Thursday, October 23, 2014

Empty Words

Modern US society, and western society in general, seems to put a lot of stock in what are taken to be great principles and ideals but which are really only empty words.  Here are a few of them:


We say we are in favor of "tolerance."  But what in the world does that mean?  Nobody can be for or against "tolerance" in general, unless they literally oppose nothing at all (or everything altogether).  Everyone in reality tolerates whatever they believe to be tolerable and doesn't tolerate whatever they believe to be intolerable.  Are we, in the US, a "tolerant" society?  Well, not completely, because we have these things called "laws."  Try going into your neighbor's house and taking his TV set without his permission and experience for yourself the limits of tolerance.  Like all societies, the US tolerates what it thinks is tolerable and doesn't tolerate what it thinks is intolerable.  It decides on what goes into each list based on the beliefs and values (read: worldview) that form the foundation of law.  The Islamic Republic of Iran does exactly the same thing:  It tolerates the tolerable and refuses toleration to the intolerable, as that is defined by its particular brand of Shia Islam which generates many of the beliefs and values that form the basis of its laws.


So are you in favor of "equality"?  We seem to base all sorts of laws on the claim that they support "equality," but what does "equality" really mean?  It means that things are alike.  So are you in favor of the idea that things are alike?  If you are like me, you will answer, "Well, some things are like other things, and other things aren't like other things."  Are we in favor of treating things equally?  Yes, when they are equal.  No, when they are not.  At best, the "principle" of "equality" could be formulated as, "We should treat like things alike."  Well, yeah . . . but it's not exactly a terribly helpful principle, is it?  Who advocates treating like things as unlike or unlike things as like?  What about same-sex marriage?  Should we treat same-sex couples equally to opposite-sex couples?  Sure, to the extent that they are actually alike.  But not to the extent that they're different.  Well, are they relevantly different enough to grant the title of "marriage" to the one and not to the other?  It depends on your beliefs and values (read: worldview).  From an Agnostic point of view, perhaps they are sufficiently relevantly similar.  From a Christian point of view, they are definitely not.


America is founded on "freedom."  What is "freedom"?  I guess it means not stopping people from doing what they want to do.  Are you in favor of "freedom"?  My answer is:  Well, sometimes, and not other times.  Do we in the US believe in "freedom" and Iran doesn't?  Neither of us grants absolute freedom--which would be the same as having no laws.  Neither of us has no freedom--which would be to have laws restricting literally everything (good luck with that).  Both of us grant freedom in some things and not in other things.  Both of us allow freedom where we think there is no reason to restrain it, and both of us limit freedom where we think it needs to be limited, based on the beliefs and values (read: worldview) that we hold.  Peter Westen wrote a famous essay ("The Empty Idea of Equality") on this here, but you have to have a subscription to read it.  You can read the summary abstract though.


In the US, we like to say that we are in favor of things being legal "so long as they do no harm."  Do we think this sets us apart?  Who would say otherwise?  What country says, "We think X should be illegal, even though there is no problem with it and it doesn't matter at all."?  Or, "We think that X should be legal, even though it leads to all kinds of bad things we all should greatly fear and try to prevent."?  Every society works to prevent "harmful things," and no society works to prevent "harmless things."  Every society decides what goes into each category on the basis of its particular beliefs and values (read: worldview), and it is because these beliefs and values are different that they end up with different lists.  So should we only prevent things if they are harmful?  Well, yes, of course, but that doesn't say very much of any practical importance.  Steven D. Smith has an excellent article on this here.


We should allow people "liberty of conscience," right?  That is, we should allow them to follow the dictates of their own conscience.  James Willson articulated this idea well (though he was articulating it to criticize it) in his Essay on Tolerance:

Every man has an inalienable and indefeasible right to think, believe, and act, according to the dictates of his own conscience. And to call this in question is tyrannical, and to attempt to prevent it is persecution.

So what does this mean, exactly?  I suppose "conscience" in this idea refers to "whatever a person thinks is right."  So we should allow, in civil law, a person to do whatever he thinks is right?  OK, well, the followers of Al Qaeda will, I'm sure, be happy to explain that they pursue the act of blowing up random Americans and other westerners out of a sense of conscientious duty.  They believe it is the right thing to do.  So . . . we should let them?  We should not hinder them by means of law enforcement?

"Oh no, no, no!" respond the defenders of liberty of conscience.  "We do not mean that anything a person wants to do on the grounds of professed conscientious conviction should be allowed, but only things that are not so bad and harmful that they justify restricting them."  OK, so now our principle is amended to this:  "Everyone should be allowed to do whatever he thinks is right, unless what he wants to do is so bad or harmful that it justifies not letting him do it."  Well, this sounds a bit more reasonable, but it also now sounds completely empty and tautological.  Who would argue with the idea that we should let people do what they want unless their actions are bad enough to warrant stopping them?  This is a completely useless practical principle until we define clearly what is so bad and harmful and what is not, and people's lists in this area will differ depending on their differing beliefs and values (read: worldview).

I'm sure I could think of some other words to talk about as well, but that will do for now.  So why do we so often make use of empty words like these to ground our personal and social/political ideals?  I think one major reason is that we think (consciously or not) that it allows us to be able to shirk the hard work of having to actually provide good, sufficient reasons for our ideas and make substantial refutations of opposing ideas.  For example, surely it is rhetorically easier, and no doubt more politically effective as well (at least in our current social climate), to advocate for same-sex marriage on the grounds that "We are in favor of equality!" than to actually have to explain in detail why same-sex marriage is a good or at least a tolerable thing and to respond substantially to those who oppose it.  Related to this, we like to think of ourselves as a neutral society that doesn't take sides on disputable beliefs and values (read: worldview disputes), and actually digging into the real root causes of disagreement would blow that illusion right out of the water very quickly.  (For more on this point, see here.)

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