Friday, June 24, 2011

Conservative and libertarian

Though much philosophical and ideological debate, polemic and argument can seem like a waste of time (and frankly much of it is), there will always be a place for it if only as an intellectual safety valve or as the mark of a free society. But can such debate be a truth-seeking activity?

Worldviews or ideologies are a mixture of facts (or purported facts) and (inevitably subjective) values. They can be partially assessed in terms of the facts (or falsehoods) they rely on, in terms of how well they reflect social and psychological realities, and also in terms of internal consistency or coherence.

Though internal consistency doesn't necessarily imply truth, testing coherence can serve a useful (if limited) purpose. Amongst those whose ideas are different but close, discussion can be productive. If I generally think like you but we disagree about this or that, I might be inclined to look again at those issues from your point of view, and you from mine. Two minds which are fairly close trying to reconcile areas of disagreement are not unlike one person finding incompatible elements in his own thinking and trying to bring them into some kind of harmony. There are certainly circumstances when explicitly setting out one's ideas in writing or in a discussion does make a difference.

Such clarifying discourse, however, is pretty rare, as most of the time - whether we mean to or not - we are just playing games, scoring points, defending long held points of view without really putting our beliefs on the line. And these problems are magnified when the setting is institutional and the participants are professional scholars.

The sciences are tethered to reality by strict conventions and procedures. Predictions are made and tested. Adverse results may often be explained away, but adverse results do make a dent in the credibility of those who support the theory in question. By contrast, in non-empirical areas (mathematics is a special case and can be seen as quasi-empirical in fact) the prizes go to those with the most persuasive manners, the most dogged commitment to scholarly tasks (and to writing grant applications), and the most influential friends and allies. Truth has little to do with it, and the proliferation of theories of human rights, justice, morality, equality, etc. is just about as far from science (which is marked over time by drastic pruning and convergence) as it is possible to get.

There is also the unfortunate fact that scholars with left-wing or (so-called) progressive views have, to a large extent, taken over the teaching of the humanities in universities as well as most of the important journals. One example: a preference for "creative" and "novel" approaches by the Journal of Social Philosophy is combined with a clear left-wing bias. The journal, edited by Carol C. Gould, "seeks to publish creative approaches to practical and normative issues ... such as those arising from economic and other forms of globalization, violent political conflict, and the multiplicity of cultural experiences worldwide." It "gives priority to the development of novel theoretical frameworks from social ontology to care ethics to cosmopolitan theories of democracy, human rights and global justice."

So is social philosophy just a cover for ideological posturing and empty talk? Not necessarily. But, clearly, the sort of thing promoted as social philosophy by the Journal of Social Philosophy is far too influenced by current ideological fashions. It is all too easy covertly or unwittingly to build values and biases into theories and models in the humanities, and the "novel theoretical frameworks" being sought are sure to be shot through with implicit values. A different style of social philosophy could, though, usefully identify hidden values and biases in social scientific research. Scientific disciplines must eschew values if they are to be truly scientific but reflection on such disciplines can legitimately incorporate substantive and explicit discussion of values as a central element.

System building in social philosophy and related areas is problematic. The countless systems and theories which have been elaborated are just so many incompatible and ultimately crude attempts to encapsulate the immense complexity of social reality into a linguistic construct - thin and static models of a dynamic world. (Computer simulations may, however, manage to capture important aspects of social reality.)

For me, then, social philosophy is mainly critical and analytical, but it can also involve the articulation of principles, directions, ideals and preferences.

The tradition of social thought which I favor draws on both conservatism and libertarianism because these currents of thought not only - as I see it - reflect the realities and the possibilities of human nature, but also because they do not appeal to grievances and resentments as leftist ideologies tend to do. Conservatives respect the cockeyed wisdom of tradition, libertarians the rationality of ordinary people (imperfect though it is and we are).

Both conservatives and libertarians embrace the present and, though they look to the future and hope, they do not, like radical leftists, look for salvation there... Life - when all is said and done - is good.