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Archive for the tag “John Stuart Mill”

The Relative Merits of Human Stupidity

The great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once wrote: “The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’.”

There is a philosophical debate started by the Utilitarian John Stuart Mill over whether ‘tis better to be a human dissatisfied or a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. The original argument regards how we can measure happiness, but I think it says something about intelligence as well. The human is more intelligent than the pig and Socrates is more intelligent than the fool. But how much does human intelligence really matter compared to other traits?

Biologically, humans developed specific types of intelligences in order to survive against predators on the savanna. These include increasingly complex communication that eventually developed into the only language ability in the animal kingdom; it also involves managing complex social interaction among groups of up to 100 or so individuals, a sort of cunning ability to manipulate objects to make tools (the root of “technology”), and a long-term memory that could instantly recall faces, paths, hundreds of plant and animal characteristics, and stories. These are still our most common varieties of intelligence, and probably not much more developed today than when they first appeared in our genetic ancestors a million years ago or so. There is even an argument that various “primitive” humans, neanderthals and the like, would have probably used, on average, more of their brains and more skills than the average modern Homo couch-potato.

You may have noticed that there are certain types of intelligence not on the above list. Higher-order thinking skills like critical thinking, abstract reasoning, long-term hypothetical planning, understanding philosophical issues, especially in the areas of ethics and politics. That is not to say that these things do not exist in humans–obviously they do–but that they evolved much later in our history and are not as important for our immediate survival. Basically, our technological and social intelligence is much stronger than our critical and abstract intelligence.

Two of the strongest instincts in humans are selfishness and tribalism. These help guarantee the survival of any given individual, and collectively ensure the safety and protection of one group against its enemies and rivals for limited natural resources (land, water, food). This has alway been true and is the main reason why humans became the dominant species. It also shows why there is always conflict between human individuals and societies, and probably always will be.

Tribalism is a strong primitive urge that takes many forms in our modern parlance: racism, nationalism, white supremacy, xenophobia, homophobia, and political partisanship. These features are usually collocated, and coalesce around a vague fear or hatred of “the other”. In the Roman and Byzantine empires, chariot racing was the most popular spectator sport, along with gladiatorial combat. It was also a way for the otherwise disenfranchised citizens to show some level of political partisanship. The Blues and the Greens were the most popular factions in Constantinople, which for centuries maintained a violent hatred of each other whose rivalry almost overthrew the empire at one point. Today in America most people strongly identify with one of two rival political factions, and maintain their support for their faction almost to the death, without thinking about actual policy or consequences. This conflict is in danger of overthrowing the American empire, and taking the world down with it.

It is clear that a majority of the human race relies more upon the primitive (earlier evolved) forms of intelligence than the more complex and more difficult ones. This is very understandable, since it is easier and more natural. In the end, it really is easier to be a pig or a fool. Instant gratification and laziness come more easily than nuance and hard choices. The burden of abstract intelligence is too much for all but a select few would-be Socrates’. With growing education and economic prosperity in our modern world, there are many more intellectuals–people, per Asimov, who use knowledge and complex intelligence at least as much as the basic survival instincts–than there have ever been. I count this as a great virtue of our age, since it should be clear to my readers that I come down firmly on the side of intellectualism, for its own sake and for the sake of our continued species-wide development and future survival. I consider myself a reasonably well-read, well-travelled, tolerant sort of person–a political “liberal” as these things are labelled today.

Like Montaigne, I find pleasure in knowledge, and like Orwell, find ignorance a danger to society. The fact is, as I readily admit, that people like me who trust facts, history, science, and objective knowledge over instinctual tribalism are still an absolute minority among humans. Many of the people on the opposite side of the equation have perfectly understandable reasons for being selfish and ignorant–it’s in our genes and it’s difficult to overcome such a strong primitive instinct. This majority, therefore, does not like being preached at by people like me who wield knowledge like a sword. They call us “elites” and blame all their problems either on us, or on people outside the tribe they identify with (which usually means people with different skin tones, accents, or religions). They also rail against things like “political correctness” in the public discourse, which they feel limits their ability to freely speak about their bigotry. I will abandon political correctness for the moment, and call these people what they are–stupid.

Human beings, as a whole, have always been too stupid to really survive indefinitely. Alien archaeologists one million years from now–the type often imagined by Asimov–might very well stumble upon evidence of an advanced civilization on Earth that killed itself off while at the height of its powers, along with most of the other life forms it shared the planet with. They will come up with various hypotheses for this, but they will lack the knowledge to ever really know what happened. We the living know what happened. We have access to knowledge about the series of minor people and events that played a role in bringing about the slow demise of our societies and ecosystems. These names and events will be washed away in polluted, acidic oceans, or frozen in nuclear winters, and be lost forever. We were too stupid to use the power we had amassed in our hands. Maybe things would have been different if the elephants, or dolphins, or pigs, had developed complex intelligence faster than the monkeys. Things may have been better, or possibly worse. We will never know, and now the time of the monkeys will gradually burn itself out.

Republican Reactionaries and the Road to Fascism


(Article originally published at The Wrath-Bearing Tree)

The Utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote the following lines in his great work On Liberty: “A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.” Mill, a Member of Parliament with the Liberal Party, was a proponent of almost unlimited personal and economic freedom–a platform that is actually a traditionally conservative one, and which has some parallels with Libertarianism. The problem with the Republican Party is that has not been fulfilling its role as the party of order and stability for quite some time (let’s say the Eisenhower years, which were really just eight years of very moderate Conservatism sandwiched between four decades of Liberal dominance). It has degenerated into a radical party that wants to conserve nothing except the sundry privileges accumulated to its business allies, at the expense of a majority of its own members and the population at large. Due to the unfortunate fact that America only sustains two political parties, that one of them has become a completely disordered mess is creating huge ramifications for every aspect of public policy and the general welfare. Let us discuss in greater detail the specifics of the problem and some possible solutions.

Disclaimer: I do not consider myself conservative on any issue except regarding the environment, and I am strongly against almost every aspect of the current Republican Party platform. On the other hand, I do not by any means consider myself a supporter of the Democratic Party and I think the stink of political corruption wafts from them almost as much as Republicans. It does happen that I find much more overlap with some Democratic policy positions than their rivals, but for the most part, given the limitations of the aforementioned two-party political system, I believe it imperative that Republican power and control remain as limited as possible at least until its existential crisis abates. I will state my reasons for this below.

Though I am not myself a conservative, I actually want the Republican Party to fix itself and solve many of the problems besetting it; I am not afraid of Conservatism, but I am afraid of even more political power falling into the hands of a deeply radical and reactionary party that is fighting hard to reject the reality of the modern world and to deny truth, even in its scientific and purely objective forms. Even though it does not hold the office of the President (though within the Executive branch it is likely that a large majority of legal and law enforcement personnel are in fact Conservative), the Republican Party controls the other two-thirds of the Federal Government (both Houses of Congress and the Supreme Court) and roughly that proportion of state and local governments. My argument is not that it is inherently bad in a democracy that one party should control a majority of political power at any given time. In a true democracy this should be a common enough event and one which can be reversed at any time if said party loses favor with enough citizens. In those cases, the voters oust that party as a referendum on its actual governance. Soon enough, the tables inevitably flip and it happens in reverse.

No, my argument, rather, is two-fold: (1) The way political power is allocated is actually deeply anti-democratic (due to the corrupt process of gerrymandering districts in Congress; the Electoral College for the Presidency; and the unelected, life-serving terms of the Supreme Court); and that (2) the Republican Party is not upholding its role as the conservative party of order and stability, à la Mill, but increasingly committed to tapping into the negative emotional space that bubbles under the surface of society from whence springs fascism and authoritarianism.

Looking again briefly at my first point, both parties are equally to blame for the undemocratic nature of American politics, as are voters themselves for not demanding change (this will be the only time I will cite the common mainstream media canard that “both parties are equal;” they are not, as we will see, except for the not altogether insignificant lengths to which they both go in corruption and cheating to win–it must be said, however, that Republicans are much more successful in the latter). It is a result of several factors, including pure luck, that the latest beneficiary of the gerrymandering lottery was the Republican Party, which happened to have a good election result in a low-turnout midterm election of 2010, which came directly after the decennial census, and thus gave more redistricting power to that party for the next decade (until the next census, which will again benefit one or the other of the two parties).

Quick note on voter turnout: Obama was elected in 2008 with an overall voter turnout of 57% of the voting-age population, and that is the highest percentage since the 1960s! In the off-year midterm elections the percentage of voting-age population has held steady at around 37% also since the 1960s. Keep in mind that the entire House of Representatives, one third of the Senate, nearly half of state governors, and similarly high numbers of state legislatures are all elected during these midterm years, which means that barely over one third of population ever cares to have a say in creating a representative government when there is not a president on the ballot. Voter apathy and ignorance is a plague on democracy, and the fact that only just over half of citizens bother to cast a vote is beyond shameful. As for the Republicans, it is well-known and readily admitted by them that they benefit from lower voter turnout. To this end, they actively conspire to reduce voter turnout by any means necessary, especially in places with higher populations of minorities, students, and other groups that generally vote for Democrats. A few of their tools in the lowering of voter turnout toolkit include: requiring only certain types of ID for voting wherever possible, limiting the places where people can obtain these IDs, limiting the time of voting to a single Tuesday in November when people are working and which is difficult, especially for poorer people, to take time off work to vote. Election Day should be a national holiday as it is in many other democracies (here is a petition, for example, calling for the President to make Election Day a national holiday), and at a minimum expanded to an election week so everyone has a convenient opportunity to exercise their constitutional right to vote.

To further illustrate the extent of undemocratic elections and gerrymandering, consider connections between the following facts: Obama was elected twice with over 51% of the national popular vote each time, yet Republicans took control of Congress in 2010 by a huge margin, despite receiving one and a half million less votes than Democrats. Then, Republicans held control of Congress in 2012 despite receiving about half a million less votes than Democrats. That half-a-million-vote deficit somehow earned Republicans 38 more seats in the House of Representatives, and the explanation is gerrymandering. In Pennsylvania, Obama won by 5 percent, but Republicans somehow still won 13 out of 18 House seats; in Ohio, Obama won by 2 percent but Republicans somehow still won 12 out of 16 House seats; in North Carolina, Democrats won 51 percent of the total votes but only 4 out of 13 House seats. It is the same story in many other states and, with a few exceptions, has benefitted mostly Republicans.

The problem is compounded if we consider the highly undemocratic nature of the Senate, in which, for example, a senator from Wyoming represents something like 200,000 people while one from California represents something like 20,000,000 people, and where even a minority of 40 percent of these already unrepresentative senators can block legislation from proceeding. This is just a brief outline of a few of the systemic problems afflicting the increasingly sickly nature of American “democracy,”, and it is something that highly troubles me. You see, the best guarantee of a continuing free and open society is a well- or at least moderately -functioning democratic apparatus, but some of the trends have been moving away from this, and this is by design of political operators. When democracy breaks down, it has the potential to enter a downward spiral exploited by demagogues and to end up somewhere no one intended originally: a dictatorship, fascist or otherwise.

For my second point, the Republican Party will receive fully 100 percent of my accusation, which is the following: The Republican Party has abdicated its role as the conservative protector of order and stability in a de facto, if not de jure, binomial political party equation. The winds of political change and fortune have always blown hither and thither in modern states, with periods of reform or even revolution followed by periods of relatively ordered, if not perfect or universally free, stability and order. I am of the belief that revolution is highly counterproductive unless it happens in a society already ruled by a heavy-handed dictator or where rights are so trampled on or non-existent as to drive the people to desperation (witness the beginnings of the Syrian Civil War, for example). This is not the case in America or in any other Western country. I also believe that, so long as things remain imperfect in our society (which will be for the foreseeable future), the best course of action is incremental but constant reform in order to improve the healthy functioning of all aspects of society for the largest number of people.

Therefore, so long as things are not perfect and there exists no immediate threat of dictatorship, I see no need to fight for the preservation of order and stability that is the raison d’être of traditional Conservatism. On the other hand, I very much want the opposing side of the political spectrum to be represented by pragmatic and reasonable persons who clearly embody the case for Conservatism as a bulwark against violent revolution, in the tradition of Burke or some other such theorist following in the wake of la Terreur. I understand that there is a certain intellectual case to be made for Conservatism, though I personally find it distasteful to follow its logical consequences, which is that the status quo will not improve and perfect our society, but rather, it will only hinder and further corrupt it. I also think the nature of Conservatism is itself arbitrary and hypocritical, in that it makes choices about what to conserve and what to do away with; such choices often spring from personal greed and short-term gain. I respectfully decline the intellectual allure of Conservatism, with the key word being “respect”. I understand and sympathize with my fellow liberal-minded and progressive reformists of the following quotations: John Stuart Mill, again (I previously wrote on Mill’s Utilitarian philosophy here), who said in a debate with a Conservative MP in 1866, “I did not mean that Conservatives are generally stupid; I meant, that stupid persons are generally Conservative. I believe that to be so obvious and undeniable a fact that I hardly think any honorable gentleman will question it;” Mark Twain, who said, “Conservatism is the blind and fear-filled worship of dead radicals;” Franklin Roosevelt, who said, “A conservative is a man with two perfectly good legs who, however, has never learned to walk forward;” and John Kenneth Galbraith, who said, “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” (Quick aside on the last quote: it cannot be denied the influence of the charlatan philosopher of greed and selfishness Ayn Rand on Republicans; the newest Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, has repeatedly cited his dogmatic belief in her creed, and he is one of many).

In all of these quotes there is, in my opinion, more than just a grain of truth, but it is perhaps the humorist Twain who said it best (just as the comedians of today are the ones doing the most to expose political hypocrisy and idiocy): Today’s Republican Party not only worships dead radicals, the foremost being Ronald Reagan, but its members have become thoroughly radical and reactionary themselves. Radical in the sense that they want to completely upend a system which has been incrementally built up over decades, especially since the New Deal of FDR, by extreme and sweeping measures; and reactionary in the sense that they want to radically change the system to return to the status quo ante, which basically means to go back to a time when the government was weaker and indifferent to the suffering of huge numbers of citizens, and when industrial barons had a free hand to monopolize and control most of the economy. This is to say, the state of the world directly before Europe’s great failed experiment with fascism. The combination of radical reaction is the most dangerous I can think of in a political party, and one which leads to state or corporate fascism (compare these quotes by Mussolini: “Fascism is reaction” and “Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.”) Here is an abbreviated list of examples of the Republican platform that reveal it as the furthest thing from a conservative party of order and stability, but rather one that has become wholly hypocritical, corrupt, logically inconsistent, radical, reactionary, xenophobic, anti-science, and anti-humanistic:

One: 97 percent of scientists agree, but the Republicans stand alone even among the Conservative parties of other developed countries in rejecting the existence of climate change or completely discounting even the possibility that it has been even partially caused by human activity. A conservative position should be to protect and conserve the planet and its people and resources as much as possible, no matter the cause or extent of the problem. Nowhere in the preservation of order and stability is it called for to totally deny reality. This one is easy, but of the utmost importance given the lengths to which Republicans go to protect the outdated fossil fuel economy at the cost of the future inhabitability of our planet.

Two: Through the efforts of past activists and the policies of a few prescient politicians (both Roosevelts, to name two), America built up a large, prosperous middle class that enriched the whole society and ensured relative peace and prosperity more than had previously been seen. A conservative position would be to maintain the policies that had helped build up and protect the majority of America’s workers and society. The Republicans, rather, have long since become economic radicals favoring policies that take from the middle and lower classes to benefit the rich, all under the guise of the now widely-discredited but still spouted ideology of “supply-side economics.” At one time, even thoroughly “establishment” Republicans like George H.W. Bush (probably also the last non-reactionary Republican) called out this hoax of a policy as “voodoo economics”, but today the belief is as much an article of faith as any that you will find in the Republican platform. Any number of changes to the tax code advocated by Republicans will all make the fabulously rich even richer at the expense of the now-shrinking middle class and the growing and perpetually undiscussed lower class (which we’re told is not supposed to exist in America).

Three: A truly conservative party would seek to protect the individual freedoms that are enshrined in the U.S. Bill of Rights, but on all sides these freedoms are perverted and exploited for corrupt political gains. Freedom of Speech, the most sacred of our rights, has been, in a gross twist of logic, expanded by the Supreme Court to include money itself, in the case of political donations. This, in a very real sense, makes Freedom of Speech not free at all, but very expensive and weighted towards the rich and powerful whose agenda is further enrichment and preservation of an unjust system. A true conservative would want to preserve the sanctity of “one person one vote,” even when it goes against her interest, but in reality the radical anti-democratic apparatchiks have enabled money to further corrupt the already (as we have seen) undemocratic system of American politics by allowing unlimited money to flow into endless campaigns by highly vested billionaires. Just as a Wyoming and California Senator are highly unrepresentative by definition, now every politician has become exponentially more unrepresentative, seeing as they are free to completely ignore the will of most of their natural constituency in favor of a handful of wealthy donors and corporate interests. This is in no way a conservative system. It is one that is on the road to something far worse than merely corrupt democracy: a corporate plutocracy the likes of which have been unseen in this country since before WWII (the most egregious example being the reactionary billionaire Koch brothers, the wealthiest men in America taken together, buying up elections, politicians, think tanks, universities, anything they can get their hands on, in order to achieve complete corporate control over government). Incidentally, as stated earlier, Mussolini would not recognize a meaningful distinction between “corporate plutocracy” and fascism as he understood it.

Four: a conservative party would theoretically continue its protections of individual rights in the case of personal choices that do not come under the purview of the government in any case: personal issues like couples’ reproduction rights, everything involving an individual’s sexual life, and personal drug use. Counter-intuitively for the party of supposed “liberty” is that Republicans overwhelmingly concentrate their rhetorical (if not legislative) energies on the non-issues of abortion, gay marriage, and a disastrously counter-productive “Drug War”, even while saying at the same time that they do not want the government involved in their lives. It is an improbable twist of logic to say that government should be as small and weak as possible while simultaneously calling for it to mass regulate the most personal and individual choices humans can make in life. For those so-called conservatives opposed to regulating drugs on the basis of its expanding the bureaucracy, the drug war as waged now has the secondary consequence of necessitating a massive police, intelligence, and diplomatic apparatus that rivals counter-terror efforts. This sort of circular logic (we need to fight the drug war to keep bureaucracy small and insurance costs down so we need to spend billions of dollars on a big bureaucracy to fight the drug war) is characteristic of America’s hypocritical, mendacious, small-minded and ill-conceived conservatism.

Five: Republicans never stop insisting that they want “smaller government” (there is an influential power-broker and tireless advocate for tax cuts named Grover Norquist who once disturbingly said he wanted a government so small that he could “drown it in a bathtub”) while at the same time not realizing that the military is one of the biggest and most expensive components of the government. True conservatism would advocate a strict imposition of order and stability, especially regarding foreign policy and the threat of war. In reality, most Republicans are loudly, stupidly, and thoughtlessly in favor of war whenever and wherever possible, disregarding that war itself is the biggest and oldest creator of disorder and instability. To pile on the madness, many of these people are what are known as “chickenhawks”: politicians who always want to demonstrate America’s martial prowess, despite never having served in the military and not caring at all for troubled veterans or any drawbacks to endless war-making.

The issue at its heart, like most of these, is not conservatism, but of who profits and benefits. The Republican Party, as much as it talks about social non-issues as mentioned above, is, in fact, wholly owned and controlled by corporate interests, one of the most significant of which is the oft-cited but still very real “military-industrial complex.” Former President Bush and Vice President Cheney (two infamous chickenhawks, by the way) may have helped their friends, families, and allies to profit greatly from an illegal war (Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Iraq again), but that does not make them conservative. It just makes them corrupt and immoral.

Six: In the same vein, even if war were necessary (as it very rarely may be), a conservative would want to at least protect and reward its own combatants. Republicans, however, have without question or reservation paid untold and unknown amounts of taxpayer money into the hands of private arms producers and contractors, but cannot seem to even take care of its own veterans, many of whom are deeply troubled and impoverished, using every opportunity to deny benefits for one reason or another—blaming servicemembers and veterans for creating their own problems is the usual conservative canard. The Department of Defense is by far the biggest and most expensive war machine in the world, and Republican claims of fiscal conservatism are washed away in a flood of rampant waste, fraud, and abuse that envelops the nearly $1 Trillion-a-year Defense industry. The Department of Veterans Affairs on the other hand, like many government agencies, has been willfully underfunded by Republican budget scribes in order to create a problem where none existed before (the same fiscal strategy taken with the US Postal Service, as well). The result—for veterans or federal workers or any of the other tens of millions of Americans directly dependent on federal jobs, contracts, or support—is disastrous at an individual level of homeless, injured, unemployed, and suicidal veterans and their families.

Seven: America has long built up, concurrently with its middle class, an enviable education system, including world-class universities, that has benefitted society as a whole, both in America and around the world. Conservatives should ideally want to preserve this seemingly wonderful and unpolitical network of classrooms and laboratories for tomorrow’s leaders in every field. Republicans, on the other hand, have fully and unabashedly inflamed and empowered the anti-intellectual potential that exists on the margins of every society from ISIS all the way up to Europe and America. In doing so, the Republicans long been at work behind closed doors, slashing funding for public schools and universities, doing their best to gut political opposition to their platform while empowering the type of lazy satisfaction with stupidity and ignorance that one always sees in countries beset by dictators. All the while, they have looked the other way while tuitions skyrocketed due to lack of public funding and student debt skyrocketed due to increased tuition, locking whole generations of young people to lifetimes of debt servitude to private lenders. Moreover, they have made education itself into a political battlefield and actively vilified teachers who protested the short-sighted change of focus and funding for schools. This is in keeping with the modern-day know-nothingism of the Republican Party, whose politicians decry science, public education, and academic “elites” at every opportunity even while most of them have themselves attended Harvard or Yale.

There are numerous other examples to be made (private prisons, unions, roads, trains, infrastructure, oil subsidies, renewable energy, gun violence, systemic racism, minimum wage, unequal pay between the sexes, immigration, agricultural subsidies, free trade, health care, the lobbyist/politician revolving door, post offices, national parks, capital punishment), but I think I have made my point clear for the time being. As I said, I am deeply troubled by the series of events that has led to the current iteration of the Republican Party as it is reported on a daily basis in the (corporate, for-profit) mainstream news. The level of fear-mongering, especially after the Paris attacks, and open racism and calls for violence is so rampant to enable the rise of unquestionably fascist Republican candidate Donald Trump. I will restate that I do not by definition support the Democratic Party for its own sake, or hold them to be innocent of all the charges leveled against the Republicans above, but their moderate level of corruption pales in comparison to the cyclopean walls of corruption and reaction built by the recent Republicans.

The Republican Party has not only shown its inability to properly govern the country during the Bush administration, but it is currently showing its inability in the many states where it controls the levers of government to enact its deeply reactionary policies. It is only an undemocratic system which has allowed this in the first place, but it also goes against the desires and economic interests of a huge majority of citizens themselves, both conservative and otherwise. The danger is that further control by this irresponsible and radical group of power-brokers will entrench and further worsen the situation to the point that we will cease to live in even an ostensible democracy, but rather, we will wake up one day in something like a dystopian vision of a technologically, culturally, or politically fascist state. The solution, as always: more interest, engagement, and activism by citizens and voters, and not just once every four years but on a daily and local basis. We get the government we allow.

Karl Popper and The Paradox of Tolerance

The paradoxical problem can be stated as the following: a tolerant person may be hostile toward intolerance; thus, a tolerant person would apparently be intolerant of something–namely, intolerance. Is it possible to have too much tolerance? Does tolerance involve being tolerant of the intolerant? Are there any limitations to tolerance and, if so, how do we define them? This is the problem in the so-called ‘paradox of tolerance’. In order to attempt to understand the issue, I will recount some of the history and meaning behind the idea of tolerance (aka, toleration), and then present my own current preferred method of defining and applying the idea of tolerance for practical use in our modern political and social context.

Let’s begin in the early modern era with John Locke’s 1689 A Letter Concerning Toleration (coincidentally published the same year as the English Act of Toleration). In this influential treatise, Locke focuses on the conflict between political authority and religious belief. He argued that, since it was impossible for the state to coerce religious belief, it should totally refrain from interfering in the religious beliefs of is subjects. In his eyes, there was an inalienable right to the free exercise of religion that necessitated toleration by the state of all competing creeds (not counting his stated exceptions for Catholics who could give loyalty to a foreign government or atheists who could destroy the moral order). This view, somewhat revolutionary at the time (Locke was writing in exile from Holland), has come to be the central inspiration for the now-accepted doctrine of the separation of the church and the state.

Throughout the next century, many thinkers continued to argue for the case of toleration, which was almost invariably represented as ‘religious toleration’. In France leading up to the Revolution, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, and Rousseau all followed Locke in different ways, while all generally conceiving of a secular state in which religious belief should be tolerated. Likewise in the New World before and after the American Revolution, where Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were some of the key proponents of Lockean toleration. Paine, in his 1791 Rights of Man, seconded Locke’s notion that toleration for religious diversity is necessary since neither state nor church authorities could truly judge an individual in matters of conscience.

Madison took the issue further than Locke by refusing any exceptions to universal toleration, writing that “the right to tolerate religion presumes the right to persecute it.” According to Madison and Jefferson, the state was to have nothing to do whatever with religious matters, not only for the purpose of guaranteeing toleration but also to place limits on the power of the state. The Bill of Rights that was authored by Madison and passed in 1791 served not only to restrain political power, but to protect for all time the freedom of thought, speech, and actions of individuals. This has led, among other things, to a tradition of toleration for these things, even in the case of disagreement. This is best summed up in the quote often misattributed to Voltaire (which was actually another author’s epitome of his attitude): “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

If we continue to the 19th century, we encounter the more modern idea of tolerance championed by John Stuart Mill in his 1859 work On Liberty. Now, for virtually the first time, Mill centered the issue of toleration not on religious considerations, but on other forms of political, social, and cultural differences. He provides three arguments for toleration. The first is his ‘Harm Principle’, whereby individual liberty can only be limited to what harms another person or his well-being. The second is that freedom of thought is essential, and that even a wrong opinion can lead to a productive learning process. The third is his utilitarian argument that individuals will be happier, and will lead to more total happiness in society, if their differences are tolerated so that everyone can pursue his or her own idea of the good life. While his overall conclusions are uncertain and have some downsides (as I began to discuss here in regards to utilitarianism), his expanded and reasonable idea of toleration has had a positive and stimulating effect on the discussion up to the present day.

In the 20th century, especially since the World Wars, the concept of tolerance has become an important issue in ethical and political philosophy– especially seen in such liberal theorists as John Dewey, Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, and John Rawls. I have previously written here about Berlin in regards to his concepts of ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ freedom, and his idea of a tolerant system of ‘value-pluralism’. Likewise in this essay in which I discussed John Rawls and his ‘overlapping consensus’: a system in which individuals and groups with diverse opinions will find political reasons to agree on certain principles of justice that include mutual and universal toleration. Keeping all of this in mind, I will now turn my attention to Karl Popper.

Karl Popper (1902-1994)

Karl Popper was born in Austria in 1902, emigrated to New Zealand after the Anschluss, and spent the last half of his life in England where he received a knighthood, membership in the Royal Academy, and many other awards. He died in 1994 at the age of 92. His primary area of interest was the philosophy of science, in which he is considered the most important thinker of the 20th century. He refined the concept of ‘falsifiability’, in which a theory can only be taken as scientific if it can be shown to be falsifiable. This led him to conduct sustained attacks against such in vogue theories as psychoanalysis and Marxism, both of which he (rightly) exposed as pseudo-scientific. The same line of reasoning led to his supposed solution to the problem of induction which had plagued philosophers since David Hume. He wrote the most fundamental criticisms of the Logical Positivist school during their early days before they were popularized in the English-speaking world by A.J. Ayer. He defied Wittgenstein upon their first meeting at Cambridge by saying that if there were not real problems of philosophy, but only with language, then he never would have become a philosopher (there is an apocryphal story in which Wittgenstein brandished a poker iron at Popper during this meeting). Popper’s work with which I am most concerned is his political philosophy and his vigorous defense of democracy and liberalism, represented famously in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies.

In this book (which can be read or downloaded for free here), written during the latter stages of WWII and published in 1945, Popper maintains as his central thesis that Plato, Hegel, and Marx were all, at best, deeply flawed thinkers whose ideas led to totalitarianism. The reason for this, according to Popper, was that they all preached theories based on ‘historicism’, an idea which states that all historical events are pre-determined according to certain laws of nature. In the first volume, he focuses solely on deconstructing “The Spell of Plato” by analyzing the negative consequences stemming from the proto-fascistic state Plato describes in the Republic. In the second volume, he treats similarly with Hegel’s ‘dialectics’ and Marx’s ‘dialectical materialism’, claiming that both were responsible for the 20th century cases of Nazism and Stalinism, respectively. One of the results is what Isaiah Berlin called “the most scrupulous and formidable criticism of the philosophical and historical doctrines of Marxism by any living writer.” This somewhat polemical book has obviously been highly controversial as well, inviting much criticism of Popper by other philosophers for his interpretations and uses of Plato, Hegel, and Marx.

Popper concludes, against the common long-held belief, that democracy is indeed a more efficient government than a dictatorship, since an open society with guaranteed individual freedoms is more sustainable and more able to solve its own problems over the long term (and, ideally, with less bloodshed). Additionally, Popper advocates what he calls ‘piecemeal social engineering’ rather than the sort of utopian planning which could be seen in theory and in practice leading up to WWII (and continuing today in some places). Rather than the great social upheavals, and often revolutions, brought about by the latter, Popper preferred piecemeal improvements on a small scale that could gradually eliminate errors in social policies and make the necessary improvements. There are many arguments he makes in this monumental work, such as ‘negative utilitarianism’, which are highly interesting and worthy of further debate. For now, however, I will transition back to the topic at hand– tolerance and its paradox.

From Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, Chapter 7, Note 4:

Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.—In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be most unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law. And we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.

According to Popper, then, there is a limit to tolerance– the suppression, by the State, of intolerance. This is a key doctrine of modern liberalism, and contrary to the idea of individual freedom imagined by Jefferson, Madison, or in the classical liberalism of J.S. Mill. Governments and societies have changed much from 18th-19th century, and even from WWII to today. Governments have in general become much stronger and more centralized, but at the same time there is much more individual freedom, education, and empowerment than ever before, as well as numerous international authorities that can (ostensibly) check the power of any single government. In short, there is much diversity and plurality, and we know now that tolerance is necessary to maintain the peace between peoples of different opinions and ideologies.

So how do we define intolerance, and who gets to decide? How do we limit intolerance while not curtailing freedoms of expression? Intolerance should be defined as treating members of a certain group differently and with less equality only because of their beliefs, race, sex, etc. It should be decided by a democratically elected government which guarantees the rights of the minority. The limits of tolerance should be a point which goes beyond mere criticism of opinions or beliefs to a rejection of the legitimacy of the person making the criticism. As a general guideline, criticism of ideas is allowed, while extreme attacks on people who hold those ideas, and the corresponding attempt to limit the victim’s freedom, is usually intolerance (aka, bigotry). The issue is not so simple, and there are constant court cases which test the bounds of these rules.

Let’s look at an example of how this works. We can quite easily see now that racism is intolerance. In many areas of the United States, especially the South, that particular intolerant attitude was so ingrained that an outside authority was needed in order to ameliorate the situation. That authority was the US Government, which passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Racism by no means has ended, as we can see clearly in today’s political headlines, but it has become become a criminal offense to express it openly. A vicious cycle has been transformed into a virtuous one as new generations are gradually raised with the idea that racism is unacceptable and off-limits. Today, though it still exists in the ignorant fringe of society, you will not see many examples of people who publicly announce that racism is an “individual right”, or that the Civil Rights Act was bad (unless you happen to be a right-wing “libertarian” named Ron Paul). That type is intolerance is no longer tolerated. There is no such thing as a ‘freedom to discriminate’, for example.

While there are numerous areas in which intolerance is still widespread, there is reason to believe that the tide is slowly turning. Popper’s model has not only been influential on both sides of the political discourse, but it also has the virtue of being a model that works in practice. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights is one of the shining examples of our moral progress as a species. Part of this declaration reads that education is a universal right and should strive to “promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups.” The authority, in this case, is the international collection of all the countries on the planet, that have collectively decided where to set the limits of tolerance. American constitutional law continues to constantly develop as well as the nature of the society slowly evolves. We are seeing right now, for example, that the ‘traditional’ case for intolerance against gay rights is crumbling before our very eyes.

We can, it appears to me, conclude that criticism of opposing ideas or beliefs is permissible, and even necessary for the flourishing of free speech in a democratic and open society. Attacking people because of their beliefs is not permitted. The discussion on the finer points of this argument need to continue to be debated, but, for now, I think it is safe to say that, in order to maintain our freedoms, intolerance should not be tolerated.

Utilitarian Morality

Last week, I wrote about Kant’s position on morality, and some of its problems. Kant’s system of ‘deontological’ (duty) ethics still remains arguably one of the two most influential in the field of modern ethics– the other system is utilitarianism. I will briefly summarize the main tenets of Classical Utilitarianism as well as some of its more modern variations. I must also admit that this is not an unbiased post, as I will attempt to present a sort of justification for utilitarianism, as I understand it, as the most logically consistent and practical system of ethics that has been formulated. Though it has certain drawbacks, I hope to demonstrate how utilitarianism is a useful system in many circumstances, and is used by individuals and governments alike to benefit society.

Jeremy Bentham

Utilitarianism was first clearly articulated by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) with ‘the greatest happiness principle’: “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” ‘Happiness’ in this case is represented as a predominance of pleasure over pain. It is therefore a ‘hedonistic’ principle, but one that differs with ancient models such as Epicureanism because it deals with the pleasure of the whole society (“the greatest number”) rather than the individual. Bentham proposed a hedonistic (or ‘felicific’ or ‘utility’) calculus by which to classify and test the happiness of a given action. The variables he listed to measure the quantity of pleasure or pain were: intensity, duration, certainty, proximity, productiveness, purity, and extent. Bentham was more of a social reformer, especially in the area of criminal justice and punishment, than a philosopher. After Bentham, there were still refinements needed in order to strengthen the utilitarian theory.

John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was the most important proponent of the theory. He was raised as something of a child prodigy by his father, who was a strong supporter of Bentham and wanted his son to be a genius intellect for the purpose of defending and implementing utilitarianism. Mill, who also became a member of Parliament, did this successfully, and much more. He was a tireless advocate for women’s rights, basic human rights, free speech, civil liberties, anti-slavery, environmentalism, free markets, and other liberal policies that have gradually been embraced as fundamental to modern progressive societies. In his book Utilitarianism, he makes one major change to Bentham’s theory: he argues that the ‘quality’ of pleasures is a more important criterion of precedence than mere ‘quantity’. Bentham rigorously states that an equal quantity of pleasure derived from push-pin (a children’s game) and poetry were equally good. Mill argues that intellectual and moral pleasure have higher value than merely physical pleasures. He goes so far as to say that “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” Following from this, Mill asserted that university graduates should have more voting power because they are in a better position to judge what is best for society. This is not to say that Mill did not place any value on the uneducated; to the contrary, he advocated universal education reforms and sending the talented but poor to universities as a way to improve the happiness of the greatest number (which would improve society as a whole, as well).

There have been many variations of the theory, both in its content and its applicability, and it would be time-consuming to attempt to do justice to them all. One minor distinction is between ‘act utilitarianism’ and ‘rule utilitarianism’. The former, favored by Bentham, states that we must first consider the circumstances of each situation to determine which likely consequence will produce the greatest pleasure. For example, a paramedic at the site of a car accident would probably decide to treat a pregnant woman before anyone else, since her and her unborn child represent the greatest possible future happiness. The latter, favored by Mill, states that there are certain general rules that tend to increase happiness if followed (or decrease happiness if broken). For example, it is against the rules to kill another person, but in the case of self-defense against aggressive attackers, the rule changes. It is probably best to use ‘rules of thumb’ as a way of saving time when decided more routine matters; these rules can be modified in more difficult questions to calculate likely consequences.

Another conflict arises between ‘total utilitarianism’ and ‘average utilitarianism’. That is, should the amount of happiness of a population be measured as a total figure or as an average. In this case, issues that could arise would be the relative worth of a small, but very happy population, versus a very large population with low relative happiness, but a greater overall amount of happiness. Some philosophers have argued that the measure of ‘utility’ itself should not necessarily be pleasure (or avoidance of pain). Other possibilities proposed include: it is the ‘intent’ or ‘motive’, rather than the consequences, that is good; it is the ‘interests’, rather than the pleasure, that is good (this has been called ‘welfare utilitarianism’); the nuanced opinion that it is only the ‘preferences’ of a person that should be satisfied (which takes into account rejection of pleasure or desire for pain).

It is important to note that utilitarian calculus is most often used to decide what is most ‘right’, not necessarily what is most ‘good’. In this way, it is generally a system of practical ethics to guide decisions about future possible outcomes, rather than a belief in any necessary absolute morality of an act. One criticism of the theory by Karl Marx is that it not actual a theory at all and adds nothing meaningful, since it is inherently true by definition. He was more concerned with the different conceptions of what is ‘good’ for different people in different circumstances (which led him to describe his views of how capitalism suppressed the best possible outcome for most people). It is likely that there is something inherent about utilitarianism that has been used since the time of the earliest humans in order to build and maintain orderly and cooperative groups, which helped to ensure their collective survival. Likewise, utilitarianism is implicitly used at all levels of political bodies to decide the best future courses of action for the welfare of the greatest number.

We all use some form of utilitarianism in our everyday lives, as well as when we must make big decisions. We automatically consider the pros and cons of a decision to weigh the greatest utility to be derived from the most likely possible outcomes, even if that outcome is in a more distant future (say, choosing to go into debt with student loans for a university degree in order to achieve more potential future happiness). As a society, we choose officials who are tasked (ostensibly) to make legislation and take actions that maximize the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens. We all know that it does not exactly work so smoothly in reality, but it is the stated purpose and goal nevertheless.

The benefits of utilitarianism are derived from its reliance, not on any absolute conception of morality (which is, in addition, only a matter of opinion and subject to change), but on rational and logical consistency in order to help us make practical ethical decisions. It treats everyone equally, not under the impossible ‘ends principle’ Kant proposes, but as a person with rights to happiness all the same. The proper use of utilitarian can ultimately lead to a more just, as well as a happier, society.

I have intentionally not given many examples of various practical applications. This is first of all in the name of brevity. But mostly, I would like to reserve specific examples from each different issue for individual future discussions here, so that they can be treated in slightly more depth. I am also aware of several criticisms to the utilitarian theory, but I have not yet seen anything that convincingly weakens the overall premise, in my opinion. In addition, I have not found any alternatives to utilitarianism that represent a more logically consistent ethical solution. This chapter is not closed, and I hope to work through the issue in more specifics way in future posts.

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