Sunday, November 26, 2006

Carnival of Citizens #1

Welcome to the inaugural edition of the Carnival of Citizens. Many thanks to all who submitted entries -- I've had to be fairly selective in order to keep this to a manageable size. A quick disclaimer: as the mission of this carnival is to promote reasoned discussion, my introductory summaries will try to highlight possible issues for readers to respond to. These are by no means exhaustive, however, so I encourage you to check out the full posts, as you may find yourself more engaged by issues that I've neglected here.

First up, at the Open University, Cass Sunstein proposes three characteristics of political charity: to cast others' motives in the best possible light, to respect their deepest moral commitments, and to favour practical reforms that can be accepted even by those who reject your underlying theoretical ideals. Hence, "a central goal of those who display political charity is to obtain agreements on practices amidst disagreement or uncertainty about what, precisely, accounts for those practices." Do you think this captures the essence of political charity that we should be aiming at?

Erin O'Connor of Critical Mass raises some concerns about "in your face" protests:
No one learns from behavior like that. But plenty of people are angered. And that takes us that much further from the kind of civil, reasoned exchange that we should be trying to have about our country's hot button issues.

I'd love to know what readers think about styles of protest on both left and right, as well as about how students who want to raise awareness about issues--which usually amounts to promoting a particular view of an issue--can do so responsibly, with the greatest prospect of real, lasting success.

Atheist Ethicist Alonzo Fyfe calls for more "internal criticism" of our partisan allies who violate the norms of civil, democratic discourse:
We need to learn the importance of quickly standing up to members of whatever groups we belong to when they carry their dislike of some other group too far - to the point that they are engaging in immoral actions such as murder, theft, vandalism, or even lies and deception.

Timothy Scriven wants to develop a glossary for citizens, to introduce the key concepts that every citizen should learn. Head on over and contribute your suggestions.

At Overcoming Bias, Eliezer Yudkowsky explores "the metaphor that rationality is the martial art of mind":
How to communicate procedural skills of rationality, or measure them, is probably the single largest open issue that stands between humanity and rationality dojos - at least it's the part of the problem that most baffles me. Meanwhile I lecture. So does anyone out there have ideas?
A job for philosophers, perhaps?

The Good Neighbours blog promotes and exemplifies reasoned discussion between citizens of Middle Eastern nations. The linked post advocates the use of modern art like rap and slam poetry, for catharsis. The resulting discussion raises some interesting questions: "is expressing anger really cathartic? Or does it just lead to more anger, especially in the listeners?"

Greensmile tackles religion:
In some ways, the gulf between believers and non believers may be unbridgable but I have seen too many who actually share common political or social goals engaged in casual and callous disrespect when their own purposes would have been better served by not dwelling on the differences.

The post raises some interesting issues. In a central paragraph, the author suggests that they would rather just stop at the sociological observation that some people believe in God and others don't, rather than trying to settle which position is true. They add, "Where [religion] begets helpful attitudes and positive results, who am I to criticize?"

Yet, it seems to me, others might reasonably value truth and rationality for their own sakes, and hence be reluctant to simply abandon the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of social cohesion. Fortunately, total withdrawal from religious debate may not be necessary. The key lesson of the post, it seems to me, is that we should be willing to cooperate for practical purposes even with those with whom we have strong theoretical disagreements. This doesn't require abandoning those disagreements, but simply bracketing them temporarily, in recognition that there is a time and a place to pursue them further.

Speaking of religion: Heartfulls, as a supporter of gay marriage, would like to gain a better understanding of the biblical basis for opposition to homosexuality. Any Christian readers should feel welcome to head on over and share their thoughts on the issue.

Does raising the minimum wage lead to greater unemployment? Hilzoy of Obsidian Wings grants that higher costs drain demand when all else is equal, but puts forward some empirical evidence suggesting that the real world effects are less clear cut, and perhaps even non-existent. Is she right? Do you know of any opposing evidence to suggest that the costs of a minimum wage hike would outweigh the benefits to human welfare? If so, join in the conversation.

Riversider wants to Save The Ribble from a proposed local council development. For a non-local like myself, the post raised more general issues about the relationship between citizens and their elected representatives. It criticizes councillors for failing to commit to their position prior to sitting on a related committee. But shouldn't we want our representatives to be open-minded in their deliberations? The committee would be a farce if its members had pre-determined positions. Yet my criticism here is not entirely clear-cut, for it lies in tension with the democratic idea that councillors should be guided by public opinion, and held to account by their constituents. (For more on this issue, see my post contrasting the 'selection' vs. 'control' models of political representation.)

Finally, Brandon of Siris presents a two-part series on 'Government Neutrality and the Good Life'. The first part argues, contrary to a popular liberal view, that government cannot always remain "neutral" on questions of what constitutes the good life. The sequel argues that attempts to "legislate morality" may instead be opposed on the grounds that such intrusions violate basic rights -- rights that must be upheld no matter the majority opinion. Along the way, Brandon suggests that legal moralism confuses moral ends with the alleged means to their achievement:
[For example,] even if you think it completely wrong-headed, based on inadequate grasp of facts or inadequate understanding of moral ends and what counts as a family, you can see how a sincere argument that gay marriage should be illegal because the preservation of the family is a moral end of society might be worth the trouble of a careful response. An argument that gay marriage should be illegal because a lot of people think homosexuality is wrong seems, on the other hand, to be missing the point of government completely. [Italics added]

My rough summaries really can't do them justice though, so do be sure to read these carefully reasoned and rewarding posts in their entirety!

That concludes this edition of the Carnival of Citizens -- I hope it serves to catalyze some interesting discussions. The second edition will be hosted by Brandon at Siris on Dec 17, with the theme: Justice, War, and the Quest for Peace. He writes: "This edition will be devoted primarily to questions related to just war theory and pacifism, but all reasoned reflection about issues of war and peace are welcome." After writing such a post, you may submit it here.


  1. Glad you managed to get this Carnival off the ground. Congratulations!

  2. Lots of good stuff here. Great idea for a Carnival. Have you thought of doing one on educating for citizenship?

  3. Your comments are very interesting, as is your article on 'selection Vs control' of politicians.

    In general I would veer strongly toward total control over politicians, with much shorter periods of tenure and strict limits to their incumbency.

    This is because politicians do not operate in an ideal environment where it is possible for them to represent the true interests of the electorate or make their 'quasi judicial' decisions in an atmosphere of calm objectivity.

    On the contrary, even before they are elected, politicians are under immense pressure from corporate interests - the funding of political parties ensures this.

    Once elected, this pressure to represent interests of interests other than the electorate itself becomes even more intense, with strong inducements and acculturation being used to get politicians to toe a more corporate agenda - even before illegal corruption is ever brought into the equation, only a very tiny minority of highly principled/maverick politicians do not succumb to this acculturation process, whatever their initial intentions.

    This is why it is essential for a healthy political culture that we become used to demanding political commitments from all our politicians, locally and nationally, scrutinising everything they do carefully and in general treating them with a total lack of respect or deference - they are there to do a job on our behalf, and they should expect to be closely questioned by those charged with holding them to account (I.e. the voters).


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