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My current argument is not one about what the substance of our immigration policy should be (I’ve made such arguments in, e.g.,  A comprehensive overview of the immigration issue, Legality, Morality, and Reality Regarding U.S. Immigration Policy, Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding, Basal Ganglia v. Cerebral Cortex, Basal Ganglia Keeping Score, The Nature of the SB 126 Colorado ASSET DebateGodwin’s Law, Revisited, and A Humane & Rational People), but rather about what the process for determining our immigration policy should be. As always, this argument is just one instance of the larger argument that we should commit ourselves to striving to apply reason to evidence in service to humanity, rather than engaging in careless habits that result in the application of irrationality to ignorance in service to inhumanity.

The focus of this essay is one clearly fallacious argument, that is, in fact, the principal argument used by those who take a stand unyieldingly hostile to millions of people, of a certain status, who currently reside in this country (and, by implication, millions more who would like to, but have no legal pathway toward doing so). Debunking this one argument does not, by itself, debunk their entire position, but rather merely forces the debate into a more appropriate framework, where any and all substantive arguments they may have can compete with any and all substantive counterarguments, in a process which best serves our better angels by giving our baser demons fewer shadows in which to hide.

The fallacious argument to which I refer is that the current widespread hostility toward undocumented immigrants and residents, in which these particular ideologues actively participate, is not only legally warranted but legally mandated. Their error is their failure to understand that the law, in the final analysis, is our servant, not our master. (Yes, in an intermediate sense the utility of the law is that it is binding and not optional, but it is designed to be a malleable and adaptable tool rather than, in its particulars, a fixed and permanent shackle.)

As an aside, the irony of this error is one thread of a larger hypocrisy: The people who make it are overwhelmingly the same people who insist that they are the most committed to “Liberty,” while in reality being the most committed to authoritarianism. But that is a topic for other essays (see, e.g., The Catastrophic Marriage of Extreme Individualism and Ultra-Nationalism).

The argument frequently invoked by this particular faction, that their hostility is not directed toward immigrants but rather only toward illegal immigrants, and that the word “illegal” conclusively supports their public policy positions on the issues of immigration and residency, reflects a fundamental misconception of the nature of law and the responsibilities of citizenship in a popular sovereignty. They mistakenly believe that a current legal status quo is the definitive refutation of both any public policy arguments that critique it, and any public policy arguments that defend other aspects of the current or proposed legal status quo that they erroneously consider somehow legally prohibited by some presumed inconsistency with the aspects they prefer. In other words, they presume that public policy arguments can’t challenge existing laws that they do like, and, at the same time, can’t defend existing or proposed laws that they don’t like, the latter based on some presumption of a legal prohibition against the existence of any laws which presuppose the violation of other laws. Both of these beliefs are easily debunked, and their mobilization in service to a blindly ideological position easily demonstrated.

Laws are something we make, implement, interpret, modify, and rescind according to processes that are themselves established by law (see The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government)). They do not define what the conclusion of public policy debates and legal processes should be, but rather what they thus far have been. They obligate, with varying degrees of flexibility, individual behavioral compliance, not collective ideological conformity, rigid administrative enforcement, or perpetual universal legal consistency. The fact that laws do not mandate the latter three is in large measure how they evolve and adapt to changing circumstances, values, and understandings.

The response to an argument that we should, within the constraints and according to the guidelines of our current legal framework, alter or reinterpret or modify our implementation of our legal framework, with the counterargument that we can’t because the current substantive legal status quo is different from what the modified legal status quo would be, is like arguing a century and a half ago that we can’t abolish slavery because the right to own slaves is protected by law (an argument which was, in fact, frequently and persistently made). And to argue that we can’t pass laws short of a comprehensive change of paradigm because it would be an affront to that dominant paradigm is analogous to having maintained that we couldn’t have made the morally laudible step of allowing escaped slaves to attain their freedom in non-slave states because to have done so would have simply encouraged more slaves to escape.

Let me be clear: I am not comparing current anti-undocumented immigrant ideology to slavery. Rather, I am comparing the defense of one set of laws that we recognize in retrospect to have been morally repugnant and well worthy of being changed with the defense of a current set of laws that some (including myself) argue is also morally repugnant and well worthy of being changed, in order to illustrate that the public policy debate should focus on the value of the law rather than on the fact of its existence. A debate can and should be had about whether the current set of immigration and immigration-related laws are ideal or morally repugnant or somewhere in between. The mere fact that that set is the current law is irrelevant to that debate.

(It’s worth noting, however, that there are some similarities: Slaves were considered not to be citizens, a perception codified in law by the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision. Abolishing slavery would have admitted this formerly excluded class into national membership. Allowing escaped slaves to attain freedom but not necessarily citizenship in non-slave states would have been analogous to allowing undocumented immigrants to enjoy some of the opportunities afforded citizens and legal residents without being automatically granted that status itself. The 14th Amendment’s establishment of jus soli, the doctrine that anyone born on American soil is an American citizen, was part of the long-unsuccessful attempt to demolish the legacy of slavery, root and branch, and still has implications relevant to immigration policy. Though the differences are greater than the similarities, the fact remains that exclusionary policies that tend to dehumanize those excluded inevitably resemble one another to some degree. See, e.g., Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding.)

It is our responsibility to determine what our laws should be, while also considering how best to implement and enforce the laws that currently are. Those with a zero-tolerance attitude toward undocumented residents, insisting that we are legally required both to in no way accommodate their presence here and to remove them all regardless of the costs (fiscal, economic, social, demographic, and moral), should also, for consistency, insist that every motorist who ever drifts even just one mph over the posted speed limit should be caught and fined regardless of the costs, and that laws which presuppose violations of the speed limit (e.g., prohibiting driving in the passing lane, even at or above the speed limit, on the basis that it obstructs other motorists who might want to pass) are somehow unacceptable (or themselves “illegal”).

Or, to pick a more illuminating example, even though it is illegal to jaywalk, a motorist is still legally obligated to yield to that law-breaker, who is thus protected from some of the negative consequences of his or her infraction by another law accommodating it. (After all, aren’t we just encouraging more people to jaywalk by requiring motorists not to run them over?)

Again, let me be clear: I am not comparing illegal immigration to speeding or jaywalking.  I am, rather, debunking the fallacy that no law can or should exist which presupposes, or even at times accommodates and implicitly “encourages,” the violation of another law. Our laws neither require nor benefit from that kind of rigid consistency: We can, and should, have laws which both prohibit certain activities, and that protect or accommodate those who violate them. Such laws are particularly well advised when the infraction is non-violent and non-predatory, the protection vital to that person’s safety or sustenance, or the accommodation ultimately in the public as well as private interest (such as by giving all residents of the country maximal opportunities to become productive members of society, rather than denying such opportunities and thus increasing the rate of socially, fiscally, and economically costly dependency and predation).

When people oppose, for instance, a law which would allow in-state undocumented high school graduates to attend state universities at in-state tuition rates, with the argument that the current law somehow prohibits the passage of such a law (“what part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?!”), they are inventing a legal doctrine that doesn’t exist (a requirement for perfect consistency among all laws), in order to insist on a particularly vindictive and counterproductive policy position.

Our national debate regarding immigration (as with all issues) needs to focus on what set of policies realized through what legal paradigm best serves our national interests and values. Citing the current legal status quo as an argument in that debate is, in reality, an attempt to insulate preferred elements of that status quo against criticism without having to mobilize any rational or informed argument, or address any rational and informed counterarguments, to do so. At the same time, citing one aspect of the current legal status quo (e.g., the laws against entering and being in the country without legal authorization) as an argument against another aspect of the current legal status quo (e.g., administrative policies not to target for removal those who have not committed other crimes) is an attempt to argue in favor of a change in the legal status quo without having to mobilize any rational or informed argument in support of such a change.

These are not just irrational and, to put it politely, “information-disregarding” arguments in our national debate on immigration policy, but are also instances of a larger contest in American political discourse: The contest between, on the one hand, a commitment to reason applied to evidence in service to humanity, and, on the other, a commitment to irrationality applied to a disregard of the evidence in sevice to inhumanity. It is a contest which those of us who champion the former must win both issue-by-issue, and in more profound ways as well, transcending the individual issues, reaching into the heart of our collective consciousness, transforming with the spirits of reason and goodwill the memes and emes of our own persistent inhumanity.

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The title quote by Harvard professor Jill Lapore during an excellent roundtable discussion on This Week With Christiane Amanpour captures the meta-argument that we all have to divert some small portion of our attention to: The argument between any one faction’s absolutism, on the one hand, and the continued dialectic of competing views reconciled through formal and informal procedural mechanisms on the other.

Each of us will feel a stronger affinity for one or another of the arguments presented in the discussion linked to above, and insist that that argument represents the one absolute truth. But recognizing that the debate itself is the essence of our freedom, and the life blood of our popular sovereignty, is the shared recognition to which we must all return, allowing the tension between foundational principles and our lived history to be played out within the crucible of a vibrant constitutional democracy.

In other words, those who insist that the growth in power of our federal government over the course of American history -starting with the drafting of our Constitution (which strengthened the federal government over the failed Articles of Confederation), and playing out through The Civil War (which ended the disintegrative cesessionist/nullificationist version of States Rights doctrine as a reality of our national existence), continuing with The New Deal, and sailing on into the present- is a betrayal of our Constitution, and those who feel that it is the realization of our national history through the framework of our Constitution, both have to realize that their voice is not the only voice, their view is not the only view, and this dialogue we are having is the hallmark of our success as a nation and a society.

I am more concerned about those on both sides of this and related debates who are adamant that their own dogmatic false certainties are the one and only Truth than I am about those who disagree with me, but have the humility to realize that none of us have the final answers, and that all of us are participating in an on-going endeavor.

As a progressive, I am not determined to force my particular substantive certainties down the throats of others, but to engage both those who agree and those who disagree in a process which favors reason and goodwill, and disfavors blind dogma and angry fanaticism. I have enough faith in what I believe to be true that I am willing to subject it to such a test, and enough humility to know that I prefer the outcome of that test to the blind dominance of what  I currently believe to be true.

I think that almost everyone agrees that we should all strive to base our public policies on reason and goodwill. People may disagree about what that means, and where it leads, but there aren’t too many people who are explicitly and consciously in favor of irrationality and ill-will. This fact provides the North Star of political activism, for we are at a huge advantage to live in a country and at a time when reason is not explicitly reviled (no matter how often it is implicitly reviled), and few argue that fighting for social injustices which serve their own interests is a defensible or admirable political ideology to adhere to (though many do indeed fight for social injustices which serve their own interests).

So, the question is: How do we organize to create a sustained, gradual shift in public opinion and public attitude, in favor of policies which are based on the application of reason to reliable data in service to universal goodwill? I will answer this question with a step-by-step sequence of premises and conclusions:

1) Most people perceive themselves to be, and want to be, reasonable people of goodwill.

2) To the extent that people are, and continue increasingly to become, reasonable people of goodwill, they are more likely to advocate for policies and procedures which advance the causes of reason and goodwill in our mode of self-governance.

3) A major political goal of those who want to see our mode of self governance more committed to reason and goodwill should be, therefore, the movement of people in the direction of being reasonable people of goodwill.

4) Since that is what most people want to be, and identify themselves as being, cognitive dissonance (the difference between who and what we are, on the one hand, and who and what we want to be, on the other) is a lever with which to pry one another in the direction of becoming more reasonable, and more motivated by goodwill.

5) If a non-partisan social-political movement could be established that is undeniably committed to reason and goodwill, that makes that its purpose and disciplines itself in service to that purpose, that would be an attractive force, and would exert pressure on that lever of cognitive dissonance, easing people in the direction of striving to be more reasonable, and striving to be more motivated by goodwill.

6) Designing a movement that does not set out to promote any substantive policies or any preconceived ideology, or to get candidates of any party or ideology or predisposition elected, but rather only to promote reason and goodwill in our political preferences and advocacy, creates both the credibility and integrity necessary to the success of such a movement.

7) Partisans who believe that this is not enough, that there are urgent needs to be met, threats and dangers and injustices and opportunities and promises and hopes and fears all to be reacted to and confronted, depending on one’s ideological disposition, need not be concerned about participating in such a movement, for it is not in place of anything, but rather only in addition to the rest of what we do to move the world (or keep it from being moved) in the direction that we believe it needs to be moved (or kept from being moved). We all agree, I hope, that whatever our political inclinations may be, we should each hold them on the conviction that they are informed by reason and goodwill. Responsibility demands of us that we put that conviction to the test: We should each desire, to the extent that our current respective political certaintes are either irrational or self-serving (as some almost inevitably are, to some degree, within each and every one of us), that we participate together in the effort to refine them accordingly.

8) The movement should define itself not around definite positions on substantive issues, but rather around a procedural commitment. That procedural commitment should be defined in response to the questions: i) “What set of procedures should responsible and engaged members of society, committed to trying to base all of their efforts on reason in service to goodwill, adhere to?” and ii) “What forms of community outreach and political advocacy can and should such people engage in, to best encourage others to make the same commitment and adhere to the same procedures?”

For a movement like this to be spectacularly successful, it does not require that many people be moved a large distance in a short time. A dramatic, positive, profound and sustainable shift can occur if a relatively small minority of people are moved over the course of years slightly in the direction of reason and goodwill. Such movement is not the mere swinging of the ideological pendulum, but rather the bending of the arc of the moral universe.

As perhaps a starting point for a larger discussion and a more organic and inclusive effort, I have written an elaborate and detailed answer to the questions in number 8, above: A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill. I hope all who read this will consider helping to promote this movement, to weave together all of the disparate efforts to engage in some part of it or some parallel version of it. By whatever name it ends up going, at whoever’s impetus, this truly is the movement we should all belong to.

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Many people on both sides of the ideological divide believe that the great political battle is between progressives and conservatives, but in reality it is between extremists/purists/fanatics on the one hand, and moderates/pragmatists/realists on the other. The world isn’t divided between substantive ideologies (including religions) so much as between attitudinal and procedural ones. On one side are extremists of any substantive ideology, people who promote oversimplistic abstractions above lived reality and become fanatically committed to militant advocacy of those abstractions. Such people include religious zealots, terrorists, and others who aggressively reject the more moderate, pragmatic, informed, shared effort to deal with a complex and subtle world that characterizes “modernity.” And these fanatics, in whatever form or to whatever degree, either succeed in inflicting suffering on the rest of us, or remain absurd self-marginalized characters in the story of our shared existence. It’s not really what anyone should aspire to be.

On the other side are people who aspire to live well, and either do not begrudge or actively desire that others successfully do the same (see below for more discussion of this latter variable). “Moderates” is a misleading term for them, because they do not necessarily occupy a point, or even a range, between the extremes, nor do they necessarily lack passionately held and coherently developed views on matters of public interest. What distinguishes them is not that they are between the extremes (which may or may not be the case in each instance), but rather that they are attracted to reason in service to pragmatism rather than to arbitrary certainties in service to abstractions.

A secondary spectrum, on another axis altogether, ranges from extreme self-and-local-interest to extreme global altruism. Both ideological purists and rational pragmatists can adhere to any point on this spectrum (though the former, as extremists, they will tend to cluster at the two extremes of this spectrum as well, while the latter, as pragmatists, will tend to occupy a space which acknowledges the values of both localization and globalization of interests and seeks to balance them in some maximally functional way).

As I’ve written in A Proposal and elsewhere, we need to redefine the progressive movement in procedural rather than substantive terms, fighting less for particular policies and more for particular procedures by which policies are selected, procedures which favor reason and goodwill. I believe, strongly, that the policies I favor will be favored by such a process, and, when they are not, I will have increased reason to leaven my disappointment with consideration of the possibility that it was I, rather than the outcome, that had erred. To the extent that we can redefine the political battle over our state, nation, and world as the battle between reason in service to goodwill, on the one hand, and irrational extremism, on the other, we will have captured the narrative, because relatively few Americans are willing to explicitly take the latter camp, and relatively many want to believe that they are advocates of the former.

The political challenge is less to win battles among relatively arbitrary competing positions, and more to win the battle to reframe the entire process. Let’s advocate for Reason and Goodwill first and foremost, along with the development of procedures which better ensure their predominance, and let the substantive positions flow from that commitment. That’s the real political battle we are currently in.

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By “second-order social change” (SOSC) I mean social change that involves changing the algorithm by which first-order social change (FOSC) occurs. For instance, if, today, (first-order) social change occurs as the result of some complex function of mass media dissemination of competing memes (including technological and social institutional innovations) and competing organizational efforts to advance them, SOSC  consists of altering that complex function through which these (and potentially other) variables pass to produce FOSC. A common example of proposed SOSC is campaign finance reform, which would alter the relative weights of the relevant variables and the ways in which they aggregate.

SOSC requires the same organizational efforts, the same mobilization of human and material resources, the same FOSC algorithm that current FOSC requires. But it is directed toward changes less in substantive public policies than in procedural public policies. Campaign finance reform, for instance, isn’t about providing people with health care, or educational services, or increased safety, or child and family services, but rather about changing the way in which one aspect of the processes which lead to such substantive policy decisions operates.

I’ve posted frequently on the importance of, for many purposes, focusing on procedures and methodologies over substantive conclusions and outcomes (see, e.g., Ideology v. Methodology,  The Signal-To-Noise Ratio, The Elusive Truth, Scientific Misconduct: There’s No Such Thing As Immaculate Conception). And I’ve posted on what I believe are the procedures and methodologies that we should strive for in the realm of popular political participation to improve both the quality of policy ideas generated and our ability to implement them (see, e.g., A ProposalThe Ultimate Political Challenge, The Foundational Progressive Agenda“Messaging” From The Heart of Many Rather Than The Mouth of Few). Finally, I’ve posted on the nature of the social institutional landscape that should inform our attempts at SOSC (see, e.g., The Politics of Consciousness , Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix, Counterterrorism: A Model of Centralized Decentralization, The Economic Debate We’re Not Having).

Campaign finance reform, while important and powerful, is a relatively superficial example of SOSC, addressing a relatively superficial layer of public policy formation (electoral politics). Electoral politics exists within a context of popular opinions and predispositions, and the more fundamental forms of SOSC that we might attempt address that context rather than the processes which occur within it. Current grass-roots and organizational political activism focuses too much, first, on the electoral and governmental dimensions of FOSC, and secondarily, the electoral and governmental dimensions of SOSC. By doing so, it not only fails to address deeper foundational and contextual elements of social change, but also replicates many of the errors that such deeper-level SOSC would address.

The question facing those engaged in efforts to effect social change is: How should my time, energy and money be distributed among the various possible investments in social change? For many,  a single substantive issue is compelling enough to attract all of their attention, whether it is a particular substantive policy issue (such as health care, education, or child welfare), or a social issue addressed through private and charitable means (such as raising money to combat breast cancer). Some distribute their investment among a few such substantive issues. And some focus their investment in the political sphere, trying to advance a set of positions on a spectrum of issues by getting candidates from a particular party elected, and by pressuring them to vote in particular ways once elected. All of these are reasonable investments of time, energy, and money in individual attempts to affect our world for the better, and all have a place in the overall distribution of such investments that we, collectively, should make.

But grossly underrepresented in this mix is the investment in affecting the way individual ideological convictions are formed, by using the same ingredients as we use in all other efforts to effect social change, but directing them instead in the combined challenge of advancing the production and successful dissemination of the most well reasoned social institutional understandings and subsequent policy ideas. Taking on the challenge of affecting the zeitgeist, making it better informed and more conducive to the interests of humanity, may seem too vague and daunting, but, I argue, it provides a very large bang-for-the-buck. In fact, failing to address it any large-scale focused way leaves us trapped in the same old vicious cycles of relative ineffectiveness, alternating between euphorias of triumph and depths of despair as we continually find that even our victories seem too small and woefully insufficient.

Fortuitously, SOSC is in many ways easier to pursue than FOSC, and more so the more deeply contextual it becomes, because, for the same reason that efforts are disproportionately invested in FOSC and in relatively superficial SOSC, few people are mobilized to resist attempts to address deeper layers of SOSC, or forms of SOSC that don’t directly threaten any vested interests. Term limit legislation in Colorado, for instance, ended up contributing to a Democratic takeover by openning up Republican held seats that would otherwise have been held indefinitely by the incumbents.

Ironically, term limits in Colorado was championed primarily by Republicans, which demonstrates both just how necessary it is to employ very good analyses when pursuing SOSC so as to avoid undesired unintended consequences, and the extent to which those who might be considered the “losers” of the results of the change are less likely to mobilize opposition to it (in this case, having mobilized support of it instead). I suspect, too, that many of those Republicans who supported term limits did not feel that they had made a mistake when it cost their party the majority in both houses of the state legislature, because they were focused on the value of the reform itself, divorced from its partisan implications. SOSC, more so the more contextual it becomes, has the benefit of appealing to non-partisan values rather than to knee-jerk partisan allegiances, circumventing and penetrating to some extent the obstacles posed by blind ideological partisan convictions.

Those of us who want to work toward improving the quality of life in our communities, our state, our nation, and our world need to invest more of our time, effort, and money in second-order social change, and particularly in deeper contextual varieties of SOSC. Those are the pressure points where dramatic social paradigm shifts can be effectuated (see The Variable Malleability of Reality).

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Too much of our public debate is over the conclusions we variously arrive at, and not enough is over how we arrive at them. Even some conclusions that more closely correspond to those derived from careful analysis are very often mere articles of faith to those who hold them, a habit which may sometimes embrace good conclusions, but unreliably if embraced blindly.

This is a political challenge that needs to be addressed first inwardly, and then outwardly. Few if any of us have fully transcended the folly of precipitous assumption, of harboring beliefs that snuck into our consciousness without enough scrutiny, and then of defending those beliefs as indisputable truths. We all can do better; we all have an on-going internal challenge to meet.

If we progressives can criticize Tea Partiers, or neocons, or racists, or xenophobes, or homophobes, or ultranationalists, or any number of people holding any number of views that some or all of us perceive to be contrary to the interests of humanity, then we had better learn how to criticize one another and ourselves as well, for the enemy is within far more than it is without. Human folly resides in each and every one of us, myself included, and we had better start spending as much time and effort recognizing it within ourselves as we do recognizing it within others.

The more members of any social group or organization get together to congratulate one another on being the ones who get what others don’t, the more they have failed to meet this challenge.

The real issue is how much we each contribute to moving the world in a direction that improves the human condition. This involves two challenges: 1) identifying and developing the best public policies, and 2) successfully implementing them. Too many people assure themselves that they have accomplished the first with too little justification, and, even when they’re right, the actions thus motivated do not necessarily contribute to the realization of those policies.

If someone claims to be attempting to implement a more equitable distribution of wealth by bombing mansions (to take an extreme example), most of us would agree that their attempts are unlikely to result in the desired ends. Neither the 9/11 terrorists nor Timothy McVeigh succeeded in undermining American (or federal) power, though both succeeded in imposing enormous human suffering on innocent victims to no benefit or purpose. The value of their goals is one thing (whether dubious, as in the preceding cases, or less so); the value of their means is another. It’s not just important what you’re attempting to do, but also how you’re attempting to do it.

The world is rarely comprised of the good-guys and bad-guys that so many so simplistically reduce it to. Moving in a positive direction involves recognizing the complexity and subtlety of reality, a complexity and subtlety that at least the two currently most salient political ideological “extremes” both claim doesn’t exist. And that’s the problem with their ideologies, not how progressive or conservative they are, but rather how open they are to doing a fully-informed systems analysis as the basis for political and policy decisions.

People frequently argue that there is a straight line from where we are to where they think we ought to be. Even when what they identify as where we ought to be is something I agree with (as is sometimes the case), I rarely agree that there is a straight line from here to there. More often, when dealing with even simple systems, let alone complex dynamical ones, you have to do things that are completely counterintuitive to move in the desired direction. And we all have to learn how to incorporate into our convictions realization of that possibility rather than latching onto premature certainties.

An example in a very simple system is driving from Denver to Utah. You drive north on I-25 to I-70, wanting to get onto I-70 westbound. The straight path is turn left, cross the I-25 median, drive the wrong way up an I-25 southbound on-ramp to go west in the I-70 eastbound lanes. It is a straightforward realization of the goal of going west on I-70, but one which is not only going to fail to take you to Utah, but will succeed only in taking you and several other people to the morgue.

You have to turn east to go west, turn right onto the off-ramp to get onto I-70 westbound, turn the opposite of your intended direction. And that is in a completely static system of intersecting lines and curves, not something nearly as complex as human society, in which such nonlinearity permeates almost everything. Examples abound: “You have to spend money to make money.” In some circumstances, lowering taxes can raise public revenues, and in other circumstances raising taxes can increase the wealth of those being taxed. Our world is laden with counterintuitive truths, most of which are not broadly known, and some of which are not yet known by anyone.

Adam Schrager (the pre-eminent Denver political broadcast journalist) once quoted his father as saying (to paraphrase) that people like to think in periods and exclamation points, while reality is characterized by commas and question marks. Those who qualify their statements are often called wishy-washy, though in truth they are often simply doing a better job of tracking the complex systems they are discussing.

Criticisms of politicians are often based on just this discrepency between public reductions and professional expertise. Competing factions of the public zealously demand from their elected officials the implementation of competing certainties. And while there are all too many elected officials who reflect the same mentalities, the best of them don’t, and so are criticized by almost everyone, and adored by few.

That means that we need a different kind of progressive discourse, one which does not presume the answers, but embraces the best processes for discovering them. Process is what gives us perhaps the most robust system for understanding the nature of the world and universe around us (the scientific method), and process is what gives us a very robust system for deciding legal disputes (rule of law, which is fundamentally procedural). And process is where the real progressive challenges are, not presumed answers, but improved and more disciplined methodologies for discovering and implementing them.

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Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

The question of when a person becomes a person, raised again by Amendment 62 on this year’s Colorado ballot (defining personhood as beginning at conception), provides a good example of basing one’s notion of truth on one’s political preferences rather than vice versa.

What raises the issue today is Susan Greene’s column in yesterday’s Denver Post (, in which, despite Greene taking the position that Amendment 62 would be disastrous public policy, she was booed by a pro-choice audience for even admitting to any complexities or subtleties to the issue. The audience’s approach is the wrong one; Greene’s is the right one. Explore the issue thoroughly, with the courage to confront the complexities and subtleties, and then arrive at conclusions which are the result of that process.

Before I delve deeper into this issue, a couple of disclaimers: 1) I fervently believe that doing it “the right way” (reasoning applied prior to and informing conclusions, rather than mobilized afterward as rationalizations for them) leads to, in this case, the conclusion that, for legal purposes, personhood should be defined as vesting at birth rather than at conception (or at any intermediate point), despite the fact that I’m about to point out the legitimate ontological counterpoints to that conclusion; and 2) As a matter of political strategy, it is undeniably true that once you form a position on a controversial issue, admitting to some logical validity on the other side does more to shore up the opposition than to increase your own credibility and the strength, through a demonstration of moderation and subtlety, of your own position (as should be the case, in a world that applied reason more scrupulously to political issues). This latter fact is a direct result of the privileging of political strategizing in all-out political warfare: Admissions and concessions provide ammunition for opposing zealots to a greater extent than they generate goodwill among them, and that ammunition is then used in sophisticated propaganda techniques to play on the cognitive dissonance and other psychological vulnerabilities of those in the middle to convince them of the opposing view.

Even so, as tempting as it is to get sucked into this logic, and to “do what it takes” to ensure that we arrive at “the right” political conclusions, I think that, all things considered, it vastly diminishes our ability to progress toward governing ourselves ever-more  intelligently. By reducing politics to a battle of more-or-less arbitrary ideological certainties, rather than trying to raise it to a process of collectively searching for those policies that are best informed and most conducive to the public interest, we obstruct rather than facilitate the deep structural political development that will serve us best in the long run.

On so many levels, in so many ways, politics imposes a constant pressure to continually disregard long-term goals in favor of short-term ones. This is a pressure we have to resist and transcend.

Ontologically, two things regarding the definition of when human life begins seem abundantly clear: 1) A zygote isn’t a “human being” in any legally relevant sense, and 2) The only significant difference between a late-term fetus and a newborn baby is location.

A zygote can be defined as a human being by means of either a religious/mystical assumption or a rigidly typological approach, but both are irrelevant to the legal and moral issues involved. It’s true that, even in a political system which separates church and state, those moral convictions that are nearly universally held by all members of all faiths, rooted perhaps in those faiths, can inform our legal structure (e.g., “thou shalt not kill”). Even if a separate utilitarian argument can’t be made (as it can in the case of a prohibition against murder), if it is something that is a non-contested interfaith moral conviction, then certainly it can be incorporated into law. But once there is significant disagreement, a fundamentally religious belief cannot be incorporated into the law that governs us all, without both violating the First Amendment and undermining the public interest that it protects.

But there is a non-religious justification for defining human life to begin at conception: Conception is the one and only truly bright-line change of state that demarcates the boundary between non-existence and existence. Prior to conception, there is the sperm, which belongs entirely to the father, and the egg, which belongs entirely to the mother; it is only after the former fertilizes the latter that you have a new and distinct full complement of DNA in a single entity that defines the new human being.

But that bright-line change of state, while very convenient, has no relevance to the purposes of the laws regulating the social relationships and interactions among human beings, since that single-celled entity bears no resemblance whatsoever to a socially incorporated human being. It has no consciousness, no independent existence, no attributes of a human being as a member of a society. Conception may be the most logical scientific threshold for defining the beginning of the development of a human being, but it is not the most logical legal or moral threshold.

At the other end of pregnancy, birth is not a significant change of state for the fetus (though it is for the mother!). The fetus in the womb when contractions begin is really pretty much the same being as the newborn baby held in the nurse’s arms at the end of the process (here’s a link to a description of the changes that a fetus does undergo at birth: This poses a real dilemma: We as a people, probably fortuitously, are not willing to reexamine our nearly universal moral conviction that infanticide is wrong, but are then left with the reality that there is no functional difference, except for the form of the mother’s connection, between a late-term abortion and infanticide.

I believe that this dilemma is a function of human conceptualization, rather than the result of an actual moral imperative. In reality, our moral and legal universe is laden with arbitrary lines in the sand, and really must be. For instance, at what point does expressing anger and hostility toward another person become unacceptable? (Or, where is the line between just being a jerk, or a person acting on their own insecurities and hurt feelings, and being a bully?) It depends both on the relationship to the person, and the form and strength of the expression of anger. There is no bright-line change-of-state boundary involved: Calmly saying “that makes me angry” is acceptable in most contexts, while red-faced rants are unacceptable in most contexts. Somewhere between those two is a not very clearly demarcated line which one can cross, one which is defined by a sense of what best serves the pragmatic purpose of the normative prohibition.

Since there is no legally or morally useful clear line when a fetus becomes a baby, we need to draw the line according to other, similarly pragmatic, considerations. Certainly, there’s a moral argument that can be made for drawing that line somewhere between conception and birth, according to some notion of when the fetus is less like a mere cluster of cells or mass of organic material with a full DNA complement, and more like the baby that eventually emerges. It’s an argument by logical extension: If it’s wrong to kill babies, then it must be wrong to kill them wherever they are located.

Personally, I’m not such a moral absolutist: We’ve drawn the line at defining post-birth infanticide as morally unacceptable, and that’s good. We aren’t therefore under some moral obligation to define anything and everything that logically follows from that moral precept as also morally unacceptable. The moral and legal prohibition of infanticide is a moral line in the sand, no more, and no less. Some hypothetical historical figure might have argued, when moral and legal prohibitions against infanticide were taking root, “Ah, but that’s a slippery slope! If you outlaw infanticide, someday people will insist that we outlaw abortion as well, and think of what havok that would wreak on society!” I say, let’s not slide down any slopes. We can pick where to draw the line, and not be obligated to follow indefinitely the path that we imagine it carves for us.

There are overwhelming practical reasons to define life as beginning at birth for legal purposes. Doing otherwise reduces pregnant women to the legal status of incubators, denying adult human beings the right to decide what to do with their own bodies. It denies those who do not want to give birth -many of whom are teenagers, poor, facing challenges and constrained opportunities of their own- that choice, and leads to all of the problems frequently associated with children born into such conditions, particularly if truly not wanted. (Many readers are probably familiar with the theory from the book Freakonomics that, despite almost universal predictions to the contrary, U.S. crime rates began dropping in the early 1990’s because of the legalization of abortion in the early 1970’s). And it drives women seeking abortions into back alleys, creating what has been in the past a public health nightmare.

Even if one rejects my argument about drawing moral lines in the sand, and takes instead the stand that it is a moral bad to abort late-term fetuses, one can still weigh that against all of these considerations and say, “some bads are worse than others.” If the balancing test has any degree of practicality to it, then the complete protection of a woman’s right to choose is the inevitable outcome.

I am an advocate for moving political discourse in the direction of what I just exemplified above, and away from the no-holds-barred cage matches between precipitous oversimplified absolute certainties. We need to invest in the process by which we arrive at our individual and collective cognitive conclusions, as well as the process by which we select from among them what to implement as public policy. Just as in science and in courts of law we adhere to methodologies and procedures to our great benefit, we need to improve our political procedure as well.

We have developed a pretty good procedure for resolving our differences of opinion in the political arena, but apply almost no procedural discipline to how those competing opinions are formed, or how they compete for adherents. Extending the progress we’ve made in the fields of science, law, and electoral politics to the realm of cognitive politics would be an enormous step forward, and one each of us can choose to advance, both by advocating it, and by modeling it as our own individual approach to political discourse.

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