Politics and Morality

Okay, here I am doing my best. Brushing the sweat out of my eyes, swatting at mosquitoes, worrying about frostbite, avoiding hidden cravasses, catching bullets in my teeth, eating old bread with maggots and weevils and turnip crumbs in it, being charged by cranky lions and rhinos and people who sell insurance. Here’s one item I was thinking about before the virus pounced and turned my computer into an evil demon. Mark Bauerlein has an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed – but even though it’s interesting I have some disagreements with it. It’s about the familiar subject of lefty groupthink in (US) universities. One problem is that he says campuses, colleges, academics, rather than specifying ‘certain branches’ of same. He does mention the humanities and social sciences a couple of times at the beginning of the piece, but then goes on to talk about academics in general as if forgetting that stipulation. People so often do when they talk about this subject. But though I don’t think I’ve seen any figures on this, I have a hard time believing that Business Schools, Law schools, Engineering, Dentistry, Medicine, and all the sciences, are overwhelmingly on the left. I don’t have a hard time believing it about the humanities and social sciences, but I do about the rest. Am I wrong? Are US medical schools and B-schools full of ardent lefties who change drastically the minute they get out? I don’t know for certain that they’re not, but I am skeptical. Yet Bauerlein’s article doesn’t really deal with that aspect.

But there’s also a more general (and more interesting) point, I think.

Conservatives and liberals square off in public, but on campuses, conservative opinion doesn’t qualify as respectable inquiry. You won’t often find vouchers discussed in education schools or patriotism argued in American studies…The ordinary evolution of opinion — expounding your beliefs in conversation, testing them in debate, reading books that confirm or refute them — is lacking, and what should remain arguable settles into surety. With so many in harmony, and with those who agree joined also in a guild membership, liberal beliefs become academic manners. It’s social life in a professional world, and its patterns are worth describing…Apart from the ill-mannered righteousness, academics with too much confidence in their audience utter debatable propositions as received wisdom. An assertion of the genocidal motives of early English settlers is put forward not for discussion but for approval…The final social pattern is the Law of Group Polarization. That lawas Cass R. Sunstein, a professor of political science and of jurisprudence at the University of Chicago, has describedpredicts that when like-minded people deliberate as an organized group, the general opinion shifts toward extreme versions of their common beliefs…Groupthink is an anti-intellectual condition, ironically seductive in that the more one feels at ease with compatriots, the more one’s mind narrows.

I don’t disagree with his overall point. There is a lot of groupthink and Law of Group Polarization around, and very irritating it can be, too. And not only irritating but also an impediment to clear or critical thinking. But I do somewhat disagree with the way the point is framed, or with what is left out of account.

It all has to do with what is defined as political and what isn’t, what is considered (or defined as) debatable and what isn’t. What Bauerlein is talking about in the article (though in fact he doesn’t mention many specific examples) is the contemporary right-on consensus. Fair enough, but the thing is, today’s right-on consensus may well turn out to be tomorrow’s consensus that even the most ferocious Limbaughites wouldn’t seriously question, or consider debatable. It may (parts of it may) go from being classifiable as ‘liberal’ to being just basic decency. Attitudes about such things do change over time – sometimes for the worse instead of the better, as with the rise of Islamism over the past quarter century – and some attitudes or beliefs or views do become much less debatable (realistically debatable, though anyone can always play at debating them for the exercise or shock value) than they once were.

That being the case, I think it may be a little misleading to call these disputes political only. I’m not sure they are, not all of them. I think many of them are about morality rather than politics; or they’re about both at once. But surely there are things that just aren’t debatable, or ought not to be, and if so, aren’t they moral rather than political? General agreement on moral issues – some moral issues – is looked on much more favourably than is general agreement on political issues. Politics is supposed to be dual (though it’s not supposed to be more than that, which is interesting); it’s supposed to be balanced and fair and not too top-heavy on either side. But that’s not as true of morality. Very few people wring their hands over the dreary consensus that murder is considered a bad thing (except by tv and movie directors, one might add). Do we want university faculties to have a good showing by people who think the Holocaust was a good idea and should be tried again? Or that thieves should have their hands cut off? Or that slavery is good for the economy and should be restored? Or that suspects in criminal cases should be routinely tortured? Or that people should be executed for stealing a chicken or a shirt? No, not in this part of the world. But people once did think that, and in some places still do. Yet people don’t often write articles for the Chronicle wishing universities had a lot more people who thought that way.

What is political and what isn’t is surely a temporary matter. X is political right now because it is indeed still under debate, and because we’ve decided to think of it that way (or the mass media have), but that doesn’t mean it always will be or that it always has been. And it’s possible that some items don’t really need a ‘balanced’ debate. If they did – if every single issue one can think of would benefit from discussion from all points of view – then why don’t we spend a lot of time listening to advocates of slavery, genocide, capital punishment for petty theft? Isn’t it because we don’t really think there is much to say on the contrarian side?

I think this problem is related to the problem of the tension between democracy and human rights, which we’ve talked about before (sometimes causing fireworks in the process). There are some issues that are political, and subject to democratic decision, and up for grabs; but there are others that are not, or should not be, and that have been placed partly outside the political process, by such devices as Constitutions and Bills of Rights and Universal Declarations of Human Rights. No – there isn’t really an interesting exchange of views to be had on the benefits of keeping women as permanently powerless and unequal and abused, for example, or on the desirability of child labour. Some things, yes, other things, not really. I think discussions like these don’t usually look at that aspect (if it is one), so they give a somewhat oversimplified view.

Update: Mark Bauerlein tells me there was an article in the Chronicle a few months ago about a survey of US academics’ political self-identification. Those who considered themselves Left or Center Left outnumbered those Right or Center Right by almost 3 to 1, so that’s one answer to my objection about Business schools and the rest.

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