There are two kinds of people in this world: those who divide people into two categories, and those who don’t. I’m in the latter category. . . .
Japing paradox aside, I do try to avoid dualistic constructions in philosophy and explanation. It doesn’t take long in political discourse, anyway, to see that many popular dualities, though conceived as exhaustive, are anything but. Human experience does not often easily fit neatly into two.
Indeed, in the work of Aristotle we encounter a vision of ethics that does not regard Right and Wrong as the foundational antagonism, but Deficiency and Excess as a basic duality, with a middle point between these extremes serving as equilibrium, and constituting the virtue. Aristotle provides numerous examples in the Nicomachean Ethics. When I was a young man, I devised a schema of cardinal virtues, not dissimilar to Aristotle’s, but distinct. I distinguished three cardinal self-regarding virtues and three cardinal other-regarding virtues. Each virtue could be conceived as middle point between one or more sets of antagonisms. My schema looked like this:
The emotional realm I conceived in terms of the Will to Pleasure, and saw Temperance as a midway point between the lusts for pleasure and expressions of passions, on the one hand, and a deadly anhedonia and fearfulness, on the other. The person prone to anger was not temperate, but neither was the person incapable of strong feeling of any kind. The point of temperance was not to be evenly emoting at all times, but to be close enough to an emotionally stable point to be able to feel appropriately in any given situation.
Very Aristotelian, no? The other virtues I explained along similar lines, with wills-to contrasting with schemes of avoidance, fleeings-from. But in none of this discussion of a basic concept of ethics (and not the only important concept, either) did I give in to a simple dualism. Instead, I saw the experience of life in a three-fold division, and, within each division, each cardinal virtue understood as a mid-point between extremes (thus making another three-value logic) . . . and then divided into two, according to the center of regard, or direction of concern or interest.
So when I began seriously to consider social life outside of a simple listing of virtues, but as issues to be argued over within the political realm, I became immediately suspicious of all the dualities I was presented with. As Chris Sciabarra explained so well in the opening of chapters of Total Freedom, what is needed to understand complex reality is more than a two-valued logic, the binary clicking of either-or. What is needed is a dialectical mindset, one that comprehends shifting perspective and a multiplication of entities. Shave with Occam’s Razor, sure; but you don’t grow hair that way.
Recently, James Gill and I have been making videos. He is in charge, and he aims to catch me in thought. Amidst my mumbles, I say some things that I regard as sensible. Here is the most popular of these videos, from a set reacting to Sarah Silverman’s defense of Socialist Bernie Sanders, which went viral on Facebook:
You see that I take on a statist sophism: that the basics of life be seen as “rights,” not “privileges.” And the listener tends to agree. Privilege is something only a few may have. Rights are universal. We want the basics to be universal, no?
Well, before we hastily cave to the statists’ rhetorical trap, look at it. Are these our only two options?
No. As I explained in the video, there is at least one missing third option, between the unearned advantage of privilege, and the coercible, obligatory focus of a right. What is it? It is the realm of contract, cooperation, and earnings.
I get most of what I want not by demanding each item as a right, or begging for each good as a privilege in someone else’s grants economy. Instead, I engage in trade. Or some other form of mutual cooperation. And, by agreement, I gain what I need. How? By offering and supplying something within my power and personal economy that at least one other person desires more than I desire it. This is the logic of exchange. It is a beautiful thing. When we come to terms, the results are beautiful and peaceful and harmonious.
We would surely want as much of life to fall under this realm of transaction, not under the realm of the coerced or the extorted or begged.
But socialists and other statists continually elide any mention of this, when they push for some new realm of life to be sucked into the vortex of government, the maw of the State. They just put before us the simple binary, the duality Rights vs. Privileges.
And, in so doing, they lie.
It is a lie by omission of a great truth.
It is what you expect con artists to do, distracting our attention from the best option to get us to settle for a brummagem alternative.
Of course, most socialists are not deliberately lying. Like all religious zealots, what is lacking is a sense of piercing honesty, free inquiry, even curiosity. They have a simple vision of the world they are pushing — their utopia — and they will not let something complex like reality, or difficult, like truth, get in their way.
Thus it is with most dualisms. As I go through the usual lists of everyday dualities, we shall see how true this is.