Saturday, January 15, 2005

Taking stock

After about a week of blogging, I want to take a step back and think about what has worked well and what has not worked so well. Although I offer some of my own thoughts below, I invite responses suggesting ways that I might sharpen this blog.

When I recounted the inspiration for the title of this blog, I referred to Mr. Lincoln’s genius in understanding that politics has its lighter moments even when the issues are grave. I had planned to take up residence mostly in the refuge of political humor, and have been surprised that most of my daily responses have taken on a more serious tone. My attempts at the lighter side have been mostly half-hearted, with the commentary about the potential 2008 match-up between Hillary Clinton and Newt Gingrich and a “what were they thinking” response to Harry the Nazi and the apparently unwitting voyage of Margaret Thatcher’s son into the coup politics of Africa. I offered little in the way of interpretation, repeating in essentially unfiltered fashion what had been reported elsewhere. The one time where I think humor worked was when I offered my own spin on recent developments in recounting the history of the Department of Homeland Security. (Interestingly, comments divided along party lines: while most readers seemed to enjoy that particular post, those who I know to be Republicans were indignant at my irreverence on the subject of national security, much the way President Bush claimed that Senator Kerry was undermining morale when he criticized the situation in Iraq.)

I have been pleasantly surprised at the response I have gotten to the more serious posts. I enjoyed reading the comments, all of which were thought-provoking, and sometimes even engaging in a back-and-forth with some of the commenters. The value of this blog, if there is any, may be in that it allows me, and my readers in reacting, to voice our reactions to political developments even if ultimately it does not matter very much in the grand scheme of things what we think.

In touching upon more serious subjects, I harbor no illusions that I will change anyone’s minds. Richard Posner, a legal academic at the University of Chicago and sitting judge, wrote a book called the Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory in which he dismissed “academic moralism” -- moral theory -- as “bunk” because such debate never changes anyone’s minds, instead only hardening opinion fault lines. The only real way to change people’s opinions, he wrote, was to present empirical data. But I am skeptical that even advances in empirical knowledge can make much difference because hard data must be interpreted for it to have any meaning, and how one interprets data is dependent on that person’s pre-existing worldview. For example, suppose that a sociological study showed that legalizing gay marriage resulted in a lower rate of traditional marriages. What to do with such data is a matter of interpretation: opponents of gay marriage might point to such data to bolster their argument that gay marriage should not be permitted because it threatens the demise of the traditional family, while supporters might see such data as supporting their side on the basis that the traditional model of the family was repressive in that people were pushed in that direction because there were no socially acceptable alternatives. In this way, it is unlikely that such empirical observations really resolve any disputes because they require interpretation to have any value and, once interpreted, can be used as ammunition by those committed to their views.

But even if I don’t change any minds, I still hope that I can challenge my readers to think more critically about current events, and that they in turn will force me to sharpen my own arguments. This has been a great learning experience for me, and I hope it has been for you as well.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You've made like 4 comments. Why dont you wait until you've been blogging for a few months, or even a year or two, before you get retrospective.

1/16/2005 12:27:00 AM  
Blogger Ha ha hit him again said...

I tend to disagree about the value of empiricism. While empirical analysis can never substitute for moral judgments, it often can inform the argument. Let us take the example you raised with respect to gay marriage. Theoretically we could probe further and attempt to quantify both the benefit of legalizing same-sex marriage to those who support it and the harm to those who oppose. (Whether this is possible in practice is another matter, but any failure on this front is due to a lack of proper metrics, not due to a failure of measurement in principle). Although I am no social critic, I myself would predict that the benefits to the former outweigh the costs to the latter, despite the series of state constitutional amendments that were passed in the previous election. Now, this in and of itself is not a reason to legalize gay marriage, as we as a society might place greater weight on the opinions of those who oppose it. Such judgments can only be made from a set of moral values. But the empirical analysis, conducted and interpreted properly, can clarify with some precision who the winners and losers are, and debunk false claims by people on both sides. This is certainly easier said than done, but that is no reason why we shouldn't try.

1/16/2005 01:11:00 AM  
Blogger putonyourspecs said...

Your argument assumes utilitarianism by looking to who benefits more. But why should we base our judgments on this ground? Many natural law theorists, for example, look almost solely, if not solely, to principle, whatever the outcome may be (most notoriously Immanuel Kant with his categorical imperative). They don't care at all who the winners and losers are. Some might even believe that the losers should be punished, rather than bought off, as a Christian evangelical might believe that a gay person should burn in hell.

Hard data may eventually alter the calculation of moral questions — but in ways different from what Posner imagines. Rather than helping to resolve hard cases, advances in science are likely to create new controversies as we develop new tools with new uses, some never before imagined, as in the case of stem cell cloning. To the extent that science helps to resolve thorny issues, it may generally be by virtue of innovations that make it unnecessary to make hard choices. Advances in clean fuel technology may (hopefully) make the whole debate over global warming disappear (although there may presently be outlines of a way to reconcile the environment with the economy, today’s state of knowledge still requires making hard choices). In this way, the moral impact of advances in understanding will, for the most part, be felt over a long period of time as societies adjust to new technologies; in the interim period, advances in knowledge are unlikely to have much impact.

Although the history of science is rich with examples of experimentalists who made discoveries before the public was ready to accept them, as in the cases of Copernicus and Galileo, today’s debates with at least one notable exception, rarely contest the validity of discoveries and are instead concerned with their implications, as in the case of stem cell research. The notable exception, which was discussed earlier, is evolution theory, in which it might be said that some people are not “ready” for it, clinging to the view that the Bible is the final authority on this matter, the same way it was once thought incontestable that the Sun revolved around the Earth.

1/16/2005 09:02:00 AM  
Blogger Ha ha hit him again said...

I believe I said that analyzing who the winners and losers are can help clarify the terms of the debate, not that we should base our moral judgments on such considerations. In fact, I said the opposite - " Now, this in and of itself is not a reason to legalize gay marriage, as we as a society might place greater weight on the opinions of those who oppose it. Such judgments can only be made from a set of moral values."

My point is that empiricism can debunk or support claims made by activisits on both sides. Too often people will assert that "the American people believe", "a majority agree with me", "the election results speak for themselves", etc. And it is also useful in quantifying the gains and losses of policy changes. You may choose to ignore this information, but it at least tells us what the fuss is all about and often helps identify the motives of those supporting or opposing a particular program.

1/16/2005 03:31:00 PM  
Blogger putonyourspecs said...

I had understood that sentence to mean that society might place greater weight on the opinions of people for who they are, not the principles they stand for. My apologies for the misunderstanding.

I agree that empirical data can be used to debunk claims that often serve as pretext. I'm skeptical, however, that people will become converts upon seeing data because the debate is rarely over what the facts are, but the morality of the underlying acts.

1/16/2005 03:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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1/16/2005 04:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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1/17/2005 02:18:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think you will change many people's opinions if you continue to look at the satircal side of politics. You said you were expecting more humorous posts (or at least thats how I interpreted it) so I am not sure if your intent should also to sway people's opinions. If you want to sway people's opinions you could always direct them to my site because if they don't change their opinion on an issue I write about I am sure they will change their opinion about me (and not in a good way). To end off on a humourous yet serious note, if you want to sway my opinion and get me to comment more on a regular basis if you provide me w/ the winning lottery numbers to the megamillions (and of course tell no one else them) - I will think (or at least let you believe so) anyway you want.

1/19/2005 06:45:00 PM  

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