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Brian Epstein

This is such an interesting post. Eric is, of course, being much too generous – coming up with a fascinating new idea, and crediting it to me. I think he’s absolutely right to have noted an ambiguity in my own thinking about this.

At times I do think Eric’s first interpretation is actually what’s going on – I think that we’re afraid of how people will react, and try to couch moral imperatives as nonthreateningly as possible. And I think this fear can be counterproductive. But I also think Eric is right that his second interpretation is more to the point: it is likely that we are not entirely honest with ourselves about the very social changes we hope to bring about. I’m not sure about the deep reason for the self-deception, but I think Eric’s hypothesis is plausible. As he suggests, it may be to repress our own complicity in an unjust institution. Or to cast the same point a little more optimistically, it may be that we hope that our societies and institutions are fundamentally just, even when we know they are not. So we tell ourselves that they need tweaking, not replacing, where they fall short.

Eric may be right that continuing this self-deception can be effective in moral progress. And he’s surely right that if so, that probably trumps whatever moral downside there is (if any) to that self-deception.

However, it isn’t so clear to me that this deception – either the outward deception of interpretation 1 or the self-deception of interpretation 2 – really is more effective than honesty, at least in this case. People are smart, and they know when something doesn’t quite ring true. So it can be alienating to be told (either by someone else or by ourselves) that an institution is only being tweaked. I think that replacing the broken historical institution is the paramount goal. If a little deception were the price, that wouldn’t be a big deal. But in this case, I think it’s much more politically effective to be straightforward.

Eric Schliesser

I have little to add right now, Brian, except that I agree that "it can be alienating to be told (either by someone else or by ourselves) that an institution is only being tweaked" when you know otherwise. This is probably a non-trivial feature of the alienation with politics we encounter in democracies.

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Here's a link to my past blogging (and discussions involving me) at: New APPS.


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