MS-13 are animals. We all are.

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Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

President Donald Trump called MS-13 gang members “animals.”

E.J. Dionne from the Washington Post disagreed, saying that “It’s never right to call other human beings ‘animals.’”

And writing for the National Review, Dennis Prager responded that Dionne reveals “the moral sickness at the heart of leftism.”

Dionne thinks his position is beyond debate: “No matter how debased the behavior of a given individual or group…dehumanizing others always leads us down a dangerous path.”

Worse, “Dehumanizing those he and his core constituents see as radically different is central to Trump’s project.”

Prager, however, writes that dehumanizing some people actually protects the rest of us. He continues, “By rhetorically reading certain despicable people out of the human race, we elevate the human race. We have declared certain behaviors out of line with being human.”

Prager means human in the moral, not biological sense. Otherwise, what meaning does the word “inhumane” have? Would Dionne not see the Nazis as inhuman?

Prager clarifies that inhumanity should be based on behavior and not “directed at people based on their race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, or any other immutable physical characteristic.”

Dionne deals in absolutes: never and no debate. But the problem with absolutes is a lack of nuance. However, Prager doesn’t add enough nuance to this discussion. He still imputes inhumanity to individuals based on group membership. Certainly joining the Nazi party or MS-13 involves a serious moral compromise. But some Nazis and gang members commit worse atrocities than others.

We have all harmed others. A key question is: At what degree of harm do we lose our moral status as human? And what must we do to gain it back? Too often the answer is self-serving and lacking in self-awareness.

We are all animals. Biologically and morally.

Homo sapiens evolved over millions of years. And like our chimpanzee cousins, we can be vicious. Even bonobos may not deserve their peaceful reputation. And we still carry this evolutionary heritage with us. But we also evolved frontal lobes capable of inhibiting violent behavior—capable even of reason when we are at our best.

We are all animals. But we can do better.

Prager’s statement about the sickness at the heart of leftism highlights the problem. His us-vs.-them attitude seems to assume that progressives are sick and conservatives are morally elevated.

Does Prager recognize that he too is an animal?

The animal within can too easily escape if we fail to admit we too are capable, under certain circumstances, of inhumanity. Those who fail to understand this are in danger of becoming the monster they seek to destroy.

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Is classical liberalism the same as libertarianism?

Classical liberalism is a big tent with many entrances. Libertarianism is but one.

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© Dave DuBay

YouTube talk show host Dave Rubin likes to ask what, if any, is the difference between classical liberalism and libertarianism. The most common answer is that there is none.

Classical liberalism used to be called just plain old liberalism. But while modern American liberals favor individual freedom in the social sphere, they are often anti-capitalist. Besides, the left today seems to increasingly favor the term “progressive,” which is more straightforward. Meanwhile, conservatives are stronger on economic freedom but weak on civil liberties. But libertarians favor both laissez-faire capitalism and a high degree of personal freedom.

Classical liberalism, like democracy, human rights, and capitalism, resulted from the Enlightenment’s focus on individuality, science, and reason. At its core, classical liberalism is the belief that individual rights are the basis of universal human rights.

After all, if I don’t support human rights for others then I have no reason to expect others to support my human rights. From this it follows that everyone—regardless of identity group or demographic profile—must be equal under the law.

Further, the things I have a right to are things that inherently belong to me. My life, my identity, my speech, my religion and beliefs, my innocence, and so on. Rights, then, restrict government from telling us that we can’t say certain things, that we can’t worship a certain god (or that we must worship a god), that we’re guilty without due process or a fair trial, and so on. But of course, government can restrict us from doing things that deprive others of their rights.

In other words, rights are about what government can’t do, not what government must provide. But this doesn’t prohibit government from providing certain things.

Checks and balances—mechanisms for each branch of government to override the others—also limit governmental power. And decentralization is important. Something should be up to the individual if it’s best handled by the individual. If a municipality can best handle something then the state or province should step back. And the national government shouldn’t intervene if the state or province can handle it.

This freedom extends to free enterprise. But how limited should government involvement in the economy be? Short of anarcho-capitalism most would agree that some government involvement is necessary. Libertarians limit this to property protection. But I think some government regulation of externalities—such as environmental protection; and the provision of a social safety net for the most vulnerable—such as children, the elderly, and people with disabilities—is ideal.

This is not a libertarian position. But it’s still within the framework of classical liberalism.

Skeptic Magazine editor Michael Shermer writes for Quillette that “the prevailing emphasis on the group over the individual” departs from classical liberalism. The left categorizes people as oppressed or oppressors based on the intersection of identity groups they belong to. And the right “sort[s] people into collectivities according to religion and national origin.” This “self-factionalizing into groups” encourages “increasingly militant political and ideological movements rooted in personal identity.” Because they are so entrenched in identity politics, neither Democrats nor Republicans are liberals in the classical sense.

Shermer lists the essentials of classical liberalism as:

  • Democracy with voting rights for all adult citizens
  • Rule of law
  • Protection of civil rights and civil liberties
  • Police and military protection
  • Property rights and a secure monetary system
  • Free internal movement for all
  • Freedom of the press, speech, and association
  • Education available to all

To this he adds “adequate public spending to help the needy,” noting that he didn’t support this in his younger, libertarian days. But with a middle-age perspective he sees this as essential to a society that enables the individual to flourish.

Another example of a non-libertarian classical liberal is New York Times columnist David Brooks. A former Republican, he lends his support to the centrist Modern Whig Party. Brooks writes, “If progressives generally believe in expanding government to enhance equality, and libertarians try to reduce government to expand freedom, Whigs seek to use limited but energetic government to enhance social mobility.”

The original Whig Party collapsed in the early 1800s over the abolition of slavery. Whether Modern Whigs will become a political force remains to be seen (but I doubt it).

Whether the classical liberalism of Democrats like Bill Maher will prevail over progressive identity politics remains to be seen (but I doubt it).

But perhaps the biggest question of all is the future of the Republican Party. Young people avoid the GOP. But the large majority of millennials who remain don’t support President Donald Trump—the exact opposite of their elders. Millennial Republicans are also more supportive of marriage equality and legalizing marijuana. Will millennials root out right-wing identity politics? Maybe.

 

Progress and relativism

If morality is relative then by what standard can we say society is or is not making progress?

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© Dave DuBay

Saying that right and wrong are social constructs implies that actions aren’t intrinsically right or wrong. In other words, if human opinion is the essence of morality then we can’t say something is inherently wrong regardless of what some people might think.

That’s a common criticism of moral relativism. But taking this a step farther one can argue that the idea of progress makes no sense because progress implies an external standard along which a person or a society can move from a lower to a higher state. Sure, you can make progress toward your personal goals. But your goals are not universal. Other people or cultures might think your values are wrong.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that anything is permissible under relativism. Every culture and every person (except maybe psychopaths) believes certain things are wrong. So it does not follow that behaviorally secular relativists must be less moral than religious people. After all, Islamists believe Allah wants them to blow people up. On the other hand, there’s no basis for a relativist to claim that their moral beliefs should be considered universal.

But if we do believe certain things are right or wrong no matter what anyone thinks—and most of us do believe this—then we’re implying that morality is objective. If morality is objective, however, then how do we distinguish what really is right or wrong from people’s misconceptions?

This is often solved with an appeal to religion. God establishes right and wrong. And the Bible explains it all. Or the Koran. Or another scripture. It depends on your opinion about which scripture is the true Word of God, and how to interpret that scripture. So we’re stuck in a cycle of opinion.

Scriptures have others problems as well. Should gays and never married women who are not virgins be executed? The Bible says yes (Leviticus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 22:20-21).

Despite apologetics that try to explain it away, it’s hard to honestly say that a perfectly good deity would command such a thing. Further, if humanity has morally progressed beyond such barbarism then humans have morally surpassed the biblical God. This implies that if morality is objective then God didn’t create it.

But could the laws of morality, like scientific claims about the laws of nature, have emerged spontaneously without a divine creator? The problem is that morality necessarily entails conscious intentions, so how does one construct a convincing argument that the laws of conscious intentions emerged by chance with no consciousness or intentionality behind them?

I don’t have perfect answers to these questions. One challenge of being human is that we’re smart enough to ask questions that we’re not smart enough to answer. But I can reach a few tentative conclusions.

A non-theist must accept the implications of relativism or develop a more compelling answer to these questions. But if God exists, and if God is the source of morality, then it seems to me that the best we can do is strive to understand morality while acknowledging that our perceptions are deeply flawed, and that we are easily led astray. And religion, rather than being a corrective, has long been a great catalyst for leading us astray. Scriptures, then, are human attempts to understand God, not the inerrant revelation of God.

We should trust no one who claims to know God’s will. And one should distrust one’s own beliefs about God’s will most of all—the temptation for self-justification is too great. This means that morality is primarily about rigorous self-criticism, which includes the realization that pointing a finger at others is usually just an avoidance tactic.

 

When consent isn’t enough

Societal expectations of casual sex ignore how many people feel about sex.

© Dave DuBay

David French, writing for the conservative National Review, muses that the inevitable moment for #MeToo has arrived—an “uncomfortable” sexual encounter has been labeled sexual assault. French says this reveals “the defects of modern sexuality.”

He has no interest in defending comedian Aziz Ansari: “Under no circumstances should a man treat Grace the way Ansari treated her. It was wrong. Full stop.”

But our culture sexualizes too many things, French goes on to say, including first dates. Yet, “human beings have a desperate need for a sexual morality that transcends consent.” More specifically,

Even if men and women reject Christian morality and believe that waiting for marriage is a bridge too far, the decision to delay sex until well after the formation of a healthy relationship will protect people from an immense amount of heartbreak.

As old fashioned as this may sound, there needs to be a wider discussion of French’s point. Not sexualizing everyday situations doesn’t mean stigmatizing casual sex—everyone has the right to live their life as they choose. But society’s acceptance of casual sex has morphed into the expectation of casual sex.

The so-called sexual revolution involved many things, and the birth control pill tops the list. The pill enabled women to have sex with much less fear of pregnancy, even to the point where some women declared that they could have sex like men—casually, promiscuously, and without emotional attachment. Never mind that such a view promotes one dimensional stereotypes about men. It also ignores the emotional aspect of sex.

Since the 1960s, pop culture’s portrayal of sex has in many way become more unrealistic. Did people today grow up thinking that they should engage in casual sex like TV stars? Did the absence of emotional repercussions on the silver screen lead people to think there would be no emotional fallout from having sex with a relative stranger?

And do women and men experience this differently? Sociologist David Buss found that although women and men engage in casual sex about as often, women are much more likely to regret it afterwards.  This is true cross culturally, and for lesbians. Buss notes that this seems to involve more than just culture.

This, of course, contradicts the popular progressive claim that biology plays no role with gender, though you’d be hard pressed to find a neuroscientist or biologist who agrees. This doesn’t mean that biological determinism is true, or that culture plays no role. But it does mean that we need to consider the big picture.

For men modern society values quantity—the number of notches on his belt. And as we’ve seen with all the allegations of sexual assault, this can have serious consequences.

In the Washington Post, Elizabeth Bruenig writes that,

Sex is a domain so intimate and personal that more harm can be done than in most social situations, and that given that heightened capacity for harm, we should expect people to operate with greater conscientiousness, concern and care in that domain than in others.

She concludes that, “Demanding an expansion of empathy and responsibility when it comes to sex isn’t regressive.”

I would add that empathy and responsibility should be reciprocal. The initiator should be looking for signs that the advances are unwelcome. And in the absence of coercion or impairment, regret after consent is the responsibility of the person who feels regretful.

Fixing our culture is going to take a while. We can begin by educating young people that what they’ve learned about sex from pop culture is often not the way sex is in the real world. Some people are fine with casual sex but others are not, and there is a gender difference which is at least partially biologically influenced.

And we can encourage realistic expectations, such as the assumption that one’s dating partner sees things as casual unless stated otherwise. That means examining our feelings about casual sex, and if need be setting boundaries from the get go such as the old social norm of not going to someone’s apartment on the first few dates, or explicitly telling someone that sex outside of a relationship is not an option.

But individuals can’t go it alone. We need wider cultural support for people who choose these “old fashioned” norms. Pop culture will need to play a leading role.