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Politics and Perspective Taking

December 4th, 2006 · 2 Comments

I was just thinking about a short exchange I had a few weeks back with my friend Ben Adler over whether libertarians “have it in for” the handicapped. (It says something about D.C.—whether good or bad, I’m not sure—that his apparent belief that I hate the handicapped is not an obstacle to our describing each other as friends…) I think there’s an interesting symmetry here with a tendency I’ve often noticed conservatives exhibiting.

Conservatives (as I know I’ve said here before) love characterizing people who disagree with them as “relativists,” even when they clearly aren’t. They sometimes seem to think, for instance, that there’s one obvious sort of sexual morality, and that if you don’t share their specific judgments on this topic, it’s because you don’t believe any objective judgments are possible in this sphere, it’s just “whatever turns you on.” Whereas, of course, what many of us actually think is that there certainly are judgments to be made here, and conservatives often make the wrong ones.

The progressive equivalent is the tendency to see policy disagreements as expressions of different attitudes about outcomes. So if policy X is supposed to help group Y, then opposition to policy X signals at best indifference, at worst hostility to group Y—or at any rate, greater concern for some other group Z burdened by the policy. (As opposed to, say, qualms about whether policy X will have this effect, or group-independent objections to the process by which policy X achieves the benefit.)

Now, doubtless some of this is disingenuous rhetorical posturing: the progressive equivalent of “Why do you love Osama bin Laden so much?” But I think sometimes it’s probably sincere, and as in the conservative case, reflects the difficulty we all have putting ourselves in a really different way of thinking about the world. I think we’ve all had some experience with this in our personal relationships: A close friend or romantic partner says or does something, and you end up misunderstanding it thoroughly because you interpret it in terms of what it would mean if you had said or done it. And it turns out to mean something utterly different.

This is one of those places where I think philosophy training can actually do some practical good—if not in the personal case, then at least in public discourse—because it leaves us more attuned to the variety of defensible frames for thinking about normative problems. Cultural and racial sensitivity training has become a staple of lots of university and corporate orientation protocols. Maybe some kind of philosophical sensitivity training for pundits would avoid some of these misunderstandings in the political spheres. At the very least, it might be entertaining to watch Bill O’Reilly and Michael Moore doing trust falls.

Tags: Libertarian Theory



2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Steve Sailer // Dec 5, 2006 at 6:18 pm

    Yes, but the demographics of libertarianism are instructive on this question: it’s basically a young man’s theory. As you live and learn — especially when random bad health hits you and people you love — the theory starts to look less attractive.

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Dec 5, 2006 at 7:33 pm

    I don’t need a great deal of additional “education” on this front, thanks. Please try to limit yourself to being either tedious or an asshole in individual posts; both is a bit much.