The Death of Socrates, by Jaques-Louis David (1787)
Wikimedia Commons / Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1931
Let it be stipulated the two major American political philosophies, more or less congruent with the two major parties, possess the same fundamental human values. These values are the most fundamental goals to be achieved somehow by the society. As I wrote in the post Human Values and the Dictates of Reality,
Chalk it up to our common Judeo-Christian heritage, or to the cultural inheritance from the Age of Enlightenment, or to some mixture of the two. Either way, most of us, whether progressive or conservative, would prefer to see our fellow citizens prosper and lead a satisfying life. Most of us frown on theft, and on gratuitously causing pain to another human being. Virtually all of us despise our historical involvement with slavery, and earnestly desire equal opportunity for all citizens regardless of ethnic or racial heritage. Believe it or not, progressives, this is just as true for conservatives as for progressives.
What causes the progressives and neoliberal conservatives to go for each other’s throats has nothing to do with differing fundamental values. The gulf between them is in what they believe Reality (with a capital “R”) allows us to do to satisfy our common, fundamental values.
Our Pictures of Reality and a Hierarchy of Values
Of coarse there are some exceptions to this very general statement. There are still a few racists around, as well as a few who could not give a damn for their fellow human beings; but as a fraction of the population around us, they are diminishing with time. (Or so I hope and believe!) The greatest and most dangerous cause of the disputes between us is our differing views of the nature of Reality.
The word ideology is a more concise label for a personal picture of the nature of Reality. Given the ideology of a particular human being, he or she will identify any number of goals that must be accomplished to fulfill that person’s fundamental values. If these intermediate goals are absolutely necessary for the task, they themselves become values that must be satisfied for the sake of the ultimate fundamental values. Notice that these intermediate values are determined by what the person’s ideology says is possible.
However, we are not yet finished in figuring out what is needed for utopia! Each of the intermediate values one level below the most fundamental human values will also probably have prerequisites, which themselves became needed values two levels down from the most fundamental values. Again, these second level values are dictated by what the person’s ideology informs him/her is possible.
Depending on a person’s ideology, there can be any number of value levels below the root values, each level being necessary to achieve one or more values above it. In this way, each individual human being will develop their own hierarchy of values that is uniquely generated by their own personal ideology.
Thankfully, different groups of people posses very similar ideologies, meaning that we can make a general simplification by approximating their ideologies as congruent. The vast majority of all people possess essentially the same values or goals at the top, fundamental level. There are differences between the goals at one level below that differentiate the most general ideological groupings. Going to lower levels for a particular ideological group, we would find differences in values/goals from an ever finer definition of subgroups.
This picture of ideological groups and subgroups is entirely abstract. Let us see how it works out by partially describing the major American ideologies and their value hierarchies in the real world. The two major American political ideologies are progressivism and neoliberalism, aka conservatism. A progressive’s ideology tells him or her that almost all social ills, particularly economic ones, can be alleviated by government action and management. Therefore a progressive believes increasing amounts of economic and social power must be centralized in the government to eliminate social problems. On the other hand, a neoliberal’s ideology informs him or her that government action can achieve fundamental social values only in a small number of cases. Therefore, a neoliberal wants to sharply limit government power, particularly since his ideology tells him that investing large amounts of power in the government will violate his most fundamental values of freedom and liberty.
Civil wars have been fought over much lessor disagreements.
The Tyranny of Means Becoming Ends
Believe it or not, what I wrote above has a lot to do with ethics and morality. You have very probably read or heard it said that “ends do not justify the means.” This ethical dictum is a false statement. The ends had damn well better justify the means, or the means should never be used. The small dollop of truth within this common ethical pronouncement is the following: Any means to an end (i.e. value or social goal) at any level of the value hierarchy must not violate any of the ends in higher levels. In particular any means violating the most basic fundamental values at the top of the hierarchy must never be used under any circumstances. (Please excuse me for yelling at you.) Setting up extermination camps and committing genocide is not justified by any end. By definition, any action at a lower value level that violates a higher level value is immoral.
You may well have wondered why I chose the theme image at the top of this essay. It is a depiction of the self-execution of the ancient Greek philosopher and ethicist Socrates in 399 BC. We are given an account of Socrates’ trial and death in Plato’s dialogues Apology, the Crito, and Phaedo. According to this account, Socrates’ view of reality led him to seek the higher level social goal of improving his city Athens by being a gadfly of the ruling powers. In particular, Socrates was opposed to the rulers’ Spartan ideology that “might makes right.” The ruling powers at the time, the Thirty Tyrants imposed by Sparta after defeating Athens in the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC, believed Socrates was undermining their power with his teachings to Athenian youth. To fulfill their fundamental goals required them to remove the gadfly Socrates. They accused him of corrupting the minds of youth and of impiety for not believing in the gods of the state. He was found guilty of both charges and sentenced to death by drinking a mixture containing the poison hemlock.
In Plato’s dialogue Crito, Socrates’ follower Crito comes to visit Socrates in prison to persuade him to make an escape attempt. Socrates refuses, saying he has made a contract with the laws of Athens by remaining within the city and benefiting from being its citizen. He further declares,
Socrates: Are we to say that we are never to intentionally to do wrong, … or is doing wrong always evil and dishonorable, … as has been already acknowledged by us?
Socrates later says,
Then we ought not to retaliate or render evil for evil to any one, whatever evil we may have suffered from him.
Socrates’ ideology tells him that the laws of his city must not be subverted by his escaping his sentence, no matter if he were unjustly sentenced. Therefore, because of the dictates of his ideology, because of what he values most, he goes willingly to his death.
The central role of a person’s ideology in developing her or his value hierarchy can not be overstated. Clearly, the restraints of reality will not allow us to do just anything. Although we might be totally convinced that a particular action can solve social problems without violating higher level values, we can easily be mistaken. Suppose for example Socrates was wrong in adopting the value of blind adherence to the law, that adhering to them in a tyrannical system was merely abetting that tyranny? Then he would have been obligated to rebel against those laws and escape. Faced with a somewhat similar moral conundrum, the thirteen American colonies of England rebelled against King George III in 1776. If progressives are objectively wrong in believing a government can reliably manage its nation’s economy or other social behavior, they will do harm to their most fundamental social goals.
I would suggest that the moral calculus I have described gives an objective criterion for discovering whether one value system is better than another. This criterion has two pieces. The first is how well the most basic, fundamental values at the top level satisfy the population. It may well be the top level values of one culture satisfies the needs of an equally large fraction of its people as those of another culture. In that case their top level values are equivalently good. If the top values cause much suffering and both material and spiritual deprivation, they are clearly worse than the values of a culture that does not force so much suffering and deprivation. The second piece of the criterion is how well the supporting goals at lower levels of the hierarchy support the goals at higher levels. Although extremely complicated, these are questions that can be objectively studied.
You may have detected a very big problem with the edifice I have just erected, and you would be quite right. Although I have discussed the problem of an ideology accurately pointing to subsidiary goals/ends/values, I have said very little about the top level values. It would seem I have put the cart before the horse. We must also ask what the most salient points of our moral compass will be. Otherwise we will be totally lost in finding our way to what we desire and need the most. I will write about this problem in my next post.