Mon 13 Jul 2009
Now, just to start: I’m not using this title to condemn socially liberal beliefs, mainly because I support nearly all of them — I’m just curious about what happens when we become as liberal as possible on social issues.
There are basically two viewpoints on the topic: the roughly “conservative” one being:
That our stances on social issues are on a relatively unlimited slider — as we become more liberal (on say, sexuality) we could eventually become so liberal that we allow truly immoral things. (A current conservative would suggest abortion in this category). We could also go an infinite distance in the other direction as well: I suppose that even social conservatives in America would agree that there are other societies that are “too conservative socially,” such as say, Saudi Arabia.
The other being the roughly “liberal” view:
As we become more liberal on social issues, it’s not just a simply progression: we are not becoming more liberal simply for its own sake. We are slowly rolling back unreasonable (and immoral!) restrictions on human behavior until we arrive at a point where we allow all non-immoral activities. Social views are also relative, the grandparents who scandalized their elders with uncovered ankles in the 20′s are now the stodgy curmudgeons outraged by gay marriage — the “conservatives” who would agree with the concept of a fixed amount of social liberality are just debating where that point is, they say in the past, we say in the future.
I’m definitely in the second camp. But my belief in this does bring up an interesting end point: at some point, we will actually arrive at a point where society actually does condone all non-immoral activities, which I generally define as not initiating the use of force against others within the social sphere. This means that at some point, the old grandparents sitting on their porches will have the same set of social beliefs as the punk kids who previously would be trespassing on their lawn, but instead are visiting for a fun plastic surgery party/orgy while listening to the same cool music and using the same drugs.
I’m deliberately ignoring the idea that cool things are cool precisely because the old fogies don’t do them, so the cool new music would be whatever the parents aren’t listening to. This would then also imply infinite variability along this spectrum, but I’m talking more about actual increased permissivity and relaxed social norms. I don’t see an objective difference between jazz, rock and roll or rap in this context, even though they could be seen as a progression of increased acceptance along the dimension of music. I do think there is an objective difference between condoning interracial relationships and not doing so, or allowing drug use and not doing so.
Part of the reason I got thinking about this was, strangely, Michael Jackson — someone wrote an article about how he could be, through his (relatively) immense amount of physical reconstruction, be considered the first “transhuman”: someone for whom the mortal flesh is simply another canvas of expression. Obviously we’ve seen that this is pretty widely condemned — I can only imagine what Leon Kass would have to say about it. But at some point, this kind of surgery will be cheap and easy enough that people will be able to change their skin color, height, face, gender or any other physical feature. At first it will probably be reviled and perhaps outlawed, then eventually accepted.
Between my social liberal upbringing and the large doses of speculative science fiction that I’ve absorbed, I’d say that none of this stuff bothers me: I’ve already accepted that people should be allowed to do this, even though very few people actually are. I’m fine with this (though I personally would be far too terrified of this type of surgery in its current incarnation) and any number of other things that would cause Kass to surrender his lunch. And I certainly can’t be the only one. So do we have a certain subset of people alive today who have arrived at the endpoint of social liberalism? If that’s the case, then we would assume this group would increase until they are the majority — how will political discourse be affected when the World’s Smallest Political Quiz collapses to one axis? Is this social singularity* boring or exciting? Or does it just mean that we’ll have resolved all this relative-social-acceptance stupidity, and now we can move on to important stuff?
Or, alternatively, is this simply a failure of my imagination that I can’t come up with any activity (that doesn’t cross into something truly immoral) so far along the curve of social permissiveness that I wouldn’t accept it? Or even that the conservative viewpoint is correct, and that my personal beliefs will eventually be re-written to accomodate something I would think immoral today? Or is the liberal viewpoint still correct, and just my current morality not up to speed with what we’ll recognize as the truth one day?
* I never understood why people used the term “singularity” in this context, for something that more resembles a runaway chain reaction. I guess talking about the coming “technological atomic explosion” and advanced AI being the necessary “critical mass” frames the debate in negative way. It seems like “singularity” would better describe something like above, where the huge range of opinion on a topic collapses to a single point, making the standard way of looking at things irrelevant. Again, perhaps a failure of my imagination.