Monday, February 11, 2008

Balancing Ideals

I've noticed that people who favor the free market and the classical liberal style of discourse are often labeled as absolutist ideologues.

This happens because the people who hold to the Aristotelian tradition prefer to speak in clear statements.

People of the modern Hegelian tradition like to speak in paradox and with nebulous statements, for example a broad call for change. They also seem to relish nebulous conflicts like the culture war conflict between "conservative" and "liberal," when no-one really has a clear idea of what "conservative" or "liberal" means.

It is easy to fall in the trap and decide that those people who speak in clear statements are absolutist because their statements are clear, while those people who speak in new speak are open minded because their words have double meanings.

I think the reverse is true. When people speak clearly, their ideas stand out separately from the speaker. This allows the ideas to be analyzed and acted on or rejected based on the merit of the ideals. Meanwhile people who adopt a feely yet meaningless new speak often become compelled to dictate action.

When ideas are separated from the personality, we are in a better position to determine how the ideas interact.

So, one thing I've noticed is that thinkers who tend toward affirmative rationality also tend toward balance.

The Aristotelian tradition recognizes that for every virtue there is a corresponding vice. The vice generally occurs when a virtue is pushed to an extreme. Thinkers in this tradition value clear statements, but are always wary of absolutist policy.

I know that, for myself, I am against the death penalty, torture, abortion, and war. But I never take an absolutist stance against these negative policies. For example, I am not upset that President Bush authorized the waterboarding of three terrorist suspects in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack. There was, after all, every reason to believe that 9/11 and the anthrax attacks would be followed by a string of such actions.

I think it is possible that the fact there is a policy where coercive techniques can be elevated to the highest authority and approved reduces the likelihood that US agents engage in torture on their own.

It appears that most of the worst atrocities happen when people develop a complex thought process that forgives them the atrocity.

So, it seems to me the best situation is one where we strongly hold the ideal that torture should never be used, but that policy allows waterboarding to be used if elevated to the highest authority. When you allow policy to fall short of the ideal, you have a mechanism that accepts the imperfection of the human condition.

The alternative is this thing going on in Cuba where the progressive leader Castro claims that Cuba has never engaged in torture while there appears to be reason to think that Cuba has engaged in the practice.

IMHO, this process where we accept policy to be looser than ideals is the best approach to making things like torture, abortion rare, while attempts to make policy match ideals leads to intellectual dishonesty.

The process where one accepts a gap between policy and ideals also leads to a more vibrant debate where we are able to talk about the direction and how to get as close to our ideal as possible.

In many ways, I believe that this balanced idealism is the heart of the Republican Party. The prattling in the media about which Republican candidate is the most "conservative" is antithetical to the traditional principals of the Party of Lincoln.

I think Mitt Romney did a great thing by bowing out of the race early to avoid further fracturing of the Republican Party.

The very fact that John McCain has a long history of compromising ideals to create bipartisan policy is actually a very good thing.


Scott Hinrichs said...

Thanks for this post. Your affirmative rationality link is broken, but I was able to find several very good sites that address the topic.

Absolutist positions deny the complexity of reality. But policies that try to address every possible extremity end up being little more than mealy mush. The best way to address complexity in public policy is to put governmental functions and decision making at the closest possible proximity to the actual need being addressed.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the heads up on the link.

Complexity is an interesting topic.

Mathematically, you can create extremely complex structures with a very small rule set.

I think the best way for government to work is to have a small rule set but to have sufficient leniency in the rule set to avoid absolutism.

BTW, I am signing this with the Google Name/URL option to see what it does.