Tuesday, June 16, 2015

In partial praise of the power of ideas

Who was it that defined humankind as the “rational animal”? Someone in the Athenian philosophical circles, I think. But in any case, it is certainly a big fat target for ridicule, since there is apparently a great deal of irrationality in the world today, what with the 20th century’s terrible wars, and the middle east’s quagmires of recent times. One could go on and on listing all the folly and needless human suffering, fueled by passions unchecked by reason. I recall somewhere that Bertrand Russell wrote many years ago that universities should not try to teach reasoning to people, because “they would only reason wrongly”. I was in college at the time, and quite under Russell’s spell; but even then I felt that he was being unduly cynical. Now I think I can partly see his point.

There can be little doubt that a great deal of the suffering by humans has been caused by the various world’s governments, which in turn are usually directly linked to certain ideologies. Examples would be communism, nazism, and fascism, all of which have led to enormous human misery, although there might be those who would argue that the fault was not the respective ideologies per se, but rather the opportunistic exploitations and distortions of them by evil politicians. I do not wish, in this post, to delve into this issue. Rather, I want to sound what may be a hopeful note, and suggest there is some evidence that good ideas can slowly--all too slowly, to be sure---win out with time.

In a recent post, I discussed how Sam Harris made an appearance on the Bill Mayer show, and made a plea for liberals in the west to intellectually engage with the world’s Muslims, to attempt to convince a critical percentage of them that such backwards precepts as embodied in Sharia Law are “bad ideas”. Though the discussion was tarnished by angry and irrelevant outbursts by a certain other panelist, Harris’s point still came across to those who would listen. But I think many have belittled the notion that such things as Sharia and jihadism can be effectively combatted by words. I believe such belittlers are underrating the power of ideas.

I would like to point to three examples in the western world: the acceptance of gay marriage, the general agreement that the use of marijuana should be decriminalized, and the increasing attitude that the death penalty should be abolished. I am not saying that these examples command universal approval, but are being widely accepted to an extent that would be unbelievable just a few decades ago. All of these have of course been extensively debated in various forums and editorial pages, and no doubt the modern accessibility to the internet has contributed to the relatively rapid acquiescence.

The reader will no doubt infer that I feel these examples are largely good; indeed, I would be including them in a post that praises the strength of ideas unless I felt they were good. I have believed that the first two examples represent good changes in the state and society for all of my adult life (with caveats). The third, involving the prohibition of capital punishment, I have gradually come to agree with , after hearing and debating the issue for many years.

Well, I hate to now sound a sour note, but feel I have to point out that there are other ideas that are being bandied about that in my opinion are not so good. For example, as a “libertarian” (or “classical liberal”) I am a firm believer in the virtues of the free market, i.e., laissez faire capitalism. But in this case, the public is barraged by opinions to the contrary, notably, in the press and the media. For reasons that are not clear to me, these tend to be largely anti-capitalist.

If capitalism is such a great idea, why hasn’t it garnered larger acceptance? I suspect the reason is partly that it runs afoul of the prevalent “identity politics” . The three examples considered above all involve, to a considerable extent, situations and freedoms that are given to other people than ourselves, and are hence removed from the passions of ID politics. I can only hope that in the not too distance future, a critical percentage of people will see that the free market in fact benefits all, and will become an idea with a wide degree of acceptance.