Cross-Purposes

I finished The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn recently.  Though Kuhn repeats himself often, in general it’s well worth the read, if you’re wondering whether there might be flaws to the rose-tinted view of natural science.  You know, the one that says science is something that neatly builds upon knowledge toward The Truth, getting less and less wrong linearly.  The one that says Ptolemy was a total dolt, and everyone who believed his geocentric model of the universe even after Copernicus came along was an even bigger dolt who was blind to the evidence.  That one.

Spoiler alert: yes, there are such flaws.  Neil deGrasse Tyson sheds a single tear.  All hope is lost.  Philosophers have gone and done that thing where they add nuance to stuff.

But anyway, one matter in particular from this book that has stuck with me is the parallel Kuhn draws between scientific and political revolutions – specifically in the sense that thinkers on opposing sides (here called “paradigms,” and yes, that word leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, I’m sorry) are in a sense doomed to “talk through” each other.  That is, Kuhn suggests that the opposing thinkers can’t hope to persuade one another, to the extent that their standards of a successful scientific or political theory are themselves in dispute.  His exact argument is of course much more complicated than this, but the gist of it is that these debates couldn’t necessarily be resolved if only both parties just saw the light, looked at the facts objectively, pointed to values (of societal health or scientific validity, respectively) they share, and assessed which set of ideas fit the facts and fulfilled those values better.

This divide in values, especially, struck me as a disturbing possibility, even though it’s one that I’ve considered often as I’ve become more politically engaged.  On my most optimistic days, I assume that at bottom, everyone really wants the same outcome for society.  I assume that everyone wants to live in a world where people are as happy, free, equally powerful, peaceful, and cooperative as possible.  I assume that underlying every memeworthy screed by Alex Jones, every mighty mighty revcom chant, every Ayn Rand polemic, every oh-so-enlightened centrist, every bleeding-heart liberal, and yes, even every proud subscriber to Make America Great Again hat chic, there is a desire for that world I described.  I assume that the diversity of this political landscape arises from differences in interpretation of reality (and make no mistake, some of these interpretations can be horribly wrong and unjustified; I’m not going Full Relativist here), and differing beliefs about the methods by which that ideal world could be actualized.

But that isn’t so obviously true.  The clearest problem with this view is that even if everyone values happiness, freedom, balance of power, peace, and cooperation, people will assign different priorities to these ideals in a world where they practically come into conflict.  Consider the Patriot Act, for example.  It’s possible that its supporters and critics just differ in their degree of education on the actual risks and rewards of such legislation – but it’s also possible that no matter how much you bridge the information gap, you’ll find that some Americans simply would rather live with more security than freedom/privacy (spare me the Ben Franklin quote; the very concept of society rests on the sacrifice of freedom for security, and there’s nothing in principle wrong with that as long as the security is genuine), or vice versa.

And this is to say nothing of the possibility that some people may have fundamental values that others simply do not have to an appreciable degree.  I take Jonathan Haidt’s work as a grain of salt, in light of his irritating tendency to come across as a moderate who “just wants the right and left to get along, mannnnn.”  But his surveys on the moral attitudes of people of different political persuasions are compelling.  I’m not a conservative, and as Haidt’s research would predict, I honestly don’t care about sanctity, respecting authority for authority’s sake, or loyalty for loyalty’s sake.  Veneration of the American flag hasn’t really resonated with me for as long as I can remember thinking about this issue, and although I used to be religious and know what it’s like to value the sacred, I simply no longer have that experience after years of no longer finding my prior religious convictions believable.  I don’t understand the fetishism with which many Americans “respect the office of the President” or consider it far more immoral for those under authority to disrespect authority figures than the other way around (even something as small as calling a parent by their first name, or not using the title “doctor” for someone with certain academic credentials, is regarded with unspeakable horror).  And to the extent that I’m loyal to people or to a nation, this is only as far as they merit that loyalty by being kind, trustworthy, and respectful.

If those principles are irreducible to anything resembling a desire for a society that is happy and free, then there’s always going to be some degree of political disconnect between me and the people who hold them.  That’s an unsettling prospect, although perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprising one.  Many (if not all) political revolutions, even ones that most Americans hold dear, were won because – at least in part – the side with a certain web of values was more powerful than the side with other values.  Persuasion had little to do with it.

Then there’s the “happiness” question, and now it’s time to go Full Philosophy-Geek-Who-Actually-Has-Only-Read-a-Relatively-Modest-Amount-of-Philosophy.  So sorry if your eyes glaze over.  I would argue that the values I listed above, which define the society that seems uncontroversially desirable in my estimation (and maybe this is horribly solipsistic of me, I’m not sure), are only really valuable as means to happiness for all.

Yes, utilitarianism.

Gasp.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and I should preface these remarks by noting that I’m not a philosopher, so my views on this matter are rather sketchy – as are those of every non-philosopher, of course, so if I’m getting something wrong here, that doesn’t mean that non-utilitarians are off the hook from justifying their own philosophical assumptions in politics.  I’m also quite aware of the significant objections to utilitarianism, none of which I’ve fully resolved, but I’ve found (provisionally) that they aren’t so problematic as to outweigh the advantages over the alternatives I’ve considered.  For what it’s worth, however, here’s the line of reasoning I’m following, and (eventually) the problems it poses regarding my ability to reach common ground with other people.

I’m taking it as axiomatic that the goal of politics should be to actualize a world that is a “better place” for any given person, and for as many people as possible.  That statement is both incredibly vacuous, since of course “better” is preferable by definition, and incredibly problematic in its own right, since it’s not clear what the implications of “as many people as possible” are.  On the latter point, the problem comes in forms such as the question, “Is a world that is 20 times better for one person more or less preferable than a world that is 2 times better for five people (assuming we can quantify ‘better’-ness, which is another huge problem to unpack)?”  If you don’t feel like sleeping tonight, check out the repugnant conclusion, for example (which is marketed as a dilemma for utilitarians, but it really seems to apply to every moral philosophy in some sense; you could replace happiness/suffering with some measure of rights respected/violated, for example).  I might write a separate post about that thought experiment.

There’s also the matter of “any given person,” which may not sit well with the egoists in the room.  Clearly, it’s not easy to give consideration to all people’s well-being, and we often act as if we don’t care about the consequences of our actions for people outside our particular social spheres.  But the fact is that I do care about all people (and sentient beings generally), and I’m not saying this to earn a cookie.  “Caring” is cheap without action.  I’m just trying to make it clear that making the world better for all people is my ideal, and it’s probably yours, too.  If it’s not, well, we’re back to the whole problem of values dissonance.  There’s nothing I could say that could convince you.

Let’s set these considerations aside for a bit (read: until I say so, because this is my blog and I am the leviathan, neener-neener).  If “better place” seems utterly trivial, I assure you I have a reason for addressing this.  I think it’s important to ground ourselves in this starting point, as trivial as it is, because I’ve encountered situations in which people (including myself) find themselves defending moral claims that are divorced from any actual goal of making people’s lives better.  And this is probably a result of the process of fetishizing moral intuition or authority, leading people to call certain actions wrong because they’re just “obviously wrong” or “feel” wrong.  Whatever “better place” means to you, if a moral principle doesn’t help achieve that, why bother holding it?

Assuming this is uncontroversial so far, the obvious next question is, how do we conceive of “better”?  A good starting point would be to consider one’s personal history of experience (as well as human history generally), and look at what the elements of a preferable life are.  The particular manifestations of these elements will of course differ among individuals.  Speaking for myself, my life gets “better” to the extent that I:

  • develop strong friendships and other relationships with people I trust
  • engage in activities that are productive, that grant me opportunities to exercise my abilities toward some aim that is challenging yet achievable, and to provide something useful to other people
  • can access and immerse myself in the arts and natural beauty, and aesthetically pleasant experiences in general
  • feel consistently physically energetic and healthy, free of pain, and emotionally heightened (through humor and fascination with the world)
  • find consistent intellectual stimulation

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start.  It should be clear that I’m not a stereotypical hedonist.  I’m well aware that what I may think is going to make my life more preferable (“better”) often does not.  Still, even though I haven’t lived terribly long, I’ve lived long enough to notice some patterns in the properties of existence that make it suck less, and those properties go beyond “pleasure” in the sense that connotes short-term gratification.

But do they go beyond happiness?

This post has gotten rather long, so I’ll try to answer that next time.  I’m such a tease, I know.