Marginalia on Skeptical Thinking: Interview with Simon Frankel Pratt, Part 2

The first part of this interview is here. 

Skepoet: What do you make of Jonathan Haidt’s research that indicates “liberals” have three spheres of value while conservatives have five? I see this related to the your second point about the function of religion. Although I should be disclose my opinion, and say that I think Haidt trans-historicizes both  liberalism and conservatism in a way that is highly problematic.

Simon Pratt:  It would be very strange to suggest that Liberals literally lacked those two spheres of value, but as an ideal typical model, I think it captures something important about the relationship between socio-economic circumstances and values. This is because Liberal and Conservative, globally, tends to correlate closely to urban and rural, and particularly so in the US. Is it surprising that people who live in nuclear families in cosmopolitan centres where diverse ethnic, economic, and linguistic groups interact daily will be less concerned with the sort of values indicative and protective of in-group chauvinism? I don’t think so. Rather than understand Haidt as trans-historicising liberalism and conservatism, I see him as revealing, perhaps by proxy, what happens when you throw people together in relatively unprecedented ways, and expose human beings to a huge array of identity categories. Unsurprisingly, Social Identity Theorists studying conflict have found that places where people meet and cooperate with members of other groups than their own usually feature less bigotry.

How does my interpretation of Haidt compare to yours?

S.:  It’s more charitable, but it is not out of sync with my suspicion that you’re right about the social and economic structure affects things more than ideological ones in the way most liberals use the term. (As Academics, we both know that Marxist and Weberians use ideology entirely differently and in a way that confuses most outsiders).   One thing I noticed Haidt had to do though was place both the far left and libertarians into a liberal camp.  This may be useful for the comparison between rural and urban social values, but it’s highly misleading to ideological battles.  That’s glossed by the categories.

Back to religion:  What do you make of the recent study that shows that middle class, educated people tend to stay religious in higher numbers than the uneducated?  It’s a recent trend, but one that bucks most of the Enlightenment predictions about American religiosity being tied to education and poverty-level.

S.P.:   Grouping libertarians and far-leftists together makes some sense if you consider the historical origins of their ideologies, in terms of how they group morally significant entities and the human conditions that are the goals of their projects. But you’re right to point to this grouping as evidence that Haidt’s categories are themselves fractured, and salient only to certain kinds of explanation. Another way to view the distinction he creates, from an anthropological perspective, is between pre-modern and modern social structures. For people in rural areas, in-group and out-group resembles much more closely the sort of tribal configurations common throughout most of human history, whereas modern social structures, be they libertarian or Marxian, depart radically from this. Perhaps according to Enlightenment and Romanticist lines, respectively? But now we’re entering territory far outside my knowledge.

I was not aware of such a study, but it doesn’t seem hugely surprising on its own. I would need to see more information about what kind of religion inheres more robustly within the middle classes, though. If it’s a particularly flexible or liberal religion, it would make perfect sense to me that it should remain. Nevertheless, a more general negative correlation appears to obtain between wealth/education and religiosity, even if that relationship does not appear in every observable instance.

S.:  Back to terrorism:  in a very broad sense, what do you think would be a good perspective for a skeptic to take in regards to Terrorism as a cultural strategy of marginal peoples?

S.P.:  I’m not quite sure what your terms mean. What is a cultural strategy and what do you mean by marginal peoples?

S.:  Well, a cultural strategy would be under the model that terrorism is not committed under the rubric of state legitimacy, therefore it is only political in a looser sense. And by marginal peoples, I mean those who do not have the dominance within a state.  Clearer?Well,  cultural strategy would be under the model that terrorism is not committed under the rubric of state legitimacy, therefore it is only political in a looser sense. And by marginal peoples, I mean those who do not have the dominance within a state.  Clearer?

S.P.:  If I understand correctly, do you mean to say that terrorism is the strategy of agents who do not have legal legitimacy to their actions? Because there’s certainly no reason why such agents cannot be analysed according to the same models and terms as official state agents can, in assessing how violence is used to achieve political goals. Cultures are not capable of holding agency, I think, and so it is wrong to assign to them the sort of intentionality and capacity for deliberation that enables strategic behaviour. But groups of people, whatever their institutional status, are capable of collective decision-making and behaviour, and terrorism, whether carried out by a state or a non-state agent, can be viewed as rational, calculated, and entirely political.

S.: The agency would not so much be the issue but the structural placement within a social system, but part of the confusion seems to be that line of agency makes one see any collective agency as political, but this type of politics has a logic that is justified through acceptable norms, which is a cultural norm as much as a political one,  I suppose I want to push you on the idea that politics here is separate from culture in that strict way.   But I suppose we must admit that we are dealing with reifications of collective action and norm setting as opposed to something slightly more concrete like a state.

Let me ask another question then, is the bombing of Dresden in World War 2 an act of terrorism?

S.P.:  I define terrorism as the deliberate generation of fear, usually through violence or the threat of it, within a political community in order to change its behaviour. This is deliberately a very broad definition, including not only the bombing of Dresden but the entire deterrent component of a community’s criminal justice system. But I would never use this definition without immediately following it with a typology, and ‘terrorism’ as its used in most popular or non-critical-theory academic conversations tends to refer to what I’d call ‘insurgent terrorism’, which is terrorism carried out by a non-state agent, either individual or organised group, to subvert or influence a government and its citizenry via extralegal means.

I don’t necessarily see states as any more concrete than the norms and institutions – merely patterns of behaviour – which constitute them. States are what we make of them. The difference to me between collectives like states and collectives like cultures is the presence of decision-making mechanisms designed to facilitate collective action according to some set of intentions. If you have such mechanisms, you can speak of their collectives as you would speak of agents, within certain situations. But as cultures do not have such mechanisms, I struggle to see a situation in which they can be coherently treated as having agency.

Of course, these reifications are useful explanatory and cognitive tools, and nothing more. They entail no ontological commitments to the reality of some entity and the referential status of my language to it.

S.:  Now we seem to be on the same page again: What are good, rational policies for dealing with insurgent terrorism if we assume the ends is to seize terrorist activity without causing more grievances that would inspire new sets of insurgents?

S.P.:  Well, there are a variety of ways to engage in effective counterterrorism. One is to have a totalitarian police state, but since you’re asking this of me, I’m going to assume a more specific question: how can societies maintain a set of Enlightenment liberal values and still secure itself from terrorism? Of course, this is a very hard question to answer, and the particulars of any answer will depend on the particulars of the terrorist threat, but we can still look for policies that achieve in a general sense the following features of government and the state in an already liberal context:

-well-funded and trained counterterrorism police forces and domestic intelligence service, with effective civilian oversight and active engagement with community leaders of subpopulations particularly likely to produce a terrorist threat.

-development and enforcement of hate speech laws, such that people and groups preaching or mobilising for a violent agenda can be legally stopped from doing so, also subject to a diverse committee of civilian oversight and review.

-training for emergency services in coping effectively with the aftermath of a terrorist attack, both in rescue and in maintaining civil order, including public relations specialists able to reassure the public while honestly communicating any extent risks.

-ongoing public discussions on terrorism including experts capable of keeping things honest and focusing discussion both on the grievances that would-be terrorists may have and in the legitimate mechanisms available for addressing those grievances

These still do not guarantee that insurgent terrorism will not take place, nor that government personnel won’t find ways to abuse the special powers granted to them in the name of security from terrorism, but I think they comprise the best arrangement of legitimate coercive powers in a liberal context.

Freedom and security are, of course, not always a dichotomy. There are ways for the presence of greater coercion – state terrorism of the legitimate variety – to enable greater freedom than a lesser level of coercion. The ‘optimal’ level of coercion will depend on the particular threats within a context, as well as the cultural resources available to make that coercion normatively acceptable and palatable for enough of the public, but as an abstract notion of governance it lies at the very heart of liberal thought.

S.:  However, that is what separates liberal as an ideological development, and liberal as a modern orientation, no?   The notion of legitimate coercion varies massively amongst those who developed out of Enlightenment liberalism as everyone from American Libertarians to Stalinist to Bakuninite anarchism are developments of that tradition.

I would tend to agree with you about coercion levels being optimal and handled by community governance.   This means that terrorism then should not have the moral weight attached to it, but should be seen as a strategy in and of itself (not an abstract value of “evil” or a mere tactic?)

S.P.: I’m not quite sure what you mean, here. Do you mean the development of a liberal mode of subjectivity as compared to the moral [and entailed political] value commitments of Enlightenment Liberalism?

S.:  That is certainly my view: terrorism is not essentially evil, and the moral character of a terrorist act depends on the case. But I am also more committed to (Rule) Utilitarianism than most people, and so even if I were confronted with a definition for terrorism that confined terrorist acts to attacks on civlians – as many definitions do – I could still not call it an essential bad. But in the real world, of course, most of what we call terrorism does seem to me to be pretty bad. There is just too much evidence to show that bombing or shooting people in markets, mosques, clubs, or planes will not be as efficient as other, less violent means in achieving any set of goals I consider worthy. A good analogy would be the so-called ‘ticking time-bomb scenario’ that apologists for torture love to trot out. As a Utillitarian I am entirely willing to endorse torture if it is less harmful than the alternative, but since torture is virtually always a worse way to get information than just about any available alternative, the thought experiment is a red herring.

S.:  I mean that Enlightenment liberalism produces very different sets of morality and governance, and the agent of legitimate coercive force and if there is ever such an agent vary greatly.  Modern liberalism is definitely rooted in the legitimate agency of a democratic Republics and generally takes a moral calculus from either modern form of virtue ethics or variants of  Utilitarianism.   Libertarians take a deontological view of such notions, and Marxists tend to deny that have a moral framework as a part of a political theory at all.

This brings me to a another point I have against Sam Harris: do you think meta-ethical justification is important?

S.P.:  From what I’ve been able to tell, almost all members of the Skeptics movements tend towards a sort of naive Utilitarianism, and see any moral system that doesn’t seek to maximise human wellbeing as absurd. This does not mean that they don’t simultaneously belief that life is an instrinsic good, despite the arguable incompatibility of the two propositions, depending on the version of Utilitarianism to which one subscribes. I’ve also noticed that Skeptics tend not to be republicans. They are in favour of political processes that serve as individual interest aggregators and adjudicators, and tend not to endorse collectivist conceptions of the public or the polity. At least here; the ones in the UK are a bit more willing to see the state prescribe morality.

I have mixed feelings about the value of meta-ethical discussions. On the one hand, I think that having them with is important because such discussions tend to produce more nihilists, expressivists, or other forms of non-cognitivists, and I think this is a good thing because moral realism is absurd and dangerous. On the other hand, that naive Utilitarianism I mentioned earlier is very likely to be what cosmopolitan folk end up developing (cf. Haidt) so we might as well leave the existential angst to the academics and apply ourselves to the practical matter of maximising human wellbeing. Just so long as we don’t wander around looking smug and heaping contempt upon those who don’t share our moral norms. As an observer and theorist on so-called political violence, I get very anxious when I see my comrades suggesting that those who disagree with our principles simply don’t know the facts.

S.:  Both Masmimo Piggliuci and myself are virtue ethicists (although his would be center left and mine would be far left), but that does have a nearly consequentialist metajustication, and I actually find collective conception of community as a norm setter for fairly persuasive, but you’re right that I would be in the minority.

So the problem with ethical realism as objective (in both Sam Harris and in say the other popular skeptical claim to absolute ethics, such as Alonzo Fyfe’s Desirism) is more related to epistemological dangers than to practical ones?
S.P.: Yes, Massimo is definitely a nuanced commentator on ethics in the Skeptics movement, though despite his status as a public intellectual within it, he doesn’t seem widely read or, at least, carefully considered. And you are definitely not a typical ‘Skeptic’ in that you are an academic in the humanities.As for ethical realism, my problems with it are threefold:

-it is ontologically absurd, as moral facts are at best social facts (in the way Searle defines social facts) and even in that optimistic scenario we are left with nothing more than ‘Quasi-Realism’ in the sense that Simon Blackburn seems to think.
-it is epistemologically weak, for all the same reasons that realist philosophies of science are epistemologically weak and then some.
-it is practically dangerous, because moral facts seem to entail an imperative power that compels action, and that has huge potential to impel atrocity.
S.: Do you see realism in science as a problem in the skeptic’s Movement as well?
S.P.:  I’ve noticed that Skeptics tend to endorse this thing they were originally taught in secondary school, called ‘The Scientific Method’, that describes a sort of naive neo-positivist falsificationism according to the H-D method. The more sophisticated – including those who are professional scientists – may bring Bayesianism into the discussion. But there seems to be a great confidence in convergent realism, reduction, and the reference of ‘theoretical terms’. In other words, Skeptics have a highly idealised and quite quaint view of science. I think this is problematic insofar as it leads to chauvinism for the natural sciences, a dismissal of the less ‘sciencey’ of the social sciences, and a sense that one set of epistemological and methodological commitments is sufficient to answer all questions.
S.:  What was bothered me about this move is that many of the natural sciences don’t even meet naive positivist view, and this is just ignored.  Is this a case of group think functioning as false simplication?
S.P.: There are certainly a great many professional scientists who would describe what they do in similar terms, I think. But I’m not sure that psychological terms such as ‘group think’ are appropriate for describing or explaining the way that Skeptics view science. False simplification, sure.
S.: Socially consistent false simplification?   Group think is a vulgar term for that but if it the psychological heuristic shoe fits.

Anyway, thanks for up your time, I have enjoyed it.  Anything you’d like to say in closing?
S.P.:  Well, been fun and delight, both for the chance to share some of my thoughts on the Skeptics and to rant a bit about its less attractive qualities to a sympathetic audience.
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About El Mono Liso

Por una civilización de la pobreza.

Posted on June 10, 2012, in ideology, Interviews, Logic, Philosophy and Politics, Polemics, Religion, Science, Skepticism and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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