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Today at #lunchWithAConservative, I may have actually acquired a few insights into the conservative mind -- or at least confirmed a few I already had. Fortunately, I was on my game today: when he said something outrageous, I called him on it even if it meant interrupting a point he was making. Also fortunately, he seems to enjoy being firmly but civilly disagreed with. Go figure.

So first, we find that there had to be something behind the Clock Incident, because why did they (school and police) go to all that trouble if there wasn't?

I explained that there was absolutely no evidence that the kid had done anything wrong or intended to do anything wrong, and we have a thing in this country called "innocence before guilt"... at which point he admitted that the police and the school were probably just being stupid. I said actually, they clearly wanted to humiliate the Muslim kid.

He admitted to being an Islamophobe, though not in the sense of having an irrational fear; he argued that Islam is more strict in its admonishments -- that "Islam" means "submission", that there are specific penalties for failure to obey (which Christianity lacks), etc. I pointed out that Christianity has many such admonishments as well, and that there had been far more Christian-based terrorism in the US in the past decade than Islam-based terrorism; he made counterpoints having to do with Islam-controlled governments, which I said wasn't a fair comparison because Christian Dominionists would do exactly the same thing if they gained control of the US government.

He said he was skeptical that Dominionists were a significant force in the US. I pointed out that a number of GOP Congressmen (past and present) are Dominionists.

That particular thread began and ended the discussion. In between, a number of more interesting things came up.

During the Islam-vs-Christianity part of the discussion, I noted that it was a bit like comparing stinking cesspits, and trying to decide which one you liked best: both religions are horrible, I said. "All religion is poison" (to rational discourse, but I didn't get that part in).

He said something about how the world is a complicated place, and people need something (some philosophy, I think he meant) with which "to fill their heads", and much better that it should be Christianity -- which had given rise to Western Civilization, after all -- than Islam.

I disputed that Christianity was in any way responsible for Western Civ -- that Christianity had at best ridden on the coattails of progress, often fighting against it every step of the way. I mentioned Galileo, Giordani Bruno, Copernicus... and noted that now, when Christianity fortunately no longer controls the government, it's still fighting Darwin and trying to kill people it doesn't agree with.

He then quoted someone (whom he admitted was a Christian apologist -- to my mind, an "apologist" is not a good thing to be, but others may hear it as being more synonymous with "defender", so maybe this wasn't so much an admission on his part as simply an accurate description) who said that if people didn't believe in religion, they'd believe absolutely anything.

I noted that this simply isn't true. He went on to say that science can't prescribe moral behavior. I said no, but it can help us to determine what moral behavior would be, given the basic ethical goals of minimizing harm and maximizing benefit. I used my personal sense of ethics as an example: I never followed the teaching of any religion, but I try to help people and not hurt them because I like it when people are happy and I don't want to be the cause of hurting someone. (Duh.)

"People wanmt some kind of moral guidelines, and religion provides that", he said (something like that). I said people want to feel good about themselves, and heroin provides that. (I half-expected him to mention Marx and "religion is the opiate of the masses", but he didn't.)

He made a comment about some moral values being inexplicable in terms of harm/benefit -- why is it moral or "good" for a Muslim woman to wear a hijab, for example -- and I clarified that this is a different usage of the word "moral" than the one I intended.

I then explained about the two types of "morality":

  • morality which means adherence to a set of rules -- it doesn't matter if your adherence harms others; it is the adherence _itself_ that is "good" or "bad"
  • morality which means minimizing harm and maximizing benefit (I tend to call this "ethics" in order to avoid confusion, though +Steve S has said that in fact this is the real definition of "moral", and the other one has a different proper name...iirc. I haven't had a chance to research this, but my general experience is that when people say "moral" they're usually referring to a fixed moral code, and when people say "ethical" they're usually talking about whether something risks causing someone undue harm, or about a set of guidelines (not rules) intended to minimize such harm.)

At this point he said I was a utilitarian -- in a tone of voice that placed "utilitarian" on an equal plane with any number of other worldviews -- "and there are any number of objections to utilitarianism".

I said yes, but I believe they can all be answered.

He said that nobody could foresee all of the possible consequences of an action.

I pointed out that by at least _trying_ to do so, you're going to get much better results than by blindly following a set of rules. If religion says you should follow the rules regardless of the consequences you see, then it's forcing you to choose between obedience and conscience.

He said I seemed to have thought about this stuff a great deal, and I explained how it had all started with the re-election of Bush in 2004 -- that I couldn't believe it when it happened, after everything he had done, and that I decided to start seriously investigating political argument in order to understand what I was missing. (That's how Issuepedia got started.)

"There must be some reason, some body of evidence..." I started to say -- at which point he interrupted to note that it's not about evidence, it's about "who you feel you can relate to".

He also wants me to read some book by Jonathan Haidt, but I've had my fill of Haidt.


So, what I get from all this:

  1. Conservatism is the worldview of those who prefer inaccurate certainties over accurate uncertainties.
  2. Conservatism is epistemology that is based on tribal affiliation rather than reasoning from observation.
  3. Conservatism is based on privilege: everything seems fine to me, and I don't want to risk changing that just because it might help someone else.

None of this is exactly news, but it's interesting to have reached the point in the discussion where we have a conservative basically agreeing that these things are true. I get a vague sense that he accepts that they are perhaps somewhat uncomfortable philosophically but nonetheless necessary in order to get along with one's life.