Friday, November 01, 2002

The Sweet Spot

Vodkapundit has said that he's "a Falwell-tweaking, gay-marriage supporting, drug legalizing, pro-abortion, pro-immigration, anti-trade barrier, wary-of-organized-religion kind of conservative. Hardly a conservative at all...."

Sounds good to me. But "wary"? Okay, wary. But I think organized religion is mostly good. You know, I'm one of those religion-liking atheists.

Here's what I'd like to add to the list: I'm a welfare-minimalist conservative. Conservatives of this stripe believe we have a duty to protect children from starvation and death by exposure, and that private charity won't suffice. Libertarianism is the extreme position that no one has a positive duty, a duty to help others (unless he has contracted to do so), or that, if we have such a duty, at least that the state may not force us to fulfill this duty by taxing us in order to provide a welfare net. Libertarians would cut the welfare net, with disastrous results. Libertarianism is thus radical, and welfare minimalism more conservative. (The "minimalism" refers to pretty austere welfare support. More on that later.) I don't know whether Vodkapundit is one of this sort of conservative.

This is not just silly semantics. There is a large set of values that we cherish and desire to uphold. It is radical to dispose of any of them in favor of any other, merely on the grounds that it's hard to satisfy them all. Better to take the tragic view that we must act in ways that maximize the satisfaction of as many of these values as we can. We will fail to fulfill many of them as much as we'd wish. Accept this tragedy. The conservative will stay the course, adhere to these cherished values and not desert any of them (unless shown that there is one that is flawed, such as "It's okay to enslave blacks.") This is the description of conservatism of the contemporary American philosopher John Kekes. More on Kekes later.

We moderate amongst our values. Why did Vodkapundit say he was hardly a conservative at all? Because he's a moderate. Why did he say he's a conservative? Because you have to be conservative to be moderate. No, I'm not kidding. (You're thinking of "reactionary". That's the stance of clinging to your values no matter what evidence comes in that you need to change them. That's "too conservative.") All moderates are conservatives. All interesting debates are amongst moderates trying to determine where the sweet spot is. Libertarians, leftists, and reactionaries will cling to only a few of our values and foresake the rest. That's a non-starter.

I'm also a back-to-basics-in-education conservative: math and science, history and civics, literature and Greek/Latin, and nothing else (okay, maybe some other stuff sparingly.) More on that later.

I'm also a who-cares-whether-one-race-is-statistically-inferior-to-another conservative. What if there were statistics to show that intelligence varied according to big toe size? So, what? More later.

Oh, yes, and Vodkapundit said something about being a paleofeminist. Yes, please! Women are to be treated with equal respect to men.

Coming this Fall on Philosoblog:
The Philosophy of John Adams
The Philosophy of John Kekes
The Poltical Philosophy of Paul Wellstone
Education, Assimilation, and Virtue
Welfare Minimalism

Libertarian premises: If you're a libertarian, make sure you have evidence that this is an absolute rule with no exceptions: "It's never okay to apply force to someone who has not applied force to anyone else." The idea that forced taxation is wrong would need to be proven on this premise. But what is the proof for this premise? The case of Fred forcing Joe (see the post below) seems to refute it by counterexample. Fred did nothing wrong.

Slippery slopes: Be careful with slippery slopes, such as the idea that believing that we have a duty to look after each other will lead to communism or fascism. Human beings are smart. They don't slip down slopes so easily. The belief that there is an important duty to look after the unfortunate is consistent with a belief in the free market, self-reliance, and private property. To say that these two beliefs are inconsistent is about as plausible as saying that valuing safety is inconsistent with ever leaving your house. If you value safety, you should never leave your house, right? Of course not. Does the sentence, “If we continue to make caring for others a moral duty, we’ll end up in a communist dictatorship,” have solid evidence for it? It seems wildly implausible to me. Caring for others has been a duty in Western culture for millennia.

Rules (there aren't any): There is a difference between adhering to moral rules (formulae which have no exceptions) and adhering to moral values without yielding. A moderate looks for the sweet spot - the determinations of which action or state of affairs will most fulfill our many moral values - and adheres to it without yielding. The analogy to safety: You want to be safe, but you want to go out and do worthwhile things that involve risk. So, you manage risk. It would be silly to say to someone who leaves his house from time to time that he doesn't really value safety. One can hold to the sweet spot absolutely, relentlessly, without holding to any rule or formula. As Aristotle said, our values are much too complicated to describe with rules or formulae. Distinguish being lax about one’s values from not subscribing to rules. You don’t subscribe to the rule “Always pick the safest option,” or “Never kill,” but if anything is a rule, those are. Even, “Never harm anyone who hasn’t harmed anyone else” isn’t a rule. The case of Fred forcing Joe is a counterexample. So is forcing Americans who do not want to pay any tax to pay it.

In sum, there are "rule absolutists," such as leftists and libertarians, who take the rules "equalize wealth" and "do not inhibit liberty," respectively, to be absolute rules, rules without exceptions. But why would someone cling to a rule and abandon all other values? On the other hand, there are conservatives (moderates, whatever): "sweet spot absolutists," who maintain absolute devotion to a large set of values arranged in a coherent system.