Economist Arnold Kling has a new blog, “askblog.” Being an admirer of both his thought and his persona, I will be a reader, no doubt an enthusiastic one. He was the man who started EconLog, which ties with Reason’s Hit and Run as my favorite group blog. I confess: I have read EconLog less often since Kling left in August.
The motto he has chosen for his blog is interesting: “taking the most charitable view of those who disagree.” Notice that he uses “charity” and not “justice” as his intellectual standard in dealing with criticism and opposing points of view. This is how I have tended to behave in person. But not consistently so, in print. In one blog post he clarifies his meta-argumentative aim:
I want people to constantly consider, “What would someone who disagrees with me think about this issue? What might be the unpleasant consequences of the solutions that I am proposing?” etc.
This addresses a complaint I have had with the bulk of bloggers and other arguers on the Internet, as well as most folks involved in religion and politics: Rarely do people attack the best case for an opposing view, instead attacking straw men; rarely do folks even understand the best versions of doctrines they oppose.
When I was young, I thought that looking at the best arguments was incumbent upon me. It was a matter of honesty. When I began to have doubts about the religion I was raised in, I set upon a dual course: to find (or develop) the best version of theism, while also seeking out the best arguments for secular humanism, or similar. I was set upon this course in large part because my favorite writer at the time, C.S. Lewis, had so disreputably taken up the tilting at straw men course in his books Miracles and The Abolition of Man. Similarly, when I began exploring political philosophy, I read not merely a wide range of literature, with many opposing views, but even looked carefully at views of writers I found repellent (Nixon and status quo power conservatism as well as Marx and state communism, for two examples). When I encountered libertarianism during the 1976 MacBride campaign for the U.S. presidency, and in the writings of Ursula K. Le Guin, I chose to start my consideration of this set new-to-me of ideas not with some popular account, but by reading John Locke and Robert Nozick. When Nozick didn’t convince me, I gave up for a few years, but when I returned to consider the doctrine, I didn’t let a National Review hit job on the movement, or a response in Inquiry magazine, settle the matter. I went on to study
- Planned Chaos, by Ludwig von Mises
- The Road to Serfdom, by F.A. Hayek
- The Machinery of Freedom, by David D. Friedman
- No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority, by Lysander Spooner
and many other books. I started to study economics (from a variety of perspectives and eras), as well as continued to read philosophy, historical accounts, and polemics. But I resisted the ideas for some time, no matter how fascinated I was. I had several concerns. I wanted to make sure that following libertarian policy wouldn’t be disastrous for the poor, and I wanted a decent account of how value and interest diversity could be justly settled by any political/legal order, much less the libertarian one. I was also concerned about the meaning of “natural rights,” which appeared to be ubiquitous amongst libertarians, but which made precious little sense to me — arguments for naturalism in ethics always seemed like people trying, desperately, to convince themselves of something that was riddled with problems.
I was most concerned not to leap into an unknown. I steered clear of the Ayn Rand Cult, but no matter how repellent Rand’s argumentative methods often were, how disturbing her acolytes, or how obviously shoddy her reasoning, I didn not hold it against the libertarian idea that many libertarians were over-enamored of Atlas Shrugged or The Virtue of Selfishness.
I instinctively realized that guilt by association wasn’t an honest way to go about dismissing ideas, any more than innocence by association was an acceptable way of adopting them. Of course, I had no association to fall back on, so it was easier for me to make a clean-slate inquiry. I had never been a conservative. I had thought I was a liberal, and leaned Democratic Party, but I was most moved not by self-described liberals but by moderates in politics. For the most part. I was considering radical approaches to politics mainly because status quo moderation tended to moderate, too far, in support of grand slaughter, like warfare, and blithely support intergenerational swindles, like Social Security.
Since settling on my own LocoFoco variant of libertarianism, however, I have sometimes strayed from my earlier methods of inquiry. (Perhaps it was my tutelage under the employ of the late R.W. Bradford, and our mutual love for the wit of H.L. Mencken.) Though in face-to-face argumentation I have usually toed the line, charitably assuming that my opponent has latched onto what I consider bad ideas for good reasons, this assumption, in point of fact, is often an assumption pure and simple, and far from the truth.
Indeed, many people latch onto good ideas for bad reasons. We all know this. So we should expect folks to also latch onto bad ideas for bad, even base reasons.
It is obvious that many people carry on a self-righteous defense of “the poor” and “the downtrodden” not because they are really concerned about the poor, but because the manners in which the habitually choose to “aid” these folk necessitate to force others, through government policy, to support their cause in the manner in which they would dictate. This allows for a lot of hate, tribal hate. How evil those people are for not going along with our schemes! is an undercurrent of nearly all progressive talk. I know this because I hear it. Almost constantly. I often “pass for progressive,” because I hold many of the outward markings of a progressive, such as an interest in high culture, the humanities, the social sciences, and a commitment to secular humanism. If I simply avoid stating my own policy opinions, and talk about things I’m interested in, I’m almost immediately accepted into the progressive tribe, and allowed to witness, first hand, the progressives’ tribal hatred to the out-groups, such as “the rich” and “the evangelicals.”
It’s my experience that progressives are usually quite superficial, with few advocates actually even aware of the best cases for their cause, much less marshaling them.
Further, it is almost certain that the political success of the movement is not now nor has ever been because of the best cases for progressivism. Hatred, fury, resentment, class warfare, envy, intellectual hubris and even pure sportive play have been far larger factors than careful, studied consideration of policy options and moral principle, grounded in empathy, tolerance, generosity and concern.
There’s a simple test for this: the unwillingness of most progressives to countenance criticism of government policies on the grounds that the policies, enacted and enforced, don’t meet the goals for which they were allegedly put in place. The fact progressives usually look at criticisms of governmental inefficiency and the unintended effects of progressive policy as attacks, and balk at means-testing, for example, is a good indicator of insincerity of intention.
And all that I’ve just said about progressives can be said, in equal measure, against the bulk of conservatives, who tend to whip up their ire against foreigners, criminals and “social deviants” as the best expression of their tribal impulses.
The reason to debate in a charitable way, assuming good motives and best rationales, is largely to encourage good motives and best reasoning even if they are not present.
But the horrible truth — and the limiting factor — of Arnold Kling’s admirable method is that it is not necessarily just. Those who hold base motives and shoddy reasons for a policy deserve to be called on them.
And sometimes I have done so. Or at least essayed such method.
The problem is: taking up the mantle of justice in argumentation, and wielding it as if Rhadamanthus incarnate, is a heady emprise. It doesn’t make you or keep you just. It often insulates you from your own error. It is an expression of power. And power corrupts. Too easily does the moral exemplar descend into the basest of gambits, most ignoble of practices.
So, another reason to praise Arnold Kling’s preferred modus argumenti is to encourage our own best motives and best reasoning. And indeed, by always looking for the best arguments in an opponent’s view, we see more of the world, more reality, and — at the very least — will incorporate the best of our enemies’ ideas into our own.