Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Ethical Atheist Candidate: Militant Moderation

Conservative, Liberal, Libertarian, Progressive, Democrat, Republican

The instant you start a political campaign, people will try to put you in a pigeon hole, and then interpret every sound bite that follows in the context of that hole.

In truth, with these political tribes, people tend to seek membership and identity. To become a member, you need to substantially agree with the dogma of that particular tribe. There may be room for some disagreement around the edges, but by and large you purchase membership in a tribe by conformity.

In this pseudo-campaign, I wish to start a new tribe. This tribe will be known as the Militant Moderates.

Militant moderates hold that no person is so intellectually gifted that they can count on their own infallibility in political matters. Militant moderats reject the common practice of saying, "I cannot possibly be wrong, nobody who disagrees with me can possibly be right. In virtue of my own perfection, I must never listen to or compromise with anybody else. Compromise can only bring something less than perfection."

Militant moderates reject the idea that "Everybody whose beliefs are different from my own is a traitor to humanity. Perhaps we are obligated to tolerate their opinions, but only to the extent that we will not round them all up and kill them - though certainly it would be to the benefit of humanity to do so. While we struggle to resist this tempatation, we will not deny that they are traitors to humanity."

The "militant" part of these militant moderates is that they find the arrogant presumption totally contemptible. They will soundly condemn, in no uncertain terms, anybody whose attitudes follow those described in the two paragraphs above.

Let us not close our eyes to exactly how common those attitudes are. Browse any major news site on the web, or turn on any cable news network, and you will be bombarded with examples of uncompromising arrogance.

This does not mean that militant moderates believe that all points of view are equally valid, or that there is no truth to the matter other than the truths each person invents for themselves. She believes that there are facts. A person can believe all they want in the virtues of a zero-calorie miracle diet, but he'll be dead in a month if he tries it.

However, each one of us is cursed with biases and interests, presumptions and assumptions embedded into our brains since childhood, and only a small fragment of the total amount of information relevant to any major political opinion. While truth exists, these limitations hide truth behind a fog through which none of us - not one of us - can see with absolute clarity.

As I see it, in any negotiation, I can bring to the table my small subset of total human information, along with my assumptions, interests, and biases. It is not as if I can leave them behind.

Others can do the same thing.

We can - and should - recognize that each of us has a far better ability to see the flaws in others' thinking than we do in our own. instead of presuming infallibility, I intend to take advantage of their greater insight into my mistakes by listening to them and learning where I might have gone wrong in my thinking.

At the same time, as a militant moderate, I will reminding others, "You are not an omniscient deity blessed with perfect knowledge and virtue. Do not dare sit there and presume that it cannot possibly be you who are wrong."

I believe in compromise.

I believe that, when a group of people, each with their own assumptions, interests, biased, and small fraction of human knowledge get together, it is to be hoped that they can come up with a conclusion grounded on a larger set of interests, assumptions, and knowledge than that which any one of them could have come up with as an individual.

I believe that anybody who does not believe in compromise is arrogant - and arrogance is no minor character flaw. One quality that every bloody dictator and terrorist has in common is arrogance. One quality that every war is built on is arrogance. The one quality that deadlocks our government and makes us incapable of solving even simple problems is arrogance. Listen the next time congress is deadlocked on an issue and you can see it - you can feel it - in nearly every utterance.

Arrogance poisons everything.

I promise you, as your elected representative, that I WILL compromise. I WILL listen to people who do not agree with me. I WILL respect the fact that they can find holes in my thinking that I am otherwise incapable of seeing due to the blindness of interest and presumption. I WILL remind myself every time somebody else speaks, "You may be right."


Jesse Reeve said...

This post assumes that politicians are chiefly interested in getting at the truth, that the best way to seek the truth is through compromise, and that the chief obstacle to compromise is the attitude that "I cannot possibly be wrong, nobody who disagrees with me can possibly be right."

This assumption is at odds with your May 25 post on the ethical atheist lobbyist, in which the hypothetical legislator tells the lobbyist, "I agree with everything you said and your reasoning is sound. However, it doesn't make one bit of difference... Improve the number of votes or the size of the contributions that a politician can expect if he goes along with your proposal. Then, come here and talk to me."

It seems to me that the May 25 post comes closer to the truth. Politicians are advantage-seekers, not truth-seekers-- professional representatives for a coalition of interest groups. Any politician who actually changed his position based on reasoning or evidence risks being "fired" by his coalition (though a different coalition might "hire" him)-- which is why it so seldom happens.

When politicians get together to create policy, they are not interested in finding "a conclusion grounded on a larger set of interests, assumptions, and knowledge." They each come to the table with their conclusions fully formed, and their aim is to secure as much advantage for themselves as they can. Compromise is necessary to the process as a requirement for coalition-building, not truth-seeking.

An ethical atheist politician who campaigns on his ability to compromise in the course of truth-seeking is as politically naive as an engineer-politician who campaigns for office on his ability to design skyscrapers. Neither skill is useful or relevant to the political profession.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Ultimately, this post (and all of the posts in this series) should be looked at as an attempt to "change the numbers."

I am using this post to present an argument to the studio audience that they have reason to prefer truth-seeking compromising candidates over uncompromisingly arrogant candidates.

If enough people accept this argument, it will "change the numbers". This will help truth-seeking compromisers to take and hold seats in government, while reducing the fortunes of those who are uncompromisingly arrogant.

More generally, in these posts, I attempt to identify some quality that I think the ethical atheist politician would have and defend, and I argue as to why voters should be preferring a candidate with that quality.

That is why this is a pseudo-candidacy and not a real candidacy. It allows me to say the things that voters what I think they SHOULD support rather than describe what they DO support.

Of course, I have a limited capacity to "change the numbers." However, I do what I can.

Jesse Reeve said...

I am using this post to present an argument to the studio audience that they have reason to prefer truth-seeking compromising candidates over uncompromisingly arrogant candidates.

If a politician's job is to be a professional representative for a coalition of interest groups-- as you argued on May 25, and as I'm arguing now-- then the truth-seeking approach simply will not work. If the ethical atheist politician is one who takes a truth-seeking compromising approach to representing his supporters, he is condemning himself to irrelevance and his supporters to impotence.

Suppose you are on trial in a court of law. Your financial success, your freedom, and your survival are at stake. Are you going to hire a lawyer who promises to defend your case to the utmost of her ability? Ore are you going to hire a lawyer who promises to investigate your case on her own, listen to your opponent's arguments, with the ultimate intention of compromising with your opponent?

If the two different lawyers are hired by the two different sides in the case, which do you think will win?

Of course, in reality you will not find any lawyers of the second sort, any more than you will find politicians of that sort. There is no demand for them, because the truth-seeking compromising approach to being a lawyer does not work, any more than it works in being a politician.

I agree with your May 25th post that the role for truth-seeking compromise in politics comes well before any votes are cast or campaigns financed. It comes in the citizen voter's task of deciding which issues to support and which coalitions to join. By the time the votes have been cast, the politicians elected, and the legislation presented for debate, the time for truth-seeking compromise is over.