Freedom, Liberty, and the Inevitable Interconnectedness of Human Life

As a citizen of the United States, I’ve spent more than a little time wondering if it’s entirely a good thing that our culture is so very individualistic.

American individualism does originate from some excellent roots. The colonies that became the United States were largely founded by farmers, entrepreneurs, dreamers, the dispossessed, and others with a bold, adventurous spirit that animated them to cross the seas and start a new life from scratch in an unknown country.

These migrants included religious dissenters who struck out on their own and founded new faiths, devising theological arguments to demonstrate the righteousness of their doing so. Their arguments would later be adopted for secular purposes as they were used, barely altered, to support the right to freedom of thought and speech, and were embraced widely by many independent-minded communities. They were also open to new ideas, and were often more ready to accept innovative moral and political theories of the Enlightenment which emphasized individual rights and self-sovereignty over traditional authoritarian and elitist social systems than were their European counterparts, and more ready and able to implement them. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and The Rights of Man, the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are all essentially Enlightenment documents, embodying that intellectual movement’s conception of human nature and of the just society founded upon individual human rights.

The American project has always depended on free, forward-thinking individuals, and our national creed is founded on these three core beliefs: that individual human lives are valuable for their own sake, and that human rights not only exist, their defense should be our highest priority, and that all legitimate governmental authority originates with the people as a whole. Political systems founded on these beliefs, conceived in Britain and established first in America, reveal the strength of this view, and over time proved that individuals and society alike benefit enormously when the rights and interests of individuals take highest priority.

Over time, as free-market economics and other liberalizing social forces have expanded the rights and opportunities of the individual, some have come to believe that society, as a concept and as an institution, should play a secondary role in matters of public policy and morality. Margaret Thatcher, for one, famously claimed there’s no such thing. ‘Society’, to Thatcher and others whose views of human social arrangements might best be called atomist, is more or less a shorthand term for a population of individuals in a certain place and time. In this view, it’s the individual, not the group, that matters. Focus on protecting the the rights and interests of individuals, they say, and everything else will fall into place.

For one thing, they claim, the more individual rights are emphasized, the better off everyone is. Compare constitutional democracies, republics, and free-market societies which emphasize individual rights with societies that emphasize the interests of the group, and we can see that the former do a much better job overall of enhancing people’s lives. There’s more wealth, less poverty,  more opportunity, and greater autonomy in the former. The reason it works out that way, they argue, is because human nature is naturally individualistic first, and social second. For example, Michael Shermer, a well-known science writer who leans libertarian, argues that just as the individual is the object or target of evolutionary selection (or in other words, what selection acts upon), so it is the individual who should be the object or target of ethical concern and legal protection. (See my response to Shermer’s article here.)

Some such individualists, which often identify as libertarians and some as classical liberals, object to all or most taxation, saying it amounts to a sort of slavery because it forces individuals to pay for, and hence to work for, things they didn’t personally choose to contribute to. Others also object to public debt; Thomas Jefferson famously did so (though as President, the realities of governing the infant nation caused him to mitigate his views) saying it also amounts to further enslavement of future generations by forcing them, through their labor, to pay a debt they played no part in incurring. Still others object to laws limiting the ownership of guns, to the military draft, to eminent domain, to all manner of laws that subordinate the liberties of individuals to the interests of the group.

But there are some problems with these arguments. For one thing, it’s not historically true that societies that have done the most to improve lives focus almost exclusively on individual rights without regard to the interests of society. The laws of the United States, for example, are very concerned with the interests of the society as a whole as well, and are structured so as to find the correct balance between the rights of individuals and the interests and responsibilities of the people. ‘We the people’, a collective term, was chosen to as the introduction to the United States Constitution, not ‘we the individual persons’! In fact, the Bill of Rights, enumerating the rights of individuals, was only added after the Constitution, balancing the rights and interests of the people as a whole, was adopted, though its eventual inclusion was a condition for many states to agree to ratify it. The weakness of the United States government under its original Articles of Confederation, a document paying lip service to the political unity of the states without giving the federal government much real authority, was quickly recognized by leaders of the new nation struggling to maintain its newfound autonomy as it struggled to fund the American Revolution and to pay its debts, defend itself, and establish viable systems of trade. The original problem facing the infant United States, in other words, was too much concern for individual liberty and not enough for the welfare of all. The Constitution was adopted to correct this imbalance.

For another, we find that most societies generally considered anti-individualist and generally referred to as socialist, communist, or authoritarian, have not actually promoted the interests of society over individuals, for all their proclamations that that’s what they’re doing. Historically, they have exclusively promoted the ideology of one individual leader or a small group of elites, and imposed a political structure derived from it on the rest of society by crushing political dissent and severely restricting both individual and collective rights. If their policies ended up harming society as a whole, as they generally did, it didn’t matter much, so long as they carried out the will of the leader or the ruling elites. In fact, these sorts of governments could be better described as hyper-individualistic, promoting the interests of one or a few individuals regardless of the cost to society.

So how do we make sense of it all? How can we live together in societies, as we invariably do, and organize ourselves so that we can be as free as possible from the oppression of government and of other individuals? How do we achieve both negative freedom, freedom from interference, and positive freedom, freedom achieved through purposeful action? For human beings, we find that the ability to live a full and free life is tied up with our interconnectedness with our fellow humans as well as with respect for everyone else as individual persons whose worth is equal to our own. Any definition of human freedom or conception of human rights that doesn’t take sufficient account of both of these is incoherent, and not useful for understanding or for devising a better way of living, for individuals or societies.

To see this, let’s imagine what life might be life if the radical individualist view of human nature we just described won out and society operated on the principle that it (society) didn’t really exist. Imagine if the tax-equals-slavery argument was turned around so it was applied consistently: if those who built our tax-funded cities and infrastructure didn’t expressly consent to our personally using them, we shouldn’t be allowed to use them, since we would be benefiting from the fruits of their labor without their consent. This goes for anything paid for by public debt as well: since consent is central to the argument, it’s the consent itself that matters, not the money per se. In fact,So this would apply to anything achieved by collective action if people were compelled by law to contribute.

So in this scenario, we’d need to remove everything that collective action built and taxes and public debt paid for. Remove most roads and bridges, except the small ones on private property built by their owners. Remove the internet. Remove the armed forces, except for local militias. Remove police forces. Remove the polio vaccine, other vaccines, indeed, all medical advances that were achieved through the NIH and as a result of the space race and wars, both tax-funded, hugely expenses, large-scale government endeavors. Remove public lands, national and regional parks, and so on.
And we’d have to go further: remove all other laws of positive obligation which require us to do certain things, and leave only those of negative obligation, which prevent us from interfering with one another’s personal autonomy. Remove laws which require individuals to care for children, the elderly, the incapacitated, and the mentally ill. Remove Good Samaritan laws. Remove laws which require doctors, product manufacturers, food producers, pharmaceutical companies, and others to provide, in good faith and to the best of their knowledge, goods and services that won’t harm their clients.

Now imagine the ‘free’ life of the individual living in such a society. We go around constantly on the alert, knowing everyone else is armed, and while there might be laws against harming one another, the only ones who can enforce the law is ourselves. We must remain vigilant at all times, knowing that while most people, due to our evolved human nature as social creatures, don’t wish to kill or hurt one another most of the time, there are always a certain number who are able and willing to hurt others to further their own short-term interests. We may be crippled or die early from polio, or tuberculosis, or a virulent flu, or some other microbe-caused illness unless it just so happens that an enormously wealthy, long-lived philanthropist comes along willing to bankroll the decades-long, probably never-profitable project of discovering the microbe that causes it and developing vaccines which must constantly be updated due to evolution. We would probably never have the opportunity to see a buffalo, almost certainly extinct along with many other species killed in droves in the interests of short-term personal gain.

We can only travel roads, such as they are, by permission of the owner, and will likely have to stop often along the way and pay the tolls necessary to fund their building and upkeep. Because of this, most small businesses would have a terribly difficult time getting their supplies in shipped in or their products shipped out and probably never get off the ground, if runaway monopolies, never limited or broken up by government, didn’t eliminate their competition in the first place. Unless enough people happened to band together voluntarily or one extremely wealthy philanthropic person came along to make such a gigantic land purchase at the right time, we could not choose to rest our bodies and feast our eyes at great, rare natural landscapes such as Yosemite and Yellowstone; such places would be closed off at the whim of the owners; only the wealthy could afford the exorbitant entry fees the owner decided to charge; or they might have been destroyed if, say, an owner at some point decided they could make more money with Half Dome by dynamiting it for its rock or carving it into an image of his own face. The internet may have come into being at some point, but was was the case with the polio and other vaccines, the vast expenditures of time, money, and cooperation of effort required to develop it may have prevented it from ever existing except as funded by a superbusiness, and therefore, entirely controlled by it.

None of this goes to show that only a significant level of taxation and a strong government of laws could ever achieve all of the great advances of civilization and promote the use and preservation of natural resources to their fullest advantage. History shows us that while many liberties and freedoms were only ever obtained when governments intervened, it also tells us that many were brought about through other means: revolution and public unrest, markets, social institutions such as religions and universities, and so on. What this thought experiment does reveal is the intimate ways in which our lives are tied up together with those of others: what others chose or don’t choose to do provides opportunities and places limits on our freedom to choose, and vice versa.

This thought experiment also helps us see how easy it is to think that freedom and liberty are the same. I make this disclaimer from here on out: the two are often used interchangeably, in everyday as well as academic use. But I think that’s a mistake: to help explore the importance issues related to them, we need two words that are related to one another but which contain different shades of meaning, and freedom and liberty are ready and widely understood candidates. So, I’ll use them here more or less as I’ve often otherwise encountered them. Freedom, which enables one to actually chose and act upon as many alternatives that will enhance one’s ability to live a good and happy life as possible, can often come into direct conflict with liberty, which allows one to chose from the widest range of options regardless of consequences. Sometimes, when one is granted the liberty to do as they choose, they restrict the freedom of others. Consider the history of states’ rights’ activism in the United States, ostensibly all about promoting the rights of states to make most of their own laws (do states really have rights?), we find it was actually about giving states free rein to effectively strip away the Constitutional rights of certain of its citizens, and granting individuals license to do the same to one another.

Let’s consider libertarianism, a political philosophy which appears to promote personal liberty as the primary object of a society, sometimes to the extent that freedom seems relegated to a side effect or by-product. Why do I say this? Libertarianism calls for far less restriction of individual liberties than any other political philosophy except anarchism, often regardless of consequences except how it effects the liberty of others. A famous example is the issue of gun rights: libertarians generally regard the right to own guns a fundamental individual right, regardless of the evidence that more gun ownership in a population almost always correlates with far higher rates of gun-related death and injury. So while the liberty of people to own guns is protected, the total amount of freedom enjoyed by people is reduced because, of course, no one gets to enjoy freedom while they’re dead (Those who believe in life after death may disagree, but here I’m speaking in matters of law and society, which belongs entirely to the realm of the living.) There are also less demands placed on individual persons to pitch in and create public goods which enhance people’s lives, give people more choices, relieve people of the burdens of merely maintaining one’s survival, and otherwise promote the freedom to do more things even while specific liberties, such as how to allocate all of one’s own earnings, are curtailed. Whether or not more freedom is achieved, then, appears to be almost beside the point, since individual liberties are sacrosanct, not to be limited or regulated regardless of how this affects the total freedom of the individual or of society as a whole.

My intention is not to pick on libertarianism, since it’s not the only political philosophy whose adherents often fail to recognize the degree to which freedom and liberty can often diverge and to emphasize how much human individuality depends on interpersonal cooperation. While this movement is based on a fundamentally flawed conception of how freedom is best attained, it’s often modified to such as extent that many of its adherents hold very reasonable and enlightened views, and they do right to protest against governmental and corporate abuses of power. We all make such mistakes, on the left as well as on the right of the political spectrum. Many liberals demand more social responsibility in terms of tax-and-spend welfare and government investment in green technology while refusing to vaccinate their children, resulting in epidemics of easily preventable disease, and insist on muzzling people who voice unpopular or uncomfortable opinions by demanding they be fired for what they say in private and disinvited from speaking at universities, and so on. Many conservatives demand that markets remain free from government intervention while voting for legislation that gives corporations free rein to form monopolies and stifle competition, and champion religious freedom while demanding that the religious views of some people take precedence over others in matters of public policy, and enshrined to the exclusion of others in publicly funded spaces, and so on.

I, for one, value actual freedom over actual liberty, since the first is a good which directly affects my ability to live a full and happy life, and liberty is instrumental, valuable only insofar as it promotes actual freedom. And that’s why I, for one, prefer a political system that values freedom over liberty as it simultaneously values liberty as among the most freedom-promoting social good we can bestow on ourselves and one another.

Liberty is not the only way to freedom, far from it. That’s why, politically, I think I could best be described as a progressive, or a democratic republican socialist, since I believe political systems such as these do the best job of balancing individual rights with social well-being, which I think means making the increase of freedom, not just liberty, the primary goal. The reason progressive governments are on balance so successful, I believe, is that they best reflect the reality of the human condition as I’ve just described it: the desire of each individual for complete personal liberty is often in conflict with the ability of each individual to enjoy actual freedom. They protect the individual from unjustified governmental encroachment on their rights; they prevent individuals from encroaching on the rights of one another; they coordinate human efforts in great projects which reap huge benefits for huge numbers of people which smaller-scale efforts are unlikely to achieve; they have a built-in system of public input and of checks and balances through voting, taxation, appointment and hiring of experts in relevant fields of expertise, recall or impeachment of government officials, and so on.

And as we look around the world, where we find societies in which the largest number of individuals and groups enjoy the most freedom and liberty, we also find a constitution with a built-in system for amendment, robust enforcement of the rule of law, equal rights protections which neither the government or citizens are allowed to infringe on, a mixed economy, and a welfare system. And looking throughout history, we fail to find either an autocratic or a libertarian nation that achieved this balance of liberty and freedom through an infrastructure which facilitates both. Either the rights and interests of individuals are routinely ignored and trampled upon by governments in the interests of a few elites (monarchist, communist, and fascist governments fit into this category, even if they present themselves as acting in the name of the people), or individuals routinely ignore and trample upon the rights and interests of other individuals because the government is too weak and ineffectual to defend the people from each other, let alone from other nations (the United States in its first decades of existence, and countless other infant democracies and developing nations). While I find it difficult to imagine how a libertarian or autocratic society could achieve all of these things, I would be interested to see if it could be done. After all, the United States was an experiment in governance, and it did much better than many other nations at protecting individual freedom for many, if not for all; that’s why Abraham Lincoln was so anxious to keep the country together. But frankly, given human psychology and the lessons of history, I’m not holding my breath.

To many, the trick of attaining maximum freedom while simultaneously engendering maximum liberty for all seems like a tall order, if not impossible. That’s why, I suspect, so many of us so readily lean so far to one side or another, since the two seem disparate. But since the two are intertwined and inseparable due to the deep interconnectedness of humanity, for better or for worse, we need to think of the two as just different aspects of the same thing.

There are simple, practical ways of carrying this out, in legislation and in the ways we interact with others in day to day life. When it comes to policy, a good classic example of effectively balancing personal liberty with overall freedom was the old practice of restrictions on carrying guns in American towns. In the country and in their homes, people depended on their guns for food and protection and could have them handy to fight in militias if they choose to join up. However, law enforcement well knew, the close quarters people found themselves in in town could lead to a person with a gun to, in a fit of anger, drunkenness, accident, or poor judgement, permanently remove every freedom another could ever enjoy with the simple squeeze of a trigger. Therefore, when people chose to enter within town limits, they were required to give up their guns so that all could enjoy the freedom of going about their business unhampered by fear, knowing that while in town, no-one’s packing. The liberty of the gun owner was temporarily suspended in favor of the freedom of the many without placing too much of a hindrance on the gun owner’s ability to sustain their daily life. While the distribution of American society has changed, with most Americans now living in urban and suburban communities, a balance different in kind but similar in purpose might be struck. Perhaps all Americans could be allowed to own a gun if and only if they joined a state militia or local reserve branch of the military (as the actual wording of the Second Amendment provides for) so that all gun owners would be registered, trained, recognizable, and publicly accountable.

Thus far, we’ve discussed freedom and liberty extensively without once talking about rights. What are rights, and how are they related to freedom and liberty? A right is a much more nebulous concept, much harder to define or identify, and much more difficult to trace to its origin. For example, is it just something we’re born with? If so, why have human societies differed so much on what they are and whether we even have them, and why must we fight to get them? Are they, then, something we create? If so, why create some and not others? The topic of rights really needs to be the subject of another piece, one which I plan on writing about and about which countless others have written far more ably than I feel sure I ever could. But when we start discussing much more difficult cases in which freedom and liberty conflict, the subject of rights inevitably, and must, come up, if for no other reason that the concept of rights is a cornerstone of American law as it it for all nations who value and promote freedom and liberty. In the meantime, let’s talk about rights as some sort of thing tied up with personhood, we won’t say exactly what, without which persons enjoy neither freedom nor liberty. I think that’s a pretty good starting place, more or less reconcilable with every conception of right I’ve ever explored.

So sometimes, we find that in nature as well as politics, individual human freedom is intimately bound up with the rights and liberty of others, and it sometimes seems nearly impossible to tease out where individual interests, freedom, liberty, and rights begin and end. To explore this, let’s consider an ultimate doozy of a political and moral issues, one that perennially absorbs and divides the public like no other issue: abortion. Particularly, we’ll consider probably the most common argument commonly used in its favor, and perhaps, the most difficult to challenge.

This argument is the bodily rights argument, which holds that an individual’s right to their own body is inviolate. That being the case, a pregnant women has the right to expel or separate anything from her body that she doesn’t want there, just as anyone else would. This must, if that right really is inviolate, includes a fetus. In other words, no-one can ‘force’ a women to remain pregnant if she doesn’t want to be, since that would be a violation of her right to do with her own body as she sees fit.

But do we really believe that our rights to use our own bodies can and should be be unlimited? That’s not the case either. The law, just like other human beings and in fact, nature itself, ‘forces’ us to do things with our own bodies all the time. In fact, there is no such thing as moral or social obligations at all without some sort of demand on our bodies, since, of course, everything we think and do involves its use. For human beings, our freedom, our rights, and our very lives depend on whether or not others support our existence, at least some of the time, with their own bodies. There is no other law that I can think of where the bodily rights argument is the be-all-end-all.

For example, in addition to parental instinct, society uses enforcement of the law to compel parents to care for their children if social expectations haven’t done the trick, and rightly so. A parent must feed, clothe, house, and protect their children, and every single one of these obligations is dischargeable only by the use of the parent’s body, requiring labor, proximity of the parent to the child, and so on. The reason why we demand this is that we believe the child has the right to live, to enjoy the freedom and liberty that only life can bring, but no child can live without the help of their parents or other adults responsible for their care. We would not allow a mother to withhold breastfeeding, for example, if it was the only way a child could survive, or withhold cuddling, embraces, and all other physical manifestations of affection which we know children can’t be deprived of and still grow up healthy. In response to all of this, a bodily rights proponent could object that the fact that the fetus is inside the body, using the resources of the body itself, makes the case of a pregnant woman different and the demands of the fetus more egregious than we can force the mother to accept. However, I don’t see why these objections are particularly compelling, as this is a mere matter of location, not of demands on the body. All parental obligations place significant demands on the parents’ bodies whether or not the fetus’ physical location is within or without; in the case of very young children especially, these obligations hold round-the-clock. In fact, caring for a newborn or offspring of any age is often far more exhausting, far more expensive, demanding, and stressful to the mind and body that rearing a fetus inside the body.

I have yet, in fact, to encounter a defense of the bodily rights argument that’s convincing when it comes to abortion and not convincing in other matters. (‘Officer, I refuse to let you arrest me, since placing me in handcuffs and imprisoning me violates my bodily rights.’ ‘No, judge, I didn’t take my mother to the hospital or call 911 when I observed she was having a heart attack since that’s not what I decided to do with my own body.’ ‘May it please the court to note that when my client purposefully slammed their body into that other person, knocking them off the bridge, they were merely exercising the right to do with their body as they saw fit.’ Etcetera, etcetera.)

The inevitable interconnectedness of human life and its intimate relation to human freedom and liberty is what makes all societies function and upon which all law is built. It’s why, when it comes to arguments for unfettered personal liberty, including abortion rights, I don’t accept arguments such as the bodily rights argument as sufficient justification, since such arguments are derived from artificially atomistic, hyperindividualistic views of human nature,. In the case of abortion, it takes further arguments, such as whether a fetus is a person or whether the mother has the right of self-defense against the fetus that’s putting her life in jeopardy, to decide whether or not a mother has the moral obligation to provide for the development of another human life within her body. (I think that there are arguments that justify abortion in some circumstances; I explore this issue more fully in another piece.)

In all matters of law and order, of personal liberty and freedom for all, of the individual and society, the question of what we want to do, what we should do, and what we allow ourselves and others to do can only be satisfactorily and successfully addressed if our answers are informed by the basic assumption that, for each and every one of us, for there to be any I, we depend on them, and vice versa.

*Listen to the podcast reading of this essay here or on iTunes


Sources and Inspiration:

Carter, Ian, “Positive and Negative Liberty”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Nussbaum, Martha. “Equal Respect for Conscience: The Roots of a Moral and Legal Tradition”

Shermer, Michael. ‘How Science Can Inform Ethics and Champion Sentient Beings’, Scientific American, Jan 20, 2015

Thatcher, Margaret. ‘Interview for Woman’s Own (“no such thing as society”)’, Sep 23 1987, archived at

Wenar, Leif, “Rights”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Ed.), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

On Today’s Supreme Court Ruling Striking Down State Bans on Gay Marriage

Congratulations to all of my fellow Americans in love who, until today, have been denied the equal protection that’s their Constitutional and moral right. This so happens to be the week I celebrate eight years of happy marriage with the love of my own heart, and I’m so glad that that our society is affirming the love and commitment of so many more people. Here’s to all you lovers out there!

In Defense of the Introverts

I just listened to this podcast episode from Australia’s Radio International series Big Ideas, and let me tell you, it was a breath of fresh air. It’s called ‘Extrovert bias: it’s all around us’, and it’s a rebroadcast from a 2012 recording of Susan Cain’s discussion of her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking at the RSA, or the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.
The book had slipped under my radar, but I’m glad to have encountered her ideas in this talk. In her book (which I plan to read), Cain discusses the personal and social value of introversion, and she worries that extroversion has come to be valued in school, the workplace, and in the arts sometimes to the near-exclusion of all else. While she agrees that both introversive and extroversive personality traits are valuable, she thinks we would all benefit from renewed appreciation of the great creative and intellectual accomplishments introversion can help us attain.
As was abundantly clear from audience questions and from Cain’s summaries of her readers’ emails, many find her insights helpful and validating. There are just so many introverted people out there navigating a society which often seems structured to exclude them. It seems that you can hardly get a job, get a promotion, or get your inventions, your work, and your ideas taken seriously without running the rigorous gauntlet of ‘putting yourself out there’: schmoozing, gathering contacts, selling yourself, and otherwise being a go-getter. For an extrovert, this process is generally lots of fun; for an introvert, it can often be awkward, embarrassing, tedious, terrifying, or just plain miserable.
Sometimes I feel that way because I’m an introvert too… I think. Or at least partly so. As Cain points out, introversion and extroversion are not really manifested in people as a simple dichotomy. Extroverts are not 100% extroverted all the time, it’s just that people consider themselves or others extroverts because, on balance, they tend to exhibit extrovert traits. Same goes for introverts. So how do we know whether we are extroverts, introverts, or that diplomatically conceived third category, ambiverts (people who exhibit both types of personality traits more or less equally)?

And anyway, why should we care? 
Let’s address both questions by exploring what people generally mean by introversion and extroversion, and see if we can find anything useful by exploring the distinction.
Here’s how the Myers and Briggs Foundation website (after Isabel Briggs Myers and Katharine Briggs, creators of the famous Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test derived from Carl Jung’s theories) briefly summarizes the difference between the two: ‘Do you prefer to focus on the outer world or on your own inner world? This is called Extraversion (E) or Introversion (I).’
To find out more, let’s take the introvert / extrovert Myers-Briggs test to see what happens. Now, I, for one, don’t place much stock in the results of personality tests like these nor do I plan any part of my life around them. However, job applicant tests, marriage counseling, workplace policies, and so on are often crafted around these tests, so as a practical matter, it’s important to know if they’re useful, useless, or even downright harmful. So how about we give them a little trial run?
Well, I didn’t end up taking the Myers-Briggs MBTI test on the official(?) website since I’m too frugal (cheap?) to spend the $50 they’re charging, but I took several other similar free tests based on their work, and I get the same result every time: INTP. Let’s all take one and see what happens.
Here’s how one site described my results: ‘The INTP personality type is fairly rare, making up only three percent of the population, which is definitely a good thing for them, as there’s nothing they’d be more unhappy about than being “common”. INTPs pride themselves on their inventiveness and creativity, their unique perspective and vigorous intellect. Usually known as the philosopher, the architect, or the dreamy professor, INTPs have been responsible for many scientific discoveries throughout history.’
Now for a person with my interests, I find the results pleasing and even flattering, and find much to identify with in this description. I also feel quite certain that these personality type descriptions are written to pander and seem applicable to just about everyone who reads them, like horoscopes, so that their satisfied audience keeps coming back for more.

So are the terms introvert and extrovert (and ambivert) useless, a load of BS, little more than psychobabble? Perhaps they are. Or, perhaps they may have been originally, but have come to refer to more useful and interesting concepts since they entered into common discourse. The way Cain uses the terms in her talk seem more to have to do with common sense, day to day observations of people by other people. Maybe they’re closer in meaning to everyday terms like ‘shy’, ‘reserved’, or ‘outgoing’: less technical and categorical, with more shades of meaning. Thinking of the terms this way, I like them better already.

We can also test the introversion/extroversion hypothesis another way: we can look at how we go about our to day to day lives and self-sort our habits of personality into the introverted, having to do with the time we spend alone, in our own heads, and at a distance from other people, and the extroverted, having to do with the time we spend with other people and feeling connected to them, and see which term might fit our overall personalities best. Or, we can run this test with others, by giving others a list of our behaviors and having our friends sort them. Think of those general behaviors that mostly make up how you spend your day, and see what you come up with. Here are some of mine, self-sorted:
I spend quite a bit of time alone, love to have lots of projects and tasks to work on, and tend to most enjoy those which can just as well or even better alone. I love to write, but never end up going to writer’s circles, workshops, or reading clubs though I constantly tell myself I should. I spend months apiece making art quilts that rarely make it onto a wall, because I can’t bring myself to go to galleries and ‘sell’ my work by trying to convince people I’m a ‘real’ artist who deserves to have my work shown. I’m uncomfortable with cliques and generally avoid them, and the moment I feel pressured to adopt the interests, attitudes, and tastes of a group of people, I flee. I’m very interested in many social, political, and intellectual movements and follow theme closely, but I never feel like going to marches and protests even if I support the cause, and I’ve spent many miserable hours at the socializing portions of such otherwise interesting events as Skepti-Cal and Meet a Scientist because I can’t bring myself to jump in on others’ conversations, so then I feel out of place, and then, remembering the uncomfortable awkwardness, I don’t go back. Same goes for Meetup groups organized around interests I share. I generally spend at least the first half of my first day off my day job alone, and often the whole day, even if I had been telling myself all week I really, really need to get out more. So, with all this alone time I like to spend, and with my awkwardness and shyness in so many social situations, I must be an introvert.
And yet… I have many friends, because in addition to enjoying the security and peace of lots of alone time, I love people. I find them fascinating and I crave companionship, and can’t go more than a few days without socializing before I start to feel lonely and depressed. I love hanging out with friends, of course, especially one on one and in small groups. I also love going to small to medium size parties so long as good friends are there, and/or as long as there are hosts that are solicitous of guests, spotting those who are bashfully hanging out in the corner, inviting and facilitating but not forcing them to take part in conversation. I really love meeting interesting strangers. I love to travel, and almost always pick large cities as my destination, spending almost the whole day every day out and about exploring. And most of all, I love getting deeply into conversation, and enjoy it much more than small talk; in fact, I find the latter boring. As long as all parties involve share a real interest in the subjects under discussion and so long as they’re being genuine, I’m the first to show up and the last to leave. So… I must be an extrovert too.
How would you sort these traits? Would you sort them as I do here? And do you think that, given these list of traits, I would fall more on one side of the divide than the other?
Or, am I an ambivert?

Perhaps. But I’m willing to bet that most of you who took the self-test easily found a substantial list of introverted and extroverted traits manifested in your own life, and probably wouldn’t class yourself as mostly one or the other. Besides, separating these personality traits into two categories may be a mistake in the first place, since many traits generally considered introversive contain both self-contained and social aspects (after all, isn’t reading a book alone also intimately getting to know what another person thinks and feels, and doesn’t that make it a social activity? Isn’t that also true for preferring to stay home and write pieces for others to read instead of public speaking, or donating to worthy causes instead of personally appearing at protests, and so on?) and vice versa. It’s probably true that most people consider themselves a combination of introvert and extrovert, although there have been many studies on introversion, extroversion, and related traits that seem to indicate there are real phenomena of personality that these concepts usefully point to, originating from the way our brains are structured and probably influenced quite a bit by personal experience.

So what to do with all this often nebulous, often contradictory information? Despite the problems of talking about introversion and extroversion as distinct things, I think Cain is on to something, both in what she says specifically and what I think she hints at. Even if we can’t neatly divide the world into introverts and extroverts (and even ambiverts, which I get the impression she doesn’t think is as useful as the the other two categories), we can look at how different personality traits can offer something of value to the individual as well as to the rest of us. Categorizing personality traits can simply be a useful way of exploring how we can integrate seemingly disparate ways of being ourselves in the interests of personal growth, in becoming the people we want to be, even if the categories seem clunky or artificial.

Cain suggests we look a little closer and see what introversion has to offer both for the individual and to society. She offers, among many, many others, the famous example of Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, super-duo of the tech world. Jobs, with his outgoing and outsized personality, made Apple become one of the most successfully marketed products ever made. Wozniak, with his intense powers of concentration and habit of undistracted bouts of problem-solving, came up with the basic concept and design to begin with in the countless hours he spent alone in his personal space. And it’s not just amazing new gadgets that can be the products of introversion; they can be as grand as new discoveries in science and physics or as humble yet delightful and enriching to the mind as any lovely, clever, and insightful little poem by the ultra-introvert Emily Dickinson.

Cain’s insights can help us stop taking it for granted that having a quiet and reserved personality means a person is antisocial, or is ‘no fun’, or doesn’t care about others or can’t work with them, or any other negative stereotype often assigned to the non-extrovert. That’s because exploring the differences between personality traits can reveal how interconnected they are even as we recognize and explain how they fulfill different needs and perform different roles in our psyches.
Yet, I find there’s even more to be gleaned from what she has to say. She hints that even if introversion has no instrumental value, valuable only insofar as it facilitates or creates something else, it’s just as valid a way of being as is any other way of being. The marvelously rich variety of human nature, from introversion to extroversion and what’s in between, can all be reveled in and enjoyed for its own sake. There’s no need for the introvert to feel left out, to feel excluded, to feel ‘lacking’ in an extroverted world: there are great riches to be discovered and explored within ourselves too, which we all would do much better not to forget and neglect.


Sources and inspiration:

Cain, Susan. ‘Extrovert Bias- It’s All Around Us’, RSA discussion on Big Ideas podcast, Radio National Australia

‘Extraversion or Introversion’, Myers and Briggs Foundation website, 1997.

‘Study Sheds Light on What Makes People Shy’, Live Science Staff, April 06, 2010

The Pope, Climate Change, Morality, and the Politicians

During my lunch break today, I stumbled on an article about the Pope’s upcoming encyclical on climate change.

It reports reactions to the encyclical in which the Pope explains why he accepts human activity is responsible for most of the current climate change and for other ‘situations of environmental degradation’, and in which he calls on all people to fulfill their roles as stewards of God’s creation by changing their wasteful and polluting behavior.

As is usually the case with anything new that comes out concerning climate change and environmental issues, the politicians and pundits quoted in this article approve or criticize his message according to strict party lines. Including (surprise, surprise!) many Catholics.

An aside: the day I see an American Catholic politician change their views even a bit when they don’t accord with the Pope’s, I’ll actually be impressed by their religious sincerity. This Pope has roundly criticized unfettered capitalism and the amassing of great personal wealth, to the discomfiture of many, and has shown other signs of being progressive (or regressive in the sense that his views hearken back to an earlier time, being far more consistent with those of the biblical Jesus than with those of modern conservative politicians). After all, when new and convincing evidence comes along or when a better argument is made, we should all be open to changing our beliefs, right? And who is more qualified to offer these to a Catholic than the Pope? I’m not arguing that Catholics should just blindly agree with everything the Pope says, no one should. At a certain point, though, when you call yourself Catholic but dismiss whatever the Pope says that disagrees with your politics, you might be a ‘cafeteria Catholic’, a pejorative that conservative Catholics traditionally have thrown at liberal and progressive Catholics. I’m just sayin’.

Anyway, the part about how the divide over the pope’s message parallels the party line doesn’t surprise me. What does is that those who reject the Pope’s teachings on climate change and environmental stewardship try to defend their dismissal on the grounds that the Pope’s message is about science and politics and, therefore, they don’t have to listen to him on this matter since he should be ‘focusing on what [he’s] good at, which is theology and morality.’

So what is morality to these people? In the article under discussion, Rick Santorum, Jeb Bush, and Bill Donahue, all three conservative and politically influential Catholics, talk about morality as one thing, and anything having to do with caring for the earth which might have political ramifications another. So how, exactly, is the matter of how and why we should care for the earth not an issue of morality? Do they think that morality consists entirely of things like ‘don’t swear or lie’, ‘go to Church’, or ‘for God’s sake, repress your sexuality until it simultaneously feels super forbidden, barely fun, and only to be enjoyed in the narrowest of circumstances’? These guys are not, by any means, the first people I’ve heard try to narrowly define morality so that it doesn’t interfere with their politicking or whatever other business they’re engaged in. And this sort of thing is not limited to conservatives: liberals and progressives regularly spout that ‘keep your morality to yourself and out of politics’ bit too.

Morality and politics, in fact, are all about the same things and should pursue the same goals: how we go about sharing this world with one another; how we do right by each other while protecting our own rights; how we go about treating everyone with justice, compassion, and integrity.

Hate to tell you this, fellows, but when you talk that way you sound about as foolish as those Heartland Institute people accusing the Pope and the United Nations of being ‘unscientific’ for agreeing with the scientific consensus. And let me tell you, Jeb Bush, the ‘political realm’ ‘ought to be about about making us better as people’. I sincerely hope all these guys were quoted out of context or just misspoke about the relationship between morality and politics.

Because if any politician really believes politics and morality are two separate things, their constituents should be worried, and they are doing the wrong job. In any case, we’ll see if they really believe politics and morality are separate the next time a political issue having to do with reproductive health care comes up.

Sources and Inspiration:
Kirchgaessner, Stephanie and John Hooper. ‘Pope Francis warns of destruction of Earth’s ecosystem in leaked encyclical’, The Guardian, June 16 2015.
Neuman, Scott. ‘The Pope Is About To Weigh In On Climate Change. Not Everyone Is Happy’, The Two-Way: Breaking News from NPR, June 17, 2015.

Argument & Censorship, Opposition & Oppression, by Eric Gerlach

A friend of mine passed me an article about millennials and George Orwell, which claimed that young people on the internet are bullying others mercilessly who are out of step with the dogmas of the left.  This is hardly a new claim about millennials, as many since the 80’s have said that “political correctness” is oppressive and invoked 1984. While I agree that militant dogmatism is found on both sides of the aisle, I think what irked me most about the article was the comparison to Orwell and claims of censorship regarding heated exchanges online between free individuals.  At a time when many are confusing arguments and boycotts with fascism, I feel that a distinction needs to be made between opposition and oppression, between argument and censorship.

If someone argues with you, and continues to argue with you, they are not censoring you.  They are speaking with you.  They are opposed to your beliefs, but not necessarily opposed to you speaking. They may not be good at listening, and they may give you little chance to speak, but they are engaging you in a conversation, even if it is a terrible one. Often, they are hoping to hear the reasons you won’t change your mind, to change your mind, and then hear you say that your mind has been changed.  When I receive critical comments, I am irritated, but I have not been censored.  Nietzsche said that one should appreciate one’s enemies, as they help one to grow stronger, which I find to be an inspirational strategy for getting the most out of one’s beliefs.


Eric Gerlach teaches philosophy and the history of human thought at Berkeley City College. This piece was originally published on April 16 at his excellent blog Eric Gerlach, ‘A Skeptical & Global Guide to the History of Human Thought’, which I highly recommend, and re-published here with the author’s permission.

Jefferson and Slavery

Throughout my history of ideas travel series following Thomas Jefferson, slavery was on my mind a lot: the institution as a whole, and Jefferson’s relationship to it. I was reminded of it constantly: by an original book from his own collection titled ‘The Horrors of Slavery’ now in the Library of Congress, which also displays a slave sale contract between himself and James Madison from 1809; the slave quarters and artifacts at Monticello; museum displays and plaques in D.C., Williamsburg, and Philly; and signs telling the story of his brief but telling correspondence with Benjamin Banneker.

As every student of American history learns early on, Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence and his stated beliefs contrast sharply with his life as a slaveowner. And nearly every place I find something written about Jefferson, this contradiction is addressed but never really resolved.

Jefferson was in favor of the abolition of slavery early in his career as a lawyer and member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses. Having made little headway in the antislavery cause as a younger statesman, he rather abruptly gave up the fight in the 1790’s, proclaiming it unwinnable in his generation. While he continued to argue now and again that slavery was a moral and political evil, he chose to continue the expensive lifestyle of traveling, entertaining, building, and collecting fine wine, books, and art that he loved. This kept him in debt, so he funded it all the the familiar way: he remained a slaveowner for the rest of his life.

When I was in Philadelphia’s Old City, I visited the site of the President’s House and read the posted stories of the enslaved people who lived and worked there during George Washington’s tenure. As I read, I thought of how often I’d heard and read excuses made for Jefferson, Washington, and their fellow slaveowners, another common theme I encountered throughout my trip. Some sought to minimize their moral responsibility for slaveowning on the grounds they were ‘stuck’ in the institution already so they just had to ‘make the best of it’; others claimed that many were actually working on the problem in their own way but had to go slowly because of how entrenched the institution was, and so on. The most common excuse I encountered was that they weren’t really all that bad as slaveowners; in fact, they were benevolent because ‘they treated their slaves so well’, and their slaves were really better off than many free people of the laboring classes.

These ring hollow to me: they all sound like pretty lame attempts to make sense to ourselves of our history as self-professed champions of liberty who have simultaneously oppressed racial, ethnic, and ideological minorities throughout our history. I had read accounts before of Jefferson’s, Washington’s, and others’ so-called benevolent brands of slaveowning, but when I look around at these artifacts and displays, I really can’t see how true benevolence can ever coincide with that institution. As Jefferson himself wrote in his Notes on Virginia, The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it.’

The real answer to that conundrum is: it never made sense, and it never will. Jefferson knew it, evident not only in his embarrassed response to Benjamin Banneker, he said so over and over again, explicitly in some cases, between the lines in others. George Washington knew it too, as evidenced by his changing attitudes on slavery; indeed, all of our nation’s founding generation knew it.

That’s why they fought over the words of the Declaration of Independence, especially the original draft which more plainly revealed the stark contradiction between the colonies’ demand for liberty for themselves while they remained enslavers of others. That’s why they fought over slavery again during the Constitutional Convention and how that weird three-fifths clause got in, because they couldn’t solve the problem of how slaves could be persons deserving representation while neither free nor citizens. That’s why debates over how to treat black Revolutionary war veterans were never satisfactorily resolved, why the John Brown plot happened, why the Missouri Compromise and the Dred Scott decision and the Civil War and the Plessy vs Ferguson decision and the 1963 firehosing of the Baltimore Children’s Crusade and the Baptist Church bombing and the riots in Baltimore in 1968 and again this spring happened, and so on and so on.

The only excuse I’ve heard in defense of slaveowners like Jefferson and Washington that makes a particle of sense on the face of it is that freed slaves would likely have a worse time of it on their own than they might have under their protection. Free black people often did suffer terrible mistreatment, including terrible wages, racist criminal codes, segregation, kidnapping, and re-enslavement; freed slaves often had to choose between living where they had few prospects and leaving their still enslaved loved ones behind. Therefore, the argument goes, the attempts of some conscience-stricken slaveowners to keep their slaves while treating them more humanely were really quite benevolent. 

While there’s evidence indicating some good intentions on the part of some slaveowners, this argument just doesn’t hold up that well either when examined in the full light of history. To his credit, Washington kept more slaves on his plantation than was financially healthy for him so that families would not have to be split up, and tried to work out a way to eventually emancipate all of them with some financial provisions. Jefferson was squeamish about allowing slaves to be beaten in front of him and rarely allowed it, and paid many of them bonuses for good work. It seems on the whole, Washington has a far better record when it comes to gentler treatment and concern for the slaves’ own interests, and he freed all of them in his will though he couldn’t bring himself to do it during own his lifetime. It turns out there’s plenty of evidence Jefferson often had others whip his slaves when he wasn’t there to see it, especially when the profits from his nail business dropped off. And Jefferson’s habit of accruing large debts by his habit of living far beyond his means caused almost all of his slaves to all be sold at his death, and many slave families to be broken up, parents, children, brothers and sisters, wives and husbands torn away from one another. 

And many freed slaves actually did do quite well for themselves, or at least as well as they might have otherwise. Plenty of other plantation owners freed their slaves, and many free black people did very well for themselves in the North, West, and even in some areas of the South. Jefferson and Washington could also have allowed their slaves to make the choice for themselves whether or not they wanted to remain under their protection. They had both (Jefferson earlier in life, Washington later) come to the firm conclusion that slavery was morally wrong. They just couldn’t bring themselves to make the hard choices and personal sacrifice to fully act on their convictions.

So it’s not that, as the cliche goes, that we’re judging Jefferson, Washington, and other slaveowners by the standards of our own time, not theirs. Here’s what makes it all the more painful and injurious to our American self-image as bearers of the standard of liberty: we’re judging these Founding Fathers by their own standards, and by the standards of others in their own time, those principled lovers of freedom who did free their slaves, who decided to do the difficult but the right thing, according to the principles of the Declaration and those Washington professed later in life.

As to the issue of ‘treating their slaves so well’: consider what really went into keeping people enslaved besides whippings.

Slaves were denied the chance to make their own decisions and to enjoy the full range of human relationships that free and happy people need. The marriages of slaves were not held sacred by their masters and they could not enjoy the security of family bonds and affection. At any time, wife, husband, sister, brother, parent, and worst of all, children could be taken and sold elsewhere, never to be seen again. This happened all the time, since there was no plantation large enough to hold exponentially increasing slave families. They were provided no incentive to enjoy fulfilling occupations, since they are denied the fruits of their labor, they had a narrow field of roles to choose from or none at all (surely noone chose to be a field hand!) and there was not much personal reward for a job well done. They could be and very often were whipped, denied food and other necessities, and otherwise punished for any infraction, despite wishful hypotheses that slaves were too financially valuable to be treated badly. (Sorry, Pollyannas, history’s not on your side). They often were treated harshly even if the plantation owner didn’t desire or order it because slaveowners relied on their overseers, which they couldn’t watch most of the time, to get results.

And worst of all, because it left slaves most vulnerable to every sort of oppression and robbed them of great solace, slaves were denied education, especially higher education. Enforced ignorance was one of the surest ways to keep slaves from plotting escapes and revolts, to keep them from learning about the wider world they could wish to be a part of, from learning moral and religious arguments against slavery, and from the prospect of a good job if they ran away.

The Bible was often used to justify slavery: there are many instances of slavery in the Old Testament that Yahweh seems perfectly comfortable with, and Paul advises slaves to be obedient to their masters and to return to them if they ran away. Paul does say you should be nice to your slaves, but that’s the farthest his morals go in the matter. Like the myth of the Garden of Eden, Paul tries to instill in his readers a particular moral virtue. But if Jefferson, Washington, and their fellow slaveowners had read their Genesis a little more carefully, they might have discovered that there’s more there than a simple morality tale about obedience.A closer reading of the Garden of Eden story reveals a much deeper insight: human beings of spirit and will, of wit and intelligence, of curiosity and integrity always have, and always will, long for knowledge and self-determination. And they must and will have it, even if danger, privation, suffering, or destruction be the price.


Sources and Inspiration:

‘Benjamin Banneker’, Africans in America,
Letter to Jefferson:
and Jefferson’s response:

Gordon-Reed, Annette. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy.
Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1997.

Meacham, Jon. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. New York: Random House, 2012.

Thompson, Mary V. “The Private Life of George Washington’s Slaves”, Frontline,

Wiencek, Henry. ‘The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson’, Smithsonian Magazine, Oct 2012.

On the Josh Duggar Controversy, Part 2

My recent piece on the Josh Duggar controversy was an especially controversial one for many of my readers, as I expected it would be, and here’s a response in answer to the many objections and questions I received in response to it.

To begin with, what do I mean by ‘child’ anyway? Fifteen-year-olds aren’t children, are they? I mean, it’s not like they’re little kids any more! C’mon, they know what they’re doing!

Well, yes and no, They know what they’re doing much more than younger children; but, like younger children, they’re encountering new and often staggering challenges which their not yet fully developed brains are still learning how to handle, especially when it comes to integrating their newfound sexual needs and urges into socially responsible behavior.

When it comes to nailing down an exact age or age range for the category child, I would leave it to relevant experts to decide this as it relates to policy. I consider a child a person who has not yet reached a stage of development in experience and physical maturity (including and especially of the brain) generally capable of practicing reason, forward-thinking, and self-control to the level that mature persons are generally capable of. I expect this age to be somewhere in the range of 17 – 19, though of course this differs from person to person. This might be better determined by a mental health professional when deciding if an offender should be directed to medical treatment or juvenile court or to the adult justice system.

Disgust is also playing a big role in public reactions to this case. Many are uncomfortable with the fact that children often act on their new sexual urges at all, let alone in ways that don’t respect the rights of others, since they lack the relevant social experience and their immature brains lack the structures that adults rely on for self-control. I was recently listening to a talk by the great Martha Nussbaum on how disgust often leads us to act unjustly towards one another; I think that this is happening here in Josh’s case. We all need to remember that sex is just as much a natural part of life as any other, and that to help them get through their life changes, we must react constructively and help children learn how to deal with it all. There are plenty of childhood misbehaviors that infringe on others’ rights: bullying, stealing, selfish refusal to help or share, and so on and so on. It makes no more sense to react hysterically to one than the other.

To single out sexuality in children as an instinct or set of behaviors to be disgusted at or feared more than others is to my mind not only unreasonable but superstitious, since it’s anti-scientific and anti-naturalistic, even inhumane. And to lump all sexual misbehavior in children together as ‘molestation’ and ‘assault’ is not only inappropriate, it’s absolutely wrong. Not only does it cause the public to treat the person slapped with these labels unjustly, it minimizes the injury of those who suffered real assaults or suffered substantial harm. In this case, people are referring to Josh’s unwanted groping or petting in the same terms that people are referring to the rape of children by clergy, for example: they are all being lumped together as ‘child molesters’. There is no moral justification for equating the forcible rape of a younger person by an older person with unwanted groping of one child by another, yet so many people are getting away with doing this very thing in the public debate right now by referring to them all in the same terms.

And it doesn’t make sense to react to the suffering of one child, the target of the undesirable behavior, by treating the misbehaving child unjustly. Whether or not we like it, the process of growing into our mature sexual nature is uncomfortable, complicated, and riddled with mistakes. Sometimes we need to give sexually misbehaving children a talking-to, sometimes we need to punish them, and sometimes we need to separate violent or dangerous children from others until they’ve learned their lesson. But we need to stop trying to sanitize childhood and adolescence, both on the right side of the ideological spectrum and on the left. Conservatives need to stop screeching about the horrors of teens having sex, the dire consequences of sex-ed, and how making contraceptives and the HPV vaccine available to youngsters will cause them all to be sex-addled reprobates. Liberals need to stop self-righteously acting as if children are simultaneously passive receptacles of adult virtues and perfect little angels whose misbehaviors are products of a corrupt society rather than immaturity, that children who cause discomfort or suffering in others must be ruthlessly tried, convicted, and sentenced in public opinion, and most of all, they need to stop promoting a culture of perpetual victimhood. Like I said before, we all need to grow up!

Even in the cases of extreme misbehavior, the future of the offending child should not be ruined by exposing them to a lifetime of media scrutiny, or placing them on a publicly accessible criminal registry for life, or otherwise lynching their reputation. The situation is never helped by heaping injustice upon suffering. And imagine what a society would look like, what a huge and oppressed underclass we would create, if we were to actually punish all children who were caught misbehaving in ways that caused other children suffering, or infringed on others’ rights, by publicizing their misdeeds for life. Today, I’m finding it quite funny (not ‘ha-ha’ funny) how many of the same people who’ve jumped on the ‘Josh Duggar is a child molester’ bandwagon are upset, as they absolutely should be, by Kalief Browder’s unjust punishment for allegedly stealing a backpack as a child of 16. Yet they’re treating Josh as a pariah since he ‘should have known better’ and Kalief as a tragedy because ‘he was just a kid’. Of course, Kalief’s treatment was far more unfair, and had far more dire consequences, than Josh’s. But many lives are ruined forever because of how society sometimes unjustly punishes people for life for offenses they commit as children, by the courts and in the media, and many people are driven to despair and even suicide because of it. And as Human Rights Watch and many other criminal justice reform organizations have found, people treated as Josh is being treated now are often driven to the same desperate lengths as Kalief.

Another thing: it doesn’t matter a tiny bit what Josh Duggar believes as an adult, what his religious or political opinions are, and especially, what his parents’ beliefs are, when it comes to how he misbehaved as a child and how we treat him because of it. I don’t like Josh’s religion, I don’t like the indoctrination brand of homeschooling his family promotes (which I experienced myself, to the detriment of my early education), and I don’t agree with the Duggar clan’s message overall. None of that matters. Neither I nor anyone else has license to do the wrong thing just because we don’t agree with someone’s opinions, even if we think they are being hypocritical. In Josh’s case, if he now promotes Christian moral values and believes we should deal with sexual misbehavior harshly, it has nothing to do with whether he failed to live up to those principles before he was old enough to maturely formulate them. An adult can oppose bullying (rightly!) even if they themselves bullied others as a child, or promote stricter laws against theft even if they stole things as a child. The one has nothing to do with the other when it comes to one’s beliefs; every single one of us have convictions that our childhood behavior doesn’t reflect. We should criticize Josh’s beliefs on their own merits, and not on anything else.

In fact, we all learn right from wrong precisely because we’ve made mistakes: we do the wrong thing constantly as we grow up, and learn not to do it again because of the consequences. Sometimes it’s because we’re corrected or punished by an authority figure, sometimes it’s because we hurt others and feel ashamed, or because our peers strike back or shun us, and so on. It’s not until we’ve had ample opportunity to learn these lessons, and for our brains to develop enough to process and implement them, that we should begin to be held fully responsible for our actions.

One more thing: I would ask my fellow liberals and progressives who are jumping on the ‘Josh Duggar is a child molester’ bandwagon to consider this: would you accept this brand of character assassination based on childhood misdeeds from people on the other side of the ideological divide?

Let’s imagine ourselves in a counterfactual (make-believe or what-might-have-been) world in which Peter Singer, influential philosopher and founder of the modern animal rights movement, was suddenly embroiled in controversy. Suppose an angry neighbor convinced the local police to publish a report revealing that Singer has thrown rocks at the neighbors’ cats when he was fourteen or fifteen, sometimes injuring them a little or causing them fear and distress; sometimes, the rocks missed and the cats didn’t even notice what happened since they were asleep at the time. Then suppose conservatives who oppose animal rights’ legislation started splashing this story all over the press, saying things like: ‘Look what a hypocrite Peter Singer is, that animal abuser!’ and ‘See, I told you so-called liberal values are no good, look how Peter Singer behaves, that just shows what all those animal-rights bleeding-heart liberals who support him are really like!’ If you were not outraged at that injustice, and amazed at the unconscionable behavior of conservatives who reacted to the story this way, I would be just as appalled at the lack of critical thinking, and the willingness to betray ones’ principles to score political points, as I am with the ‘Josh Duggar is a child molester’ crowd. Peter Singer’s principles and beliefs he espouses as an adult has nothing to do with whether or not he misbehaved as a child in that counterfactual world.

In sum: we all need to deal justly with one another, and not stoop to assassinating one another’s characters for bad reasons just because we disagree. If we really believe in truth, justice, tolerance, and the rightness of our cause, we should hold ourselves to the discipline of never taking the moral low ground, because, ultimately, we all lose by doing so.


Sources nad Inspiration:

Nussbaum, Martha. ‘Same-Sex Marriage and Constitutional Law: Beyond the Politics of Disgust’
Talk at Cornell Law School, Nov 11, 2009

Schwirtz, Michael & Michael Winerip. ‘Kalief Browder, Held at Rikers Island for 3 Years Without Trial, Commits Suicide’. New York Times, June 8, 2015

Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation. Random House, New York, 1975

‘US: More Harm Than Good: Exempt Youth Sex Offenders From Registration Laws’. Human Rights Watch, May 1, 2013.