Saturday, January 31, 2009

Thinking Beyond the Issues

I was organizing some files on my computer today and stumbled across some questions I had to answer for an application for an Institute for Humane Studies summer seminar last year. I took a glance at my answers and was struck by the quality of some of them. Sure, after a year more of school, there's several things I'd say a little differently now, but I loved the raw feel of this, so I thought I'd share:

The question:

Choose a political or social issue that is of importance to you and that you believe is of pressing concern. (This issue may be, but need not necessarily be, related to the topic of the seminar you wish to attend.) In 500 words or less, discuss why this issue is significant to those it affects and to the larger community or the world. What is the best way, in your view, to address this issue?

My answer:
One of the most important social issues today is that we can’t stop this silly talk about issues. This is rooted in a deeply impoverished view of human beings, political discourse, and the world in general. This view leads us to think in terms of “issues” rather than in terms of larger frameworks that provide reasons for thinking the way we do on particular matters. People will yell all day back and forth about their opinions about particular policy preferences, but it seems no one wants to have a calm discussion in which people give reasons for actual truth claims. It is extremely amusing and mildly disturbing to me that the one thing that most voters want to know about a candidate is “where he stands on the issues.” Far too few people bother to ask why a candidate stands where he does on the issues. The problem is that we just want someone who shares our policy preferences. We don’t want someone who can justify policy preferences.

The cause of this is simple: we’ve bought the great lie of the modern world: that I know what’s best for me and that’s what matters. We’ve stopped giving reasons. Our political science has reduced the concept of reason to a matter of getting what one wants. This is a sickly, impoverished view of human reason. We’ve abandoned the concept of the Good for the concepts of good which each individual has for himself. The human mind has become to us nothing more than a machine that we use to get what we want. There is no Truth to be discovered, no Good to be found and pursued. And without Truth and Good how do we deal with our conflicting aims, our incompatible conceptions of good? Ironically enough, we shove our conception of the good down one anothers’ throats. This shoving of preferences down throats is what we’ve made democracy. Democracy has become nothing more than people yelling “I like this, you should too,” and like a high school pep rally, whoever yells loudest wins.

How do we fix this? It’s simple but it’s not easy: we have to start having actual rational discourse. We have to start asking what is really Good, rather than what I like. We can’t keep yelling and we can’t give up. Many people seem to have decided that since moral discourse has become a yelling match, that’s all it will ever be. But we must talk about what is true and good and real. And the only way we can do that is if we stop shoving preferences down one another’s throats, both in the manner in which we discuss and in the policies which we pursue. The great irony is that if we ever stop bickering about preferences, and start talking about truth, we are much more likely to get a government which allows us to freely pursue our preferences. Wouldn’t it be beautiful if we could stop pointing the guns of the government to enforce mere preference, and start using the power of our minds to pursue truth?

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

"I took a glance at my answers and was struck by the quality of some of them."

Humble Libertarian, eh? ;)

W. E. Messamore said...

lol... he's humble enough not to forcibly push his personal convictions on anyone else (unlike most political activists on "both sides" today), but he leaves room for realistic assessment of his personal merits.

Ben, I would love to have seen the reaction of the person reading your response... you basically told them they asked the wrong question- and I would tend to agree with your assertion.

Ben Bryan said...

Actually, Wes, I expect that the person reading the response was quite pleased. I imagine most folks at the IHS are quite fond of thinking systematically and applying a larger framework to each issue, as you would expect of a libertarian organization, really built on ideas about freedom rather than preferences about particular issues. Sure, they are aware that principles must be applied to particular issues, but it is the principles that matter to them.

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