Tuesday 17 July 2012

Do opinions matter?

From Heretics by G.K Chesterton (1905):

At any innocent tea-table we may easily hear a man say, "Life is not worth living."

We regard it as we regard the statement that it is a fine day; nobody thinks that it can possibly have any serious effect on the man or on the world.

And yet if that utterance were really believed, the world would stand on its head. Murderers would be given medals for saving men from life; firemen would be denounced for keeping men from death; poisons would be used as medicines; doctors would be called in when people were well; the Royal Humane Society would be rooted out like a horde of assassins.

Yet we never speculate as to whether the conversational pessimist will strengthen or disorganize society; for we are convinced that theories do not matter.


Some things have changed in the past century since Chesterton was writing. The official doctrine, which has justified, promoted, subsidised and institutionalized 'conversational pessimism' remains in force; and yet applied unilaterally to suppress its opposition.

Radical nihilism is broadcast and published in the mass media - yet to defend traditional Christianity is viciously punished by means informal and formal.


The key is differential enforcement. So many laws... but just a few are enforced. Everyone is in breach of regulations all of the time, but only some people and some transgressions are punished.


So officially there is a free-for-all and this gives unlimited scope to nihilism and its fellow travellers; but anarchy is 'managed' by the liberal-discretion of officials; so that which opposes nihilism may be (but is not consistently - therefore deniably) intimidated, prosecuted, and beaten-up (metaphorically or literally).

So officially 'theories do not matter' - but unofficially any deviation, even if a single word, from approved theory may be (but is not consistently - therefore deniably) punished and punished and punished...


But what we want is not liberty; nor do we want equality of law nor even equality of enforcement - what we want is the Good: the true and the beautiful and the virtuous - and that which is conducive to them...


Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk the problem of what is good.

We are fond of talking about "liberty"; that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.

We are fond of talking about "progress"; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.

We are fond of talking about "education"; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.


The modern man says, "Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty." This is, logically rendered, "Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it."

He says, "Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress." This, logically stated, means, "Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it."

He says, "Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education." This, clearly expressed, means, "We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children."

G.K. Chesterton Heretics (1905)



Thursday said...

Freedom and equality are sometimes good things, but they are means not ends, and to the extent they have stopped promoting those ends (the good, the beautiful, etc.) they should be abolished.

joetexx said...

I have always had a resistance on the emotional level to the concept of 'anarcho tyranny' , as used by the late sourpuss Sam Francis.  I saw what he was talking about, but guess I just didn't want to believe it. 

For some reason your brief formulation just brings it home. 

 'So many laws... but just a few are enforced. Everyone is in breach of regulations all of the time, but only some people and some transgressions are punished. '

I looked up Wikipedia on Francis: it summarizes his thought more accurately and fairly than I would have expected. 

The money quote on anarcho tyranny:

'What we have in this country today, then, is both anarchy (the failure of the state to enforce the laws) and, at the same time, tyranny – the enforcement of laws by the state for oppressive purposes; the criminalization of the law-abiding and innocent through exorbitant taxation, bureaucratic regulation, the invasion of privacy, and the engineering of social institutions, such as the family and local schools; the imposition of thought control through "sensitivity training" and multiculturalist curricula, "hate crime" laws, gun-control laws that punish or disarm otherwise law-abiding citizens but have no impact on violent criminals who get guns illegally, and a vast labyrinth of other measures. In a word, anarcho-tyranny.'

Good Lord, did I actually read Heretics?  Another pair of brilliant quotes I don't remember, and should have. I recall holding the book in my hand -it was the first American edition) and thinking how incredibly penetrating were its insights. 

Clearly I must seek the assistance of Herr Meister Gutenberg. 

Goethe on liberty: What gives us freedom of spirit without self control is disastrous. 

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thursday - Yes.

But politics has to be simple. Sometimes good and sometimes not, sometimes important sometimes not is too complex for politics.

I suppose the only answer, starting from where we are now, is to say that f&e are bad things, but tolerable if they tend to lead to good outcomes...

Funny thing is that I come from an exceptionally free sub-culture of science (epitomized by the journal I used to edit - Medical Hypothesis, with it link to Popper); where we believed and acted upon the importance of freedom in the expression and criticism of scientific ideas.

But this was, I now perceive, only a temporary blip in the history of human affairs - and had essentially died out by the mid-1960s apart from some small (but largely irrelevant) islands which continued for another few decades (and where I happened to be operating) until now they have been destroyed (not accidentallly, but purposively).

The very fact that Medical Hypotheses was needed by the mid-1970s shows how far science had already declined from its Popperian era.

The exact people who use freedom arguments most often and the greatest general approval are those people who most aggressively have destroyed the freedom of science.

These people are all in favour of freedom - except when it may do harm to their favoured causes - which happen to be evil causes (not that the people are necessarily evil, tho' some are - but their causes certainly are evil).

The harm is in the cause, not the methods.

However, it was probably an unstable transitional cultureal stage and could not have survived - at any rate it is gone, and we most not be tricked into asking for it back.

Of course, it is illegal (and hazardous) to promote the Good.

But let us at least not quibble over the fact that it is the Good which is being suppressed and evil promoted - and stop asking for the impossible: freedom, impartiality and fair treatment.

dearieme said...

An omnipotent god can create a being whose acts are known only to itself.

An omniscient god cannot do this.

It would appear, then, that no god can be both omnipotent and omniscient.

(From Richard R. La Croix.)
H/T Futility Closet

Bruce Charlton said...

@dearieme - I don't get it. Should this be posted on another thread?

And surely the argument is obviously mistaken - just a variant of the logical truism that a God (or anybody else) cannot both do and not do the same thing at the same time etc?