The biggest challenge that faces human beings is to make sense rather than to make noise. Effectively addressing all other challenges depends on it. Whether we want to change the world or want to protect ourselves from the impositions of others trying to change the world, our beliefs, our goals, our actions, are all a function of how we understand reality, and it is clear, at least in the abstract, that some understandings are more precise, more accurate, and more useful than others.
The first thing we have to understand is that we are not just a collection of individuals, but rather are members of a society and organisms in a biosphere. We exist interdependently with one another and with our environment, unable to survive at all without the latter and unable to survive as human beings without the former. Our continued existence as organisms depends on ingesting food and breathing air, two vital needs that are produced and maintained by the living planet which we inhabit interdependently with other living things. Our consciousness as human beings and our existence beyond bare survival (and in almost all cases our survival itself) depends on our coexistence with other human beings in organized groups, through which our use of language allows us to thrive through a shared but differentiated mind and a shared but differentiated enterprise.
That leads to the first question we must face: Do we, as individuals and as a society, take responsibility for our impact on those systems of which we are a part, or do we leave them to their own organic trajectories, pursuing our own immediate goals without attempting to act with conscious intent beyond them? Do we attempt to be conscious and conscientious participants in these larger wholes of which we are a part, or do we simply live as individual organisms pursuing our own individual desires? Do we take responsibility for one another, for the distribution of suffering and well-being, of opportunity and of relative lack of opportunity, for how well our systems are functioning in terms of their sustainability, their robustness, and their fairness, or do we insist that doing so is either impossible or undesirable?
The second thing we have to understand is our own fallibility. Anything any one of us is certain about may be wrong. Our various beliefs and certainties are conceptualizations of reality in our minds, and must always be considered fallible. This leads to two considerations: 1) the best (and perhaps only rational) argument supporting those who insist that we must not try to govern ourselves as rational people confronting the challenges and opportunities we face is the argument that perhaps we are simply not up to the task, and that we should therefore rely on simple principles that best liberate our collective and individual genius rather than try to “micromanage” our shared existence, and 2) our focus should be on how we arrive at our conclusions, rather than on insisting that our current conclusions are the one absolute truth.
The first consideration is easily dealt with: Recognizing our fallibility and the power of organic processes is a part of being rational people working together to do the best we can, not a displacement of it. The Constitution (created by intentional human thought, arguably a very ambitious act of “social engineering”) and the modern marketplace (also a product of much intentional thought and oversight) are not magical panaceas which free us from the responsibility of striving to be responsible and humane sovereigns, but are merely part of the accumulated material of past efforts by past generations to do what we ourselves are called upon to continue to do: To govern ourselves intelligently, responsibly, and intentionally, in service to our shared humanity.
We should strive to emulate rather than idolize our “founding fathers,” to be the same kind of proactive rational citizens, working together, mobilizing our intelligence, believing in our ability to rationally and humanely govern ourselves. We should utilize rather than surrender to market forces, recognizing that there is nothing about them that automatically resolves all human problems and challenges, but rather that they are one useful institutional modality upon which we can rely in concert with others, in our ongoing efforts to work together to do the best we can in service to our shared humanity.
The second consideration flowing from our recognition of our own fallibility is the one that leads to a broader and deeper commitment to the methodologies that have proved most useful in the modern era at diminishing the aggregate effects of bias and increasing aggregate accuracy in our conclusions. Both scientific methodology and legal procedure are sets of techniques for informing and framing rigorous debates over what is and is not true, following sets of rules regarding what evidence to consider reliable and how to organize and channel the determinations that follow from that evidence. In science, the purpose to which this process is put is to refine our shared consciousness; in law, it is to increase the justness of our coexistence. These, indeed, are the two things we should always be striving to do, as responsible sovereigns, and to do so most effectively we should build on the methodologies that already exist for doing so.
In other words, the most pressing imperative facing our shared human enterprise right now is the expansion of the logic of science and law into the realm of public discourse and public opinion and policy formation. We need to transcend, to leave on the dust heap of history, the myth that all opinions are equal (while protecting the expression of all opinions in order to determine their relative merits), and engage in rigorous, increasingly formal debates in a constant quest for the best understandings, in best service to our shared humanity.
Tragically, we, as a people, are not only faced with the challenge of cultivating these disciplines more broadly among ourselves, but also of convincing those least committed to them that they have any value at all. We are also faced with the challenge of overcoming the reality that human beings in general do not arrive at their conclusions primarily through rational processes, but rather through social and emotional processes that often circumvent or disregard reason and evidence, and often serve narrower interests than our shared humanity.
The challenge facing rational and humane people, therefore, is not just to make the most compelling arguments in best service to our shared humanity, but also to create a context in which the most compelling arguments in best service to our shared humanity are more likely to prevail. That requires us to be rational about human irrationality, and to engage not primarily in a competition of rational arguments but rather in a competition of emotional narratives. The challenge, in other words, is to create a compelling emotional narrative out of the notion of being rational and humane people, and, even more, the notion of being rational and humane people in certain specific, disciplined ways, and then to create a set of mechanisms by which the most compelling rational arguments in best service to our shared humanity are also, simultaneously, compelling emotional narratives that persuade people who do not engage in or necessarily understand the disciplines we are promoting.
The most immediate challenge in the ongoing human endeavor, in other words, is to create, promote, and disseminate a compelling emotional narrative that systematically favors reason in service to humanity, not on a case-by-case basis (as we have been doing), but in a more general and comprehensive way.
There are, therefore, two major branches to the human endeavor: 1) to continue to develop, deepen, and broaden a commitment to disciplined reason in service to our shared humanity, using the methodologies we have developed for doing so, and extending the breadth of contexts in which they are utilized and the number of people striving to utilize them; and 2) to create an emotionally compelling narrative that attracts those who lack the desire or ability to utilize or defer to those disciplines (rigorously applied and debated rational argumentation) or that objective (our shared humanity) to support them not just in name, but also in some effective and authentic way.
To some, this will all seem too abstract, too far removed from the political and cultural realities we grapple with, or too far removed from their own emotional and cognitive inclinations. But those of us who are truly committed to striving to become an ever-more rational and humane people need to recognize that the ongoing mud-fight isn’t the height of what we can do, that we need to reach higher, think deeper, act more ambitiously in service to the highest of ideals and the noblest of purposes. The great cultural and political heroes of modern history, who we revere for their inspired and effective leadership, are who they are precisely because they have had the courage and determination to bite off rather large chunks of this challenge that I have just laid out, opposing imperialism or racism or other injustices. But we can invoke them all now, we can rally them to the greater cause of which they all were a part, and we can promote that cause with the same degree of passion and commitment that they did…, because that truly is the essence of the human endeavor.
(My essays on Colorado Confluence elaborate many of these themes. In the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts are hyperlinks to essays laying out a comprehensive social systemic paradigm through which to understand and analyze our shared cognitive/social institutional/historical/technological landscape. In the second box are hyperlinks to essays laying out a social movement idea for promoting the narrative of and actual commitment to reason in service to humanity. Scattered among the remaining boxes are hyperlinks to essays exploring various aspects of both of these branches of the human endeavor. Together, they form a comprehensive and detailed map of the human endeavor as I have described it in this essay.)
In the continuing debate against Libertarians (and all other ideologues of all stripes, for that matter), here’s the bottom line: There’s only one rational ideology to adhere to, and that is to strive to be rational; there’s only one humane ideology to adhere to, and that is to strive to be humane.
Striving to be rational is not a vague, relative term: We have centuries of experience in the development of disciplined, methodical reasoning. We’ve developed scientific methodology and a wide spectrum of variations of it adapted to situations in which variables can’t be isolated, statistical data analysis, research techniques designed to rigorously minimize the influence of bias and to maximize accuracy. We’ve developed legal procedure based on a debate between competing views framed by a set of rules designed to ensure maximum reliability of the evidence being considered and to identify the goals being pursued (adherence to formally defined laws). We’ve developed formal logic and mathematics, rules of deduction and induction, which maximize the soundness of conclusions drawn from premises, the premises themselves able to be submitted to the same rules for verifying raw data and drawing conclusions from that data.
Not everyone is trained in these techniques, but everyone can acknowledge their value and seek to participate in privileging them over other, more arbitrary and less rational approaches to arriving at conclusions. A commitment to democracy and pluralism does not require a commitment to stupidity and ignorance. The mechanisms by which we balance the need for all to have their say and all interests to be represented with the need for the best analyses to prevail in the formation of our public policies is an ongoing challenge, but we can all agree that we should meet that challenge head-on, rather than pretend that the drowning out of the cogent arguments of informed reason by the relentless and highly motivated noise of irrational ignorance is the height of self-governance.
Striving to be humane is not a vague, relative term either: We have centuries of development of thought concerning what that means, including John Rawls’s “A Theory of Justice”, which provides a pretty good heuristic guideline of what humane policies should look lie (they should be the kinds of policies that highly informed and rational people would choose if they didn’t know what situation they were going to be born into or what chances of life they were going to encounter). This is basically a derivation and elaboration of the Golden Rule, which exists in some form or another in virtually every major religion on Earth. We all understand that justice requires that everyone be assured the same opportunity to thrive, and while we can agree that that is a formidable challenge that is more of an ideal toward which we can continue to strive than a finished achievement we can expect to accomplish in the near future, and that important counterbalancing imperatives must be considered and pursued simultaneously (in other words, that we need to balance the challenges of creating an ever-more more robust, fair, and sustainable social institutional framework), we can also agree that it is one of the guiding principles by which we should navigate as we forge our way into the future.
So, guided by our humanity, we have a clear objective that all of our public policies should strive to serve: Maximizing the robustness, fairness, and sustainability of our social institutional landscape to the greatest extent possible, such that no individual, if fully informed and rational, would want to change any aspect of it if they did not know where or when or into what situation they would be born or what chance occurrences they would encounter in life. And we have a clear means of most effectively pursuing that objective: Robust public discourse in which we allow the most cogent, information-intensive, methodologically and analytically sound arguments regarding how best to maximize the robustness, fairness and sustainability of our social institutional landscape, on a case-by-case, issue-by-issue basis, to prevail.
And THAT, what I just described above in the preceding five paragraphs, is really the only ideology we need, the only ideology we should adhere to as we move forward as a polity, wise enough to know that none of us knows all that much, humane enough not to blithely dismiss –whether implicitly or explicitly– the suffering and gross injustices endured by numerous others, intelligent enough to know that the appropriate role of a democratically and constitutionally circumscribed government in the modern world cannot be intelligently reduced to a handful of platitudes, informed enough to recognize that the rule of law is predominantly a procedural rather than substantive ideal, and smart enough to recognize that it is our commitment to these procedural and methodological disciplines of informing and devising public policies that will define how intelligently, humanely, and effectively we govern ourselves.
What continues to stand against this simple and clear ideology of a commitment to reason and humanity realized through disciplined procedures and methodologies are the plethora of blind dogmas, substantive false certainties, and precipitous conclusions that litter our shared cognitive landscape. Whether it is Marxism, politically active evangelical Christianity, politically active fundamentalist Islam, Libertarianism, or any other substantive dogma which presumes to know what we are in reality continuing to study, debate, and discover, this perennial need by so many to organize in an effort to impose a set of presumptive substantive conclusions on us all, one ideological sledgehammer or another with which to “repair” the machinery of government, is an obstacle rather than productive contribution to truly intelligent and humane self-governance.
It doesn’t matter if any given adherents to such an ideology are right about some things and those arguing from a non-ideological perspective are wrong about some things; it would be extraordinary if that were not the case, because disciplined analysis seeks to track a subtle and elusive object (reality), while blind dogma, like a broken clock, stands in one place, and thus is right on those rare occasions when reality happens to pass through that spot. What matters is that we all say, “I am less committed to my tentative conclusions than to the process for arriving at them, and would gladly suspend any of my own tentative conclusions in exchange for a broad commitment by all engaged in political discourse and political activism to emphasize a shared commitment to reason in service to humanity.”
The claim made by some that libertarians aren’t against using government in limited ways to address our shared challenges and seize our shared opportunities, while insisting that the problem now is that we have “too much government,” ignores the incredible breadth and depth of challenges and opportunities we face, challenges and opportunities that careful economic analysis clearly demonstrate often require extensive use of our governmental apparatus to meet and to seize. That is why every modern, prosperous, free nation on Earth has a large administrative infrastructure, and why every single modern, prosperous, free nation on Earth has had such a large administrative infrastructure in place since prior to participating in the historically unprecedented post-WWII expansion in prosperity and liberty: Because, as an empirical fact, that is what has thus far worked most effectively. But that does not preclude the possibility that the approach I’ve identified would lead to an overall reduction in the size and role of government; it only requires that in each instance the case be made, with methodological rigor, that any particular reduction in government actually does increase the robustness, fairness, and sustainability of our social institutional framework.
The challenge isn’t to doggedly shrink government in service to a blind ideological conviction, but rather to wisely, with open eyes and informed analyses, refine our government by shrinking that which should be shrunk and expanding that which should be expanded, an ongoing endeavor which requires less ideological presumption and more analytical intelligence. We neither need nor benefit from neatly packaged blind dogmas; we need and benefit from an ever-greater commitment to disciplined reason in service to unflagging humanity.
Now, the legitimate contention arises that that is fine in theory, but in the real world of real people, ideological convictions and irrational decision-making prevail, and to refuse to fight the irrational and inhumane policies doggedly favored by some by any and all means possible, including strategies that do not hamstring themselves by seeking an ideal that does not prevail in this world today, is to surrender the world to the least enlightened and most ruthless. To that I respond that I do not oppose the strategic attempts by those who are informed by reason and humanity to implement the products of their discipline and conviction through strategic and realistic political means, but only implore of them two things: 1) That they take pains to ensure that their conclusions actually are the product of reason in service to humanity, and not simply their own blind ideological dogma, and 2) that they invest or encourage the investment of some small portion of our dedicated resources, some fraction of our time and money and energy directed toward productive social change, toward cultivating subtler cultural changes that increase the salience of reason and humanity in future political decision-making processes. I have outlined just such a social movement in A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill.
Another legitimate contention is the recognition of our fallibility, and the need to rely on bedrock principles rather than arrogate to ourselves a case-by-case, issue-by-issue analysis, much as we limit our democratic processes with bedrock Constitutional principles that we can’t elect to violate. There is much truth in this, but it either becomes one more rational consideration that we incorporate into our ongoing effort to do the best we can in a complex and subtle world, or it displaces our reason and humanity entirely and reduces us to automatons enslaved by a historically successful reduction of reality. We see these alternatives in regards to how the Bible and Constitution are utilized, by some as guides which inform their own reason and humanity and require conscious interpretation and application, and by others as rigid confirmation of their own dogmatic ideology, the latter often through selective or distorted interpretations of their own.
We’ve seen the value of improved methodology and increased commitment to methodological discipline in the realm of science, which has bestowed on us a greatly invigorated ability to make sense of a complex and subtle universe. We’ve seen the value of improved procedures and procedural discipline in law, which has increased the justness of our criminal justice system (certainly an improvement over “trial by ordeal,” or the Inquisitor’s securing of a confession by means of torture, for instance). We’ve seen the value of improved methodologies in selecting and holding accountable political leaders, through carefully monitored “free and fair” elections and the supremacy of the rule of law over individual power. To be sure, all of these are mere steps forward, not completed journeys; the human foibles they partially mitigated are not entirely erased from the new paradigms they preside over. But they are steps forward.
And, though it’s more debatable, with more and greater atrocities seeming without end challenging the assertion, I think our humanity has grown in recent centuries as well. Historians almost universally agree that a larger proportion of the human population suffered violent death the further back in time you go. Even while exploitation and inhumanities persist, they are increasingly viewed as morally reprehensible by increasing numbers of people in increasing regions of the Earth. We have, indeed, as a national and international society, improved our formal commitment to human rights, even if our realization of that commitment has woefully lagged behind. It remains incumbent on us to close that gap between the ideal and the reality.
What, then, are the logical next steps for civilization? How do we advance the cause of reason in service to humanity? The answer, I believe, is to extend and expand the domains of these methodologies and attitudes, to increase the degree to which they are truly understood to be the defining vehicle of human progress. If it’s good to have a small cadre of professionals engaging in science, it’s even better to have many more incorporating more of that logic into their own opinion formation process. If it’s good for the election of office holders to be conducted through rational procedures, it’s even better for the knowledge and reasoning of those who vote in those elections to be fostered through more rational procedures as well. And if it’s good for some of us to include larger swathes of humanity in the pronoun “we,” then it’s even better for more of us to do so to an ever greater degree.
Even if the effort to cultivate a movement in this direction only succeeds, over the course of generations, in making the tiniest marginal increase in the use of disciplined reason, and the tiniest increases in the degree of commitment to our shared humanity, by the tiniest marginal fraction of the population, that would be a positive achievement. And if, alongside such marginal increases in the reliance on disciplined reason and commitment to humanity, there is also a marginal increase in the acknowledgement that the products of disciplined reason are more useful to us as a society and a people than the products of arbitrary bigotries and predispositions, and that the recognition of the humanity of others unlike us is more morally laudable than our ancient tribalistic and sectarian reflexes, that, too, would be a positive achievement.
The influence of reason in our lives has been growing steadily for centuries and has had a dramatic impact on our social institutional and technological landscape, though it has only really ever been employed in a disciplined way by a small minority of the human population. The increase in our humanity as well, in such forms as the now nearly universal condemnation of slavery, the increasing recognition of the value of equal rights for all, the generational changes in our own society with some bigotries withering with time, can also be discerned. Even marginal increases in the employment of reason and its perceived legitimacy, and of our shared humanity being the ends to which it is employed, can have very dramatic effects on the robustness, fairness, and sustainability of the social institutional and technological landscape of the future, and on the welfare of human beings everywhere for all time. This is the path that all of our most laudable achievements of the past have followed and contributed to, and it is the path we should pursue going forward ever more consciously and intentionally, because that is what the ever fuller realization of our humanity both requires of us and offers us the opportunity to do.
(The following is the beginning of an exchange on a libertarian’s Facebook page, with the first comment being his status update. It continued, as these exchanges often do, with my repeated suggestion that we step back from our substantive certainties and agree to base our discourse on the premise that we’re all fallible, and if we all strive to be rational and humane people, in disciplined and methodical ways, it would serve society better than our competing blind ideologies, and with this suggestion being responded to with every excuse imaginable for why it couldn’t be accepted. And this is the great ongoing tragedy of our shared existence, not just the persistence of irrationality, but the emotional investment in its preservation against all suggestions and invitations to work toward transcending it.)
KW: God Bless You for your choices, now kindly step aside as I make my own.
SH: What if your choice were to hurt others? Should I kindly step aside then? So, you have to qualify it to say “now kindly step aside unless my choice is to hurt others and good citizens need to stop me from doing that.”
But lots of things hurt others in subtle ways. We are interdependent, and our actions affect one another. So some of our laws have to recognize that there are individual actions that we each can engage in that cause one another more harm than we, as a society, can allow. For instance, if I do work in my home that produces some form of toxic waste, and I dump that waste on my own property in such a way that gets into the groundwater that others drink and causes deadly disease among those who drink it, then don’t we as a society have good reason to say that no individual can dump toxic waste on their own property?
There are so many things like that in our lives, so much interdependence, that the meme that each should be absolutely free to do whatever they choose really serves more to obscure the real challenge of determining where to draw the line between individual liberty and agreed upon limits to it for mutual benefit than to enlighten or guide us in any meaningful way.
RA: Live Free!
SH: Self-governing on the basis of slogans rather than in-depth, nuanced, and diligent thought isn’t really that good an idea. One of the things you’ll notice about every one of the most horrible chapters of modern world history is that the authors of those horrors were all always deeply immersed in moving slogans.
JW: @Steve you are dangerously close to the most dangerous slogan of all time “for the greater good”. How about, “my ability to swing my arm ends at your nose”. People have to learn to live in close proximity to one another without resorting to trying to live each others lives for them.
SH: J, our own Constitution declares the importance of governing for “the general welfare.” The fact is that I live by no slogan at all, but rather by the belief that there is only one ideology to which any of us should ever adhere: That of striving to be rational and humane people, wise enough to know that none of us knows all that much, working together to do the best we can in a complex and subtle world. That’s not “a slogan,” but rather a philosophy, and not a shallow philosophy that fails to capture the true complexity and subtlety of the world we live in, but rather one based squarely on the recognition of that complexity and subtlety.
As I’ve said repeatedly, I don’t consider the liberal-conservative divide the fundamental one, nor is it how I define my own commitments. I am committed to the disciplined use of human consciousness in service to humanity, period. That includes using disciplined reason, imagination, research, analysis, contemplation, and discourse, recognizing our limitations, uncertainties, and the value of allowing some organic processes to function without trying to impose ourselves on them at every turn. It includes many, many things that can be discussed and debated and ever better understood by ever more people.
If a person comes to that process with that attitude self-identifying as a conservative, that’s fine with me. If they don’t embrace that process at all, but self-identify as a liberal, then they’re as much a part of the problem as those who don’t come to that process at all and self-identify as conservatives. The blind ideologies are not the answer; the processes that best liberate and mobilize human genius are, including the genius of laissez-faire to the extent and in the ways and under the circumstances that laissez-faire is best recommended by our best understandings of how the world works.
But that’s not what happens. What happens is that people come fully armed with an array of false certainties arrived at haphazardly, through socialization and indoctrination and emotional predisposition, and treat those false certainties as indisputable truths. We all do it to some extent, even those of us who do it to the least extent, because that’s how the human mind works: We reduce an infinitely complex and subtle reality to manageable form in order to function in the world, and mistake our cognitive models for the reality itself. A critical step toward being rational and humane people is recognizing that, and working with it.
But when people declare that they have the one right substantive ideology, they are digging into the opposite cognitive orientation, the cognitive orientation which clings most tenaciously to their own false certainties, and is most insulated from actual fact and reason and growing comprehension. Do I think that that is more closely associated with modern American conservatism than modern American liberalism? Yes, but that’s not really the point. The point is that all of us should strive to be wiser than that, and those who refuse, regardless of what ideology they identify with, merit criticism for refusing.
I always refer to reason AND humanity, though in many ways humanity is implicit in reason, as long as we agree on certain underlying values of fairness and long-term functionality, because we are ultimately interdependent, and reason dictates that we recognize our interdependence and act not under the pretense that it doesn’t exist but with the constant awareness that it does. “Liberty” does not mean the absence of interdependence, but rather a particular orientation to it, a value embedded within it that only has meaning in its context. Those who neglect to understand that end up turning the beautiful and valuable concept of human “liberty” into a cruel and ugly excuse for acting in predatory and implicitly inhumane ways.
It’s no coincidence that slave owners used the concept of “liberty” to rationalize their commitment to the institution of slavery (the greatest assault on human liberty in the history of our nation, matched only by the displacement and destruction of the indigenous population), arguing that to deny them (the slave owners) their property (their slaves) would be an assault on their (the slave owners’) “liberty” (see John C. Calhoun’s “Union and Liberty”). And it’s no coincidence that modern Tea Party/libertarian ideology is part of a continuous ideological thread reaching back into that same use of the concept of “liberty.” Knowing and understanding history, deeply and richly and thoroughly, is useful to our present understandings and commitments.
I could go on. I could write books on this. But there is only one rational place to start, only one rational foundation to build on, and that is reason itself, not the arbitrarily claim of already having embodied it in one’s current substantive certainties (as some I’ve interacted with insist upon, as their way of rejecting the notion that we should all strive to be rational and humane people), but in a commitment to the methodologies and procedures which have proved in recent centuries to be the most robust for minimizing bias and maximizing accuracy, and using those procedures –which include debates that aren’t just shouting matches but actually adhere to the rules of debate, the rules of evidence, the rules of logic, or whose relative merits are judged by how well they adhere to them—in service to our shared humanity.
It’s a simple premise. I think it would generally favor what are now considered liberal positions, but if I’m wrong, I’d rather surrender my own false certainties than insulate myself from reason in order to preserve them. It is the process of reason in service to humanity that I am committed to, not to any current assumption of what conclusions it leads to.
And that’s something that all rational and humane people should be able to agree to, should be able to rally around. I know some moderate conservatives who do, and I identify more with them, am more reassured by their presence in our polity, than I am by dogmatic liberals who don’t. And if we can simply put aside the shouting matches over precipitous substantive false certainties, and instead agree to work at being that kind of a polity, a rational and humane polity, then this would be an even more admirable and extraordinary nation than it already is (if that’s what it already is), and an even greater gift to the world than it already is (if that’s what it already is). And we would leave on the margins, on the dust heap of history where they belong, the commitment to ignorance and bigotry and oversimplistic dogma that some insist on adhering to, moving forward instead as an increasingly rational and humane people.
KW: Steve, why do you use my status to go on your diatribe. I respect your take but you immediately disregarded the simple fact that I am Libertarian and not a single one of my choices harm another.
JW: I know better than to feed the trolls but I am going to respond to your essay Steve. Shakespeare said “Brevity is the soul of wit”. At least with the simple statements that K and I have made, a reasonable person might gather the basics of our personal philosophies. I read through your entire post and honestly could not make a determination of where you fall philosophically. Given the lengths to which you used as many words as possible to say as little as possible, I am inclined to believe that you are a statist leaning liberal that would bind us in the chains of some nebulous “social contract” that no party signs yet all are supposed to abide by. Orson Wells took such thoughts about “humanity” to its inevitable conclusion in Animal Farm where of course, all are equal but some where more equal than others. Unlike K, I will not respect your philosophy if it is one that would consign us to the politics of pull, where influence becomes the prime product of a society and the real producers are enslaved to the “greater good”.
SH: K, the whole purpose of the rule of law is that we can’t simply rely on each other to do the right thing, and that we must govern ourselves, as a people, with laws that bind us and limit us in certain ways for mutual benefit. You say that I disregard the fact that you are a libertarian and that your choices harm no one else. No, I dispute the notion that we don’t need laws because some people are not inclined to break them in the first place, or that the recognition that we do need laws is compatible with the ideologically exclusive emphasis on absolute freedom.
As for why I use your status to go on my diatribe: If one propagates defective ideas that can be harmful to humanity where I can challenge them, then I will challenge them.
J, you couldn’t make that determination because not all philosophies are dogmas, and mine is one such that is not a dogma. It is a commitment to the same foundations that inform science and law, a commitment to methodologies and procedures rather than to presumptions and false certainties. “My” philosophy is not reductionist, is not the folly of imposing on a complex world a simplistic panacea. It is, rather, a commitment to reason (which is served by disciplined methodologies and procedures that have proved their worth over the last several centuries) in service to humanity (rather than in service to some segment of humanity at the expense of other segments of humanity).
You assume I’m an adherent to your caricature of left-wing ideology, to which you relegate everyone who is not a member of your preferred reduction of reality, not recognizing the existence of any form of political economic thought that does not fit neatly into one or the other of your two caricatures of political economic thought. It’s a tidy but shallow world you live in. Maybe it’s time to consider the possibility that it’s not the last word of human comprehension. (And that’s the point, isn’t it? Knowing that we don’t know rather than insisting that we do, and, in the womb of that wise humility, actually learning, discovering, growing, approaching the challenge of engaging a complex and subtle world with imagination and analytical discipline rather than blind ideological fervor. THAT is the real political divide in America today, whether to be a raging ideologue, or an imaginative and analytical participant in an on-going enterprise.)
“My” philosophy is to start with the simple agreement among all who are willing to strive to be rational and humane people. It may seem insignificant, but I think that it is an important step, because both reason and humanity are easily lost to the zeal of blind ideologies. So, we say, “look, I know that I’m fallible, and that the world is complex, so lets agree, first and foremost, that we’re going to strive to be rational and humane, and take it from there.” it’s a good agreement to make, a good foundation to build on, and very much in the spirit of the formation of this nation, which was founded on the Enlightenment philosophy that a people can and should govern themselves rationally and humanely, debating as rational citizens rather than merely clinging to ideological assumptions.
Once we make that agreement, we can discuss how to realize it. Clearly, scientific methodology is better than other preceding and generally more haphazard approaches when it comes to understanding empirical phenomena, to ascertaining factual and systemic knowledge. Similarly, legal procedure is preferable to, for instance, trial by ordeal, for ascertaining guilt or innocence, or ascertaining facts and applying the law to them. These are developments over recent centuries that have increased the role of rationality in our lives. We can work to extend their domain beyond the halls of academe and the courts of law, and to employ more of their logic, and reap more of their benefits, in public discourse in general.
And it all starts with something as self-evidently desirable as simply agreeing to strive to be rational and humane people, and giving that agreement priority over any other ideological commitments.
George Orwell (not Orson Wells) wrote “Animal Farm” about an ideology coopted in service to oppression. Any ideology can be used as such a pretext, even one that claims to exist for the opposite purpose (as, indeed, Communism itself did). Ideologies always insist that every other ideology is the road to Hell, and that they alone provide salvation. It’s a common theme. They use rousing symbols and slogans to proclaim themselves the defenders of some noble ideal, and then, if they are not more procedurally than substantively oriented, inevitably betray that ideal.
A commitment to humanity is not a commitment to totalitarianism. But a failure to commit to humanity, to commit to reason, is an invitation to the institutionalization of irrationality and inhumanity, as has so often happened in so many times and places. Ironically, Libertariansim has something fundamentally in common with Marxism, and that is profound and oversimplistic political economic dogmatism. Marxism identified the state as the solution to all problems, and Libertarianism identifies the market as the solution to all problems, though economists well understand that neither is and that both have a vital role to play.
We should all act more like economists and less like ideologues when discussing economic issues. We should, in general, all strive to act more like rational and humane people, wise enough to know that we don’t know much, working together to do the best we can in a complex and subtle world. That should be our one and only ideology
By the way, the concept of ‘trolls” on Facebook has clearly become distorted to mean “anyone who invades an ideological echo-chamber with any perspective discordant with that of the pariticpants of the echo-chamber.” If that is the new definition of “troll,” than I’m proud to be one, because these echo-chambers are unhealthy to our democracy and do poor service to the growth of reason and understanding. We need, instead, a robust, informed and informative, rational and disciplined, public discourse, where ideas are exchanged and challenged, and we work together to improve our understandings and our ability to cooperate for mutual benefit.
I would limit the term “troll” to mean anyone, on any thread, whose contribution is intended or designed to drown out signal with noise, and reduce rather than increase the informativeness and rationality of the discourse taking place.
The difference between a scholar and an ideologue is that a scholar seeks out the truth while an ideologue is certain he is already in possession of it.
(This relationship is sometimes inverted, when there is overwhelming scientific evidence for something that ideologues want to dismiss. Under those circumstances, scholars are relatively certain while ideologues are conveniently uncertain; however, the latter is not an honest quest for knowledge, but rather a disingenuous obstruction of it. In both cases, one modality focuses on reason applied to evidence, and the other on the insulation of dogmatic belief from reason applied to evidence.)
It is true that everyone has biases, and that biases influence everyone’s perceptions and conclusions. It is untrue that there is no distinction in the degree to which this occurs and holds sway among competing modalities of thought. To put it simply, if scholarship were indistinguishable from other modalities, the accelerating production of subtle insights into the nature of reality that has characterized science could never have occurred.
The reason for this distinction is that scholarship involves an explicit commitment to apply reason to evidence, and to subject all ideas to the scrutiny of others who are doing the same. This can take the form of replicable scientific experiments, or, to explore phenomena whose variables are too difficult to isolate, variations of this procedure adapted to different conditions. The individual practitioners are more or less adept at it, and more or less committed to the systematic reduction of bias that is one of the principal reasons for this methodology, but to off-set that they must always convince a succession of committees of their peers, and then the general readership of their peers, that their conclusions are valid. This begins to resemble legal procedure, with arguments made for competing cases, judged by a jury of peers, though in scholarship it is a jury of peers with similar expertise.
More casual modalities of opinion formation more liberally incorporate bias into their perceptions and conclusions, sometimes developing precisely in a manner to do so as robustly as possible, systematically insulating irrational and counterfactual beliefs from the lathe of reason and evidence. One such modality currently in vogue is particularly fascinating. It involves a clever combination of relativism and absolutism, first to insulate arbitrary opinions from any intrusion of fact and reason, and then to claim that that opinion must be the absolute truth.
Step one in this anti-scholarship modality is to insist that no modality or opinion is any better than any other, and that the products of expertise or systematic investigation merit no more deference or consideration than any opinion held by any lay person. This is the relativism portion of this modality of thought: All opinions are equal, and none can be privileged over any other. This step insulates arbitrary opinions from any threat from reason or evidence, since any application of reason and evidence can only produce another opinion of equal value to the arbitrarily derived one.
Step two involves rejecting any suggestion that the arbitrary opinion must be considered a tentative conclusion rather than the absolute truth, on the basis that to do so would be to commit the error of relativism: There is one absolute truth, and to claim that one must be uncertain about reality is, according to this modality, a failure to accept the fact that there is one absolute truth. Therefore, the holder of the arbitrary opinion feels justified in being absolutely certain that their arbitrary opinion is the one unassailable Truth.
So, in this modality, first irrationality and counterfactuality is insulated from reason and evidence by means of a relativistic argument, and then it is promoted to unassailable absolute truth by recourse to an absolutist argument. Ironically, the very relativism that is used to insulate the arbitrary opinion in the first place is denied to all others on the basis that relativism is a fallacy! By doing so, the arbitrary opinion is promoted to the status of an irrefutable “truth,” since it can’t be challenged first due to the equality of all opinions, and second due to the fact that since only one of those supposedly equally valid opinions can actually be true, it must be the one that has “proven” impervious to all challenges (by fiat)! I’ve seen this two-step dance of insulated irrationality occur over and over again in “debates” with fanatical (generally right-wing) ideologues, usually accompanied by intense belligerence and a flood of ad hominems directed at anyone “pretentious” and “priggish” enough to challenge that modality.
In some ways, these two modalities, scholarship and what I am calling anti-scholarship (the two-step insulation and promotion of irrationality) define the extremes of a continuum, with various modalities falling along the spectrum between them. Obviously, I’d like to promote a shared commitment, by each and all, to do our best to move along that continuum in the direction of the more disciplined and bias-reducing modality of scholarship.
(See also The Elusive Truth, The Hydra’s Heads, The Signal-To-Noise Ratio, Un-Jamming the Signal, Un-Jamming the Signal, Ideology v. Methodology, The Voice Beyond Extremes, The Real Political & Cultural Dichotomy, Sacred Truths, The “New” Reductionism, The Tyranny of Blind Ideology, An Argument for Reason and Humility.)
I. The Habits, Methodologies and Procedures Which Govern Our Existence
Political activism tends to focus on issues and candidates, advocating for particular positions on particular issues, which cluster into and are framed by competing ideologies, and campaigning for candidates who, by and large, represent those competing ideologies. This system is the product of an evolutionary process (discussed at more length in section II)), and is certainly more functional than many that have historically preceded it or exist elsewhere. But it is not a perfected system (no system is), and some portion of our advocacy efforts should be dedicated to the challenge of consciously refining it.
In some other facets of life, particularly scholarship and law, procedures and methodologies have evolved which increase the role of reason in human belief formation and decision-making. Scientific methodology is a discipline which reduces error and increases accuracy. It has proven to be an acceleratingly robust technique for exploring the nature of the world and universe around and within us. Legal procedure is a discipline which assesses the accuracy of alleged facts and applies complex decision-making rules to them. It has proven to be a more accurate tool for pursuing just outcomes than the less rationalized procedures which preceded it, such as “trial by ordeal” or the purely idiosyncratic judgment of rulers or magistrates.
One of the challenges facing humanity is to refine and extend such disciplines. Though our electoral system is an example of such continuing refinement and extension, the context of our electoral system still involves a competition of largely arbitrary and underexamined ideological convictions. The products of scientific and legal methodologies are brought in haphazardly, and with only marginal influence. Popular opinions are formed irrationally, and voting choices are manipulated by well-funded marketing techniques, turning politics into a competition of cynical strategies favoring concentrated capital interests, and leading to dysfunctional outcomes.
It is a well-known and well-evidenced conclusion of cognitive science that human beings are not, by and large, persuaded by logical arguments and reliable evidence as much as by emotionally appealing messages that resonate with their already internalized frames and narratives. Some people misinterpret this to conclude that it is impossible to increase the salience of reason in popular political decision-making. But history demonstrates the error of such a conclusion: Scientific methodology, legal procedure, and constitutional democratic forms of government have all developed and gained prominence in the modern era, despite human irrationality.
II. The Lathe On Which We Spin…
The explanation for this paradox can be found in John Maynard Keynes’ quip that people “will do the rational thing, but only after exploring all other alternatives.” The archetype of this dynamic can be found in nature, in biological and ecological evolution, where creatures large and small, few of which are generally considered to be “rational,” evolve in highly rational ways, embodying strategies for reproductive success (and survival in order to facilitate it) that we, for all of our impressive human consciousness, can only mimic and emulate in our own intentional social institutions and technologies.
In biological evolution, this occurs through genes, which reproduce, occasionally mutate, compete for reproductive success, and thus evolve. In cultural evolution, this occurs through “memes” (cognitions), which reproduce (are communicated), frequently mutate (change in the process of communication by mixing with other memes to form new memes or being are refined or altered or misinterpreted by those to whom they are communicated), compete for reproductive success (compete with mutually exclusive beliefs, or compete with other technologies, or compete for limited cerebral capacity), and thus evolve. In both cases, packets of information reproduce, mutate, compete for reproductive success, and thus evolve. (For more in-depth explorations of this evolutionary ecology of human social institutional and technological systems, see, e.g., The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), plus several others in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts).
Cultural evolution isn’t inherently benign. Reproductive success doesn’t automatically favor those memes most conducive to human happiness and welfare. More powerful weapons prevail over less powerful weapons; conquerors spread their memes more prolifically than pacifists; those who mine natural resources more rapidly (even if unsustainably rapidly) prevail more surely; aggressive, predatory societies overrun others that may be laden with beautiful and life affirming memes that simply don’t survive the brutality of our existence. One role for our conscious participation is to counterbalance these dysfunctional aspects of our underlying cultural evolutionary processes.
But neither is cultural evolution inherently malignant. Reproductive success doesn’t automatically disfavor those memes and paradigms most conducive to human happiness and welfare. A social entity characterized by strong internal cooperation will tend to prevail over a social entity characterized by weak internal cooperation. The robust production of prosperity tends to prevail over more sluggish economic systems. Broader and deeper systems of cooperation prevail over narrower and shallower systems of cooperation. Political and economic liberty, in which most or all people are robust participants in their own governance and in a production of wealth from which they benefit in proportion to the value of their contribution, tends to prevail over political and economic centralization, in which human energy and enterprise is less fully tapped and channeled.
This combined, almost paradoxical, evolutionarily favored status of both liberty and cooperation is precisely why the movement I am referring to is not just “the politics of reason,” but “the politics of reason and goodwill.” Decades ago, in an experiment by Robert Axelrod, competing computer programs using strategies of “cooperation” and “defection” in bilateral, repeated “prisoners’ dilemma” games (see Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems) demonstrated that the best strategy in a world in which cooperation yields collective benefits, but not cooperating is always better for the person who doesn’t cooperate, is first to cooperate (show goodwill), and then respond to the other in kind (continue to cooperate if they do, but not if they don’t). This is a mathematical demonstration of what we all intuitively know (or should know) to be true: Goodwill benefits us all.
That’s at least one reason why the evolutionary process I describe below, entering into the modern era, has produced notions of human rights and natural rights and individual rights, and notions of egalitarianism and fairness and mutual responsibility, that many of us treasure, and that all of us benefit from. The world is a better place not only when we are reasonable people, but also when we act with goodwill toward one another. And even if the distribution of individual reasonableness and goodwill is not something that is particularly tractable by organized efforts in social movements, the salience of reasonableness and goodwill might be (see below for an explanation of this distinction).
III. …And That We Ourselves Are Spinning.
Biological evolution is, in a sense, a passive process. The members of evolving species do not intentionally participate in the evolutionary process that creates them, identifying evolutionary goals and consciously pursuing them. They merely are more or less prolific reproducers, and so carry genes that are more or less well-represented in subsequent generations. But the human cultural echo of this evolutionary process plays out through our cognitions, which are the substance of our consciousness. It is the result of what we choose to believe, and the result of how successfully we advocate or promote or market our beliefs or innovations. We are active and conscious participants in our own cultural evolution.
The degree to which we consciously guide and channel this process in service to humanity is a function of how far-sighted we are in our goals, and how inclusive we are in our identifications. Genetic evolution occurs through the pursuit of very immediate, short-sighted goals: Surviving long enough to mate, mating, and ensuring in one way or another that some of your progeny survive to mate as well. Cultural evolution occurs through the pursuit of these as well (through the reproduction of memes that serve these goals), plus slightly less immediate and short-sighted goals, such as financial security or prosperity and satisfaction of various needs and desires, and conscious identification with genetically somewhat dissimilar others, such as co-members of a race, a tribe, a nation or a religious community. (Often, there is an element of marginal genetic similarity in these identifications, due to how they are historically produced.) Politics consists by and large of a struggle over how and if and how far to extend both our time horizon and our identification, and how ambitious or modest our collective goals should be.
This struggle occurs on an issue-by-issue, candidate-by-candidate basis, framed by competing comprehensive ideologies. We tend to emphasize the particular battles, and “recognize” that it is futile to try to win an argument over “which” ideology is superior. (Even so, the most zealous among us –myself included, but in a modified way explained in this essay and others like it– engage ceaselessly in debates over the relative merits of competing ideologies.)
The tendency to “duke it out” on an issue-by-issue, candidate-by-candidate basis comes at the cost of shortening our time horizons and narrowing our identifications, because issues attract our attention in proportion to their urgency and immediacy, elections are immediate and urgent contests, identifications in these struggles focus on the coalition of factions advocating particular positions within it, and, most importantly, the logic of political competition drives the most politically active among us into an almost exclusive focus on political strategies and tactics. The last dynamic strongly favors appealing to our basest and least far-sighted and least-imaginative inclinations as a polity, because these are the easiest to appeal to, and the most successful fulcrums on which to ply our political efforts.
If our evolutionarily determined habit of focusing on immediate issues and immediate candidates in service to immediate concerns and immediate desires does not best serve the challenge of being more conscious and inclusive participants in our own cultural evolution; and if it is futile to try, instead, to move the struggle to the level of a national debate over which substantive comprehensive ideology to embrace; then what is the alternative?
The alternative is diverting some portion of our time and attention and resources from both the issue-by-issue, candidate-by-candidate political struggle, andthe futile substantive ideological debate that envelopes and undergirds it, to an effort to transcend both by developing and investing in methodologies which systematically favor reason and goodwill in our personal and popular political decision-making process. To accomplish this, we need to find a foundation on which to build such a methodology on which most people, across ideological lines, can agree to, and which appeals to most people’s underlying frames and narratives, as well as recognizes the limited degree to which most people are willing to invest time and energy in our political processes.
Extremists of all stripes will tend to reject any such foundation that is proposed, correctly certain that it would undermine their ideological convictions and goals. But, though extremists dominate message boards and public attention, most people are not extremists. Most people are relatively moderate and pragmatic people who just want to be able to participate marginally, without investing too much time and energy, in our self-governance in a way which is both gratifying and productive. Many, of course, don’t want to do more than vote, but even those form their political opinions and electoral choices by means of a diffuse engagement with others around them and with various media of communications.
The challenge is to find, rally, and motivate those who both are or wish to be highly politically engaged, and who are interested in exploring the possibility of doing fundamentally better than we are now in moving the state, nation, and world in the direction of ever-increasing salience of reason and goodwill in the formation of our public policies, and to mobilize these activists in the design and implementation of a movement which accomplishes that goal. Obviously, any success would be marginal, and the world would continue much as it has. But even just marginal success in such an endeavor could have truly revolutionary implications over the course of time.
IV. The Proposal
I have already outlined my proposal (which I call, alternatively, “The Politics of Reason and Goodwill,” or “Transcendental Politics,” or “Holistic Politics”) in several essays (see, e.g,. A Proposal, The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, How to make a kinder and more reasonable world, and Transcendental Politics; plus dozens of others in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts). I’ll just summarize it very briefly here.
The social movement I envision is, by necessity, a non-partisan social movement which emphasizes the procedures by which we arrive at our beliefs, conclusions, policy positions, and electoral choices (which I’ll refer to from here on out as “political memes”), rather than the specific, substantial political memes themselves. It is a movement that is dedicated to not advocating for progressive or conservative ideologies or policies or candidates, but rather for a commitment to reason and goodwill and to the development of procedures and methodologies which systematically favor them.
This may seem to run up against the cognitive science reality that people are not primarily persuaded by reason in the formation of their political memes, and certainly the most fanatical and extreme will not be amenable to any suggestion to make any movement of any kind in any direction. But this movement does not depend on people in general changing their habit of political meme formation. Rather, it depends, first, on a dedicated group of people implementing the three components summarized below (and elaborated on at length in the other essays I linked to), and, secondly, on a significant number of people agreeing in principal only to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill. That second requisite is not a change in how people form their cognitive landscapes, but rather an appeal to existing frames and narratives, since most Americans, I would argue, identify themselves as, and wish to be, reasonable people of goodwill.
It’s very important not to be excessively distracted by the highly visible and vocal minority who clearly are too committed to irrationality and belligerence to even contemplate making such a commitment. In the end, any social movement that aspires to increase the salience of reason and goodwill in the formation of public policy, while it might continue to try and hope to gradually convert some of them, has to focus more on simply marginalizing the most irrational and belligerent among us, and rendering them outnumbered and de-fanged by a movement that just leaves them behind (in terms of their political and cultural influence, not in terms of our shared commitment to their well-being and the facilitation of their productive participation in society).
This movement, which I’ll refer to here as “PRG” (short for “Politics of Reason and Goodwill”), requires two very difficult, interrelated steps for adherents (that is, activists working to advance this social movement) to commit to, in order to realize the social step forward that the movement aspires toward: 1) In the context of the movement (though not in political activities pursued outside of the movement), advocacy for specific substantive positions, specific ideological convictions, specific candidates, and, in general, specific substantive political memes, must be suspended. PRG advocates for a commitment to an ideal that transcends ideology and a procedure for realizing that ideal, sincerely and with assiduous integrity agreeing not to displace that ideal or that procedure with current substantive certainties held by any adherents. And, 2) The sincere humility to realize that a procedure which accomplishes this to any meaningful degree is preferable to such substantive certainties currently held, because our current substantive certainties may or may not be what reason and goodwill, assiduously adhered to, would actually have led to, and we should prefer what a disciplined process suggests is most in accord with reason and goodwill over what we more haphazardly assume is most in accord with reason and goodwill.
The core political meme of this movement, in fact, is the meme that we are better served by disciplines and processes which systematically favor reason and goodwill than by our current ideologies that assume they are most informed by reason and goodwill. And, just as those who have practiced and implicitly and explicitly advocated for scientific methodology, rule of law, and democratic and constitutional governmental processes have fought uphill battles to establish them as central features of our shared cognitive and institutional landscape, assisted by the evolutionarily favored utility of these disciplines, so too is this extension of that logic evolutionarily favored by its utility and implementable, over time, through our relentless and passionate advocacy and practice.
PRG consists of three components: 1) The creation of a comprehensive data base or web portal which makes easily accessible all arguments which purport to apply reason to evidence in service to human welfare, along with citations by which to verify the reliability or accuracy of the evidence utilized (see “Component 1″ of A Proposal for a more complete and extensive description); 2) The creation of an enterprise which disseminates the message, in emotionally appealing ways which communicate directly to existing frames and narratives, that we are better off, both individually and collectively, when we strive to be reasonable people of goodwill (see Component II of A Proposal and Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives for more complete and extensive descriptions), and 3) The establishment of a network of community organizations, which leverage existing community organizations (e.g., PTAs, HOAs, Kiwanis, Rotary Club, local churches and other religious institutions, park districts, etc.), to create a forum in which participants agree to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, to consider all points of view and arguments with an open mind, to be civil, and to improve the strength and solidarity of our local communities and of our nation (see Component III of A Proposal and Community Action Groups (CAGs) & Network (CAN) for a more complete and extensive description).
The supposition is not that most people would avail themselves of the internet portal or spend significantly more time comparing arguments and counterarguments surrounding various policy issues, or that most people would attend the community meetings or participate on the on-line network, or that most people would change their habits in any visible or significant way. That would not be realistic. Rather, the hope is that this would create a new center of gravity, a new source of legitimacy for the concept of making decisions on the basis of reason and goodwill, a new nucleus from which a marginal increase in the number of people who take marginal steps in the direction of thinking and acting in accord with this ideal can form a source of information and inspiration for the many who make no change in their lives whatsoever. Few of us are scientists, but most of us rely in one way or another on science.
Think tanks and policy institutes are in some respects the prototype for Component I, but always lost their popular legitimacy by failing to be popularly accessible and popularly comprised institutions. All are seen, rightly or wrongly, as having been co-opted by a particular ideology. But, in PRG, the think tank is all of us, the arguments considered are all of them. And it does not stand alone, like an ivory tower out of reach, but in the center of a community, where it can be utilized and discussed by those ordinary people inclined to do so. Even if very few ever avail themselves of those resources (the portal and the community organizations), others (moderate others who are not lost to an impenetrable fanaticism) will be more inclined to look to those who do as relatively reliable sources of information. And those who do avail themselves of these recourses will be those who, both by predisposition and by the effects of utilizing these resources, will tend to have more moderate, better informed, better reasoned, more humane positions on social and political issues.
History is comprised of innovations, both humble and bold. Many such innovations are social institutional, and some have had enormous and lasting effects on our cultural evolution. The invention of money, of legal systems, of our own Constitution and national system of government, are all examples. Some technological innovations dovetail with these, or form the basis of social institutional innovations of their own: The computer, the internet, social media, have developed in ways which have created new opportunities and new dimensions of possibilities yet to be fully explored. PRG, or something similar to it, would be precisely the way to leverage these developments, and explore these possibilities.
I sincerely and fervantly believe that a dedicated cadre of people working dilligently to design and implement this plan, or a plan similar to it, can and almost inevitably would have a dramatic effect, over time, in moving our state, nation, and world gradually but significantly in the direction of reason and goodwill, in the direction of being wiser, more foresighted, more cooperative, more life-affirming, and more humane. I hope all who read this will join me in this effort, and will share it widely in the hope that others join us as well.
One of the great paradoxes of American history and society is that we are simultaneously a country founded by religious zealots committed to the promotion of religious zealotry, and a country established on Enlightenment principles committed to the creation and preservation of a secular Constitutional Republic. In an honest debate over which direction best serves current and future generations of Americans and humanity, I personally believe that there is no contest: Religious fanaticism and Theocracy are the authors of untold horrors in the world, and it is not a model to be emulated.
It’s true, of course, that some secular “religions” have produced the same horrible outcomes (Bolshevism is the iconic example), which leads to the wise conclusion that it is not the presence or absence of some conceptualization of the divine that renders an ideology destructive to human welfare, but rather merely an aura of absolutism, a belief that the complex and subtle reality of the world has been perfectly distilled into an easily grasped human ideology, and that no further discussion is required. It is not religion that is at fault, but rather blind dogma, absolute faith in some reductionist representation of how the world works and how we should interface with it.
Identifying this problem is easier than solving it. Humans have no choice but to conceptualize the complex and subtle reality of which we are a part in manageable ways, to reduce it to images and forms and packages that we can understand and work with. Our most sublime intellectual achievements do this as surely as our most shallow superstitions. But what distinguishes our most sublime intellectual achievements is that they are products of a process through which our imaginations and our intellects are disciplined and evolve, whereas our most shallow superstitions are ossified products of ancient imaginations entrenched in our consciousness and as insulated as possible from the continuing lathe of reason and imagination. One modality is based on skepticism, on critical thinking, and the other on Faith, on blind acceptance of given “truths.”
(The same holds true for modern dogmas, sometimes intellectual and frequently political ideological, as for archaic superstitions: The greater the extent to which adherents dogmatically believe substantive tenets, the more in the mode of “religious fanaticism” they are; the more they commit to on-going procedures –facilitated by wise uncertainty– which favor reason and humanity, the more they are contributing to the progress of both human consciousness and the social institutional and technological landscape that emanates from it.)
The dilemma in America is not that we are in a debate over these two modalities of thought, but rather that one of these two modalities precludes such a debate. It is not possible to engage in a debate with blind dogma insulated from reason and information. But worse yet, not only is such a debate precluded, but those who preclude it play a shell game with these two very different modalities of thought, turning the U.S. Constitution, which is so much in the tradition of reasoned engagement with the complex and subtle world we live in, into a quasi-sacred document, stripped of its actual subtlety and wisdom, and selectively understood and interpreted in service to the blind dogma that they favor.
They claim to be champions of the Constitution, while in reality being its most virulent enemies. What the Constitution represents first and foremost is rule of law, and what rule of law is first and foremost is a procedural discipline, a commitment to making decisions about legality through processes established by both the Constitution and by the challenge of implementing it in a real world more complex than any such document can fully anticipate.
But rather than accept that we have a real Constitution, written by mere human beings in a language full of ambiguities and imprecisions and in a time which framed their understandings and emphases, a document that Constitutional Scholars debate and study and spend dedicated lifetimes trying to fully understand, in the context of an ever-changing world, these would-be theocrats insist that only their superficial and frequently poorly informed interpretations, sometimes completely at odds with any literal interpretation of the document itself, must prevail.
If one points out to them, as I have sometimes done, that Article I, Section 8, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution states that “Congress shall have the power to lay and collect taxes…to pay for the general welfare,” and that that is a rather broad power that, if literally interpreted, means that there is no limitation on what Congress can tax and spend in service to, as long as Congress can make a case that it serves the general welfare, they answer that there must be limits on it, because, after all, isn’t such a limitation what their dogma insists upon? They love the Constitution until it blatantly contradicts their ideology, at which point it is, in their view, the Constitution rather than their ideology which must yield. That is the very essence of anti-Constitutionalism.
(The limitation on the tax-and-spend power of that clause is, of course, that if voters don’t like the way Congress is exercising it, voters can fire them and hire representatives who do so more in accord with their wishes. The Constitution, drafted to strengthen rather than weaken the federal government, was designed, as explicitly elaborated on in The Federalist Papers, to overcome the collective action problems rampant under the Articles of Confederation that preceded it. It’s no accident that the Founding Fathers included this ample power to tax and spend in service to the general welfare.)
Of course, as many point out, well-reasoned and well-informed arguments fall on deaf ears, because people in general, and religious and quasi-religious fanatics in particular, do not form their opinions according to the dictates of reason applied to evidence –or in service to humanity rather than to their own national, racial, class, ethnic, etc., in-groups– but rather on the basis of emotional appeals to the frames and narratives which form our consciousness and our identities. When I argue that we should all strive to be reasonable people of goodwill (toward all humanity), and others respond that that won’t work because there are those who lack reason and lack such goodwill, I reply that the irrationality and belligerence (toward humanity) of others does not imply that we must be irrational and belligerent (toward humanity) as well.
I emphasize “toward humanity” because the misconception is common, among both those who tend to agree with me on substantive positions and those who tend to disagree, that goodwill toward humanity precludes hurting the feelings of those who preach ideologies or behave in ways which are antagonistic to humanity. It doesn’t. (Those on the right embrace this fallacy to discredit those challenging the substance of their ideology, by claiming that anyone who criticizes their ideology is not acting with goodwill toward humanity; those on the left embrace this fallacy to discredit the challenge to their preference for righteous rage over effective advocacy, arguing that since goodwill toward belligerent fanatics is ineffective the ideal of goodwill toward humanity is irrelevant to political discourse.)
Goodwill toward humanity does not mean that you cannot intervene militarily to stop a genocide, even though shooting at people (in a military action to stop a genocide) is not really the best expression of goodwill toward them personally. Nor does goodwill toward humanity preclude one from hurting the feelings of someone preaching some hateful ideology by sharply criticizing their ideology, and doing so in terms which are logically and emotionally compelling and thus, to them, offensive. To the contrary, goodwill toward humanity requires it, not gratuitously, and not in service to one’s own emotional gratification, but rather in service to moving the zeitgeist gradually in a desired direction.
For those who believe that moving the zeitgeist in a desired direction is impossible, all I can say is: Glance back across the sweep of human history, and you will see that it has been done before, and is done constantly. Scientific methodology didn’t exist half a millennium ago, but has grown in prominence over that span of time, in large part due to human effort, and frequently against human resistance. That thread of history, in fact, is the archetype of what I’m advocating. We have, historically, increased the salience of reason and goodwill in human affairs, by developing scientific methodology and legal procedures, and by developing humanistic philosophies which identify the rights of individuals and the value of various forms of egalitarianism. Extending these historical processes is what Progressives should be most committed to. And, by that definition, all reasonable people of goodwill should be Progressives.
(I’m tempted to dump the word “Progressives,” though, because, of course, the ideology that goes by that name is not precisely the ideal ideology I have described. True “progressivism” would involve reducing the emphasis on precipitous substantive certainties, and increase the emphasis on ever-evolving procedural disciplines developed for the purpose of realizing an ever-evolving humanism.)
It’s true, of course, that merely making well-reasoned and well-evidenced arguments is not the primary way in which the zeitgeist changes. We think in frames and narratives, and it is through those frames and narratives that change occurs. But one frame which almost all modern Americans embrace is that they are reasonable people, that their beliefs are what are supported by reason and evidence, that in any debate between equally competent debaters, their point of view inevitably wins. Another frame common to almost all modern Americans is that each believes themself to be a person of goodwill, a person whose ideology is the ideology which best serves others. Few Americans explicitly applaud Scrooge before the transformation and condemn Scrooge after the transformation; almost all define themselves as being a reasonable person of goodwill.
One way to challenge these frames is to ply the lever of cognitive dissonance, to make the discrepancy between the narratives that people are subjectively applying to themselves and the narratives that they are “objectively” living as inescapable as possible. And that means not only throwing well-reasoned arguments in their face, but rather throwing in their face well-reasoned arguments that challenge not particular policy positions but, more importantly, their own fundamental identity.
The way in which I habitually do this is, in every conversation in which a blind and belligerent dogma is being favored, to ask the person favoring it if they would be willing to set aside for a moment our substantive disagreements and agree with me only that we should all strive to be reasonable people of goodwill working together in a complex and subtle world to do the best we can in service to humanity. Some leap to agree; many do not. But almost all recognize, on some level or another, that they can either agree with this premise or suffer the cognitive dissonance of realizing that they are unwilling to.
I strongly recommend that this one, simple commitment become our core ideological identity and the platform that we most consistently and relentlessly advocate. It is a position which most find difficult to denounce, and to which many who do not consider themselves “progressives” would gladly gravitate. It is the basis for all well-conceived progressive policies, the standard by which they should be measured, such that it is this ideal rather than anything else we currently believe that should hold sway. And it is a shared foundation to which we want to attract as many people as possible (from all across the ideological spectrum).
The catalyst for this essay was an exchange on Colorado Confluence’s Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/ColoradoConfluence). The exchange captures much of what I’m talking about, and expands upon some of the ideas I’ve presented here, so I am reproducing it below. It started with my posting a link to this Economist article on the relationship between religion and politics in America (http://www.economist.com/node/21548964) accompanied by this comment from me:
A nice summary of the disingenuity of Santorum’s remark about people of faith being banished from the public square (which is both the opposite of the current reality, and not advocated by any mainstream public official past or present), and the complex relationship between faith and politics in America.A woman named Dina then commented “wow, drink the cool aid (sic) much?” This was my response:
One thing the article doesn’t note is the tension between the “Free Exercise” and “Establishment” clauses of the First Amendment: Government can neither inhibit nor promote any particular religion, which leaves a very narrow band between the two in which to operate.
Many religious zealots in America, for instance, don’t realize that, while it is unconstitutional for a school to promote or sponsor prayer on school grounds, it is also unconstitutional for schools to prohibit prayer on school grounds, as long as it is done in a manner which does not disrupt the normal functioning of the school and does not appear to carry the “imprimatur” of the school (e.g., does not use the school PA system, or occur as a part of a school event). It is, of course, the right balance…, except for theocrats who don’t want freedom of religion but rather a tyranny of their own religion.
For more on religion, see “Is Religion a Force for Good?” (http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=742), “A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization” (http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=2452), “Do Deities Defecate?” (http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=2504), and “Discourse, Diderot, and Deity” (http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=1081).
Okay, I’ll bite. What Kool-Aid are we talking about? If we’re invoking cult leader Jim Jones and the mass suicide he orchestrated (which is where the term comes from), then it would make more sense to use it to refer to those who are defending dogmatic beliefs (particularly religious beliefs) against a commitment to a more open and moderate secularism. But such reversals of meaning, though ironic in the extreme, are also remarkably common.She then replied, “”‘socialism,’ ‘secularism,’ let’s call the whole thing off!” To which I responded:
“Secularism” and “Socialism” are not the same thing. Our Constitution essentially guarantees a secular form of government by not only guaranteeing to each the freedom to practice their own religion (“The Free Exercise Clause” of the First Amendment) but also prohibiting government from favoring any one religion over others (“The Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment). For an ideological faction whose adherents generally fancy themselves the defenders of the Constitution, it’s remarkable how eager some members of that faction are to disregard and undermine that very same Constitution in both letter and spirit.That got her goat! Here’s how she replied:
The word “socialism” has been applied very broadly, especially in service to a particular ideological agenda, to societies that are widely divergent in form. At one extreme are a group of societies that are characterized by autocratic, oligarchical governments that completely dismantle market economies and replace them with command economies. These have all been horrible failures. At the other extreme (in normal usage) are the “democratic socialist” countries such as some Scandinavian countries have at times been, and these have been by and large quite successful (robust economies, excellent quality of life, extensive individual rights, and far more equitable than average).
More generally, all modern developed nations are, in reality, a hybrid of robust market economies, popular sovereignty, large administrative states, a strong commitment to rule of law, and a thoroughly secular (non-religious) and civil (non-military) government. All nations that participated in the post-WWII economic boon were characterized by this combination of institutional qualities, bar none. To call them “socialism” would mean that the word “socialism” must be understood to encompass both a certain category of failed states, and the unique category of the most successful states in world history (i.e., all successful, fundamentally capitalist countries).
The point of using the word “socialism” to describe both is to obfuscate the fact that some of the states being so labelled comprise the entire set of modern prosperous, free nations on Earth, and to imply instead that all states so labelled actually belong to the set of failed states known by that label. In other words, it is an attempt to relabel all modern, prosperous, free nations as something other than what they are, and to pretend that a proposed extremist form that has never described any actual successful nation on Earth is what defines that category instead! It is a triumph of meaningless, cultish rhetoric over anything even vaguely resembling reality.
There are legitimate debates to be had about the issues that divide us, about the right balance between public investment in human and material infrastructure and laissez-faire market dynamics, about the degree to which we should be committed to maximizing equality of opportunity and how to go about it, about to what extent we should try to consider possible future consequences of current policies and to what extent we should focus exclusively on present outcomes, about, in general, what works and what doesn’t work, what best serves our liberty and prosperity and well-being and what doesn’t. My fondest hope and highest aspiration is that we become a nation that has those debates, as reasonable people of goodwill, wise enough to know that none of has all of the answers, working together in a complex and subtle world to do the best we can; to be, in other words, a nation of people who decline to drink various flavors of “the Kool-Aid,” and choose to be thoughtful, open-minded, and constructive citizens instead.
The purpose of my blog, Colorado Confluence, and this Facebook page that links to it is to promote the application of reason and imagination to evidence and accumulated knowledge and understanding in service to humanity. All points of view, all arguments, are welcome. If you have an actual argument to make, please feel welcome to make it: Understanding and insight are served by robust debate (the opposite of “drinking of the Kool-aid” of insulated dogmas blindly adhered to). The informationless, unreasoning, and generally meaningless one-liners about “drinking the Kool-aid” of secularism (ironically completely inverting the meaning of the phrase), and equating “secularism” and “socialism” in a catchy cliche about “calling the whole thing off,” are modalities best suited to other kinds of forums, offered for other purposes.
well, I guess you told me, huh? I will leave the rest to your ‘enlightened’ state of mind! My point being that your insulting comments regarding the disingenuousness of Santorum feed into the rhetoric we hear everyday in the main stream media. There has been a war against Christianity in this country for decades..actually, around the entire world! Mr. Bloomberg in NYC should heed your words about the ‘imprematur-lessness (sic) of churches who have used public buildings for worship when school is not in session….Other public entities would be smart to heed these same words when they are insistent on shoving other religious tenets down our throats by installing foot washes and prayer rooms in their institutions! IMO, secularism and socialism go hand in hand and both ideas are ruining this great country…Our Forefathers must be turning in their graves! God Help the USA! Goodbye….And, finally, my response to that:
The NYC law prohibiting the use of public schools for religious purposes is currently in the courts, where that balance between Free Exercise and non-Establishment will be struck. The main problem is that the congruency of non-school use days to some religious holy days and not others (Jewish and Christian, but not Islamic) may be construed as an implicit favoring of those religions that [have] their sabaths on the weekend. It’s a subtle question; my guess is that the courts will find that the NYC law is unconstitutional, and I would agree with that decision.
Your comments about the allowance of Islamic practices as well as Christian and Jewish, on an equal footing, merely goes to demonstrate your theocratic rather than constitutional orientation. Islam, according to our Constitution, is neither to be privileged nor discriminated against, and, if we fall short at all as a nation, it is in the latter rather than former error, one which you are determined to increase rather than decrease. You are of a mindset that Christianity should be privileged, and that the failure to do so is a failure of our national conviction. But that simply is not how our nation is Constituted. We are not a theocracy; we are a Constitutional Republic.
What’s most remarkable to me about her last comment was the equation of adhering to the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, permitting and accommodating the free exercise of non-Judeo-Christian religions, with “shoving (those religions) down (the) throats” of those who don’t adhere to them! The notion that Christians in America are more discriminated against than Muslims, that Islam is “shoved down the throats” of Christians but that Christianity is just one religion among many, in no way privileged and in no way seeking to be, is so incredibly ludicrous, it simply boggles the imagination that anyone could argue such a position.
Our national debates aren’t over whether to permit Islamic and Christian religious imagery to co-exist, but rather whether to continue to privilege Christianity in the ways that it has been historically privileged, to use exclusively Christian imagery and language in official displays and communications relating to holidays and other religious events. It is not that these would-be theocrats want no religion shoved down anyone’s throat, but rather that they want their religion exclusively shoved down everyone’s throat!
This isn’t just an issue of religious zealotry and hypocricy and anti-constitutionalism pretending to be the opposite; it’s one example of the more fundamental divide in American politics, one which tracks the left-right divide to some extent but not exactly, one which is where our focus should be as we work on both ourselves as individuals and the nation and world to which we belong. That divide is between ideologies which favor irrationality over reason, and belligerent tribalism/sectarianism over a commitment to humanity. The solution is not to remain entrenched in the struggle to ensure that our own substantive certainties prevail over opposing substantive certainties, but rather to promote a greater and more widespread commitment to procedures and attitudes which systematically favor reason over irrationality, and humanity over various forms of bigotry and belligerence.
I’ve written extensively on the “Political Fundamentalism” of the Tea Party, and its three idolatries (“Constitutional Idolatry”, Liberty Idolatry, Small Government Idolatry). Though I’ve emphasized the degree to which it defines the Right, political fundamentalism of a different flavor is also rampant on the Left. This is particularly tragic, because the Left, despite its foibles, is substantively far closer to where procedurally disciplined reason and goodwill lead, but to the extent that it is not defined by such procedurally disciplined reason and goodwill, it loses much of this natural advantage in the struggle for our national soul.
Personal political convictions on the Left are, for the most part, as dogmatic, vitriolic, and arbitrary as those on the Right. Though those convictions have, on average and inconsistently, arrived at where reason and goodwill, diligently pursued, lead to, they have not generally done so by personally diligently pursuing reason and goodwill, but rather by doing exactly what their counterparts on the Right do: Gravitating toward the political ideology that best resonates with their predispositions, and then cognitively and emotionally wrapping themselves around it and committing themselves to it. I have written extensively on how this fact helps to erase the natural advantage that would otherwise accrue to better-reasoned, more factually-supported, and more humane political ideological commitments (see, e.g., Ideology v. Methodology, The Signal-To-Noise Ratio, The Elusive Truth, Scientific Misconduct: There’s No Such Thing As Immaculate Conception, The Voice Beyond Extremes).
Furthermore, not all of those arbitrary certainties widely held by left-wing ideologues are actually substantively superior to their counterparts on the Right. The cost of adhering to blind ideology isn’t only losing an advantage that would otherwise have accrued, but also, too often, failing to achieve that natural advantage at all, by failing to identify the wisest policies that best serve the public interest. The Left is far too laden with oversimplistic, systemically naïve, and ultimately counterproductive false certainties, while the Right is not completely devoid of legitimate insights. The ultimate challenge is less that the Left wins than that the best and most humane ideas win. And that ultimate challenge is best met by a broadening and deepening commitment to establishing a procedure designed to promote the implementation of the best policies, independently of ideological presumptions about what those are.
While I believe that the dogma of the Left is closer than the dogma of the Right to what such a methodologically disciplined process (similar to scientific methodology or legal procedure) would produce, it doesn’t really matter: I’m willing to put my beliefs on the line, and if and when such a process favors Right-wing over Left-wing policy recommendations, so be it. We need to start shifting political discourse away from fighting over our more fallible conflicting substantive conclusions, and toward fighting for an agreed upon process by which to arrive at them which reduces their fallibility.
Obviously, neither the majority of people engaging in political discourse and activism nor the majority of voters are going to suddenly relinquish their own ideological convictions and embrace instead the application of scientific and judicial methodology to the derivation of new convictions. The opportunity to do so, and the historical evidence of the value of doing so, have long existed. Economists, political scientists, legal scholars, and policy analysts have long, often implicitly, been making the case for doing so. American politics will continue much as it is today, a semi-orderly competition of precipitous false certainties, into the foreseeable future, gradually evolving according to forces I’ve described elsewhere (see, e.g., The Politics of Consciousness , Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future).
But just as scientific methodology gradually, almost imperceptibly, and still very incompletely, displaced religious dogma as the most reliable source of understanding the systemic dynamics of nature, and just as legal procedure gradually, almost imperceptibly, and still very incompletely, displaced prejudice and bigotry in the determination of guilt or innocence, so too can a similar commitment to a similar procedure applied to political beliefs have a similar effect over time. It’s a worthy and attainable long-term goal to which to commit ourselves.
My argument is not that all matters in the political universe can be reduced to testable hypotheses and non-controversial paradigms, but rather that the excessive arbitrariness of political ideology can gradually be pushed to the margins, the transparency of interests and values served and harmed by particular orientations and policies increased, and the range of rational policy ideas in service to the public interest more clearly defined.
That is the alternative to idolatry.