Recently Alastair Roberts and I had the chance to do an email back and forth over an issue I’ve noticed increasingly often in the way that many are reasoning about issues of public ethics. Unsurprisingly, the discussion sprawled out a bit from there and brought in everything from the work of Jonathan Haidt to the bureaucratic state to the way that the internet shapes and constrains our reasoning. It’s a bit long, but hopefully enjoyable. My emails are in bold. Thanks for reading!
Alastair, here’s my basic observation. You tell me if I’m crazy.
In discussions of public policy it is very rare to find the online discussion beginning from a place of inquiry or a felt need to investigate further. There is a kind of instinctive assumption that we just know the good and so the main priority is then advocating for that good, shaming those who are opposed to it, etc. The name I’ve given this so far is “moral positivism.”
It seems like there are a number of things that likely feed into this. One of them is the assumption behind a lot of left-wing writing these days that most public problems aren’t necessarily moral problems, but administrative ones. Find the right public policy to realize the good and we’re sorted. That’s my biggest critique of the Vox.com set. (This is, of course, a quintessentially modern way of approaching social problems and is precisely the sort of thing CS Lewis is attacking in That Hideous Strength.)
Another point is that I think the Overton window on certain issues has become incredibly small. If something can plausibly be framed as being the position in favor of equality or the compassionate position, then it’s almost impossible to make arguments against it. Continue reading