I think one of the biggest reasons why it’s so hard to strike the right balance between trusting expert consensus and not being unduly biased toward the status quo – between trying to improve the system and not getting overly enamored with utopian ideas that promise to make everything perfect – is that there’s always this underlying desire to seek out solutions that are perfect and definitive and final and don’t come with any drawbacks. As commenter NoIAmNumber4 writes:
We have been trained to seek out flawless, mathematically complete solutions that are all upside and no downside. The plethora of police shows is an example of this, but so is politics – vote for me and all your problems will be magically solved.
The problem is that there is very rarely any such thing as a perfect solution, only tradeoffs of moral priorities. […] You [may] want an argument that abortion is either unequivocally good or unequivocally bad, because we have been trained to carry out our political discourse on those terms. But […] that isn’t the case.
The best we can do is decide what values we think are more paramount than others and accept the ethical tradeoff we are making. “Sometimes in the defense of liberty and freedom, people die in terrorist attacks” is a good example.
But this kind of nuanced thinking is difficult, painful and doesn’t fit into a 5 second sound bite – and requires considered thought to accept or defend. Since we are never taught that, especially in school, it is not common.
Our world is getting more and more complex. Decades ago we could have gotten away with avoiding the responsibility. The more complex the world gets, the less true that becomes.
And this is the last major point I want to talk about here. A lot of the ideologies being peddled nowadays like to claim that their way is the only way to ensure absolute freedom for everyone or absolute equality for everyone or what have you. In truth, though, absolutes like these aren’t technically possible, because different freedoms and different interests are often at odds, and they have to be balanced against each other. This isn’t something that ideologues often acknowledge, of course, as Alexander notes:
Politicians don’t think in terms of thresholds. No one ever says “The more regulations we put on businesses, the fewer customers will get scammed by shady con men. But also the more likely it is that we unnecessarily penalize honest businesses. So we need to find the threshold value that minimizes the total unfairness to businesses and customers.” Instead they say either “We need to fight for more regulations and anyone who says otherwise is in the pay of Big Business!” or “We need to cut through all the red tape and anyone who says otherwise is in the pay of Big Government!”
No one ever says “The more restrictions we place on welfare, the more certain we’ll be that no one is abusing the system. But the more restrictions we place on welfare, the more certain we will be that some poor people who desperately need it can’t get it. Therefore, we should determine the relative disutilities of people defrauding us and of needy people not being able to use the system, and act to maximize total utility.” Instead they say “Anyone who opposes tight welfare restrictions is a welfare queen trying to scam you!” or “Anyone who wants any welfare restrictions hates poor people!”
But grey areas and tradeoffs like these almost always exist, and you have to be able to recognize them if you genuinely want to get things right. As Harris writes:
It is clear that we face both practical and conceptual difficulties when seeking to maximize human well-being. Consider, for instance, the tensions between freedom of speech, the right to privacy, and the duty of every government to keep its citizens safe. Each of these principles seems fundamental to a healthy society. The problem, however, is that at their extremes, each is hostile to the other two. Certain forms of speech painfully violate people’s privacy and can even put society itself in danger. Should I be able to film my neighbor through his bedroom window and upload this footage onto YouTube as a work of “journalism”? Should I be free to publish a detailed recipe for synthesizing smallpox? Clearly, appropriate limits to free expression exist. Likewise, too much respect for privacy would make it impossible to gather the news or to prosecute criminals and terrorists. And too zealous a commitment to protecting innocent people can lead to unbearable violations of both privacy and freedom of expression. How should we balance our commitment to these various goods?
Ultimately, coming up with answers to these questions is what deliberation and debate are all about. It may be tempting to indulge in absolutist thinking, and to act like every ideological dispute is totally one-sided and resolving it is just a matter of implementing the one perfect answer that fixes everything. But in reality, it’s almost always a matter of weighing some good things against other good things, and some bad things against other bad things, and just trying to find the best solution you can. This often means that you won’t be able to get 100% of what you want – and neither will your opponents – but being able to engage in that kind of give-and-take is the only way to ensure that you’ll be able to successfully coexist with your fellow human beings in the long run. As Manson writes:
There’s a common saying in the US that “Freedom is not free.” The saying is usually used in reference to the wars fought and won (or lost) to protect the values of the country. It’s a way of reminding people that, hey, this didn’t just magically happen; thousands of people were killed and/or died for us to sit here and sip over-priced mocha frappuccinos and say whatever the fuck we want.
And it’s true.
The idea is that the basic human rights we enjoy – free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press – were earned through the sacrifice against some external force, some evil threat.
But people have seemed to conveniently forget that freedom is earned through internal sacrifices as well. Freedom can only exist when you are willing to tolerate views that oppose your own, when you’re willing to give up some of your desires for the sake of a safe and healthy community, when you’re willing to compromise and accept that sometimes things don’t go your way and that’s fine.
In a weird sense, true freedom doesn’t exist. Because the only way for human rights to persist is for everyone to collectively agree to accept that things don’t have to go their way 100% of the time.
But the last couple decades, I fear that people have confused freedom with a lack of discomfort. They have forgotten about that necessary internal struggle.
They want a freedom to express themselves but they don’t want to have to deal with views that may upset or offend them in some way. They want a freedom to enterprise but they don’t want to pay taxes to support the legal machinery that makes it possible. They want a freedom to elect representatives to government but they don’t want to compromise when they’re on the losing side.
A free and functioning democracy demands a populace that is able to sustain discomfort, that is able to tolerate dissatisfaction, that is able to be charitable and forgiving of groups whose views stand in contrast to one’s own, and most importantly, that is able to remain unswayed in the face of some violent threat.
What I fear we’re seeing now is a loss of that ability to handle discomfort and dissatisfaction. We’re seeing a lazy entitlement wash over the world where everyone feels as though they deserve what they want from their government the second they want it, without thought of repercussions or the rest of the population.
Or as one Reddit comment sadly put it recently, “It seems like people don’t actually want democracy anymore, they want a dictator who agrees with them.”
But this constant state of mild dissatisfaction – this is what freedom actually tastes like. And if people continue to lose their ability to stomach it, then I fear one day it will be gone.
When you engage with people who disagree with you, inevitably you’ll encounter viewpoints that baffle or infuriate you. Inevitably you’ll run up against people whose values and interests seem diametrically opposed to your own. Finding a resolution that makes everybody maximally happy isn’t always possible; sometimes you’ll have to subordinate good causes to the service of even better causes. That’s just life. When you do have to balance competing considerations against each other, though, there’s one principle that I think is always good to follow: It’s better to err on the side of kindness and understanding than on the side of bitterness and judgment. It’s better to reward undeserving people a little too much than to refuse to help genuinely needy people out of fear that they might not have done enough to earn it. It’s better to be a little too quick to pardon those who might be guilty than to be a little too quick to punish those who might be innocent. And it’s better to be a little too charitable toward arguments you disagree with than to not be charitable enough. If there’s one thing that you take away from this post, then, I hope that’s it. More kindness and humanity, less resentment and hostility. It may be a cliché, but it’s one that always bears repeating for anyone who seeks truth and knowledge – because after all, seeking truth and knowledge, and treating others with kindness and humanity, are really two sides of the same coin. They’re both rooted in a mindset that, above all else, strives for understanding, in every sense of the word. As far as I’m concerned, then, that’s as good a foundation to build on as any. ∎