One of the biggest problems I see with extremely bright libertarians and anarchists is that they understand formal logic far better than they understand human psychology — and they tend to believe that logic is enough. Unless it changes, that mindset is always going to keep them from understanding people or changing the world.
What’s probably worse, it’s going to keep them from understanding themselves and being as happy as they should be.
I’ve struggled with the issue of balancing logic and emotion ever since I was a child. It didn’t start as a philosophical question. Instead, it all started with Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, who’s the personification of the ultimate rational creature.
Like so many nerdy Star Trek fans, I liked Spock and his mantra of logic, but I ultimately found that I identified more with Captain Kirk. The half-human, half-Vulcan Spock was coldly rational and didn’t normally show emotions, while Kirk was the epitome of emotion at times. Despite that, he could be smart and extremely rational when he needed to be. I found myself debating whether pure logic was really the best way.
My 14-year-old self came to a conclusion that still works for me today. I decided that our emotions and intuition — all those things that are hard to put labels on — are the part of us that determines what we want and what our values are. It’s the part of us that decides to be honest or to cheat to get what we want or that it’s worth the effort to win some particular person’s heart.
You might come up with reasons to justify your choices in any of those areas, but they’re just justifications. The things you choose to value — and the reasons you name for valuing them — are far more arbitrary than you admit to yourself, at least insofar as pure logic is concerned. But there’s nothing wrong with this. There’s no reason to believe that preferring red over blue or preferring chocolate over vanilla or preferring comedy over drama are things you need logical reasons for.
My 14-year-old self decided that logic is a set of tools to help us achieve the things that our feelings and intuition have decided matter to us. If I’ve decided that I want to be a painter, I can make rational decisions about that. I can take steps to develop my talent and I can decide how to pursue turning my passion into a way to make a living. (And sometimes, I might have to decide whether I have enough talent or desire for painting to do it in such a way that other people will pay me for it.) If another person decides he wants to be an engineer, he can rationally pursue a path to get him to that goal. He can logically decide which field of engineering he’s suited for and what type of study will make him best able to be employed in the field.
Many people are qualified for a number of different life paths. Let’s take someone who’s just as qualified to become a teacher or an advertising person. He could logically pursue either career. There’s no one logical choice about which to pursue. It’s ultimately a matter of what feels right — what will give the person the internal rewards that will make his life feel worth living.
Whether you like it or not, human beings are emotional beings at our core. Our passions and feelings make us who we are. Logic is a set of tools to help us get the things that our passions tell us matter to us. If we start worshipping logic and elevating it to the point of primacy, we’re worshipping our tools. To go back to the example of the painter, to worship logic would be like a painter who worships the brushes and ink and canvas that make up his tools. It’s a very good thing to value those tools and learn them well and appreciate how to use them — but it’s something inside of the painter from which the creativity comes. The spark of creativity starts in the emotions or heart or soul or whatever you want to call it. Creativity is not a rational thing, but a “felt thing.”
When you ask people what they want in life, they frequently list things such as money or power or position. They sometimes list achievements that mean something to them. But it’s not the money or the house or the job promotion that they really want. They want the feelings about themselves that come with those things.
We have feelings that we associate with all sorts of things. We associate feelings of well-being with having money or a house or a certain position in a community. It’s not the things we want. It’s the feelings. It’s the internal state of being that makes us happy.
For one person, the ultimate value might be having a lot of money and power and position. That person might define those things as “security.” If so, the person doesn’t want those actual things. The person wants the feelings that come with believing himself to be secure.
For another person, the ultimate value might be to be understood and to feel connected to those around him. That person feels “whole” or complete when in that internal state of being. The person craves the feelings that come with being understood and accepted and loved.
There are a million things that someone might decide matter to him. We all have multiple things. Sometimes they’re contradictory, even. There are times when we understand what we really want and need, but we have other desires that we’ve allowed ourselves to pursue because we want approval from others. In those cases, pursuing what we want and pursuing the approval we want are contradictory. We can’t have both.
In cases such as that, we have to decide what our ultimate value is — and take actions to rationally go after what we decide is truly the thing that represents who we are. (Making those value judgements is completely subjective and it can be terribly uncomfortable, even though we frequently come up with logical-sounding justifications after we’ve done so.)
Whatever you’re doing in your life — for good or for bad — you’re doing it because of something that it will get for you. Maybe you have a childhood pattern that values feeling rejected or feeling humiliated. If so, you will unconsciously arrange your life to be rejected or humiliated. You will use unconscious logic to achieve something that you don’t consciously want — and you won’t understand why you keep getting something you don’t consciously want.
What’s more, all the people around you who seem crazy or irrational are pursuing some kinds of feelings, too. They might not be aware of their ultimate goals or values, because most people are on autopilot — and most people don’t understand themselves and their motivations. But if you watch someone “irrationally” destroying his life, remember that there is some inner drive in him to do something to himself — that he might not even understand — and he is using the tools of logic to achieve something that might sound crazy to his conscious mind.
As long as you believe that formal logic is all you need to understand about the world, you’re going to miss the fact that understanding human psychology will give you a base of understanding that will change how you interpret what people do and why they do those things. Until you understand human nature, the only people you’re going to understand (and approve of) are those who happen to share your values and who are pursuing goals that make sense to you.
Most people aren’t going to share our values. There’s nothing wrong with that. We need to understand how people determine their values and why they want certain things if we hope to understand the world and hope to influence the people in it.
When “hyper rational” libertarians and anarchists tell people how they should act and what they should believe, they see themselves as simply “educating” people who don’t understand what they do. Whether you understand it or not, though, those people simply think you’re an arrogant jerk. Until you learn what they value (and why), you’re going to keep coming off as arrogant and condescending.
Logic is one of the most important tools we have, but it’s still just a tool. What we feel at our core is who we really are. It’s what will always separate us from machines.