Sunday, May 07, 2006

On Caitlin Flanagan

Before these past seven days, I had never heard of Caitlin Flanagan. I haven't heard of a lot of semi-important to important personages in the journalism world, so this might be no surprise at all. She's a writer for the New Yorker, writes about books for the Atlantic, and in sum has far more credentials than I am ever likely to accrue.

Lindsay Beyerstein has an excellent takedown of Flanagan's recent article for Time, in which she posits that Democrats are driving working women out of the party because they have infinite disdain for housewives and “traditional families.” Lucky, Beyerstein is on the case:

Allow me to suggests an alternate hypothesis: Flanagan doesn't command respect because she's a lightweight and a hypocrite.

Flanagan is so self-centered that she mistakes personal insecurity for consensual reality. Since when has the Democratic Party rejected the traditional family? All politicians heap praise on home, hearth, and parenthood. Marriage is practically mandatory for anyone seeking higher office.

Distinguishing Basic and Secondary Moral Values

I have little to add to Beyerstein's critique, except this: Flanagan commits the common sin of confusing basic and secondary moral values.1 I am going to use a very simple example, based heavily on one of Peter Singer's in “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”:

Suppose I am walking to work one morning. As I walk by a school, a teenager begins insulting me rather viciously: I look frail, have poor skin, poor taste in clothes, and so on. I never feel threatened, ignore him as best I can, and continue on my way.

On the way home from work that evening, I stop by a local pond. As I sit there, a teenager runs by me on the bank of the pond. It is the same person I saw this morning!

All of a sudden, he gets distracted, still running at full speed. He is not looking where he is going, and he hits his head on a low-hanging tree branch, falling face-first into the water. He does not move after a short time, and if I do not help him, it is clear that he will drown.

Because I recognize him as the insulting teenager, I let him sit there. He drowns, and I walk home.

I am clearly morally remiss here. This is true regardless of his insulting, indeed intentionally unpleasant, behavior that morning.

This follows Singer's second premiss: “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.” In my example, we have two consequences to weigh by Singer's “calcuation,” one implied: the bad I can prevent from happening (a teenager drowning), and whether I am sacrificing anything of comparable moral import by doing so, such as my self-esteem, the shoes I might ruin in wading into the pond, and so forth. Any loss I might sustain is nowhere near the bad I have the power to prevent; therefore I am obligated to save the teenager.

The error expressed in the example, where I confuse the weight of two wrongs, is exactly the same error that Flanagan makes.

I am a 44-year-old woman who grew up in Berkeley who has never once voted for a Republican, or crossed a picket line, or failed to send in a small check when the Doctors Without Borders envelope showed up. I believe that we should not have invaded Iraq, that we should have signed the Kyoto treaty, that the Starr Report was, in part, the result of a vast right-wing conspiracy. I believe that poverty is our most pressing issue and that we should be pouring money and energy into its eradication. I believe that allowing migrant women and children to die of thirst in American deserts is a moral transgression that will stain us forever.

[T]here is apparently no room for me in the Democratic Party. In fact, I have spent much of the past week on a forced march to the G.O.P...

Here's why they're after me: I have made a lifestyle choice that they can't stand, and I'm not cowering in the closet because of it. I'm out, and I'm proud. I am a happy member of an exceedingly "traditional" family. I'm in charge of the house and the kids, my husband is in charge of the finances and the car maintenance, and we all go to church every Sunday.

Time magazine, May 8, 2006

Flanagan clearly knows that the Republicans support a number of positions that she finds wrong: the positive action of the war in Iraq, for example, as well as negligence with regards to poverty and the deaths of migrants. But she feels that Democratic “contempt” is sending her on a “forced march to the G.O.P.”

Doing so, then, weighs the nebulous and intangible wrong of contempt more than that of the very real “ allowing migrant women and children to die of thirst in American deserts.” This is seriously flawed, as my example is meant to illustrate.

One could say that Flanagan is not making this calculation, however, as she refers to herself as a Democrat still. Even if I grant that point, she still weighs them closely enough—and sympathizes with those women who make the errant calculation—that her sense of basic moral values is seriously compromised.

Flanagan, I suspect, would make a terrible triage nurse, treating patients in order of unhappiness rather than likelihood of survival.

Flanagan's errors are far from unique. Indeed, they're very common. Most people who are single-issue voters in this country are acting irrationally, even if we accept without question their underlying assumptions—presuming, of course, that voting at all is a rational choice. (Environmentalists, human rights activists on the left and right, and millenarian Christian groups comprise the exceptions I can think of straight away.) Indeed, it's very possible that most voters are acting irrationally, even if we don't try to argue for each individual's discrete ethical values. Think of it this way: Anyone who voted for Bush in 2004 because they didn't want to "undermine America's troops" committed the same error as Flanagan above. It was clear even then that many innocent Iraqis had died because of Bush's actions, and that many more would, yet these lives carried little weight with Bush voters.

So let's have one more experiment for today. Take the pond story above, but instead of insulting me, let's have the teenager insult the military, and especially the active duty troops.

Does the conclusion change when I refuse to help him?

A Disclaimer that Applies to All Ethics Postings

I have exactly zero formal training in philosophy. I'm an autodidact, and, as hard as it is to admit, not particularly expert in this field, though I have read a lot of books. Also, I like to argue. I write about ethics because I'm interested in ethics, and I do my best to make solid arguments.

All I can say in my defense is that I like understanding why I am wrong.

1I am giving Flanagan the benefit of the doubt, and presuming that in fact she does not believe that “don't be snobby” is on par with “don't kill.” I have no evidence other than my own experience and intuition that she is making the errors I attribute to her, though I don't believe that my thesis is indeed controversial.

As I am not a relativist (obviously), I feel free to say this: If Flanagan were being ethically consistent, I believe she would be an abhorrent person.

No comments: