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 the face of 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 or 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 is 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).

A TED talk with Steven Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein exploring reason as an engine of social progress.


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