On Political Change

Part of me wants to scream at everyone that they know nothing about politics.

Not because, mind you, that I know anything about politics. I know very little. The important thing is that I know I know very little, and am constantly asking questions and wondering how things work. I’m willing to concede to experts unless their values are the diametric opposite of mine. In that case, I’m willing to listen and scrutinize the parts I disagree with until I can reconcile my values with their logic.

The starting point for pride as a citizen, as one who is politically active, is modesty/humility. While Aristotle does say that modesty isn’t a virtue, but rather exists for those who are young to learn, he also says that age alone does not determine whether one is young or not. Maturity is the only real criterion.

Suggestions for how we can get a more modest citizenry that can achieve a genuine pride are welcome. It is a practical matter, a matter for statesmen, and your answers do distinguish you even if you have no power. Quite frankly, power nowadays is a function of having the job dictated to you. What would occur in a serious comment thread would be the discovery of what the proper task in the first place is.


  1. “I’m willing to listen and scrutinize the parts I disagree with until I can reconcile my values with their logic.

    inst that the route of ignorance? to treat all apposing ideas as hostile rather than considering them on their merit?

    Just a thought :)

  2. Laurence – do ignorant people really listen?

    Some opposing views have to be viewed as hostile. Matters of value cannot always be reduced to matters of fact.

  3. Take this example – The racist attitude of U.s southern during the 1800’s remained the same right through till the early 1900’s, despite the civil war. That wasn’t because the south were not listening to the north- they hardly had a choice- it was a result of their viewing northern ideas as hostile and therefore focusing only on defeating them rather than viewing them with an unbiased attitude. I understand that there were other issues involved, however politics provides us with a similar situation.

    A controversial idea comes from an opposing party therefore we squat behind our mental shields and poke at it until we are satisfied it has lost any value it may initially have had.

    Surly if we start from route with each idea we can learn more than if we just try and incorporate it(or not) into our current set ideas ?

  4. I think most people would say the South wasn’t listening. If you focus on defeating an idea, sometimes you can get obsessed with only trying to destroy it.

    But it’s also possible that your opponent’s best argument could convince you.

    The question you have to answer is whether the notion of “moral progress” underlying your thought can hold up. Our world thinks there is such a thing, and that we’re more moral than previous generations. But I’ll ask you: can you see at least one particularly significant problem with the idea moral knowledge progresses?

    Thanks for commenting, I’m glad you’re making use of this blog again.

  5. My point wasn’t about moral imperative, it was the belief that whites were intrinsically superior, surely you would agree that the essential belief that anything is by nature inferior to anything else is un-enlightened? There are no absolute values after-all….. it doesn’t have to be a moral standpoint , simply a logical one.

    Although I don’t believe that morality can progress, it-is after all- socially acceptable vs. socially unacceptable. If we consider the aim of any democratic society as “trying to please the largest possible number of people as much as possible”. There are logical and illogical ways for society to run. Some changes to which behaviours are socially acceptable are more likely to please everyone, for example; the NHS in England could be called a form of progression and I believe it is, since it helps to fulfil the aim of a democratic society.

  6. I’m trying to steer this discussion onto lines where the arguments are more developed, but it’s not working because you’re not raising the best question possible. I’m not frustrated, and I thank you for your patience, it’s just more that I want you to get something out of talking to me. But the main thing you need to realize is that while I want to encourage you, this argumentation that you’re putting forward now is going to get you in serious trouble.

    For example, in the post above:

    Here we’re running into a huge problem about the statement “whites are intrinsically superior.” You’re telling me that people believed this as a matter of fact, and that the way to have destroyed it is moral relativism (nothing is superior to anything else, you claim). This is a terrible argument, especially given that Enlightenment presupposes that certain things be known (modern physics, evolution, etc.) and holds those things as intrinsically superior even to other forms of knowledge that work (modern medicine vs. homeopathy). Also, there’s the fact of how slavery actually ended in all countries – it wasn’t relativism of any sort which provided the strength or the principle to put an end to it.

    While this is the Internet and you can say what you like, given that former students of mine do read this blog, I will say that if I see that argument in a paper I will cross it out and mark it down. You assume every day things are superior to other things, that’s why you act the way you do.

    Now that’s not “logic” I’m employing. It’s a statement of how the world works from which logic is derived. It is because of that statement we can have matters of logic and matters of morality, because both are ways of focusing on different aspects of the world.

    If you want to read up on these sorts of issues, look at Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason. It is difficult, but I think you should look at it yourself and keep the secondary sources away for now, because the secondary sources are prone to the argumentation you’ve put forth above. It’s not your fault you’re arguing these things, big-time scholars say exactly the same things you’ve said, and yeah, it’s that easy to refute. They spend a lot of time amassing specialized knowledge and can’t put the “whole” together.

    Now for the praise: I like your second paragraph, the first statement is close to what I wanted you to assert. The socially acceptable/unacceptable thing is a weaker form of the same distinction, the more important distinction being that “people need to know what’s moral at a given time.” That’s the real issue. If we can’t agree on some basic things, we’re in trouble even in anarchism.

    Now when you get to how a democratic society is based, you raise some deep issues. The usual formulation is Bentham/Mill’s “the greatest good for the greatest number” (that Utilitarianism is central to Parliament’s form today). That’s not quite the same as “pleasing” the people, because “pleasing” has a sense in which if the people choose to destroy themselves, so be it. “Greatest good” implies that democracy has a limit, and that limit is some form of reason (hence, Mill’s emphasis on free speech, blah blah).

    What’s interesting, though, is that you take the statement of value that runs British democracy and use logic to distill from it what one should do. Then you move to whether one can see progress or not in certain institutions.

    That use of “logic” contradicts your use of the term in the above paragraph, unless you mean that “logic” contains statements about what is/what is not superior. It looks like one judges what’s superior and works from there with logic.

    Whereas before I recommended read the Critique of Practical Reason, here you might want to look at something older. Highly, highly recommended: Plato’s Meno, and because it is old and difficult, “A Commentary on Plato’s Meno” by Jacob Klein. If you can get through both of those alone and know them, you’ll be leading the UK in no time.

  7. Hey, thanks for your comment, it is certainly food for thought. I will order those two books, although Plato might take me a while to decipher.

    I see what you are saying; perhaps the argument in paragraph 1 is a poor one, however the
    “the aim of any democratic society as “trying to please the largest possible number of people as much as possible”.”
    Argument still stands, I do not agree that “the greatest good for the greatest number” is a more accurate statement. “Greater good” is entirely subjective, since society’s view of “how society should be”, “how it would be pleasing if society was” and “the greater good for society” tend to become the same thing. Your statement “”pleasing” has a sense in which if the people choose to destroy themselves, so be it.” Seems wrong to me, since the greater good IS subjective, if self destruction became the aim of society, it would also come to be seen as the greater good.

    “””That use of “logic” contradicts your use of the term in the above paragraph, unless you mean that “logic” contains statements about what is/what is not superior. It looks like one judges what’s superior and works from there with logic.”””””

    Well yes! If we agree (more or less) on society’s purpose then logic can be used to judge the value of change in society, as compared to the target.

    Although pure logic has a tendency to be nihilistic, i.e; nothing has any value it is all equally pointless. If we take certain values as self-evident – which is human nature- we can use logic to chart progression in society as compared to those values.

    I suppose the problem comes as the base values/targets change. However in terms in democracy; the afore mentioned objective can’t change; since the media keeps western society mostly incorrupt, (i suspect you wont agree on that) the only real way to get re-elected is too follow that target. Which is why it is possible measure the value of changes in societies of universal suffrage because they all have the same target, some are just better at getting there.

    While i have stated above that “greater good” and what people want are the same. I am going to contradict myself and say that they are in-fact not. They may be the same in terms of the majority rule, but in the eye of individuals in power it may change. While the majority basically defines the greater good; what people want tends to mix together and even out. The problem with society is that ptend to weild their individual values rather than trying to “please the largest possible number of people as much as possible” They tend to follow your mantra “the greatest good” which doesn’t help anyone since their view of morality can be an outlier, their own personal perversion of the group morality. I would much rather have a prime-minster that lies to the back teeth about his own beliefs and just goes with the public mood, rather than the current bungler of a leader who supposedly has “a strong moral compass”. All that statement means is that he has his own personal idea of what “the greater good is “ and to hell with everyone else.

    Anyway…..that’s my personal attempt at political analysis. I look forward to seeing you dismantle it word by word (I actually do) especially considering this is your greatest area of expertise.

    Its good to actually talk to someone about this stuff again. Theirs absolutely no-one to discuss anything with around here, the only interesting debate ive had in the last 3 months was with a Baptist priest, and even he keeled over and at the first mention of a the council of nicea or the Thomas gospel. I think he decided I was a lost cause, and don’t worry I’m not trying to get in a religious debate with you.

    Sorry I haven’t been in contact recently, ive been going through a period of some adjustment in my life. ( I know it’s a lame excuse but there you are). Ive had to type this up rather quickly since I am currently on work experience at a local newspaper and they would not consider this totally relevant to my placement. So, enjoy the many grammatical errors and spelling mistakes.

    Look forward to hearing from you.

  8. I was gonna write a response, but just look over those arguments you’ve just made and identify the weak points in them for yourself.

    Part of the problem is that you’re reading too much into “the greatest good,” and reading wrongly into it at that. They don’t teach Mill and Bentham as promoting the utilitarianism which resulted in Parliamentary reform? I mean, British history is not my field, you’ve gotta know this stuff better than I do.

    What I’d do, if I were you, is hold off a bit on having a comprehensive political vision right now. If you push too hard now, what ends up happening is you end up saying what everyone else is saying but thinking you’re a distinct voice nonetheless (trust me, I know from experience). This takes a lot of time to get, truth be told, because you have to be able to imagine more than your feelings or even what you’ve been taught.

    I’m a political scientist and I don’t have a comprehensive sense of how it all works.

    Did you get the Illiad and Odyssey done? If so, there are books and essays I can recommend as secondary sources, and we can build from there. Also, did I give you that .pdf, the “Introduction to Political Philosophy?” That’ll help immensely.

    Are you planning on being a journalist btw? Is uni in the future?

  9. “I was gonna write a response, but just look over those arguments you’ve just made and identify the weak points in them for yourself.

    That bad eh? ah-well never mind.

    “Introduction to Political Philosophy” never got it, sounds interesting.

    “What I’d do, if I were you, is hold off a bit on having a comprehensive political vision right now” The problem is that when there is no one intelligent to challenge these ideas, I have a tendency to take them as fact, all that ever happens when you make these points to teacher (generally speaking not the specific argument i posted) they just pat you on the back and give you an A*, which is all very well but not at all helpful.

    “Did you get the Illiad and Odyssey done” did the odyssey but never read the illiad. I never really understood the odyssey anyway. Are they really worth it??

    I am reading plato:meno online at the moment, it seems straight forward enough…which is worring.

    http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/meno.html is this what you meant?

    “Are you planning on being a journalist btw? Is uni in the future?”

    I plan to go to university and study philosphy, i had planned to go into journalism after that simply because it was writing for a career. However; my experience in the local newspaper is teahcing me that writing anything with flair is a massive DONT. Its boring they dont write about anything remotely controversail. They just recycle info sent in from press releases. I dont know where im going anymore. Writng as a career is impossible for the majority of people and i doubt I am any exception.

    Not really sure aobut my future …..what about you? are you still at the uni or have you finshed there now? What kind of career waits in the pipeline for you?

    you have any suggestions for me?

  10. Alright. I sent the guide and a link to part of the commentary on Plato’s Meno to your yahoo.co.uk account, please do let me know if you get it.

    Philosophy or literature are noble pursuits, I can definitely get the reading material your way that’ll make you stronger in those. Some might say I create that material in writing every day.

  11. I finished reading plato’s meno it was very interesting and it provides a nice framework for working through questions.
    I havent had a chance to look at my emails yet (y mail is filtered at the office) but thanks for sending it.

    Ill send u an email when ive read it.

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