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Today, I heard author and blogger Andrew Bard Schmookler speak about the problems in our society. The reason he says that liberalism frequently doesn't have spine is because it has difficulty recognizing the concept of good and evil. I think that this concept can very easily be applied to our Democratic leaders frequently. Although they have done better this time around, especially in their questioning of Chertoff, they still have a long ways to go before developing the kind of spine that we would like to see here in this community.

Schmookler discusses spirituality in applying his concepts. He says that spiritual well-being and goodness involves wholeness, while evil involves brokenness. Before the 1960's, there were very clear institutions that defined right and wrong. They were the school, parents, churches, and society. All our movies had black and white endings in which the good guys had a clear point of reference to look forward to.

However, this old order was not adequate. It did not take into account the fact that there were many people in this country who did not fit in to this mold. Blacks, gays, women who wanted to work on their own, mentally ill people, and other such nonconformists did not fit into this established order. So, while this order was very good at defining right from wrong, it was too narrow and too rigid. People who did not fit in were marginalized and shut out. This structure was basically set up for the so-called traditional American families.

The 1960's movement was a revolt against that. People realized that there were more than just one way to do things. "If it feels good, do it!" became the watchword of the day. People experimented with drugs, sexuality, protested the war, challenged the doctrines of mindless conformity, and helped bring about a society that was much more inclusive than before. People are becoming more tolerant of people that are different than them, although there is a long ways to go in that respect. The same-sex lifestyle has become accepted in places like Massachusetts and Vermont. Public figures can get fired for making racist or sexist remarks.

But in the name of inclusiveness, Schmookler argues that liberalism has lost sight of the possibility of evil. This explains why we saw such howlers as Kerry saying, "Bush is basically a good man. We just have different ideas of running things," in the last election campaign. This explains why we see Joe Lieberman and Henry Cuellar kissing up to Bush. The problem with our Democratic leadership is that many of them still see the Bush administration as basically good despite all their flaws. That is why their criticism and opposition to their policies is a lot more muted than it should be. Schmookler argues that they do not see that our society has become locked in a struggle between good and evil:

Our present rulers don't want the Geneva Conventions ban on torture to hold them back. Other Americans are struggling to return our country to a willingness to be ruled by law, and to sheer human decency.
Our present government has no interest in restraining greed to avoid potentially catastrophic climate change and other degradations of the biosphere. Others in this country are devoting our energies to moving America toward a way of life in harmony with earth's living systems.

The forces now dominating America are moving relentlessly to shift power from the weak and vulnerable to those already mighty, and to transfer wealth from those who have less to those already rich beyond any rational need for more. Many of us are striving to create a country where principles of justice hold sway.

Such struggles have characterized the whole sweep of civilized history. On the one side are forces that care for life and work to create and maintain life-serving structures. On the other side are forces that tear such structures apart.


Philosopher and sociologist Philip Selznick says in his book "Moral Commonwealth" that we have overturned our old institutions of right and wrong and are now in a moral vacuum in which reality is a matter of opinion. And Bush and his crew have taken full advantage. They think that it is OK to torture, kill hundreds of thousands of civilians, take away money from Social Security, veterans' benefits, Medicare, and education, look the other way as thousands were dying in New Orleans, and commit treason for partisan political purposes. Schmookler points out that this moral relativism has gotten to such a point that fundamentalists he knows say that in their truth, they would not have participated in the Holocaust. But, they say, the Nazis had their own worldview that says it was OK; therefore, why should they pass judgment on them?

At this point in time, I would point out that it is not people who are evil; it is a matter of forces of good and evil. Good is defined by Schmookler as wholeness and evil as brokenness. Evil happens when a person becomes so broken and so corrupted by their experiences that they turn into a monster. This is what happened to Rove; he grew up idolizing Richard Nixon and kept pictures of him on his bedroom wall. Now, Rove operates out of the view that Nixon's only problem is that he did not do a good enough job of not getting caught.

The problem with our spineless democrats is that they are uncomfortable with such terms. Schmookler says:

Perhaps the deepest element in the widespread liberal resistance to the idea of evil lies in the strain of thought called "moral relativism." It's surprising how widely such thinking has infiltrated our culture. Among students I've dealt with across two generations, it's been common to hear -even from those who describe themselves as Biblical Christians--such statements as "What the Nazis did at Auschwitz isn't what I would have done, but from within their perspective it was right, and so it was right for them."

The idea that there is no important distinction to be made between right desire and wrong desire has its sources in modern philosophical thought but is probably most powerfully driven by our consumerist economy, which doesn't care what kind of impulse we gratify so long as we seek our gratification through what can be bought and sold.
But whatever the sources of this moral relativism, among the results of this failure to distinguish between choices that are good and those that are not has been a radical transformation -a degradation--in this nation's cultural expressions.


But this kind of moral relativism is what gets us monsters like John Negroponte. In 1980, right-wing death squads assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero. But instead of putting the brakes on such activities, Negroponte extended them far and beyond what they were doing back before he took office as ambassador to Honduras. But despite this, the Democrats did not offer any meaningful opposition when he was named Director of National Intelligence. They either did not know or did not care about his past. Instead, they gushed over his qualifications and easily confirmed him to his post. All this, despite the possibility that he may also have been the man organizing the death squads in Iraq, which I wrote about yesterday. So, by his silence about this assassination, Negroponte gave his assent to this barbaric assassination. And by their silence, the Democrats gave their assent to Negroponte's assent.

On the other hand, we cannot return to the days of mindless conformity of the 1950's. The logical extreme of this mindless conformity is doctrines like that of Zarqawi's; he has a feature in the NYT Magazine.

Many of these rootless and unwanted believers found a spiritual and political home in a type of Islam called Salafism. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Salafism emphasizes the rootlessness of faith. It despises local saints and mystical practices (like those of Sufism) and any other departures from the most rigid Sunnism. It despises Shiites. It commonly despises all other sects or practices that Salafis might consider "bida," or "innovation." Given this intense preoccupation with purity, Salafis are constantly trying to identify and expel the impure. This is called "takfir," often translated as "excommunication": an old, disused term that has found new life in Salafism, which permits, even encourages, the killing of Muslims whom Salafis have expelled through takfir. Perhaps the most ferocious embodiment of takfiri Salafism today is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

So, we cannot return to the preoccupation to ideological purity that marked the 1950's. Instead, we should recognize that there are standards of right and wrong. But we should also recognize that there is also a wide grey area between the black and the white.

I would start with the premise that all human life is sacred and that no human life is expendable. Not only that, sacredness of human life means we focus on the quality of life as well as on the fact that there is life. We can argue all we want about how much money should go into what programs. But it should be beyond debate that the role of government should be to enhance the quality of human life. Furthermore, actions that infringe on basic human dignity should be avoided.

Therefore, it should not be a matter of debate that torture is wrong. It should not be a matter of debate whether a man like Negroponte who organized death squads in Central America and may have in Iraq should be one of the people in charge of protecting our country. It should not be a matter of debate that extraordinary rendition or warrantless wiretaps is wrong. Actions and policies that seek to create wholeness are good. Grey areas in which there is no right or wrong answer should be a matter of debate. Black areas that involve the destruction of human dignity should be beyond debate.

Furthermore, the Constitution, as written today, is the best articulation that we have of these values. The key amendment is the Ninth Amendment - which states that rights are not limited to the Constitution. Therefore, at the very least, there is an implied right to privacy throughout the Constitution which states that the government has no right to interfere with personal private life or private decisions. Furthermore, we, the people, have no right to infringe on someone else's private life or private decisions. That is why there are laws against murder, for instance; it infringes on someone else's right to live their own life and make their private decisions.

So, I would reject the idea that we have to set 1950's-style standards and troll-rate people out of existence who do not conform to those standards. But if we are to win elections and build as broad of a coalition as possible, we must set clear standards of right and wrong that include everybody and gives them the freedom to make their own choices.

Originally posted to Stop the Police State! on Sun Feb 19, 2006 at 04:04 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  it would be an interesting poll question (none)
    for rasmussen or zogby.  a real poll.

    Q.  Despite many of his flaws, in your opinion, is george w. bush a good person??

  •  This is wild (4.00)
    For the last week or so I've been re-reading Lewis Thomas's Lives of a Cell, which had a profound impact on me when I read it the first time back in college. It's having a pretty impact this time around as well.<p. Thomas has this almost gnostic notion of the interconnectedness of all life. We all are the sum total of the cells that make us up, and when you get down to the cell's perspective notions like good and evil become irrelevant. Cells exist. They live and they die, and with them so do we.<p> It's not that bad things don't happen, because they surely do in life. Torture and murder are right up there among the worst things a human being can do to another. But do these things respond to an evil impulse? Or to a badly warped understanding of the purpose of life?

    Thomas clearly tends towards the latter interpretation, and if you ask me he makes some damned good points.

  •  I want to understand why it must be (none)
    a good v evil question.  I hope that with re-readings of your diary, I'll get a little closer.

    I do have one question off the bat:  

    I would start with the premise that all human life is sacred and that no human life is expendable. Not only that, sacredness of human life means we focus on the quality of life as well as on the fact that there is life.

    What/who defines "quality of life"?

    I think that's a lead-in to my basic difficulty with arguments that rely on "good v evil".  I don't know what "wholeness" is, as discussed.  What is the "monster" threshold for "brokenness"?  What is it?  Who defines it?  How did they the come to define it in such a manner?  What were the a priori's?  And that's just to start...

    jotter's Lists of High Impact Diaries: daily and weekly archives (bring your own bendy straws)

    by sele on Sun Feb 19, 2006 at 04:27:14 PM PST

    •  I would argue these things: (4.00)
      I would take quality of life to mean the ability to make a decent living wage and still be able to save money for health care, transportation, and college and have some left over.

      Wholeness, I would argue, is the sense of satisfaction of having done right by doing something for another person.

      As for brokenness, I would argue that a broken person would be someone like Private Pile in Full Metal Jacket who was screamed at and yelled at by his sargeant, raped by his fellow soldiers, and who fragged the sargeant -- before the war even started. Then, he committed suicide.

      But this is not something I can define for everybody -- we have to have conversations about these things and come to a consensus on what these things mean. That is how we should define things as opposed to just you or me defining them.

  •  This is wrong (none)
    I question the basic premises of this guy's argument. No spine? How do atheists fit into this equation? I've met some that have so much spine that they don't look human. The premise he starts with is complete and utter bullshit.
    •  He didn't mean that we need God back. (none)
      He is an agnostic, and there are many forms of spirituality, such as some forms of Buddhism that either withhold judgement about God or do not even bother to consider the question of his existance. I don't think he meant that athiests don't have a spine.

      But he does think, and I agree, that we have to develop standards of right and wrong in a way that are as inclusive as possible.

      Now this is true of everyone in my personal experience regardless of whether one believes in god or not. People who are whole in my experience have a strong sense of purpose, strong views of right and wrong, and a strong sense of belonging. It is a process; it is not a thing where we look to The Bible or other sources of authority and see what The One Right Answer is. And it need not involve praying to some kind of God.

      •  Objective Truth (none)
        I am in a class in public policy school about ecological economics. The professor, Herman Daly (often called the godfather of ecological economics), started a vigorous debate in class one day by contending that public policy cannot be created if objective truth does not exist (more generally, he contends public policy requires a non-determinist, non-nihilist environment).

        The science specialists (mostly geographers) in the class contended there is no such thing as objective truth, that morality, etc. are all relative. The response to that was if objective truth does not exist, we should quit trying to make the world a better place and should get what we can while we can. If there is no baseline of right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable, no common ground, then a policy debate cannot exist because there is no foundation of human decency to appeal to. Take this extreme example. Let's say murder is fruitful as a reproductive strategy: If I kill my neighbor, my odds of fathering children goes way up (this is HYPOTHETICAL). Let's say objective truth does not exist. What can you say to me to make me not kill my neighbor? You could warn me of punishment. But what if I knew how to get around that. What could you say?

        If we don't agree on some level of truth (whether God-given, meditation-given, culturally-given, whatever), how can we hope to move the world forward?

        On a different note, what I think makes this administration unusual is that, in its world, facts are relative. Rather than debating whether something is right or wrong, it tries to undercut the debate by disputing the facts that led to the discussion in  the first place. It's almost like if I said that's a nice blue car, they'd say, no, it's a purple truck. How do you argue with people that are insane or willing to feign insanity because it gives them a 35% baseline for elections?

        Russ

        Maryland School of Public Policy Master of Public Policy Candidate

        by magicrusslc on Sun Feb 19, 2006 at 05:39:48 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  That's exactly the problem. (none)
          The Democrats do not understand this and then do not understand when Bush tells them what they want to hear and then undercuts them. The IWR was a prime example -- Bush told the Democrats that war was only a last resort and then he turned around and started one after getting the blank check to start one.

          And many of them still don't get it -- we watered down the Patriot Act a little bit on paper, but there is still widespread room for abuse.

      •  this description describes George W. Bush aptly (none)
        People who are whole in my experience have a strong sense of purpose, strong views of right and wrong, and a strong sense of belonging.

        So how is it that, by this definition, he falls outside of the

        basically good despite all [his] flaws.
        notion that's being kicked?  How does this argument hold together?

        jotter's Lists of High Impact Diaries: daily and weekly archives (bring your own bendy straws)

        by sele on Sun Feb 19, 2006 at 06:23:35 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Good question. (none)
          I would argue that Bush has none of these things and that he would just like you to think that he does -- a part of Rove's PR campaign.

          Bush has no sense of purpose -- otherwise he would have stayed after Bin Laden until he caught him. He has no sense of right and wrong -- he will torture when it is convenient and not torture when it is convenient. He has no sense of belonging -- he is still an addict despite the fact that he quit drinking alcohol. The only difference now is that he is addicted to war and addicted to power.

          We all know that Bush and most of his administration are drunk with power -- the examples are too numerous to give. But war is also an addiction -- he sees it, I suggest, as a gigantic video game that he gets to play 24/7. I suggest given the fact that he has constructed a bubble around himself that he hangs on every blow by blow account of the war and will only listen to what he wants to hear. I would argue that he is extremely broken.

  •  I have a concept of evil (none)
    He was on TV for hours the other day.  They called it the "State of the Union address."
  •  Evil (none)
    I've long said that the one good thing Bush brought into popular discourse is a renewed concept of evil. I agree that Democrats aren't being quick enough on the uptake regarding the utility of calling the lies and corruption of many of the Republicans the evil that they are.

    A quibble though: Good is not "the whole." Evil is not "separate parts." Framing it that way is the classic formual for fascism. It allows a leader who pretends to represent the whole to dismiss all opposition as factionalist.

    Something bigger than a quibble: Not all human life is sacred. If you're going to recognize evil, you'd better have some plans for those who serve it. Those plans had better involve detention in some cases, and death were evil goes all out to resist detention. It gets tricky to run such a program from the Left without ending up with The Terror.

    Perhaps we owe it to the world to carry out such a purge, internally. But if we were to propose it now, we'd find ourselves the ones purged. So taking too strong a stance against evil right now — even the clearly evident evil in seats of power in Washington — ends up serving evil's ends better than the good's.

    •  Of course. (none)
      I am not advocating extreme forms of libertarianism where anything goes and there are no jails or stuff like that. That would be anarchy. Our society should be one where everybody is free to live their own lives and make their own decisions. This means that people who infringe on that -- say, by illegal detentions or murder -- are attacking the wholeness of other people by depriving them of basic freedoms. That is why people such as you describe should be arrested, tried, and imprisoned.

      You're right -- there could be someone in the future who could try to pose as a uniter and swift-boat the opposition by portraying them as dividers. That is why we must fight any attempt by any party -- Democratic or Republican -- to weaken the system of checks and balances. When the system of checks and balances works out properly, then the Congress and Courts can put a stop to a President who tries that.

      Schmookler addressed this issue -- he said that maintaining personal liberties involves a constant vigilance against those who would erode them -- something that we did have for a long time and that we need to continue to develop.

  •  recommended! n/t (none)

    weather forecast

    The palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise. - Paine

    by Cedwyn on Sun Feb 19, 2006 at 04:57:52 PM PST

  •  Very interesting (none)
    I think that a big difference between liberals and conservatives is that conservatives are more confident about their principles.  This confidence results in part from the fact that conservatives derive their principles from "unquestionable" sources of morality.  Obviously, the primary source of morality for many conservatives is the Bible--or at least their various distortions of it.  Even non-religious conservatives, however, tend to have beliefs that cannot be questioned.  The anti-tax, anti-regulation wing of the Republican Party believes that government intervention is evil and that the market will solve all problems.  They have plenty of think tanks churning out studies that seem to support their views empirically, and their "Bible" consists of authors such as Ayn Rand or Milton Friedman.  (I think that Ayn Rand attracts so many converts, especially among teens, because her books present a quasi-religious doctrine made up of unquestionable principles.  She purports to provide a comprehensive moral system derived from basic logical principles, without the need for a God.)  War hawks have an unshakeable belief in the absolute goodness of America and the absolute evil of its enemies.  These ideologies are not perfectly consistent (e.g. Randian atheism is impossible for religious conservatives to accept), but many conservatives adopt a little from each category, making them confident in the absolute truth of their moral, economic, and foreign policy beliefs.  

    Compare this with the confidence of modern liberals in their beliefs.  Often they are at their most confident when talking about certain rights--the right to be free from racial and other discrimination, the right to free speech, the right to a fair trial.  They are also confident when talking about scientific truth--rebutting right-wing claims about intelligent design and global warming.  But they are not very confident on other issues.  

    In the realm of economics, there is no liberal consensus anymore.  Some liberals have fully accepted "free trade" and deregulation, while others oppose these things.  But there's no overarching principle.  Most liberals would agree that the government should provide all its citizens with a basic minimum standard of living, but they disagree about what this standard would be.  If it means the right to work at a living wage, then how do you define "living wage," and how do you respond to the conservative argument that this would hurt business and harm the economy overall?  Right-wing libertarians believe, deep down, that everything should be determined by private agreements; the appropriate wage for a worker is no more than what that worker agrees to accept, inequality of bargaining power be damned.  Liberals can counterattack that employers have an obligation to provide a basic standard of living to their workers, but they have difficulty articulating the source of this obligation.  Conservatives have firm economic principles, and liberals don't, so conservatives tend to win the arguments, even though they have to cover up the rougher edges of their theories (e.g. no workplace safety requirements, no control over monopolies, etc.)

    On foreign policy, the views of liberals are hopelessly scattered.  Some believe in an obligation to promote democracy and human rights around the world, by force if necessary.  But the Iraq War has destroyed their arguments, forcing them to retreat to the fallback position that it was good to remove Saddam, but Bush didn't do it right.  Some believe that attacking another country, even in the name of human rights and democracy, is immoral.  This leaves them in the position of arguing that tyrants should stay in power and genocides should not be stopped by force.  My personal belief is that the U.S. should aim for a middle ground, promoting democracy and human rights when possible, but avoiding interventions that appear to be noble on the surface but actually do more harm than good (e.g. Iraq).  But even if this is a sensible position, it's a vague one that depends heavily on the circumstances.  The Republican principle, in contrast, is that any military action undertaken by America does (at least under a Republican president) is good, and military action against despised groups (communists, Muslims) is even better.  

    My point is that conservatives are more comfortable talking about absolute good and evil in a way that transcends the facts of any given situation.  Liberals are less confident about what they want, so they get buried by Republicans repeatedly.  Obviously, this post is full of generalizations--some liberals have well-defined moral principles in which they are very confident, and some conservatives are uncertain about what they believe.  But I think it captures part of the reason why Democrats are having so many problems these days.

    •  I'm very confident (none)
        In saying that Republicanism is pure evil.
      •  Scott Peck (none)
        said that evil exists and it's not just being misguided. Evil actively seeks out the good and tries to destroy it.

        Sound like anybody you know?

        •  Peck (none)
          I posted this suggested reading list yesterday regarding human evil:

          Becker, Ernest. 1973.  The denial of death.
          Becker, E.  1975.  Escape from evil.
          Fromm, Erich.  1973.  The anatomy of human destructiveness.
          Lifton, Robert J.  1979.  The broken connection: On death and the continuity of life.
          Peck, M. Scott.  1983.  People of the lie.

          I have to tell you, having encountered a number of people along the lines of those case studies described by Peck, I do think Peck was on to something more than "mythical".

          And I especially agree with his premise that evil is powerless without its appeal to the evil that exists in others.

          Truly chilling.

          "Life is forever menaced by chaos and must restore balance with every intake of breath"-- Jean Gebser

          by rangemaster on Sun Feb 19, 2006 at 09:15:00 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  bleh (none)
            I first heard about People of the Lie when some people I worked with were trying to use it against our boss.

            They didn't like him because he was a hardworking Chicago Italian.

            They all considered themselves progressives, too.

            That was my first taste of the dangers of labelling people evil.

            It's not that I don't believe it exists. It's that it is such a convenient category for our more "troublesome" fellow humans. You know --- people like you and me, should the need arise. Us Saddam Lovin' Anti-Murkans.

            I also recall Peck labelled autistic as evil --- not so directly, but close enough.

    •  I agree. (none)
      This is why I would argue for a set of principles that is simpler than those that the Republicans offer -- and allow each individual person to apply them for themselves. I gave my ideas -- the sanctity of human life and the Constitution, especially the 9th Amendment. I would also add the belief in the equality of all people, as belief in one's own superiority is what starts most wars. And I would add the primacy of science and reason -- which can show objective facts in many cases.

      In that way, people would have four easy principles to start with -- and go from there. There should be no need to make political thought more complicated than it is. Give people this kind of simplicity, and I suggest you will have people who are much more confident than their GOP counterparts. And it wouldn't hurt to expose holes in their own lines of thought as well.

      •  Now that I think of it (none)
           I've never been much of a fan of these "define Democratic principles in 3 simple sentences" or of bashing "negativism" (i.e. defining your position by what you stand opposed to).

           Now I think I see why.

           You put together a "positive" platform, you're not doing anything particularly positive except excluding everybody who disagrees with the smallest detail of the platform.  But you can unite a lot more people on a critical one: as long as you agree with opposing what we disagree with, you're okay with us.

           And what's wrong with that?  Why should we have a prescription for everything?  Rough out the general things that we can have a consensus on -- like, that torture is wrong, depriving people of their rights is wrong, aggressive war is wrong -- and then let people live their lives much as they like.  We don't need the ten-step plan to save the world from itself.  

        •  But still: (none)
          I have talked to voters on both sides of the aisle. People on both sides want a candidate who can do just that -- explain their position in 3 sentences or less. That is a big advantage for the Republicans who live and die on easy answers.

          My whole point is not to give up on long, thorough answers -- my point is to break them down in a way that people can understand. That way, we will always be ready when someone comes up to you and asks what the Democrats stand for.

          Furthermore, I allow for a lot of flexibility -- I would never exclude a person who can explain their position differently than me but whose thought is compatable with mine. I allow for room for disagreement -- people must take these things and work out for themselves how to apply them to policy. As long as any reasonable person can see that someone is staying faithful to our principles despite their disagreements, I am not going to complain.

          But if someone wants to snoop on someone's private e-mail despite the clear prohibition by the Constitution, then I have a major problem with it.

      •  The primacy of science and reason... (none)
        I'm having some difficulty with that exact phrasing...

        As a liberal Christian (proud member of the Christian LEFT), I believe in the primacy of God (although many Christians might find my beliefs about the nature of god heretical). However, as an intelligent human being (and did I mention, member of the Christian left), I trust the discoveries of science and listen to reason. I guess it's just the word "primacy" that's rubbing me the wrong way. And believe me, given my political convictions, if its bugging someone as liberal as me, it'll really bug other believers (whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc.), even the liberals!

        My objective truth starts with the golden rule (which appears in most cultures in one form or another): Do to (for) others what you want them to do (for) you. That's the ultimate baseline.

        Russ

        Maryland School of Public Policy Master of Public Policy Candidate

        by magicrusslc on Sun Feb 19, 2006 at 05:52:15 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Correction... (none)
          That's my ultimate baseline...

          Maryland School of Public Policy Master of Public Policy Candidate

          by magicrusslc on Sun Feb 19, 2006 at 07:09:13 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  Interesting. (none)
          First I get hammered for not allowing for Atheism, then I get hammered for not being compatable enough with liberal Christianity.

          But science and reason are important if we wish to find objective truth. We know from science that there is massive global warming and that we have to act now to reverse it if we wish to survive as a species. We can use reason to determine that there is not enough evidence to back Bush's claims that Iran is building weapons-grade Uranium -- on top of the fact that Bush is a known liar who will say anything to advance his case.

          Faith is very good and very meaningful when it comes to religion. But demanding that public policy be based solely on faith -- like Bush has done over the years many times -- is dangerous, irresponsible, and leads to tyranny. People will place faith in a charismatic individual and walk straight down the road to tyranny. Faith is good, but this administration is a painful reminder of the limits of faith.

          But having said all that, I don't mind using religious values to augment things that are backed by science and reason. It's a good way to reach and persuade people who might not listen to the other two.

      •  Principles (none)
        I think the difference is that some of your proposed principles don't have the aura of "God's command" or "law of the universe" that right-wingers use to back up their principles.  

        For example, the sanctity of human life is a vague principle that's not really based on anything.  It's too easily hacked to death by hypothetical questions.  (What level of quality of life does each person deserve?  Should it extend to people all over the world, or just U.S. citizens, and if the latter, why?  Does it ban torture even in the "ticking bomb" scenario?  Does this require banning the death penalty?  Abortion?  Euthanasia?)  To answer these questions, you need some firmer principle.  All that "sanctity of life" really tells us is that unprovoked murder is bad.  To answer the other questions, you have to place sanctity of life within some ethical system.

        The Ninth Amendment doesn't necessarily support the weight you put on it.  It certainly doesn't establish a right to privacy by its terms alone, because first you must make clear that privacy is a right before you can declare it one "retained by the people."  Plenty of scholars claim that the Ninth Amendment doesn't really mean anything, except to reassure people that the Bill of Rights was not intended to establish a comprehensive list of rights.  Even the Griswold v. CT Court hesitated to put all its eggs in the Ninth Amendment basket.  

        Equality does command some quasi-religious veneration, in part because of the long-established American belief that all men are created equal.  But if equality extends no further than the absence of legal discrimination, as right-wingers argue, then it doesn't get us very far these days.

        As I suggested above, science and reason are among the most well-grounded liberal principles.  Right-wingers rarely look stupider than when they're defending various forms of pseudoscience against the collective work of thousands of scientists.  

  •  honest conservative counterpoint (none)
    The diarist says, "But it should be beyond debate that the role of government should be to enhance the quality of human life."

    Here's an honest oldschool conservative counterpoint:

    In my view the purpose of government, first and foremost, is not to do good but to protect against evil.  

    This gets us national defense (though not imprudent adventurism), environmental protection, civil rights protection (including equal marriage), and a necessary minimum of economic intervention (to preserve a fair market and protect against excesses of power in the private sector, i.e. "checks and balances").  It gets us municipal services (police, fire, paramedic, sanitation, education, libraries -the latter two as protection against illiteracy- etc.).  It gets us national health care as an essential public health measure, and social welfare systems (within reason) as a means of protecting against the evil of poverty.  

    Nonessentials such as "parks & rec" etc. are acceptable on the basis that a government that meets its basic obligations should, like any other entity that meets its own basic obligations, be able to go beyond that level and do some things that are simply expressions of good will.  And the taxpayers should be willing to support such things as a measure of the ability of civilized societies to do more than meet the barest necessities.  

    A few comments about good & evil.

    In my view good consists of actions that enable or contribute to the evolution of individuals and societies, and evil consists of actions that enable or contribute to the de-evolution of individuals and societies.  This can be stated in religious terms or in secular terms:  God or Nature, or both.  

    And yes one of the things I find absolutely maddening about some liberals is the tendency toward cultural relativism.  Prosecute child abuse domestically, but turn a blind eye toward female genital mutilation in Africa.  Equal rights for women domestically, but turn a blind eye toward sexism in the Arab world.  Ecological sustainability, but conveniently omit mention of the need to reduce human population and consumption levels.  

    Culture is largely arbitrary.  The pain of torture, the injustice of discrimination, the correlation between CO2 and climate events, the tidal wave of national debt,  etc., are not arbitrary, they are empirical facts; they are dangers to to individuals aod societies, they are de-evolutionary threats, and so they involve issues of good and evil.

    And we also have to make distinctions between persons and acts: a generally good person can commit an evil act, and it's the obligation of those around him/her to stop the evil acts.  This distinction enables you to challenge the evils of an action without getting dragged into a digression over the character of a person.  For example you can say that the torture policy is an evil policy, without getting digressed into the issue of whether Bush or Gonzales are evil men.  This allows a certain number of their supporters to join with you in opposing the policy, and it establishes a principle as more important than the personalities.  

    There are gray zones.  They are the test of our ability to make moral choices as individuals and as a society.  Many of them will not resolve easily.  But we have got to open the debate and start using the language of moral conviction (which is not the same thing as blind certainty).  

    •  Sounds totally compatable to me. (none)
      All of the things you mention are totally in line with the values I gave as well. As for genetal mutilations in Africa and sexism in the Arab world, I totally concur -- we need to do more. That is one of the few things I would have in common with Sam Brownback, for instance -- he has always pressured Bush to do more in Sudan, for instance. But Sudan is only the tip of the iceberg.

      Good people make just as many mistakes as bad people -- and there are good Conservatives and bad Liberals. The difference is that good people will accept criticism and stop it when someone they respect tells them they are going too far.

      Having said that, I agree that we cannot get too caught up in speculating who is good and who is evil. That is the sort of thing that leads to purges, so even if we win, we lose by becoming just like the people we claim to hate. Instead, we should judge actions; if someone refuses to stop an evil action, then we should leave that to their conscience.

      •  compatible; and actions... (none)

        It's interesting that we're all building bridges these days; liberals & oldschool conservatives agreeing on more than we disagree.  Sign of the times; that the wackos and extremists have hijacked the political debate (so far anyway) and anyone who's more moderate than that has common cause.  

        Re. your comment "Instead, we should judge actions; if someone refuses to stop an evil action, then we should leave that to their conscience."

        Unless their action is an active threat, in which case it has to be stopped.  That's the premise behind national defense and law enforcement: some people won't stop unless they are physically constrained.  And beyond that, some people have no conscience, and this is something I think all of us (liberals & oldschool conservatives) don't recognize: some people have no conscience; in psychiatric terms they are narcissistic or sociopathic; in moral terms they are evil people.  

        So this is the difficult zone to walk in:  how to be able to judge actions when needed, judge character when appropriate (e.g. narcissists & sociopaths), and still prevent getting caught up in a purist or purge mentality.  Another case in point of instances that put moral philosophies to a test and call for careful distinctions.  

  •  No concept of evil? (none)
    Living through the era of firehoses and dogs being turned on children and others in civil rights demonstrations...

    George Wallace et al standing at school entrances, defiant in the face of law and God...

    Seeing JFK, MLK and RFK shot dead...
    Friends going off to war coming home broken and unloved by VFW types or  never coming home, and liberals don't have a concept of evil?

    War is not an adventure. It is a disease. It is like typhus. - Antoine De Saint-Exupery

    by Margot on Mon Feb 20, 2006 at 12:13:51 AM PST

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