I vote for a worldview.

I know that you are probably drowning in political ads, posts, and articles (but I hope you aren't drowning in Hurricane Sandy!). I'm sure you have a million voices telling you how to pick a certain candidate, but if you can stand it, I'd like to offer you one more possible way to evaluate the candidates. I'd like to tell you about how I evaluate political candidates....not that my way is the best way, but it is a way that you may not have considered, and I hope it might be somewhat helpful to you. Evaluating a Candidate's Worldview

It seems to me that campaign promises are never as easy to keep as we would like. Policies get watered down by opponents, and decisions must be made on the fly in response to sudden events. As a result, it seems to me that we cannot ever be certain about what politicians will accomplish during their terms (not necessarily because they are deceitful people, but mainly just because the circumstances of legislation are unpredictable). Because those campaign promises are so unreliable as predictors of policies to be passed during a term, it seems to me that a more reliable way to predict a candidate's future spur-of-the-moment policy decisions is to start from their worldview. A person's worldview will underscore all of their actions, so I assert that voting for a candidate with an agreeable worldview will more likely ensure that the candidate will enact policies and decisions that support your perspectives.

*What do you think about using a candidate's worldview as a more reliable way to predict their future policy decisions?

How to Determine a Candidate's Worldview

First, however, we need to consider how to determine a candidates worldview, especially given that so much of what a candidate says is carefully scripted to appeal to the greatest number of voters. My approach to this determination is two fold: first, I believe we can get to candidates' worldviews by looking for the underlying assumptions hidden in their scripted statements and second, I believe that we get a glimpse of candidates' worldviews in the unscripted, sometime unintentional, comments that they make to supporters (or bystanders with recording devices). Even these two methods are not fool-proof, but they give us small pieces of the candidates' underlying perspectives, and if we piece these together, I think we have a fairly solid understanding of the worldview that a candidate holds.

* What do you think about this method of determining a candidate's worldview?

The Worldviews of the Presidential Candidates

In this presidential election, (even though the two major candidates seem to articulate their positions using largely the same language) the worldviews of the two major candidates seem radically different. While they both agree that we need to balance the budget, improve education, keep Americans safe, and grow the economy, the way they approach those issues are telling of their worldviews.

Romney's Worldview

Romney has stated that he believes that economic liberalism and free market capitalism are fair and yield the best products. He has asserted his belief that only the private sector (re: economic competition) will be able to lower costs and improve products. His policies demonstrate that he believes that wealthy people have worked hard to earn their wealth, and that they therefore deserve to keep it. He believes that everyone should work hard pursuing their own interests and that people who do work hard will succeed.  His policies also suggest that he believes that each person only deserves what they have worked for (re: no entitlements). So if we piece together those policies, we can first conclude that in his worldview everyone has equal ability to and probability of succeeding in the world. Second, given Romney's policies and unscripted comments about other social issues, we can conclude that his worldview includes that the Christian God has commanded certain principals that should never be violated and furthermore that those divine commands should translated into civil law. From what I can piece together, that seems to be his worldview.

*Do you agree or disagree with this characterization of Romney's worldview?

So, let's analyze that worldview.

At first, a worldview based on the equality of all individuals and on legislating the morality of Christianity might seem like a good way to bring fairness and morality into our complicated world. With further analysis, however, I think we will be forced to conclude that this worldview is actually ethically problematic and in fact dangerous. Let me explain.

First, regarding Romney's assumptions about the equality of all people, as I demonstrated in my post about the two definitions of equality, while we (feminists, but also ethicists) must assert that all people have equality of worth, we must also assert that all people have not had and still do not have equal access to resources. In that post, I also claimed that to forget the second claim is tantamount to denying the first one. [To review: if we deny that poor people (or people with mental illness, etc.) have had limited access to resources, then we expect them to perform at the level of people with access to lots of resources, and when they can't, we assume that they are lazy and therefore deserve their plight of poverty....which amounts to denying that their lives are worth as much as the lives of the rich/successful.] In light of that, I believe that we must conclude that economic liberalism and free market capitalism (which are built on the assumption that each individual has equal resources and equal ability to succeed in society) are systems which deny that all people are equal in worth. Denying that all people are equal in worth seems extremely problematic to me, and for this reason, I must conclude that Romney's worldview is ethical problematic.

Second, Romney's worldview is that it is good to legislate Christian morality, and I believe we must conclude that such a view is dangerous. Romney takes from Christianity views about same-sex marriage, about abortion, and about a number of other social issues. Taking views on those issues from religion is just fine for any individual (even the president); however, taking views from religion and then trying to make them into civil law is nothing more than forcing one's religious tenants onto people who are outside that religion. For example, we would be appalled if someone suggested that Kosher laws be built into the American legal system. And outlawing abortion and same-sex marriage are the same thing. If an individual religious person believes those two issues are wrong, I believe that is unfortunate, but we must accept that a person has a right to those views (as long as those views do not take the form of hate speech or violence). However, if that person seeks to make his personal religious beliefs about those issues into law, that seems to me to be oppressive and dangerous....not to mention that it goes against the American commitment to the separation of church and state. Here is an article that pretty starkly explains this.

*What do you think about these critiques of Romney's worldview? Do you agree that these two aspects of his worldview are ethical problematic and dangerous? Why or why not?

Because Romney holds that worldview, even though I agree with a few of his policies, I can only conclude that his future decisions would be (or at least would probably be) ethical problematic and dangerous in the ways I have outlined above.

Obama's Worldview

Now let's look the other major candidate's policies and unscripted comments to see if we can determine his worldview.

First, he acknowledges that poor people are poor, not because they haven't worked hard, but because they have been denied access to the resources (whether educational, monetary, physical, or psychological) necessary for success. His policies also demonstrate that he believers that society should try to make amends for that unequal access to resources; his policies have supported the idea that help needs to be provided to people (because society has failed them in the past and owes them rectification for that failure). Furthermore, his policies demonstrate that this help needs to be provided to people even when we know that some people will abuse the system. Because of these policies, it seems to me that Obama's worldview is built on asserting that people are equal in worth AND that they have not and do not have equal access to resources.

Secondly, Obama's (and Biden's) perspective is that individuals may hold religious beliefs (and may believe that certain actions or behaviors are wrong) but that those religious beliefs should never be made into law. Biden's comments in the VP debate about abortion demonstrated exactly this distinction. While he personally believes that abortion is wrong, he understands that abortions cannot be outlawed. He understands that he cannot and should not use his power to make his religious beliefs into secular laws. He understands the danger in forcing those outside his religion to follow his religion's tenants. In this way, these men demonstrate that they understand that practicing Jews are perfectly able to follow Kosher laws, but that all Americans should not be required to follow those laws. Acknowledging and upholding this distinction between religious beliefs and secular laws is telling of a worldview that embraces and nurtures diversity, which I believe is a critically important approach to governing.

*What do you think of this characterization of Obama's worldview? Would you characterize his worldview differently? What critiques do you have of Obama's worldview?

It is not that I agree with every one of Obama's policies or decision, definitely not. However, given that his worldview seems t to be based on real equality and respect for diversity, I feel compelled to support him.

Two Conflicting Worldviews and the Future of American Politics

Seeing and analyzing these two different worldviews seems to me to very important, not only for this election but for the future of our country. It seems to me that people are building philosophical structures to explain every aspect of society based on these two worldviews. And, alarmingly, I believe these two worldviews are growing further away from each other.... which does not make me hopeful about the possibility for future political collaboration.

*Do you see two radically different worldviews undergriding the policies, decisions, and statements for the two major presidential candidates (or even the two major parties)? If so, do you feel that the gap between these two worldviews is widening? Are you alarmed by that? If not, how do you conceptualize the radically different approaches taken by the two candidates?

As always, thank you so much for reading, and please do join the conversation!

two definitions of equality

I've gotten lots of great feedback, comments, and questions from some of you (either here, in my email, via Skype, or in person) and that feedback is super valuable to me, so please keep it coming. If you have anything that you'd like to know my thoughts about, please let me know! So, today's topic: feminism's 2 definitions of equality!

I think this is an important post because it serves as a backdrop to many other posts that I'll write and to my worldview and ethical perspectives in general.... so, without further ado...

Feminism asserts two claims that at first glance appear to be contradictory. On the one hand, feminists firmly assert that all people are fundamentally and irrevocably equal. And, on the other hand, feminists assert that people are profoundly and shockingly un-equal. Let me explain.

In the first claim, we are making a claim that people are ontologically equal in value. All people (no matter the race, gender, sex, class, nationality, sexuality orientation, etc.) are precisely equal in their worth as living beings. They can all contribute to society; they all deserve to be treated with respect, and none of them deserve to suffer under oppression. So, yes, I claim that all people are equal.

In the second claim, we are talking about something different. The second claim makes an observation about the world and the way that society functions. This is to say that feminists observe and want to call attention to the fact that different populations/people have vastly un-equal access to resources. The term 'resources' here is very broadly construed and can include access to wealth, education, clean water, support systems, medical care, mental health care, technologies, transportation, etc. By highlighting that some people can easily access all of these resources and that some people struggle to access even one of these resources, feminists (including myself) assert that people are profoundly un-equal. Basically, the claim here is that people have had drastically different levels of access to the things necessary for health and success.

This second claim and its implications require further explanation.

What I mean when I claim that people are un-equal in this way is that social structures function to continue to disadvantage those populations who have been historically disadvantaged. This can be observed on both an individual level and on a societal level.

Imagine a 16 year old Black girl, let's call her Tasha, who is being raised by a single mother who works 4 jobs. They live in an urban neighborhood in a high crime area in LA. Then imagine someone like Mark Zuckerberg, a white male who comes from a wealthy, educated, professional, and tech-savy family. Do Tasha and Mark have equal opportunity to succeed in the world? We have been taught to say yes. We have been taught to say that all people are equal so all people (with hard work) can achieve the American Dream and can be economically successful. But, I believe that this line we've been fed about the American Dream is at best a dreamer's fantasy and at worst a vicious and manipulative lie. Tasha will struggle to make it through high school, will not be able to use new computers or lab equipment because her school can't afford them, will not be able to afford to participate in SAT tutoring classes or other enrichment programs, and will spend her time avoiding trouble and trying to stay safe. If she makes it into college at all, it will likely be a community college, and definitely not an Ivy League school. And because of her poor education, even if she does make it into college, she will struggle to graduate and likely get less than stellar grades. Afterward, she will have to work hard to find any job at all (because all the other applicants will have better credentials from better schools). She will have to work very hard to overcome her situation, and even then her hard work will only get her so far. On the other hand, Mark will have grown up with the wealth, the tutors, the computers, and the safe free time necessary to become a hacker before graduating high school. He will then get into Harvard, and be able to attend because his family can afford it. Then, because he has a safety net to fall back on if he loses everything and because he has enough money to pay for startup, he has the ability to drop out of Harvard, move to Palo Alto, and spend every moment working on Facebook. He will then gain millions in investments, and become a billionaire.  So, did Tasha and Mark have equal probably of becoming successful? Hell no. Both of them worked hard, but what they were able to work hard doing was very different because of their different histories.

This pattern is also observable on a larger scale. After the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, we saw (some) factories commit to becoming explicitly anti-racism. They changed their hiring practices and their promotion policies. They strictly hired and promoted based on merit. However, if their new policy says, "We will promote to manger the people who are most qualified, as demonstrated through the success of previous managerial duties," and if no Black people have ever been given managerial duties, then it is still only white men who get the promotions. Merit based anti-racist practices often still perpetuate racism.... because people have not historically had equal access to resources.

This means that people's wealth/success or failure/poverty is much more a reflection of their access to resources than it is a reflection of their commitment to hard work. Hard work does not equal success. Access to resources equals success.

A syllogism to summarize my perspective:

  • I believe the claim that all people are equal in worth includes within it the claim that all people should have equal access to the resources necessary to be healthy and successful. (It should be noted that success does not have to be defined economically, but let's be honest, in our society, success is defined economically, so I'll just stay within that definition for now. Perhaps I will post an opposition to our current economic system later.)
  • I also think that observations of society can easily demonstrate that people have historically not had equal access to the resources necessary for health and success. Furthermore, I think we can easily conclude that a person's current access to resources is very related to (if not wholly determined by) their access to resources in the past.
  • Therefore, if we assert that all people are equal in worth, then we must also support practices that (at least start to) correct the history of un-equal access to resources.

I could be more blunt about what this means for me in terms of practices and politics, but perhaps I should leave that for another day. I also could relate this post to terms like 'structural racism' and 'privilege' but again, I think that might need to be saved for another day.

What are your thoughts on this? Do you agree with my observations about the history of un-equal access to resources? Do you agree that previous un-equal access to resources greatly impacts current access to resources? Do you agree that a claim of equality of worth for all people includes within it the claim that all people should have equal access to resources?