Facebook is a great way to see which commonly held beliefs, especially beliefs that are strongly tied to in-group signaling, are important to people. The image on the left has made the rounds on Facebook.
Jesus saved your soul from sin.
Soldiers fight for freedom, possibly by fighting communists or terrorists.
One thing these statements have in common is they involve sacrifice for vague concepts. I put the vague concepts in red.
Anyone who has spent time in the United States, knows that America and freedom are synonymous. When I was young I used to often hear people talk about these other countries, where the government reads your mail and dissident citizens are imprisoned or killed without a trial. So maybe that’s the sort of thing that is meant by freedom? But the President of the United States currently claims the right to have American citizens assassinated without judicial process*, and I do not get the impression that many people care.
In general, I think freedom needs to be qualified (freedom for whom to do what). For example, if people are given the freedom to own land, then they lose the right to roam freely across the land.
And then there is the issue that some people are harmed when they are given more choices. Sister Y discusses interesting examples of this:
Given the right to die, people who are a burden on their caretakers might choose to die rather than be a burden, even if what they really wanted was to live without having to explicitly choose to live. Therefore, the freedom to die harms the person.
Given the right to survive (on a respirator, say), people who wish to die will suddenly bear responsibility for choosing death, and may choose to go on suffering in life instead, even though they’d prefer to die, all things considered. Therefore, the suffering person is harmed by the choice to remain alive.
So, not only is freedom vague, but it is not without tradeoffs.
As Glenn Greenwald put it, “Terrorism is simultaneously the single most meaningless and most manipulated word in the American political lexicon.” Like communist before it, as commonly used, the word terrorist basically just means “people (possibly imaginary) that powerful folks want you to be afraid of.”
Soul and sin
I don’t think I need to convince people that soul is a vague term. As for sin, most human actions involve harm/benefit tradeoffs, much of which is difficult to anticipate. There are some cases that are not very fuzzy, but in general life just is not black and white.
The image above was pointed out to me while I was reading Eliezer Yudkowsky’s excellent article on the importance of being specific (link). From his article:
Cognitive behavioral therapy… talks about using requests for specific details to interrupt thoughts looping around vague but affectively laden centers, like “I am a good husband”, “I am a bad husband”, or “my roommate is a slob”. How are you a good husband? How are you a bad husband? Which specific feature of your roommate are you objecting to? Taboo the emotionally valent word at the center, like “slob”, and replace it with something that’s specific enough to be testable, or concrete enough to be acted upon.
“I am a good husband” or “my roommate is a slob” is very similar to “I love freedom” or “we need to fight the terrorists.”
Investors aren’t going to fund your startup if you are too vague, but humans will fight in your war if you are equally vague.
*Attorney General Eric Holder distinguishes between due process and judicial process: ” The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process.” ‘Due process’ just became vague.