Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Road To Hell

I've spent a lot of time debating over the years, and yet I still manage to find ways to get into trouble saying the same things that have gotten me in trouble over and over again in the past. One of the worst of these is me talking about good intentions.

Good intentions are a pet issue of mine. The first substantial post I wrote on this blog was on the topic, and it's one I find myself going to over and over again. I see society getting polarized and hateful, and I get frustrated by it. Very few people want to watch the world burn, we just disagree on how to build it up. Criticizing the other side for being malicious is totally missing the point. If everyone acknowledged that everyone else just wants to help, you'd eliminate half the malice and spite from politics.

The thing that gets me into trouble is that people hear this argument and think I'm saying something that is on its face quite similar, but that has a huge difference in practice. They hear me saying that other people aren't malicious and that we should respect them as people, and they think I'm saying that we should respect their opinions. Now, it's probably my fault that I'm not more clear about this, but it makes a world of difference.

The first thing you get as a response if you start talking about how someone can be a decent person even when they're wrong is "What, so you think all truth is relative or something?". People treat a knowing defence of the wrong as an attack on truth itself. I see why they'd pattern-match it that way, but that's not what this is about at all.

Even the most basic logic will show that if there's someone saying X and someone saying not-X, one of them is wrong. No amount of feel-goodery will change that. Right and wrong exist - they are not merely in our heads, they are actual truths about the physical world. Some opinions are factually correct, and others are factually incorrect. When someone is saying things that are factually incorrect, being a good person doesn't change that fact - there's no law of physics that says "You're going to jump off a cliff and try to fly by flapping your arms. Normally you'd go splat, but I can see you really mean it, so sure - what the hell". The universe does not care about what we intend, it only cares what we do, and doing the wrong thing will lead to the wrong outcomes. Getting things right is genuinely important.

The problem is, we are flesh and blood, not beings of pure logic. We do not have any infallible tools for telling right from wrong. We have some very good tools for some situations - science, basic human decency, and so on - but those tools all have blind spots, all have weaknesses. Yes, it's easy to be pretty sure today that leeches aren't as good at treating illness as penicillin, but a lot of very smart people have thought the opposite through history. If we want to do better than them, we need to have some humility. Not so much that it leads us to a swamp of nihilism and existential paralysis, but enough that we can at least learn from the errors of those who have gone before. We need to at least notice the skulls.

I do the best I can to find truth. I'm not perfect, because nobody is, but I've given these things a lot of thought over the years. Using the best tools I know of, I've come to a large number of beliefs that I feel confident in the truth of, and I will argue for them passionately and at great length. I try to balance that with humility and acknowledge that others may have good points I haven't considered(and several times in my adult life I've assimilated large chunks of arguments directed against me into my own worldview), but trying to find balance and stay humble is not an excuse for abdicating the responsibility of determining right from wrong.

Like most good ideas, this is hardly original. You see it over and over again in any culture that requires both conflict and camaraderie. Sports teams will try as hard as they can to beat each other, but they don't go around trying to kill each other. People love to quote folks like George Washington arguing against party systems, for fear that they'd break the nation into squabbling factions(and while it's outside the scope of this post to explain, I think he had a pretty good point). The formulation of this concept I like best is much older, though.

"Love the sinner, hate the sin"

I'm not a religious man, so my definition of "sin" will differ slightly from the usual here, but the core of the idea is the same. People make mistakes, and those mistakes should not be ignored. Acting correctly is important, and we should encourage it as best we can. Morality isn't just one of those old-timey concepts like phlogiston that we're better off without. Making mistakes about important things is genuinely pretty terrible - in living memory, we've seen a single error get repeated over and over and kill a hundred million people. Anyone who doesn't hate that sin has lost their claim to humanity, as far as I'm concerned.

The people who made the sin, though, were not simply living incarnations of evil. They had hopes and dreams, loves and hates. They were people, and their lives mattered as much as those of their victims. The only true moral compass in the world is helping people, and people who have made mistakes are still people. We've all made mistakes, and we've all needed to be forgiven our sins. That isn't to say that all sins can be forgiven, but it's a sad thing to have to put down a rabid dog even if it's the right decision.

If someone is wrong, oppose the error. Fight for truth! But when you're fighting for truth, your opponent is falsehood, not a person. The person is what you're trying to save, not what you're trying to destroy. Victory is bringing the other person to truth, not destroying them for their falsehood. And while that's true in a fuzzy love-thy-neighbour sense, it'd also be true even if you didn't care about them as people. If you destroy someone on the other side, you leave a void. If you convert them, you have an ally. Attacking ideas to save people is a force multiplier, as well as a good way to actually be a decent human being.

So yes, I defend people who are wrong against those who are right sometimes. Not because I agree with them, and not because I want to see mistakes spread, but because it's too easy to get overzealous. When you think of something as a struggle, the desire to crush your enemies is a natural one, but we forget in the process that those enemies are people too, and that destroying them is something we'd rather avoid.

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