MLK (and moral progress, knowledge, biases and cultural diversity)

mlk
The Washington Post has recently been indulging its readership in a series of articles proclaiming that a new progressive movement is taking form, and that changing demographics in battleground states suggest that Democratic presidents will become a norm. As a bleeding heart liberal – I was fairly progressive before living in Denmark, but seeing socialist policies first hand made me a true believer – I take great comfort in this. For too long the Tea Party has been the only extreme political movement on the ideological landscape, it’s time liberals offer a competing view to balance out the political spectrum. An outspoken progressive group would, at least I hope, get food stamp cuts off the negotiation table. But while I think the progressive has much to be excited about, I think that Americans as a whole should be hearted by this news – that changing demographics improve the chances of electing a democratic president hints at the underlying truth that we, as a nation, are making moral progress.

Steve Rosenthal notes that in the past decade alone the American public’s views on gay marriage, immigration, big business and the war on drugs have become more progressive, while in a separate article Dan Balz posits that changing demographics have turned red states to purple, or even blue states, which, taken together, suggest that the nation has become more progressive due to more diverse views.

This is particularly interesting because many conservatives worry that increasing cultural diversity creates a need for a philosophical liberalism in being sensitive to the varying beliefs and practices of ethnic communities, creating a heterogeneous mixing pot with no central point to call home. This anxiety is due to an equivocation of cultural values and moral values; social conservatives are scared of cultural diversity due to a misplaced fear that diverse ethnic groups have a different moral viewpoint because of different cultural practices. What the findings of the Post suggest is that, far from making moral codes more vague and conflicting from cultural norms, increasing diversity in the American polity creates a more focused and precise moral code.

The best explanation for this, I think, is that increasing diversity in cultural viewpoints pushes us to challenge biases that we have inherited from past generations, and as many of these biases are recognized as apocryphal, we do our best to expunge them in order to tend to our moral intuitions. Thus, cultural diversity does not lead to an incoherent moral system, but rather, more consistent and exacting moral principles. Moral progress has been made on the issues of gay marriage, immigration, unregulated capitalism, and the punishment of minor drug offenders because diverse viewpoints have pushed the American polity to recognize latent biases that have blocked us from recognizing objectively true a priori intuitions about morality. On the danger biases pose to recognizing moral principles, Michael Huemer writes that,

“The problem of bias is the most troubling one. Although bias is pervasive in intellectual life, accusations of bias rarely advance discussion. They are more likely to lead each side’s searching for arguments to show that the other side is more biased, and these arguments are likely to be assessed with at least as much bias as the original moral issue. For this reason, there may be little we can do about the biases of others. But we can try to counter our own biases. Merely identifying a bias goes a great distance towards counteracting it. When approaching a moral issue, we should think about whether we are subject to the sorts of biases previously discussed. Along these lines, we should ask whether we hold the moral beliefs that we do because of our culture or religion, and if so, we should be suspicious of those beliefs. A belief’s being endorsed by our culture or religion is not evidence that it is false, but it is evidence that our belief is unreliable, that we would likely hold the belief whether it was true or not” (Michael Huemer, Ethical Intuitionism, pages 144-145).

That other cultures have a different moral belief on the matter should lead us to consider the issue anew; it might turn out that our belief on the matter is due to our own, arbitrary, cultural traditions, and not for any demanding moral reason. When this is the case, we are compelled to revise our moral beliefs and moral progress is made. Thus, increasing cultural diversity is invaluable in its leading to the revision of moral beliefs in such a way that moves humanity closer to correct moral knowledge. I will conclude with these words from Martin Luther King jr.

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was “well-timed”, according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the words “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost  always meant “Never”. It has been a tranquilizing thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration. We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights” (Letter from a Birmingham Jail).

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  1. #1 by SelfAwarePatterns on January 20, 2014 - 5:39 pm

    Very well said.

  2. #2 by SelfAwarePatterns on January 20, 2014 - 5:39 pm

    Reblogged this on SelfAwarePatterns.

    • #3 by ausomeawestin on January 20, 2014 - 5:47 pm

      Thank you very much, SAP, I’m honored to be reblogged by you!

      • #4 by SelfAwarePatterns on January 20, 2014 - 5:51 pm

        The honor is mine. I was lamenting that I couldn’t think of anyway to commemorate MLK day, and you hit it out of the ballpark.

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