Taking Sides: The Philosophical Foundation of the Open Society

In seeking to establish arbitrary but reasonably reliable moral standards, a subject I have discussed recently in a few posts, we must not hesitate to get our hands dirty. It is important to see what is theoretically possible, but just as important to then apply this knowledge to underpin actual morality and not to lose oneself in pure theory. Just as it is the duty of the philosopher to question the gods of society, so too he must defend those beliefs which do, in fact, merit our cautious reverence. It is his obligation to stand up for the free society that allows him to practice his craft, because this society is often under attack, including, naturally, by those who are its main beneficiaries.

In order to mount such a defense, we must understand the philosophical foundation of the open society, a society where artists, thinkers, and many others may exchange their ideas and do what they do without fear of being hunted or shunned by the powers that be. To understand this foundation, we must, as so often, begin with the Greeks.

In my blog post of May 21, 2014, I mentioned briefly the pessimistic nature, the tragic view, of the Greek mentality. When one attempts to look at the complete picture of any one thing, with as many of its causes and effects as may be possible to see – which is how a philosopher must try to look at everything – then the tragic view presents itself, which is that there is always a trade-off. And not only that, but almost all choices we make are between bad and worse, and we are forced to say no to the beautiful because of its negative consequences, and yes to the ugly because of its positive consequences. And that is life. (To borrow a simple example from the book whose second draft I just completed on my time as a volunteer in Namibia: Many of my fellow volunteers simply admired typical African generosity and left it at that. By all means, I told them, admire this generosity all you want – I, too, admire it – but at least be clear-headed about the fact that it reduces incentives to work, for both giver and especially recipient, and therefore holds development back. Other volunteers believed that Westerners are greedy, and indeed they may be – and I, too, denounce greediness – but their greediness is also part and parcel of more advanced economies. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and greediness can and does have both detrimental and salutary consequences, and so too with generosity. People are certainly not too stupid but certainly too lazy to try to see the whole picture. And so we are stuck in a bad situation of being forced to see that wonderful generosity can lead us backwards. This is the tragic view.) People tend not to want to accept this and to call it a “false choice” or some such insipid trope because, obsessed with perfection as they are, they believe there can be something with only sunny sides all around it, and because they are simply too emotionally exhausted to commit themselves to negativity in any way. People need their particular messiah, they need to believe that it is possible, and so they keep striving blindly for it. But with vision comes the realization that there is no messiah and that one must resign oneself, like the Greeks, to living with negativity, even though within that framework one tries to reach the best solution possible.

John Locke was right about most things...

This is a useful starting point. We can and always should try to improve and perfect ourselves as individuals as much as possible, but society as a whole can never be perfect. Unless we want to become a society that simply eliminates or banishes unwanted members (and such societies of course have existed many times in history, and sometimes wars were waged to destroy them), we need social contracts that account for even the weakest members, the most foolish and the most selfish – and there are plenty of those. This is why the only political philosophers whose models have achieved at least a measure of success in actual life are those who, from the very start, have rejected perfection. It is not a coincidence that the societies of such gentlemen as Locke, Montesquieu, Smith, and Burke have existed many times in the past, do exist now, and will continue to exist, and that the societies of such contributors as Rousseau, Marx, and Chomsky have never existed, and, of course, never will. The fundamental error that the latter three thinkers among others make is that they attempt to achieve a perfect model with imperfect components, namely the human beings of the societies they endeavor to build. The societies of the former four thinkers exist in the real world because they accept the negative and the tragic as a permanent part of the human social condition. This distinction is also paradigmatic for Plato and Aristotle: Plato’s Republic is a work that seeks perfection and where, therefore, a large class of individuals is not tolerated and expelled (I do not group Plato with Rousseau, Marx, and Chomsky because it is questionable how serious regarding actual application Plato was with the type of state he builds there). Aristotle’s Politics is far more realistic in tolerating imperfect people and therefore comes much closer to actually existing states. Aristotle, who even when he is wrong manages to be remarkably intelligent, understands that universalization with imperfect components must necessarily reject perfection (which e.g. Kant, to touch on my post from July 25, 2014, did not understand).

...whereas Jean-Jacques Rousseau needed an admittedly attractive hat to mask the disastrous consequences of his thinking.

But one should go even further. The attempt to achieve perfection in society is not only impracticable. It is, in fact, anti-intellectual, because it excludes contrary viewpoints. That is to say, the societies proposed by such men as Rousseau, Marx, and Chomsky are not only impracticable but by their very nature dictatorial, because they do not tolerate the opposition of the weaker or the, in their view, imperfect elements. Thus, in order to be actually possible, their societies must eliminate the undesired members. It is therefore the obligation of the philosopher to take sides and to reject these so-called thinkers and to defend the open society, where imperfection and contrary viewpoints may and indeed must exist. The dissenting viewpoints of these pseudo-thinkers are possible precisely in the open society – in their own type of society, ironically, dissent would be banned – and that, in turn, is part of the Greek, tragic view: in standing up for the open society I must stand up for the idiots and charlatans.