Clarifications about “As the Peacock Struts”

A few weeks ago,  wrote a post, “As the Peacock Struts: Are Liberals more competent than conservatives?” which a reader has pointed out to me has some poor phrasing and is generally not very well written.

I am therefore going to attempt a clarification.

The point of the post was that the morals people advocate have a lot to do with whatever happens to be a problem in their personal lives or the personal lives of the people around them.

Let’s run through a quick hypothetical. Suppose you grew up in a neighborhood with a lot of gang violence. You are not in a gang; in fact, you think gang violence is really bad. So you, like many people in your community, have joined many “anti-violence” organizations, go to anti-violence rallies, describe yourself as an Anti-Violence Crusader, etc.

Now let’s suppose you met someone from a far away community who was not an AVC. After staring at him in shock and horror for a moment, you burst out, “What do you mean you aren’t anti-violence? What are you, some kind of gang lover?”

Your new acquaintance scratches his head for a moment, then says, “Actually, I’m more of an anti-police brutality advocate, because the police in my community keep assaulting innocent people.”

You are now thoroughly horrified; the last thing you think any community needs is a more restrained police presence.

But your acquaintance is not actually an evil gang-violence advocate; gang violence just isn’t a problem in his community. Likewise, you are not actually advocating police brutality against innocent people; police brutality just isn’t a problem where you live.

Most people are not advocating universal moral principles that will work for everyone in the world, but instead are trying to help the people they know and address the problems they see in everyday life (or the media they consume).

If you know people whose lives were destroyed by divorce, then chances are you will have a rather dim view of divorce and will advocate against it. If divorce is a thing that doesn’t happen very often in your community, then chances are you won’t give it much thought. Within that context, people’s morals are probably basically functional, at least in the short-term.

This leads us to an obvious danger: advocating one particular situational morality to people in a different situation. This is generally called being a busy-body. A morality that has been transplanted out of the area it belongs in is likely to be highly damaging to the people it is inflicted upon.

The point was not “Oooh, Liberals are better than Conservatives; everyone should convert to atheism and go attend the nearest LGBTQ meeting.” I have no particular reason to believe that either of these behaviors leads to better life outcomes, much less that they would work for you. If anything, I suspect that conservative Christianity (of any stripe) is of great comfort and help to people enduring personal hardship. The idea that Evangelical Protestantism is uniquely causing high divorce rates in Appalachia is silly.

Long term, of course, what happens to be working now may not keep working; I think this is more or less what is happening in America (and much of the world) today. Changing conditions require changing priorities. Technology is changing incredibly quickly, and conditions in America (and the world) today are not what they were even a decade ago. An instinct for altruism that was functional in the conditions of 1800s Sweden, where the priority for survival was probably group cooperation to survive the winters, may be directly detrimental to Swedes in today’s world of smartphones and mass transportation, where non-Swedes can easily move to Sweden and take advantage of the Swedes’ generosity.

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8 thoughts on “Clarifications about “As the Peacock Struts”

  1. I’m really glad that you wrote this post. It’s important to keep things in perspective when responding to “social justice” issues. What constitutes a social justice issue is really relative to your society, culture, and how you personally define justice.

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  2. Yes. I almost feel bad for advocating marriage and having children as much as I did in the past. I now think I advocated having children to people who really shouldn’t, and at least in one case, I advised a guy to marry someone he shouldn’t have- the woman had already gotten pregnant, and I just didn’t understand the perverse incentives she had. He would have had a better and more stable relationship with the mother of his child (and probably his child too) if he didn’t marry her. This is a sad state of affairs, and I am increasingly aware that I am not like other people.

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    • If it is any consolation, I suspect that you are not alone in having discovered such difficult lessons. I once got involved in trying to help another mom who’d gotten pregnant under less than ideal circumstances; I thought that some friendship and support from the world, and she’d move past this temporary hiccup and start conducting her life well. I was wrong; not disaster-level wrong, but certainly wrong, and I realized that sometimes there are reasons people’s lives are fucked up.

      Still, we continue to try to be honorable people.

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  3. what happens to be working now

    Don’t you have to have some agreement on whether something is working or not working before moving on to something else?

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    • It’d be nice if we could, but technology keeps changing and we’re along for the ride, hanging on for dear life. :)

      But the fact that we are here at least lets us know that whatever our parents and ancestors did worked; if we look broadly over the world and history, we can hopefully get some idea of strategies that generally seem to work verses ones that seem to fail.

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