starting from what?

I am attracted to two ideas that are in some tension:

1. We should prize very open-ended public deliberations (enriched by practical experiences) in which people try to set aside all ideological assumptions so that they can discover unrecognized needs, unimagined goals, and novel strategies. Open-ended deliberation would be less valuable if we had an array of persuasive ideologies to choose from; but today we do not. None of the major ideologies addresses the root causes of our problems, which I believe are largely cultural. In open-ended deliberations, young people have special potential because they have fresh perspectives, unconstrained by existing ideologies.

2. Good moral and political judgment is a matter of adopting and adjusting our store of accumulated beliefs. There are no fundamental reasons or self-evident truths that can justify our political choices. Our arguments and reasons always derive from a heritage or tradition, although we inherit divergent values and are thus able to make choices. To use Otto Neurath’s metaphor, we repair our boat while we are at sea.

These two ideas conflict because the actual traditions on which people depend are often ideological. Someone who grew up in a union hall and a Catholic congregation probably learned to apply a harmonious set of general principles to a wide range of political questions (which is my definition of an ideology). That’s a clear example, but somone who grows up around suburban soccer leagues and carpools also receives a big dose of ideology. My instinct in favor of open-ended, presupposition-free deliberation argues for putting such inherited principles aside (and trying not to indoctrinate young people with them). But I also have an instinct to prize our existing normative commitments, following Bernard Williams’ advice: “Theory typically uses the assumption that we probably have too many ethical ideas, some of which may well turn out to be mere prejudices. Our major problem now is actually that we have not too many but too few, and we need to cherish as many as we can.”

One way to combine these two ideas was proposed by Karl Mannheim, who suggested a generational division of labor. The young should provide a fresh perspective, while the old should offer principles derived from their experience that they crystallize into ideologies.

1 thought on “starting from what?

  1. a-train

    Although I’m generally not persuaded by logical positivism, I love Neurath’s analogy of a boat which we must rebuild on the open sea.

    Some of the planks can only be changed one at a time. They also must be immediately replaced.

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