Morality and Politics

One of the most frustrating parts about modern politics (and perhaps politics throughout history) is that it seems to me that behind the scenes, we are still duking it out over some of the oldest moral debates: is something moral because of its results (what we attribute to it), or is something moral in and of itself? In other words, do we construct moral principles or are moral principles discoverable objects of the universe?

It’s very easy to see this in political discourse. There are some certain groups of people who act purely egoistically, seeking their own personal gain and satisfaction purely, even at the expense of vast numbers of people. Think Charles and David Koch, Wall Street bankers, and a significant number of our politicians (if not all of them). There are other certain groups of people who discuss high-minded idealisms, seeking some sort of end goal in society through their political action. Think Occupy (yeah, I know), the Tea Party (yeah, I know), and all sorts of people across the spectrum who are involved in politics to effect some sort of change change in the system. I want to differentiate these two groups from the outset. The first group is purely selfish: the only change they ever seek is change which improves their own personal lot in life. They are nihilistic in the worst way. The other group, regardless of how you feel about their individual beliefs, is revolutionary. Rather than seeking to benefit only themselves, they seek to reach some end goal that they believe is morally better. It is, at least potentially, an altruistic goal.

I want to set aside the egoists for now. As far as I’m concerned, they should have no say in the political system, because we cannot trust their actions or their words. That’s a discussion for another time, though. Let’s focus on the altruists, who I believe are the majority (numerically speaking; by definition the egoists have more money). Within this group, I believe we find the moral debate I referenced in the first paragraph. You have the top-down ethicists (deontologists) who want to enact change based on a set of principles, regardless of their consequences. On the other hand, you have the bottom-up ethicists (consequentialists) who want to enact change based on results. There have been studies that compare people that have found evidence supporting the idea that we might be naturally deontologists or consquentialists, but that’s another discussion for another time. Moreover, I think studies like that might only lend some small amount of wisdom.

I will try to cut through a lot of the less important information and get to something resembling a point. What I conclude from this observation is that even if we adjust for the fact that moneyed interests (egoists) have influenced our political debate in their favor, it seems to me that change is very difficult to enact. This is because agreement is hard to come by. Those of us who argue for results-based policy have a hard time arguing against those who believe in principled policy, simply because a lot of the time we might want results that conflict with those principles. I do think that there is a way out, though. We need to agree on a new set of principles. Behind the scenes, I think that deontologists and consequentialists are secretly envious of the other side. Sometimes we engage in the other’s tactics in order to get our larger point across. In other words, we’re not as intellectually consistent as we pretend to be. Because of this, I think there’s an opening.

What principles should we agree upon? That’s a matter of debate, but I think there’s one that we must all agree upon. I think it’s non-negotiable. I think that without this principle, we are doomed to continually repeat the cycle of oppression and revolution that has existed throughout history. We must value human life above all else. I don’t mean human life in the categorical sense. I mean each individual human life. We must seek the maximization of every individual person. From this, I believe we get certain resultant principles: people shouldn’t harm one another, people shouldn’t seek personal gain at another’s expense, people should treat each other as equals, etc. I think this satisfies both the deontologists and the consequentialists, and if we argue from these principles (and we argue honestly!), we can reach some conclusions upon which we all agree.

It’s lofty. It’s kind of ridiculous, and it will likely not happen. I think it is at least possible, though, and that hope is worth my time and effort. I want to develop these ideas quite a bit further, but I think they should be considered.

Morality and Politics

Dissonance in Life

The modern mind is filled with incredible amounts of cognitive dissonance. We are inundated with incredible amounts of information, especially now in the era of the internet, to the point that I don’t know if our minds can fully cope. I don’t think this idea is particularly nuanced, but I also do not believe it is very common at all (at least in my own experience). I think one of the major flaws of human thinking throughout the millenia is that we tend to view our own systems of logic and reasoning to be inherently perfect. Even those who did not believe them to be perfect at least usually thought they are fairly reliable. However, such a belief is circular. Even my argument here is circular.

For this reason, then, I find that all human reasoning seems to be circular, at bottom. It is remarkably useful, though, and it at least appears to have a rather excellent track record when we test our reasoning against the world around us and against the reasoning of others. I do not consider this to be really a profound statement at all, but it is still quite humbling to know that, regardless of how intelligent I think I might be, my knowledge cannot be known to be truth. My beliefs are likely to be founded on shaky ground that I do not understand (ground which many of us, and in cases all of us, do not understand). It therefore is, I think, imperative to be glad to hear the thoughts of others, and especially those of people who also recognize the inherent uncertainty of human reasoning.

To return to my thoughts on cognitive dissonance, I believe that the modern society (primarily in the West, with which I am most familiar) is based on an ideal that is almost utopian in thought and militant in action. To preface, I have to mention that I am a major believer in technology, in learning, and in modernity. As much as I enjoy fantasy books, I also very much like to work with computers and to drive a car and have modern medicine. Given that, I also think that we should be careful with technology. Technology should not be an end in and of itself – it should serve the greater good. (I also believe that because we all, in our participation in the economy, enable the use of technology to increase production, should all benefit similarly from that increase in production. That is another topic for another time, though.) I grow concerned that we use the tool for its own sake rather than to benefit from it somehow. Whether that is because we naturally like bright screens or we like sitting around and not doing anything active, it is something we must recognize as detrimental to human health and happiness.

Being constantly hooked into the system, we are susceptible to cursory understanding of things, and therefore are likely to experience cognitive dissonance. We know that television is harmful to our health, but we also love to read culture articles raving about how great House of Cards is. To create a dissonance where we want to avoid television because it is harmful but we want to watch because it’s just so good seems to create almost an anxiety (or perhaps guilt) in people. Understanding that advertisements are meant to sucker us in, and then happily humming along to tune to the advertisement we just heard, is, I think, a form of cognitive dissonance. We recognize the purpose of an advertisement and many of us are able to rebuff it, but we still allow the advertisement to achieve its purpose. The same things are used in politics constantly. When we willfully participate and legitimize a political system we know is corrupt, we create a dissonance that makes us feel entirely helpless. Others happily participate and indeed feel like they are making a positive difference (and hopefully they are!), but often they have to push those feelings of helplessness aside. Perhaps I am wrong about many people, but I think for a significant number, these examples of cognitive dissonance are reality and they are huge problems.

I don’t myself know if the society is so corrupt that there is nothing to be done. Perhaps; perhaps not. I have found that rooting out cognitive dissonance in my own mind is highly encouraging and has helped me to be happier with the world we live in. At some point I would like to post also about my thoughts on human happiness, but I think that I will also save for another time. I do truly encourage you to begin to search for evidence of cognitive dissonance in your life and try to remove it. Being consistent in my mind and in my life has helped me to both be able to analyze the elements of society I encounter, to be a better person, and to simply be happier – a very human, very ethical goal.

Dissonance in Life

An irrational experience

One of the things that I tend to be lacking in is emotional understanding. Because I believe that my emotions are inherently irrational, I try to control them in order to reach my goals, rather than satisfy them. This is not to say that emotion is intrinsically bad, this is simply my preference. (In fact, if everyone acted like me, I imagine the world would be very boring indeed.) This is why I was confused earlier today when I had a rather intense emotional experience.

I was contemplating the thought of kids, potentially my own kids in the future, and how they would interact with the world. What do I want for them? What kinds of desires will they have, and will I have to bravery to help inspire and teach them how to reach their goals? Can I be confident and bold for my kids in the future? I realize it’s almost certainly a long way off for me, but long term ideas are my favorite ones to contemplate, so I won’t really address that point. My thoughts involve the dreams of children.

One of the most endearing things about children, at least in my opinion, is that they dream. They dream big, wide, and in great depth and detail. They have desires that transcend the imaginations that adults tend to have. Some people dismiss these dreams as being impractical, silly, and childish. While it may be true, I admire the idea of childlike dreams. A desire for what isn’t there motivates people to do great things, and I find that to be inspiring. I was thinking how terribly sad it is when a parent has to tell their child that no, they cannot be Superman. You cannot fly. You cannot save the world. You cannot dream.

However, I came to the conclusion that this doesn’t have to be it. We can still dream, even as we lose our childhoods. We needn’t forget what we really want out of the world. Yes, the world is certainly quite sub optimal (a major understatement). It is just that lack of perfection, though, that gives us the drive we need to achieve our dreams, though. I imagine that I will experience my own set of disappointments, setbacks, and kicks back into reality that cause me to doubt the premise I just stated. Indeed, I already have. It is just in these intense moments of realization, though, that we have the capability to make a difference. Perhaps not for ourselves. Perhaps not even for our children or our grandchildren, but for someone else. I find that incredibly inspiring, despite the pie-in-the-sky sound to it. I realize it’s hopelessly optimistic, but my dream is that there is dreaming. There is so much out there that can be done, and certainly none of us can accomplish big things on our own. Who would want to do it by themselves anyhow?

My convoluted thoughts on this idea are, I’m sure, not entirely clear. However, I hope that there is at least one other person out there who might share my sentiments. It is human ingenuity and drive that makes us unique and important. Right now, most of us spend our motivation on getting by, and I’m not criticizing that. Personal well-being is absolutely necessary in order to obtain the greater goal I hope to see someday. I desire to see a system where people don’t need to focus their drive on simply getting by – but to improve the human condition. A lot of people have called this the “happiness-based economy.” Whatever one wishes to name it, I see it as a noble goal. I may or may not get to see it in action, much less be involved in it. I want to see people able to dream big.

An irrational experience