Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Plato Quote

When the few … [who] have glimpsed the joy and happiness to be found in mastering philosophy and have gained a clear enough impression of the madness of the masses; when they have realized that more or less every political action is pernicious and that if someone tries to assist morality there will be no one to back him up and see that he comes out unscathed, but it would be like an encounter between a human being and a wild beast; since he isn’t prepared to join others in their immorality and isn’t capable all alone, of standing up to all those ferocious beasts, but would die before doing his community or friends any good, and so would be useless to himself and to everyone else – once he has grasped all this with his rational mind, he lies low and does only what he’s meant to do. It’s as if he’s taken shelter under a wall during a storm … lawlessness infects everyone else he sees, so he is content if he can find a way to live his life here on earth without becoming tainted by immoral or unjust deeds, and to depart from life confidently, and without anger and bitterness.

Republic, trans. Robin Waterfield, 496c-e

Monday, January 19, 2009

Experimentation, Conservatism, Human Nature

Nothing in the previous post should be taken to exclude the viability of experimentation with new ways of life. Prudence doesn't rule it out. Conservatism doesn't rule it out. Human nature doesn't rule it out but, on the contrary, sanctions it as a treasure trove which invites us to plumb its depths.

Of course, prudence and conservatism lead one to be significantly cautious with such experimentation. Where one crosses the terrain from the merely imaginative and intrepid into the territory of the incautious, reckless and foolish need not concern us here. You'll know it when you see it, I hope. If not, you'll learn the hard way.

But while experimentation isn't ruled out, fetishism is. It is the clinging to a certain agenda of social change against compelling reasons derived by prudential inspection of history and human nature. Imagining a state of affairs which is perhaps happy in some respect, the zealot ignores the variety of ways in which it will be miserable and he presses on. Again and again. In our unhappiness, discontent, ingratitude, stupidity and ignorance, we follow him. Again and again.

Whereas the fetishist's rhetoric is the mere semblance of prudent deliberation, his agenda for social change is the mere semblance of true experimentation. He doesn't really experiment, because experiment has the goal of testing new ways against human nature in order to find new ways of attaining good lives in it. The fetishist fantasizes a new society which isn't really human in nature and in which he is the puppet master. Dont be fooled.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Conservatism and Human Nature

We'll proceed with our series. At this point, a little note.

We have a nature: a set of dispositions to desire certain ways of living and a set of functional dispositions. We like wine and a little sunshine. We are such that we sleep about eight hours every day, build things with our hands and with tools, and thrive with exercise and a balanced diet. We don't take to the surface of the moon, to counting grains of rice until death overcomes us, or to doing without any sleep.

It is conservative to embrace a set of values which map onto these facts of our nature or at least reflect them well enough to promote our flourishing in keeping with them. Deliberation enters into things where preference must be determined amongst conflicting inclinations or functional attributes which cannot all be fulfilled. Besides the establishment of the relevant non-moral facts, conservative deliberation aims at predicting which course will satisfy as many of the stronger vectors of our nature as possible. It doesn't fetishize any single inclination and neglect others which may be stronger, more long-lived and more numerous. It is prudence. The fetishism of a single value over others is a semblance of deliberation. It argues that the other values must be neglected because they interfere with the fetish, but this is only similar to true deliberation and not the same. It is willing to embrace courses which lead to ruination because it promises that human nature may be changed or ignored so that the ruination never occurs. The preference for genuine deliberation, on the other hand, is prudence.

I've slipped from "conservative deliberation" to "genuine, true deliberation." There is no difference, and if you think otherwise, you're mistaking the semblance for the real thing. There is nothing that would count as evidence that a course of behavior or way of life that went against what we know to be true about our nature and our set of time-honored, human-nature-tested and cherished values was the right course or a good way of life. For the only kind of thing that counts as evidence in these matters is what we prefer, what suits us.