We have arrived at the next to the last chapter in our long discussion of Julian Baggini’s The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World. To briefly recap, the first part of Julian’s book (chapters 1-3) was about “the judge,” i.e. the myth of reason understood as an impartial replacement for human judgment; part II (chapters 4-6), “the guide,” was concerned with the Platonic myth of reason in charge of unruly emotions and desires; part III (chapters 7-9), “the motivator,” discussed a third myth, that reason, by itself, motivates us to action. These last two installments refer to part IV, “the king,” an analysis of the role of reason in politics and society at large.
Julian begins chapter 10 by acknowledging the rather obvious point that human beings tend to run their societies in a rather irrational manner. From which it would seem to follow that it should be possible to build better societies based on reason. And yet, every time we have tried such an experiment, implementing a radical new view of how things ought to do, it has resulted in abysmal, and more than occasionally bloody, failure. Why?
As in previous sections, it all goes back to Plato (see? There is a point, after all, for the name of this blog…), particularly the Republic, which Baggini describes as “one of the most unworkable, unattractive utopias ever conceived. Plato advocated a society in which a separate Guardian class is raised from childhood and ‘women and children are to be held in common among the Guardians’. Rulers ‘will have to employ a great deal of fiction and deceit for the benefit of their subjects’, ‘mate the best of our men with the best of our women’ and ‘bring up only the offspring of the best’.”
Of course, Plato had a reason for proposing such a radical departure from the way things were done then, since he learned his political lessons from the failure of the Athenian democratic experiment (which, among other things, ended up killing his mentor, Socrates), and the general decline of Athenian power.
I think Julian is right in framing the Republic in terms of what he calls Socrates’ mistake: “Socrates begins by asking Glaucon whether he agrees with the principles that lie behind his exposition. ‘Does practice ever square with theory?’ he demands. ‘Is it not in the nature of things that, whatever people think, practice should come less close to truth than theory?’” For Socrates the problem is “to show what fault it is in the constitutions of existing states that prevents them from being run like ours.”
The mistake, in other words, is to put theory ahead of practice, assuming that whenever things go wrong that’s because the implementation of the theory was insufficiently accurate, not because the theory itself is unworkable. This type of Socratic error has been repeated in all utopias attempted ever since, on whatever side of the political spectrum.
Also, one corollary of the Socratic-Platonic assumption is the idea that there is one universal conception of justice (remember that part of the Republic has the goal of identifying the characteristics of the just state). But there are serious objections to this too, exemplified for instance by a thought experiment proposed by Amartya Sen in The Idea of Justice.
Consider a “story of three children and a flute, all of the children having some claim to the instrument. One says she is the only one able to play it, another that he is the only one with no other toys and the third that she made it. Sen argues that ‘we may not be able to identify, without some arbitrariness, any of the alternative arguments as being the one that must invariably prevail.’” I think that’s right: different plausible arguments could be constructed in favor of each of the three kids, without any of them being a knock-down against the others. And this isn’t evidence of some kind of failure of ethics to arrive at “truth,” but rather a good illustration that rational arguments tend to underdetermine the answers to ethical problems.
Julian faults Plato, again, rightly, in my mind, for putting reason on the side of theory, thus automatically shifting the burden of failure to practice. But reason can, and indeed should be, practical as well. As he reminds us, “pragmatic” is considered a bad word in politics precisely because of this Platonic remnant that principle is superior to practice, but “a principle that can’t be implemented is just a bad principle. … Political reasoning cannot be a priori. Experience has to have a more engaged and ongoing role to play. … That way lies the absurdity uttered by Ferdinand I, the Holy Roman Emperor: ‘Let justice be done, though the world perish.’”
What, then, is the answer? Conservatism, says Julian! Wait, wait, don’t just throw stones at him (or me), let’s first hear him out. He makes an argument that there is something fundamental on which both conservatives and progressives really ought to agree on, reasonably.
Consider “Burkean conservative philosophy [as] eloquently articulated by Roger Scruton. For Scruton, society is like a living organism, and individuals are not distinct ‘atoms’ of autonomous self-determination, as characterized by liberalism, but parts of a whole which only flourish when that whole is itself flourishing. This means that human life only makes sense, values only have currency and projects only have meaning when understood as part of a social history that extends both before and after our own lives. … Conservatism is therefore ‘an exercise in social ecology’ whose goal is ‘to pass on to future generations — and if possible enhance — the order and equilibrium of which we are the temporary trustees.’”
Put this way, the basic idea of conservatism, then, is that society is like a delicate ecosystem, and that therefore one should be careful about how to tweak it, and certainly be weary of any radical attempt to tear it down. Baggini proposes that “liberals” (by which he doesn’t mean American-style libertarians, but politically progressive, left-of-the-spectrum individuals) should have no trouble agreeing with this commonsensical precept. The difference is in what tweaks to make, and how much to tweak, keeping in mind that modern conservatives would readily accept the value of what in the recent past appeared as radical reforms, such as the abolition of slavery, or women’s vote (though many are still largely, but presumably only temporarily, not on board with equal rights for gays and transgenders).
The idea, then, is that “the process of designing a better society has to start by looking at the society we have, since we cannot build a new one from scratch to replace it.” And guess who was the first to propose just such an approach? None other than Plato’s famous rebellious student, Aristotle:
“He began by examining the political systems currently in existence, seeing their relative strengths and weaknesses. He never made the mistake of thinking about the relative merits of oligarchy, democracy or monarchy in purely abstract terms. … He had a realistic expectation that political philosophy can never be clear-cut and that a certain amount of unclarity and imprecision is inevitable.”
Of course, the point is not that we should accept Aristotle’s specific conclusions, but rather that his approach — in an important sense antithetical to that of Plato — is the way to go. As Baggini puts it, in perfect Aristotelian fashion, “to be as rational as possible means not trying to get more from rationality than is possible. In no domain is this true more than in politics.”
Julian then examines some of the most disastrous recent attempts to establish utopias by wiping out (as opposed to tweaking) previous systems, particularly the communist regimes of the 20th century, all of which quickly degenerated into tyranny and caused the death of hundreds of millions of people. The communist mistake, in a sense, is the same as Plato’s: despite Marx’s alleged attention to historical realities, communists have always put pure theoretical reasoning ahead of practice, attempting to turn history itself into an exact science.
I refer the interested reader to Julian’s discussion of the concept of surplus value and the role it plays in Marxist theories. He acknowledges that surplus value is a real thing, but he rejects the Marxist analysis of the role it plays in society, and therefore the Marxist recipe for how society ought to be changed.
Baggini has a little more sympathy for anarchists, but he charges them with committing the opposite mistake to that of the Platonists and Marxists: ignoring theory altogether in favor of too much emphasis on practice: “Bakunin is clearly advocating something close to what I have been arguing for here. ‘Natural and social life always precedes thought (which is merely one of its functions) but is never its result,’ while ‘abstract reflections’ are ‘always produced by life but never producing it.’ However, his inverted Platonism is as simplistic as the view it replaces. … Bakunin writes as though the truth simply flows from the facts in some unmediated way.”
Sure enough, historically speaking, anarchism — though not responsible for the atrocities of communism (and fascism) — has not really fared particularly well: “You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of anarchist cities or communes that have been established long enough to leave a mark on the world, and each lasted for months rather than years.”
I am going to skip Julian’s analysis of yet another case of exaggerated “theoretical” rationality, that of economic theory, and leave you instead with his conclusions regarding political systems: “if anyone proposes a radical new model of how we should organize society then we have good grounds to suspect that the model is grossly and dangerously simplified. … To be truly rational we need to acknowledge the limits of our rationality: nothing is more irrational than an unwarranted faith in reason.”