Commentary Magazine


Topic: philosophy

Why Politics Matters

My Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin, who edits the quarterly National Affairs, recently was interviewed by William Kristol as part of his “Conversations With” series.

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My Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin, who edits the quarterly National Affairs, recently was interviewed by William Kristol as part of his “Conversations With” series.

In the course of their conversation Mr. Levin, in speaking about policy, says it’s about problem-solving–not ultimate problems but practical ones. This is vital in allowing a society to function well and to become its best self. And he added this:

Politics in the end is moved by arguments. The intellectual work does matter. I think it does absolutely shape outcomes. But it happens in a way that relies on a kind of food chain. Things have to move through our intellectual world and it doesn’t move directly from that kind of work to policymaking; there has to be some time to digest, to think it through. I think that happens on a lot of important issues in our politics. So I am impressed with how ideas move politics but you know it’s not a direct process. Not a simple one.

This is vital to remember. In thinking about politics, after all, people are frustrated with the gridlock and the conflict, the deal-making, the maneuvering, and the mundane. They are disenchanted with the pace and direction of change and those who are in public life for personal aggrandizement. Americans are frustrated and angry with politicians, with politics, and with one another. And so it’s important to remind ourselves, as Levin does, that politics is moved by arguments–haltingly, imperfectly, but inevitably.

(It’s probably worth adding here, if only as a side note, that in America we tend to romanticize our past. Even the Constitutional Convention of 1787–which featured the most extraordinary collection of political minds since ancient Athens–had its own low moments, frustrations and fierce, polarizing battles. It was one of our greatest founders, James Madison, who in Federalist #55 wrote, “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” And our greatest president, Lincoln, presided over a nation that was a good deal more polarized–lethally polarized–than ours is today. So some perspective is in order.)

There are several layers to public and political arguments. One of them is focused on hard facts and empirical data, on social science and different governing approaches related to a range of issues like crime, education, health care, welfare, economic growth, and social mobility.

But the other, deeper layer has to do with arguments grounded in political theory, dealing with matters like liberty and equality, individual responsibility and civic duty, justice and human dignity. The greatest practitioners of statecraft are able to make both sets of arguments–to show a mastery of public policy and the ability to articulate a public philosophy. To explain the means and the ends of government and the good society.

At the core of every social, political, and economic system is a picture of human nature, to paraphrase the 20th century columnist Walter Lippmann. The way that picture developments determines the lives we lead, the institutions we build, and the civilization we create. The political philosophy of Madison produces one set of results; the political philosophy of Marx produces another. So yes: ideas move politics in one direction or the other, toward justice or away from it. Like all things human, it’s imperfect, frustrating, and fraught with failure. It’s a long, hard grind. And it’s not always aesthetically pleasing. But cynicism that leads to political disengagement–the world-weary, pox-on-both-your-houses, what difference does it make, I don’t give a damn attitude that seems rather fashionable and trendy these days–can lead to disaster. Because someone’s ideas will prevail. If ones that advance justice and human flourishing win out, it won’t be by accident or by default. It’ll be the product of determined effort; of those who do not grow weary in doing good.

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Why We Dehumanize Political Opponents

The Village Voice publishes a weekly blog in which the musician and entertainer Andrew Fetterly Wilkes-Krier – better known by his stage name Andrew W.K. – takes questions from readers. A recent exchange caught my attention, starting with a letter in which the correspondent complained that the author’s father is a “super right-wing conservative who has basically turned into a total assho*e intent on ruining our relationship and our planet with his politics.”

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The Village Voice publishes a weekly blog in which the musician and entertainer Andrew Fetterly Wilkes-Krier – better known by his stage name Andrew W.K. – takes questions from readers. A recent exchange caught my attention, starting with a letter in which the correspondent complained that the author’s father is a “super right-wing conservative who has basically turned into a total assho*e intent on ruining our relationship and our planet with his politics.”

The reader, a self-described liberal Democrat with very progressive values, writes, “I know that people like my dad are going to destroy us all. I don’t have any good times with him anymore. All we do is argue…. I love him no matter what, but how do I explain to him that his politics are turning him into a monster, destroying the environment, and pushing away the people who care about him?”

Andrew W.K. responded this way: “Try to find a single instance where you referred to your dad as a human being, a person, or a man. There isn’t one. You’ve reduced your father — the person who created you — to a set of beliefs and political views and how it relates to you.” He adds

You’ve also reduced yourself to a set of opposing views, and reduced your relationship with him to a fight between the two. The humanity has been reduced to nothingness and all that’s left in its place is an argument that can never really be won. And even if one side did win, it probably wouldn’t satisfy the deeper desire to be in a state of inflamed passionate conflict…. The world is being hurt and damaged by one group of people believing they’re truly better people than the others who think differently.

I should say here that I dissent from some of what Andrew W.K. says, including this statement: “No matter how bad someone may appear, they are truly no worse than us. Our beliefs and behavior don’t make us fundamentally better than others, no matter how satisfying it is to believe otherwise.”

This assertion cannot be true. Some people who appear bad actually are bad. It is precisely the beliefs and behavior of Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jon-Il, Bashar al-Assad, Idi Amin, Khaled Mashaal, Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – of Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Timothy McVeigh and countless others — that make them fundamentally worse than you or I. Some individuals really and truly are monsters.

But where I think he is on to something important is how many of us allow reasonable but pronounced political differences to dissolve human bonds. How politics and life are fairly complicated matters that we’re tempted to reduce to simplistic formulas. And how we often assume our vantage point is the only valid one and make very little effort to see things from the point of view of those with whom we most disagree. Andrew W.K. writes, “We cling to the hope that some day, if we really refine our world view and beliefs, we can actually find the fully correct way to think — the absolute truth and final side to stand on.”

This called to mind a recent conversation I had in which I found myself observing that there’s a crucial distinction that’s sometimes lost on me and among people whom I know, including those within my faith community.

It’s the distinction between believing in objective truth and believing we can fully apprehend and access it. As my friend put it, “I believe in objective truth, but I hold more lightly to our ability to perceive truth.” His wife added that she’s found we need to learn to live with greater humility, to live with open hands, faithfully seeking truth without constantly demanding certitude.

I’m fully aware of the danger this can introduce: relativism. The perspective I’m offering, if over-interpreted, can drain us of our convictions, making us less willing to fight for things that are worth fighting for. It can lead us into a world of existential confusion and ultimately, despair.

There’s no hard-and-fast rule that will help us find just the right setting between unwarranted assurance and unwarranted uncertainty. We can all come up with scenarios in which each one, at the wrong time, can lead to disaster. What we need depends in large part on where we stand and what our predisposition, our default position, is.

I will say that most people who inhabit the worlds in which I travel in – the worlds of politics, political philosophy and theology — lean too much in the direction of assuming we know the full truth as against leaning too much in the direction of having little confidence we can ascertain any of the truth. We therefore tend to ignore evidence that challenges our assumptions and resist honest self-examination. We spend all of our time defending what we deem to be the truth; as a result, we have almost no time to actually reflect on it and refine our views of it.

“What I want in our students,” my good and wise friend told me, “and what I admire are people who are teachable, who are open to arguments, who make room for other perspectives.”

People of a certain cast of mind will roll their eyes at such words. They are the ones who most need to hear them.

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The Nobility of Politics

William Kristol, among his many duties, hosts Conversations with Bill Kristol, which feature in-depth conversations with leading figures in American public life. (The interviews are sponsored by the Foundation for Constitutional Government, a not-for-profit organization devoted to supporting the serious study of politics and political philosophy.) Among those interviewed by Kristol are Elliott Abrams, Leon and Amy Kass, Charles Murray, and Harvey Mansfield.

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William Kristol, among his many duties, hosts Conversations with Bill Kristol, which feature in-depth conversations with leading figures in American public life. (The interviews are sponsored by the Foundation for Constitutional Government, a not-for-profit organization devoted to supporting the serious study of politics and political philosophy.) Among those interviewed by Kristol are Elliott Abrams, Leon and Amy Kass, Charles Murray, and Harvey Mansfield.

My intention is to eventually focus on each of the conversations, which are fascinating. But I want to start with the discussion Kristol had with his former teacher, Dr. Mansfield, a longtime professor of political philosophy at Harvard.

Professor Mansfield started out intending to be a political scientist but moved to political philosophy. A teacher of Mansfield’s, Sam Beer, convinced him that political science needed a theoretical background, a foundation underneath it. As an undergraduate, Mansfield concluded that:

political science was not enough by itself because it doesn’t judge. When you study facts, facts ask to be judged. A fact presents itself as something, which is either good or bad – and people who deal with facts either deserve to be praised or blamed.

It doesn’t seem really possible to stop and say, “I’m not going to be concerned with evaluation.” Political philosophy is concerned with evaluation because political facts aren’t sufficient by themselves and they ask to be judged.

This is quite a crucial point; it is what’s known in philosophy as the facts-value distinction, in which facts are considered “what is” and values are “what ought to be.” Facts may be true and explain the material world, but they can’t see beyond the material to help us understand the good, the beautiful and the true. They can’t elucidate what is justice and why human beings have inherent dignity. Facts alone can’t impart wisdom or explain what is right and moral. They can’t quite make sense of statements like “My kingdom is not of this world” and “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

One of the distinctions between the ancients and the moderns–with Machiavelli being considered the founder of modern political philosophy–is that the former, most especially Plato and Aristotle, were more concerned with “the invisible standing behind the visible and necessary to it,” in Mansfield’s words. In Book VII of Aristotle’s Politics, for example, we’re told about the primacy of the good of the soul and that “the best way of life, both for states and for individuals, is the life of goodness.” Moderns, on the other hand, begin from what is visible and are never really able to transcend it.

To be sure, in politics, as in life, facts matter. We can’t operate in our own universe; we have to lead our lives within the four corners of reality. Politics, then, is about respecting facts and being empirically minded. But politics rightly understood is also about ascertaining what the good life and the proper end of the state are. Political philosophy should not aim for the “transvaluation of values”; its aim should be promoting virtue (arête) and human flourishing (eudaimonia).

In speaking about Aristotle, Professor Mansfield says this:

he much more criticizes Plato than, I think, is necessary for him to do. And this too is perhaps a kind of stance on Aristotle’s part to show that Plato had this failing – or maybe it isn’t altogether a failing – of giving too low a view of politics. Politics deserves – there’s a certain nobility to it, in fact, a terrific nobility to it.

And, so Aristotle wanted to bring to our attention the splendor of politics and of the moral virtue that people show in politics. And he thought that Plato had not done this sufficiently. And, so on every page, so to speak, there is a kind of critique of Plato and then Aristotle’s Ethics – there’s an, actually, statement of disagreement with his revered teacher, which he says that he loves his friend, but he loves the truth more, the most beautiful kind of criticism you could give or get.

The nobility and splendor of politics is often obscured; that is the product of being broken people, often passionately holding competing points of view, imperfectly trying to order our lives together. Yet at its deepest level, beneath all the conflict and noise and triviality, there is–there has been, there can be–an ennoblement to politics. From time to time it can bend the arc of the moral universe a bit closer toward justice, make life a little more decent, treat people somewhat more humanely. And that’s actually something worth reminding ourselves about now and then, as Professor Mansfield and his former student Bill Kristol do in their splendid conversation.

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Sam Harris Won’t Change His Mind. But Neither Will Most of the Rest of Us.

Jonathan Haidt is a leading social psychologist. Earlier this month he wrote a fascinating article on why the “New Atheist” Sam Harris won’t change his mind.

Here’s the context: Mr. Harris said he would personally pay $10,000 to anyone who submits an essay so logically compelling that it makes him change his mind and renounce his views. Professor Haidt in turn said he would pay Harris $10,000 if anyone could convince Harris to renounce his views. Haidt’s confidence has little to do with the quality (or lack thereof) of the arguments opposed to Harris; it rests instead on Harris’s dogmatism.

What Haidt found in analyzing the works of Harris is that he’s a person who is so deeply committed to his point of view–his investment in his outlook and attitudes are so central to his self-understanding–that no set of arguments, however persuasive, could cause Harris to rethink his previous positions.

If it’s any comfort to Harris, he has a lot of company. In his article Haidt echoes a theme he’s written on before–the enormous power “motivated reasoning” and “confirmation bias” have in our lives.

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Jonathan Haidt is a leading social psychologist. Earlier this month he wrote a fascinating article on why the “New Atheist” Sam Harris won’t change his mind.

Here’s the context: Mr. Harris said he would personally pay $10,000 to anyone who submits an essay so logically compelling that it makes him change his mind and renounce his views. Professor Haidt in turn said he would pay Harris $10,000 if anyone could convince Harris to renounce his views. Haidt’s confidence has little to do with the quality (or lack thereof) of the arguments opposed to Harris; it rests instead on Harris’s dogmatism.

What Haidt found in analyzing the works of Harris is that he’s a person who is so deeply committed to his point of view–his investment in his outlook and attitudes are so central to his self-understanding–that no set of arguments, however persuasive, could cause Harris to rethink his previous positions.

If it’s any comfort to Harris, he has a lot of company. In his article Haidt echoes a theme he’s written on before–the enormous power “motivated reasoning” and “confirmation bias” have in our lives.

“People deploy their reasoning powers to find support for what they want to believe,” he writes. “Nobody has yet found a way to ‘debias’ people—to train people to look for evidence on the other side—once emotions or self-interest are activated.” Haidt says that his own area of research, moral judgment, makes it clear that “people make judgments of right and wrong almost instantly, and then make up supporting reasons later.” David Hume was right when he said that reason was “the slave of the passions” rather than its charioteer.

Haidt observes, too, that “disconfirmation”–being open to having one’s views challenged, learning from this experience, and as a result improving one’s reasoning–depends in part on social relationships. “We engage with friends and colleagues, but we reject any critique from our enemies,” he writes. “Relationships open hearts, and open hearts open minds.”

This doesn’t mean reason doesn’t have a vital role to play or that some individuals aren’t capable of more self-detachment than others. And in terms of Harris’s atheism, Haidt would agree with me, I think, that his arguments about morality, science, and faith still need to be confronted even if Harris harbors great antipathy for religion which skews his judgments.

That said, the core argument made by Haidt is an important one. Assume you believe, as I do, that grounding our views in moral intuitions and what Burke referred to (in an uncritical way) as “prejudice” is entirely legitimate. It’s still the case for many of us that in all sorts of areas–including religion, politics, and philosophy–we subordinate intellectual honesty in order to ratify our pre-existing opinions. We’ve settled on what we believe is the right and true answer; everything after that consists of confirming what we believe.

We all engage in this to some extent; it’s a matter of degree, of whether we’re able to absorb, let alone dispassionately examine, evidence that challenges our presuppositions. That’s true of Sam Harris–and it’s true of me. He has his biases and predilections, I have mine, and you have yours. The question, really, is whether we recognize them and what we do with them. Are they instruments or obstacles to ascertaining the reality of things? 

It’s fair to say, I think, that one of the gifts we sometimes receive in life is to have people who have standing in our lives alert us to our blind spots–and, in the process, gently remind us that searching for truth requires us from time to time to reexamine and refine our assumptions. If you think it’s easy or common, just ask yourself the last time you did it. 

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Metaphysics and Politics in the Modern Age

In a National Affairs essay, my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague George Weigel writes about the importance of metaphysics to our political and social life. 

According to Weigel, “there is a morally significant givenness to reality: a structure of The Way Things Are that can be discerned by reason and that, being known, disclosed certain truths about the way we should live.” He goes on to argue that “public policy that fosters individual human flourishing and the common good must take account of reality, and realities”–but worries that a “post-modern insouciance” about the deep truths embedded in the world and in us is having, and will continue to have, profoundly harmful effects on American society. We live in a time in which everything is up for grabs, in which many people view the human condition as plastic and malleable, and that “in a culture without metaphysics, the one trump card in public life becomes individual willfulness.”

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In a National Affairs essay, my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague George Weigel writes about the importance of metaphysics to our political and social life. 

According to Weigel, “there is a morally significant givenness to reality: a structure of The Way Things Are that can be discerned by reason and that, being known, disclosed certain truths about the way we should live.” He goes on to argue that “public policy that fosters individual human flourishing and the common good must take account of reality, and realities”–but worries that a “post-modern insouciance” about the deep truths embedded in the world and in us is having, and will continue to have, profoundly harmful effects on American society. We live in a time in which everything is up for grabs, in which many people view the human condition as plastic and malleable, and that “in a culture without metaphysics, the one trump card in public life becomes individual willfulness.”

In the similar vein, Ken Myers, host and creator of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, recently interviewed Adrian Pabst of the University of Kent on metaphysics. In the course of their discussion Myers pointed out that “our peculiarly modern disorders are tied to confusion regarding metaphysics.” Politics today typically excludes the question of the nature of things, he argues–and added that we falsely assume we can talk about things like wealth creation, justice, marriage and other matters without talking about what things are real and which are not. “Behind public policy is a vision of the common good,” according to Myers, “and behind a vision of the common good is a vision of the good.” What we need to do is retrieve metaphysics from the shadows if we hope to get things right.

I’m quite sympathetic to these arguments, including for entirely practical reasons. Because the suppositions we begin with determine the lives we lead, the laws we pass, the institutions we build, and the civilizations we create.

And so, for example, the architects of our Republic not only carefully studied history; they made judgments about human nature and designed a constitutional form of government around them. Men are not angels, but they are capable of virtue. We are capable of self-government but not to be trusted with absolute power. Adam Smith, a moral philosopher, believed capitalism depended on taking into account self-interest. It makes a world of difference, then, if we operate on the assumptions of Rousseau or Jefferson, Nietzsche or St. Paul, Marx or Madison.

Now it would be silly to expect ordinary Americans to sound like graduates of the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. At the same time, it really would help our political discourse if we paid a bit more attention to metaphysical premises, if for no other reason than to identify, with some precision, points of intellectual, moral and political departure. Doing this may not resolve our political conflicts, but it would go some distance toward clarifying them. And once having done that, we can then explain, hopefully with care and persuasiveness, that philosophical errors at the beginning can lead to human suffering at the end, just as getting things right at the outset can result in human flourishing and fulfillment.

As a well-known carpenter from the first century put it, you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.

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