Radical Extremes of the Ideological Spectrum

The radical left claims to oppose, more than anything else, the radical right. The radical right, in turn, hates nothing so much as it hates the radical left.

Here’s the thing, though. Nothing radicalizes the right as effectively as a radical leftist. And nothing justifies the radical left as potently as the words and actions of a right-wing radical.

When I was in college, I had some friends who over time became proud, radical feminists. They were intelligent people, and we had (I thought) a strong friendship, so it felt safe and appropriate to have conversations with them about their convictions.

I didn’t call myself a feminist at the time. Feminism was a confusing thing, seemingly self-contradictory and without clear answers to some of the predictable questions or challenges that could be posed to it. And there was no book or article I could find that seemed to encapsulate it and intelligently address my concerns, but now I had something even better — intelligent friends who had chosen to embrace it for themselves.

The questions I asked, though, were not met with convincing arguments or explanations. (I can absolutely admit that this may have been because the questions I posed were not well formulated or even entirely well motivated, to be fair.) Soon enough, the questions were being answered with expressions of anger, disgust, venom. And when I foolishly tried to preserve the friendship and explain what I actually believed (in contrast to the despicable opinions they attributed to me), they ended the friendship with the most hurtful accusations.

I despised the ideology that had stolen my friends from me, that called me evil for asking reasonable questions. And I wasn’t alone. This was around the time that YouTube began recommending videos to me with titles like “watch as [rightwing media personality] totally DESTROYS feminist in debate!” Those videos had lots of views. Another friend of mine had been similarly mistreated, and the two of us liked to commiserate and grumble.

By some good fortune, I fell under the spell of some friends and intellectual influences that preserved me from ideological radicalization. Many like me, though, weren’t quite so lucky. I have a suspicion that the style and the success of Trump (and his allies and imitators) were due in no small part to a reaction against the antics of the radical left.

That friend of mine who was also burned by feminism, today believes that the Covid pandemic is a fiction orchestrated by globalist, communist elites who want to trick us all into wearing masks and getting vaccines in order somehow to bring about a world-wide Maoist utopia. I said to him, in one of our last conversations before he in his turn cut ties with me and cast me into outer darkness, that the radical left has no truer friend than people like him. The next surge of radical leftists will be formed of people who are incredulous at what rightwing conspiracists said and did during Covid, and of that there can be no doubt. I don’t think he liked hearing it very much at all, but he could see what I was saying, and significantly, he didn’t try to dispute it.

If you hate the radical left, the greatest blow you personally can strike against them is to refuse to become part of the radical right, I believe — and vice versa.

Virtue and Power

In modernity, we place little faith in virtue, and we have great confidence in power.

Nobody can deny that power is effective. It works. It gets stuff done.

Virtue, though, is less consistent, less reliable. If I act virtuously, will it lead me to success? It depends on our definition of success, of course, but in terms of how we usually mean it, virtue is certainly not any guarantee of success.

And to trust in the virtue of another is also often a risky proposition. What if the other person chooses at the crucial moment not to do the right thing? We can always find justifications for selfish behaviour when we want to. Often, moreover, the action that seems virtuous to one person is not what the other will have hoped for — punitive instead of gentle, or restrained instead of generous.

In that case, power seems to be the clear choice, between the two. Technological marvels. Economic efficiency. Political shrewdness. These become the priority.

Indeed, I am not against power. I don’t assume that it is always an evil thing, as some would want to suggest.

However, given the choice, virtue is far more important than power. A little virtue is more valuable than entire worlds of power. Better to have much virtue and little power, than the inverse. Virtue gives more security and happiness than any amount of power ever can.

And power without virtue is a terrible thing. If we’re going to err, we should err on the side of focusing too much on virtue and too little on power, rather than accepting what the modern world tells us to believe.

Moral Philosophy and a Greater Obligation

If we say that moral philosophy in one sense undermines and endangers the common morality of a given society, then it could sound as though the moral philosopher exists at a lower level of moral obligation.

It might sound as if the moral philosopher looks at the morality of the herd and laughs with derision, prancing around gaily from injustice to vice and back, never bound by any of the socially imposed chains of decency or goodwill or moderation that normally prevent us from committing whatever evils might enter our thoughts.

And indeed, there are some who have spent time in philosophical activities who can arrive at precisely this conclusion. The philosopher is the secret amoralist, they feel, who in a moment of necessity could commit perjury as easily as cooking an egg.

Still, in my experience this is a comparatively rare outcome. More commonly (and, in my considered opinion, more reasonably), people who spend time genuinely giving thought to moral philosophy end up holding themselves more rigorously to a moral standard.

I wonder if partly this is just because the philosophical soul has more of a tendency to think things through to their logical conclusion, and so can almost instinctively recognize the danger of excusing small injustices. I’m not necessarily thinking here of a vice like overindulging in guilty pleasures; probably, someone with philosophical training is generally just as likely as the next person to eat more chocolate than is wise, I’m afraid.

Still, I do think that there is a moral courage that very frequently arises from the study of moral philosophy. Having thought through moral questions and surveyed possible answers and arrived at well-founded conclusions through hard work, the thoughtful person becomes, certainly not incorruptible, but more willing to work and to sacrifice and to suffer for those convictions.

At the beginning of the philosophical task, a person must be willing to tear down inherited beliefs, not because they are known to be untrue but because they are known to be built on an unphilosophical foundation for that particular person. This is a dangerous process, since many are unequipped for the task of building up afterwards and so they get stuck partway and fall back on some of their inherited beliefs but not others, thinking they’ve done something wise but living as fools; and even among those who are equipped to go further, there are some few who will stop at this point anyway, for one reason or another. However, for all who make it through this initial phase of seeking to abandon opinion and pursue knowledge, there remains the question of the self, the seeker, the soul — the human person. The philosopher is a moral being in a particularly intense and unique way.

In my view, it is one of the best aspects or effects of the philosophical undertaking.

Reading Ambiguously

Sometimes reading books by great philosophers feels like trying to peruse an algebra problem.

There are words, phrases, sometimes entire passages, the meaning or internal coherence of which is unclear at first.

The temptation will be to assume we know what these things mean, especially if we come to the book with any sort of arrogance or contempt toward the writer, however slight or well-disguised.

Perhaps sometimes having an hypothetical meaning to attach to these ambiguous terms will be unavoidable to some degree, but in that case it will be vitally important to keep in mind that the interpretation is only based on an hypothesis. It is much better, when possible, to leave the meaning open, uncertain, unfilled, for as long as possible.

I think it’s really valuable to read any great piece of philosophy with humility, care, curiosity, generosity, patience. I believe that in the process of reading such a work, it is inestimably beneficial to try to live with ambiguities, without seeking to resolve them too soon.

The meaning of the written work will not disclose itself all at once on a single reading. If it is a great work, by a great thinker, then understanding it will be difficult, if not perhaps impossible, for us later and lesser readers. I’m not saying that a full understanding must be positively impossible, only that we have to stay open to the reality that we may in the end not be sufficient, in ourselves, to think the thoughts of one of these great minds, no matter how hard we try. Indeed, if we don’t begin with that assumption, with that posture, then I think the likelihood of failing to understand actually rises dramatically.

The better we get to know the book, the more we will see what values must go to fill the variables that at first confronted us.

Moral Bankruptcy of Right and Left

Both sides pretend to believe whatever they see as the most advantageous beliefs to profess. If they don’t, they’ll be displaced by other members of their side who will.

Both sides bend the rules, push justice and decency to their limits. If they don’t, the other side will do it and then beat them in elections.

Both sides lie, shade the truth, omit as much as possible. If they don’t, their enemies will twist their veracity into a weapon to use agains them.

Both sides accuse the other of clear and shameful hypocrisy. Both are quite correct in this, and each can only take refuge in the fact that the other side is just as much a hypocrite and so in no position to pass judgement.

Both sides force the citizenry to make a choice between the lesser of two evils, thus consigning us either to political powerlessness or to cooperation with their shameful activity.

Both sides encourage citizens to be appalled at the hypocrisy of the other, and both sides seek to excuse and laugh away the hypocrisy of themselves, which is of course the very opposite of what we ought to do in the face of our own hypocrisy.

Both sides are ruled and guided by the ignorance of the multitudes. Neither side loves truth or justice when it is on the path to political power.

There must be something better than this.

The Evil of Special Pleading

It seems to me that the person who is able to root out the inborn human tendency toward special pleading is a huge step closer to being on the path to knowledge and wisdom.

It’s so naturally human, this fallacy. We have a cognitive distortion constantly assuring us that whatever we already believe or almost believe, especially if we want to believe it, should be presumed to be true in the face of any alternative accounts.

Thus, we submit the beliefs of others to a level of scrutiny that we would never think of applying to our own. And on an everyday level, this attitude makes a great deal of sense, as do so many of the common fallacies. We don’t have time to compare our convictions fairly with the claims presented by someone else who probably, let’s be honest, has no better justification for their beliefs than we have for ours. Unless the claims are especially compelling or urgent in the moment, we generally do well to hold our ground in the short term and to avoid being thrown too easily by the beliefs of others.

However, while there’s a practical argument for it in the short term, it is of course the path of sheer folly in the longer term, especially if a person is seriously trying to seek the truth. What could be clearer than the fact that we cannot easily grow closer to the truth if we are applying double standards everywhere?

And yet, it is so common, among the educated as well as the uneducated, on the right and the left alike. It is astonishing. Disappointing, certainly.

Their hypocrisy does not justify or negate our hypocrisy, even though “we” always assume it must. Their double standards, their special pleading, ought to inspire us to strive for something better, not to drag us down to their same level.

Once we decide that special pleading is contemptible wherever it appears and is never intellectually justifiable, and start watching out for it in ourselves, we’ll find it all too easy to notice, and not too difficult to avoid, if we choose.

Make that choice.

Mastering Oneself is Enslaving Oneself

There is a higher part of ourselves, or aspect of ourselves, that is able to want what is good for us. There are lower aspects of ourselves that long for satisfaction of desires that may not be for our good or the good of others. Making the lower part compliant to the wishes of the higher is a difficult task, and one of the most important things we can aspire to.

Let’s take a scenario. What if you could be imprisoned for a given number of hours every week, for the purpose of self-improvement? For the sake of the argument, it’s a nice prison — bright, clean, spacious, pretty.

You choose when and how often and for how long to go, and you choose what things can be in there. Maybe it could contain some healthy foods that otherwise you’d pass over in favour of something easier or tastier or more filling. Maybe a treadmill or some other exercise equipment. Maybe some specific books that you need to read, or language textbooks you want to study.

Would you take that opportunity? Would you put yourself in a situation where the choice is between healthy food and hunger, between using a treadmill or sitting on the floor, between boredom and reading something worthwhile?

There are only two reasons I could imagine turning down an opportunity like that, abstracting from the particulars of a life situation (eg work obligations, family).

I would choose to turn it down if I already had such perfect self-control that I never gave in to distraction, laziness, procrastination, or self-indulgence.

I might also reject the opportunity if I didn’t really want to do the things that I believe are better, if, somewhere in myself, I would miss doing the worse things too much.

I suppose there’s a third possible reason as well, which draws elements from both of the others: it may very well be that if I wanted most to work on growing in self-control, I would prefer to be in a situation in which self-control might be tested. I’m not sure that’s the best approach to growing in self-control specifically or in virtue more generally, but no doubt it is a possible motivation.

We probably don’t have an arrangement like that available to us. But we must find something analogous, many tools by which we can follow through on the decisions of our best self.

In Praise of Ignorance

Know that you don’t know.

The vast majority of us are ignorant about pretty much everything. A tiny minority of us are somewhat knowledgeable in one or two subjects.

But all of us have the power to be able to recognize our own ignorance, and that recognition, all by itself, will make us wiser than a million memorized facts and figures ever could.

Even having a PhD is no guarantee that a person knows much of anything; if anything, it will only provide more temptation for the person to believe they know more than they really do. Still, don’t think that fact puts us above them in the ability to think or understand. If even the person with a doctorate is mostly ignorant, how much more are the rest of us?

There is nothing that’s as endearing as someone who admits to ignorance, and withholds judgement on the basis of that ignorance, and is open to having it remedied if a competent teacher should appear.

The good life is knowing one’s own ignorance, making peace with it and not being defensive about it, seeking continually and patiently to remedy it, and learning from others when they can teach us. It’s surprisingly easy to see when others are really knowledgeable once we finally encounter it; almost all others will believe themselves knowledgeable, and will be able to give reasons for their beliefs, but it is the rare person whose beliefs are actually proportionate to their evidence who can teach us, or at least accompany us in a way that is help rather than hindrance.