Two ways of relating to progressivism

I’ve experienced in myself, and seen in others, two main ways of relating to progressivism for those of us who are not thoroughgoing progressivists. Both feel natural and understandable, but one of the two seems far more desirable than the other.

The first approach (and indeed it is often first chronologically, when there’s a chronological development in a person’s mature thought) is sheer rejection. More specifically, it is rejection that is based on disagreement or doubt about the reasoning that produces a given progressive conclusion. “Well, I don’t agree with your premises, so I can’t go along with your conclusion.” I think that, as a starting place, this can be a sign of a healthy intellectual disposition (think of the well-being gap between conservatives and liberals), but it is based on a serious error, and getting stuck at this stage seems to me likewise a sign of a problem. More on that in a moment.

The other option is to search for possible overlaps with a progressive doctrine that can be reached from a different starting point. Something closer to, “While I don’t agree with you that absolute indiscriminate compassion for all human or conscious or living beings is the fundamental and unquestionable moral principle, nevertheless I still agree with a lot of your conclusions, at least up to a point.”

I’m thinking less here of exoteric rhetorical posture than of interior ideological disposition. The character of the moment and of a particular audience will determine the rhetorical possibilities; some situations might well call for unyielding or divisive stances (though in general I’m dispositionally disinclined to that sort of thing, being honest). That’s fine as far as it goes, but if that’s also what’s happening beneath the surface, in the heart, then I think it’s unhealthy and likely to lead to accepting falsehoods and error.

The former is based on a common logical error. “You believe Y because of X. But X is not true, and so Y is likewise false.” If X then Y; not-X, therefore not-Y. Sheer fallacy. It’s amazing how many people who think of themselves as smart fall prey to such errors—and certainly the ideological Right is not unique in this sort of mistake.

There are ways of trying to make it less fallacious, of course. “Well, I don’t believe things without proof, and their proof has obviously failed, so why should I believe it? That’s not a fallacy.” Or perhaps, “If we believe or assume that Y is true, it will have big consequences in the real world, including many very bad consequences, so if there’s no good reason to accept it then we have an obligation to treat it as definitively untrue, until we learn otherwise.”

These are valid as far as they go, but I still have some big reservations. For one thing, we shouldn’t assume we know what all the consequences will be and base our decisions on this supposed foreknowledge; even a false opinion can lead to good outcomes, especially given that the old opinion it’s replacing is probably equally false and harmful though in different ways. Further on this same note: for someone to say that one of the bad consequences of an opinion is that it will divide society and could lead to violence is entirely illegitimate, if this same someone is actively seeking to stir up and shape the very passions that would lead to violent divisiveness.

But most importantly of all, to me, it seems that we have an intellectual obligation to ourselves to make at least a cursory attempt at finding a better argument than the one that failed to convince us. Anything else is sheer intellectual laziness and self-sabotage. I’m not saying we need to go to the ends of the earth seeking to prove the other side’s argument, or read all the relevant academic literature we can get our hands on (though until we’ve done so, it surely wouldn’t hurt to hang onto some measure of humility and uncertainty). But at the very least we should make a genuine effort at bridging the gap from what we already believe and accept to what the other person is proposing to us. Usually it takes negligible effort to get most of the way there. Frequently we won’t be able to get to absolute agreement, but if we can get ninety or ninety-nine percent of the way to agreement without trying almost at all, and in the process learn something new and valuable from the other person that we otherwise wouldn’t have seen, then there is every reason to give it a shot as often as we can.

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