Friday, April 13, 2007

I will choose free will

"Sure, there’s a tendency among some of us, myself included, to look askance on even those traditional conservatives who continue to treat Lincoln as something other than a tyrant and even less patience for those who may now think that the New Deal was worth the trade-off of killing what little remained of the Constitution (not that these folks would acknowledge that this was the trade-off), but considering what we’re talking about paleos are quite restrained and mild in their annoyance with these folks." - Daniel Larison

Like my hero Jonah, I'm going to make a serious, thoughtful, argument that has never been advanced in such detail before. That is, I'm going to color in some of the dialog from the prior posts with a demonstration that the paleocon failure (and several other things besides) is at bottom an oblique denial of free will.

All of us realize, whether we state it this way are not, that sometimes other people's actions are contingent, and sometimes they are just facts of nature. That is we, want to imagine that another person could choose between more than one course of action (presumably between things we prefer and things we don't), and that we can mentally put ourselves in that person's place and advocate for one choice or another based on the perceived consequences. But, only some of the time.

The direct impact of any one person's actions is very small. Everything meaningful he accomplishes is necessarily filtered through other people's actions. Therefore, we want to be able to take some credit or assume some fiat power over other people's actions. But, total fiat is just as meaningless as none at all. First of all, one person's mind cannot handle the complexity of total fiat over everybody in the world. Second, analysis of human affairs reduces to triviality, eg, there is no reason to persuade President Bush to avoid war in Iraq when we could just as easily have said that Saddam Hussein should relinquish his claims to leadership there.

Taking these as boundaries, how do we tell the difference? How do we designate an action for which we should consider other possibilities versus some other action that is just part of objective reality? Frankly that's a subject that people should think about a great deal more than they do. But a big part of the answer is that we can legitimately consider alternative actions in circumstances where we have some sort of personal connection to the actor.

My favorite example of this is the pyramids of Egypt vs. your choice of breakfast cereal this morning. The reader knows, with the memory of standing in front of the kitchen cupboard, that he could have picked Froot Loops instead of Frosted Flakes. But the product of thousands of sweating slaves is just part of the landscape, like a canyon or a mountain. (Btw, if Daniel is still following, Joe Sobran makes a similar point in one of his favorite metaphors: the scene in Chinatown where Jack Nicholoson's nostril is cut is memorable not because of the amount of violence but because we identify so strongly with his character.)

From here, there are two important premises to having a sufficient personal connection to appreciate the contingency of someone else's action. First, it takes a fair amount of plain effort, and second, it means that the other party also gets to evaluate you. Let's leave that second one aside for the moment but the first is very important. Part of the effort into making a connection with another person is the willingness to accept the other person's frame of the world: his perceptions, his intentions, his constraints.

If for some reason you are unwilling to make that effort, you can't justifiably pretend to act on that person's behalf. It's as though that other person is a plastic figure who will move at our whim. (Btw, forgive the the earlier reference to Ken and Barbie, I should have explained it better.) All people have God's gift of free will, especially our antagonists.

1 comment:

Prior Peter, OSB said...

We dance on the strings...

Koz: I think a weakness in your argument here is that you don't allow for the possibility of truth trumping the mutual judgments of two parties. I realize that you said that you weren't going to cover part two (the other party gets to 'evaluate you'), but leaving it there at least suggests that there is no objective truth to which to point, only persuasive (coercive?) opinions. It can be argued that Paleos don't get involved because the idea that mainstream or neo-cons should be allowed to evaluate the Paleos judgement (and presumably 'correct' them) is exactly what has been going on to the detriment of principled conservatism. I don't believe that this is a denial of the free will of the other, rather it respects it in calling the other to think differently, maybe even on his own as opposed to being in thrall to mainstream opinion.

Try this thought experiment. If the Paleos are actually correct, perhaps there is logic in staying at the margins and calling others to see the correctness, whereas if they simply joined the mainstream, they would cease to be able to appeal to conscience and a sense of truth.

Obviously, this is the opinion of a monk, who understands his own role of withdrawal in a related light. Monks might appear to be irrelevant, but it is difficult to account for the power of truth and conscience. I'm not saying that the Paleos have truth on their side, only that in the many cases where they do or even might, it would be far less effectual for them to 'get involved' in mainstream conservatism, where their ideas would quickly be bowdlerized and their effectiveness diluted.

Practically speaking, conservatism has been too quick (thus also failing at premise #1) to allow someone with Andrew Sullivan's agenda to 'evaluate' their own principles. Much better to be critiqued by Sobran or Sam Francis, in my opinion, and keep them in the conversation.

...of powers we cannot perceive.

I choose not to decide!