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.

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