By Zach Van Houten
There are few things as essential to being human as politics. Any time there are groups of people cooperating together, there arises the need to make group decisions.
The necessity of making collective decisions can lead to a great deal of tension. The hatred between left and right has been getting worse it seems, and the internet seems to highlight this.
One thing is certain: politics is one of the things that defines the internet. Increasingly so as participation in organized religion declines. The void left by religion seems to largely be filled by political participation. Although it isn’t exclusive to the non-religious by any means.
Here is where I want to make a confession: I no longer have faith in politics.
Is believing in politics a bad thing? Who am I to say? I can only comment on what I have found is healthy and unhealthy for myself, and what my own personal journey has taught me. It would be profoundly ignorant for me to say others should follow my example. We need people to engage in all areas of life, and humans tend to be specializing creatures. So what works for me is mostly reflective of how I am learning to contribute to the world. Others will contribute in different ways than me. That is healthy and normal. Still, my views may be helpful for someone who is still forming their worldview. That is who I write this for.
I have many friends on both sides of the culture wars. Over the last six years or so I have tried to balance myself between the left and the right in order to dialogue with people on both sides and understand where I am on the spectrum. For the most part I find myself lacking a political home. In terms of temperament I tend to be more similar to leftists, but when I actually break down the ideologies that drive both the left and the right, I find I don’t really trust either of them.
And the third category, libertarians, I consider to be for the most part a non-factor in the culture wars. I resonate with libertarianism and anarchism on certain ideological levels, and also don’t in certain ways. For the most part this subset of the population has yet to be a major force in the culture wars so I am not going to really comment on them in this post.
The Moral Calculation Problem
The number one reason I do not have faith in politics is what I will call the problem of moral calculation. What I am referring to here is related to philosophical ethics. In order to make good decisions, we must start with good philosophy. Most people have never delved into ethical philosophy, yet want to claim things are “right” or “wrong”, “good” or “bad” without any clear understanding of what those terms mean, objectively.
Philosophy is rooted in how we think, in terms of language. A good thinker is precise with their words, and has spent much time considering what words mean to them, and the process by which he or she arrives at logical conclusions. If you are not a good philosopher, you will not be a good intellectual. It is that simple. Because philosophy is the art of thinking.
In ethics there are three main branches: deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics. Virtue ethics doesn’t really give us any detailed guidance on decisionmaking, so I won’t spend time on it (although I recommend reading up if you are interested).
Deontology is much more closely related to the political right than the political left. The basic idea is that morality comes from God, and that our moral decisions should be based on Divine revelation. This makes a lot of sense if you are someone who happens to be religious and believes that Divine revelation is not only possible, but clearly defined and applicable.
While I consider myself spiritually inclined, I do not believe it is at all obvious that we have received direct revelation from an all-powerful, all-loving being, nor that said revelation is clearly defined and applicable. A honest read of the Bible gives me the impression that Christianity is a amalgamation of many different things, and that it isn’t as cohesive as many on the right would have you believe.
Does that mean that the Bible is not applicable today? No I would not say that. I just think it lacks the coherency that I would expect from a book touted as being the end-all, be-all of ethics and spirituality. I understand that deontology is not restricted to Christianity, but in the context of American culture, this is the only real application of this current.
The most damning argument against deontology is an ancient one, put forth by Plato, known as Euthyphro’s Dilemma. Essentially the claim is that we can only know that God’s commands are moral if we have a predefined sense of what is moral. And if we have a predefined sense of moral we must admit it did not come from God’s commands but was prior to it. Some people counter by saying that certain commands are moral because God commands them. Which I find to just be a veiled appeal to authority, or might-makes-right philosophy.
Consequentialism is more closely related to the political left, although both the left and the right appeal to this in discourse. It is the common language of ethics in the 21st century. Even deontologists tend to claim that following Divine revelation leads to better outcomes than not.
As the name suggests, this branch of ethics is based on predicting the consequences of any given action, and choosing the most favorable outcome as a guide to our decision-making. We use this all the time in our lives, and it is essential to making decisions as a rational being.
Yet, it has it’s limits. This is where the problem of moral calculation comes in. Let’s say you want to make a good decision. You would have to 1) have a clear understanding of what a positive outcome looks like, and 2) a plan to carry out a series of actions to create the conditions for this outcome to become a reality. This seems simple enough, right?
Well, on small scales, yes. If I want to bake delicious cookies, I would merely have to know what a delicious cookie is like, then find a recipe and bake it. Presto! Delicious cookies are made. I carried out my plan and it brings joy to my friends and family who eat the cookies. I foresaw the consequences of my actions and took the steps to make it a reality.
Let’s raise the stakes. What if you didn’t just want to do good for a few people, but actually wanted to do the absolutely moral thing? Because at the end of the day, when we say something is moral or immoral, ethical or unethical, the underlying assumption is that the action is either a net positive for the state of the world or a net negative for it. Otherwise, is the action really moral or ethical if you don’t know whether it will lead to a positive outcome for the world?
In politics this dimension of ethics is especially apparent. Everyone will tell you how irresponsible or damaging someone else’s ideology is. How deranged, out of touch, and dangerous it is to hold certain political views. And from a certain perspective this makes a lot of intuitive sense. I mean, the obvious example would be Nazi Germany. Who wouldn’t agree that that was bad? I know personally I would never support such a regime.
Yet we must remain objective, because the appeals to your emotions are what the political machine feeds off of. Most people are so afraid of being perceived as immoral that they will posture themselves in any way to avoid the appearance of moral ambiguity. Yet the hard reality of life is that nothing is really as it seems.
To make a moral calculation requires an understanding of all the variables involved in a particular situation. Which instantly brings us to a frustrating truth: it is impossible to account for all of the variables involved in any decision.
There is a concept in chaos theory called the butterfly effect. It essentially is a mathematically derived idea which tells us that it is impossible to know the effects of an event over significant amounts of time, because the variables compound, creating all sorts of unexpected, seemingly random consequences as a result. The name comes from the observation that an event as small as a butterfly flapping it’s wings could actually cause a major change in weather patterns over a significant period of time.
We could think of it like this: if you choose to go to the grocery store, you will necessarily shift the flow of traffic on the roads you drive simply by your presence. This small shift on the roadways could theoretically lead to a traffic accident occuring that you could not possibly foresee. Or let’s say you cut someone off, and they get angry. They then go home and take out their frustration on their wife, which causes the wife to realize they are not right for each other, which causes a divorce, which affects the lives of the entire family, rippling out further and further into time.
These are just minor examples of how small, non-deliberate actions can set off chains of events unknown to the actor. Now imagine how much more consequential and multi-variabled political decisions are. It is a calculation nightmare.
Furthermore, there is the problem of values. Not everyone values the same things, and values often conflict. It isn’t so simple as ‘always tell the truth’, since most people would lie to protect those they love from serious harm. Because care in many cases supercedes honesty. It also isn’t clear that freedom is always good, because the freedom of one person may cause harm to many others. And ultimately all laws are curtailments of freedom.
If you study ethics seriously, you will find that no one has come up with a real clear theory of moral calculation that can withstand scrutiny. The factors involved in any decision in life are endless. It is actually impossible to predict the full effects of any given action. So why do we pretend that we can?
Simple. It is a myth that society operates under to maintain order. This order isn’t necessarily good or bad. It is just moral order. It provides a sort of consistency to society. It is to some degree an essential delusion for most. But I believe that those who are capable of seeing through the delusion of righteousness have a chance at greater personal freedom to live their lives according to their personal values rather than those given them by society.
Another difficulty in moral calculation is separating fact from fiction. Again, things are not always as they seem. And in politics this is especially true. The degree of corruption and mind-games being played is astounding. Propaganda is essential to politics, and anyone who has watched corporate news should by now be painfully aware that there are people who will intentionally lie in order to push an agenda.
Most people are not specialized or well-versed in the topics of national policy. Democracy has taught us to believe that our opinions are important which to some degree is true. But it also leads to a false confidence that we can actually understand the complexities and nuances involved in issues ranging from geopolitics to macroeconomics, and lately even virology. These subjects are, for the most part, beyond the scope of the average person’s ability to understand. This includes myself.
Another thing most people won’t touch with a ten foot pole is the proven existence of powerful secret societies and secretive government agencies which work behind the scenes, unaccountable to the public. Just do some reading up on the history of Skull and Bones (see this CNN video about them). Research the CIA’s mind control program MKUltra. Look at the history of NASA and the Nazi scientists we adopted (see Operation Paperclip). Before you dismiss me as a conspiracy theorist, have the basic decency to at least check the links and see if these things are properly documented public knowledge or not. Then make your own decisions.
I don’t pretend to have a clue what goes on with the elites behind closed doors but there is plenty of evidence that the world of power is very weird. And most people won’t acknowledge it because they are afraid of how crazy it all seems and how acknowledging it may make them look crazy too. It also makes it so much harder to actually trust the mechanisms of power once you see that they are likely corrupted.
The Deterioration of Dialogue
Another reason I prefer not to engage in political discourse is because it makes people defensive. Want to see someone shut down? Bring up political views different from their own and play devil’s advocate. In most cases you will see a significant drop in the degree of openness and warmth in the conversation. People on average just don’t know how to separate their emotions from their ideas, so to question their ideas and beliefs is to set off a chain of emotional reactions. I find this tiresome personally.
What I really desire is to have conversations of depth about what is truly important. Which for me, lies much more in the spiritual and psychological domains. Politics is an endless source of strife and cultural warfare. It sucks people dry. Look at anyone deeply involved in politics and I can assure you it has taken a toll on their emotional well-being. I know from first-hand experience as a former political junkie.
How do we really improve the world? First of all, I have no damn clue. It isn’t at all obvious my actions will be a net positive for the world. But I do know that what resonates with me most at this point in my life is heart to heart and mind to mind connections with people in love and honesty. Do I still have a desire to help people think better? Absolutely. But do I need to change others? No. I just want to be authentically myself and let the chips fall where they may.
Control is an illusion. And politics is like crack for a control freak. Letting go of our expectations of life allows us to open up to the experiences of this imperfect world. It will never be as good as we want it to be, no matter what anyone tells you. The healthy and rational response is to get used to that imperfection and find some way to give back to the world that resonates with your soul. It should feel right internally. Give up the need to get externally validated by a ideological tribe. Screw what others think. Live your own values with integrity.
In conclusion. Politics leaves most people feeling mistreated and abused. Helpless and fragile. Heartbroken and enraged. Is it worth it? For some, it may be. And it may be necessary to have people engage in it. As I mentioned earlier, each person has to follow their own heart and do what feels most right to them.
Thank you for reading.