Endlessly malleable human nature?

One accusation people on the right sometimes make against people on the left is that they treat human nature as endlessly malleable, that they, in other words, reject the whole idea of human nature. There are certainly some thinkers on the left who seem to give support to this accusation.

But it would be a mistake to think that one must deny human nature and accept infinite malleability in order to accept what people on the left say.

It’s undeniable that there is massive diversity in human behaviour, and also that some institutions or behaviours seem to have better outcomes than others, and also that there are many more paths that are not yet explored than those that have been explored.

The conservative inclination is to say, at the very least, that it is wiser to try to choose the best of those that have already been well explored than to experiment with options beyond the frontiers of human experience.

But there are good arguments to suggest that it might be unwise to leave too much unexplored, especially when we consider the remarkable rate of change we see around us in the modern world.

Whether we should try new things, and how cautiously we should try new things, can be debated. It’s a hard question to answer, and it’s even harder for most of us ever to be able to imagine enacting in the world whatever answer we arrive at.

I guess the point for me is that we can’t try to win the argument by caricaturing the other side as if they have to believe something that not all of them do or must believe. Debate about the malleability of human nature if you like, but don’t forget that the answer to the question won’t resolve the political questions so often attached to it.

Raised religious

People react in remarkably different ways to the experience of being raised religious.

Some people reject it fiercely. They have a bad experience, of one sort or another, and learn to despise it, and sometimes all religion, often without much nuance.

Some come to embrace the religion they were raised in fiercely, with a similar lack of nuance. This is, in a way, the lifeblood of any faith that hopes to survive down through generations.

Some reject religion tentatively and with a bad conscience, not feeling firmly that it is wrong but also not feeling strongly that they should centre their life around it, for one reason or another. I have a sense that people like this often remain open to other quasi-religious things, being more credulous and manipulable than other people because of a hunger for transcendence and special knowledge and ingroup solidarity.

I think that for my part, at this point in my life I try to embrace and, so to speak, reject, simultaneously, keeping the faith and enjoying my participation in it, but at the same time not assuming my interpretation of it is uniquely right, or even right at all.

I seek to take that posture mainly because I believe it aligns with the truth – the truth about the unknowability of the divine and about the inestimable depths of meaning in divine revelation, on the one hand, and about my own limitations and the many relevant texts or discussions that I haven’t yet had the opportunity to study with any care. Any other posture would be me trying to convince myself that I know more than I do and perhaps more than I even can.

And while this isn’t the primary reason, I am also glad to take this posture because it feels like the healthiest and hardiest one to take. Fundamentalism on the one side, and combative irreligiosity on the other, both seem to come packaged up with fear and insecurity, an ugly self-assertiveness that can’t bear to think of being wrong, where self-respect and defensibility of a belief are tied together in a way that is unnecessary, and unnecessarily harmful. The way of strength and merriment, I am convinced, is something closer to the way I have found.

Media selection during social crises

I find that when the world doesn’t seem that exciting, I tend to read and listen to the media I’ve learned to trust. I might think of other kinds of information sources I’d be curious to find, but I never try very hard to locate them.

When the world seems to be going through convulsions, though, I focus pretty intensely on seeking out coverage of a given situation and look to see who seems to be doing a good job of it, and when I find find people then that I find helpful to listen to, I add them to my trusted sources. Sometimes they get removed from my list a while later once I’ve seen more of them and judged them to be less helpful than I first thought, but often my best finds end up taking a more permanent place in my set of trusted media sources.

Part of the reason too why my list of trusted media sources will grow is that I will often have a point of view about the situation, so I will be quickly able to discard sources that aren’t compatible with that view, and I will have particular questions not answered in the places I often go looking, and so I can quickly discard any that aren’t getting me closer to remedying the ignorance I’ve found in myself and my sources.

I think these sorts of social crises are a natural thing. I’m glad they don’t happen constantly without interruption. But I’m also somewhat glad that I do find them, because I think afterwards I often emerge with more knowledge and a richer inflow of new knowledge, from which, in time, I might be able to discover further important questions for which I need to search out answers.

As my library of trusted sources grows, I think I am becoming more competent at learning about and thinking about the big events that happen in the world. For now, my opinions are largely those I hear from those I’ve learned to trust, but it is good to know enough about the situations that I can even have intelligible and supportable opinions on them.

Eventually my hope is that, by learning from these people who are more knowledgeable than I am, I can get to the point where I’m able to form my own informed opinions about new situations rapidly when they arise. For the time being, I enjoy learning and being shaped by those who seem to have proven to be most insightful about current events.

That certainly feels to me like something to be grateful for.

Daily Duo

This year, being back in classes, I’ve had to abandon all my language habits except for a single daily Duolingo lesson. I had hoped to keep more of my good habits in place, but that’s all I’ve held onto.

I’ve been focusing on German. That will be relevant to my studies, a bit more than the other languages I’ve worked on, so I decided to see how far I could go in that one language during this year.

The effort involved is minimal. The hardest part is just remembering to do it, making sure not to forget. Once I start, I’m done within a few minutes. A single lesson is not mentally taxing at all.

With so little time invested, you might expect that I would be just maintaining the German I know, or forgetting it less rapidly.

But I am making progress in German, slowly, but still improving, even with the almost nonexistent effort I’m putting into it.

The sentence structure of German, in particular, is making its way into my mind, so that it is becoming much easier for me to look at a sentence of German and, even if I don’t know all the words, recognize what each part of the sentence is probably doing.

As an English-speaker reading German, that is a huge win. I just recently tried going back and perusing an essay that I attempted to read a couple years ago. It was so much easier this time.

When the year of studies is over, it won’t have been a write-off for my languages, and I have to attribute that to Duolingo.

Figuring out politics on the fly

I’ve said a couple times recently that I want to try to figure out where I will stand politically after all my thinking about politics, and how I will communicate my thoughts compellingly from that position.

But maybe I don’t need to do quite as much of that work as I think.

I might as well still do as much of it as I can for now, while I have an interest in it and no stakes and some time to devote to it. There’s nothing wrong with trying to do it, and much potential benefit.

But I wonder if what will be most valuable, when my life circumstances allow, will be to get involved in the political process, have one or two palatable (perhaps economic) goals I can talk about intelligently, and then just figure things out on the fly as I am confronted with conversations and situations and have to draw on the learning I’ve done in the past several years.

I won’t have room in my life to get involved to this extent for at least a few years, but that’s okay. I’m in no hurry. I intend to live a long life, and politics is clearly not limited to the youthful, so there are lots of years ahead. I also feel okay about sitting out the next couple years of craziness as the world tries to sort itself out, though of course there’s no guarantee things will be any better later on.

I will certainly try to continue to learn about economics, history, political science, and whatever other fields of study are directly relevant to political work in the meantime, so that time waiting will by no means be time wasted.

But it is nice to think that I don’t need to have everything figured out before I can get involved. I just need to learn as much as I can in the time I have, and then jump in and make the best of it when I can. I like that.

Thoughts about my politics

I think that even though in my view, the economy is not the most important part of politics, it probably is the most important thing for a politician to talk about.

1. The economy needs to be healthy. We need to do the things that make people wealthy, make necessary goods and services affordable, make employment abundant, and keep the economy moving in a good trajectory as much as possible. I suspect that agriculture is important to focus on here at our current moment.

2. Specifically, I think it’s important to try to encourage entrepreneurship and education. Take away the barriers, add incentives. That will be good for the economy. We need to be smart about education.

3. We should also work toward economic equality, especially at the extremes; push people out of poverty, and try to structure the economy so that where wealth is concentrated, it will become shared more widely.

It’s also important to encourage virtue. This might often be something that’s advisable to avoid talking about, since it often plays into polarizing culture war garbage that seems often to prevent big support from coalescing, but used judiciously, in small doses, I think it can still be powerful.

1. There are plenty of virtues that transcend political ideology and even what we often speak of as “cultures.” We want to find ways to foster those virtues.

2. Much of what the “woke” left wants to advocate for is just good manners adapted to the modern world. I feel like we could do a better job of communicating about this in ways that would be compelling to both sides, even if ultimately there comes a point where the two sides feel they cannot compromise.

3. Historically, the military is thought of as a place for cultivating certain important virtues, even if today and throughout history there are many signs of vices finding places to grow there as well. I think we ought to increase military spending, to live up to our obligations to our allies, and simultaneously seek to improve how that money is spent and, where necessary, how things are done in the military and police forces.

At this moment, I really feel like those would be important places to focus our thinking and speaking.

Ideology, no ideology?

I think it’s worthwhile to try and transcend political ideologies. Don’t identify with any one of them. Take the best from each. It’s probably impossible to avoid having an ideological centre of gravity entirely, but I think we should just minimize that as much as possible.

I think that sort of effort is very worthwhile. It allows us to question our beliefs. It allows us to try to weigh important theoretical and practical alternatives against one another fairly.

But I think that’s just the first step. That’s just how we learn to think somewhat clearly. We need to keep one foot in that mindset, so to speak, and make an ongoing project of learning the best from all sides and synthesizing them into something coherent as well as we can.

But I think that at some point, if we want to go beyond thinking clearly to make an actual difference, we probably do also need to step back into some particular ideological position to defend, to shape, to ride into some sort of place of influence.

We don’t want to be hyperspecialized, where only some tiny, very online population of, I don’t know, traditionalist Georgist climate activists would possibly have any interest in what we have to say.

We also wouldn’t want to appeal too broadly. We can’t just say left or centre or right; the best way to appeal within any of those parts of the political spectrum, it seems to me, is to have a somewhat more definite position within it; e.g., don’t just be “right,” but be “libertarian right” or “conservative right” or something like that.

But once you’ve tried to transcend ideology, how do you decide where to make the reentry? I have so much trouble with this. I don’t actually identify with, or even like very much, any particular ideological grouping. Some I like more than others, but even then, mainly only for superficial reasons that shouldn’t be my motivation. And of course there are aspects of each that I really like and could never fully abandon. For me, this problem is really perplexing. I think I have a suspicion of which direction I should probably incline toward, but I really resist it. More on that in the future, though.

The new and improved conspiracy challenge

I read once that the best way to converse with a conspiracy theorist is to challenge them to provide their best argument.

The reason why this is supposed to be effective is because if you just show why every argument and every piece of evidence is wrong, as they present them to you, you will never reach the end of it, and the conspiracy theorists will never doubt their conspiracy theory. They have endless oodles of bad arguments and evidence because that’s what they spend all their spare time researching. You will never be able to disprove it all, and no matter how many things you prove wrong it will never shake their confidence in the slightest because they know they have endless other things to tell you, and they feel certain it can’t all be bad. And it takes way less effort for them to change the subject and throw out a bunch more bad arguments and evidence than it takes you to show them the problems with all of them.

I can assure you that this is exactly what it is like to try to reason with a conspiracy theorist.

But I tried this best approach once, and it failed me.

He sent me what he thought was a bulletproof argument. I researched it and showed him why it was irrefutably flawed. I thought that had to be the end of it.

He, on the other hand, said he could hardly have been expected to know that his evidence was based on a blatant falsehood that he had naively accepted as true. And he continued to send more and more arguments, as before. Whenever I tried to remind him how his best argument had crashed and burned so terribly, he would just tell me it was annoying how I always focused on that ONE TIME when he was wrong (it was not the only time) and would throw out a bunch more garbage.

I think I’ve figured out what went wrong. Next time, I need to say, tell me your best argument, which you have already thoroughly researched for yourself and which you are confident is not bogus.

Surely then they can’t just say that they couldn’t have been expected to know it was so wrong . . . right??

Reason and tradition

I have an intelligent friend who wants to make reason always secondary to tradition or values. I think that this is a kind of relativism or nihilism or perhaps a kind of voluntarism (I’m not sure if that’s the exact word I’m looking for, but there’s some similar word I’m thinking of – perhaps decisionism? in any case, I’ll just say relativism from here forward but I’m also thinking of the willful choice of first principles).

When I gently accuse him of this sort of relativism, he disagrees with me, but I seem to recall that he disagrees not by showing how my accusation is wrong but basically by just claiming that his view is correct and that anyone who disagrees with him is ultimately doing the same thing and denying it. The logic seems to be that since he is right, and relativism is wrong (or is distasteful, and, since the true answer shouldn’t be distasteful, is by extension wrong), he must not be a relativist. In any case, when he goes to explain why he is not a relativist, he just entrenches himself more deeply in the account that led me to characterize him as one.

Obviously, this is a one-sided account of a long-standing and multifaceted discussion, and I’m summarizing on the basis of my hazy and biased memories, rather than going back and rereading with an eye to fairness. Still, I think that while I’m not describing it as he would, it is fair, and probably, in my view, fairer (less confused) than how he would describe it. In any case, for the sake of this post, let’s treat it as if it’s basically accurate.

This friend of mine is not the sort of unhinged rightwinger that I often take shots at in these posts, but he is definitely right-leaning, in a way that I have a lot of respect and sympathy for. And his relativism, furthermore, is deeply, and manifestly, rooted in that conservatism. Relativistic nihilism is often an accusation levelled against the left by thinkers on the right, but it actually has its origins in the modern reactionary right, and I think the case of my friend shows how this plays out. (He likes to reference Burke and Voegelin, which is no coincidence.)

He dislikes the enlightenment project, or at least some parts of the direction it has taken, and he wishes to have an account of where it went wrong. Enlightenment rationalism paints the societies that preceded it as merely irrational, parochial, religious, traditionalist, authoritative, and mystical, and thinks of itself, on the other hand, as a rationalist and universalizing project. If, then, the people before we’re correct, and the Enlightenment is wrong, then the easiest way to argue that is to bite the bullet, accept that what came before is exactly as the Enlightenment says, and then explain why that is better or truer (or at least more honest or self-aware) than what the Enlightenment alternative would claim as true. Thus, reason can’t do what it claims to, and nothing is really universal, as any number of apparent intellectual and practical disasters since the Enlightenment demonstrate conclusively.

The real issue here, though, is that the Enlightenment’s characterization of pre-enlightenment thought is only partly correct. Hardly any of the great thinkers before the Enlightenment were relativists like my friend. He might want to point at someone like Plato or Aristotle and claim that they are proto-Enlightenment thinkers and that the Enlightenment itself proves them wrong, but that is lazy and incorrect. Thinkers like Plato and Aristotle aren’t just earlier than the thinkers of the Enlightenment. They are different than the thinkers of the Enlightenment, in ways that are obvious and important.

Pre-Enlightenment thought did think differently about tradition, religion, and authority than Enlightenment thinkers, but not in my friend’s relativistic way, not as if there is no thought that can happen beyond the confines of a given social or political or religious tradition, and only one can be right and it has the entire truth, or something like that. They had more in common with one another, across religious/moral/political lines, than they did with their fellow-citizens, and they believed that’s how it should be. Traditional community isn’t bad in the way Enlightenment thought, but it also isn’t everything; to think so is to make the same mistake as the Enlightenment did but in reverse.


I find defensiveness really makes me lose respect for a person.

I dislike defensiveness so much that I would rather remain actually (rhetorically) undefended than risk appearing too defensive. If someone’s being accusatory, I tend to feel like I should give them the chance to convince themselves that I’m innocent, rather than to try at all to convince them myself.

I’m not entirely sure how weird I am for thinking in this way, or how it came about that I think in this way. At this point it is a reflexive response. I don’t even need to think about it. But I have no idea if there are other people who see things similarly, or how many.

I do think it sometimes throws people off when I respond to an accusation with a shrug and an “I’m sorry you think so.” People often aren’t sure what to do with something like that. This suggests to me that even though I’m probably not absolutely unique, I might be at least a bit odd for being this way.

I think the reason why I am so resistant to seeming defensive, and why I find it so deeply not compelling when someone else is not managing (or is not even trying) to avoid seeming defensive, is that it comes across as whiny and weak. It gives the accuser power, and defensiveness almost makes it look more like the accuser is in the right and like the defensive person is scrambling to find excuses or believable lies, often.

Personally, I don’t like the feeling of being defensive. It feels like I’m participating in an unwinnable, “he said, she said,” sort of situation, where no evidence will be decisive and everything comes down to which person seems more believable or trustworthy. And being defensive itself somehow looks untrustworthy, unbelievable.

So my impulse is not to be defensive. I will deny what’s not true, but I won’t protest. I won’t fight back if fighting back is unhelpful or even counterproductive. I’ll deny and then leave it to onlookers to judge me based on what they know of my character, which is what they would end up having to do anyway. Reacting in this way feels like the more dignified and noble way to deal with the sort of vicious character that would make untrue and unfounded accusations. It feels like the only available response that comes from, and shows, one’s strength.