The Evil of False Equivalence

I wrote previously about the evil of special pleading. There is a related, complementary evil to be found in false equivalence.

False equivalence is treating two things as the same when they clearly are not. But that description of false equivalence could mislead us — it’s important not to get confused here with the use of analogies or illustrations, because that’s another, separate matter.

Analogies or illustrations take two things that are different in order to draw attention to what is similar, so that what is difficult to understand in the one is made easier by seeing it as if in miniature in the corresponding image. A dishonest thinker will tear down every undesired illustration simply by pointing out that the two things are different; but we all know they’re different, and the goal is to be able to learn from their similarities.

False equivalence is another thing altogether. False equivalence (in the sort of instance that I have in mind) says, “If you get to accuse me then I should get to accuse you right back. Any credibility or sympathy that they get should automatically apply to us as well.” Such statements may well be true, depending on the circumstance, but often they are not. Often they are terribly untrue.

An example of this that will seem obvious to some, and for others perhaps doubtful, is socialism and racism (as approximate placeholders for far left and far right in today’s political imagination). It’s true that communist governments and fascist governments have each done evil things. It is not thereby true, however, that socialism and racism are equally evil and should be treated as being on the same footing.

Socialists are concerned about problems related to economic injustice and inequality, to the proper distribution of economic value. This can be pursued poorly or foolishly or dangerously, no doubt, but the goal is a good one. What good goal does a literal racist, qua racist, aim to achieve?

Don’t assume that two things, two sides, two extremes, two enemies, two accounts, are equally valid and should be treated alike. Very often they are not, and shouldn’t be, and then to do so (or to demand it) is nothing but foolishness and falsehood.

Think about Happiness

We shouldn’t assume we know what happiness is, or how it can be acquired.

Most of us do assume. Most of us spin our way through the years, sliding inevitably toward the end of life, certain we already know what happiness means and what is the path to it. A handful of contradictory associations roll around our minds, moving in and out of focus as the years pass and circumstances change.

We think that happiness is being respected. We think it is finding a true love and being united to that person. We think it is amassing enough money that fear and insecurity cannot touch us. We think it is being beautiful, strong, desirable, an ideal specimen. We think it is being smart and having a quick answer to all the usual questions about how the world should work. We think it is having likeminded friends who can commiserate with us about the evil and powerful “them” who would eradicate our kind if they could get away with it.

We devote our lives to chasing those things, one goal after another and then back around the circle again. The people around us do likewise.

The smartest person is the one who pauses early on to make sure that the goal in focus is really the right one.

Without that, we are leaving it to luck whether we ever will find happiness. We may even be leaving it up to luck whether we will even recognize happiness, having found it. Have you ever looked back on a time in your life with affection or longing? Sometimes we have happiness in our hands and we don’t even realize it in the moment.

That being the case, setting our sights on acquiring an understanding of happiness could be one of the most important things we ever do.

Two Kinds of Intellectuals

I think it wouldn’t be too controversial to divide the world into intellectuals and non-intellectuals. Sure, it’s a bit of an inexact distinction, with a fuzzy boundary, and it can be too easy to read it as carrying with it some sort of normative weight, as though non-intellectuals are less good or less admirable than intellectuals. I certainly don’t mean to set up any sort of a hierarchy of value like that, and I can concede without any difficulty the existence of liminal cases. I think it’s still a helpful and meaningful distinction.

The “intellectuals” group, I think, can likewise be divided in two. This is probably less uncontroversial, but here we go.

Among intellectuals, there are the puzzle-solvers, and there are what we might call world-solvers. The latter group is very rare, though it is worthwhile to note that a great many who belong to the former group believe they reside in the latter — still, it shouldn’t generally be difficult to spot the difference between the fakes and the genuine article, with a little digging.

(Once again, this is overgeneral and inexact as a division, and yet still perhaps helpful.)

Puzzle-solvers do great good. They derive intellectual pleasure from the activity of coming to understand some perplexing problem better than they ever have before, perhaps better than anyone ever has before. They often yearn for the recognition and celebration that comes with success in such a venture. They find joy when their discoveries make the world a better place in some particular, practical way, even if only for a very few people.

Most intellectuals are problem-solvers of that sort. The world-solvers are more rare, and most of those who aim at world-solving never complete the necessary training, either giving up or passing away before they are close to being able to engage competently in their chosen field.

To be a world-solver is to have understood the causes and mechanisms and outcomes of the world we live in, and to be able to compare this world against the best world and the better worlds. The first step to becoming a world-solver is finding the right vantage point. Every field thinks it gives access to the ultimate truth (or as close as we can get), but each is also deficient if it can’t learn from the others, and so there is an element of interdisciplinarity that’s necessary for this vantage point. Once having reached this point and spanned the relevant disciplines, there is the need to secure sufficient breadth and depth of understanding in all of them. This is a long and slow and lonely path. At some point, though, it begins to be possible to understand the world in a way that few people, even few intellectuals, ever can.

I am certainly not yet at (or close to) such a point myself, but it seems like a worthy dream to strive toward.

Sometimes Nice is Good

I have friends who hate the word nice. People shouldn’t want to be nice, according to this view, but rather to be good! I don’t quite agree.

What I care about is not whether a person is acting nicely, but why.

Is the niceness a sign of weakness, of insecurity? Is it motivated by fear and by a desire to be liked? I wouldn’t call this sort of niceness evil, necessarily; it is understandable and in many situations may be the wise course. Still, it’s clearly not optimal. It’s not heroic virtue, even if it might not be wrong.

But what if the person who’s being nice is someone who’s strong and smart and capable? What about when the niceness is revealing a powerful person’s self-control, the ability to hold back one’s aggression even when it might be easier and more satisfying to unleash it?

Now, that person has attained a marvellous kind of virtue indeed.

Niceness can derive from weakness or from strength. In the former case it looks like obsequiousness, but in the latter it is a coiled spring, a contained ferocity.

If we praise niceness, let it be the second sort. I think it was Harvey Mansfield who said that you have to be a man before you can be a gentleman, which captures something of the spirit of what I’m trying to say.

I know some people will say that niceness originally referred to silliness or lack of intelligence, but let’s not get too lost in the etymological fallacy. I mean niceness in the way it is normally used today (when not pejorative), as a kind of intersection of gentleness and kindness and peaceableness and generosity and encouragement. That kind of niceness can certainly be a praiseworthy quality.

Conservatism and Relativism

The assumption, frequently confirmed by experience, is that the more conservative you are, the more loudly and indignantly you will rail against the dangers of relativism.

And yet, conservatives were the original relativists. The way that the political and social fabric is established in England from time immemorial is a hard-won system that functions relatively well, worked out over the generations through a process of trial and error, which cannot easily be understood and rationalized, which we break or abolish at our own peril. Does that mean a political community in China or sub-Saharan Africa should adopt all the political institutions and social customs of England? For the consistent conservative, the answer will be a forceful no; those communities have their own arrangements, worked out over long stretches of time, which are appropriate to the peoples and places where they grew up. That’s not to say that these arrangements can’t be improved, either from within or through interaction with other external communities, but the improvements should respect and build on the existing traditions, and we should be open to learning and benefiting from them as much as we expect to offer them wise insights.

This is very very close, shockingly close, to the cultural relativism of modern anthropology.

So then why the seeming opposition of conservatism and relativism? I have some guesses.

1. Most superficially there’s the fact that conservatism often gets tangled up with imperialism or what a couple decades ago we called neoconservatism, which claims that we do have the ultimate, transcendent answers and that, to one degree or another, other communities really should just be more like us.

2. As well, relativism can feel like an attack on conservatism itself when the message seems to be “everyone’s way of doing things is appropriate and beautiful except ours,” and this impression definitely exists, sometimes only imagined and sometimes brazenly real.

3. Perhaps most centrally, there is a tension at the heart of conservatism which is the same as that in the doctrine of cultural relativism: given the “ubiquity of ethnocentrism,” an essential part of our tradition (and part of everyone else’s too) is the conviction that the way we do things is normal and the way our neighbours do things is aberrant and even perverse. How does a relativist affirm that conviction without ceasing to be a relativist? How does a conservative, for that matter? Conservatism and relativism, thus, saying almost the same thing, speak past one another and seem to be polar opposites.

The Problem with Enlightenment

The biggest problem with enlightenment is that it inspires and makes possible those antienlightenment movements which are unavoidably, radically modern.

Maybe this is the true application of Hegel’s dialectical reading of history to the modern world, which Marx and Fukuyama both equally missed. Liberalism doesn’t lead to global communism or to a liberal order; it generates totalitarianism, modern extremisms, and can’t help it, can’t stop doing it. Simply by being itself, it brings its great antithesis into being.

Modernity promises increased wealth, truth, political representation. Each of these promises is fulfilled in general, but often not (or not equally) for specific groups within a society, which, in turn, leads to the modern reactions against modernity. Those modern reactions pretend to be scientific, true to the people, economically progressive, and the increasingly obvious fact that they are actually not any of these things is entirely unproblematic to their apologists, insofar as all the other modern political players are (as the extremists regularly point out) obviously just pretending as well.

Hannah Arendt helpfully insists on speaking of totalitarianism as a single thing, for which racism and communism are just convenient rationalizations. Fascism and Bolshevism are in one sense revelatory of the antienlightenment response, but they aren’t the fulfillment of it. Totalitarianism by its nature is not national (even if its rhetoric may sometimes be) but must by its internal logic always seek to be global, as Stalin and Naziism made clear.

Both extreme expressions (of the left and of the right) are illiberal, and both denounce the other side for being insufficiently liberal; each presents itself partly as an emergency defence of liberalism against an enemy, and partly as something which is superior to liberalism, the illiberalism of which is justified by the illiberalism and hypocrisy of the opposite side. Liberalism itself (eg Britain) is treated as merely a disguised instance of the opposite side.

The French Revolution obviously gives an early example of enlightenment politics, but it quickly shows the shadow side of those politics as well. It’s fair to say that the terror isn’t true to the ideals of the enlightenment, but it’s also fair to point out that it grows out of and draws its strength from what the enlightenment was doing.

Liberalism’s best defenders claim plausibly that if we can grow the economy fast enough then we will stay ahead of the demand for extremisms. The problem is that we can’t actually control everything (not even the reality, let alone people’s perceptions of reality), and so we can’t guarantee that there will never come a wrench into the gears that throws off economic growth for some length of time (eg extreme weather). And when that economic disaster happens, as it inevitably must sooner or later, the more technologically developed we are at that moment, the more powerful will be the political and social and economic tools of whatever group may be able to come to power.

Selfish or Self-Centred

It just occurred to me that it might be helpful to make a distinction between selfishness and self-centredness. There are two different ideas that I habitually refer to by the same word, as selfishness, but they really deserve to be distinguished for the sake of clear thinking.

Selfishness means taking the best things for oneself before offering them to others. This is a rare and praiseworthy thing in the intellectual or spiritual aspect, but on the material level it is something that should most often be avoided, or at least moderated.

There’s another thing that I often want to call selfishness but which is perhaps better called self-centredness, although even this term leaves something to be desired. This other thing is a distortion of reality. Plato has Socrates describe this somewhere — in the Meno, I want to say. Let me explain.

In the physical world, perspective distorts reality. A tree nearby looks larger than a tree in the distance, even if the distant tree might in fact be much larger.

In our moral and intellectual reasoning, a similar thing happens, against which it can be very difficult to compensate in order to arrive at a balanced and fair assessment of reality.

A future pleasure is less enticing than an immediate pleasure, and a future pain is less fearsome than an immediate pain. A hurting friend seems more important than a hurting stranger, and a hurting self seems far more important than a hurting friend. This is everywhere, and it is a real challenge to resist it.

Our self-centredness distorts the world, and if we don’t consciously fight it then the distortion can easily lead us to unjust and unwise acts.

Are Smart Audiobooks a Waste of Time?

I’ve encountered some intelligent people who seem to think that audiobooks are good for mindless fiction, light entertainment, but not much else. “There’s no point reading intellectual books as audiobooks. You can’t get anything out of it.” I disagree.

I recognize that reading a paper copy of a book can have some real advantages for reading difficult, intellectual prose. If you’re standing at the sink washing dishes and listening to an audiobook, you can’t make notes in the margins. You can’t easily stop and reread a sentence more slowly. You can’t flip back to an earlier passage from several pages back and compare the two. Probably it’s not even convenient to pause reading the book and ponder what has just been said. So, no doubt, there are limitations.

There are, however, also some small advantages. For one thing, it makes it easier to get through a large piece of text at a consistent rate, which offers a better sense of the proportion of its parts, and allows a better sense of the overall structure and framework. A good narrator can also help difficult sentences come together in a meaningful way.

Sometimes audiobooks are a good way to revisit texts previously read on paper. I have difficulty listening to sections of Plotinus that are unfamiliar to me, but to hear them after having puzzled through them is a pleasure.

Let’s keep in mind that these folks who disparage intelligent audiobooks apparently think that Socrates’ listeners weren’t able to learn philosophy from him through their ears, nor the students of Aristotle, Plotinus, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Leo Strauss or any of a very long list of great minds in between.

But the most important point is, you can’t really compare the two, audiobooks and paper books. Remember that in our example, we were listening to the audiobook while doing a chore. You wouldn’t have been reading a physical book while cleaning the kitchen either way.

So then the real question is, do you want to listen to smart books in moments you wouldn’t have been able to sit down and read those same books? Or would you rather be doing something else altogether in those moments, and miss the opportunity entirely?

To me, it’s an easy choice.