Not too long ago, I wrote an essay on the importance of teaching your kids how to think, not what to think, in which I estolled the virtue of skepticism. There’s another piece I would like to add to my list of thinking hardware: Pragmatism.
I count pragmatism among the list of thinking hardware rather than thinking software because it is not proscriptive. It’s a framework within which a person can further their software thinking by dribs and drabs or all at once (if lucky). It allows for compromise, and coupled with the hardware skill of skepticism, allows for a change in one’s own opinion upon the introduction of better ideas. Skepticism and Pragmatism are virtues, because they allow for progress, and they lessen the chance for conflict better than any other idea. They sharpen the minds of everyone who employs them, and sidesteps our reductionist impulse to view every conflict as one between good and evil.
For instance, I am an epicurean, but I am not an epicurean above all else. I will forward the notions of Epicureanism in conversation, and I will practice them personally, but that software ideology is not my ultimate identity. It is subject to deletion, or revision. I am, above my ideological self, a thinking human, who is capable of many things. By putting my ideological identity second, I allow my humanity—and the humanity of others—to become evident to me. Interestingly, by putting my ideology second, I seem to be even more effective at spreading it.
Here is one of my favorite quotations, from Saul Alinsky:
"One of the most important things in life is what judge Learned Hand described as 'that ever-gnawing inner doubt as to whether you're right.' If you don't have that, if you think you've got an inside track to absolute truth, you become doctrinaire, humorless and intellectually constipated. The greatest crimes in history have been perpetrated by such religious and political and racial fanatics, from the persecutions of the Inquisition on down to Communist purges and Nazi genocide."
The software ideologue puts their ideology above their humanity, and because this is the case, they feel they’ll lose their identity by compromising on it. They don’t realize that software ideologies are not inherently rational. They believe they are carved in stone commandments, sent down from whatever authority they depend on for guidance. A person doesn’t have to look any farther than the creation museum in Kentucky, or pre-healthcare flip Dennis Kucinich for evidence of this, just to stick with my own area of the world.
Blackford’s essay reminds us that we are human beings with genetic proclivities, but it also points out that even though this is the case, we are also thinking creatures with relatively free wills:
“Generally speaking, it is rational for us to act in ways that accord with our reflectively-endorsed desires or values, rather than in ways that maximise our reproductive chances or in whatever ways we tend to respond without thinking. If we value the benefits of social living, this may require that we support and conform to socially-developed norms of conduct that constrain individuals from acting in ruthless pursuit of self-interest. Admittedly, our evolved nature may affect this, in the sense that any workable system of moral norms must be practical for the needs of beings like us, who are, it seems, naturally inclined to be neither angelically selfless nor utterly uncaring about others. Thus, our evolved psychology may impose limits on what real-world moral systems can realistically demand of human beings, perhaps defeating some of the more extreme ambitions of both conservatives and liberals. It may not be realistic to expect each other to be either as self-denying as moral conservatives seem to want or as altruistic as some liberals seem to want.”
Much as we have been programmed by evolution to crave the fatty, high calorie foods that are now killing so many of us, so too have we been programmed to enjoy sex, which leads to greater reproduction rates, which is now counter-productive to our continued survival as a species.
Blackford also has this to say:
“On this picture, realistic moral systems will allow considerable scope for individuals to act in accordance with whatever they actually value. However, they will also impose constraints, since truly ruthless competition among individuals would lead to widespread insecurity, suffering, and disorder. Allowing it would be inconsistent with many values that most of us adhere to, on reflection, such as the values of loving and trusting relationships, social survival, and the amelioration of suffering in the world. If, however, we are social animals that already have an evolved sympathetic responsiveness to each other, the yoke of a realistic moral system may be relatively light for most of us most of the time.”
Giving our rational selves over to our pet software ideologies and natural impulses is a recipe for disaster. But, in Michael Shermer’s recent essay close to this subject, he puts forward the idea that some genetic ideological impulses are only subject to so much revision:
“Over the years (Jonathon) Haidt and his University of Virginia colleague Jesse Graham have surveyed the moral opinions of more than 110,000 people from dozens of countries and have found this consistent difference: self-reported liberals are high (on the Haidt Scale) on 1 and 2 (harm/ care and fairness/reciprocity) but are low on 3, 4 and 5 (in-group loyalty,authority/respect and purity/sanctity), whereas self-reported conservatives are roughly equal on all five dimensions, although they place slightly less emphasis on 1 and 2 than liberals do. (Take the survey yourself at www.yourmorals.org.)
Instead of viewing the left and the right as either inherently correct or wrong, a more scientific approach is to recognize that liberals and conservatives emphasize different moral values…”
This may be the case, but with the right tools (pragmatism and skepticism), we can—if we are brave—understand exactly what inclines us towards our respective software beliefs, and put parameters on how far we will allow these inclinations and biases to take us. It takes a certain humility to admit that we may not possess ‘the lord’s truth’, but doing so frees us to hear the software ideas of others, to compromise, to change our own opinions, and to live in a pluralistic society.
Everything In the Medicine Cabinet Has Expired