Sunday, 29 December 2013

Liberal Idea #3 - Education is the Key to Progress

Since, according to Liberalism, there is nothing intrinsically prone to wickedness in human nature and since we are essentially rational beings, social ills must caused by ignorance and dysfunctional social institutions. It is these bad institutions and social structures which lead people to do bad things. Poverty, inequality, and injustice (the first 2 being aspects of the 3rd) are the real engines of crime, conflict, and misery. Eradicate poverty and inequality and improve justice and we will become better people. There will be no crime because people will have what they need and as inequality is reduced, envy of others and the desire to steal from them will reduce too.

In order to solve social ills people must be educated to use their rational faculties to understand the causes of social problems and to acquire the means to solve them. They must become part of the solution instead of being part of the problem. Liberal education which aims to break down prejudice and discrimination is essential to this effort. People must learn to respect each other, whatever their differences, and this will foster peaceful and productive societies.

Upon these foundations of human plasticity, rationality and the external source of social ills Liberalism bases one of its most tantalising features: historical optimism. Since there is nothing intrinsic to human nature which leads to wickedness and since the means to improve the social institutions can be rationally deduced and spread through education, we can expect there to be a gradual improvement in the condition of mankind. Hence we can expect the future to be better than the present. This is historical optimism. In fact, so optimistic is this outlook that many have foreseen humanity eventually attaining perfection. Consider this from the Marquis de Condorcet,
The aim of the book that I have undertaken to write, and what it will prove, is than man by using reason and facts will attain perfection...Nature has set no limits to the perfection of the human faculties. The perfectibility of mankind is truly indefinite; and the progress of the perfectibility, henceforth to be free of all hindrances, will last as long as the globe on which nature has placed us. (Outline of the Progress of the Human Mind)
Similar sentiments were echoed by the Americans for Democratic Action in 1962:
...the goals of liberalism are affirmative: not only the fulfilment of the free individual in a just and responsible society at home but a world where all people may share the freedom, abundance, and opportunity which lie within the reach of mankind - a world marked by mutual respect, and by peace. [my emphasis]
If only people will behave rationally and adopt the liberal ideology and programme these are the results that can be expected.

This is a solution-oriented creed; the belief that for any social problem there can be found a rational solution. William Beveridge in his planning for the British welfare state identified five giant evils: Squalor, Ignorance, Idleness, Want, and Disease. These, and many others besides, are the problems that liberalism has sought to remedy. (The Beveridge Report 1942) The provisions of the report set out plans for overcoming these evils. Thus was instituted a welfare system that can claim many victories but which, as of 2013, also claims a massive proportion of Britain's national income (with no end in sight for the massive spending or the elimination of the problems which at times appear to be Hydra-headed). Nevertheless, the historical optimism of liberals springs ever-hopeful. In fact, to be a hope-filled person is to be among the good and the just as far as liberals are concerned. Anyone who thinks differently is just a crabby curmudgeon.

Without education none of the above is possible. Education not just of the young but of everyone. Education to teach people of the benefits of rationality and the solutions that reason reveals to us.

The two concepts of an infinitely malleable human nature and the power of education and social reform enable liberals to discard the evidence of thousands of years of human history and the less optimistic picture that it presents. Having cast this evidence aside they can then argue that once social institutions have been perfected, discrimination and inequality abolished, that human nature (as we call it) will lose its noxious aspects. This is a human nature conjured out of ideas, not the one rooted in the visceral reality of semi-animals vying for survival and advantage and greater control over their environment - an environment that in each individual case includes all other people.

Of course we are not only beings with an individual nature, we also exist as members of larger wholes: relationships, families, communities, companies, nations and other collective entities. We are partially dependent on these collectives and both served and constrained by them. We are engaged in a constant process of balancing an urge towards greater individual autonomy against both our need and desire to be accepted as members of these larger wholes. This is our inescapable condition.

The science and reason that Liberalism originally advocated have both taught us a great deal - including a great deal about human nature. But many of those calling themselves liberals today still cling to the false notion of human nature of early liberalism in what is a wholly irrational manner. They do this because they fear the consequences of changing their views in case their utopian ideals also require modification. But that is a very irrational position to take and is largely antithetical to the original doctrines and aspirations of Liberalism. To adopt a rational, scientific approach but refuse to change your theory in light of the evidence is a pretence of rationality. Naturally, it is a very human thing to do, one arising from our nature, an example of feeling overriding reason.

Our groupishness is one of the major obstacles to our rationality. Because we depend on our groups for so much we are very reluctant to jeopardise our position within them. For a liberal to acknowledge that our nature is not wholly plastic and changeable is to show disloyalty to his/her reference group. The liberal position has thus become yet one more dogma instead of a working hypothesis.

Liberal idea #2 - We are Rational Beings

Liberalism grew up within the rationalist school of thought of 17th century Europe. Reason was held to be humanity's most distinctive attribute, the one that most clearly identifies us as human and not simply animals. We can act in accordance with rationally derived plans and principles which override our animal impulses. Liberalism is confident that acting in accordance with reason (and particularly through the rational endeavour of science) humanity can comprehend the world and solve its problems. The history of science, technology, and economics since the birth of Liberalism would offer plenty of support for this hope.

The liberal stands for the authority of reason in all matters. There is no authority which cannot be questioned; no opinion that cannot be challenged; no subject that cannot be examined in the cold light of reason. The authority of reason demands that everything be tested by the standard of reason. There is no custom, prejudice, sentiment or belief that should escape its resolute eye. The authority given to reason endows the liberal with an attitude that is both sceptical and optimistic.

You will no doubt have noticed that this depiction of the liberal attitude is somewhat out of date. Liberalism claims to be a rationalist philosophy, as indeed it originally was. One wishes that it would be more rational now. Liberals today are all too happy to gloss over the irrational in order to maintain "respect" for cultural differences; to make allowances for the "disadvantaged"; to save the foolish from facing the consequences of their folly; to promote dubious research which supports a liberal agenda and to suppress solid research which contradicts it; in short, the end now justifies the means as far as many liberals are concerned. This cynicism is given a gloss of respectability because the liberal is seen to be the advocate of the weak and and the poor. As a consequence, liberalism is mired in double standards, relativism, and logical incoherence. In fact, to insist on greater rationality and logical coherence is, to many liberals, to be something other than liberal.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Tu Quoque - A Common Fallacy of the Left

Tu Quoque (literally “you also”) is a very common fallacy which I see committed again and again on comment threads. This fallacy is remarkably common in the comments that I see coming from left/liberal perspectives and I think there are underlying reasons for this which I’ll examine later. I hope that once you have this fallacy established more clearly in your mind you will be able to identify it more easily when it’s used by someone in an argument. Once you see an argument as fallacious you need waste no more time trying to counter it but simply point out that it is a fallacy and await a more logical response to your original point.

First of all, lets define a fallacy and then the tu quoque type of fallacy. One of the best sites for exploring fallacies is where you will find definitions and examples of all types of fallacies.
The rules of correct reasoning go back to Aristotle. He was both “the first formal logician—codifying the rules of correct reasoning—and the first informal logician—cataloging types of incorrect reasoning, namely, fallacies. He was both the first to name types of logical error, and the first to group them into categories. The result is his book On Sophistical Refutations.”

First an example: I make the assertion that Muslim slave traders were a constant threat to the peoples of Southern Europe throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. That assertion is either true or false; either it can be justified with evidence or it can’t. The tu quoque response might take the following form: European slave traders were a constant threat to black Africans during the 17th century. 

As you can see, the argument does not address the truth or falsity of the original assertion but instead sidesteps it and tries to put the person on the back foot by making a charge of implied hypocrisy. Whether or not European slave traders were a threat to black Africans has no bearing on the truth of the original assertion but the person against whom the tu quoque is deployed often feels a need to defend themselves from the charge of (implied) hypocrisy and a diversionary game ensues in which the original argument is forgotten. Thus tu quoque is a form of Red Herring. The argument gets "lost" but no logical refutation has occurred.

Fallacies are instances of faulty reasoning. The fallacies that we’re concerned with are errors of reasoning. In the example above, both the first accusation and the second accusation are supported by evidence and are in that sense both true. Neither is a fallacy. The fallacy occurs when the second accusation is used as a counter-argument to the first accusation. It is the mistaken reasoning which is the specific meaning of  “fallacy” we are talking about. It is a violation of logic.

This tu quoque fallacy is in my experience committed a lot by liberals and I think there are some identifiable reasons for this:

Firstly, liberal thinking grew up in the context of a Christianity which was preoccupied with acknowledging the fault in ourselves (original sin). As it says in Matthew 7: 3-5 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye..”

One result of this teaching was illustrated very clearly in a recent presentation made by Karen Armstrong (an ex-nun and professional apologist for Islam). In commenting on the 9/11 atrocities she said, “We did this…I like to turn the finger against myself first.” This is her comment on jihadism in general, “We’ve all done terrible things.” Both of these statements are demonstrably false: We were not responsible for 9/11, the 19 hijackers and their backers were. And no, we have not all done terrible things. To say so is to falsely blacken millions of people with crimes they have never committed nor even considered committing.

What Karen Armstrong illustrates is a preoccupation with our own guilt (even when we are innocent). There has undoubtedly been a place for introspection and the desire to root out evil in our own hearts; it has developed certain moral attributes in Christian cultures that are lacking elsewhere, but taken too far and it becomes a morbid and suicidal impulse. This impulse chimes very sonorously with the implied charge of hypocrisy in the tu quoque argument.

Secondly, the charge of hypocrisy has been both justified and useful for liberal reformers. As in the example of Thomas Day making scornful remarks regarding the American Constitution when signed by men who owned slaves, the charge of hypocrisy is a powerful weapon in getting those with power over others to examine their consciences with respect to their avowed principles and their actions. It has been the well-spring for many social changes that have given life in the West its peculiar advantages and freedoms.

When a liberal levels the charge of hypocrisy against you (in the form of tu quoque) he very likely sees him/herself following in this tradition of exposing hypocrisy.

Thirdly, the Left is very focused on what are seen as the great wrongs of Western culture. They have developed thousands upon thousands of critiques; rhetorical weapons, analyses, theses, theories, jokes, articles, paintings, posters, bumper stickers, satires, poems, pop songs, operas, etc etc all aimed at undermining the position of Western civilisation. (of course, they readily scoff at the very concept of “Western civilisation”) and puncturing its self-confidence. The underlying message of all the above is that “we” are in the wrong; we don’t have a leg to stand on; we are morally bankrupt; hideously corrupt and corrupting. By contrast to us, the rest of the world is noble and innocent. We have no right to criticise anyone. Liberals distrust any form of self-congratulation in the West or the belief that we have created a culture which is “better”. Such an attitude is seen as a source of jingoism and a platform for imperialism.

With this backdrop to his thinking; with this unexamined assumption regarding the condemned nature of western culture the liberal believes that the tu quoque argument always hits the nail on the head because it points to our own wrongs. This is why he feels particularly clever and justified when using it. 

The tu quoque fallacy is often delivered in the proverbial form: “the pot calling the kettle black.” But just look at it: the blackness of the pot has no bearing on whether the kettle is black or not. The kettle is either black or it isn’t.