Saturday, July 30, 2016

Dreaming, Principles, and Cooperation: Science Fiction, Philosophy, and Politics (Part One)

The Enterprise crew before the Council of the United Federation of Planets

Principled Politics and Cooperative Politics

Would you rather hold on to your principles come what may, or engage in shrewd compromise for the greater good?

How you answer the previous question says a lot about your political instincts.  Here in the US, politicians as varied as Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders are more likely to lean toward the first option and to be concerned with ideological purity at the expense of compromise while politicians like Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio are more likely to go for the second and to act cooperatively and strategically even if it means not achieving exactly what one’s ideals prescribe.  (Donald Trump, who seems to have neither real political principles nor a desire for compromise, is in a third category).

These issues are deeper than any particular political ideology.  I’m tempted to call them political instincts, as they’re rarely consciously examined.  In “Ethicists say voting with your heart without a care about the consequences is actually immoral” Olivia Goldhill discusses philosophers who refer to these two tendencies as deontological and utilitarian respectively.  There’s something to this, but it loads the discussion with too much philosophical and historical baggage.  Also, political instincts are more a matter of degree, whereas professional ethicists often see utilitarianism and deontology as fundamentally at odds.

I’m going to suggest instead that the first hold-on-to-your principles instinct should be called “principled politics” while the second compromise-for-the-greater good tendency should be called “cooperative politics.”  It's best to conceive of these instincts on a continuum, because all but the most extreme among us have both instincts to varying degrees.

Ideals and Reality

An old military adage tells us that battle plans don’t survive contact with the enemy; likewise, you might wonder whether most political ideals survive contact with the political arena. 

This doesn’t mean that thinking through battle plans and ideals isn’t a good thing to do.  I am a philosopher, after all.  Thinking about ideas is my day job.   I’m also a science fiction fan who loves the utopian thought experiments of Star Trek, the Culture of Iain M. Banks, and Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed as well as the dire dystopian warnings of Octavia Butler’s Earthseed series and the proliferation of dystopian science fiction in our culture today (seen most recently at the Republican National Convention and in this nuanced treatment of American politics, “How American Politics Went Insane”).

Like many people working in theoretical and artistic dimensions of human life, I’ve often asked this question, put beautifully by philosopher Mary Midgley: 

“Is our occupation with theoretical questions really just a self-contained humbug-factory, a web of idle dreams, fantasies, and wish-fulfillments?  Or are there also dreams which are not idle?  Are there effective dreams?”  
(“Practical Utopianism” in Utopias, Dolphins, and Computers: Problemsof Philosophical Plumbing, p. 19).

Philosophy and science fiction can be taken as realms of pure theory where ideals are born and subjected to examination; most of my professional work is much closer to this kind of philosophy (although thinking about even the most abstract philosophical issues can do some good – See “Three Uses of Philosophy”). Both philosophy and science fiction also can be used to show us the problems encountered when taking ideal solutions and placing them in the messy situation called reality.  In philosophy this is done most obviously in areas like applied ethics or experimental philosophy.  In science fiction, this is accomplished through character, setting, and narrative.

Voting for the lesser evil?, or, Cthulhu 2016!

There’s a lot of attention these days to whether one should vote in a way that principled voters would call “voting for the lesser evil” and that cooperative voters would call “voting strategically.”  There is, of course, another option of voting for the greater evil as my favorite Cthulhu meme implores.

I’m going to argue in favor of voting strategically, and thus lay my cooperativist cards on the table.  In Part Two, I’ll begin by applying this framework to the 2016 US Presidential election.

I agree that there’s something heroic and liberating about sticking to one’s guns, voting one's conscience, and casting a vote for a candidate in which one fully believes.  I felt that way when I voted for the Socialist Workers Party candidate in 1996 and for Ralph Nader in 2000 (George W. Bush quickly forced me to regret the latter).  However, as Aristotle would tell you, courage can easily morph into rashness if not applied prudently.

In my conversations on this subject (especially with the smug dudebros of the internet … you know the type), I’ve often felt that principled voters think that cooperative voters are cowardly, uncaring sells-out who are ideologically impure, uncommitted to the cause and/or duped by the establishment.   Contrarily, cooperative voters sometimes see principled voters as naïve cry-babies who care more about seeming good than doing good, especially on social media and in the eldritch caverns of the internet where dwell the anonymous trolls.

Neither of these stereotypes is entirely accurate, of course. I wish we’d all pause, take a deep breath, and listen charitably to one another.  As someone leaning toward the cooperative end of the spectrum, I do care about ideals and I do realize there are serious problems in the world: economic inequality, poverty, transphobia, systemic racism, drone strikes, and so much more.  When some internet dudebro or more-radical-than-thou leftist claims to know that I neither care nor know about injustice, I feel majorly confused and mildly annoyed.  On the other side, I caution my cooperative friends not to judge our principled friends too harshly, either.  We shouldn’t discount the power of principles to ennoble us and to inspire action.

Thinking through these difficult issues surrounding principles and cooperation has had an effect on me that runs contrary to American popular wisdom: it has increased my admiration for politicians.  I go through this when I vote; they do it every day.

I will continue in Part Two with some contentious discussion of Sanders versus Clinton and consider the objection that cooperative voting merely preserves the status quo.  And I promise I will get back to utopian thinking in philosophy and science fiction.

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