Monday, 29 June 2009

How can we be wrong? Part Two

2. Prejudicial emotions.

We are continually beset by emotions that, if unchecked would make us all monsters and tyrants. Ask yourself this simple question. Whenever you encounter a stranger, someone say, who is very different to you, dresses different, talks different and acts different. What is your initial reaction? The ideal reaction from the point of view of say Buddhism and Christianity is that we love the stranger. This might be a tall order (consider a group of cracked, young teenage malcontents stumbling towards you with quizzical malevolence on their face) Liberalism, would preach a more pragmatic doctrine of tolerance or cheery indifference. So are you on this side of the equation? Or when seeing these people does your heart start to beat a little harder, your jaw tightens and cold hatred appears on your face? Malice then, runs through your veins, and the language of damnation unspools in your mind. In short, do you feel a sense of connection with people or separation?

Consequences might not seem to clearly follow from this, but consequences there are. I think it would be true to say that, many of the worlds problems is a consequence of this feeling of separation. “Some people and not others” as Jonathan Glover writes in Humanity A Moral History of the 20th Century. Some people are worthy of our respect and moral concern, and some, are not. We show an alarming disposition to divide ourselves along class, country, race, religion, politics and sexuality. For present purposes, the argument I am making - is that these emotions, visceral and sometimes subliminal and unconscious, can and do, influence and control our actions towards others, influence, and sometimes determine how we reason through abstract socio/political problems. Psychologists talk about each of us having an innate folk psychology, I would argue that we have an innate folk philosophy. It is an extension of our psychology and it influences how we think, how we deal with empirical questions, how we respond to evidence and how we decided the notorious question - What Ought to Be Done?

Consider what is (or at least appears a basic question), the answers offered, however, determines an entire philosophical and political outlook - How good are we? Do we, have for example, a natural disposition for kindness or are we inherently bad? Do social ills come from institutions and economics or human nature? Conservatism's (broadly defined) view of human nature is the tragic vision; in its more religious guise it is embodied in the doctrine of original sin. Man is inherently sinful-therefore bad. Any attempt at reforming say, institutions, economics and society is foolish and dangerous. Dangerous, for the walls that keep order(which also oppress and seperate), when torn down will unleash all the selfish, atavistic ugliness that our species is uniquely capable off. In secular conservatism, the basis, would, ironically, be Darwin’s Natural Selection. There is also another irony here, if it were not for the literalist religious folk, then Natural Selection would be seen as almost scientific proof for the doctrine of original sin or if you will, the first noble truth of Buddhism, for what, in a single word is the consequence of greed, selfishness, struggle and enmity-suffering.

Liberalism however, takes the opposite view. We are Rousseau’s noble savage. It is the institutions, it is society that has made a mess of our lives. Since the enlightenment, many of liberalisms attempts at reform and its philosophical offshoots have attempted to reform society--with consequences that are not always pretty to say the least.

There are two problems here. If the recent investigations as to how we acquire our beliefs-are being shown to be more influenced by heritability than was once thought - that conservatism and liberalism are not just political philosophies but are temperaments, and as such deeply emotional and intuitive. This indicates the problems we have of attempting rational discourse, and even claming objectivity. The second problem is really the crux: what happens when the evidence and reasons go to support one particular view and not another?

For our purposes however, what we need to do is notice whenever we are feeling hatred and anger towards people, notice it, and ask ourselves have we any good reason for it? If not, then let it pass. Even if we do, we should not let the emotion get a hold of us, we ought to examine every political and philosophical question dispassionately, as if we were counting pennies. There is plenty of opportunity to let the emotions roar, but in dealing with people we don’t like or disagree with, we ought to deal with them with the greatest care and with dispassionate, objective mindset. We, especially, ought not to allow our provincial emotions and experiences to inform how we deal with social questions. In short, we ought to think clearly, compassionately, and ask ourselves what are the facts.

Our emotions are like our muscles, we should value them, we may even think them beautiful and that life would not be worth living without them (it would, of course, not be possible either way). However, without the proper use of ones faculties we could just as easily smash someone in the face as help carry them on our backs, so to with the way we think and feel, in that our emotions and thinking can be used wisely or foolishly and hence, harmfully.



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