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I suppose it is kind of preposterous that one imagines himself important enough to write down his opinions for others to read. Chattering superciliousness is one of the most infuriating things about academics and so-called intellectuals, generally, who feel compelled to share their thoughts. But here it goes, anyway.

A Skeptic's Concise Polemic on Politically-minded People, Ideology, and Good and Evil (Only Partly Tongue-and-Cheek)


I don’t mean this in a personal way. It’s not about a particular politician, though I could name many–––but I don’t like politicians as a class, and that is true notwithstanding their political orientation, and even when I agree with many of their positions. There are times I would put political activists, who are not themselves professional politicians, at a close second.  I was once one, long ago, for what that’s worth. And I confess to occasional bouts of it when moved by idiocy in the political landscape, such as I see today with the rise of the crypto-Confederacy. It has motivated me to go out and march a few times and to pontificate publicly. There are of course activists and politicians I find likable enough in the particular, that is, when I have more first-hand knowledge, because the fact is that I like most people in the particular; however, and especially with professional politicians, there are not that many. I think that in order to be a politician one must possess characteristics that I simply dislike, indeed, rather loath. Perhaps first and foremost, there’s the fact that politicians presume to know what’s best for me, and that they seek to arrange my life and the lives of others, and they want to tell me and others what to do. They assume that the economic goods that I acquire fairly, whether it is by luck or desert, are at their disposal. They think they ought to be able to tell me how to behave or what I ought to think because others who I do not know have given them license to do so by electing them. No doubt they sometimes do know better than I do, but probably not nearly as often as they think, and it doesn’t really matter to me if they do know better on occasion, for they presume too much, and I don’t trust them to decide. So, I resent them from the outset.

Yes,I know,  there are the self-congratulatory rationalizations of only being motivated to do well by others, having their best interests in mind, all under the banners of patriotism, and public service. . I am bothered by the fact that politicians of every persuasion possess a certain kind of personal grandiosity, a sense of self that is most likely entirely unjustified, a belief that they are specially endowed or entitled, and with a destiny to fulfill some end-state conception that they hold to be true, and to which they’d bind the rest of us, left, right, or center. More on this in a moment

Then there’s the matter of lying.  Now, human beings lie, almost without exception (I say "almost" not quite believing it---it’s a weasel word, really) … and sophisticated psychological studies show that people lie astonishingly often, granted, usually on unimportant things, but often enough on some important ones, too.  But most human beings are not governing large numbers of other human beings, so some liars are more important than other liars in terms of their impact. Here’s the rub that would set politicians all atwitter, disingenuously of course: in a true democracy, in order to succeed, politicians must be untruthful, either by commission or omission, and if not in a blatant way, then in a vague, slippery way, and usually a bit of both––for in no other manner could they at once be elected and also appeal to different constituencies with different and, often enough, opposing interest. We are all liars, it’s just a fact and there’s no denying it without lying again.  But as opposed to most of us, politicians make their livings at lying. In other words, one must be something of a scoundrel in order to succeed as a politician.

An honest ideologue would be no better, even if he could be elected, for an ideologue is by definition unyielding and doctrinaire, and he imagines his principles and ideological system to be paramount and above all other concerns, and the facts on the ground or the opinions of others are unlikely to alter his view.  A highly dishonest ideologue is even worse, of course. And there’s a good chance he will be, for, as I said, people lie, and in this particular case, lies can have big consequences to many. So that leaves us with dictatorship, an authoritarian regime, and that is obviously no better, honest or otherwise––indeed, it is much worse. As a consequence, dishonesty is simply something we must accept if we are to have democracy, which, as Winston Churchill among others has averred, is the worst system except for all the rest.

No one perpetuates the idea of public service and their personal sacrifices, and the sacrifices of their peers, even their deceased (usually only when dead, though!) opponents, more than a politician, which is more often than not simply a means of self-congratulation and self-justification. It sickens me when I hear politicians praise one another for their service, as though they make great personal sacrifices or encounter untoward dangers by seeking power over the rest of us. Heroes among them are few and far in between. It is laughable … and they even get paid for it. It is simply another way of praising the politician’s own predilections for meddlesome activity, indirectly. I do not mean to say that political achievement is not sometimes actuated by good intentions with desirable or even noble ends in mind.  But I think there is much more behind it than noble causes, and that in at least equal measure there is a desire to fulfil personal needs, namely, personal success, even glory, and certainly to gain the satisfaction that comes from having power and control over others, not to mention the approbation of others. A politician by his very nature is something of a narcissist, some more than others. I don’t find such people worthy of great admiration, generally, though I make some exceptions. But this isn’t about them; rather, it’s about most of them.

As for patriotism, it is an emotion akin to supporting a favorite sports team. A perfectly human emotion, mind you, but one that is rooted in tribalism. It is not altogether dissimilar to what gang members feel about their gang. And the symbols of it, flags and statues and such, are akin to a gang’s or sports team’s colors. And love of country is love of an abstraction, one that is often idealized and not even real. This is not to suggest that I am personally devoid of such feelings, but I do view them as primitive, and not especially worthy of rational men, feelings that ought to be quelled, and controlled, not fed.  Moreover, such emotions, these tribal feelings, patriotism, or in its more vigorous manifestations, nationalism and jingoism, are the source of considerable evil in the world, the cause of horrible wars and much suffering. With that said, I separate patriotism … the love of country and the (not uncommon) feelings of one’s country’s superiority or exceptional nature … from duty to country … or more specifically, it is distinct from duty to the society that has offered certain benefits and protections to one, and duty to one’s neighbors and family, or more broadly speaking, duty to one’s countrymen.  I have a rather Socratic view of this, which is to say that I obey the laws of my country and fulfil the duties assigned to me (within the limits of conscience and what I deem to be morally right), such as paying taxes, not committing crimes, obeying contract laws, and even defending it when it becomes necessary.  Much as Socrates refused exile instead of death when found in violation of Athenian law of corrupting the youth and such… a society from which he said he gained much and had a duty to obey.  I do see limits to this, but there’s merit to it in many instances. While I might not have explicitly signed-up for or accepted these duties, neither did I explicitly deny the benefits or opportunities bestowed upon me, many or even most of which I took for granted.  Therefore, my acceptance of those duties is implied by my having also freely taken advantage of the rights and benefits bestowed upon me.

Insofar as I subscribe to tolerance, not of everything, but of differences that obtain in society that do me no harm, and, therefore, of pluralism; believe that the material goods and assets fairly acquired by others belong to them to own and to dispose of as they wish, with few exceptions (such as causing individuals or society to suffer, thereby); accept the role of logic and science, which is to say, reason; believe in the rule of just law, and not the caprice of men (understanding that civil disobedience is sometimes defensible); hold that people ought to have the right to choose their leaders; believe that individuals have certain rights that supersede the rights of states or majorities; and eschew superstition and ignorance–––I suppose I might be characterized as a liberal or liberal minded to resurrect the great appellation that has been sullied in recent decades and replaced by some by more ambiguous term, “progressive.” But I do not hew to any overarching system of beliefs from which all social principles are derived, the mark of the ideologue, that is, beyond the most rudimentary kind of moral principles that can be derived from conjoining two concepts–––one, impartiality, and the other, rationality, the latter meant in the psychological sense, which is to say impartial rationality. One or the other is not sufficient, for they must be joined as separate, but vital concepts to arrive at a moral code that can be universal. We know, for example, it is irrational for an individual to choose his own suffering (or death) for no other, greater reason (such as to avoid greater pain, as surgery might require, or in order to protect a loved one), and if we act impartially, we extend this basic, rational principle to others without regard to the benefits or disadvantages that inure to one’s own self or to others. This is a long way of saying that the guiding principle is to avoid causing unjustified suffering, and that all other just principles are derived therefrom.  No one could impartially reason that we ought to promote happiness, though, or some conception of the good … for there is no objective standard of reference for it upon which all rational people would agree. There is such a standard for suffering and death, and their avoidance is a condition of rationality.

As I said, a system of the good … that which we apprehend as the kind of good one ought to promote or act upon for society as a whole or for people individually … cannot be similarly universalized as a requirement (as with the avoidance of suffering) to apply to all in a way that all rational men would agree, for there are no objective standards of reference to validate what one person thinks is good versus another’s conception, and neither reason nor rationality require it. Nothing in reason suggests we should prefer one end over another. There is nothing irrational, per se, about stealing from or murdering another. That is where impartiality comes in to play, for I extend my own prohibitions towards myself to others. Reason (I do not mean psychological rationality, here) deals with means quite well; but as David Hume said, it is silent about ends and desires.

Political systems are often simply manifestations of desires, which reason can lead us to fulfill, but that are in and of themselves not rational requirements. We can, however, come up with an impartial and rational concept of avoiding suffering unless justified, one with which all would agree if they act impartially. That is because wishing suffering upon one’s self is irrational by any definition, without an overriding reason.  There are of course exceptions to rules, such as do not lie or kill. The justification to an exception comes from my willingness to universalize an exception, impartially, such that I, too, or one I love, could be the victim of it, given the same essential facts of the matter. That is the nature of impartiality. Thus, thereby, one might universalize the suffering attendant to war, to use an extreme example, in order to defend or save more lives or preserve the liberties of many. But this must be done without regard to who benefits or loses given the essential facts of the matter. This, impartial rationality, is the only political “system” that I hold to be true, and from which all political acts are to be judged … indeed, all social acts are to be judged by it.  As a consequence, I am no rightist, leftist, or centrist.  I am a rational objectivist.

There are things that bother me about self-described leftists. Foremost among them is their certainty about how others ought to live their lives. But also one of the hallmark characteristics of the left is the focus on motives or on good intentions, and the emphasis is on what lies behind an act, something in the mind or will that gives the act or the intention to act its moral meaning and merit.  I reject this Kantian outlook, though I accept much else of what Kant says about morality, especially in relation to impartiality, and also his defense of democracy and individual liberty. Morality is about what we do, not simply about what we feel or believe. Sentiment is really quite worthless as it pertains to morality, that is, unless it is followed by the right act. Would that it were so easy as to believe a certain way! In this leftists also share views found in various religious doctrines, and perhaps most notably those Christian doctrines that consider morality to be more about what we believe than about what we do. Motive or intent––belief---is given great credence among leftists and Christians, alike. And it is not uncommon for either to question the motives of all they oppose, and to praise the motives they support, notwithstanding the consequences of their acts.

And as with leftists of various stripes, many Christians believe there is something impure about wanting and acquiring things, or to make a profit or gain in the process of expending labor or by serendipity, or in investing one’s goods to acquire even more. The New Testament itself tells us that it is hard for the rich to enter Heaven. The profit motive is not a good motive. This very Christian doctrine is also at the heart of Marxist doctrine, interestingly. Profit is conceived as something that is not grounded in moral desert and is therefore bad, and that all profit-taking is a zero-sum proposition, someone gains, someone loses. That is because leftists often know very little of economics. They confuse poetics with both morality and economics. Leaving that aside, leftists, like Christians, they also put great emphasis on moral desert, or at least what they conceive it to be, and they are often completely confused about morality as a result. Of course, this disdain for commerce and profit dates back to Plato’s Laws. But it is manifest throughout early Christian literature, too.

So-called capitalists (I am not one–––I believe both capitalist acts and socialist acts can be justified) are wrong to say capitalism and private property are justified because they are more efficient than state-ownership of economic goods or state-controlled pricing––even though an abundance of empirical evidence suggests it. Efficiency is not a moral criterion. Private property and its disposition, which is to say, how we use it, are justified on moral grounds, when it is property that is fairly acquired. There are exceptions, however, for morality trumps efficiency.  Moreover, quite aside from the moral constraint of not causing unjustified suffering, not everything that is efficient is also effective, that is, if the end we wish to promote (effectively) or maximize happiness.

People on the right ground much of their dogma on moral desert, which is to say that the advantages one has are actually deserved. They often ignore the singular advantage of good fortune, e.g.,  being born in a particular place, having particular experiences, including a particular kind of upbringing, genetic advantages, and accidents of coming in contact with the right people at the right time.  They ignore luck, in other words. And as a consequence, the things they acquire are thought to be all due to their special moral desert and, the corollary is that the privations of others, or at least of many, are in some manner their own fault––and often enough thought to be the result of slothfulness or shiftlessness, or even in some cases because god wills it to be that way. They ignore the advantages bestowed upon them as individuals that others did not have, and through no fault of their own. They assume those advantages are in some manner just the way things ought to be, that they are merited, much as the disadvantages of others also must be their deserved lot in life. Consequently, they are more loath to share their gains in a general sense through, for example, taxation, notwithstanding the fact that society and accidents of birth and experience have made possible much of what they have.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think people on the right are less generous than people on the left. Indeed, studies show that conservatives are more apt to give voluntarily to charitable causes (even when church tithing is excluded) than self-described liberals, who believe charity is best handled by the government. They prefer forced giving.

People on both the right and left make a fetish out of democracy, but neither really care much for it when it results in what they don’t like. Democracy is a very messy kind of business––and, let’s face it, people are often not very smart and they sometimes even operate against their own interests, or at least what others (including me) believe to be in their interest, and that’s part of the point.  Who gets to decide this?  And why should someone else be in charge of deciding my interests or, similarly, why should I be in charge of deciding another’s?  I am not fond of stupid people coming together to tell me how to live. On the other hand, there’s little evidence to suggest that smart people are that much better, and, plenty of evidence to suggest they can be dangerous when given unencumbered power. There is unfortunately no good alternative to democracy, certainly not authoritarianism on the one hand or anarchy on the other, though I’d take my chances with the latter over the former. Over time, democracy tends to work out––but the tyranny of the majority always remains problematic, and that is why a system of law, constitutional protection, is necessary in order to protect individual rights from the mob or from the opinion of the moment–––laws made by elected representatives who, though largely dishonest and self-serving, themselves, nonetheless might be a cut above average in intelligence and, therefore, are more capable through compromise at coming up something more sensible than what we’d get with a direct democracy.

Of course, leftists often prattle on about "the people"–––holding this disembodied abstraction of "the people" and the promotion of the people’s welfare as their special and abiding interest. They make a fetish of the poor too, and yet, studies show they do little themselves out of their own pocket for the poor. They often concern themselves with what others do or don’t do, as opposed to their own lack of beneficence. The right is more inclined to personal bigheartedness.  Perhaps it is utilitarian in the sense that good works are good tickets to Heaven. Whatever the motivation, leftists are notoriously stingy with their own money, and prefer to leave charity others, namely the taxpayer and government. Of course, conservatives tend also to have more money, too, which is certainly a factor.

The reality is that much if what "the people" really desire is eschewed by the left: their superstitions, values, habits, and leftists have little more than contempt their unwashed ways–––ways the left always seeks to change to suit their conception of what "the people" ought to be, how they ought to behave, as opposed to what they really are, and the way they themselves prefer to behave. You see, the left is all about freedom insofar as what one does corresponds with what they want. Likewise, "the people," who the left only pretends to love, have disdain in equal measure for their would-be protectors. So the left comforts itself, deludes itself, really, with a belief that “the people” are being misled and are ignorant of the true facts, and if they only knew them, they’d come running to their cause. Of course, this is rubbish. The rabble simply enjoys, no–––prefers its rabbling ways, and even think the left consists of wild-eyed kooks and moral (after a fashion) scolds.  Often enough, they are correct. This is not to say that I am a fan of the ways of the unwashed masses, for I am certainly not. But I wish them no harm and believe they are no less deserving of a fair shake and help when it can be given. I just admit I am not a devotee to some idiotic abstraction about “the people” or the totem of “the working man,” or in a special virtue of the poor. They are no more virtuous than any other class of human being.

The right is both fascinated by and loves authority, despite its paeans to individual liberty. Liberty is the furthest thing from the typical rightists’ mind, especially as it pertains to the liberty of others. Liberty for themselves, maybe, though the typical rightist is enamored of structure. Rightists require strong father figures to tell others how to behave, to provide organization to social existence, and of course, to punish the wicked.  They like order, regularity, predictability … and they generally deplore non-conformity. They share with the left a special disdain for people with whom they disagree, and they are typically intolerant.  People on the left, of course, imagine they are tolerant, but they are equally intolerant, and they’d just as soon have people with whom they disagree ostracized or in a re-education camp, so don’t believe it.  The right in particular has a love of symbolism and abstractions such as flag and country, the latter being more idealized than anything, often enough some halcyon time from the past that never really was as they imagine.  They love the idea of these things, and often more than they love their countrymen as they really are, and especially those with whom they disagree. They are especially apt to see punishment, retribution, as the proper solution to get others to obey and to obtain justice. It is perhaps not unexpected that they love strongmen as their leaders.  It all fits with their father-figure state of mind. Of course, the left is every bit as susceptible to cults of personality. People on the right and left are not nearly as different as they’d like to believe. It is not surprising that many on the right, in particular, seek the ultimate father figure in their belief in a supreme being who orders the universe and who can tell them what to do, or as often as not, provide justification for what they do. People on the left often settle for some cosmic notion of justice … or natural law … and social forces that inexorably lead to the left’s idealized version of the just society.

Have I made some generalizations? Yes, of course I have! But what I’ve said is mostly true, I think, notwithstanding some of the exceptions. It is not an argument for the center or so-called moderation, either, lest someone mistake my point of view. Moderation is as much a fetish as the various shibboleths of the right and left … taking no positions, a tepid and sometimes even cowardly outlook, compromising when there should be no compromise, or even feeling the pulse of the mob before arriving at a positon.  And I do not even believe there is such a thing as political moderation … just a lack of strong conviction and a willingness to compromise on practices rather than change one’s belief. I am arguing against silliness and pretense. I am not promoting cynicism, but I am promoting skepticism. I am arguing against comprehensive systems from which all principles are held to necessarily flow, and instead supporting the proposition that principles should flow from logic and evidence, and then, before formulating a position, that one should take into account how the essential properties of the facts at hand bear on other, similar instances, and can such a position be willed impartially to apply to all without regard to how one might benefit. I am arguing for making exceptions based on universalizable prescriptions. I am arguing for what I call rational objectivism … and for healthy distrust about those who would arrange our lives through political activity.  Such people are a necessary feature of a well-ordered and just society … and they will be there as long as there are more than a handful of people … but these people and their ideas must be put into proper perspective and through a skeptical lens. END