Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Calmness and Openness in Political Matters

Over time I've come to identify less and less with any particular political ideology. This is certainly a shift in my thinking, as probably a few years ago, if you'd asked me, I'd have said I'm an ardent conservative. I wouldn't say that anymore. That's not because I've come to see the light of progress and now identify as a liberal. It's just that I'm more skeptical than I've been before of adopting whole-sale any particular ideology or "ism" and committing myself emotionally to it. And as I've continued in this trend, I've found that I don't really have any reason to become upset or close-minded when it comes to a lot of political issues. I aim to argue here that calmness and openness is the appropriate attitude when it comes to thinking about and discussing such issues.

By ideologies and "ism"s here I mean political ideologies which take stands, or by themselves entail stands, on a wide range of particular, empirical matters of political concern. Classic examples are American conservatism (a la Republicans) or American liberalism (a la Democrats). There's a more broad sense in which, say, Rawlsianism or utilitarianism can be called ideologies. These are more general (almost ethical) views. I think there's reason to be skeptical about adopting wholesale any ideology of that sort too. But I have in mind more concrete ideologies here. Hopefully this will become clearer as I go on.

Part of the reason for my skepticism of total embrace is that I think the answer to many political issues is simply an empirical matter. And I think there's very little reason to think, a priori, that any political point of view has gotten all of these matters right. I think this is also true even in the case of moral issues, but it is especially plausible when it comes to the empirical ones. Let me explain this distinction between "moral" and "empirical" political issues.

I take as paradigm moral issues ones where political questions turn on claims about moral absolutes (or near moral absolutes). Examples:

  • Abortion: What's at stake are the immediate violations of rights of human beings, either the fetus' or the mother's.
  • Same-sex marriage: What's at stake is the moral fabric of our country, either because some people are being unfairly discriminated against for no reason, or because a fundamental moral institution is being undermined.
  • Euthanasia: What's at stake here is life and death, autonomy and murder.
These seem to me to be among the clearest cases. There may of course be empirically relevant information, and there may be arguments about what good or bad effects a related policy might have, but for the most part either euthanasia is murder or it is the only way to secure people's autonomy, and that's that. And these are the type of issues you should reason about mostly a priori, based on ethical principles. Here, I would at least admit one should reason differently about these cases (though frankly I believe a degree of calmness and openness is suitable here too).

I take as paradigm empirical issues on the other hand ones where political questions turn on empirical claims about what the best course of action is. Some examples:
  • Taxes: If lower taxes help reduce poverty, lower them. If higher taxes help reduce poverty, raise them. It just depends on which policy works.
  • Gun Control: If more gun control laws help prevent murders, implement them. If they don't help prevent murders, don't implement them.
  • Welfare: If increased welfare best relieves poverty, increase it. If it doesn't, don't increase it.
  • Education: If vouchers for charter schools best helps the underprivileged, give them vouchers. If it doesn't, then don't.
  • Global Warming: If man-made global warming is happening, take action to stop it or lessen its effects. If it isn't, then don't.
With the exception of this last one (I understand that the scientific consensus is actually quite well established), I honestly feel like these are mostly empirical questions where there are serious arguments both ways. (For the record, I don't know anymore where I stand on any of them.) And since we are dealing with quite complex empirical issues there is no a priori reason to come down settled either way based on one's adopted ideology, because there's no reason to suppose a priori that proponents of one's ideology are generally much more reliable or fair-minded than one's opponents.

There are some worries about what I'm saying of course. First, I should admit that the twofold distinction between "empirical" matters and "moral" matters is not a sharp distinction. It's often a matter of degree.

Also, you might think that all important empirical political matters are completely clear and settled, and that the "ism" you've adopted happens to get it right on all of them. In this case, I'd urge one to reconsider the implausibility of that high a degree of certainty on that wide a range of beliefs, and the implausibility of one's chosen "ism" being so infallible.

Finally, some people might think certain issues in the bottom list belong in the top list (e.g., libertarians, who take a stronger stand on some of these things). I think even if you thought that then these still shouldn't be as hot-button issues as some of the other "moral" ones, but maybe I can put my claim forward as a conditional then: If you think a given issue is empirical in the sense I've described, then one should have a certain degree of calmness and openness on the matter.

The upshot of all of this is that, especially on empirical matters (though I think on most political matters, really), one should have a certain degree of calmness and openness toward one's opponents. You might think this is true anyway, because the opposite response is completely ineffective and unhelpful; I agree. You might think that this is true just for general reasons of respect and tolerance, and indeed, I think that's a good argument too. But I think it's also true for reasons of epistemic humility and because there is simply no good a priori reason to be biased one way or another on a lot of these issues; they are empirical matters that simply need to be investigated more, and until any totally clear verdict is given on these matters, strong and emotional opinions are not suitable to the degree of evidence available.

1 comment:

Saul of Tarsus said...

Great post :)