Tag Archives: Philosophy

What’s So Good About Optimism?

Why is it good to be an optimist and bad to be a pessimist? An incurable optimist, as has been observed, really is just insecure about his pessimism. A pessimist, on the other hand, might be said to be a true optimist, since she at least doesn’t cower from the truth, and, accepting it as it is, endeavours to go on strongly despite it. These, no doubt, are sweeping statements, but the point that underlies them is that it is very difficult to tell objectively just how optimistic or pessimistic someone truly is; we have to take them at their word—but the very definitions of the words are so slippery that any self-professing of one’s stance is prone more to self-sophistry than anything approaching truth. To give an example: what makes a suicidal person pessimistic? Are they not in fact optimistic, given that they think suicide is a solution—that is, they actually seek a solution? Surely, if we define the optimist as someone who strives for and expects the best, then the suicidal person must be the most irrational optimist of all. More pessimistic is the one who considers suicide, but decides that it is worthless.

All this implies that the suicidal person gives a certain amount of reasonably logical thought to their decision. This is not always true, but if the act itself occurs in a moment of utter despair, or pure irrationality, then surely we can have neither optimism nor pessimism. In that case, even though we can say that the action itself is not one or the other, the person overall is more likely to be an optimist, since an optimist is more likely to be an idealist, and an idealist is less likely to be able to handle eventualities turning out far from ideal.

On another note, it has occurred to me that if to be an optimist is to believe that this is the best of all possible worlds, then a theist, assuming that he believes in heaven and that heaven is a possible world, must be a pessimist, despite his apparent optimism about going to heaven.

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Is it Possible to Improve Democracy?

Surely nobody would say that democracy is the best system imaginable. Assuming a utopian system impossible, quite a few would suppose that it is the best possible system in practice. However, there is hardly a consensus on what constitutes democracy; it lists representative and liberal, Islamic and Christian, constitutional, grassroots, and even totalitarian democracies among its congregation. So newer, better kinds of democracy are certainly imaginable, if not necessarily practicable.

Most adherents and propagators of democracy would surely agree that a fundamental principle on which it always must be based is that the people are to be trusted to choose the best candidate, and thus make the best decision for the country. We know that this is rarely guaranteed, partly because there is no sure way to make everyone make the right decision. This is an innate, and unavoidable, aspect of democracy. But if the system could lean towards replicating the free market economy—that is, grow an Invisible Hand that caused people, even when voting selfishly, to unintentionally benefit the country—then we may have a better form of democracy. There may be an innate difficulty in the idea: in economics, there is at least one principle universally agreed upon, which is that more money is better than less money. If each person succeeds in making more money for himself, everyone succeeds in improving the economy as a whole. However, there is no such universally accepted principle in politics, and perhaps then the analogy must fail.

Capitalism naturally provides incentive for people and businesses to perform well, but democracy provides no such incentive with regard to voting. For every voter who marks his ballot paper with the best of intentions for the country, there will be another who votes for purely personal reasons. That whole category should not be vilified (it consists of the majority of people), but among their ranks are likely to be those who vote for racist reasons, for reasons of misplaced party loyalty, or generally with unsavoury or ignorant intentions. And of those who vote for the country’s well-being with sincerity, there is no guarantee that they are truly able to judge that correctly. No one can reasonably expect that all voters should or could be gifted political and economic analysts, but it surely is within reason to expect them to have a good understanding of the subject, generally speaking and regarding current events, otherwise they are not even able to make a merely honest decision.

To achieve a genuine Invisible Hand democracy, a sort of cosmic process of a system that by its nature produces the best results, may be an ideal, and it may be an impossible one. Therefore the following idea is not a blueprint for the thing itself, but rather a possible stepping stone towards it.

Meritocratic Democracy

The idea behind this system is simply that some votes have more value than others. The value of your vote can be judged in one of these ways:

1. You have to take a test to show how much you know about the political climate. Obviously you don’t have to be an expert, but you have to know enough to justify giving you such a responsibility.

2. You have to justify your vote. Justification doesn’t have to be in-depth, it simply has to be a proper reason. So, if someone votes for the BNP and justifies it by saying “I hate immigrants”, their vote would have less value because it’s not a real reason. Voters will also have to show some knowledge of the policies of the parties they’re not voting for, as otherwise there would be no reason to suspect that their chosen party is any better than the others.

Now of course, there are likely to be many who will rebel against the idea of a test, and it goes without saying that the logistics of such an enterprise are difficult at the very least. However, the benefits might outweigh the costs as follows: there will be some who won’t be averse to taking the test when told that it is a short and painless thing, and that the value of their vote will increase; though there will be less voters, each vote will be worth more for the country, since it is more likely to be well-considered. The seemingly simpler idea of asking for justification for one’s vote has the advantage that it becomes less likely that people will be able to justify voting for plainly bad parties, such as the BNP. But a complication arises in the question of how justifications can be objectively judged. This would seem to entail the creation (or amendment) of a constitution, with legislation designed specifically with the system in mind, and this is not a simple, short term solution.

The value of the vote in this system can be thought of as the political equivalent of capital in the free market. People should, if the system is to work, desire a higher value vote for its own ends. Presently, many people think voting is useless because their vote doesn’t make a difference. And despite the protestations of the well-intentioned that that is true only if everyone thought like that, their individual vote actually is negligible (which is part of the point of democracy). If they could change the value of their vote, it is more likely to make a difference. This may have the effect of weeding out the indifferent and apathetic, and encouraging the truly enthusiastic to make better decisions.

One difficulty with the economic-political analogy here is that, if we are to take it to its logical extreme within the context of the Invisible Hand idea, it should then be possible for someone resourceful enough to accrue vastly more vote-power than the majority of others. Only then would the idea of voting-power be a true incentive in the sense analogous to capital in capitalism. But this would be absurd, not to mention impossible within the system, because the only way someone could become “vote-rich” would be to take thousands of tests. Given that that obviously wouldn’t be allowed, and that there must be imposed a reasonable limit on the value of each vote, the Hand is not quite invisible yet, though it is gradually becoming a little more translucent.

Does Truth Exist?

As far as I am able to see, there are only two positions one can adopt in answer to this. They are: “truth exists” and “truth does not exist”. One cannot say “truth sometimes exists”, because that means that it does. Nor can one say “truth is subjective”, because there are otherwise no true standards by which we can measure its validity. Saying “maybe truth exists” is neither here nor there.

The problem with the question “does truth exist?” is that it can only be answered within a framework that assumes the existence of truth. If one says “truth exists”, what they are really saying is “truly, truth exists”, and when someone says “truth does not exist”, what they are really saying is “truly, truth does not exist”, or “truth has a truth-value of zero”, a contradiction not just of terms but of logic. If this point is answered by saying, “how do I know that logic is true?”, we can see that the disbeliever of truth has it all ahead of them: if one does not believe in truth, one does not believe in logic, and, of necessity, nothing can be believed. We must concede that truth exists if we are to do or think anything. The exact nature of this truth is another matter, but truth undoubtedly exists.

Politicians: Disingenuousness and Hope

We would all like not to be cynical about politicians: so much so that we become blind to the fact that it is this naivety that makes politicians act cynically to begin with. This is perfectly illustrated in the recent case of Bush-Obama, which will likely become a fable in many years to come, of the kind of phenomenon I mean. The Bush administration has made people more cynical of politicians than they have been in a very long time—whether this is really it’s fault is another matter—and such is the weariness and doubt of the American people that the prevalent attitude seems to be, “any administration is better than the Bush administration”. Needless to say, this sort of feeling is easily capitalised on by any cunning politician. The extra-cunning politician, however, will think to himself, “how can I make myself even more appealing to my voters than the other cunning politicians?” The answer is simple: style yourself as the polar opposite of George Bush. And this is exactly what Obama has done—so far, very successfully.

Now of course, if a politician just happens to be naturally constituted in such a way that they actually are the polar opposite of the currently-hated politician, without need of styling, then there is very little they can do to protect themselves from the accusation that they are pretending. After all, the only way to truly prove their genuineness is for us to step inside their minds (unfortunately an impossible proposition, but one that might save a lot of time and money). However, it surely must have crossed the minds of at least some American voters that what Obama is offering is not that radical or new, and that it only seems to be so because it seems to stand in contrast to what the Bush administration stood for. Hope, equality, opportunity for all, change—these are all values that America was built on, and that therefore it would be absurd for any potential president not to stand for. What Obama has successfully done so far (and what he will most likely continue to successfully do until he becomes president) is give the persuasive illusion that he really does genuinely stand for these things. This is largely an aesthetic skill: it lies in his rhetoric of hope, so much more convincing as it is than any of his rivals’; it lies in his gait, his manner, his style, his confidence (as contrasted with the desperation of the ghastly Mrs. Clinton), and his image—inspiringly but somewhat cornily represented in The Audacity of Hope.

These are all perfectly fine qualities, and ones that will undoubtedly stay with him during his (nearly assured) tenure as president. But charm aside, we are still in the honeymoon period between Obama and the American people. Honeymooning necessitates a marriage, and marriages in politics more so than in life come—at the very least—with disagreements. In life, marriages end either in divorce or in death; in politics, the end is invariably divorce. The question is, then, what possible reason could there be for America to divorce such a charming man?

The answer must lie somewhere in the inevitability of the political machine, a machine which, as it turns so relentlessly and indifferently, catches all politicians in its spindles and gears. We surely cannot be so cynical as to suppose that most politicians enter into their chosen careers solely for the money, for there are many more lucrative paths for them to take. I suspect that most do genuinely hope to improve the world, and it is just that some succumb to simple pragmatics in the hopes of acquiring the power that will ultimately allow them to enact their good intentions. “Simple pragmatics”, however, is just the alluring face of the machine that, after tempting the unwitting politician, ensnares him, and never lets him out until he sees the necessity of lying, and then becomes desensitised to it. By this I don’t mean gargantuan and stupid lies (here I’m thinking of Hillary Clinton’s under-fire-in-Bosnia incident), but merely small and pragmatic ones. And as we all know of lies, they have a tendency to snowball until, at the very best, your sheen of respectability is lost, and at worst, you are essentially forced out of office (here I’m thinking of Hillary Clinton’s husband). The point is this: it appears to be an innate fact of the system that lies are inevitable, and impossible to avoid. Nothing here is innate in the politician, but in the environment he finds himself in, and in the specific kind of pressure put upon him. Consider how all political underlings (by this I mean all those who are not the presidents or prime ministers of this world) must, almost of necessity, side with the views of their party leaders. Whenever they disagree passionately with their leaders, as was the case with Robin Cook and Tony Blair on Iraq, they feel impelled to announce their resignations. Often, they are much admired for their supposed bravery, but is it not really cowardice? To leave politics, the arena in which you hoped to change the world for the better, over a disagreement, however large? I pose the question not rhetorically, but because I do not know the answer. The opposite is much more common of course, and is certainly cowardly—pragmatic, but cowardly. I cannot count the amount of times I have seen Labour politicians squirming their ways out of uncomfortable interview positions when confronted with the question of Iraq. Conservatives, of course, lie just as often, but because they are the opposition party, and not directly culpable for the war, theirs are comfortable and confident lies, just as disingenuous, and in fact condemning the government for their obvious disingenuousness—for the most part, just because it is obvious. So the politicians on the attack lie because it is easy to, and those on the defence lie because they have to.

I do not mean to suggest that Barack Obama has anything but the best intentions, though I am sure the same can be said of John McCain. I merely posit that Obama has set himself an extremely difficult task with his emphasis on “change we can believe in”. Apart from the phrase seeming to smack of the populist, really the only change he means is that of undoing what everyone accuses Bush of having done, and “undoing” is not the same as “change”. Regarding the Iraq war, Obama proposes removing American troops, ignoring completely the fact that this is likely to worsen the situation there. Regarding climate change and American dependence on oil, Obama proposes investing in new energy sources; this is appealing insofar as it is the opposite of the current administration’s policy, but at the same time so obvious that a child could have thought of it. What if these ambitious plans, along with many others, fail? Why then Obama will find himself firmly in the spindles and gears of the machine—the very machine that he proposes to change. One can only hope that he doesn’t fail, however; but it is exactly this hope, rather than objective analysis, that is likely to win him the presidency.

It’s settled: the egg came before the chicken.

I shall make my first post light, and propose a solution to the problem that since time immemorial has plagued people with nothing better to do. I speak (of course) of the what-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg puzzle.

This may be reducing any kind of metaphorical meaning it might have had to zero, but here goes. We know that, if we subscribe to the theory of evolution, all wildlife evolved from something else, which in turn evolved from something else, until eventually we come back to the primordial soup which begat us all. At one point in the evolution of a chicken, one of whatever came before the chicken suffered a mutation which made it into what we now know as a proper chicken. It was almost certainly hatched from an egg. Therefore, if we define a chicken as being the present form of a chicken, the egg must have come first. We can’t really call what came before it a chicken, because then where do we draw the line? The sequence of gradual changes will reach back to the primordial soup, you see, and single-celled organisms certainly aren’t chickens.

However, if we do decide to call what came directly before the chicken a chicken, we can’t know (for now) what came first. This is because the laying of the egg was probably a mutation somewhere along the line, and we don’t know whether that mutation happened to what we define as a chicken (the broad term), or an ancestor of the chicken that is unrecognisable as such. Of course, it may not even be that simple, because the laying of the egg is probably the result of a series of mutations, and therefore we also have to define what we mean by egg—that is, whether it is an egg as we know it now, or a general egg that might have a number of different shapes and sizes.

Which is all very confusing. So it is much better (read, easier) to define the chicken as being the modern chicken, in which case the egg definitely came first. If we define it more vaguely, then we don’t know, and we might never know.