Ideology and morality

Each political ideology, it seems to me, is somehow somewhat related to morality, either motivated by moral concerns or determining moral concerns (or some more complex interplay of the two directions).

The market-driven centrist takes greed and self-preservation as almost the only moral imperatives. Is that unfair for me to say? I’m going to say it. If they have other moral convictions, it’s perhaps either a coincidence or because their economism is combined with one of these other ideologies we’re about to meet.

The egalitarian leftist wants improvements for the weak and vulnerable, which seems very moral, especially from our post/Christian standpoint.

The reactionary right, with its emphasis on strength and beauty, seems almost amoral to us, in one way, though perhaps it would seem like the closest we ever get to being virtuous from the perspective of an ancient Greek. Often the ideas about sex and sexuality are given a moral tint, sometimes (though certainly not always) in ways that would likely have been a bit bewildering to to that same ancient Greek person.

The conservative tends to have a sort of conventional morality. There is morality, and the morality is known to be good because it has a good pedigree. It’s been around for a while and we wouldn’t have it if it weren’t something worth having.

The religionist, I think, has a morality that is a combination of religious texts and the inherited morality of a particular group, with the former shaped by the latter. Is alcohol morally okay? It depends which Christian group you are part of and which verses of the Bible get emphasized.

Previously that would have exhausted my list, but let’s try adding “localists” in to the mix (by which I refer to subsidiarity, which some people refer to imprecisely by speaking of it as “conservatism”). Localists seem to have an ethic of responsibility, of stewardship some might say. The person in authority in a situation ought to treat others with justice and compassion. Some will do a great job of that, others a decent job of it. If anyone is doing an unacceptably bad job, then the larger community and its leaders have in their turn a responsibility to intervene. This is true of all layers of leadership and authority, up to the very top of human society.

Ideology and reality

The different ideologies like to accuse one another of being unrealistic. The centrists who want the market humming along at peak efficiency think everyone else is denying reality by wanting all the money and technology without wanting to make the hard choices to do what it takes to maximize economic growth. The leftists say it’s all well and good to say hardworking people are rewarded by the market, but the reality is we don’t all start on a level playing field, and many people don’t have the same opportunities as others, often in heartbreaking ways. The right says, you can say ugliness is beauty or weakness is strength or false opinion is “your truth” all you like and call that justice and compassion, but in fact it really is all just a pack of obvious lies.

I think a big part of the talking past one another has to do with the distinction of the natural and the artificial. The left wants to assume the artificial because we’re surrounded by it all the time, and to deny it, to speak or act as if we aren’t surrounded by the artificial all the time, is to live outside of reality.

The right, on the other hand, does not want to assume the artificial, because the artificial is contingent, in a way or to an extent that the natural is not. If some terrible, civilization-ending event were to happen, the artificial things in the world would wither away, so to speak, but the world of nature would survive and would even thrive in some ways in the absence of our artifice. Because the artificial is contingent, focusing on reality means focusing now on the things that would matter even after civilization, like strength and security.

The centre places more faith in the artificial than the right does, but less than the left. Unlike the right, the centre is confident that the market can keep getting bigger and making things better, world without end, amen. Unlike the left, however, the centre does not take the survival of the artificial for granted. We have to keep doing the things that keep it alive and growing, even if we don’t want to, or else we just might actually find ourselves sliding into the future that the right is so worried about.

Gosh. All of these make sense to me. I think when we look at it like that, it’s hard not to agree with every side. The artificial really is quite fragile, in a way, and we’ve seen small examples of how everything can fall apart. To deny that it could happen to us would be sheer self-delusion.

At the same time, for all its fragility there also seems to be a certain hardiness to many of the civilizations that are in the world right now. Rather than always living as if the world is about to end, perhaps we should be grateful for what we have right now, and try to do our best with what we’ve got. The right fears that the left makes us all weak and foolish, but surely there is a way to make us all stronger and wiser by using the resources we have well?

But while we can be grateful for the sturdiness of our societies that have survived such terrible hardships over the years, we must not take it for granted. I’m not convinced that maximal economic growth is the sole priority at all times, as some seem to think, but we need to focus on the health of things like the economy, our political institutions, and the diplomatic and military contingencies, to make sure that we’re not the ones who let these blessings slip into the void.

Subsidiarity and conservatism

I’ve written about conservatism several times and haven’t ever connected it to subsidiarity. I feel like that’s something I should remedy, at least in part.

I stand by the way I’ve written about conservatism before, which is almost utterly disconnected from subsidiarity. Conservatism is the impulse that says, let’s not change what we’ve got, because in all likelihood we will end up with something worse, at least in the short term – it if we need to change things, let’s change them slowly. That is, what conservatism means will depend on the context. If your context is eighteenth century England, that’s what conservatives will be trying to preserve. If you’re in China just after the death of Mao, the people who are correctly called the conservatives, opposed to the liberals, are the Maoists – Marxist conservatives. That’s how I speak of conservatism, and I think it’s just the right way, or the clearest way, to use the term.

However, what many people mean by conservatism is something quite different, and it is an intelligible and interesting usage as well, and that is conservatism as a synonym for the defence or promotion of subsidiarity as a guiding principle.

What is subsidiarity? Most people speak of it as the idea that power, or authority to govern, should devolve to the “lowest” possible level, the level closest to individuals. On this model, the family should have as much authority as possible, second to which might be the neighbourhood or local associations, and higher up the chain, local or municipal governments should have more power than provincial or state governments, which in turn should have more power than federal governments, etc. The central thinking is that the closer an authority is to the person being governed, the better that authority will be at choosing and enacting wisely what is best for the person in question. Secondarily, there are other considerations, such as these: a bad person operating on a smaller scale can do less harm than a bad person operating on a larger scale with the same powers; centralizing power too much serves to prevent people more broadly from having the opportunity to exercise power in a way that is natural and desirable for people more broadly; tyranny, the worst possible political outcome, is practically impossible if subsidiarity is respected and if people are willing to fight efforts to take away the authority they ought to have. For all these reasons and more, it is said to be important that higher levels of government not take away for themselves authority that can be responsibly exercised by a lower level. Higher levels of government ought to do only those things that are all but impossible to lower levels (e.g., it would be much harder for each neighbourhood to pave its own streets than for the city to do it, and much harder for each city to have a military to defend itself from outside forces than for a centralized government to fund and organize a military).

This is a fine way of speaking about subsidiarity. More precisely or technically, the term actually refers to the need for higher levels of government to provide support for lower levels of government. By a different etymological path, the word “subsidiarity” derives from the same Latin root as our word “subsidy.” This may seem like a minor point, but people who miss this will often end up with a warped sense of how subsidiarity ought to work, in my experience. Such people might think that a centralized government that takes tax money and distributes it to lower levels of government, for instance, is contrary to subsidiarity, when in many cases it might be much closer to the essence of subsidiarity.

When people start talking about conservative principles and then say things that don’t sound at all like preserving the way we have historically actually done things, something like this tends to be what they have in mind, in my experience.

I happen to be a big fan of subsidiarity. To me, it represents a beautiful vision. I especially appreciate it when conservatives of this sort apply their subsidiarity not only to the political realm but also to the economic, alleging that it is bad for big business to have too much power just as truly as it is bad for big government to have too much power. This happens pretty rarely, but it does appear unexpectedly at times, and I am always overjoyed to see it when it does. I heard that one Canadian conservative fellow who recently became an MP, Jamil(?), say something along these lines in an interview years ago, and I still remember how happy it made me to hear it, given how often Canadian conservatives have been the party of untrammelled big business.

I am attracted to the vision of localism, of each community having a say in its own governance, of each particular place having its own traditions and aesthetics and character that is not absorbed into the mundane universality of “mass culture,” of people taking pride in their own homes and trying to make what is their own as good as it can be, of people having a sort of patriotism that connects not to some symbols of a giant country but to their own peculiar place.

I think it can be confusing to speak of it as conservatism, or even to think of it as something that is the particular province of the ideological right, since there are versions of the left that can have a very similar vision. There is much that subsidiarity has in common with libertarianism, but I think it is important to distinguish those two concepts as well. It doesn’t necessarily fit particularly well at any one point on the spectrum of political ideologies, but it is an important idea, and one which ought to be respected as well as it can wherever we might reside on that spectrum.

War and the city

I, along with most of the people I’ve known in my life, have never directly experienced war. I think that’s probably a good thing. I thank God.

I think there’s also probably no human thing I’ve ever experienced that was not somehow indirectly touched by war or the possibility of war. A chunk of the taxes we pay goes to the military. The faces on our coins are what they are as a result of wars concluded many generations ago. The heritage coded in our genes reflects the tides of military campaigns and the migrations of the vanquished. The very fact that where I live is so utterly unwarlike is itself a result of past and ongoing wars. Wherever we live, history teaches us that we cannot be entirely sure we will not sometime be commanded by our government to go to war, or even, though to some the possibility will seem remoter than to others, to find our homes thrust into the midst of a war zone. Most immediately, we are always only one person away from being made the victims of violence. No matter how good the government and police and legal system may be (and we might start off not too confident on that point), if we’re in a place where people can be (which is, by definition, always the case for all of us), then we can never be completely sure we won’t wind up confronted by some person ready for or intent upon violence toward us. Generally, we prefer not to think much about that sort of thing, and rightly so, which means we can forget about it now and come back to the point.

I don’t think that war is everything. Some smart people have believed it, but I do not. War is never primary, is always secondary. But that isn’t the same as saying that it is dispensable or eradicable. As long as there is politics, there will always be the ever-present possibility of war, and that possibility will affect us to one extent or another in every part of our lives. Even if the world were to achieve a united global government at some point in the future, the possibility of civil war would be alive as long as there is any hint of freedom left.

I would gladly live in a world in which war was an impossibility as a result of a changed human nature. For me, the best of human life is not found in preparing for war but in study and community and art and worship. But that is not a world we could find ourselves in, I believe, on this side of eternity, barring some future in which, for instance, a practically omnipotent and omniscient AI has absolute control over us.

Growing up, I was a pacifist. I still today have friends who are intelligent and good-hearted pacifists. Currently, I cannot be that, and I cannot imagine being that. I believe Orwell said that pacifism is objectively pro-fascist, and I think I mainly agree. I haven’t thought this through as carefully as I would like to, but it does seem to me that violence authorized by a legitimate political authority (within means and for justifiable ends) is morally different from lawless violence.

What does all of this mean for me as someone who lives a life not directly touched by war? It’s hard to say. Some of it is clear; for instance, in elections where military policy is on the table, this conviction will inform my vote (and not necessarily in a militarist and blood-thirsty way; don’t hear me saying that). But is there a way that it should change how I live closer to home?

I don’t know. I feel that maybe there is. I’ve been trying to grapple with that feeling for some time now, and I still don’t have a great answer. But it’s an intuition that I can’t quite seem to escape, so I think I will continue trying to work through it in my thoughts in the months and years ahead.

Smarter is not enough

Being smart can be a real benefit, in many different ways. I certainly don’t want to deny that.

But a lot of people would be better off with less smarts. A lot of people would be happier, better, even more right about a lot of things, if they were not so smart.

Smarter people are better at convincing themselves of falsehoods, when motivated, than people who are not as smart. Their arguments for their favourite falsehoods are more sophisticated, and their confidence is perpetually buttressed by a keen awareness of their own intelligence. They’re the sort of people who are especially good at finding the correct answer to a math problem, so shouldn’t they also assume they’re the sort of people who’d reach the correct conclusions in other kinds of investigations?

Of course, it’s not true. We all know it, at least if we pause and think. We all know that the smartest people who disagree with us are the most frustrating to see embracing fallacies. We’re numb to the fallacies that our smart allies are guilty of, but we see them as clear as day in the enemy’s speech. It doesn’t matter how good that other person is at math or grammar or reading comprehension. That person is engaging in self-deception, as obviously as anything that has ever happened, and all the smarts in the world are only going to make things worse for that person.

Our lazy instinct is always to say that the people who disagree with us are stupid, which is particularly tempting since statistically it’s always true that most of the people on the other side of the issue from us are not unusually smart. But if we slow down and reflect, most of us will admit that the other side isn’t necessarily all unintelligent. There are just some people who don’t know how to use their intelligence to reach the correct answer in the real world.

Except that that is all smart people, or virtually all smart people. We think we are different because we managed to arrive at the right answer, but it’s just as possible that we’re doing exactly the same thing as those people but from the other direction. In fact, not only is it possible, I say, it is almost a certainty.

All smart people are exceptionally good at self-deception, at convincing themselves of falsehoods. All smart people do it. If we ever want to stop, the first step will be to recognize it, admit it, and become vigilant about it. The second step will be to start trying to hold ourselves to the same standard we hold others to. It’s not as easy as we think it will be.

Trump and the return to Greek antiquity

When Trump was elected, I felt as though I had entered a different world. I literally felt as though the modern world I thought I’d lived in had come to an end, and the age of the ancient Greeks had returned somehow. But it’s hard to say in what sense or why I have felt that.

So I haven’t been able to articulate it exactly, but I have shared the experience of that nebulous intuition with others over the years, and they seemed to resonate.

I just realized – I think it is because Trump enacts a style of politics that feels no need to pay tribute to humility.

Reading through the Nicomachean Ethics can be a strange experience for the modern reader since the picture of the good person that emerges from that work is considerably different from what we think of as a good person. The Nicomachean Ethics describes a good person who is far closer to Achilles than to MLK or Ghandi. That’s what ancient Greeks aspired to be like, at least many of them. Achilles can be hard to like, for a modern reader; he seems whiny, possessive, petty, spiteful, even as he was seen as a great hero by masses of people.

Sound like anyone else we know?

For me, reading about that age, and those people, has always felt compelling in one way, and deeply alien in another. Somehow, there was always this unspoken premise in my mind that the world I lived in was not like that and could not, short of some sort of apocalypse, become like that.

It was startling to me to realize how wrong I was. Apparently it was always a possibility, just out of sight. It’s a very different kind of politics. It is chaotic. Much more interesting and entertaining and enthralling to witness. But also things can go much worse, much faster. It’s hard not to feel like that’s a pretty serious downside.

Dietary gateways

I practiced a ketogenic (very low carb) diet consistently for about two years, from 2017-2019, with occasional forays into the carnivore (zero-carb) diet when my weight loss was stalled. I did a lot of fasting and time-restricted eating as well during this interval, which tend to be quite popular in the keto community.

This experience was transformative for me, ultimately leading to some important developments in my life, and pulled me in two very different directions.

I started the diet because I needed to lose a lot of weight. A friend of someone I knew had tried keto, apparently with great success. Another obese friend of mine had gone through an amazing weight loss transformation, which inspired me to commit to something radical, and I later found out that he too had found his success through keto and carnivore diets. I began the diet, lost a lot of weight quickly at the start, and then continued to lose weight for a time at a slower pace. I did plenty of reading about it online, and bought and devoured a couple books on the subject. I was entirely sold on the diet, and I educated myself pretty extensively, insofar as I was able.

The two directions I was drawn in were a trust of science, and a distrust of institutional experts. Keto groups like to claim that there is lots of science showing that their diet is no worse than other dietary options, and that it might even be far superior in some respects. They also like to complain about how public health authorities do not recommend anything like the ketogenic diet, and how they even caution against some things that are generally common and praised among those who advocate for keto (eg saturated fat, dietary cholesterol, sodium).

This sort of distrust of institutional experts pushed me in the direction of a vaguely right-wing, populist mindset. (Luckily I was mainly off that train before the right really lost its mind as of 2020.) This sort of right-wing thinking liked to emphasize things like, masculine strength and vitality, self responsibility, and scorn for the sheep who believe what the “experts” are saying, experts who are ineffectually overseeing the worst obesity health crisis in human history.

What got me thinking about all this, actually, was when I listened very recently to a podcast interview with someone who was present at and involved in the Jan 6 riots. He was a young fellow who had been radicalized to rightwing extremism and conspiracy theories in the years leading up to January 6 2021. According to how he narrates his story, the process of radicalization began with a change of diet, where he changed his life and his body after realizing that the health authorities had been lying to him all his life. I don’t know for sure if he was talking about a keto/carnivore diet (he didn’t specify), but I’m guessing that’s what it was. What I feel absolutely sure of is that whatever diet this was, it was something that involved a lot of animal products and that praised the health-promoting properties of saturated fat and dietary cholesterol.

Luckily, the other direction that I was being pulled in won out, and just in time. Insulin resistance is a huge talking point for the low carb people. You don’t want to be insulin resistant or diabetic if you can avoid it (true enough), and by going low carb, you increase your body’s sensitivity to carbs, just like how using more drugs (including alcohol and caffeine) deadens your body’s sensitivity to them, and using less increases the sensitivity. That was the argument. It was compelling to me. Then I read somewhere that saturated fat is actually really bad for insulin sensitivity, that keto people don’t do well on the sort of insulin tests where they have to consume carbs and see how their body handles them, and that the best diet for improving insulin sensitivity is something with lots of whole plant foods (including high carb whole plant foods like fruit, whole grains, and legumes), and with minimal saturated fat. Then I started learning about the other health benefits of such a diet, including for weight control. So that’s how I’ve been eating for the past five years now, and I have not regretted making the change. As a result, I tend to be rather more appreciative of the experts now too, which has also been a very positive development.

Balancing arrogance and self-awareness

It takes humility to learn. We have to admit that we don’t know a thing before we can seek to know it, before we can allow ourselves to learn it.

But it also takes something else, something opposite. It takes something like arrogance.

It takes something like arrogance to be able to try to learn when we start out knowing so little and when there is an overwhelming, impossible amount of knowledge we could learn, when we don’t know how to learn most kinds of knowledge and when we have no way of knowing what knowledge is most urgent for us to focus on first.

It would be very easy to leave that job to others to tackle, to those with more natural talent and more drive and with better circumstances for studying. That’s what most of us do, after a point.

I suspect that the problem for most of us is that we have too much of the bad kind of arrogance. We think we understand far more than we do. We have no reason to want to learn.

It’s once we’ve begun to learn some of the good kind of humility that we get stuck on the bad kind of humility. We realize how far beyond us is the task of actually learning the many things we think are worth knowing.

The right kind of arrogance is measured. I’m not going to figure everything out today, or this year, or even this decade. To get anywhere near the level of knowledge I’d like, in the variety of fields that are important to me, will be the work of many, many years, especially considering how many hours of every day have to go to other things. Even if we try, we might not succeed. But if we don’t try, we’ll definitely fail, and if we do try and end up failing, even our failure will be far more splendid than anything else we could have spent our time on.

That is the assurance that underlies the right kind of arrogance.

Conspiracy theories and distrust of authority

I have a friend who likes a good Covid conspiracy theory, and he told me once, when he was finding that all of his evidence and arguments were failing to prove to me what he wanted to prove, that the difference between us was that I trusted the government and the media and the scientists absolutely, where he did not. The implication was that if a person doubted, at all, that all the people with authority in society were completely altruistic, then that person would have to end up agreeing with all the things my friend claimed to be true.

In hindsight, this seems to be an admission of what we all knew already, that conspiracy theories are based not on the arguments that are offered, but on a determination to interpret the authorities as devious and dangerous.

But even beyond that, I think his claim is just really silly.

Distrust of authorities cannot mean there is just one possible interpretation of what the authorities are doing, but rather, by its nature, such distrust itself allows for infinite possible interpretations of what the authorities are up to. It would be easy to invent endless examples of what I mean, but I don’t even need to; we can just look at the countless incompatible theories any group of conspiracy theorists comes up with to explain the same set of evidence.

Distrust also doesn’t mean that any given statement is false; a true statement can be used for greedy or ambitious ends as easily as false ones, and with less risk. I don’t trust the government, media, etc. absolutely, but I also don’t distrust them absolutely. There is a range of degrees of truthfulness that are possible. For me not to be absolutely trusting of these institutions does not mean I need to distrust to the exact degree and in the exact way as my friend.

Political systems with things like free speech and free press and independent scholarship and independent judiciary and federal government with geographically smaller state or provincial governments, all these things (among many others) make some kinds of far-reaching, world-shattering conspiracy far less likely. You can’t say it’s impossible because it’s not technically logically impossible or strictly unimaginable, but it’s everything short of impossible. The people who entertain this as a plausible explanation for the way things are in the world are not following what seems to be true, clearly, but only what they really really want to be true.

That doesn’t mean there’s no deception ever happening. There is, plenty, constantly. But it’s generally far more everyday and self-serving, rather than an epochal ideological secret takeover of everything with a carefully calibrated set of lies that scientists can’t see through but which a bunch of people on social media without credentials can figure out using arguments that don’t hold water but which happen to be right anyways.

So, the question isn’t whether we’re being lied to. The question is what kind of lies people are really likely to think they might be able to pull off.

Ideology and opinion

Socrates, in his philosophizing, starts with common opinions about politics and morality. We see Aristotle following a similar pattern.

In our day, to do what Socrates did would involve spending time thinking about political ideology. What sorts of things do people believe? Why do they believe those things? What are they right about? What is each side getting wrong or missing?

I used to be fairly uninterested in political ideologies, thinking I would rather figure out my views for myself than just accept what someone else had bundled together into a package. I think that’s a good attitude, but maybe a bad strategy. I mainly avoided thinking about what the partisans on the different sides had to say. That was a mistake, because on reflection, my experience has been that if you’re ignorant about them then you inevitably will be tripped up by them. Each side has plentiful arguments and examples and apologists to pull out, it can offer coherent programmes and narratives, and it comes with hordes of enthusiastic adherents mocking everyone who thinks differently.

If we don’t try to understand the main streams of the ways people think about politics in our day, then we just won’t understand them. They will affect us, they will seep into us, but without effort we won’t actually be able to grasp what they are or how they are working on us.

If we do make the effort though, in at least a somewhat disinterested way, then I think it’s not terribly difficult. It’s just a matter of paying attention to the different sides and reflecting on them. It takes time, but it doesn’t take brilliant insight to be able to follow the versions of the ideologies that are widely accepted. What it takes, more, is sympathy and imagination, and the ability to suppress biases. In my experience the great majority of us are very bad at that unless we work at it.

When we do make the effort to understand these political ideologies, it offers many benefits. It gives us a kind of intellectual protection from the partisan self-certainty of others, for one thing, which is a great benefit. You hate to see otherwise intelligent people who are unprepared to offer any mental resistance to the myriad reasonable-sounding fallacies that are so widespread.

It also allows us to test our own ideas against the plausible alternatives. Maybe some (probably not all) of the ancient or medieval ideas about politics or morality sound attractive in one way or another to some people today. Well, the ideas to beat at the moment are mainly the ones that are winning at the politically partisan marketplaces of ideas. It will be impossible to beat them without knowing them, and preferably knowing them really well, enough to understand not only their potential weaknesses but also their very real strengths, and what makes them so beloved to their defenders.