Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Rational Search for That Which Transcends the Rational

I was reading Kelly Besecke's You Can't Put God in a Box, a study of intellectuals seeking a transcendent religion they can believe in beyond the narrow fundamentalisms of existing religions.  They start from a belief that there is a transcendent beyond what any language can adequately say.

I believe this is true.  Thinking about this search for the transcendent clarified something for me.

You can't explain rationally what the transcendent is. However, you can explain rationally why you can't explain rationally what the transcendent is.

The limits of language are rationally discernable.  This helps us be both open minded and humble in describing what is beyond language.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Hurrah for Political Compromise in the Congress

I find it very encouraging that Republican leaders are making a budget with Democrats.

I particularly am delighted that Speaker Boehner has finally attempted to take back his party from their dangerous coalition partners, the Tea Partiers.

This bodes well for actual government.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Caring Ingeniously

In the "Happy Society" class we were talking about Julian Simon's idea that human ingenuity is the greatest resource, the reason we can have confidence in humanity's ability to solve or ameliorate its problems.

One woman, who will in a few years be a fine and caring doctor, was encouraged by the idea of human ingenuity as a great source of hope for humanity in general.  This led me ask her, and wonder myself, how this idea applied to people like her.

The question I asked her was:  "What do you think will be the best way to focus your own ingenuity? People who want to care for and serve others – most of whom are women – tend to think of how they can care well, but not how they can care ingeniously."

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Health Care Navigator Suppression Laws are Just Evil

Thirteen states have passed laws making it extremely difficult, or even illegal, to help uninsured people navigate the new health insurance exchanges.

For example, in Texas, "navigators must have 40 hours of state training in addition to the 20 hours the health care law requires. Republican Gov. Rick Perry 'is even trying to limit the hours of navigator operations from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., which is an extraordinary restriction for ordinary folks who are working for a living who want to buy insurance and get benefits'".

I understand that Republicans and Tea Partiers want to deprive Pres. Obama of major legislative achievement.  They fought tooth and nail when the act was being passed.  They shut down the whole government, at huge expense, to try to prevent Obamacare from starting - to no effect.

But to prevent the good work of helping people get health insurance out of sheer partisanship is very, very wrong.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Iran Deal is a Good First Step

Today's good news:  we made a preliminary agreement with Iran.  They will cap their nuclear weapons program, and we will ease some of the economic sanctions.  For a time.  And then we will assess if each side held up its end.

This is exactly how diplomacy is supposed to work.

One of the most puzzling fights in the 2008 presidential election was over talking to Iran.  Sen. Obama said he was willing to sit down and talk to the Iranians to see if we could work out a deal. 

Amazingly, he was attacked by some hard-rightist.  They said we should only talk to Iran if they had already met all of our demands.  That is the kind of foolishness that guarantees war and misery, and puts the United States in the wrong from the outset.  That is the position of the Athenians in the Melian dialogue - the very model of big-power injustice.

The new Iranian deal shows the wisdom of now-President Obama's approach.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Filibuster Reform: A Centrist View

The filibuster rules were changed in the U.S. Senate yesterday to end the egregious obstructions by the minority.  I am glad that executive appointments can now be voted on, and that some governing will actually happen.

However, I think this is the wrong solution to the wrong problem.

The real problem occurred when the meaning of 'filibuster' was changed.  A real filibuster involves standing up and talking about why you oppose a nominee or bill.  You may be standing and talking for a long time.  You have to hold up all other Senate business to carry on with your filibuster.  This means that you need quite a bit of support from the other senators, or you will lose a cloture vote.

A few years ago, in a foolish bipartisan measure, the Senate rules were changed to allow the mere threat of a filibuster to be enough to block a nomination or a bill.  This is the mistake that should be corrected. 

If the current relatively minor rule change is the 'nuclear option,' then the previous rule change was the tsunami that washed away all meaning to the filibuster rule.

Let's go back to real filibusters if you want to stop the Senate.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Ubiquity of Fear Campaigns

"Fear campaigns are used extensively in today's society.  An entire commercial break without at least one fear campaign is a rare occasion."

I asked students in my "Happy Society" class to analyze fear campaigns.  They did not lack for material.  I have read papers analyzing campaigns against drinking, meth, global warming, domestic violence, obesity, several medical conditions, and many more.  If this had been an election year in Kentucky, I imagine I would also have seen an abundance of political ads.

I also asked them to imagine making the same argument, but in a positive way.  In some cases it was easy, but in many it was hard.

Advertisers use fear even more than they use sex to sell everything.  This fosters a culture of fear that undermines social trust, and therefore undermines general happiness.

After viewing many fear campaigns, one student reached to conclusion quoted above.

Which leads to a good natural experiment.  The next time you watch television, pay attention to a few commercial breaks. See how often a whole commercial break goes by without at least one fear ad.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

The Surprising Thing I Learned About My Students' Image of 9/11

I am teaching a short course on 9/11. 

I wanted to teach this course when I realized that next year's first-year students were in kindergarten in 2001.  Soon the Centre student body will have no memory of the 9/11 attack, while the grownups around them will continue to refer to the events as if they happened yesterday.

The juniors and seniors I am teaching this term were in third or fourth grade at the time. They do remember, though mostly they remember the commotion among the adults and in their school.  But they all saw the pictures of the burning towers of the World Trade Center that day.

The surprising thing I learned from teaching them is that they did not know that the twin towers were a famous landmark before 9/11.  They asked me if, when we heard that the World Trade Center had been hit by airplanes, could most people picture what those buildings looked like?

For young adults today - and likely the whole next generation - their main image of the World Trade Center is of the twin towers on fire, and then collapsing into rubble.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Obamacare Will Be A Pretty Big Success

I think the extension of health insurance to all Americans is a huge step forward. It will soon become as much a part of the fabric of American life as Social Security and Medicare.  It will be hard to convince students in a few years that there was a time when we did not have universal health insurance.

It will also be hard to convince students, especially the Republican students, that Republican legislators all voted against universal health insurance.  That the Republican Party ran three elections on trying to defeat and then overturn what they called Obamacare.  The Tea Party is opposed to the Affordable Care Act beyond the point of reason sometimes.  They shut down the government and were ready to bankrupt the country rather than let the uninsured have health insurance.

The Republican alliance with the Tea Party will, I think, be seen as a disastrous miscalculation, especially about Obamacare.

The Republican Party is strenuously, even frantically, opposed to Obamacare because they know it will be a success.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

M23 Rebels Lay Down Arms, Agree to Talk in Congo

"The rebels agree to lay down their arms and negotiate ..." is almost always good news. 

In today's good news, the M23 rebel group in Congo were the ones stopping their war.  The government of the Congo will negotiate to achieve the rebels' reintegration into society. 

The Congolese government was backed by UN troops who, unusually, were sent there to fight.  The rebels' main outside supporters, the government of Rwanda, also accepted the peace deal.

This is not the end of fighting in the eastern Congo - several other rebel groups and gangs remain.  But today's good news sets an excellent precedent for creating lawful order in one of the most lawless places on earth.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

We Dwell on Wars that Settle Ethical Conflicts

I attended a fruitful symposium at Maryville College on the moral meaning of the Civil War.

The best idea I had while taking part in this discussion is that the wars we dwell on - the Civil War, the Second World War, the American Revolution, the French Revolution - settled deeply vexing ethical issues. 

Equally big wars that did not settle such questions, though, we ignore.  The War of 1812 or the Korean War, for Americans.  The First World War for the world. 

The comparison I thought most about at the conference was between the U.S. Civil War and the 30 Years War.  This conference emphasized the moral and theological problem that slavery posed for both sides in the Civil War, a problem that could not be settled by the usual theological means.  The 30 Years War, likewise, grew out of a very deep theological problem that could not be settled by theological means. 

But the 30 Years War ended in military stalemate and ideological exhaustion.  The theological conflict was not settled - instead, the Enlightenment thinkers concluded that religious issues simply had to be removed from politics.

The Civil War, by contrast, settled the ethical problem of slavery when the churches and the parties could not.  That war did not settle the problem of racism, which got worse in the post-war era before it got better.  But the Civil War ended the question of slavery, just as World War II ended the question of fascism.

No war is good, but the wars we dwell on did a good thing in settling an ethical conflict too deep to be handled any other way.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Ending the Shutdown: The Reluctant Center Prevails

I am hopeful that the current cooperation between Republican and Democratic leaders in the U.S. Senate will end the government shutdown, and remove the threat of a debt default.

Even more importantly, the leaders of both parties, especially the Republican, have been obliged to act like centrists, even if they do not want to. Actually, I think most Republican and Democratic leaders, year in and year out, do want to cooperate with one another. 

For the past few years the Republicans have been bowing to their coalition partners, the Tea Party.  The Tea Party does not wish to cooperate, as they have made clear from day one. Yet the coalition of the two rightist parties was doomed from the beginning. A governing party and an anti-government party can not, by their very natures, work together to govern. 

The Republican Party made a Faustian bargain with a disorganized mass of anti-government social movements, going back to the Reagan Administration. This worked for them through most of the Reagan and Bush, Sr. years, because once in office the Republicans ignored their anti-government wing. They cooperated with the Democrats in making the government larger.

This strategy has come back to bite them, though.  All those years under the wing of the Republican Party taught the disparate anti-government types how to function as a loose party.  In the last three cycles, the Tea Party has emerged as the more effective part of the 'conservative' coalition. The minority Republican Party was forced to make a coalition with the Tea Party to gain shaky control of the House of Representatives.

I think now, having brought the credit of the United States to the brink of collapse, the Republican Party is finally starting to cut their ungovernable progeny loose.

Which is good for centrism, and for responsible government.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Juan Linz: An Appreciation

My dissertation director, Juan Linz, died recently. He was 86, and had been retired for some years.

Linz was a German-born Spaniard who spent his whole career in the U.S., mostly at Yale. He was a political sociologist, propagator of the idea of 'authoritarian' regimes, an expert on the Basque terrorists, and a major theorist of democratic regimes.  His recent work on gridlock and worse in presidential democracies is being much cited just now.

He turned out to be an odd choice as dissertation director.  He was a European and a Catholic (though he was careful never to let students see his faith).  My dissertation was about American Presbyterians.  I often thought that he secretly believed that America and Protestantism were novelties that it was too soon to get too involved with. 

His students will long tell stories of the two large Gladstone bags of books that he always carried with him, and his chain smoking of strong Spanish "Ducados" cigarettes.

I worked with him because he was a Weberian, and had thought a great deal about religion and politics.  I learned a great deal from him on those subjects.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Obscenity and Pornography

This one goes a bit into the weeds.  I apologize for its length.

Yesterday we at Centre had a talk by a visiting philosopher on obscenity law.  My "Happy Society" class went because we have been studying Haidt's Righteous Minds, which talks about the different moral foundations that liberals and conservatives appeal to.  When I read the poster describing Michael Kessler's approach, I knew he was a liberal.  His argument was that an individual's choice to use obscene material hurts no one, so there should be no law against it. A conservative, by contrast, would argue that pornography - the specific example of obscenity that Kessler was concerned with - degrades the sanctity of the body, both of individuals and of the body politic.

To make his argument, Kessler used three arguments:

1) Mill says I am the sovereign over myself, as long as I do no harm to others.

2) The Rowan decision said that householders could opt out of receiving obscene material in the mail.

3) the Miller decision said that community standards could prohibit sending obscene material in the mail to anyone in the community.

Kessler read this sequence this way:
Mill was right - individuals are sovereign over what they do, as long as it does not harm other individuals.

Rowan was right - individuals can exercise their sovereign individuality by choosing not to receive obscene material.

Miller was wrong - the state is imposing a universal judgment that obscene material is not open to the free choice of individuals.

I think this reading is wrong.

Mill is talking about individuals.  I think in practice the range of things that apply only to individuals, without affecting the other people that individual is connected to, is very small.

Rowan is not about individuals, it is about households. The responsible adults of a household decide to protect their little community from the intrusion of obscene material.

Miller is not about the state, and certainly not about the state making a universal substantive judgment.  The community is a larger version of the household that was acting in Rowan.  This large household is making a similar decision to protect their somewhat larger community from the intrusion of obscene material.

Kessler objected to any community standards on the grounds that they might be used to support racism.

But here is the problem.  Liberals use community standards the same as everyone else.  They decide in the little community of their household, or in the somewhat larger community of the social networks they control, such as campuses, that some obscene material is not permitted. For example, they forbid the use of racist words.

Banning the 'n-word' is a community standard.

I think Kessler was confused about obscenity and pornography.  He was drawing a distinction, but the wrong one.  What makes anything obscene is its public quality.  The debate over obscenity is over whether things which are not, or cannot be, forbidden in private must also be accepted in public. Rowan drew the public/private line at the household mailbox.  Miller, more ambitiously, drew the line at the community's border.  Pornography is just one example of the vastly broader category of obscenity.

The other thing at issue in Rowan and Miller is whether pornography is an inherently dangerous substance. Some things are banned even in private because they are too dangerous to the community to be in private hands.  Nuclear weapons would be an uncontroversial example.

Pornography is a somewhat dangerous substance.  I think porn is about as dangerous as marijuana.  They both do dull the moral sense.  But neither is very dangerous.  Therefore, I think they should be regulated the same way.  Not forbidden in private, but strongly discouraged in public.  In other words, obscene - off stage.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Disney Does a Happy Thing: Upgrading Their Part-Time Employees

Disney has decided to make its 30-hour-per-week employees full-timers, so they can get health insurance.  This is a happy outcome, brought about by the Affordable Care Act.

Disney's action is in contrast to the shameful decision by some employers - notably Kentucky-based Papa John's Pizza - to downgrade its nearly full-time employees to part time so that they would not get health benefits.

I believe as universal health insurance becomes the norm in the United States, more companies will follow Disney's lead.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Why Were the Fifty-Somethings the Least Likely to Leave Religion?

The Pew Religion and Public Life project hosted an excellent discussion of what the increase in religious 'nones' (people who profess no religion) means.  One of the tables presented plotted the increase by age from 2008 to 2012.

The main point is that the young are more likely to now say they have no religion than are the old.

What struck me most, though, was the trough right in the middle of this chart: people in their early 50s were the least likely to say they had become less connected to a religious institution in that period.

I am drawn to this table because it has a puzzling anomaly that needs explaining.  I am also drawn to this table because I am in my early 50s, and I have had no inclination in this period to leave the church.

I do not have a good explanation.  I do have one hypothesis to offer, and maybe two.

First, this age group is on the cusp between the Baby Boomers and Generation Xers, between inflated rhetoric and 'just do it.' Being able to partly identify each way, perhaps we are willing to give the church, the land of inflated rhetoric, another chance to just do it in making a better world.

Second, this is exactly the age group of President Obama (b. 1961).  The people most likely to say they had no religion are young Democrats. Perhaps Democrats of the president's cohort are less likely to give up on religion when they see him stay with the mainline church that gave his life direction.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Why Do the Petite Bourgeoisie Like Strongmen?

The small business class is famously the most conservative in society.  They are the backbone of anti-democratic movements, and the supporters of dictators.  Even in very democratic societies, they like leaders who act, and regard political negotiation as weakness.

One of the solid findings of happiness research is that we hate loss more than we like an equivalent gain. We continue to be anxious about possible losses, but quickly get used to sizable gains.

I believe the petite bourgeoisie favors the strongman because their own economic position feels perpetually precarious.  They have a little and hate to lose it.  They fear the poor - whom they tend to regard as lazy, dependent, and undeserving - as coming for their stuff.  Democratic politics, which tends to give something to every group of potential voters, is dangerous because it enables and encourages the poor.  Strongmen are better because they don't have to give any group anything.

Once again, fear appears to be the great solvent of a happy, trusting society.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Hurrah for Rand Paul! He Supports Restoring Felons' Voting Rights.

Senator Rand Paul calls for restoring the voting rights of felons with the completion of their sentences.  He also wants to reclassify the lowest kind of felonies to misdemeanors so the convicts would not lose their voting rights in the first place.

I don't often agree with Sen. Paul, but I thoroughly agree with him on this issue.  Kentucky has the most difficult path for felons to get their voting rights restored, so it is particularly helpful to have a Kentucky senator take this strong line.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Changing the Name of "Grand Wizard High School"

The bad news: 

There is a public high school in Jacksonville, Florida named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general who was the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.  The then all-white school was given that name in 1959 as a protest against the federal requirement that public schools integrate.

The worse news:

When parents at the now-integrated (and half black) school asked the school board to change the school's name in 2007, the board voted 5-2 to keep the name.

The good news:

Parents are leading a new movement to change the school name.  75,000 have signed their petition.  And all five pro-Grand Wizard members of the school board have been replaced.

The movement to end anti-black racism in this country will be long and slow, and still has decades to go.  But we make progress by little steps, like changing a school name.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

National Exceptionalism is True of Every Nation, and Dangerous

This is taken from CNN's account of today's minor dustup over national exceptionalism:

It was a reference to President Vladimir Putin's address Tuesday night, in which he said that while Russia can't be a global cop, it ought to act when in certain situations.

"That's what makes us exceptional," Putin said. "With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth."

Obama's answer to that?
"It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation," he wrote.

He concluded with the line, "We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord's blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal."
This seems to me to be true and not really that controversial. As a sociologist I have to object to equating God creating all individuals equal with all nations being equal. Likewise, I object to conflating nations with the governments of those nations.

The main point, though, holds.  All nations are exceptional in some way.  But when a government thinks that its policies are justified because our nation is better than other nations, that is dangerous.  It is dangerous for everyone, most especially for the nation imagining that it is above the laws that affect other nations. 

The United States as a state, and the American people as a nation, have some distinctive virtues.  I celebrate and promote them often. But we also have the same kind of self-serving temptations that all states do to see our interests as justifying acting unilaterally, and claiming it is for the common good.

Now, as you have probably realized, I did amend CNN's account of the kerfuffle slightly: I swapped "Putin" and "Obama," and substituted "Russia" for "America."  But the same principle holds.  And it would hold if any other leader were swapped for "Putin" and any other country swapped for "Russia."

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Better-off People Seem to Be Having More Children

This is the conclusion of a private report from BCA Research, described in The Economist.

The birth dearth that was threatening to crash the populations of developed nations in a generation or two seems to be reversing. And it is reversing in exactly the cohorts one would most hope it would: educated, married couples who have the structure and resources most conducive to raising children.

A generation ago, the more educated a woman was, the fewer children she was likely to have.  Now, it appears, the opposite is true for younger cohorts.

This is good news, indeed.

Monday, September 09, 2013

The Russians Get the Syrians to Destroy Chemical Weapons? Win, Win, Win

The great news coming out the Syrian crisis would be a win for everyone. 

A win for the Syrian people, first and foremost, who would no longer be gassed by their government.

A win for the United States and its allies in not having to bomb the Syrian weapon capacity.

A win for the Russians in showing that they have the power to help, and actually helping.

It is probably also a win, if only temporary, for the Syrian the dictatorship, in showing that they are slightly less awful than they could possibly be.

This is not a done deal, of course, but it certainly would be happy news if it can be brought home.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Good News From the New Iranian Leadership

My friend Ron Stockton posted these useful facts:

President Rohani, the new President of Iran, sent Rosh Hashana greetings to all Jews "but especially to Iranian Jews." The Foreign Minister of Iran sent his own greetings. The daughter of Nancy Pelosi, a filmmaker who knows the foreign minister, sent a message asking what this message meant given that Iran had denied the Holocaust. The Foreign Minister, who studied and lived in the US, responded that "Iran never denied the Holocaust. One man denied the Holocaust and he is gone. Happy Holidays."

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Obama Takes a Centrist Approach to Syria

I think the president is following the right, careful path in Syria.

He is right that the whole international community can't let chemical weapons be used with impunity. Since the U.S. is the leading power in the international community, it falls to us to lead - and, if necessary, carry out - the response.

At the same time, he is right that the whole international system is endangered if countries respond to bad regimes, like Syria, by simply overthrowing them.  That is a cure worse than the disease.

Therefore, a measured response, targeted as far as possible at destroying the specific Syrian military units that carried out the poison gas attacks, is a good centrist path.

Moreover, the U.S. government works better when the president and Congress agree on military action. It has become easier and easier for presidents to make war and bypass Congress.  This is a dangerous practice.  Congressional leaders constantly push to be consulted and to debate and vote on military action.  Sometimes there is no time.  Syria is not one of those cases.

President Obama is right to propose a clear, limited military action that will not (in itself) overthrow the Syrian dictator, and he is right to ask Congress to vote to support this plan or explain why not.

One good outcome of this debate is that so many Republican leaders in Congress have insisted that the president must consult with them before making war.  I hope they will remember this the next time a Republican president wants to make war.

The bigger issue, though, is that I think there are always middle positions and calibrated steps that we can take in policy.  Granted, once an all-out war begins and fear takes over, it is hard to stick to limits.  But we have not had an all-out war in decades, and are not likely to soon.  The Syrian case is the right place for a measured, transparent, policy-driven response.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

How to End Voter Suppression: Base Congressional Representation on the Number of Registered Voters

I am disheartened by the repeated efforts to make it harder to vote, mostly for poor people.

I have an idea to create an incentive the other way - to get the parties to be interested in expanding the number of voters:

Base congressional representation on the number of registered voters, not on the sheer number of people, in a district.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Chinese-Slavic Match-Making?

When high-achieving women have a hard time finding suitable husbands in Western societies, where there are roughly equal sex ratios, that is bad.  But when high-achieving women have a hard time finding husbands in China, which has way more men than women, that is terrible. 

Maybe China should import Eastern European men, who also greatly outnumber women in several countries.  The men might be glad to find high-achieving wives and to move to a more vibrant economy, and the Chinese women might be glad to have husbands who don't come with the baggage of oppressive mothers-in-law.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

'Stay-at-Home Moms' Who Work Full Time

An interesting tidbit from an American Sociological Association meeting session:

In a study of women's work/family arrangements, a number of women described themselves as 'stay-at-home moms' even though they worked 30 or 40 hours per week.  When pressed, they said that they thought of themselves as stay-at-home moms if they were there when their children were awake.

Naturally, these women did not get much sleep themselves.

Friday, August 09, 2013

The Headline 'Smarter Women Have Fewer Children' is an Excellent Illustration of Why Correlation is Not Causation

A Japanese researcher who likes to provoke controversy, Satoshi Kanazawa, has proclaimed that women with high IQs have few or no children.  This leads him to proclaim in his book The Intelligence Paradox that "the urge to have kids among women drops by 25 percent with every extra 15 IQ points above a certain rate."

The correlation is likely true.  The causation, though, is not likely to be that high IQ leads women to want fewer children, and certainly not that the highest IQ women want no children.

Rather, high IQ women have many choices in life, and are much more likely to have long years of education and highly demanding jobs than lower IQ women do.  Therefore, the whole population of high IQ women is likely to have fewer children than women with average or low IQs.  The correlation, though, is not the cause.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Conservative 'Righteous Minds' Conserve Sanctity the Most

Jonathan Haidt gives three pictures of the moral matrices of liberals, libertarians, and social conservatives at the end of Righteous Minds. Each matrix is attached by lines of varying thickness to six moral spectra – care/harm, liberty/oppression, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.

In the liberal picture, care/harm is twice as thick as liberty/oppression, which is twice as thick as fairness/cheating. The other three are minimal.

In the libertarian picture, liberty/oppression if four times as thick as fairness/cheating; the other four are minimal.

In the social conservative picture, all six lines are of equal thickness.

I think he is wrong that social conservatives place equal value on all six moral foundations.   

Conservatives get the greatest emotional reward from conserving. The things most worth conserving, most worth defending from degradation, are sacred things. Authority is authoritative because it defends – and defines – what is sacred. Institutionalized authority that defends the sacred creates institutions worth being loyal to.

Haidt's larger picture would be more symmetrical if liberals emphasized Care/Harm the most, and conservatives emphasized Sanctity/Degradation the most.  Symmetry is not a necessary feature of his theory, of course.  Indeed, one of his main points is that conservatives understand liberals more than the reverse because conservatives draw from all six moral foundations, whereas liberals only draw from three.

Nonetheless, I think envisioning the social conservative position as heavier on conserving sanctity, just as the liberal position is heavier on preventing harm, is closer to the truth than the picture Haidt draws in the book.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Robert E. Lee Had Good Morals But Bad Ethics

I subscribe to the view that "morals" applies to individuals and "ethics" applies to social structures.  I learned this distinction in graduate school from Louis Dupré, who described it as the Hegelian view.  I know other people distinguish morals and ethics differently, but this distinction makes the most sense to me.

It is often hard in teaching sociology to individualistic Americans to give a clear example of the distinction between a whole bunch of individuals and a social structure.  A good society, they figure, is just the sum of the actions of a bunch of good individuals.  But social structures, I try to show, have values embedded in them that serve the institution's ends, regardless of the morals of the individuals acting within them.

Most Americans who study Robert E. Lee find him to be an admirably honorable man.  I do, too.  And nearly all Americans now see slavery as a great evil.

Yet Lee fought for slavery. 

Without a distinction between individual morals and structural ethics, most Americans are left morally dumbfounded, caught between their two opposing judgments.

"Robert E. Lee had good individual morals but served a bad ethical structure" is a teachable case that I believe most of my students will find helpful.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Bureaucracies Are the Heaviest Superorganisms of the Social World

Jonathan Haidt argues in The Righteous Mind that creatures that can create 'superorganisms' come to dominate their field.  

There are billions of insects, and thousands of species of insects, but the social insects comprise the majority of all insects by weight.

There are billions of mammals, and hundreds of species of mammals, but human beings, plus the animals they cultivate, comprise the majority of all mammals by weight.

I think we can make a parallel statement about bureaucracies.  There are, at least, hundreds of millions of organizations, but I think it safe to say that bureaucracies - corporate and government, especially - comprise a majority of all organizations by weight. And wealth.  And power. 

I draw another conclusion from this comparison - the superorganisms may be the dominant form in their field, but they are far from the only one.  Superorganisms are also brittle, vulnerable to attack and infection precisely because they are so integrated and coordinated. 

The foundational organizational form of human life is the family.  Any given family is vulnerable to all sorts of threats, and all families (if not lineages) succumb eventually to time.  But the family form is so adaptable that it has held its own in every social environment that humans have created.  Including our current environment that is dominated by bureaucracies. 

Friday, August 02, 2013

We Only See the World as Black-and-White When We Are Afraid.

When people are afraid, they tend to see their problems in black-and-white terms.  They tend to block out contrasting information, and want a muscular solution.  These are the characteristics that lead to authoritarianism, which we are all prone to sometimes.

I often hear laments about the polarization and partisanship that comes from people - other people - being closed-minded, narrow-minded, or, again, seeing things only in black and white. 

As I review the psychological studies I know and the anecdotes I can think of, I have a hunch:  we only see the world in black-and-white terms when we are fearful.  When we are reasoning calmly, everyone is able to see positions in the middle.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Rational Rider Can't Control the Emotional Elephant If They Have No Internal Conversation

Our emotions are like an elephant, and our reason is like an elephant rider.  Thus does Jonathan Haidt give a sense of the proportions between our emotional judgments and our reason's ability to sway them.  Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, says that our emotional systems are very old and refined, whereas our reason is a relatively new addition.  Reason has to bring something that the emotional elephant can use.

What reason gives us is the ability to imagine alternative futures.  Our emotional cognitions lead us to want to feel a certain way, but there might be several paths to that feeling.  On a good day, the rational rider can sway the elephant to choose one path over another by bringing out the advantages of one imagined future over another.

We are reading Haidt in Theory Camp now.  I have also been reading critical realist social theory this summer, especially the work of Margaret Archer.  Archer makes the case that our internal conversation works in a similar way.  The 'I' that I am now is in conversation with the 'You' that I want to be in the future.  Archer understands our emotions to be part of the future self that we wish to have.

Archer, like most intellectuals, imagines this conversation as a rational discourse.  She is unusual among rationalist intellectuals in giving even this much weight to emotions.

Haidt, unlike most intellectuals, has worked his way to the scientific conclusion that our internal conversation is primarily an emotional intuition rather than a rational discourse. He thinks intellectuals are prone to a rationalist delusion that all people are primarily rational.

Archer, in her recent works, has attempted to conduct a small empirical study of how different people conduct their inner conversations.  The results seem to me to show that the educated and privileged classes have more elaborate internal conversations.  Indeed, the people with the most disrupted lives sometimes had no inner life at all.

So what do we get when we put Haidt and Archer together?

We all make instantaneous moral judgments all the time, which our 'elephants' are inclined to follow. The people who have cultivated reason the most have the greatest chance of swaying the elephant toward one imagined future over another.   And the people who have cultivated reason the least will be guided by their first emotional reactions. They may not have much internal conversation at all.

Intellectuals imagine that everyone has internal conversations that rationally weigh alternative futures.  But really, only intellectuals do that, and even they (we) are not nearly as rational as we like to think.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Fathers of Daughters Are More Generous

Men become more generous to serve women.  This is one of the best things about the ingenious complementarity of our species.

This new finding that fathers of daughters are more generous - including paying their employees more and giving more money away - is a wonderful elaboration of that theme.

I know that my daughters have helped me to expect more giving of myself.

Monday, July 29, 2013

We Need Egyptian Democracy, Warts and All.

The Egyptian military overthrew the government, as they are prone to do. The difference this time is that they overthrew the first and only elected government that Egypt has ever had.  And that makes all the difference.

U.S. law requires us to stop giving aid to countries if the government is overthrown by a military coup.  The Obama administration has been dancing around describing what the Egyptian military did as a 'coup' to avoid having to face this consequence.  The president is afraid that we will lose crucial leverage with the government there is we stop sending them a billion dollars a year.  And the president is right to worry - keeping Egypt as a peaceful neighbor to Israel is critical to our interests and the larger interests of peace.

I also believe the sketchy reports that the Saudi government colluded with the Egyptian military. The Saudi monarchy has benefited, in a perverse way, from the seeming antipathy between Islamist government and democracy.  If the Arab Spring succeeds in creating an elected Islamist government, then the Saudi absolute rulers would reasonably fear that the Arabs in Arabia would demand the chance to do the same.

Nonetheless, democracy serves peace and order better than even useful dictatorships do.  That means America's real interests are in promoting elected governments, even if the parties elected are not as compliant as the dictators they replaced.

The United States should oppose the coup and support the restoration of democracy in Egypt, warts and all.

Addressing the Bad

I have been holding back from blogging for the last few weeks.  I realize that I was trying to say only positive things, and some of the world's news has been disheartening.

I think, though, that I have been thinking about this the wrong way.  Addressing the bad things is just as much part of building up the world as promoting the good.

Besides, It's My Blog. So I should say what I am thinking.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Happy Society Teaching at Centre

The Centre College website has a nice story about the teaching and studying we have been doing about the happy society.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

The Coup Against Egyptian Democracy is Bad for the World, No Matter How Unpopular President Moursi Was

The military 'suspension' of Egypt's one and only elected government is a bad thing.  Even if the elected president is unpopular and doing some things that are scary for religious minorities, he should not be ousted by mobs or generals. 

The Arab Spring is still one of the most promising developments in the world.  The Arab Muslim countries were the last holdouts against even attempting to create democratic societies. If there are ever to be stable, peaceful relations in the Middle East, the Arab nations have to establish real democracies.  And nowhere is this more important than in Egypt.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Good News on the Fertility Front: Fertility Drops Gradually Through Your 30s, Not Sharply After Your 20s

Jean Twenge has a very helpful article in The Atlantic.  She counteracts the widespread view, made popular by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, that women's fertility drops significantly in their early 30s.  The good news is that better studies based on more modern populations find that most women trying to have children through their 30s will be able to conceive without assistance.

I know that Hewlett's view is widespread because I have been one of those spreading it.  Since her Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children came out in 2002 I have been teaching her report that women's fertility begins to decline significantly in their late 20s.  This tends to produce consternation among young women, as it did Twenge who read Hewlett's report when Twenge was herself 30 and newly divorced.

The new research is not a complete about-face.  It is true that women's fertility declines after their 20s.  The difference is that the decline is more gradual than the data Hewlett - an economist who relied on other people's studies for this part of the book - had reported.

I think there is another part of this story to consider, though.  Hewlett's book was not about all women.  She set out to study how the highest achieving women broke the glass ceiling.  To her surprise, what many of those women wanted to talk about, instead, was how they missed having as many children as they had wished to, and how a sizable fraction had had no children at all.  These high-achieving women did not decide not to have children, but rather found themselves in their 40s and beyond having made a "creeping non-choice" for no kids.

Twenge found that most women in their 30s, and many in their early 40s, can conceive normally. So why were Hewlett's women different?

No one has the data to answer that question right now.  Other research, though, suggests a possibility to me:  the population of women who make it to the top of competitive professions are more likely to include higher-than-average levels of testosterone.  And high-testosterone women may have more trouble conceiving at every stage of life.

It may be, therefore, that Hewlett was not so far off for the population she studied. The error may have been in assuming that all other populations of women would have the same fertility chances.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

The Decline of Marriage Means We Should Build Up, Not Give Up

Philip Cohen notes the continuing marriage decline, and concludes that we should give up. Marriage, he thinks, will become irrelevant, even if it doesn't disappear.

I think this is exactly the wrong conclusion.

Marriage is coming back among the most educated, thoughtful, plan-ahead people.  There is every reason to believe that they will continue to reap the benefits that marriage has always bestowed.  In fact, as the non-marrying fraction of parents grows, the relative benefits of marriage will get even bigger.  And these benefits are not just to married families, but to society as a whole.  Especially to society as a whole.

I believe that more people will see the growing benefits of marriage, and head back to the institution.  The average person, I think, can see when one path benefits them more than another.  The most educated couples are leading the way.  But good social trends trickle down, just as bad ones sometimes do.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Emotions Are Judgments That We Make in Our Inner Conversation

Jonathan Haidt, in Righteous Minds, says that emotions are not just feelings but moral judgments. They move us to act.  Reason tries to guide our emotionally inspired actions.  Haidt thinks the right proportion between emotion and reason is like the proportion between an elephant and its rider.

Margaret Archer, in Being Human, says that emotions are part of an inner conversation between the self we are now (the 'I' in microsociological terms) and the self we want to be in the future (the 'You'). These emotions are also judgments. 

Archer's emotions include moral judgments drawn from social discourse, but also practical judgments drawn from our works, and natural judgments drawn from our biology.

I think both Haidt and Archer are on to something powerful.  The two theories can be reconciled.  I will try to pursue this fruitful idea.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Progressives are Not Contradictory in Supporting Big Government, Abortion Choice, and Same-Sex Marriage

Today's post is prompted by a comment made by David Williamson and George Yancey in There is No God, their study of American atheists.  It could, however, have come from many other standard accounts of what divides political progressives and conservatives.

In general, Williamson and Yancey note, progressives are for more government, and conservatives are for less.  Atheists, who are strongly committed to progressive politics, follow that pattern.  However, Williamson and Yancey note, the roles are reversed when it comes to abortion and same-sex marriage.  On those issues, they argue, the progressives are the ones who want government to stay out of these "personal" decisions, whereas the conservatives are the ones who want big, intrusive government.

I do not think there is a role reversal here.  The issue for progressives in abortion and same-sex marriage is not that the government has no business prohibiting either practice.  Rather, what progressives want is for the government to give ethical legitimacy to abortion and same-sex marriage by protecting the legal status of both actions.  Progressives do not argue that there should be no regulation of abortion and marriage, leaving these matters up to individual decision.  Rather, they argue for a right to abortion and to same-sex marriage, rights which the government must defend against the (very real) attacks by conservatives.

Pro-choice and marriage-equality positions do not contradict the usual pro-government position of progressives.  Progressives rely on the law to validate these actions.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The World's Ten Happiest Countries Are Notably Protestant

These are ten happiest countries, according to the OECD's Better Life Index:

  • Australia
  • Sweden
  • Canada
  • Norway
  • Switzerland
  • United States
  • Denmark
  • The Netherlands
  • Iceland
  • United Kingdom
My best guess at this remarkable correlation: doing meaningful work makes us happy.  The Protestant Work Ethic, even in its attenuated form in the "iron cage" of the modern world economy, still keeps us working and seeking the vocation in our work.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Liberal Fairness, Conservative Fairness, and What They Have to Do With Justice

Justice means getting what you deserve.

This is a traditional definition, which I believe is true.

Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, notes that "fairness" is a basic moral value, to which we have a strong emotional attachment.  However, Haidt found an interesting ideological difference in what fairness means.

To liberals, fairness means that you get an equal share.
To conservatives, fairness means that you get a share proportionate to what you put in.

However, neither view of fairness is based on getting the share you deserve. 

Knowing what you truly deserve is a very deep and hard question.  Ultimately, I think, only God can know that.  The best human approximation is how parents try to give their children what they should have, what would be most beneficial to their lives and development.  But, as all parents know, this approximation is uncertain, and we are prone to mess it up in practice.

So we use fairness as a rough proxy for justice.  But our different ideological views of what fairness entails has very difference consequences for the kinds of society we are trying to make.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Men Listen With Their Ears, Women Listen With Their Eyes

This was an aphorism that came to me after reading student papers on gender differences in communication. 

Women look at one another when they speak, men turn an ear toward the speaker. 

Men concentrate on the message; women, on the metamessage.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Discriminating Against Smart Cops - or Smart People in Any Job - is a Bad Idea for Society

Society benefits if we have smart people in all jobs.

The main point of The Bell Curve was not really about race.  Rather, Murray and Herrnstein were lamenting that the great IQ sorting machine was pouring our smartest people into a smaller and smaller number of occupations.  This is a loss to the rest of society.

Which is why I think it is such a bad idea for the New London, CT police department to reject a potential officer because he scored too high on an IQ test.  They argued that smart cops will get bored and leave, so it is not worth hiring and training them.

Police work, of all work, requires constant judgment calls about how to best use the great power of the state.  It requires more smarts than the average job.

Moreover, the leadership of the police department will eventually come from the new officers working their way up the chain of command.  No smart patrol officers now means no smart captains later.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Hate-Filled Religious Terrorists Think They Are the Good Guys

This is what a hate-filled religious terrorist looks like:

Barry West is a County Commissioner in Tennessee.  He posted this image on Facebook, which then went viral.  He was embarrassed enough to take it down, but not to take it back. He says he is “prejudiced against anyone who’s trying to tear down this country, Muslims, Mexicans, anybody.”

Objectively, he is threatening violence against people he defines as enemies of his way of life because they are of a different religion.  That is what "hate-filled religious terrorist" means.

What he thinks he is doing is defending the good against people who are objectively evil.  Which is exactly what the terrorists who attack our country think they are doing, too.

Worse, Mr. West is a government official threatening fellow Americans because of their religion. But he doesn't see that that is what he is doing, because he doesn't see Muslims as fellow Americans. Worse, he doesn't see armed threats by government officials as the worst kind of terrorism.

We will not understand what the terrorists who attack us are until we see that they think they are the good guys defending their way of life, just as we do.

I am not arguing that the 9/11 attackers or the Boston Marathon bombers were actually good guys.  They were actually hate-filled religious terrorists who did very evil things.  I am arguing, though, that when Americans make the same kinds of threats, they are becoming the thing they hate, while imagining they are doing the opposite.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Free Speech Protects NRA Shirts in School

I am as opposed to the National Rifle Association as anyone.  Nonetheless, I think it very wrong that an eighth grader in the Logan County, WV, middle school was suspended and taken away in handcuffs for wearing an NRA tee-shirt to school.

The First Amendment protects the others, including the Second.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Some Christian Homeschoolers Want Alternatives to Young Earth Creationism

Developers of Christian homeschooling material report that there is a growing market for material that either teaches a range of views about creation, or goes all the way to teach theistic evolution. 

I think this is an encouraging development in the culture war between homeschooling evangelical Christians and regular-schooling mainline Christians.

Most American Christians accept the "young earth" view that the universe was created by God pretty much as it is now within the last 10,000 years.  A sizable minority, though, believe the "theistic evolution" view that God created the universe a long time ago and has guided evolution since.  This is roughly the division between evangelical or traditionalist Christians, on the one hand, and mainliners, on the other. The number of Christians who believe in purely naturalistic evolution is vanishingly small (and hard to explain without contradiction).

I think the real issue for most young earth creationists is not how old the universe is, but that God made it.  For most educated biblical believers of all stripes, the shackles of the dogma that the universe is only 10,000 years old is an embarrassment, the kind that leads young people away from the faith altogether. The fact that there is a growing market for more open-minded creationist accounts shows that there is common ground to be developed across one of great divides among American Christians (which is to say, among most Americans).

And that common ground is a triumph for centrism.

Friday, April 26, 2013

There Are "Mommy Wars" But Not "Daddy Wars" Because Women Expect All Women to Be the Same More Than Men Expect All Men to Be the Same

This insight is informed by Deborah Tannen's work on how women talk to establish equality, whereas men talk to establish hierarchy.

I am also thinking of Catherine Hakim's contention that the distribution of women's preference across the spectrum from career-oriented to family-oriented is a bell curve, whereas men are bunched much more at the career end. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Satisficing is to ADD as Maximizing is to Eating Disorders

I had this thought while talking to a student in my "Social Structure" class about men's and women's approach to problem solving.

Men are much more given to Attention Deficit Disorder.  I think that men are more likely to satisfice - to pick the first option that works, rather than trying to get perfect information about all options.

Women are much more given to eating disorders.  I think that women are more likely to maximize - to try for perfect information and perfect control.

So far, all I have is a good lumper's hunch.  But I think there is something deep here.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Wait To Marry - But Not Too Long

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy has a very sensible main point in their new report, "Knot Yet."  Delaying marriage past the teens is a good thing.  When educated couples marry in their mid or late twenties, and then have children, they are pursuing the most successful family strategy.  The less educated, though, are now having kids before marriage, in a pattern that is sure to bring them grief as a class (even if it does not harm each couple.)

I did want to raise an issue with one point in their report, though. They write:

Women enjoy an annual income premium if they wait until 30 or later
to marry. For college-educated women in their midthirties, this premium
amounts to $18,152.

I do not dispute this economic fact.  But women who wait to marry until after 30, and then to have children after that, risk waiting too long to have children at all.

Waiting the marry and have children is excellent advice for teenagers. It become risky advice for tweny-somethings.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Two Contrasting Social Lubricants

A thought for your consideration:

In low-functioning family systems, alcohol is the social lubricant.

In high-functioning family systems, humor is the social lubricant.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Nativism and Multiculturalism Are Twin, and Unsuccessful, Attempts to Resist the Melting Pot

Nativism is a rear-guard reaction by declining sectors of the old elite.  It does not work.

Multiculturalism is a rear-guard action by declining sectors of assimilating minorities. It does not work, either.

The great American melting pot works relentlessly to turn the middle of American society into Americans.  Our culture is changed somewhat by each group it assimilates, but is more continuous than changed.

And this is a good thing.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

A Rough Analogy Between Peacocks and Pickups

A pickup truck is a very impractical vehicle for a family.  And if you aren't hauling bales of hay or the like regularly, it is kind of impractical for any other purpose.  Yet pickup trucks are hugely popular, especially with young men. 

I think the main appeal of pickup trucks to most of their owners is as a symbolic display of masculinity.

Displays of masculinity should, I would think, need to appeal to women to be useful in mate selection.  So why would women find a man with a pickup truck attractive?

The sociobiological study of mate selection has wrestled with a signature puzzle: the peacock's tail.  The giant, bright tail on the peacock would seem a huge hazard to peacocks - attracting predators and slowing down the peacock's escape from predators. The ingenious answer to this puzzle that sociobiologists have come up with is the "handicap theory." The peahen, who tends to select the peacock with the biggest and brightest tail, may be thinking that if this peacock can survive despite the gigantic handicap on its butt, it must have tremendous genes.

I think the pickup truck bed is something like the peacock's tail.  The pickup driver's mate may reason (subconsciously) that if this guy can succeed in having enough resources to afford a vehicle, despite the huge handicap it imposes on having friends or family, then he must really have something on the ball.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Why Is the Tea Party So Mad About Their Taxes Helping Others?

What really incenses the Tea Party is the idea that their taxes help cheaters who do not really need the help.   

That anger is what leads to the (unjust) leap from knowing that there are some cheaters to believing that all of the 47% (or whatever the number might be) are cheaters.   

When I help cheaters, I do not reap a status benefit for kindness, but lose one as a sucker.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Happy AIDS News from Africa

That headline may be unexpected. 

New AIDS cases are down 25% in a decade in sub-Saharan Africa.

The better news:  the main actors seem to be local leaders, not outsiders, especially religious leaders of many different communions.

Monday, March 25, 2013

I Partially Agree With Rand Paul: Reduce Marijuana Sentences

I do not often agree with my Senator, Rand Paul, but I do commend his efforts to reduce the federal minimum penalties for marijuana use

He says using marijuana is a bad idea.  As we know, he speaks from experience.  I agree with him.

But he also thinks that marijuana use is not the sort of thing that should lead to a life-ruining arrest, either.  I also agree with him about that.

Sen. Paul does not want to legalize marijuana.  Here I do not agree with him. I believe marijuana, though foolish, is not worse than bourbon.  I think it should be fully legal, fully regulated, and fully taxed.

But I am very glad to see Sen. Paul helping to create common ground with Democrats for some progress in Congress.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Are the Rising Number of "No Religion" a Sign of the World Getting Better?

Those who answer "none" to survey questions asking "what religion do you consider yourself to be?" have been rising.  They are about 15% of all U.S. adults, and in the 20-something percentages for young adults.  In Europe and other developed countries, the percentages are higher.

The proportion of religious "nones" roughly correlates with how well-ordered a society is.  In that way, the growth of religious nones might be taken as a proxy of increasing social order.

I am not arguing that irreligion makes society better, or that religious nones are happier. They aren't.

On the contrary, I am a Presbyterian elder and a pretty traditional Calvinist.

Rather, people who say they have no religion often do not mean that they are atheists.  They haven't rejected God or a spirit-infused way of thinking about the world.  They just don't take part in an institution that requires them to think about God or a divine order.  And because none of their institutions require it, most of them just don't think about religion in their daily lives - until some survey comes along and asks.

I do think that a well-ordered society makes it easier to believe that we can make a decent society ourselves, without thinking much about God. 

Yet it is also the case the the people who live within religious institutions and find their work in the world to be meaningful because it accords with a divine order are more likely to do the very things that make a well-ordered society well ordered. They are more likely to be helpful, and to be happy because they are helpful.  They are more likely to think their lives are meaningful because they help make good order for everyone. 

Especially for young people who still believe that their well-ordered world just is, rather than being something that good people make.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Are Indian Gang Rapes the Fruit of Sex-Selection Abortion?

India has been killing off girls at high rates for a generation.  Sex-selection abortions have produced ratios of 120 boys to 100 girls born in some rural provinces. There are already millions of young men in India with no reasonable hope of marriage.

The world heard the horrible story of the gang rape and murder of a woman in Delhi in 2012.  This month a Swiss woman was gang-raped in central India.  In each case the woman was with a man, who the gang beat and subdued before raping the woman in front of him.

Two cases does not make a social trend.  Still, these cases, in the larger context of masses of poor, unmarriageable men, suggests to me a story that makes sense.  Gang rape is extremely rare - almost all rapes, even stranger rapes, are by lone men who hide their deeds from everyone.  To get a whole gang of men in a condition to rape a woman together, and in front of one another, takes unusual circumstances.  And the circumstances of seeing a young woman having fun with a man seems to me the very circumstance that would madden a gang of permanent bachelors the most.

The killing off of girls, mostly by sex-selection abortion, is a great evil in the world.  China, India, Eastern Europe, and the Arab countries are the worst offenders.  I think they will reap the whirlwind.  A rising rate of gang rapes is one the forms of that whirlwind that I think likely.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

What If: A Nigerian Pope?

When Karol Wojtila was chosen as Pope John Paul II, the political value was immediately apparent.  The Polish pope was an old hand at resisting communists, and was a strong voice in the years leading up to the collapse of the Soviet empire.

With that in mind, I have been thinking about what might have been: a pope from sub-Saharan Africa, the front lines of the world-wide struggle between militant Islam and Christianity.  (NOTE: I am not saying there is a struggle between all of Islam and Christianity.) 

I have no objection to the newly chosen Argentine pope, and no brief for any particular African bishop.

I am glad that the cardinals did not go with a Curia insider, or indeed with any European.  And it certainly makes sense to finally pick someone from the most Catholic continent.  But, in a sense, a South American is a safe choice.  A Nigerian would have shifted the world power balance in one of the great cultural struggles of our time. At least a little.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Differential Life Expectancy of the Rich and Poor is Half Chosen, Half Structural

The Washington Post has an interesting article by Michael Fletcher on how raising the Social Security benefit age would affect poor people much more than rich people.  The catchiest fact:

the life expectancy of male workers retiring at 65 had risen six years in the top half of the income distribution but only 1.3 years in the bottom half over the previous three decades.

However, deep in the article they also note that the behavior of the poor and the rich among the old are quite different.  Comparing a poor Florida county with an adjacent rich one (Putnam vs. St. Johns), Fletcher notes:

Adults also smoke at nearly double the rate they do in St. Johns, and they are far more likely to be obese and far less likely to be physically active.

He quotes doctors who say that the difference in life expectancy shows differences in health insurance and health care availability. Yet it is clear that a big part of the difference is due to self-chosen behavior, by both the rich and poor populations.

The centrist position here is that both factors are relevant. 

But I think at this point we can say that the many bad effects of smoking, at least, are the smokers' own dumb fault, and not primarily to be addressed by health insurance and having more doctors.  And in coming years I think we will reach the same conclusion about most causes of obesity and lack of exercise.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Routinization of Charisma of the Pope

Max Weber described the "routinization of charisma," the process by which the personal authority of a leader is transformed into the institutional authority of the leader's office.  This is a predictable part of the rationalization of any social institution.

Pope Benedict XVI, by resigning rather than dying in office, has taken a crucial step in routinizing the charisma of the Pope into the Papacy.

I expect his successors will follow suit more often than not.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

The Good, the Bad, and the Tolerated in Family Forms

I am reading a pretty good new book, What is Parenthood?, edited by Linda McClain and Daniel Cere.  It consists of paired essays arguing what they call an "integrative" versus a "diversity" model of family life.  The editors are law professors, so the central concern is with family law, but a broad range of disciplines are engaged.

This argument is a version of conservative vs. liberal, with some useful nuance in defining the terms.  Indeed, while Cere is more conservative than McClain, both claim to be moderate versions in the diversity spectrum.

The core of the integrative model is that a married couple raising their own children is the best model of family life for society as a whole.  The diversity model argues that other family arrangements can also be good for society.  The debate over same-sex marriage is a central case in this debate, but not the only one.

In her introductory essay, McClain summarizes the result of a Pew survey on what most Americans feel about the current diversity of family forms.  She says about a third oppose accepting all family forms, a third support accepting all family forms, and a third are tolerant but skeptical.

I am in that last group.  I do think that a married couple raising their own children is the best model for society.  But I also think that many children do not have that option, so in those cases the closest approximation we can manage is a good thing for society to accept and promote. Likewise, I think marriage is better for people who don't want to be alone - which is nearly everyone - so society does well to accept several kinds of marriage.

However, in the Gruntled Center Manifesto that sits on the upper left column of every post on this blog, I argue that a fundamental principle of centrism is the three-part distinction between the Good, the Bad, and the Tolerated. I think the Pew survey, noted above, show exactly the distinction I am talking about.  Extremists try to force us to believe that there are only two choices - theirs, or their enemy's.  But centrists see that most of life offers us some choices that are good, and a separate category of "good enough."

The hard part of maintaining a principled centrism is holding on to the difference between good and good enough, in the face of extremist pressures.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Hard Passage of the Islamic Reformation

The Reformation was a necessary reform in Christianity.  One of its fruits, ultimately, was democracy in the state.  Along the way the English-speaking church and state suffered through the excesses of a Puritan regime.  But the improvement in church and in the state ultimately vindicated even that hard passage.

Islam is going through its Reformation now.  I think ultimately - within a generation or two - this will mean a revitalized Islam, as at peace with democracy, science, and social pluralism as Christianity is now.

To get there, though, they may have to go through a hard passage of some Salafist regimes.

The Arab Spring is a huge advance over the corrupt tyrannies, derived from socialism, which preceded them. 

I am confident that the ultimate result will be a democratic Arabic Islam.

But in the short run - in Egypt, in Syria, in Yemen - the world may see some less corrupt but equally hard regimes of Islamic Puritans.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Many Small Pleasures Make us Happier Than a Few Big Ones

This is one of several bits of wisdom compiled by Sonja Lyubomirsky in Myths of Happiness. 

She applies it to many areas of life, especially to the savoring of experiences and objects.

I think this idea is also helpful in thinking about the relationship between children and happiness.  Raising children can make us unhappy at any given moment. Raising children often deals a major blow to our marital happiness for years.

And yet, and yet.  Raising children is counted by most parents as the most meaningful thing they do in their lives. On reflection, most parents can come up with many precious moments of delight about their children to savor.

The lesson I take from Lyubomirsky's summation of happiness research on this subject: savor the many small pleasures of children while they are happening.  These many small pleasures are they very stuff of a happy life.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

I Am Married Tomorrow

M. Keith Chen at Yale offers a fascinating study about the different effects of languages that do distinguish between present and future, such as English, and those that do not, such as German:

Speakers of languages that do not distinguish between the present and the future save more money, retire with more wealth, smoke less, practice safer sex, and are less obese, according to Chen’s findings.
I often try to get students to think about their future marriages now, to plan as strategically for their family life as they do for their careers.

The example Chen uses is Morgen regnet es - "morning raining is" - as the German equivalent of "It will rain tomorrow."

I may get students to try saying "I am married tomorrow" to see if that gives them a more future-oriented view of family life.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Symmetry of Sexual Fantasies

I put this out tentatively, and would welcome correction as well as comment.

One of the most common sexual fantasies of men is of the nymphomaniac, a woman with an endless desire for sex.

One of the most common sexual fantasies for women is of being ravished, particularly by a bad boy.

It is very puzzling why women, who hate rape so much, and want decent men to marry, would have a fantasy like this.

It is also puzzling, though not puzzled over as much as it should be, why men, who fear sexual comparison and want loyal women to marry, would have a fantasy like this.

I think I have been looking at these fantasies the wrong way.  If I ask "what's in it for the fantasizer," the potential appeal is a little clearer.

Women want to feel irresistible, and wish their sexual attraction to be enough to not only draw a strong man, but to tame him, to overcome his resistance to commitment.

Men want to feel free to have sex with a woman without judgment, commitment, or, importantly, injustice.  They do not need to deceive a nymphomaniac that they are more committed to her than they really are.

And here is where the symmetry breaks down.  Women might fantasize about taming the ravisher and marrying him.  Men are not likely to fantasize about marrying the nymphomaniac. She goes on a different list than the potential wife.

[And no, I do not think these differences are the result of socialization, nor can they be simply abolished by social engineering.  Civilization teaches us to self-control our actions much better than it can change our fantasies.]

Sunday, February 17, 2013

"Schep Naches" is a Wonderful Gruntled Idea

The Yiddish expression schep naches is commonly used to describe the pride parents and grandparents feel at the achievements of their offspring.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, in Myths of Happiness, says it can also be used to mean a general sense of "deriving pleasure from the experience of others."

In this sense, she writes, we can use it as the opposite of Schadenfreude.

Deriving pleasure, or calm contentment, from the experience of others seems to me a fine way to make my life, and my community, a happier place.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Japanese Valentine's Day

I was discussing comparative holidays with a Japanese student in my "Family Life" class.  She said Valentine's Day is celebrated in Japan - but women give men chocolate.

This struck me as odd, since the norm of courtship is for men to show their capacity for resource provision to women.

She then told me that there is also a counterpart holiday, White Day, one month later, in which men give chocolate to women.  Originally they gave white chocolate (hence the name), but now the browner kinds are also common.

And Wikipedia tells me that on White Day, if a man merely gives as much as he was given, that signals that he wants to end the relationship.  To continue the romance, he gives twice or thrice as much chocolate as he received on Valentine's Day.

The imbalance in the sociobiological universe is made right.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Your Older Self Can Help You Save for the Future

A nifty experiment from Jeremy Bailenson's virtual reality lab:

Ask 20-somethings how much they want to start setting aside for their retirement.

Then show them a picture of their own face, morphed to show what they will look like at 70.

Now they want to set aside twice as much.

This is a great nudge.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

If the World Is Getting Better, Isn't It Simpler to Think That God is Helping?

I believe the world is getting better.  The material evidence is all around us, as I have written before.

I believe that God guides the general direction of the world with a providential hand.

Most of the writers who share my belief that the world is getting better seem to atheists who believe in naturalistic evolution. 

If you are a naturalistic evolutionist who does not believe the world is getting better, then you have no problem - species simply adapt to whatever the environment happens to be at the moment, without direction or meaning.  The world is neither getting better nor getting worse, because there is no naturalistic meaning to those terms when applied to all existence. Evolution is simply change over time.

But naturalistic evolutionists who do believe in progress have to go through some elaborate twists to explain both why our evolutionary practice seems to show a positive design without a designer, and how we keep progressing even though our evolved psychology is pessimistic.

It seems to me that theistic evolution is a simpler account of how a species designed for both hope and fear, designed for pessimistic assumptions but optimistic actions, can in fact achieve such progress.

I don't have an elaborate philosophical argument here.  I just think that people who see that the world is improving through the amazing collective action of creative humans are halfway to seeing that we are meant for this by a Creator.