Thursday, November 10, 2016

A Difference in Values

There has been a lot of talk about how 'divided' America is as evidenced by the election. Many in the media have tried to take the high road by reaching across that divide and advising those disappointed with the election outcome to do some reflection. They suggest more engagement with the other side.

I think this is sound advice, but there is a more basic principle I think people should consider.

Thomas Sowell I believe was the one who wrote that, often intense political debates really just come down to two people having different preferences. People argue until they are blue in the face offering facts, rebuttals, references, all with the tacit assumption that their point of view is the 'right' one. Progressives say that their world view is informed by 'facts', therefore it is ok for the media to be biased and write off Trump voters as misinformed. Many Trump supporters feel the same about liberals. They see progressives as ignorant.

But in reality the divide may not so much be about 'facts' but rather moral principles. Progressives and conservatives are two groups of people who simply prefer different things. It is not a difference in understanding, but a difference in values.

In any discussion it is important to determine what sort of disagreement you are encountering. Differences in understanding can be worked out through dialogue, research, and compromise. Differences in values are often irreconcilable.

I'll use an example from the tech world.

A coworker and I may have different opinions about how to set up a Cassandra database cluster. He might think we should use a very large number of servers and I might think we should use fewer. This is not a difference in values but rather a difference in understanding. His understanding of Cassandra is that it is best to use lots of cheap small nodes. My understanding is that, while you can get some performance gain from using lots of nodes, there are diminishing returns at a certain point, and the overhead of managing lots of servers is not worth it.

There are two important things about this sort of debate. 1. Neither of us is really emotionally invested in it. Our sense of identity is not embedded in how many Cassandra nodes we launch. 2. There is something close to an objective right answer. Depending on our use-case and data size, there are objectively better Cassandra architectures. Because of this, if we are both rational, we can argue, test, and eventually reach a resolution. This is how differences in understanding should generally end.

But what if we have a difference in values? Lets stay with a simple tech example: I prefer to use Vim, my coworker swears by Emacs. Is one editor objectively better than the other? Well, not really, no, though they have different features that might be better for certain things. What's more, both of us may have some emotional investment in our opinion. I have been a Vim guy for many years and find it hard to seriously consider other editors. My coworker feels the same about Emacs.

So I don't bother trying to convert him. I am about as interested in getting him to use Vim as I am in arguing with people who think Empire Strikes Back is better than A New Hope, or people who think Pepsi tastes better than Coke. Sure I might argue about such things for fun but ultimately I see no point in trying to change people's subjective opinions. Whatever triggers a dopamine hit in your brain chemistry is your business.

And so we come back to the problem of politics. The divide between liberals / conservatives / nationalists / libertarians / etc – ultimately it is often a difference in values. Progressives prefer to live in a more secular society that celebrates diversity, gender equality, alternative sexualities, and encourages the government to manage more of the economy. Conservatives prefer to live in more traditional societies that support gender norms, a homogeneous culture, nationalism, and a more capitalist economy.

Neither viewpoint is objectively better than the other. We could try to scientifically argue that one vision leads to a better economy. We could try to argue that one vision is more socially 'fair', though even that would be steeped in specific values. We could try to make a factual case for one vision over the other, but in the end, some people might just prefer the other one anyway.

So where does that leave us? In a society of 300 million there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Neither side can easily change the values of the members of the other side. People's values evolve gradually through technological change, emerging consensus, and often in response to national crises. In the mean time, as I said in my previous post, I think Americans need to work toward rebuilding a shared culture.

Personally I think the founders of America had the right idea with the tenth amendment. In a nation as big as America, federalism is the only practical answer for keeping people of different belief systems happy. Let the progressives be progressive, and let the conservatives be conservative. In fact that's something all Americans could get behind.