Thursday, August 04, 2005

Toward a Coherent Political Philosophy (Part 1)

In response to my post regarding Grover Norquist and his theory that what holds the American conservative movement together is wanting "government to go away," Manny observed that "a person's poltical identity is determined by all sorts of complicated factors." I agree, wholeheartedly, and I think it's worth wondering about some of those factors.

I've been thinking about this, off and on, at least since I was in college. With Sandra Day O'Connor's recent retirement from the Supreme Court, I've been thinking about it more concretely. One of the most common criticisms of O'Connor's performance as a Justice was that she didn't really have any principles, in a legal-theory context. This in contrast to guys like Thomas and Scalia, who have a well-defined approach to deciding cases and political views that are unusually consistent. A not-infrequent explanation for O'Connor's 'unprincipled' behavior has been that her background was in politics. Unlike the Scalias and Thomases, she'd actually had to work in a legislative setting and this exposure made her more flexible and less idealistic in her approach to the law. Sometimes, it's argued that this made her more effective; it certainly made her the decisive Justice on a range of high-profile cases.

And yet, there is something attractive about having political views that are more than ad hoc reactions to current events. As Manny observed, the roots of our political opinions are complex, and it's not always clear why we think the things we do. We frequently fall back on post hoc rationalizations for views we haven't really thought through, just because "our side" holds a position on a particular issue. This can lead to some really weird places; how many people support the death penalty but oppose abortion, or vice versa? It seems to me that it would be worthwhile trying to come to some coherent political or policy principles that make practical sense and don't seem to contradict one another.

Some problems immediately present themselves, though. For one thing, is it possible, or desirable? The world is a complex place, and the fact of the matter is that principles only get you so far - if we follow principle blindly, we often wind up doing more harm than good. Perhaps the best political principle is O'Connor's mixed bag of compromise and moderation - it's not consistent, but it can be an effective way to make small steps forward. But toward what goal? That's not at all clear.

It's also possible that there is no set of political principles that are logically consistent and sound as a matter of practice. Libertarianism, for example, is impressive in its logical rigor but inhuman in any kind of strict application. I'm going to try, as far as I can, to examine my own political beliefs and see whether I can find some kind of sense to them, or if they're just a hodge-podge or mutually contradictory opinions that I've gleaned from who knows what sources and that need some reevaluation.


Amanda said...

This is what I have spent the last year doing in regards to both my political and religious beliefs: trying to discern what my deepest core values are, and attempting to discard beliefs that I know are inconsistent with those values.

I think, thus far, my endeavors have been more successful -- many of my former beliefs were, indeed, what I was "supposed" to believe for any given label (Christian, conservative, woman, etc.) although I never rationalized it that way. Some of these beliefs I believe to be consistent with my most strongly-held values -- for instance, my dislike for abortion, though I remain undecided on how to apply that belief in policy -- while others I found to be inconsistent -- to choose another popular issue, gay marriage: I decided that "I don't like the idea of it" is never reason enough to forbid something, and my believe in influencing others through love and care over condemnation and coercion won over in this case.

And, of course, the problem in any belief system, consistent or no, comes in the application of those beliefs. I hate the effects alcohol has had on my brothers, and I don't plan to drink a drop of it if I can ever help it. However, I don't even blink at people who drink responsibly -- in fact, I was prepared to defend XX against my mother should I have ended up with XX and my mother have found out that she was a cocktail waitress. Something like abortion, however, is far less clear, although that particular value is much stronger -- I don't believe life should ever be sacrificed if we can help it, yet I don't believe I can tell a woman to make a choice between long-term effects on her health, or facing death itself, and bearing her child to term. In fact, I honestly don't like the idea of forcing any woman to carry a child to term at all, even for reasons of inconvenience.... (continued)

Amanda said...

... I just happen to value what I believe to be established "life" (however we define that particular shade-of-grey term) just a little more.

Consistency is certainly a good thing to strive for, and while I wouldn't advocate a hodge-podge approach based on reaching pre-determined conclusions, I certainly think it doesn't hurt to examine how any proposed policy would affect _individual_ lives before incorporating it so solidly into one's belief system.

MannyTrillo said...

"...trying to discern what my deepest core values are, and attempting to discard beliefs that I know are inconsistent with those values."

That's pretty much it, right there, though maybe "core values" is a more complicated thing than it might seem. A lot of it also has to do with psychology-motivated views about what sort of place the world is. A radical liberal and a radical conservative both believe that the world is seriously screwed up and needs to be drastically changed right away or we're all in big trouble. In that sense, a commie eco-terrorist really has more in common with a gun-loving religious nutcase that s/he does with a moderate liberal who just wants to expand the welfare state a little bit.

Nor is just radicals whose political beliefs are deeply informed by their own psychological leanings- I think that's the case for pretty much everyone. To me, the world is a place that is pretty much OK, except for some really serious problems that are almost entirely related to the fact that people don't have regard for others that think/act/look/behave differently than they do. And pretty much everything that I believe related to politics stems from that, and is hopefully logically consistent with that overall viewpoint.

Now, why is that particular issue- that people are too intolerant- the focal point for me? It's probably closely related to the difficulties my father experienced in his life, and the resultant difficulties for me growing up with that.

Anyways, I think the main thing is to identify your starting point- or core values, or whatever you want to call it- and then just try to make sure that your beliefs are logically consistent from there.

A. said...

Yeah, I think you're right about that, Manny. I'm having a bit of trouble with my 'deepest core values' - identifying them, anyhow. Hopefully writing about them will make them clearer to me in time.

Skipaway said...

I think too much logical consistency could be very dangerous outside of academical discussions. Our understanding of the world is very limited, and most of our observations and reasonings about every topic are nothing but a tiny slice of the whole. We seek consistency out of necessary, not because it's better.

Assuming consistency is good is the same as assuming easier models are better in science. A common practice with no real footings.