I’m right about everything — at least in my own mind.
If you agree with me about certain things, I’ll give you credit for intelligence, good judgment and more. If you disagree with me about other things, I’ll silently judge you and maybe even feel disdain for your lack of taste and manners. But about a whole range of other things, I’ve magnanimously decided that I won’t judge you whatever you believe. I’ve either decided it’s of no consequence if we disagree or maybe I just don’t care enough about the subject to praise you or judge you about it.
You’re doing the same thing to me, whether you’re conscious of it or not. We’re all doing it to each other. We just have different things we care about and different things we judge each other about.
We do it about big things and we do it about little things.
In politics and philosophy, we can’t believe that an intelligent, honest and decent person could see things so differently than we do, so it becomes clear to us that other people are either stupid or lying. Maybe they even have bad intentions. Maybe they’re evil, because a good person couldn’t come to their conclusions.
Listen to the way people talk to each other. They get frustrated when people want things they don’t think are worth having. If a person says he wants to live in the Pacific Northwest, someone who hates rain and prefers sun will pipe up to say, “You’ll hate it there. It rains all the time,” with no apparent understanding that some people prefer rain to sunshine.
People recommend things by saying, “You’ll like this movie.” (Or it could be a book or a play or a restaurant.) Why would someone say that? Because he likes it, of course. On some level, most of us have an instinct to feel some version of this idea: “If I didn’t like it, don’t even try it. Your taste couldn’t possible be different and I couldn’t possibly be wrong.” (And, yes, some of us work hard to overcome that instinct because we’ve learned how different others are, but we’re in the minority and it’s still hard for us — in ways that we often overlook.)
Although we might understand in theory that products are a result of a thousand tradeoffs, we think products that don’t make the same choices we prefer are terrible products. The product I prefer is obviously superior. The product you prefer “sucks” — even if it meets your needs better than my choice would.
We don’t consciously believe that everyone should be like us, but when we’re in that moment, we believe on some gut level that our subjective experience must be everyone’s objective experience — and that our subjective preference should be everyone’s objective preference.
What is it that drives us to want others to be like us? Whatever it is causes us to band together with like-minded people, but it also makes us kill others — or at least treat them badly — for not being part of our groups. And even when we adopt a liberal belief that everyone should have the right to believe what he wants to believe, even then we’re making a judgment — and we’re asserting that others should adopt our view.
You might think people ought to be tolerant about homosexuality or something else that a socially conservative person is going to be judgmental about. You pat yourself on the back for your tolerance, but you forget that your “tolerance” is you telling those more conservative people that they are wrong to believe what they believe. Even “tolerance” means, “Believe what we believe.”
We’re all this way. Whatever we think of as “the way things ought to be,” we’re deciding — at least in our own minds — what other people should think and feel.
In the 18th century, philosopher David Hume wrote about what’s come to be referred to as the “is-ought problem.” He said that in much of what he read, writers carefully describe what “is” — what they see in the world — but suddenly make a leap to describing what “ought” to be, as though there’s some logical connection between the two. He said that what is can be seen as objective, but what ought to be can’t be derived objectively from what already exists.
(Hume’s observation is obvious and straightforward to me, but many philosophers have spent much time and energy arguing for ways to claim that “ought” can somehow be derived by observing what “is.”)
The is/ought problem applies to the way we see and experience the world, not just to scientists and philosophers. Everything we believe should be and every opinion we state is a value judgment, so when we’re saying people should be more tolerant (or more whatever) we’re imposing our standards on them, even if we’re not conscious of it.
We ultimately have to base our beliefs on some standard if we want to be logically consistent. For many religious people of various religions, the beliefs of their faith are the “is” upon which they base every “ought.” Then when humans started looking for a way to justify individual rights, the idea of natural rights was conceived — and we said that everyone had certain rights just by virtue of being human. This is the idea that I’ve accepted (as is the case with most who based their political arguments on rights), but I can’t logically prove this is true. I can only ask you to accept the idea.
It’s occurred to me recently that a right without the force to back it up is nothing more than a fancy-sounding opinion. So maybe rights — in practice — come down to merely whatever I can convince people to believe and can also convince enough people to use violence to enforce. That’s an uncomfortable idea to me.
There are some things I’m willing to apply force to achieve. I’m willing to use force to stop someone from attacking me or stealing from me. I’m willing to use force to protect my friends and family. I’m willing to stop a theft or other aggression that I see occurring. I’m willing to use force to stop someone from abusing an animal.
In all these cases, I’m making a value judgment. The problem is that others have different values or different interpretations about how the values should apply. (For instance, I’ll fight you if I see you abusing a dog or cat, yet I’ll happily eat meat from cows or pigs of chickens. Consistent? Not so much.)
What we end up with is a world where we’re all different and we ‘re all willing to act differently and judge differently — and we’re all insisting that good people should see the world as we do. Even if we’re trying not to, we’re still saying, “Why aren’t you people like me?”
The “ought” problem is outside of science, because science only deals with what “is.” When scientists start advocating what ought to be, they’re no longer being scientists, but are using the mantle of science to bully others into accepting their values. Philosophy and science jump from the “is” to the “ought” in a black-box way or with a vague wave of the hands that’s more appropriate for a magician distracting his audience.
So if we all have different combinations of values and different ideas about when force is justified, what do we do about it? I can’t say there’s an objectively right answer. I can only answer for myself.
The best I can really do is express what I believe to be true and be clear about what I’m willing to use force to achieve — and then look for people who agree with me enough to band together to enforce our values. And then I can just hope that we don’t become tyrants who misuse the power and that those who inherit our power after us don’t become tyrants. It’s a depressing view, but I think it’s realistic.
In order to get along with one another, we don’t generally tell each other how we feel about the things we disagree about. I don’t tell you that your choices in clothing are terrible. You don’t tell me that my musical tastes are absurd. That’s how polite people generally behave. We tolerate each others’ choices, even though we’re sure we’re right.
All political systems are based on the notion of agreement between some certain “right-thinking people” about certain things. For many progressives, it might be improving the outcomes of the lives of people in groups which they’ve seen as marginalized. For some conservatives, it’s all about holding onto traditional values — maybe religious, maybe social — that they hold dear. For many libertarians, it’s all about agreeing that people have the individual freedom to do and be what they want, as long as they don’t infringe upon others. And other groups have other core beliefs that their ideas are based on.
But this is why those groups can never just get along and live under the same rules. It’s why there can’t be real compromise between them. Their fundamental beliefs — their core values — are radically different. (Even within groups, there are all sorts of variations, but at some level we end up ignoring those internal differences, just for pragmatic purposes.) Progressives and libertarians and conservatives can’t all have what they want. The goals are different. So what do we do?
I see only two possible paths.
One path calls for us to continue fighting with one another over which direction is the “one true way” that will be forced on everybody. Although everyone claims the mantle of freedom, all of the groups want freedom for people within the context that they understand it — and we consider other people stupid and dishonest when they don’t come to our “obvious” point of view. Continuing down this path will eventually lead to violence and possibly full-scale civil war, in my view.
The other path is for us to agree to peacefully go our own ways. Let each group set up its own cities or communities where people can live as they please, not as is dictated by some central authority. Would there be any limit to what everyone else would allow to exist in such an environment? I don’t know, and it’s troubling to think that we could have a “city of child molesters,” to throw out an absurd example. Any limits that existed would end up being determined by what most people were willing to use violence to stop.
Even within our groups, we’re a lot more different than we like to admit, but our willful blindness to our differences is the key to maintaining whatever unity we might have within groups.
In the meantime, each one of us will continue to believe that everything would be fine if everyone else would simply be more like us. The only difference, of course, is that I’m right and the rest of you are wrong.