step is not taken and something nasty end up being given a rational excuse.

Trying to be benevolent, tolerant and altruistic can degenerate into trying to feel virtuous and be seen by others as virtuous. The people who have given in to self-righteousness try to push others into self-righteous behavior. If one tries to show that one is doing the right thing then one can start demanding that others also show that what they are doing is right. These people cannot understand others being offended by such demands. This moral ostentation is the source of most of the behavior that others deride as politically correct.

Not everyone gains great satisfaction from altruistic behavior. Not everyone is a people person. There is a temptation for those people who do to regard this as making them morally superior to the rest. Some of this is just the normal human tendency to regard what is important to oneself as something which should be of great importance to everyone else. And some of it can be benevolence becoming a matter for self congratulation.

Part of the problem is trying to base ethics solely on empathy. If one does so then altruism can become all of morality and ones vision of oneself as a kind person can become more important than actual kindness.

Supporting equality and championing underdogs can lead to looking for people who can be cast in the role of underdog. Much of the time this really is championing the victims of misfortune and the disadvantaged. Sometimes it can involve blindness to how a group contributes to their own misfortune or how help could backfire. And sometimes it can involve making excuses for atrocious behavior if a group can be characterized as victims of oppression.

Seeking to act altruistically can lead to preferring to do things through the welfare system rather than helping people to get into a position to help themselves. Seeing people as helpless victims of oppression can help the helper feel good but can actually do harm if it gets in the way of helping the welfare recipients to help themselves. The main benefit of help in these cases can become to the ego of the helper.

A good example of this is welfare for Australian aborigines. Here is genuine disadvantage aggravated by some dysfunctional behavior within the Aboriginal community and a welfare system that has expended huge resources and whose recipients have not received anywhere near the benefits that they should have.

As for excusing atrocious behavior look no further than anyone making excuses for terrorists.

Multiculturalism was originally the demand that migrants be not put under pressure to abandon their traditions and values and attachments. The truth was that there was never any pressure to abandon traditions. There was never any demand to completely abandon attachments to their country of origin, only to for an overriding attachment to their new country. There was only a demand that those values incompatible with those of their new country be abandoned. In the name of tolerance and equality some multiculturalists seem determined to allow migrants to not need to make any adjustments to their new country. In fact we have some migrants who seem determined to make their new countrymen change to accommodate them.

Multiculturalism seems to be a case of tolerance being turned into a fetish rather than a reality. In the name of tolerance we have people abandoning the defense of liberty and equality and tolerance. The multiculturalists want so much to be seen as tolerant that they will accept restrictions on free speech demanded by the easily offended rather than telling people "We have robust debate here. Grow a thicker skin.". They will accept sexual inequality in the name of respecting cultural differences. They will shut their eyes to Judeophobia in the name of preventing Islamophobia. (I use the term Judeophobia in preference to anti-Semitism. It's more accurate.) They are unwilling to defend the values of their own culture. It seems to have turned into nothing more than a way of saying "I'm tolerant and kind. See how superior I am."

Opposing racism is good easy way of demonstrating one's virtue. The more things that one can see as racism the more chances there are to show how virtuous one is.

Since progressives want to build a better world they want to believe that they can change human nature for the better. This leads to them being tempted to automatically say nurture whenever there is any nature nurture dispute. Egalitarianism pushes them in the same direction. Some have the integrity to decide such questions on the evidence whatever their inclinations. Some do not.

If someone is determined to do good and sees themselves as good then they run a high risk of not spotting the potentially corrupting effect of power. There is the danger of self-criticism shutting down and of loosing the ability to criticize someone that they see as having good intentions.

Some progressives have become quite obsessed in their conflict with conservatives. So obsessed that they cannot bear to make common cause with conservatives against an external enemy. Some of them are trying to see the Islamists as victims of oppression and blinding themselves to the evil and the danger. It seems as if their egos and sense of identity have gotten involved in the conflict with conservatives and they are unable to put it on the back burner for the duration. That they need to see conservatives as evil rather than just wrong.

The conflict with Islamism has led to a split within the progressive movement. It is now clearer who is part of the progressive movement of principle and who is part of the progressive movement of ego. I don't know if the latter is larger but it certainly is noisier.

I hope that this effort of mine is useful in helping identify and understand the embarrassments on your side whatever that side is. There is no political position that will not attract some people for the wrong reasons. This essay is an attempt to reduce the harm that they do to rational debate.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Suggestion and depiction

This is going to be a pretty subjective post. It will be mostly about special effects for fantasy and science fiction on television and in the cinema. What I like, what I don't like, what I wish they'd do and why.

I would say there are seven prose, non musical story telling media. They are cinema, television, theater, animation, comics, written prose and verbal story telling. The special effects that I am thinking of are mostly for the first two. While I will be focusing on special effects for fantasy and SF in TV and cinema I will make comparisons with other media and genres. (Super-hero and horror stories are fantasy sub-genres.) Some of my comments also apply to historical dramas.

Special effects are used in those visual story telling media which use live actors. They are used to give the illusion of something being there or happening. These are illusions of something that isn't available to the producers in real life (at least not yet) either because of cost (huge armies) , because they haven't been created yet (starships), they aren't around on Earth (aliens) or they don't exist (dragons).

Techniques available now include pure CGI, CGI traced over real objects, background mattes, models, scenery sets and prosthetics.

Special effects are of minor importance in theater. In part because science fiction and fantasy are uncommon genres in theater. Mostly because the resources available for special effects are limited in theater. This limitation is of course one of the reasons why SF and fantasy are uncommon genres in theater.

What the theater uses are props. These are objects and effects that the watcher can see are obviously not real but they guide the imagination of the watcher. They are a stylization that the audience and the producer tacitly agree on. The audience suppresses their disbelief in what they see and use the props as cues to their imaginations.

This is bit like the way one sees a novel or a spoken tale. These are not visual media but they can contain many cues for the visual imagination. Similarly one hears a comic. It is a silent medium but is rich in cues for the auditory imagination.

The distinction between an effect which suggests something and one which depicts it is not a hard and fast one. Look at space ships in a 1950s or earlier movie. There is a definite attempt to make the ship look real. But in many cases they didn't quite succeed. (Often they didn't come anywhere near succeeding.) Even more, look at the creatures. One needs to deliberately suspend one's reactions to the cues that say "This is not real.". The more realistic the special effects, the smaller this effort needs to be. With modern special effects the effort required is much smaller than with older shows. In an older show there were always some things that niggled. Nowadays the illusion is sometimes complete especially in the cinema or in a near future setting.

But not quite. There are things that cannot be truly depicted visually but they must attempt to do so. They use stylized depictions that while not strictly realistic tells the audience's imagination what is happening. The best example of this is the depiction of energy weapon beams in space. Of course they would actually be invisible. One can only see a beam passing through a material medium because of scattering, heating or ionization. This won't happen in a vacuum. But they have to be depicted somehow. We just allow the creators some artistic license and don't quibble about lack of realism.

Another example is psychic forces. These of course could not be seen but one has to use some form of visual depiction.

There are also things which could be depicted realistically but drama might be sacrificed in doing so. For example in a fleet action in space one would expect the ranges to be so great that one could hardly see enemy or friendly ships or more likely for all ships to be outside visual range of one another. But you have to see what is going on so ships are depicted as being unbelievably close to one another. I find it jarring but necessary (at least in some cases.).

Another way that realism is compromised is in the depiction of extra-terrestrials. They are almost all humans with funny heads. I can see why but I wish it was otherwise. First of all there is cost. It is cheaper to use an actor with prosthetics than to use models or CGI effects to depict a character. Second, it is easier for the audience to read the emotions of something with human body language, voice intonations etc. Something radically non-humanoid would be quite difficult to read. There seem to be more non humanoids in movies than on TV. Movies have bigger budgets. Also TV science fiction tends to rely less on spectacle and more on character than cinema. The smaller screen lends itself less to spectacle. The greater time available on TV allows for more emphasis on characters. With the greater emphasis on character comes a pressure to make the characters easy for the audience to read. Still it it jars for me. I'm too much of a biologist to find humanoid aliens believable. I know how variable life is and find that humans with funny heads undermine my suspension of disbelief. Trouble is, I can appreciate the economic realities. In many, perhaps most of these cases the choice is between aliens that are too human-like and having no aliens at all. Grumble!

There are two ways that a a depiction look wrong. It can depict the wrong thing or it can depict something unrealistically. Unrealistic depictions are usually either a lack of texture and depth or things moving jerkily or otherwise in the wrong manner. We are good at picking up something odd when looking at what is supposed to be a living being – especially if it is supposed to be human or human-like.

Backgrounds have improved enormously. Near future Earth settings are now usually very good both on television and in the cinema. So are the insides of spaceships and space stations and urban backgrounds. Settings for heroic fantasy are generally similar to to those for historical drama. Non urban backgrounds on other worlds are less satisfactory especially on television. Usually they just use some rural outdoors spot. These do not give any impression of being on another planet. The sky and scenery in the background can sometimes look a bit static, textureless and flat. The vegetation seldom is anything except the plants we know. Of course it would be difficult to create convincing alien appearing vegetation. Still more use could be made of CGI created vegetation, at least for movies. CGI can fail to convey detail and texture. However for something that is alien our brain and eyes will not be telling us that something is wrong as easily as they will if the CGI effects are used to depict something that is more familiar. This gives the creators a bit of leeway when depicting something unfamiliar.

Ships and other vehicles are now well depicted. In exploration centered space adventures such as 2001 A Space Oddessy they generally have been. I think the standard for appearance in a space combat adventure was set by the first Star Wars movie. That was when vehicles started having a lot of detail and texture and looking used. Before that they tended to look pristine with simple shapes. However if anything Star Wars set back the depiction of ship movement. The fighters moved like aircraft not space vehicles. Babylon 5 set the standard for ship movement. No banking, the direction a ship pointed had nothing to do with direction of movement and things had inertia. The problems with Star Wars et al. came from trying to import images and ambiance from other genres into a future where they didn't belong. They wanted World War 2 dogfights in space.

When depicting a battle there can be a conflict between conveying excitement and conveying suspense. If you want to convey excitement you use the viewpoint of someone in the middle of a melee. You rely on a quick succession of challenges. This can make it difficult to show the whole picture in a large battle. The emphasis is on the prowess of the hero.

Suspense requires the audience having time to realize what is happening. The audience may need to see the whole picture. In a large battle the viewpoint to use if one wants to build suspense is that of the commander or someone else outside the me lee. This can be difficult especially with a three-dimensional space battle. Perhaps this could be done by showing some three dimensional commanders display such as has been described in numerous SF stories. The only time I remember this being tried on TV was on Babylon 5. It was only a qualified success.
Software now allows the easy creation of crowds and armies and hordes of spaceships or aircraft without the traditional thousands of extras or models. Sometimes this lets the director show a horde which would be too expensive using extras. Sometimes it can lead to clutter and overkill. A huge horde rushing forward can be less scary than the sight of a smaller disciplined formation moving implacably towards you. I'm thinking here of the sight of the Roman legions in Spartacus. Another thing I don't like is showing armies in closely packed formations attacking in the face of automatic weapons or energy weapons. That is armies saying "Kill me!". Plenty of this nonsense in Star Wars movies, especially the prequels. I like to feel that the heroes deserved to win rather than had their victories decreed by the scriptwriters. Finally I have never seen a believable cavalry charge on screen. You do not gallop towards an enemy for a long period letting your formation get ragged. You approach at a walk, then a trot, then a canter and only gallop the last fifty yards or so. You hold the formation together for maximum impact. A realistic depiction of a cavalry charge would be far more menacing than what is shown on the screen.

End of moans.