Sunday, November 1, 2015

Empathy, Intentional Action, and The Person Concept

1st Annual Peter Ossorio Lecture - Dr. Wynn Schwartz
October 19, 2015
University of Colorado-Boulder

Empathy, Intentional Action, and The Person Concept: An Exercise in Descriptive Psychology

“The instigation of the Person Concept was a very practical one.  It was the classic problem of how to teach students something about the interpretation of diagnostic instruments, case histories, and psychological theories, and about the conduct of psychotherapy and laboratory and field experimentation, without requiring that they give up their own conceptual and theoretical preferences in favor of those of an instructor (hence the descriptive focus).  A related goal was to accomplish this within a conceptually coherent, intellectually satisfying, and substantively adequate framework….” Peter Ossorio, Persons, 1966/1995

By the 1960’s it remained painfully clear Wittgenstein’s cautionary reminder that “…in psychology, there are experimental methods and conceptual confusion…”  had not been adequately addressed. This is still the case to the extent the behavioral sciences lack a common lexicon and a shared conceptual foundation. This continues to make it difficult for researchers and practitioners to agree on meanings and accurately communicate empirical findings and useful practices. 
Facing this dilemma, Peter Ossorio, during his tenure at the University of Colorado, created Descriptive Psychology:  a pragmatic, theory-neutral map for systematically describing “the world of persons and their ways”.  He called this The Person Concept, a construction that made explicit the interdependent concepts Individual Person, Behavior as Intentional Action, Language, and Reality

The focus of my lecture is Ossorio’s “Parametric Analysis of Intentional Action”, a method and formulation designed to identify how a specific behavior is similar to or different from any other behavior. 

In an application of this analysis, I’ll operationalize empathy as involving actions in which a person demonstrates to another their immediate appreciation of the personal significance of that person’s behavior and felt state in a manner that can be affectively tolerated. I’ll demonstrate how Ossorio’s parametric analysis provides a straight-forward method, a checklist, that can be used in identifying and correcting lapses in empathic engagement. 

I started my talk pointing out the problems Ossorio confronted in the academic and practitioner communities of psychologists.

From his 1983 "Why Descriptive Psychology?":

1. Psychological theories portray persons in ways which are not merely limited  but highly distorting as well.

2.  Psychological theory and method are clearly almost entirely non-empirical, yet no satisfactory account of this fact has been available.

3.  Both psychological theories of methodology and psychological theories of behavior are inadequate to provide a rationale for clinical practice.

4.  There is no general theory in psychology which is not fundamentally inadequate to account for language as a form of behavior.

5.  Finally, there is a whole set of intractable truth issues associated with traditional theorizing.

I went on to what concerned me in 1972 when I started graduate school as his student. 

1.  Given psychology's general commitment to reductionism and determinism, how to account for the choice and responsibility themes of everyday life and the legal and cultural concerns with accountability?

2.  The major personality theories taught as theology-like schools to respect like your neighbors good-faith but mistaken religion.

3.  The confusions created by the absence of a systematic and shared lexicon of behavioral concepts. 

Ossorio's answer was The Person Concept.

Here's my lecture.  I am re-introducing Descriptive Psychology to Peter Ossorio's academic home, the University of Colorado's Department of Psychology and Neuroscience. I was very happy to be doing this.


Monday, October 12, 2015

What Gets in the Way of Negotiating Social Justice? Part 2. Unequal Voices and Hidden Agendas

(a continuation of  Empathy, Inclusion, and Moral Dialog or What Gets in the Way of Negotiating Social Justice? )

A person values some states of affairs over others and acts accordingly.
A person will not choose less behavior potential over more.

A person requires a community in order for it to be possible for him to engage in human behavior at all.
A community is characterized by a common world, a language, a structure of social practices, statuses, way of living, choice principles, and individual members.
To engage in a Deliberate Action is to participate in a social practice of the community.
            Peter Ossorio, Place, 1998

Unequal Voices Undermine the Hypothesis: The Inevitable Arc of Social Justice Requires the Possibility of an Equality of Persons.  

government may not suppress political speech on the basis of the speaker's corporate identity. No sufficient governmental interest justifies limits on the political speech of nonprofit or for-profit corporations.
         Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

I'll warn you in advance. There are many loose ends and considerable uncertainty in what follows.

The tension I want to explore involves what is public and open to negotiation and what is private and will not be revealed except under special circumstances. The public can be debated but the private, the hidden, has voice behind the scenes. I'm going to wonder about these two factors: The vastly unequal public voice shaped by money, and the private, hidden voice, shaped by shameful, guilt-ridden or under-examined  motive. This effects the playing field where conflicts of justice are presented if not decided. Even if courts and legislatures define the law, the varied public sentiments prepare the ground for the legal outcome. The Supreme Court’s 2015 decision on marriage equality would have been unlikely without the acceptance already achieved by a critical mass of individuals with good standing within the national community.

The sociologist Steven Lukes reminds us that power involves the ability to control the agenda and establish the public conversation.  The vested interests that shape the public agenda are always in play among individuals who have their specific and idiosyncratic abilities and dispositions to influence each other.  But this is warped when the values in play are hidden or the power to influence is vastly uneven. The values involved in an individual's negotiations can be hidden in bad-faith or self-deception or unconsciously unexamined.  But on a large social scale, political and moral dialog is also distorted by the weight of big-money interests.  We all know that money doesn’t just talk, it screams. It buys the agenda and billboards its propaganda. Currently, the powers of corporate capitalism are overwhelming in forming the public conversation and social agenda given corporations now have some of the legal status of “persons” in regard to “speech”. 

Social justice and economic justice are intrinsically intertwined. A person’s place in the economy is fundamental in defining their opportunity.  Corporate personhood renders my argument of inevitable social progress trivial or absurd when corporate interest is in conflict with social justice. If, on the other hand, the two interests coincide, justice as enhanced fairness has a much better chance. This restricts the field of change. To avoid despair, I’m going to table this theme and confine my argument to circumstances where corporate interests are not in fundamental conflict with personal liberation. Granted, I’ll have to ignore class based economic injustice, many of the issues of income inequality, and limit my focus to some of the cultural conflicts of racism, sexism, religion, and homophobia.  This is the paradox of increased economic injustice during the same historical period that has expanded educational, housing, and voting rights, normalized homosexuality, and legalized gay marriage. But tragically, consider how corporate interests can stifle progress toward equality of health care and accommodations for parents and the disabled if these enhancements, "entitlements", are too much a threat to the bottom line.  And what of planetary injustice? Do the corporate and political interests concerning climate change establish a generational injustice we will be hand our children?

The Hypothesis is Limited to the Moral Dialog of Potentially Equal Players

So with these huge limitations, what else hampers the negotiations and moral dialog of human beings struggling for increased emancipation and fairness on matters of age, race, gender, religion, and sexual preference? Where politics is most local, individuals might have the best chance of being heard by each other. Here the community of family and neighborhood still counts. Here’s the possible space that big money, corporate personhood, and gerrymandered conformity might not overwhelm and fill.

My starting point is the mix of conflicted alliances we all have. These are the conflicts that involve the public presentation of our values that affirm our allegiance to some, while degrading our position with others. When push comes to shove, who counts the most in my life? Where does my integrity rest and what compromise can I afford? Are the true colors I show everyone the same? Can I be authentic and two faced? Here is the dilemma of living on various fronts, some I especially cherish. Is this a potential engine of progress? And is this dynamic different when our local community is cosmopolitan or homogenous?  

All of us are members of various communities, tempered by the specifics of education, job, profession, intimate relations, family, etc.  Membership has its privileges but can also be an embarrassment, a source of shame and guilt. A community’s social practices and accepted manners shift over time. Consider heartfelt racism, sexism, and homophobia. Or “lighthearted” racist, sexist, and homophobic banter.  What was once normal, perhaps laudable, becomes reprehensible. In times past, without second thought, what could be said with friends, family, and professional associates might still be acceptable in some communities but cause a double-take and censure in others. Privately, my boorish friends and I might continue talking the trash that provokes righteous outrage from my wife and children, and possible firing from my job.  Values and acceptable self-presentations change. What was once public is now private and a potential embarrassment. Still, for a host of reasons I might continue this banter with some, careful when family and colleagues are within earshot. It’s not easy to find new “enlightened” friends, and friends are friends for all sorts of reasons.

But what does this say about my values, the priorities that routinely shape my appraisals of self and world? The public and private nature of what I hold dear can vary irregularly, in both self-deceptive and self-aware hypocrisy.  I might tolerate or overlook conflict, ambivalence, and contradiction.

We all know there are judgments we can openly discuss, negotiate, reconsider, and try to reorder in significance.  In self-examination, my prejudices, my pre-judgments, might diminish over time. Then there are those appraisals that I am reluctant to admit, hold shameful, and will certainly not discuss, at least not with you. Perhaps I also make significant appraisals unconsciously, unavailable for my introspection. I’ve come to believe this last group of motives, absent significant psychopathology, is very difficult to broach and rarely an overriding force, but to the extent it’s significantly at play, judgment will be compromised. I’ll have return to this theme.

Let’s focus on the interplay of the appraisals and values easily available and those that we are reluctant to acknowledge. The reluctance that I’m interested in is not simply a concern with social censure but more along the lines of a reluctance to even go there with myself. This is not the domain of secret glee but of shameful impulse. These are the matters I don’t want to think about and won’t easily admit. This, I think, is what the psychodynamic psychotherapies actually explore and map, and where empathy and safety is key. This is where the public presentation of values I am reluctant to acknowledge may influence a reappraisal of their significance. This in turn can change the community I prefer to identity with or support. But, in the absence of “publicity”, unexamined problematic values are a minefield for negotiation.

In the service of exploring these themes, let me introduce "The Psychodynamic Judgment Diagram" as a way of representing the nature and consequences of a person's values and circumstances that are most accessible, those hidden in avoidance, and those truly unconscious. 

For simplicity, I’ll refer to these motivational grouping, these collections of values, as domains or zones one, two, and three, with one being the easily shared and accessible appraisals, two being the domain I’m reluctant to acknowledge and three being the dynamic unconscious.

Notice the connection between reason and motivational weight. The greater the weight the greater the motivational priority. But, unfortunately, there is nothing that requires the content with the greatest weight to be in zone one. People can be reluctant to acknowledge or unconscious of the actual weights relevant to their appraisals. You can be sure that the extent people don’t know or acknowledge their priorities, their negotiations may falter and appear in bad faith.

For now, let’s attend to the interplay of zone one and two and prepare to ask, “in the privacy of the voting booth, what values ring loudest”?

Peter Ossorio (2013, p 226-227) identified four “family resemblance” groups of reasons people have for doing what they do: Hedonics, Prudence, Ethics, and Aesthetics. Briefly, hedonics involves variations on pleasure, pain, noxiousness, and disgust. Prudence concerns self-interest, advantage or disadvantage, and what I take to be good or bad for me. Ethical reasons involve my perspective on right and wrong, good and bad, justice, fairness, and where duty or obligation occur. Aesthetics involve how things fit together, artistically, socially, and intellectually.

These domains of intrinsic motivation can be complementary, independent, or in conflict.  How individuals weigh the relative significance of these motivations define important aspects of character, their “true colors”.  These patterns of significance, implemented in various ways, define the “through-lines” of our lives.

What I’d like us to notice is that domain two, the zone of reluctance, is not, under ordinary circumstance, open for debate or discussion and is accordingly resistant to negotiated change. The same holds for domain three, the unconscious, but here the situation is frozen.  Worse, the “dynamic unconscious” lacks an aesthetic and ethical perspective since ethics and aesthetics require the ability to engage in Cognizant and Deliberate Action. Ethics and Aesthetics hinge on choice, even if that choice involves refusal. I can’t, as a matter of ethical principle, choose the high road over the low road if I’m not aware there’s a choice, nor can I sit down and refuse to move further. Similarly, in zone two reluctance, I might refuse to ask for direction and pretend not to see a fork in the road.  And even if I am fully aware of a more ethical path, my journey might continue along predominately hedonic, prudent, and aesthetic lines.  I’m complicated that way and so are you. Doing what’s “ethically right” is not always the top priority.

Back to the question of getting domain two out into the light of day.

Does the Fork in the Road lead to Degradation or Accreditation?

When you come to a fork in the road, take it.
          Yogi Berra

A set up for a thought-experiment: New neighbors move next to an already established family in the two very different neighborhoods I know well. The first neighborhood is where I now live, Boston’s South End. I think this is a very fine place, mixed income but skewing to upper-middle class, racially and ethnically diverse, gay and lesbian friendly, highly educated.  I feel I belong here.  I’m comfortable as I walk about. The second neighborhood I’d like us to consider is in Gastonia, North Carolina where I grew up from forth grade through high school.  I was mostly happy there, too, and certainly felt safe and protected.  Back then, my neighborhood, Gardner Park, was all white, very Christian, and as far as I knew, populated by married heterosexual couples and their children. In 1959, my family, Jewish, moved to Gastonia from Minneapolis with a group of engineers and scientists so I didn’t start my life in the late 1950’s American South.  I think this move increased Gastonia’s Jewish population from about 50 families to maybe 52 or 53.  For me, the in-your-face racism, the segregation of water fountains, classrooms, and neighborhoods was immediately startling.  Teachers and classmates referred to “the niggers cross town” as normal speech. (Not that the neighborhoods I’d knew in Minneapolis were any less white, nor, for that matter, less homophobic, but I’d never heard such speech in public or private, let alone seen water fountains for white or "colored". Being a Yankee and, as it happened, a Jewish skeptic of religion, my childhood sense of belonging was mixed. My sense of safety and belonging-while-an-outsider has its history here. 

Knowing something of where I come from provides perspective on my bias. Back to my thought-experiment: Let’s imagine a householder, a standard heterosexual white guy we’ll call WG, who with wife and children, lives either in my current neighborhood or in Gastonia. Keep in mind that WG’s South End neighbors predominately vote as liberal or progressive Democrats along with a few Greens and a “moderate” Republican or two sprinkled in.  They talk about this in the dog park. In contrast, the predominately white neighborhoods in Gastonia vote Republican. In both places, WG fits in as one of the acceptable types and values this and wants it for his family.

Now the new neighbors. First the South End: In the condo below WG, a mixed race gay couple moves in with their dog.  The couple who moves in above is a white heterosexual couple who also, as it turns out, have a dog. WG like dogs. WG and his wife, being the neighborly sort, separately invite each new couple in for drink and conversation. One more imaginary fact. The new white heterosexual couple, who outwardly look the same demographic as WG, make clear a significant disrespect for the downstairs neighbors they’ve seen but not spoken to. They’ve braved the gay South End.

Now the same set up but in Gastonia. The new white couple expresses concern they weren’t warned before buying into a mixed race neighborhood.  Speaking loudly, without a second thought, WG's new neighbor wondered which of the gay men was the “wife”.  So here’s my question. What do we imagine WG actually feels about his new neighbors? How will he talk to his wife and children who have witnessed these encounters? 

Let’s add another feature to our thought-experiment. For whatever reason, the gay couple prove, over time, to be thoughtful, helpful, and friendly. The white couple, not so much.

(Like all bad thought experiments, we must limit ourselves to these being the only stated facts).

Back to the “psychodynamic judgment diagram” and a bit more about WG. WG is a middle-aged standard white guy who reluctantly, zone 2, harbors racist and homophobic feeling. He grew up that way. OK, let’s be more real. At times, he wisecracks with some of his old friends in a undeniably racist and homophobe manner. After all, they get the joke.  At home with family, this stuff rarely crosses his mind, and when it does he’s knows to be silent. 

A point of practical theory: Evidently, some thoughts are more “reluctant-to-self-acknowledge” in some circumstances than in others. Here’s another assumption about actual empirical humans. Our different social contexts alter our self-presentation and disposition, and with this our sense of what is most consciously available. Circumstance factor into our psychological state and our immediately available configuration of motivational values. This is relevant to how zone 1 and zone 2 content shifts, and where one’s sense of degradation and accreditation, a person’s immediate feelings of standing in their relevant communities, serve to maintain or change what is available for negotiation and moral dialog. What my family evokes is often significantly different from what I find myself thinking in my office or with my friends. Circumstances evoke different patterns of a person’s powers and dispositions based on perceived relevance. I am the same person with everyone, I am always me, without my self-presentation being necessarily all that consistent when with others.  I can be authentic and more than two-faced.

People live in a vast variety of separate and overlapping communities, cherishing some above others. Family over neighbor? Neighbor over boss?  The communities people value greatest, where their good standing is vital, are the ones they will be most reluctant to violate. What is available as zone 1 content, the stuff most personally and publicly accessible, will reasonably be what a person finds most relevant to the social practices that the person’s most valued communities find acceptable. (But keep firmly in mind that people's integrity may involve their upholding the values of communities not immediately present to the eye but held in the heart).


          Groucho Marx, Telegram to the Friar’s Club of Beverly Hills

Deliberate Action

Another point. Deliberate action requires the knowledge of choice. Appraisals as an aspect of a deliberate action many involve the recognition of both what is to be done and what is to be avoided. In contrast, zone 2 content tends to be under-socialized and under-examined and as a result less mindful of alternatives.  This content is commonly what a person fears might be degrading.  This is not to suggest that a person is reluctant to privately acknowledge potential self-degrading actions. In fact, the potential to easily know how one can be degraded is central to my hypothesis about social progress.  Consider, there are matters I can easily think about but refuse to do, zone 1, and there are things I don’t want to think about and certainly don’t want to acknowledge doing, zone 2. This self abrogation is rarely separate from the expectation of public censure. The avoided thoughts and public actions are shameful. Zone 1 has a place for the shameful ideas that I will carefully and prudently avoid enacting. I may be less careful about zone 2. I am making the assumption that there is a good reason to know what to be careful about one’s nature. There are personal matters we need to understand well enough not to inadvertently act out. I know that I am an animal, sexual and possessive, but I try to be appropriate in my expression of these desires.  The potential and expectation of appropriate Deliberate Action is a fundamental attribute that defines us as Persons. (See, for example Prosser, The Doctrine of The Reasonable Man). 

But back to WG. WG, both North and South, are deliberate actors, whose appraisals follow from their hedonic, prudential, aesthetic, and ethical perspectives.

Here’s a reasonable bet: WG in the South End will tell his children and demonstrate though his careful behavior that their neighbor upstairs provides an example not to follow. It is less clear what WG in Gastonia will do. He belongs to many communities where his racism and homophobia is just fine. He wants his children to fit in to this world, too.  But he knows times are changing.

Gastonia's WG has less experience with the diversity found in the other WG's neighborhood. This might limit his experienced faith in social change working out OK. Still, he’s come to enjoy a weekly barbecue with his gay mixed race neighbors even though he won’t abide their mustard-based sauce. He’s come to recognize their marriage hasn’t cost him a dime.  Regarding his homophobia, their sexual lives are no longer part of his disgusted fascination.  His children like them, too, and find their other neighbor a wee bit creepy. 

When we talk to our children and provide them the object lessons of our actions, we are a powerful source of influence.  And we ask ourselves, whose voice are we most comfortable representing?  When we engage with friends and neighbors, and especially when we enter into new relationships, we may have cause to recognize and reconsider our values. As deliberate actors we have the potential for an ethical perspective. We may come to appreciate the fairness of our neighbor’s concerns even if our only gain is their happiness. This doesn’t mean this will count for more than our other values. But it might, especially if we know that supporting our neighbor doesn’t put us in a worse position.

My empathic identification with my children gives me profound reason to want them to fit in, a prudential and aesthetic value. My neighbor’s sexual life might still make me squirm but that may count for less than he’s become my good neighbor deserving his own pleasures and satisfactions. And it turned out his mustard sauce is an acquired taste worth developing.

Does this set the stage for some social progress? Might it effect my vote or what my children come to see as reasonable fairness across difference?  I think so.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Empathy, Inclusion, and Moral Dialog or What Gets in the Way of Negotiating Social Justice? Part 1.

Socrates Stop. Now we must tell what there is in this that is faulty and lacks art, must we not?
Phaedrus Yes.
Socrates It is clear to everyone that we are in accord about some matters of this kind and at variance about others, is it not?
Phaedrus I think I understand your meaning, but express it still more clearly.
Socrates When one says “iron” or “silver,” we all understand the same thing, do we not?
Phaedrus Surely.
Socrates What if he says “justice” or “goodness”? Do we not part company, and disagree with each other and with ourselves?
Phaedrus Certainly.
            Plato, Phaedrus, 263a

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
            Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

 If the lion could talk, we wouldn’t be able to understand it.
            Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

Money doesn't talk, it swears.

             Bob Dylan,  It's Alright Ma, (I'm Only Bleeding)

Part One

What follows is an exercise in conceptual clarification and the mapping of possibilities, coupled with a hypothesis open to debate.  There will be some theory in the mix since I’ll build a case for an empirical pattern that may be more a matter of hope than logical necessity:  a hypothesis of expanding human empathy and justice even in response to counter-reaction and subversion.  Be alert to how I’m mixing behavioral logic with a particular vision of human nature and resilience.

My focus is on what facilitates and interferes with negotiating social justice and the moral and ethical conflicts that inevitably follow.

How do we get on the same page and decide what’s right, just, and fair? Remember only sometimes what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

I’ve been thinking about the different ways we fail to come to agreement or tolerantly agree to disagree. This might involve empathy, the problem of shared meanings and appraisal, and good and bad faith reordering of priorities.

There is also the problem of identifying legitimate stakeholders and how much skin they actually have in the game. Before conflict can be negotiated, it’s good to determine what the conflict is about, and for whom and how significantly it matters. Do you really have a dog in this fight? Do you really care who wins? (And is it OK to employ the metaphor “a dog in this fight?”)

Before we can even hope to write on the same page, we face the semantic and conceptual problem of shared words and meaning.  The absence of shared meanings plague communication and especially when we employ psychological concepts and theory.  Take “empathy”.  What do we mean by this word? If I am empathic, am I feeling your pain in my body and soul?  Or am I merely understanding your painful predicament and conveying that understanding to you accurately and in a manner that allows you to feel safely and tolerantly understood? Does empathy require both shared feeling and accurate understanding? Can it be a matter of more or less? Can I empathetically understand you without being sympathetic, appreciating that your reasons are sensible, yet remaining in firm opposition, perhaps even using my understanding to undermine your position? Do I have to be on your side and feel your pain? Is empathy always relevant or is it simply a matter of having reason enough to socially align, with or without empathy.

These questions appear within family, neighborhood, and tribe, and may come to violence especially when there is little in common except contested turf. The disagreements about fairness and social justice are cases in point. Consider the conflicts provoking outrage and violence that surround race, age, gender, and income inequality, racial and ethnic profiling, religious expression, abortion, marriage equality, climate change and so on.  How do we understand that rational people, carefully attempting good faith, come to very different positions? Different communities within our pluralistic nation clearly define themselves and go at each other with differing world views and choice principles. Is this not the standing condition of cosmopolitan liberal democracy? 

No doubt there are irreconcilable differences that cannot be negotiated away but only understood; some that can be tolerated with integrity, and some that cannot. And some that never get fairly negotiated because of some hidden fly in the ointment, some unspoken or unrecognized agenda. I’m going to try to describe the position of this fly in the fly bottle. To anticipate what undermines a fair or just negotiation, and with John Rawls, I’m going to identify justice as involving and requiring a concern with “publicity” and “fairness”.  Similarly, following Hannah Arendt and Peter Ossorio, I’ll assert that moral dialogue and negotiation require an accurate presentation of both one’s evidence and the values that serve as the basis of judgment.  I’m going to wonder what gets in the way, what keeps the fly stuck.  

I’m going to assert that within liberal democracy there is an inevitable increase in the equality of the disenfranchised despite corresponding reaction and conflict. My position will be different from claims such as John Gray’s of an inevitable and all powerful repetition compulsion that makes progress a myth. Such visions stem, I believe, from a mistaken reading of Freud and human nature. I’ll return to this theme when I remind us that our human condition involves both an inescapable animal nature and our status as Persons, capable of Deliberate Action. This will also hinge on changes in what is thinkable and tolerable.

A bit more stage setting:   A pluralistic cosmopolitan constitutional democracy, ideally divorced from aristocracy and comprehensive-totalitarian religious and ideological order, takes conflict and competition as a given and a necessary condition for progress:  A progress that is more or less orderly. The state has the right to enforce its status though armed violence but citizens, not acting as representatives of the state, do not. The state can jail you but your neighbor can’t. Your church can excommunicate you, but is forbidden from stoning you to death for your transgressions.

Even where we agree on matters of law and enforcement, we may do so for very different reasons. The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt believes that Democrats and Republicans generally differ regarding what he calls their moral foundations, what I think Rawls would call their “intrinsically reasonable” values or Ossorio their "intrinsic perspectives and motivations".  Haidt identifies the dimensions of care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation as the “taste buds” of morality, the themes of moral sensitivity.  He has gathered decent evidence that some of these perspectives are significant to the average member of both political parties, while some are very important or indifferent to one or the other. My interest in pointing this out is the reminder that we can recognize the conceptual and practical meaning of a host of moral/ethical values while at the same time feeling some count more than others and some don’t weigh much against our other values.  “I know it understandably matters to you, but frankly I don’t give a damn.”

Another reminder. Our world and our relationships are subject to reformulation. And when we reformulate our worlds, we do not deliberately put ourselves in a worse position given what we hold significant. The attempt to maintain or improve will be one of the engines of conflict. 

But what if we don’t competently recognize our world for what it is, or our reasons for what they are? Or, what if we do, perhaps dimly, but keep this self-knowledge unavailable for consideration and negotiation. We may be reluctant to even acknowledge to ourselves what counts. Will you admit your racism, your sexism or your homophobia?  And you can bet your bottom dollar, whatever falls in this domain will remain under-examined and under–socialized.  This helps keep the fly stuck in the fly bottle and bollixes up the works.

If we can’t or won’t negotiate, we’re not in a good position to reorder our priorities, come to a compromise, or change our minds. Moral dialog and negotiation requires showing one’s hand, putting all the cards on the table. But sometimes we don’t even know we’ve held back an important card, perhaps up our sleeve. And sometimes we know damn well but are too ashamed, awkward, guilty, or anxious to acknowledge it. This is a problem in good-faith negotiation and compromise.

Compromise is an interesting word. We can compromise from our sense of fairness.  Or we can feel compromised through coercion or in collusion. Freud conceptualized unconscious compromise formations as "mechanisms" undermining our deliberate actions, leaving them bungled or pathologically ineffective. A compromise formation involves a self-recognized motivation compromised  by motives operative but resistant to awareness. (This is the sort of compromise that keeps the fly trapped in the bottle and partly informs John Grey’s claim that progress is a myth).

I hope I'm going to make a reasonable case that starts with the premise that we are most fair and want justice for those we find simpatico, can identify with, and include within our closest and intimate relations. These are the people we readily understand, share in their pain, and are on their side.  These folks in our inner circle are closest to our hearts.

How far can this circle extend? What of other circles that may or may not overlap with ours?

Some Thoughts on Empathy and Judgment

Putting myself in another’s shoes so that the fit is comfortable for both of us requires knowing myself and knowing you. Empathy that matters involves action that accurately and immediately takes into consideration the significance of what both of us intends while managing to portray that understanding in a mutually tolerable fashion. I’m going to unpack this as a paradigm case of mutual empathetic engagement in the service of the improvisational practice of moral dialog and negotiation.  As a social practice this involves at least two people deliberately revealing, observing, and critiquing theirs and their partner’s values and status.

Empathy involves appreciating how others make their judgments. Self-knowledge requires knowing how I make my judgments. Speaking practically, self-knowledge and empathy are two sides of the same coin.

Clarifying these meanings will provide groundwork for approaching the public and consensual nature of social justice in a pluralistic society. This, in turn, will support a hypothesis for the inevitability of an expanding and shared moral-ethical perspective that shapes cultural progress, a perspective shared by at least enough people for it to become a significant choice principle. It won't be shared by all, but must be endorsed by a significant group of leaders with the power to maintain the perspective as part of the public political agenda.  The result is a shift in cultural awareness. Inevitable emancipation is founded on two basic ideas. The first is that people act persistently to maintain or improve their position and the second is that the possibility of an ethical perspective is inherent in Deliberate Action. A person can choose to be fair or not and can learn about the plights and desires of another person and decide how to respond given an appraisal of both party's status.

My hypothesis: Within a common democratic society, a structure that resembles a noisy upward trending wave describes the social progression of the disenfranchised.  The Y axis represents the society's toleration or acceptance of an increased or redistributed set of rights and the X axis represents historical time.  An upward, flat or downward midline is possible but the overall trend is an upward slope given that gains in behavior potential  persist. The relation between progression and reaction is irregular. At no point on the wave is there any assurance of the direction the curve will take next. This is the uneven ascending curve of emancipation. People hold on to their gains as best they can despite expected adversity. This the behavioral logic that supports Martin Luther King's premise that, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." 

So how does this look in social practice? Some answers may be found in sorting through these questions: 

Do we reorder our priorities when we reconsider something we strongly don't like but find we can tolerate?  How is this different from confronting fundamental violations of our moral and ethical integrity? How is it that reasonable people can change their minds about some moral issues, say marriage equality, while remaining irrevocably in opposition to others, for example abortion? Do we think though our actual values when a public identification of them in ourselves and others becomes an embarrassment?  Or do we bury them deeper?   How does a sense of "us" versus "them" shift and reconfigure? 

And what of the thorny dilemma of being a person and an animal?

And is this utterly distorted when corporations are treated as persons? After Citizen's United, if big money's interests are at stake, does a conflicting position have much chance being heard?

"…government may not suppress political speech on the basis of the speaker's corporate identity. No sufficient governmental interest justifies limits on the political speech of nonprofit or for-profit corporations."

          Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

To be continued:   Part 2 Unequal Voices and Hidden Agendas

Dear Reader, should you be interested in the concepts and reminders I'll be using to build my case, they can be found, in part, in these entries:
Bad Faith, Self-Deception, and Unconscious Motivation: Restrictions in Effective Choice; On IndoctrinationOrdinary Empathy; Empathy, Improvisation and the Growth of the TherapistDegradation Ceremonies in Everyday Life, and finally The Uneven Structure of Social Progress (why marriage equality is inevitable).