Friday, September 6, 2013

Context is everything

I am making a few changes to the summary of my political and social views which previously appeared as a permanent page on this site (and will repost it soon). [Update (September 9): revised version of my 'Sketch of a social philosophy' is now posted.]

Manifestos and lists of principles and so on are always somewhat arbitrary and inadequate, and my attempts at this sort of thing should always be taken as the rough and very provisional sketches that they are.

My thinking has evolved in the last couple of years in a couple of respects. I have come to see general political orientation less as a thing one chooses and more in terms of deep psychological dispositions – and consequently have been less inclined to talk about conservatism than about conservative approaches to this or that. (See 'The adjective not the noun'.)

Also, there has always been an implicit tension between conservative politics and classical liberalism even if many advocates of free markets identify as, and are seen as, conservatives. I have always felt and continue to feel this tension, and have not really found a way to deal with it, except to note that markets don't exist in a social vacuum and so are never actually free.

In a sophisticated society markets depend on a framework of law and enforcement as well as upon moral norms. But clearly they function best in a cohesive society with strong moral norms and values (so that the legal framework has less work to do and can afford to be less onerous).

Another recurring theme (for me) and point of tension is the relationship between politics and religion. This is complicated by the fact that political ideology often draws upon and sometimes even functions as – to the extent of being almost indistinguishable from – religion.

This issue also has a lot to do with questions of how our brains function and are structured, and how, in the face of an indifferent and often hostile world, we have a tendency to seek out or construct ideologies which can offer us comfort, vindication and perhaps transcendence.

The worst mythologies and ideologies – those that cause the most strife and conflict – are the ones which involve one group imposing its beliefs and ways of doing things on others, of essentially dividing the population into opposing camps, the side of light and the side of darkness – such approaches being all to common in human history and all too common today.

The most obvious examples of this kind of thing have been – and are – explicitly associated with religions. But you can also, as I have suggested, plausibly interpret some secular ideologies in religious terms.

For example, non- or anti-religious left-wing belief systems are often, I think, little more than secularized versions of certain Biblical moral and social values and attitudes. I am thinking in particular of some of the prophetic writings and the New Testament where characteristic themes of justice and morality are combined with apocalyptic myths about cleansing fires and curses and devastating punishments and retributions and a new heaven and a new earth. Such myths clearly feed into modern notions of revolution and radical change.

Even moderate leftist positions derive from similar sources. And, though the left-leaning scientific community tends not to see it, today's tedious secular sermons about 'social justice' and human rights are firmly based on religious and metaphysical ideas.

There are of course genuine moral issues at play and social problems that need fixing. But mythologizing, metaphysicalizing and politicizing them only serves to create unnecessary division and confusion.

I detect religious elements also in classical liberalism.

Something I noticed when I was researching the European and American thinkers who came together in the 1930s to revive the principles of classical liberalism and who provide a kind of baseline for my social thinking was that, almost without exception, they were religious (or at least had a high regard for religion).

This attitude contrasted starkly with that, for example, of most of those associated with the Vienna Circle. The logical positivist movement was characterized not only by a distaste for metaphysics and, in most cases (Gödel and Wittgenstein were exceptions) religion, but also by left-leaning political views.

It's easy to understand why traditional conservatives – whose main defining characteristic is to put a high value on traditional ways of thinking and acting – would tend to value religion, but less clear why classical liberals (who tend to emphasize the importance of individual liberty, property rights and free markets) would tend to be religious.

A partial explanation may derive from the fact that most of those mid-twentieth century thinkers were also pretty conservative in various ways.

But similar patterns still apply today. The secular right is certainly not a crowded space in the political spectrum.

In fact, I see the very commitment of those on the libertarian and free-market right to individual liberty or freedom as having a religious source. Notions of free choice and free will have a central place in Western religious and philosophical thought, and were a central element in Renaissance humanism. Mankind had, on this view, an exalted status, and that status derived from the God-given gifts of freedom and creativity.

But unfortunately the modern scientific view (as I interpret it, at any rate) rejects such interpretations and sees the rhetoric of freedom and liberty as lacking a firm foundation.

There is a sense of freedom which is worth defending, but – as with all workable ideals and values – it is contingent and qualified.

Context is everything in these matters.


  1. You say that "I have come to see general political orientation less as a thing one chooses and more in terms of deep psychological dispositions – and consequently have been less inclined to talk about conservatism than about conservative approaches to this or that".

    Isn't the logical conclusion to be drawn from your premise that discussing politics and ideas generally is a pointless exercise?

  2. The 'consequently' was not meant in a purely logical sense. It's just that, as one becomes skeptical of ideologies as freely created and substantive intellectual structures, it seems natural to put the focus more on the general psychological tendencies which underlie ideological thinking and to favor more basic adjectival forms (like 'conservative') over abstractions (like 'conservatism').

    Also, what I said was very qualified (more so perhaps than in some previous posts). Note my very deliberate use of the terms 'less' and 'more'. And so, if I had to draw a logical conclusion from my premise, I would draw a slightly weaker one than you propose. (Perhaps something like:– Ideological discussion etc. will, on the whole, be less efficacious and productive than we would intuitively expect.)

  3. Unfortunately I have to agree with the last statement. And I have to agree that it is a puzzle. And, worse, there is not much evidence that education reduces ideological thinking, much as I would like to believe otherwise.

    I'm still hopeful that the teaching of thinking skills works to de-ideologise the ideologically blinkered or reinforce the non-ideological propensities that most of us have some of the time.

  4. Regarding education, my expectations are lower, my hopes even more modest than yours. I would be content if whatever was taught did not actually encourage partisan thinking.

  5. "The secular right is certainly not a crowded space in the political spectrum."

    Truly said. I suppose we should not expect it to be otherwise, given the natural partisanship of human beings. Once most people have picked a side, a team, they tend to back it in everything.

  6. For some more on context, enjoy this video from Non Stamp Collector:

  7. Potent stuff!

    In the traditions I am familiar with it was always understood that not all Biblical books were created equal, but one couldn't help noticing that even in the 'good' ones there were some passages which jarred badly. Such passages were sometimes interpreted or 'put into context' but more often just glossed over or ignored.