Thursday, May 08, 2008

Why We Don't Get Along

As advocates of laissez-faire capitalism, avowedly committed to the supremacy of reason, it seemed as if the Randians would be valuable allies.

But the Randians did not understand the concept of "allies": in their universe, you either agreed with all of their positions, or else you were consigned to the Outer Darkness. (Curiously, on the level of macro-politics, the Randians were grossly opportunistic.)

— Justin Raimondo, Introduction to Mozart Was a Red.

Of course, given the mutual animosity between the Rand and Rothbard camps, Raimondo's words must be taken with a mine of salt. Yet it's not only an Objectivist problem: It's not only Peikoff vs. Kelley and Rand vs. Rothbard, but also Stalin vs. Trotsky and Republicans vs. Giuliani and McCain. The more you agree with somebody, the harder you fight over whatever disagreements remain between you.

If we know that we'll never agree on everything, why don't we accept that and get on with life?

I waste no thought on my neighbor's birth
Or the way he makes his prayer.
I grant him a white man's room on earth
If his game is only square.
While he plays it straight I'll call him mate;
If he cheats I drop him flat.

— Badger Clark, "The Westerner"

"But I love you!"

The problem is that we hold friends to higher standards. A friend is a person who shares our values. Quite naturally, we aim for the greatest possible harmony of values; ideally, we would wish for our friends to agree with us on everything.

A person who shares fifty percent of your values you can call mate, as long as he doesn't attack you, and ignore him otherwise.

A person who shares ninety percent of your values is an eternal temptation to doctor with, to make him or her "perfect" in your eyes. While he or she no doubt is doing the same thing with you.

But nobody likes having his or her values being doctored with, his or her epistemology second-guessed. Now demand that people act in accord with an integrated moral/philosophical system, and add that inconsistencies and errors are moral failures, and you've doomed yourself to solitude (or to lickspittle company).

Of course man needs an integrated philosophical system to describe reality, as all facts in the universe are interconnected. Yet, the problem is not so much somebody's integrated philosophical system, but his inability to tell an integrated philosophical system from epistemological perfection.

"Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe." — Albert Einstein

Man isn't perfect, neither in his epistemological capacity, nor in any other. Of course, man is able to recognize reality (otherwise mankind would have died out long ago). But even the best of us goof a few times out of a hundred.

So having an integrated philosophical system that represents reality fairly accurately does not mean being necessarily perfect. Even the steel frame of the best skyscraper may hold some flawed plate glass windows. Sometimes such a window will fail catastrophically, but still the quality of the windows does not necessarily reflect back on the system holding them up.

If you want real friends and not robots who ape your or your guru's every word, you have to accept the fact that different people will come to different conclusions, even applying the same philosophy. The best you can hope for is those nine times out of ten. In fact, you can be glad to have them.

Identify what would be a deal breaker and consign only those to the Outer Darkness that hold positions you consider immoral enough to be deal breakers. For the non deal breakers, keep discussions friendly and non-confrontational and be prepared to agree to disagree.

But it's not only disagreements over the proper way to crack an egg that get in the way of human understanding. Sometimes it's the unequal distribution of power that calls for a lightning rod.

"At least I shall have the pleasure to rid myself of your presence, Mr. Bond."

You know the final showdown is nigh if the designated villain speaks thus to the designated hero. Surrounded by jackbooted government thugs, the designated villain knows he's gonna lose — but at least he'll serve his revenge to the one person within range.

This movie cliché is very true — most of us tend to take our anger out on those who are close to us if we can't get at those who really deserve to get zapped. So maybe Leonard Peikoff cannot administer a good (tongue) lashing to George the Unready because a couple thousand jackbooted Secret Service thugs would have a problem with that. However, what he can do instead is repudiate the fall guy of the week who had the temerity to hint at the fallibility of St. Ayn.

That's the secret behind how you can be grossly opportunistic on the level of macro-politics (endorsing John the Ketchup) while repudiating anybody who so much as looks askance at you. It's the good old pointy-haired Prussian-Nietzschean realpolitik: toady to those who have power over you; get even by tormenting your underlings.

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