What Does It Mean to Think Philosophically?
Matthew Feeney joins us for a general discussion on the value of philosophy. Why is philosophy important? How do you learn to think philosophically?
Philosophy is concerned with three basic questions: “What is there?,” “How do I know about it?,” and “What do I do about it?” The three questions correspond to the fields of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.
Our Cato colleague Matthew Feeney joins us this week to talk about philosophy, rhetoric, why people disagree about politics, performative morality, the non-aggression axiom, and more.
Show Notes and Further Reading
Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts from Libertarianism.org and The Cato Institute. I’m Aaron Ross Powell.
Trevor Burrus: I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Ross Powell: Today we’re joined by our colleague Matthew Feeney. So between the three of us in this room right now are four philosophy degrees, which if you ask around is about the most useless degree out there.
Obviously all three of us disagree not just because of sunk costs. We disagree in part because philosophy is so embedded in what we do here at Cato. In fact, here’s Cato’s mission statement.
The Cato Institute is a public policy research organization dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace. All of these ideas have their foundations in and are motivated by philosophical principles, to talk about the means to talk and to think philosophically. But what do we mean when we think philosophically? Matt, I will let you answer that.
Matthew Feeney: Well, I like that we start with the small questions. But I think when I think about what it means to think philosophically, I think of when I was starting out at university and what I think made philosophy different from a lot of the other subjects that people were studying and for me, that was a study of the structure of arguments and fallacies and rhetoric and things like that.
That really did seem to set it apart from humanities and it’s funny that philosophy seems to get this reputation for being a little wishy-washy when it is actually a discipline that does teach real, clear and structured thinking.
Trevor Burrus: As long as we’re not speaking about critical theory or Derrida or French post modernists or along these lines. Aaron has this history of having too high of an esteem for French post-modernists. I had to beat that out of him.
Aaron Ross Powell: It’s terrific stuff when you’re trying to study a poem that’s six lines long.
Trevor Burrus: Exactly.
Aaron Ross Powell: Last week we did an episode with Professor Andrew Cohen on applying philosophy to public policy, his new book on that topic and when it was posted to Facebook, some of the comments that we got were – of course we shouldn’t think philosophically. Like what philosophy – the argument goes – philosophy basically is either just talking for the sake of talking. It’s not very productive or it confuses more than it clarifies and so the argument was like, look, we don’t need philosophy. What we need is pragmatic thinking and we need to – I think as one person said, we need to just apply the laws that exist and not worry about thinking about what they should be or moral principles or whatever else.
So in response to that, I mean does philosophy – it certainly can confuse more than clarify. I mean the history of philosophy is the history of, yeah, that’s not a very good answer to that question and here’s why. But is that a genuine knock against it?
Trevor Burrus: That seems like a semantics question to some degree. The question of one sort of – I guess this would be a kind of trolling answer to that statement is that they’ve stated the philosophy without even knowing it. They’ve stated the philosophy of pragmatism or they’ve stated the – that we need to have applied philosophies and we need fewer angels dancing on the head of a pin type of questions and more questions about what do I do next and maybe that’s the most important philosophical question is, “What do I do next?” in terms of an existential, ethical kind of mandate for living your life.
Matthew Feeney: Well, I think a good follow-up on this sort of Facebook discussion is well, you are really having what we think at the heart is an ethical conversation when we talk about policy. So we can get economists to talk about the effects of the war on drugs for example, something that is expensive and maybe inefficient. But that’s a different sort of question too. Is the war on drugs moral? Is it a worthwhile policy to pursue?
At Cato we have economists and we have political scientists and people are engaged in answering different kinds of questions that are all very, very important to the mission although I know like Aaron said earlier, it’s very difficult to detach political theory and moral theory. One is a subsection of the other.
Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah. I mean one of the things that sometimes drives me nuts about economists is that – the thought that what is being done when you’re doing economics is somehow distant from philosophy, from moral questions, from political questions and it’s A, philosophical. I mean I – a few years back I was in the little kitchen room where we get coffee on the sixth floor at Cato.
A colleague who has now moved on to other things but was an extremely prominent and extremely talented and skilled economist came in and asked me what I do at Cato and I said I run Libertarianism.org and he didn’t – didn’t really know exactly what that meant. So I said, well, I do political philosophy stuff, intellectual history, libertarianism ideas.
He looked at me and he said, “I understand that there are people out there who do that. But I guess I don’t understand why,” because it’s just – what’s the point of having these conversations? What matters is look, we can add up the effects of these policies and we can look at how much it costs, what its effect on GDP is, the cost curves over time and that’s what matters.
But I think the point that we’re trying to make is that even assessing those sorts of things demands first having a framework in which to evaluate them. Why does it matter that this costs more than that? How do we weigh the effects against each other? Are there certain costs that we shouldn’t bear no matter how much good stuff we get out of them?
Trevor Burrus: Well, for me the value of philosophy has always been trying to achieve some sort of rigor in what you’re talking about and how you’re discussing it. I often say that there are only three philosophical questions which are, “What is there? How do I know about it? What do I do about it?”
Aaron Ross Powell: So let’s start with the first one.
Trevor Burrus: Let me describe all the things in the universe. The question of what sort of things there are would be a metaphysics question and where those things reside so you kind of have a question. A classic one would be, “Is something actually a color?” Is it actually green or is the green being put on to a thing by your brain? Where is the greenness by in the world? Where is it? Does something actually smell bad? Does a dead body actually smell bad or is that just your perception? Where is that in the world?
Aaron Ross Powell: Metaphysics is also where the big question of, “Does God exist?” falls with.
Trevor Burrus: Or as my dad always used to say, it’s the study of what’s really, really, really real at the end of the day. Epistemology is how would you know these things about the world. Kant famously sort of assumed through negation that there was a world out there that he couldn’t know anything about, but there was just something out there, the new in the world. Then the ethics question is – OK. Now you have a metaphysics component and epistemological component and then you have an ethics component which is what do I do about it. Is there any normative element to this?
But this is important for any discussion of anything whether it’s a kind of party discussion with a hippie girl who’s talking about crystal healing and you’re trying to figure out what she’s saying about anything or whether it’s someone on TV talking about political rhetoric saying that these things are true about people or these things are true about ethics or morals or freedom or fairness or all these things, trying to figure out what it means to say fairness, trying to parse out the language.
When you say “fair,” what does it mean when you’re saying “fair” and trying to make sure that we’re clear about what we’re disagreeing about or agreeing about and that’s often what the most productive element of philosophy is.
Matthew Feeney: Yeah. I think anyone who has seen cable news will see even though the [Indiscernible] on these – what I call debates might not …
Trevor Burrus: The shouting show.
Matthew Feeney: The shouting show, right. But it strikes me as very often you’re seeing two people who have very different conceptions about what human beings are and how they act and what their role in the world should be and also how people who – how the government can morally govern their behavior.
But it’s never couched that way and oftentimes I hope that people would take a bit more time to consider their prior assumptions on all of these things because they do matter when it comes to policy, especially on the so-called social issues, things about what we should eat and what we can consume and who should we be allowed to sleep with or marry and who we should be able to hire to do our gardening. All these things have philosophical foundations that ought to be examined.
Aaron Ross Powell: When we talk about this – I mean Trevor, you just mentioned all these things that came under metaphysics like what is green and this raises the question of, “What does that have to do with policy?” So the issue is – we are talking about philosophy as both – it’s a body of knowledge, knowledge of what people have said green is from the ancient Greeks to today and then it’s a set of tools, which is the same as science.
There’s a scientific method and there are also the various things that physicists have discovered over the years. Are they separable? It’s the question because what exactly green is doesn’t seem very applicable to the kind of debates we have in Washington whereas – I mean maybe the questions of what sort of respect do we owe to people, why – what things matter when we’re adding up the effects of policies, what’s government allowed to do or not, do – these moral theories, those seem to matter.
But are the tools themselves, the thinking abstractly or defining our terms or knowing what we’re talking about, are those separable from the thousands of years of content?
Trevor Burrus: Well, to use an example for a guest we had on – previously on Free Thoughts, Michael Huemer who argues about the sort [0:10:00] of strangeness of the state being allowed to do things that normal people aren’t allowed to do. But his theory is based off of as a philosopher.
His theory is based off of – beginning his metaphysics of where he thinks morality is, which he thinks is in the world and that’s a – maybe sounds like a strange thing. I think most people think that morality is in our head. He thinks that it’s in the world in some meaningful sense in the same way that dogs and planes and Donald Trump are in the world.
Aaron Ross Powell: Or laws of physics.
Trevor Burrus: Laws of physics that you can intuit and that matters to some extent. The interesting thing is his argument is – just sort of says the presumption is, is that when you see something as wrong, it’s probably wrong.
Aaron Ross Powell: But this is – I mean this is a weird thing to say about morality to some extent because what it means is if morality exists in the world, whether it’s the kind of thing – whether it’s an entity in the world like your dogs and colors and whatever else.
Trevor Burrus: Donald Trump. Everything this week is Donald Trump.
Aaron Ross Powell: Yes. Most of what we’re saying may not apply to Donald.
Trevor Burrus: Of course not, of course.
Aaron Ross Powell: He’s his own thing. But that’s different from say the laws of mathematics and we can say – we can think that two plus two equals four, whether we exist or not. But to say murder is wrong or moral beings are owed respect or whatever in the absence of people – so to …
Trevor Burrus: It could get …
Aaron Ross Powell: … seems odd.
Trevor Burrus: It could be odd. It also might be the way the world is. The world might just be very strange and that’s always a possibility. Even things that seem very strange like the fact that brains think might just be the kind of thing that brains do. That’s just – electric eels make electricity. That seems really weird to me and brains think. So they kind of do these things together.
But that’s maybe a copout but I’m not a specialist in moral metaphysics but another example of when this stuff comes up is Kantian arguments come up a lot even without people understanding them and that would be I guess – it’s sort of – we’re getting kind of simplistic to say where does Kant think moral truths lie, but the categorical imperative of formulating something for rational beings to act on as if it were universal law, that’s probably the most common argument I hear for voting for example. Very explicit. If I say I don’t vote, I say well – if everyone did that, then we would have a problem and they’re kind of invoking the category …
Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, or even – I mean the golden rule is a variant of that. Do unto others as you have them do unto you says like if you’re going to – if you do this thing, is this something you would want everyone doing?
Trevor Burrus: Then we start there. We start with – most people don’t like to examine their premises. It kind of upsets people a lot of time to ask them something like why can’t you sell babies or parental rights, things like this.
Matthew Feeney: I think the frustration might occur at least in Washington is that if you’re at a house party or if you’re at a bar, you can talk to someone for an hour and then eventually it would be, yeah, I guess we’re talking past each other or I guess we will agree to disagree or – but two [Indiscernible] and say, well, I guess we have different moral assumptions about the way the world works. Let’s go vote differently on the bill. These are …
Trevor Burrus: Maybe they do say that.
Matthew Feeney: I would be stunned but I would also – I mean this is a great image to think of, Elizabeth Warren and Rand Paul talking about Kantian ethics. I don’t know if that has ever happened …
Trevor Burrus: Well, that brings up the question of why do people disagree and how do people disagree about it. Why is politics so – why is the thing you’re not supposed to talk about or at least one of the things is politics?
Aaron Ross Powell: It’s politics and religion, yeah.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah.
Aaron Ross Powell: And I think one of the interesting questions about why people disagree which I think you and I have discussed some on past episodes is this question of are – are disagreements or political disagreements say about fundamentally different views of the world and fundamentally different views of what’s morally permissible and what isn’t or are they about what we call the empirical questions?
Trevor Burrus: The factual …
Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah. So we both think that you ought to help the poor. But what we disagree about is whether free markets and the sorts of charity systems that arise within them are more effective or less effective than state-run welfare programs. But what’s really frustrating often in political debates – and I think this is one of the reasons that you don’t talk about it is – I mean so the reason we say you don’t talk about religion is because religion is like this central – a person’s identity, their sense of self.
So to discuss it, which discussing it means to argue about it. I mean that’s what we’re talking about here. It’s to some level question a person’s very identity and the problem with politics is that in the way that we engage in politics in this country, it ends up looking like religion, right? Like it’s not – we don’t say like look, we both agree on helping the poor is the right thing to do. Now let’s talk about the best way to do that. What we think is that look, if you say that the welfare state is bad for whatever reason, it must be because you are a moral monster, because you don’t want to help the poor.
So political discussions immediately turn into the same thing as religion where we’re questioning each other’s moral character. I think one of the things that thinking philosophically allows us to do, that the training yourself and having the kinds of arguments that follow along philosophical lines, is to say like, look, we can have this conversation without it turning into me judging Matthew as a bad human being or is fundamentally flawed or thinking that Trevor is a monstrous person or that only people who agree with me can be moral saints.
Trevor Burrus: But that brings up the question of the sort of performative element of politics too. Maybe most people who have political opinions haven’t really thought about them philosophically.
Matthew Feeney: Yeah. I mean through a cynical view, I mean maybe it’s true. But the funny thing is, is – anyone who had done some sort of basic philosophy would hear a statement like, well, you don’t support welfare because you don’t like poor people. He would immediately think, oh, straw man or if there was – there’s kind of a great list of things you’re not allowed to do in philosophy …
Trevor Burrus: Yeah. Can you tell us what a straw man is before …
Matthew Feeney: Oh, sorry. So straw man fallacy is misrepresenting the target.
Trevor Burrus: It’s pretty much half of the words spoken in this town I would imagine.
Matthew Feeney: Well, sure, yeah. It’s not – I mean it’s a different fallacy to ad hominem which is you’re just insulting the person.
Trevor Burrus: That’s the other half.
Matthew Feeney: The other – right, exactly. Yeah. And the thing is that you hope that if people were thinking philosophically, that those sorts of things would not happen. These sorts of basic fallacies would not occur. But anyone who has lived in this town or anyone that enjoys outside of the beltway watching cable news will quickly come to realize that this is the norm, not the exception, which is a great shame.
Aaron Ross Powell: Let me – why is it – so you could say if people are going around not thinking scientifically, it’s because in large part maybe they haven’t gotten – they haven’t been trained to do it. Just like if people are bad at playing the piano, it’s because they haven’t learned to play the piano and if you taught them, they would. Is that what’s going on here is that people are – from a philosophical perspective, arguing poorly? Because they haven’t been trained in philosophical thinking or is it because there’s something about the debate in Washington or the …
Trevor Burrus: I think it’s …
Aaron Ross Powell: It pushes us to not do it. So we would call the right way.
Matthew Feeney: So that reminds me of something that was written by our colleague Brink Lindsey in his book Human Capitalism where he discusses this instance of an anthropologist or a scientist going to Soviet Russia and talking to a few peasants and he posits the following basic thought experiment which is, well, there are no camels in Germany. Berlin is in Germany. How many camels are in Berlin?
Trevor Burrus: It’s the basic logical …
Matthew Feeney: Basic logic problem and I’m sure most listeners would immediately think, well, none. But it turns out that a lot of the illiterate peasants said, “Well, I mean is Berlin a big country, a big city?” or is – I mean …
Matthew Feeney: Are there merchants? No matter how many times this was repeated, there was some sense in which that they couldn’t grasp it. So maybe it is the case and that’s obviously an extreme example, but maybe if you’re not taught to think this particular way, that it is difficult to come around to it, especially in the context where you’re encouraged to dislike your opponents instead of just having an honest disagreement.
Trevor Burrus: Well, I would – I think there’s partially truth to that. But I think that there’s a lot of cost to thinking philosophically about things, social costs. There are a lot of social costs to saying in some circles that the other side has no bad arguments. You can imagine this in a religion. I mean in Aaron’s analogy, religion was good and if you’re living in a Southern Baptist community and you say at dinner – because you’ve been thinking about the arguments. You would only think about the arguments. You’re not attacking people. You’re not trying to perform morality in certain ways.
You know, actually some of those evolutionists, they have some pretty good arguments. It has a lot of social cause there. People like to be part of a group that signals their participation in a certain sort of – I guess it would be the commitments of the group such as – or do you believe in the welfare state or do you not believe in the welfare state? And sitting down and being like, OK, well, it’s a very complex issue and we have to look at all sides and analyze whether or not the arguments are good on this side, especially in this town.
All the forces that you mentioned push against thinking philosophically. They push towards performative morality, which is performing the kind of – the necessary genuflections to the things that [0:20:00] your group thinks are important and matter and then rallying up the troops for your group on one side which is why it’s very hard to go on Fox News and say, well, the democrats have a really good point here. You’re probably not going to be invited back.
Aaron Ross Powell: Performative morality is one of the most distressing things that we see playing out in – I mean it plays out in political debates here but it’s also a part of the bizarre, anti free speech, free thought culture that’s on American campuses now, that this is this – I mean if morality is ultimately about questions of what ought I to do or what kind of person ought I to be, what is the right kind of person, the best kind of person, the best action to take and what performative morality ultimately says is that doesn’t matter at all. What matters is do other people think I am the kind of person who they think is a good person.
So it’s entirely based on just – I mean cultural conceptions that could be – it says that we shouldn’t evaluate those, that what matters is just being in line with certain expectations. So this is how you get – there’s a – I saw a news article just a week or so ago about hybrid cars and it said – it looked at the lifetime amount of pollution they generated, amount of energy they consumed from the manufacturing process through the life of the car and said that if you live on the East Coast – because presumably energy economics in the East Coast are slightly different than they are elsewhere in the country. Then buying a new hybrid car is actually worse on all these measures than a regular style car.
What that ought to say is if you care – if what you actually care about is protecting the environment and we will stipulate that this sort of emissions reduction – well, that is actually good for the environment long term or whatever. But if what you care about is protecting the environment, then you should stop having a hybrid car.
But of course no one who has a hybrid car is going to do that because buying the hybrid car is not really about protecting the environment. It’s about …
Trevor Burrus: Or at least for some of them.
Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah. But it’s – what’s motivating it is we want the people around us to think we’re the kind of person who cares about the environment.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah. That comes back I think to libertarianism because that turns political beliefs at least to some degree into what I would call indexical or like – they’re relative to your position and there’s a thing about libertarianism where we’re talking about philosophy here and we’re prone to be thinking a little bit possibly more coldly, less group-oriented, less rah-rah-rah, red team, blue team. I think more awkward people at libertarian conventions and parties, something that we know a lot about. Maybe we are those awkward people and so to draw this in. But the question is, “Is that merely a product of libertarianism’s fringe element by itself?” That it draws a certain type of fringy people who like to be outside of the group or to tell all the other people that the – that what everyone else is doing is crazy.
If it was in Soviet Russia, the fringe people would be different. So the fringe always changes. The fringe – where the fringe is but maybe the fringe always attracts a certain amount of people who like to think about we’re less into the group dynamics, less into the performative morality, more into the philosophical thinking, more into the sort of like extreme counter-culturalism of saying – just sort of saying [Indiscernible] both of your houses, whatever those [Indiscernible].
Aaron Ross Powell: When I first came to Cato, I was asked as a new hire to attend these series of intern seminars, which is every intern class, they – a couple of times a week, all the interns go and listen to talks and have Q and A sessions with various Cato scholars on the topics that they do here at Cato and it’s a good way for new employees to get up to speed on what everyone is up to.
So I was sitting in – I sat in a handful of them and I realized that I felt somewhat uncomfortable. I couldn’t – I feel a little bit uncomfortable in this room listening to this conversation and after thinking about it for a while, I realized it was because I was in a room where people were agreeing with me broadly speaking. That signaling was in line with my beliefs, right? And that coming from a – Trevor and I both went to the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado and that is a place where they’re – I mean surprisingly are not a lot of libertarian students.
So we were used to being the people with the weird views, used to being that guy in class who always had to argue about the particular topic because we disagreed and that was what I was used to and it’s – it was this very bizarre experience being around a bunch of people who agreed with me. I think that was – I mean going back to what you said about the fringe movement. I think that obviously the way – you don’t end up in a fringe movement. Calling it fringe doesn’t mean it’s wrong. I mean all this – or right. Like libertarianism is correct, right? But it is clearly a fringe movement in American politics.
Trevor Burrus: Well, believing in markets and Soviet Russia was a fringe …
Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, exactly, and –
Trevor Burrus: Or North Korea. That’s a fringe movement too.
Aaron Ross Powell: That you don’t end up in a fringe movement unless you are at some level not all that concerned about fitting in, about having your beliefs applauded by everyone who’s around you.
Matthew Feeney: Yeah, I think – I mean going back to what Trevor said about the – and what you said about the fringeness, I think libertarians have an undeserved reputation as being logical machines who are very hard in line because I don’t know a lot about a lot and sometimes here at Cato, I will walk around the offices to ask the question about something on policy or economics.
I mean quite often the two honest responses I get from colleagues are things like it’s complicated or I’m not sure or that I don’t – I’m not aware of the data. I think there is a certain humility in what – not much as Cato. But I think most people in policy have is worrying about data rather than politics.
But I think something that people have pointed out to me as far as fringeness goes is it’s not just that libertarians need to be fringy about politics, also a little fringy when it comes to music taste or they’re very into gaming culture …
Matthew Feeney: Yeah, like – these subcultures are – if that’s a fair way to describe them, seem to coalesce around not just politics but other sort of things.
Trevor Burrus: So when you’re doing your work at Cato or any of us are doing our work at Cato and we’re taking our philosophical toolkit, which we haven’t totally explained yet about what that entails, something about clarity and thinking about what there is and how you know, what you do about it, and then looking at a problem that someone comes to you and says, “OK, here’s a problem that we have.”
Aaron Ross Powell: You’re doing body cameras and policing.
Matthew Feeney: Right.
Trevor Burrus: Just currently what Matthew is working on. How does philosophy inform something – a question like that one? You’re first asked to look at it.
Matthew Feeney: So I think I can stop with an example from the philosophical toolkit which is the – I suppose the best way to describe it would be argument from authority. It’s that I’m very aware – whatever I read, I make sure to read widely and to look at data and I don’t – I try and keep as objective as I can. I don’t think, oh, I want to find – what do people who I’m friends with say about this? What do people who I agree with say about this? What are the police saying about this? What are libertarians who have already written a bit about this saying? And trying to make sure that the view is wide and that the data is taken with as little bias as possible.
But then there’s also a philosophical baggage that you bring to the table to a certain degree which is given Cato’s outlook, what is – given the data and given our outlook, what’s the best policy prescription? And that’s just step one of what becomes quite a long process if you’re engaged in a report or white paper or something like that.
Aaron Ross Powell: There are philosophical concerns at play. What sorts of philosophical concerns are in play in the question of whether cops should wear body cameras?
Matthew Feeney: Sure. So that brings into the rights of citizens and also transparency and accountability, the role of government when it comes to keeping people safe, enforcing rights. Sorry, not – protecting rights, not enforcing them. There are also concerns about regulations of – regulations as they relate to the making of these things and how much they cost and tons and tons of different things.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah. It reminds me of – a similar thing for me is when I deal with labor union regulations for example. I have to think back to the first principles and especially in law that so much – there’s a base on first principles, philosophical principles about what labor unions are allowed to do and the – we’re going to take this for granted that labor unions – at least non-right-to-work states are allowed to take money from workers who are not members of the union in order to fund the labor union’s activity and they can do that because they’ve essentially been delegated the power to tax by the government, which is – which gets us back to the role of government and the strangeness of what’s going on, that they’re very – there’s a huge aberration here.
Government has this extremely distinct and unique ability to tax. We can talk about whether or not it’s OK and all this sort of things, but it has the ability to tax based on majority vote for your own good type of question and then the question is, “Could they delegate that? Are they allowed to delegate that?” So we think about the first principles and say, well, [0:30:00] the government can come down and take a group of workers and delegate to them the power to tax so they can better represent the workers. You look at the arguments on both sides and well, the union has to represent all of the workers. So they should be able to take money from all the workers, so the workers aren’t free riding.
You say, well, that doesn’t really apply to other situations. It doesn’t really apply to the AMA or the trade association of book sellers or something like that where you say – so the book sellers, they do a lot of things to help a lot of book sellers but they are entirely a voluntary organization. They have to raise money voluntarily through book sales and so they don’t have the ability to tax bookstores that are not members of their union because they simply say, well, you’re benefiting from our representation so therefore we’re going to tax you.
You have to go back to these basic principles of why are they allowed to tax people and is that a justified use of state power in the role of government to start thinking about the question and I would say a proper, organized type of way.
Aaron Ross Powell: Actualy I mean here I’m the odd man out because what I do at Cato when I’m not running Libertarianism.org just is philosophy. I don’t do policies. So I’m stuck in the first principles all day but I thought maybe what we could do is take a first principles argument, one that – we will pick one that’s popular among a lot of libertarians and talk about it, how we would talk about it philosophically to maybe give a sense of what this toolkit would look like.
So what I have in mind is the popular non-aggression principle or non-aggression axiom as it’s sometimes called and this is the – for a lot of libertarians, this is the [Indiscernible] moral theory. This is the foundation from which an entire political philosophy flows and it’s one that functions to use Daniel Dennett, the philosopher. Daniel Dennett’s term is a “universal acid”. You have this principle and it can address everything. Any question can be answered this way and what the non-aggression principle says is that it is morally impermissible. It is always wrong to aggress against the person or property of another.
Matthew Feeney: Unless your life will – rights are being violated.
Aaron Ross Powell: Yes, yeah. So that would be one of the questions. What does aggression mean? Does aggression begin that – is responding to aggression itself aggression? But the point is you – we are always prohibited from aggressing against the person or property of another person and that’s it. It’s often presented as there you go. There’s the foundational principle but we’ve run a handful of articles over the years on Libertarianism.org saying the non-aggression principle isn’t really an argument. It doesn’t get there. It doesn’t quite work that way. I mean I think our colleague Julian Sanchez had a piece where he said it’s not even really a principle.
So let’s start with – if we got this argument in front of us. Someone says, look, I’m going to justify my political beliefs by saying that it is always illegitimate. It’s always morally wrong to aggress against the person or property of another. How do we start evaluating that?
Trevor Burrus: The concepts there are not clear.
Aaron Ross Powell: Well, that was the – so what’s …
Matthew Feeney: We have terms that need to be defined here. So there’s not only – well, there’s aggression but there’s also morally impermissible and what that means and then once – even if you have the terms carefully defined, the way to test whether a moral theory is particularly useful is to take it to its extremes and see if it still holds water and this is not something that you do for the non-aggression principle. You would do it for the ontology or consequentialism or any of the other moral theories out there.
This is – a lot of the criticisms of the non-aggression principle come down to this because you will have people saying – if someone says, “I believe in the non-aggression principle and it is the axiom that is the bedrock of my political philosophy,” then you can come up with useful tools called thought experiments that are designed to test the boundaries of arguments.
For something like the non-aggression principle, you could say – so you’re thrown out of a 20-storey building and there’s a flagpole. Are you allowed to grab it to save yourself even if it’s privately owned? Should a parent be allowed to not feed a child in their own private home?
Trevor Burrus: Can you shine a laser pointer at someone’s house?
Matthew Feeney: Right. And also how high does property rights go? If you own a house, do you own all the – how high? And then there are also problems with pollution that are very well-documented. That’s what you do.
Aaron Ross Powell: That’s one of the knocks against the non-aggression principle is that it’s – I mean it’s parasitic upon a theory of property. So we can – it can be an argument that everyone accepts no matter your political views, if you differ on your definition of private property.
So you have to – you can’t simply assert that property equals what I think property equals, which is the strong libertarian Nozickian sort of property, therefore the non-aggression principle implies because – or leads to libertarianism, right? Because you first have to establish the truth of this particular conception of property. So you can have an alternative conception of property say that says that because we operate in the community, because we benefit from the actions of others, some portion of the property we own or the goods that we generate or the money that we earn is already owned in common.
So, taxation which is one of those things – the non-aggression principle, if it’s an axiom, would seem to just make taxation completely impermissible. I mean it would be to take your money and taxation would be to aggress against your property. But if it’s not your property to begin with, if I’m just taking as the government or as the society that portion that belonged in common, then the non-aggression principle would appear to allow for taxation. So we have to first get to a theory of private property.
Trevor Burrus: The other question about the non-aggression principle is – I think it’s related to what Matthew was saying about can we use the thought experiment. But there’s a contrary view that – how much do these really help us actually scope out something that at least seems to be clear for many if not most situations.
Do we need to answer a question like, “Can I grab a flagpole for that to be meaningful in some way?” and then the second question is sort of very on the Rothbard type of scale which is – I mean Rothbard seemed to be very concerned with the fact that if you didn’t draw completely absolute lines that were – ones and zero, binary lines, that this is aggression and this isn’t aggression, this there for me is just impermissible. It doesn’t matter how slight it is, any of those things.
Then you would be inviting the kind of gradual erosion of the principle just by not drawing an absolute line and saying, no, you can’t pull the hair out of my head or any of those things.
Aaron Ross Powell: This is his concern. I mean he has famously – let’s call them controversial views about children and what parents are allowed to do or not do to or for their children and he ends up arguing say that because a baby is ultimately the property of its parents or certainly not the property of anyone else, that it is – if I as a parent wanted to leave my child on the dining room table inside my house and let the kids starve, I can’t actually physically assault the kid because that would be an aggression but I’m not obligated to provide for the child.
So I could let the kid starve which sounds pretty bad but I think what sounds worse is that you would be – it would be impermissible for you to come on to my property to save the child because you would be violating my right in my front lawn and my front door and the inside of my house in my dining room table and …
Trevor Burrus: And we’re not going to have a balancing test about that.
Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, and this sounds bad but one of the reasons that he makes this argument is because of precisely this slippery slope concern which is look, if we don’t have these absolutely strict property rights, this like very clear here’s what’s permissible and here’s what is not – and I should be clear that he’s careful to distinguish moral from legal. So he could say it could be morally monstrous for a parent to do this. But it would be still impermissible for and it would be a rights violation. The parent for the state to come in and take the child, but his concern is that if we allow it, if we allow this abridgment of property rights, then we end up with the state saying, oh well, you failing to give your kid education of the kind we like is similar enough to starving them that we’re going to force you to educate the kid in a certain way.
We’re going to force you to inculcate certain values that we find really important and so we can’t open that door even in the slightest. This does seem to be – I mean an issue in philosophy is how strict do these rules need to be. How much predictive power do they need to have? How certain do they need to be? How much wiggle room can they allow?
Trevor Burrus: This seems to me to be possibly identifying for some people what they have a problem with in philosophical discussion. That if we’re sitting here, let’s say a libertarian party or – [0:40:00] I mean I’m sure other people have these conversations too. And people for the three hours are talking about whether or not that example right there or the light post example or a laser pointer at the side of your house, that they’re just sort of ruminating on angels dancing on the head of a pin when we all sort of morally know that – those are very exceptional circumstances.
Maybe our moral principles should be based off of exceptional circumstances. Maybe we should just use them as presumptions which itself is a meta philosophical sort of theory about the value of theory. But that’s what they’re really upset about is that people talk about this and everyone knows that it’s the case, that it’s fine to save that baby. So why are we even talking about it?
Matthew Feeney: Yeah. I think anyone who’s engaged in philosophy or political philosophy maybe even especially is – if you reach a conclusion which is morally repulsive, then it’s OK to say I’m going to reexamine this. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not cheating.
Trevor Burrus: Does that seem to put the cart before the horse though? Because you’re basically just trying to come up with a theory that aligns with your preexisting moral intuitions.
Matthew Feeney: So that might well be true. So you could come to a conclusion which is – actually you just got to suck it up and our moral intuitions are not logical and …
Aaron Ross Powell: This is the argument [Indiscernible] Grant Babcock is sitting in the control room right now and we have long had this argument. He’s a fan of this Peter Singer article that says, look, intuition should play – the notion that it seems wrong, which is how we do a lot of moral arguing. We say like this seems to lead to a conclusion that it is obviously wrong. So therefore there’s something wrong with the argument. Let’s revise. That we have no reason to trust our moral intuitions. We need to do – in Singer’s case, being a utilitarian is we need to accept strict utilitarianism that says the right action is always whichever produces the most happiness.
Trevor Burrus: This might include euthanasia and killing babies …
Aaron Ross Powell: All sorts of things.
Matthew Feeney: It might not be intuitive either.
Aaron Ross Powell: And that even if we think it seems intuitively wrong, if we’ve argued correctly for the principle, then that’s where we are and that’s what we should accept.
Trevor Burrus: Is that – I’ve often wondered this. A lot of philosophical discussions end up in a similar type of thing. If you’re trying to define art or let’s say you’re trying to define science, for a philosophy or science class, or aesthetics philosophy class, the debate will often go – here’s what my theory of art is and then someone else says, “Ah, but by your theory of art, the Mona Lisa is not art.”
Since we know the Mona Lisa is art, you must go back to the drawing board and come up with the theory that includes the Mona Lisa to which the person who created the theory could either say – they could bite the bullet. Like, you’re right. The Mona Lisa is not art or they could be like, oh, well, that’s a problem. I need to go back and make sure I have a theory that identifies the Mona Lisa as art, which just sort of again seems like you’re just trying to draw borders that you can state around things that you already believed in for possibly non-philosophical reasons and that’s really true in ethics to some degree.
There might be another reason to care about intuitions in politics though, which is that no one would follow those laws. So they could just be purely pragmatic.
Aaron Ross Powell: The inequality debate. I mean we – so when people talk about income inequality is awful. We need to stamp it out. We need radical redistribution and all sorts of policies to flatten the spread of wealth in the country and we, meaning often libertarians, say, “Well, hold on. But why?” We say first off that inequality is not as big as you think it is if you control for things like cost of benefits and so on and so forth. But even if it’s there, why is this bad?
It doesn’t seem to make – the poor are getting richer. The rich may be getting richer at a faster rate but the poor is still getting richer. So if they’re getting richer – it would be one thing if the rich were getting rich by stealing money from the poor. So that doesn’t seem to be a problem and we can’t necessarily trace actual harms. Like as income inequality goes up, we don’t see well-being, however you measure it. But on like all of these things, why? And the response is a form of yeah, but it’s just bad. There’s just something wrong about some people having a whole lot more than other people.
Trevor Burrus: It’s a very hard argument to really – if they think that.
Matthew Feeney: So on Trevor’s point, Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist, New York based university. I forget which one. But I mean he – you can go to – I think it’s yourmorals.org and you can take this long questionnaire about your opinions on certain moral statements and you can chart out. People have very different – some people are very pro-fairness and some people are very pro – anti-tradition and they don’t really respect authority very much and I mean – so the controversial statement might be something like some people in view of their genes are more likely to value fairness or more likely to value individualism or whatever.
But most libertarians I know and – I know their family is skeptical that libertarianism is – all moral philosophies in general are genetic. I think there is something else to it. But they might just be the case that some people just have a gut reaction that is difficult to argue.
Trevor Burrus: But can we do anything about those values disagreement?
Trevor Burrus: … rectify them in some way?
Aaron Ross Powell: Let me give my quick critique of the Your Morals thing because I think that – I think that it sometimes gets – I want to say it gets misread. I want to say the study is I’m going to say potentially poorly-designed. And that in fact the conclusions that we draw from it which is that – I mean the articles about it that show up – have shown quite a lot. That libertarians care less about fairness than other people. We care less about authority than other people.
Trevor Burrus: Sanctity.
Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah. We …
Trevor Burrus: Disgust.
Aaron Ross Powell: Basically these virtues that – I mean maybe the authority isn’t the virtue. I would argue it’s not but the – the fairness, the beneficence and all of those that libertarians score poorly on it and the way that these tests work – and this is where I think it goes wrong in how it judges these things. The way that these tests work is first you go to the website and it’s fascinating. I encourage all of you to do this. It’s really interesting to take these tests. It’s yourmorals.org I believe.
First you self-identify. You say I am a progressive. I’m a conservative. I’m a libertarian. I’m very libertarian, whatever. You self-identify. And then you take these series of moral questions. They’re not political questions. They’re straight-up moral questions that are things like do you have the – I don’t know if the drowning baby version shows up, but things like that.
So you were walking by the stream and there’s a child drowning and you’re wearing really expensive Italian shoes. Do you have an obligation to ruin your shoes in order to save the child? Yes or no. And then questions about disgust. Like there’s one about they eat the family dog after it has died and do you think that’s permissible or not.
And what I – what struck me with this is that because the way that these tests work is you self-identify first by choosing from a list of political philosophies, you go into it thinking, OK, this quiz is in some way about politics and libertarians, because we live in a world where the question is always like, “Should we make the state do this?” We’ve identified a problem. It’s never, “Should the state do this?” The question Washington is always – is this a problem or not? Because if it is, then the state should do something about it.
So when we see these questions then, like should you save the drowning baby, I know that I did this and I would imagine that a lot of people who took it did think oh – and this may be subconscious, right? But think, oh, this is actually a question about politics. So what this question is really about is, “Would it be OK to force you to have a law saying you need to save this child or that you could be punished for not?” And then the answer becomes a political question of yes, I think that I have a moral obligation to save the child but I don’t think that laws that would require it, mandate it are wrong. So it colors the answers that we give because we’re coming at it from within a political view point.
Matthew Feeney: So I think that that’s – a few interesting critiques there and – but what I would say is even if that is true and that people do come in with this unacknowledged or unrealized political baggage, I think most listeners and certainly I think both of you guys would agree that – I’ve met people throughout my life, but this is totally antidotal with another fallacy. But it’s that people I’ve met who seem to for whatever reason not particularly care about authority.
They don’t see what’s wrong with just not talking to family members or respecting the traditions of the family and then you see other people who are easily disgusted by things and people who for whatever reason do value egalitarianism and equality very, very strongly.
That might be for – and oftentimes not even related to politics. It will come to a pizza delivered to the house. Does everyone get one slice or is it – should you do what your parents tell you just because they are your parents? Those sorts of things are really interesting to observe particularly I think in kids. But I don’t think – even outside of the Jonathan Haidt work, I think most people listening will have first hand experience of the differences that people have when they approach morality.
Trevor Burrus: What is really philosophy? One thing you can conclude from Haidt’s work and other types of moral political psychology work is kind of what I was saying before. [0:50:00] You arrive at conclusions for – that would be non-rational. Not necessarily irrational but non-rational reasons. Biology could be part of it since political opinions are quite heritable and identical twin studies.
Then you rationalize them after the fact. So when we try and do philosophy on these things and we start talking about the non-aggression principle and all these things, we’re just looking at a bunch of people who have different scales of values. Maybe we can tell them that they’re wrong to value X, Y or Z or maybe values are not amenable to being wrong or right.
Then they try and come up with a theory for this. But at the same time, when I deal with my labor union example first, so I don’t need to fully explain whether or not grabbing the light post outside of the window while it’s a non-aggression principle to have the more mainstream example of – that this seems to be aggression taking money from people forcefully. The presumption against that which I think is safe to say. I don’t need to explain all of the extremities of this. I don’t need to explain whether or not I tax people if an asteroid was going to hit earth tomorrow or conscript them into building a giant space laser. All those things don’t undercut the basic quotidian kind of questions that we deal with and so therefore philosophy doesn’t seem that useful, correct?
Aaron Ross Powell: I have – I think I have an answer to that or at least a way to think about that question, which is first, I would say that in my experience, people’s values, those underlying values differ less than we’re led to believe. Especially we’re led to believe by people engaged in politics because I mean if you’re trying to win an election, there’s – a big part of that is getting – is motivating voters to go out and vote and if you say look, my opponent and I, we’re – we basically – I mean we have the same values. We disagree on some of the policies but we both will look at the evidence because they always say to look at the evidence and do whatever works best. Then that’s a harder [Indiscernible] of like why this is really important that you come out and vote and make sure that this other guy doesn’t win.
So instead what you say is he’s this radical anarchist who would destroy society because he hates all that’s good and pure.
Trevor Burrus: Mitt Romney was that way, right?
Aaron Ross Powell: Barack Obama was this like secret Muslim fundamentalist socialist who hated America because of colonialism and wanted to destroy the country and these are of course absurd. But just like Coke and Pepsi, you have to spend a lot of time distinguishing themselves from each other.
You have to do that and so we get told that these differences are bigger than I think they actually are. And then I would also say that if the differences are not quite as big – although I think they’re genuine in a lot of cases. Then the value of this stuff, it’s not – first we all have experience of people changing their mind. I mean I …
Trevor Burrus: Yeah. I’m looking at one right now.
Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah. I had a certain set of views and I changed them and it was due to argumentation. But that even if it’s hard to change your mind – and it should be. You shouldn’t just radically change your mind whenever your argument comes along. But it’s hard to do. It’s a slow process. But if our values are closer than we might think, then reflecting on them, which is – and reflecting on whether the actions we take are actually compatible with those values, advance those values in the world. What the – what follows from those values? Like you say you really care about respecting everyone. But is doing this actually respecting them?
That I think we can effect genuine change on the margin by just asking people to consider their moral beliefs, consider the effects of their actions and that’s where this toolkit of philosophy that we’ve been talking about I think is so valuable because it’s a way to do that, to think carefully about our own views, the views of others, examine them in ways that are fair, are to the extent possible unbiased.
Trevor Burrus: And also to avoid making bad arguments, I think that the – distancing yourself from your own arguments which is sort of weirdly metaphorical but there is a theory about – there’s sort of an idea of philosophy. It’s kind of like a successive almost like conical progression through meta beliefs. The idea that you have a primary belief like that is blue.
And then you have a belief about that belief. I believe that that is blue or I am now believing things about the fact that I believe that that’s blue and you can keep doing that until you’re thinking about the nature of believing and all these things. But one of the observations that has been made before is that the philosophers are really looking for what Spinoza would have called “sub specie aeternitatis” which is the view from infinity or Thomas Nagel had called the view from nowhere which is the idea of what does the world look like if no one is looking at it.
So I thought about something being blue and now I’ve extracted it back. I’m trying to think about what the world looks like from nowhere. You can’t ever get to the nowhere position especially if you’re a Kantian but if you start thinking back behind your beliefs, your beliefs and your beliefs about your belief, I think you can start being a little bit more fair to other people who believe different things.
If you just believe on the primary level, like if you just have a very primary belief that that’s blue, and you’re not really thinking about how you believe things, then it’s very difficult to understand how someone else might think it’s green and then the dispute is sort of strange.
So if you think about your beliefs and you think about why you believe your beliefs and how other people might believe their beliefs in a certain way for certain reasons that are not because Obama is a colonialist oppressor or whatever, they might believe …
Trevor Burrus: Anti-colonialist oppressor. One of the things that I’m always trying to find is I always try and make sure that I’m not using words to describe people, that more or less they would never use to describe themselves. So like the word “brainwashed” is a really good example. No one would ever describe themselves as brainwashed. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. But when you say someone else is brainwashed, it’s a very just sort of primary thing as opposed to thinking about your beliefs and how you believe them and then giving respect to other people’s beliefs which I think is a good thing that you get from philosophy.
Matthew Feeney: Well, something that is sort of interesting working here at Cato with libertarian philosophy is that you realize that these disagreements are made worse by this thing we called politics which is in the world, if there are some parents who want their kids to be taught Latin at school and some people don’t, in a libertarian society, that’s not really a problem. The parents send their kids to the school that teaches Latin and if some adults want to smoke marijuana and others don’t, then we don’t really have a problem, right?
This thing of – the introduction of this thing of politics and I know both of you have said many times that it makes this worse and I think this is a good example of that. These disagreements become worse and they have to be in this context which is very regrettable. But those little conversations can become more civil outside of politics. I would love it if there wasn’t a department of education and I could walk into my neighbor’s house and say, “Hey, why doesn’t Jimmy go to a school that teaches Latin?” and that would just be a different conversation than it is now.
Trevor Burrus: You would be an annoying neighbor.
Matthew Feeney: But …
Trevor Burrus: He’s a classics professor. So he thinks everyone should have to speak Latin.
Matthew Feeney: I’m willing to tax all of you to – but I suppose the underlying point here is that there is a way to make these disagreements worse and bad and poor taste. But we could just use a philosophical toolkit instead of the prism of political communication.
Aaron Ross Powell: Well, here’s a knock against the philosophical toolkit or a possible one because we’ve been pretty pro-philosophy for the last hour. Philosophers don’t agree. In fact they disagree deeply. Every year, every so many years, there’s this survey of the beliefs of professional philosophers, philosophy professors, and they will ask, “Do you believe in this particular theory or this particular competing theory?” and I know that in the moral philosophy field, there’s I think four broad categories that they give.
There’s the ontology. There’s consequentialism. There’s – I think contractarianism is on there and there’s virtue ethics. Which one of these do you fall into? And if I remember correctly, it’s – a really big chunk are consequentialists. A really big chunk that’s about the same size are the ontologists and then smaller chunks are virtue and contractarians. But these are people who – I mean these are PhDs in philosophy. These are people who have spent their career learning and applying this toolkit that we are saying is so useful in talking about issues in really getting to the heart of the matter and yet they disagree. These are fundamentally incompatible theories.
Trevor Burrus: Well, I think that they’re – this sort of reminds of the question of, “Is there such a thing as philosophical progress?” and I think there absolutely is. There is – that’s writ large. Even though they disagree, that’s how you build things up. But there are large philosophical progresses. [1:00:00] A classic example would be the freewill debate, which for a really good philosophical debate – I mean like over a century and over many different people will clarify what you’re actually talking about.
And the question of “Do we have freedom?” goes back thousands of years. But then that became refined to – based on people having the discussion, what would it even mean to have freedom? And how are we even asking the question? Are we – do we not even understand the question? And then people started talking about that until we had actually created progress for refining what the question is of “Are we free?” into a far more – sort of looking down and figuring out.
Then secondly, there’s a lot of personal philosophical progress. I think all of us personally, if you engage in philosophy, you can personally grow in the field. I realize that things I used to believe and you should not believe them anymore and making you a better, more coherent person hopefully than you were before. That’s very valuable too.
Matthew Feeney: Yeah. I mean this reminds me that – well, listeners should know that I did my philosophy degrees at the University of Reading where a philosopher called Galen Strawson works and he actually is the one who doesn’t believe in moral responsibility and I suppose thinks earthquakes are as responsible as murderers when it comes down to it.
There are [Indiscernible] sort of on the fringe I suppose. But what I do think is worth pointing out is even people who disagree about these sorts of issues, we’ve moved on and this sort of I guess dovetails to what Trevor said is it’s not often heard in philosophy seminars like we – that we have discussions on slavery from a consequentialist point of view or the ontological view. We all know there’s some sort of widespread acceptance that we took thousands of years for us to get to the point that basically slavery is wrong no matter what sort of philosophy you decide to apply to it. And that is progress of a kind I think. But I know there are people certainly who would disagree with that.
Aaron Ross Powell: As I said at the beginning, we – in this room, there are three of us and there are four philosophy degrees because Matthew has got two of them.
Trevor Burrus: He has to show off, of course.
Aaron Ross Powell: But that’s – I mean getting a philosophy degree is quite a commitment. Not just in time but there’s – you’re giving up …
Trevor Burrus: And tweed jackets too.
Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah.
Aaron Ross Powell: … could have gotten an MBA in that time or something that’s going to be conservatively more lucrative. But – so outside of doing that, if we think – if we agree that there’s a value in understanding philosophy and thinking philosophically and knowing how to have arguments in this style and evaluate arguments in that style, how do we learn to do that? I mean this goes back to the question I asked again at the beginning of decoupling the tool set from the content of it, because people have had all of these crazy ideas for thousands of years, that fall within the genre of philosophy.
So is the way to begin – like I want to learn to think like a philosopher. So I can have better arguments about politics. Does that mean going back to the pre-Socratics and reading about how all of the world is made out of water? And then just working our way through to the present day. Is that the way to do it or is there a way to maybe accelerate the process?
Matthew Feeney: I mean there are a number of different ways you can teach philosophy and one is chronological like you point out. I’m kind of the fan of that method or maybe because I wasn’t taught that way but I have a bit of a soft spot for the Greeks. But I think start at the beginning and I think – but you don’t have to read everyone between Aristotle and Wittgenstein, right? But there’s a good way to start with the person that started it all, which are Plato and Aristotle.
That said, I think if you’re talking about like toolkits and logic, I mean there is a book I think we give all the interns here at Cato, Logic Made Easy, that they’re required to read. Our colleague Jason Kuznicki I think gives a lecture on all that.
There are tons of good introductory books when it comes to things like logic and critical thinking and also great books on introductions to major philosophers like Aristotle, Kant and some of the people we’ve been talking about.
Trevor Burrus: I think that that’s also time-consuming and all of us have done those things. But I think the most important thing is to care about being clear, trying to understand the questions that are out there in the world about the difficulty of knowing things to being true and maybe your perceptions aren’t true. Maybe they’re somewhat deceiving you, the difficulty of knowing what sort of things there are in the world and of talking about them. So you could actually try and communicate using precise language like when I was talking about green. Is it in the world? What do you mean by in the world?
Well, the first thing is you have to care about making that clear. What is the world here? I mean my brain is in the world. So it would be like, OK, if you’re going to have a conversation about where green is in the world or where moral truths are in the world, you have to be able to like – OK, in – look at what’s the world and like in – what sort of thing is it? And then care about having that kind of conversation and then hopefully if you find people to talk with and you can have – you can build that kind of toolkit with the feedback, like Aaron and I have done for 15 years. I build that kind of feedback loop where you start caring about taking hard questions and trying to deal with them seriously, which is fundamentally what I think philosophy is.
Aaron Ross Powell: I would just say that even simpler than that, even simpler than approaching all of these questions at that really deep fundamental level and walking through all the pieces of them, that if nothing else, think what the philosophical toolkit teaches and encourages is a sense of humility about our own beliefs. It’s that what I think is true may not be. But there may be good arguments against it that things that I think aren’t true, people may have real arguments for those and so to approach – when someone says something to you, that you disagree with, you hear an opposing political view.
Just think for a moment as Deirdre McCloskey says often, consider that you might be wrong. Just stop and say like, “Well, let me listen to this and let me examine my own beliefs. Let me just not assume the truth of them. But say why do I believe these things.”
And even that small process of just assessing why do I believe this, are my reasons good? Why does the other person believe this? Is it – is there a charitable way of reading their view as opposed to just thinking they’re evil or stupid? Just doing that gets you a long way towards employing this toolkit in what will be a fruitful manner in improving the way that you engage with politics.
Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening. If you have any questions, you can find us on Twitter, @FreeThoughtsPod. Free Thoughts is produced by Evan Banks and Mark McDaniel. To learn more, find us on the web at www.Libertarianism.org.