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(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.

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