We live in a bivalent three-dimensional world. There’s left and right, there’s up and down, and there’s forward and back.
I say ‘bivalent’ because even if you’re only slightly to the left, or you’re feeling just a little bit down, or you’ve made only marginal progress towards losing weight, you’re to the left or down or moving forward nonetheless. So yes, one’s politics, or mood, or progress is always on a spectrum. And what counts as the point from which we measure is always indexed to where one’s been. So, for example, Americans consider single-payer healthcare a radical and frightening leap to the left, whereas Europeans and Canadians wonder what all the fuss is about. But these relativities don’t render these directional metaphors any the less useful.
Up and down and forward and back mean pretty much the same to all of us. But as just noted, left and right mean different things to different people, and to the same people at different times or in different contexts. Pro-Choice is a libertarian position. But so is the right to bear arms. So is libertarianism a right-wing position or a left-wing one? White supremacy is a right-wing position, but not if it’s grounded in a communitarian meta-ethic. And so on. So if I’m pro-Choice on abortion but less than sanguine about indigenous land claims, what am I? Hard to say, right?
Since none of us has time to examine each and every hot-button issue we’re required to pronounce upon, positions tend to be sold to us in pre-packaged clusters, not unlike the way we’re sold cable TV channels. But though we’d like to think so, what ties our belief-packages together isn’t a set of deeply engrained principles. What principle could be invoked to tie pro-Life with pro-capital punishment? Certainly not sanctity of life. One can try to cobble something together, and people do. But whatever they come up with will inevitably die the death of a thousand qualifications.
So why do anti-abortion and pro-capital punishment get packaged together? Because they appeal to the same demographic. People who like the one tend to like the other.
Is there any explanation for this? Certainly there is. It’s because they’re sold together. This circularity is a species of what business ethicists call the ‘dependence effect’. “Are you satisfied with your mattress cover spray?” asks the ad. Oh my God, what kind of housewife am I that I didn’t know I was supposed to spray my mattresses?! Works like a charm. What kind of pro-Choicer didn’t know she’s supposed to oppose capital punishment? Works like a charm.
As already noted, subscribing to a pre-packaged belief-set does us yeoman service. It relieves us of the burden of having to think through each issue piecemeal, which we couldn’t do anyhow because we’re human beings, and human beings operate with finite computational capacities. But sometimes the various packages we’ve purchased come into conflict. Both feminism and trans-activism would seem at home on the left. As would democratic socialism and gun control. But it ain’t necessarily so. And when they do come into conflict, now, dammit, we have to think! Feminism wants to keep the male gaze out of the girls’ locker room, but trans-activism wants to honour self-identification and can’t abide any such exclusion. My fear of some disgruntled ex-employee going postal drives me to demand strict gun control, but my fear of my Weimer Republic morphing into another Third Reich drives me to the right to bear arms. And so on.
The worry is not that some of my beliefs are going to prove incompatible. A consistently consistent world view is probably impossible. Nor is the worry that conflicting moral intuitions can’t be resolved. Each of these issues – trans-rights, gun control and so on – can be thought through. Rather the worry is that I haven’t thought it through. And because I haven’t thought it through, it’s as likely as not that I’ve ended up on the wrong side of justice.
Having been on the wrong side of justice is something we all have to live with. When we discover it, we apologize, we make what amends we can, and we move on. But what if I’m on the wrong side of justice without ever knowing it? What if half a millennium from now it turns out I was a Torquemada who died peacefully in his sleep? That’s what keeps me up at night.
Categories: Social and Political Philosophy