Mulligan: What fundamental value(s) informs progressive politics and ethic?

Not long ago I wrote a post entitled What fundamental values informs progressive politics and ethic?, and it spawned lots of responses primarily deconstructing my questions. Most of these comments were valid and some were insightful. However, I feel like the idea that I was trying to convey was not articulated very well. So here I go again…

Why are you a feminist (or anti-racist or socialist)? Is it because you are a woman and you want equality? Well, that is a pretty self-serving reason. Is it because you believe all human beings should be treated equally? Why? I suspect that most people break down to the idea that all human beings, or perhaps life, has an inherent and equal worth. How do we make a case for that idea without accepting it as an axiom, a obvious truth?

Desconstruct your convictions… I’d like to hear what everyone has to say.

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12 Responses to Mulligan: What fundamental value(s) informs progressive politics and ethic?

  1. kissiegrrrl says:

    I think this is a great question & will do my best to answer.

    This may seem ironic coming from a non-christian agnostic, but my progressive values are actually informed primarily by the christian axiom “love you neighbor as yourself” (aka the golden rule). I was raised in various protestant churches and was ultimately disillusioned by all of them due to the lack of observance of this important biblical rule.

    I was partly inspired to be an activist because of the sexism, racism and homopohobia that are pervasive in many religious communties. Now, here I am, doing what I think Jesus would do anyhow. I work daily to be a steward of the land and to help the least among us. I care about others, not for fear of hell, but because the right thing to do is to care for everyone and to do your best to do right by them. Wellstone may have put it best: “we all do better when we ALL do better”.

    • N says:

      Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death–even death on a cross!
      Philippians 2:3-8

      What a beautiful thought, right? I still find it moving. How moving I used to find stories of people dying for their faith in Christ. This idea isn’t unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition either:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjpAh4rqTv4&feature=related (Please note the linked video is very graphic in nature.)

      The problem that I have is that when the “Golden Rule” stays entwined with religion it takes all of the baggage that comes with it. I’ll skip inventorying it here.

      Thankfully, there is a case to be made for the “Ethic of Reciprocity” outside of the religious context. I find this read particularly interesting:

      http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/anthro/faculty/boyd/FehrNews&Views.pdf

      Ultimately though, isn’t our “altruism” self-serving? I want to treat people fairly because then they will treat me fairly, because I will know that I am a good person, or because there will be some spiritual benefit to me. Aren’t these ultimately self-serving motivations?

      If that is the case, what ultimately makes them any different than any other self-serving motivations?

  2. desipis says:

    If that is the case, what ultimately makes them any different than any other self-serving motivations?

    I think that its a wisdom about how social interaction is not a zero sum game that may not be readily apparent, particularly in the context of the anarchy and lack of education 2000 years ago. It may be self-serving, but it goes against the tribalistic instinct meaning that someone uneducated in ethics would essentially have to take it on faith.

    • N says:

      So an uneducated person can more easily understand and appreciate abstract concepts through allegory? That doesn’t speak to any moral or ethical distinction between someone who makes stepping stones of people out of self-serving motives and the self-serving motives of someone who benefits from the community they helped strengthen with their “altruistic” endeavors.

  3. FW says:

    “Love Thy Neighbor” – wow ironic, or coincidence or something, I just finished reading a thing about Judaism and Christianity and how all that “neighbor” stuff and all of the ten commandments and everything was just supposed to be about the “in-group” – it was pretty interesting stuff – if you google “LOVE THY NEIGHBOR: The evolution of in-group morality” you should find the pdf first or second result. … interesting and kinda weird, but whatever…

    Anyway, I’m mostly a feminist because I think that social contract, and moral philosophy, value ethics etc. stretching back to socrates has neglected women, as it was philosphized up by men in the first place. I have a theory rooted in evolutionary psychology (yeah, I know) that basically says women should get paid for motherhood and sex, and that the payment is the original contract of reproduction which was oppressed by men thousands of years ago in favor of the contract of the “family” in order to ensure their patrilineal property inheritence.

    Course, that doesn’t make me very popular.

  4. EGhead says:

    Taking this in a different direction, as an atheist…

    I absolutely came to believe what I believe because of personal experience. I was abused as a pre-teen, no one listened to me or helped me, and so I blamed myself for it. Gradually, I realized it was NOT my fault, and that there was an entire movement that explained why certain people had treated me the way they had: feminism. Patriarchy was not just something outside myself I could blame– it was actually something I could fight. Feminism helped my recovery immensely. So my progressivism is absolutely self-serving, and what’s wrong with that?

    Nothing, so long as it doesn’t end there, and it didn’t for me. Once I knew about feminism, I quickly started linking different forms of oppression to the same sort of social dynamic. And so I extrapolated what I knew to be true from personal experience to all experiences: listening to people who are being hurt and oppressed is essential. Fighting for what they need is most important of all.

    Some people call this the platinum rule: treat others how they wish to be treated.

    (And just to be clear, my evolution from proto-feminist to what I’d now call full-fledged progressive was not spurred by this sort of intellectual analysis. It was prompted by sympathy. Only when I look back can I see where that sympathy came from.)

  5. EGhead says:

    Oh… erm… to actually answer the question:

    The ability to understand oneself– psychologically, sociologically, maybe even philosophically– and then broaden that understanding to others are essential to progressivism. In short, it’s personal insight and informed empathy that drive this ethic.

    This was articulated much earlier and much more eloquently by John Stewart Mills in his treatise on utilitarianism. If there’s any established philosophical ethic progressives subscribe to, it’s definitely that.

    • N says:

      EGHead, thanks for the concise yet articulate and well-reasoned response! I’ve not read Steward Mills so I can not speak to his argument. I take it you’d recommend adding him to the “to read” stack?

      What I understand you and despis above to really be suggesting is that the ethic of reciprocation has its roots in a sort of organic or perhaps even evolutionary enlightenment or discovered awareness that seems to be shared amongst many of the species.

      What evidence suggests this perspective is more valuable than any other? What metrics do we use? Is an egalitarian community more efficient at completing a certain task than an oppressive one? Have we decided that as many happy homo sapien sapiens in and of it self is the end we aspire to?

  6. April says:

    It’s taken me a while to respond to this, because I wasn’t sure the answer I came up with first was the most accurate, but I think I’ve summed it up: I feel badly when I see other people being mistreated and dehumanized. As a result, I do what I can to support organizations and politicians who fight for people who are oppressed. I don’t necessarily see it as self-serving, because although I may be included in some of the groups whose members I feel sympathy for, ultimately it is the desire not to see anyone suffer needlessly that causes me to feel passionately about issues related to equality.

    For the record, I feel the same way about puppies.

  7. Sarah says:

    I am progressive for selfish reasons: I’m not making much money right now.

    I don’t really trust liberal altruist type people. I feel that their lack of down-to-earth understanding makes them vulnerable to propaganda and capable of a lot of cruelty. For example, it’s much easier to support a corrupt health plan in the name of the “millions of uninsured” if the mandatory payments will not be a financial hardship to you. Or to say that higher fuel and food prices are good because they will force Americans to go “green”, when your budget is flexible enough to not have to choose between the two.

    Another example: mental health “advocates” who concentrate exclusively on the “right to treatment” and ignore the right to not be locked up.

    I’m ok with male feminists though, provided they’re really feminists and not just putting women on a pedestal as spiritually superior.

    • April says:

      I’m ok with male feminists though, provided they’re really feminists and not just putting women on a pedestal as spiritually superior.

      Ahh, that whole thing. You know, that entire method of treatment or reference to females has always irked me to no end, but I never knew how to put it into words until fairly recently. I’m glad you bring it up. Saying/believing things to the effect of “women are the ones who really rule the world…” “I don’t understand how people can hate women; they’re goddesses…” etc., while innocent at first, are really just another form of othering, and really obnoxious and uncomfortable, at best.

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