Moral thinking in 4D
It's not just moderation, it's *radical* moderation
Following on my post from last week, it might be helpful to lay out why I see this as a radically moderate approach, rather than just simple moderation of the kind most people think of and understand.
In that post, I argued that every part of our human nature has prosocial and antisocial potential, but maybe a more clear way to say that is that every part of our human nature has the potential to either support or harm human flourishing.
This is partly why Aristotle argued that humans are the most dangerous of all animals: our social abilities and our use of language mean that we can persuade other people to join together in powerful communal activities, whether those activities are barn-raising or genocidal violence.
The coin analogy I used in the last post fails us a bit here though, because even that sticks us with a binary that causes more problems than it solves.
A better analogy would be of a landscape, which is something like what David Schmidtz argued about justice in his book Elements of Justice (and in his forthcoming book Living Together: Inventing Moral Science.
The Problem of 2D Moral Thinking
The problem a lot of our discourse over moral, social and political thinking has is that we make the mistake of assuming that moral or political thinking occurs in a two dimensional space. Our language, certainly, implies this, with a focus on a conservative/progressive or Democrat/Republican binary. Even when we try to make it more complex, we talk about a spectrum of political or social or moral attitudes or beliefs, ranging from conservative to progressive, with the truth somewhere in the moderate middle.
What’s radical about Radical Moderation, as I see it, is that we actually need to throw out that who dynamic and instead think more seriously about the landscape of human moral and social choices, which is not only not a 2D space, but it’s not even a 3D space either. It’s a 4D space precisely because human moral and social life plays out over time and space, which adds significantly to the complexity we face as we try to think about what our communal lives might look like and how to shape them.
I’m thinking here of the fantastic book Flatland: A Romance in Many Dimensions, which also happens to be a wonderful book for teaching kids the basics of geometry and spatial reasoning (and is a commentary on Victorian culture to boot). Part of what that book demonstrates so clearly is that sometimes the truth is so far out of our current understanding that it takes a radical shift in view and approach to really see a more complete picture. Moreover, some of the picture will always be hidden because we live in a limited epistemic world where some relevant parts of our social environment - other people’s internal states and motives, past experiences, institutional history, and so on - may always be inaccessible.
4D Political, Social, and Moral Thinking
If we want to get out of our current polarized rut, we need to start thinking in 4D about political and moral problems. That means not just looking at the current political landscape with its false binaries and polarized options. Instead, we need to act like the square in Flatland and start looking into the past, into the future, as well as up and down - not just right or left - on the political landscape.
We need to stop thinking about political and social opportunity as a “race” with a discrete starting line and instead think of it as a landscape where some are carrying heavier burdens than others and some have easier paths and others harder and where the past and present weighs on the future in complicated and entangled ways.
And we need to stop thinking that the two polarized options that are presented to us, whether we call those options conservatism/neoliberal/crony capitalism or progressivism/welfare statism/social democracy are the *only* options. In reality, the social and political landscape is vast, but it’s this vastness that is both an opportunity and a challenge. Because there is so much space, we’re stuck working with the existing landscape we have and the rudimentary tools at our disposal to think about how to carve out a better future.
But until we at least see that there *is* a landscape, we won’t even know that shovels, for example, exist, let alone the complete picture of a better moral and political world.
So what’s radical about my understanding of moderation? It’s an invitation to move outside of the existing political and moral binaries, and view the world in a different way, just like the square who discovers that cubes exist. He can’t see them fully and can’t really even quite fully grasp the concept, but he has the idea that something larger and more complex is out there. And that’s the first step.
What do you think?
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