REASON IN POLITICS Radical Bleeding Heart image

What Would Rational Thinking About Politics Look Like?

Is it possible to have a sane discussion of political issues and ideas? The obstacles are enormous, but the need is great. Human beings are not nearly the rational creatures we like to imagine we are, and when our passions are aroused, we are even less so. But let us imagine, for the sake of trying to see through the fog always produced by political hot air, what a rational discussion of politics would actually look like.

We would start with values: what we want, what we would like the world to be.

Then we would consider the way things are. Let's call that "the real world." The real world is important in two respects: the way in which it is different from how we want it to be, and the rules that determine how the world can be changed. It is not how we want it to be, but to change it we can do it only insofar as it will let us. We cannot just make a wish, wave a magic wand, and make it happen.

The way things are and our values are independent of each other, but together they determine what we do.

First we establish goals: what we want the world to be like as a reflection of our values.

And then we decide on a program or programs designed to reach those goals.
A Diagram of a Rational Look at Politics It all seems pretty simple and obvious—perhaps too obvious to bother pointing out. Would it were so. Our values, the real world, our various goals, and the programs we use to implement them are all distinct, but our emotions cause them to become confused.

Programs are confounded with goals. Our picture of the real world is not the result of a rational examination of the facts, but is distorted and shaped by our values so that we see not what is actually there but rather what we want to see. And very often we are not even honest about our real values, even to ourselves.

You may be thinking: Isn't this beside the point? Isn't the real problem the fact that different people have different values, that they want different things? In particular, that they want to organize society in different and incompatible ways?

There is certainly some truth in that. There are instances in which people have irreconcilable differences in values that make it impossible or extremely difficulty to accommodate them all. But in most cases there would be ways to reach an accord even between people with starkly different values if they could only be persuaded to see things clearly and rationally.

Take a highly charged, passionately controversial example: abortion. The differences appear to be irreconcilable. But are they really? This is not a conflict between people who like abortion and those who hate it. It is rather difficult to find anyone who sees abortion as a positive good. The people who support the right to have an abortion would likely be quite happy if there were never another abortion provided that unwanted pregnancies could be avoided by other means. There is an obvious way for people of reason and good-will to work together. But do they go that way? No. A failure of rationality keeps them apart, and both sides feel thwarted and angry.

[Next page: Toward Rationality]