Are people getting better or worse at taking others’ perspectives?

Michael Shermer at Reason writes that mankind is being uplifted by a “moral Flynn effect”–not only are we much smarter than our ancestors; we are also much more moral, and the smarter among us are the most moral of all.  Of course, one’s opinion of this thesis will depend on whether one agrees or disagrees with the moral novelties of recent decades.  I’ll leave the critique of the writer’s biases and unwarranted assumptions to readers who feel they’re not getting enough practice at that sort of thing, limiting myself to a quibble over language.  I would say that the trend he describes is not so much men becoming more moral as men becoming more docile.  The very intelligent, I am willing to concede, are a very docile bunch, inclined neither to violent crime nor to questioning the reigning liberal dogmas, these being Shermer’s two measures of moral advance.  Docility is usually a good thing–heaven forbid I speak disparagingly of it!–but it is not quite the same thing as morality, a potentially wilder attribute.

What I’d really like to talk about is an interesting claim that comes up in the essay.  Shermer proposes an explanation for the connection between intelligence and morality:  intelligence helps us understand the perspective of others, which makes us treat them better.  Thus, the more intelligent of us have broader sympathies, and as the Flynn effect raises the general IQ, society as a whole becomes more compassionate and just.  Here we have an empirical claim that can stand apart from the ethical commitments of the writer.  One might even make this claim while remaining ambivalent on the moral value of perspective-shifting.  Traditionally, justice was seen as the “view from nowhere”; just sampling the different perspectives couldn’t reveal which one is right.  Compassion can be misdirected.  Failure to punish can be a defect of justice.  The more sympathetic party is not always the one in the right.

In fact, I doubt we are getting better at perspective-shifting.  My observations all go the other way.  It seems to me that modern men are uniquely lacking in the ability to assume other peoples’ perspectives, and in fact that they have gotten noticeably worse at it over the course of my own lifetime.

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Seen on Facebook: Modern Advice

ModernAdvice

You see?  What’s wrong with your life is that you are not selfish enough.  What’s wrong with your life is that you accept human relationships which do not benefit you.  What’s wrong with your life is that you are not sufficiently entertained.  What’s wrong with your life is that you are too reticent to pursue good feelings.  Plus, you’ll feel better after you fill those hooks with new clothes.

Women seem to really, really hate one another.

Sport is not about fighting or hunting

A while ago, Michael O’Hare, Professor of Public Policy at Berkeley, wrote:

School team nicknames have many strange conventions, especially the taste for war and predation. A game isn’t a war, or a fight!

This was an off-hand comment in a blog post discussing something else, but a brilliant one.

It is easy to know that figure skating is not a sport and that biathlon is a sport. What is harder to know is why. The most common attempt at explanation is that real sports (like soccer or American football) do not involve judging. Which is kind of funny when you stop to think about it. OK, OK, subjective judging. But that doesn’t work either. The scoring in figure skating is no more subjective than the various tests used to make calls in American football. And what is more subjective than the decision of when to award a penalty kick in soccer? Continue reading

Whether Leftism is a Christian heresy

Of course not.  And yet the claim is often heard from groups that otherwise agree on very little.  The neo-pagan and neo-reactionary Right say that Leftism is just the working out of noxious elements present in Christianity from the beginning.  Some say that these were temporarily offset by other, positive, elements of Christianity; others are under the impression that Christianity itself is pure Leftist drivel but only seemed otherwise because of its “Germanization”, i.e. a borrowed veneer of pagan virility.  (Remember, most people don’t know anything about the pre-Constantinian Church or the Christianized Roman Empire, so the idea that Christians were a bunch of pacifist, egalitarian hippies until the conversion of the Germans actually sounds plausible to them.)  On the other hand, we have all encountered Christian apologists eager to claim that, on balance, Christianity has been on the side of “progress”, that democracy, female equality, and anti-racism really are in some profound sense our ideas and could never have taken hold without the Gospel.

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A plea for mercy

We have all been inspired by Pope Francis’ and Cardinal Kasper’s gestures of compassion to the divorced and remarried.  Indeed, we are all sinners, and these wise prelates know that the Lord’s table is no place to exclude those who refuse to submit to Jesus’ statements on remarriage.  However, it should be remembered that selective mercy is often a greater cruelty to those who remain outside its graces.  Let us not forget those other sensitive Christian souls who have for so long suffered judgement and exclusion from the Church.  I refer, of course, to that other subset of unrepentant adulterers, the ones who haven’t abandoned their first families and civilly remarried.

Consider, if you will, the dilemma of a believing Catholic man who has found himself in a relationship with a mistress.  Rosary-counting Catholics–more Pharisee than Christian!–would condemn this man for his sins of “lust”, but I know that many extramarital relationships involve genuine friendship, love, and spiritual fellowship.  We acknowledge that the love in this man’s marriage has failed, and we have to feel the pain of the failure; we have to accompany those persons who have experienced this failure of their own love.  Not to condemn them!  To walk with them!  And to not take a casuistic attitude towards their situation.

What do adulterers actually hear from us though, when they earnestly desire to participate fully in the life of the Church?  Do we not presume to judge them?  Do we not cruelly demand that they severe those extramarital attachments that bring them so much joy and comfort?  Do we not hold the Lord hostage, saying that adulterers may not receive the Eucharist until they conform to our ideas of an acceptable level of monogamy?  Yes, we acknowledge that it may not be practical for a man never to see his mistress again, but we insist that when he does spend time with her they should behave as brother and sister.  But this is cruelly unrealistic!  A man may have an intensely meaningful relationship with his mistress.  Illegitimate children might be involved.  Plus, she might be totally hot.

Consider also the utter perversity of the fact that if this man were to abandon his wife and children to poverty and fatherlessness and “marry” his mistress, he would be welcomed with open arms in the Church of Pope Francis the Merciful.  Is it not bizarre that we accept a man who breaks all of his marital vows but not a man who only breaks one of them?

What should the Church do in such situations?  It cannot propose a solution that is different from or contrary to the words of Moses.  The question is therefore how the Church can reflect this command of fidelity in its pastoral action concerning adulterers.  It is always the case that those in mortal sin are called to spiritual communion with the Church even though they can’t receive sacramental communion.  But if one, why not the other?  Some maintain that non-participation in communion is itself a sign of the sanctity of the sacrament.  The question that is posed in response is:  is it not perhaps an exploitation of the person who is suffering and asking for help if we make him a sign and a warning for others?  Are we going to let him die of hunger sacramentally in order that others may live?

Now, it is true, alas, that the Church cannot disregard the biblical teaching that cheating on one’s spouse is sinful.  However, while doctrine teaches us what is true in the abstract, it doesn’t judge concrete particulars.  Thus, just as we now know that although sodomy is abstractly speaking always a mortal sin, every particular homosexual relationship is wonderful and deserving of civil affirmation, we can say that although adultery is wrong in the abstract, human beings are not abstractions, and we may not judge any particular extramarital dalliance.  We shall not presume to tell the husband with a wandering eye whom he may and may not love!  Look, the same bible that teaches us about the virtue of fidelity and marriage also tells us not to judge people.  So I would say to the married man who’s on the side proudly banging his secretary “Bravo“.

Yes, we may say that monogamy is ideal, so long as we don’t proudly imply that open marriages among our sincere Christian brothers and sisters are therefore inferior.  Nor may we imagine that a man’s sexual desire for his wife is somehow more wholesome than a desire for some random other woman.  That would be to encourage the sin of pride in those who happen to be attracted to their spouses, an inclination that is not in itself praiseworthy.

Acceptance of adultery means compassion toward everyone:  the cheater, the mistress,…, um, yeah, everyone.

Why all the Self-Esteem Talk?

My area of the country has an FM music station that advertises itself as “family-friendly.” It plays nothing but the latest Christian rock songs and although it has no commercials, it intersperses the music with vaguely Christianoid happy talk. Apparently it is sponsored by a consortium of Evangelical churches. The rest of my family enjoys it to a certain extent, so I have no choice but to listen from time to time.

One day, I heard one of their station breaks say approximately the following:

Children love it when their parents tell them how great they are! Call us and record an affirmation of your child that we can broadcast, and don’t forget to build up your child today by telling him how great he is!

Certainly it is good to commend your child for a job well done. And parents should generally be positive toward their children. But there is no mention here of waiting for the child to do something praiseworthy. Just tell them they’re great, out of the blue.

Typical postmodern drivel, but it caused me to consider why self-esteem has caught on as one of the important concepts of our age. I think one reason is that modern life is officially nihilistic—albeit nihilism with a happy face painted on it—and naturally children respond with despair, at least when they grow old enough to notice the nihilism. Continue reading

Supersizing the Whopper: Higher Ed in the Trenches

My old graduate-school office-mate “Ivar the Midwesterner,” who teaches at “a nondescript, mid-tier state college west of the Mississippi and east of the Left Coast,” has, for years, collected the wildest, most desperate student-improvisations from the final examination in his survey of the classics in translation.  Some entries in the following catalogue come from as long ago as ten years while others are of recent vintage.  Ivar writes that he started to insert sic where it seemed necessary, but soon grew sic of it.

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“You social conservatives are so sex-obsessed!”

Only because you social liberals were sex-obsessed first. It was only because you lobbied–hard, and ultimately successfully–for the normalization and legalization of (in roughly chronological order) divorce, contraception, cohabitation, abortion, pornography, and homosexuality that we’ve then had to lobby against these things. In this way, “you social conservatives are so sex-obsessed” is the moral and political equivalent of “stop hitting yourself.”