Warning. Some generalizations follow. I can’t really help it, because I’m thinking about the way people tend to think, and there’s no way to think about the way people think (especially when it comes to things like “values”) without generalizing about the way people think.
A lot of people argue over identity politics (and its profitable spawn, affirmative action), but what bothers me the most about it is not so much that it makes the irrelevant relevant, but that it gives it an actual value — something measurable in terms of wealth. Dollars and sense.
When rewards are bestowed in the form of giving people real and tangible things (like admission to college, preferential treatment in hiring and promotions), the people who get these things can be expected to treat them the way anyone else might treat something of value. If you have something of value, your natural inclination is to fight like hell to keep it. When you’re told that you deserve it, this adds a moral justification, and thus a moral “value” becomes a genuine value.
People argue over “values,” but they’re more likely to go to war over value. The former often supplies a justification for the latter, and when historians look back, they’re often confused. Thus, the causes of the Civil War (and many other wars) are still debated.
While it is natural enough to expect someone to fight like hell to defend his property, it helps if he has a moral rationalization. A tenant in a rent-controlled apartment who pays a fraction of its market rent naturally wants what he has, but he’ll feel better about fighting for it if he is told that he is good (or “oppressed”), and his landlord is bad (“exploitative”). Pennsylvania has a system of government-run liquor stores which stay in place despite widespread public opposition, because of the lobbying efforts state liquor store employees union, which claims to be “protecting the public.” Similarly, the FCC claims that its artificial and outmoded licensing system protects the “public airwaves.” So do the licensees, who have paid billions and don’t want their licenses devalued.
When moral arguments are used in these and other instances to defeat logical arguments, people spend so much time debating the moral arguments (whether with logical arguments or moral counter-arguments) that they overlook the economic arguments.
Maybe they’re uncomfortable with them. Perhaps economic factors are seen as irrelevant — even immoral — in the face of morality.
They are not irrelevant. Welfare, affirmative action, rent control, state regulation of alcohol and bandwidth are all someone’s bread and butter. To debate the moral issues is fine, although I try to focus on logic. (Logic and morality do not always mix, of course.) Yet in logic, there is no way for me to ignore value as well as values. If someone is getting money, it is not going to be easy to turn off the flow. Money has a way of creating and fueling moral arguments, whether the latter should be there or not. Value often creates values.
Even arguments which seem driven by morality (and “fairness”) like same sex marriage have strong economic components. People don’t just want the “right” to a piece of paper saying they’re married; they want real benefits they see others as getting. Global warming masquerades as “save the planet” morality, but I suspect there are careers, jobs, and vast economic forces behind a regulatory scheme which promises to be the most massive transfer of power in human history. The louder the moral arguments become (in what amounts to a vast international bureaucratic war against carbon), the more suspicious I become that a tangible shift in economic value is involved. If the war on carbon isn’t started soon, public opinion might prevent the inevitable power grab, which would be very bad for the emerging new power class. Thus the heavy-handed moral rhetoric has become deafening.
Unfortunately, many of the fiercest proponents of global warming morality cut their teeth by championing an argument against the Vietnam War which many people (myself included) assumed was strictly a “values” argument — in favor of “peace.” While undoubtably there were a lot of sincere people who really believed in peace at the time, many of the peace demonstrators were violent. But that was only because they “believed” so strongly in their newfound peace values. At least, that was what I thought until I saw a sudden and dramatic drop in attendance at the demonstrations which accompanied the end of the draft. This made me suspect a more tangible value was involved — the value of not risking your life. That’s at least as legitimate a value as any economic benefit, but it was concealed by the values argument. And many of the people who did the concealing never admitted what they were concealing, because few asked them whether a very real motivation wasn’t simply the preservation of their own lives.
Doubtless, had they been asked (and I’m sure some of them were), they’d have said that wanting to save their skins was “irrelevant.” (An argument I have heard.) Really? Their own lives were irrelevant? I doubt it.
I don’t mean to generalize about an entire generation of people (because many of them served honorably in the war, and many antiwar leftists have regretted their dishonesty), but some of them developed what I think is a bad habit of imagining that their moral values were more important than other values.
Worse, if these other values (like saving one’s skin, keeping a job, keeping a rent-controlled apartment, or building a power base) are sources of shame, it is natural to expect them to be concealed.
When concealed values masquerade as ostensible values, we spend a great deal of time arguing over the less relevant while missing the highly relevant.