WickedEye's Quotient

8/27/2009 at 03:45

Machiavelli, Gandhi & Empedocles

This was written a year ago, prompted by a Facebook Note by my friend Will Reilly on the subject of hypocrisy in conservatism versus liberalism. (Will's Notes are well worth a read. They are lucid, concise, scathing, often humorous, and very well written.) The assertion which prompted my response was that conservatives “understand that the only ethical options available to human beings are hypocrisy and evil.”

A reply on the specifics of human ethics would be futile—as much because of my borderline fanatical insistence on precision (insofar as it's possible) as because of Will’s prowess in the area. Therefore my response focuses on the different definitions of hypocrisy, its expression in both liberals and conservatives, and the larger question of human perfection which underlies both.

I dislike the stances of the current Republican Party (RP) as well as disagree with the general philosophy of conservatism (by no means the same thing) because of a set of fairly marked ideological differences. It is essential to my point of view to note at this juncture that I draw a distinction between baseline personal hypocrisy and deliberate and intentional political lying.

My definition of personal hypocrisy is, roughly, the maintenance of a personal image which is deliberately inaccurate with the primary goal of obtaining the esteem of self and others. My definition of deliberate and intentional political lying is—again roughly—the deliberate misrepresentation of facts and situations which affect large numbers of people, which utilizes esteem and belief as tools for a larger manipulation in order to obtain a specific and desired political result.

The current Republican Party is not conservative in any formal sense of the term. Classical conservatism has to do with the maintenance of current power structures as well as current MOs—economic, political, social, etc. Anyone who attempts radical revision of any of these aspects of society—by whatever means—is ipso facto not conservative. There is no accurate characterization of the RP of the past 20 years which does not include such attempts. It has not, however, ceased to bill itself as conservative.

It taxes my credulity to believe that those in charge of the public’s image of the RP do not understand this basic tenet of political science. This sort of misrepresentation is not personal hypocrisy. This is a deliberate and intentional political lie—a deliberate misrepresentation of facts which utilizes belief as a tool for a larger manipulation to obtain a specific political result.

Personal hypocrisy, on the other hand, is often conflated with the choice of a given moral code and any subsequent failure to meet its demands. I could not disagree more entirely. I classify any failure to meet a chosen moral standard as a failure, neither more nor less. It can also, depending on circumstance, be a severe dereliction of ethics with dire circumstances for self and others. However, defining a failure to meet an ethical standard as hypocritical presupposes that humans are capable of perfection and that failure to meet a chosen standard is therefore deliberate.

One may fail one’s standards without being a hypocrite. Hypocrisy resides in the representation of oneself as the exemplar of an ideology rather than as a follower of that ideology; failure to meet one’s chosen standards is hypocritical only if one advertises perfection in them. There are public personae on both sides of the line who are definitely guilty of this; there are people in every part of the political spectrum who do it. Most do it deliberately, and it’s reprehensible—not only can it severely discourage those trying to meet the same standards, it’s profoundly disrespectful of other human beings as equals.

Any lie is disrespectful, but some forms of disrespect have worse results than others. I do not, for example, respect C’s (not his real initial) taste in hairstyles. Its result is invariably a miserable affront to the sighted public. I also routinely lie to him about my opinion. This is undeniably an expression of the fact that I do not respect him as an equal in matters of taste. My firm belief that C’s judgment in this area is vastly inferior to mine results in a mental grimace, a bold-faced lie, and my badmouthing his taste to vast numbers of people he doesn’t know.

A belief that certain of his judgments in other areas are vastly inferior to mine—say, political judgments rooted in his economic circumstances, as they affect his right to vote—would result in all of the above, as well as in an undervaluation of his rights as a citizen. The latter is, for most sane people, rather more detrimental to their well-being than the former.

Characterizing recognition of the basic fact of different levels of hypocrisy as essentially conservative in nature is inaccurate. I don’t think realism is limited to the conservative end of the political spectrum; indeed, science is conspicuously absent from it in America at this time.

Such recognition is neither more nor less conservative than, say, the periodic table. Hydrogen has one proton and no neutrons. People have different rights and standards of judgment, all of which they screw up on a regular basis. Anyone who argues with either of these facts is, as we say down South, drivin’ on fumes.

(Reading past the asterisks puts you in the realm of a bit of philosophy—Catholic dogma, Greek philosophers, mathematics, etc. If concrete and personal conclusions are the reason you’re reading this, you can skip to the second line of asterisks without missing all but a few of those.)


On a personal level, I dislike the idea of failure to follow perfectly one’s ethical standards constituting hypocrisy because I do not think that people can be perfect. One of the two main reasons for that is that the concept of attainable perfection is based by definition on a knowledge of flawlessness. If you were flawless, would you know it? If you knew it, would that be a flaw?

There are philosophical as well as scientific ways to frame this—quantum chromodynamics and circuitry, ontology and Euclidean math. But because I’ve not the time, patience, or expertise for involved expositions—on Aristotelian teleology, Aquinas’ substantio, Nichomachean numbers or semiconductors—the shortest way to frame this question is in terms of the catechism of my traditional Catholic upbringing: Is perfection attainable? Yes—paradise is the perfect union with God, who is perfect. Is knowledge of that union attainable? Yes. But as soon as one recognizes one’s perfection, one is no longer perfect. Belief in one’s own perfection is superbia, a deadly sin—one of the Seven, in fact. Therefore perfection is only attainable in the absence of any sense of self or knowledge of self-perfection.

This is a logic loop with no way out. (There are a lot of those in the Boston Catechism.) It also eviscerates any meaning of the word ‘perfection’ as something a human can pursue. Perfection, once reached, involves giving up one’s humanity—one’s knowledge of self as a separate entity. (Pure biology. We are not eusocial animals, like ants, with only a sense of the larger community and no personal drive to survive.) Therefore, by definition, humans cannot obtain perfection.

It’s a conclusion with which any number of philosophers, scientists, mathematicians and artists would agree. In fact, many of the above practitioners whom I most respect valued perfection as a pursuit rather than as an end. It was desirable because it was not attainable—would never be attainable—and was therefore a spur to an endless ascent of effort and accomplishment.


Expositions on knowledge aside, I do not believe humans can be perfect. I don’t believe it for the very simple reason that I tend toward empiricism in most things, and I’ve never met or heard of a human who was. I do, however, believe that humans can become better than what they now are, both individually and societally. Perfection as an idea is a useful tool, no more—but it IS useful. And the definition of perfect in many things shifts over time. Carl Lewis changed forever what the world thinks of as a perfect run. Mozart changed forever what the world thinks of as a perfect musical composition. Such changes reflect progress in human understanding as well as goals for which to strive.

But the best refutation of the idea that liberals strive for perfection because they idealize the world and the people in it into useless abstraction is my own point of view and my own experience.

Because I’m a liberal. Really liberal. Really really liberal. More liberal than almost anyone I know, in this country anyway. And I don’t believe that perfection is possible in individuals or in human societies. I don’t think that guys or race or class or environmental trauma are the wellspring of the world’s ills. I sort of think that humans are. And I don’t think that only liberals, or only conservatives, are the sole parties to this sort of oversimplified doltish one-track stupidity. And I think that most ills are caused by flaws which are endemic to human nature and which are not ever going anywhere.

But I also think we can behave better than we do, that other human beings can suffer less than they do, both in everyday life and in society overall. I think that because I have a personal acquaintance with suffering and don’t like it, and I think that humans are equal in rights and worth, and therefore think that if suffering is bad for me then others probably shouldn’t have to endure more of it than is absolutely unavoidable either.

And I think that that goal is worth pursuing. Holding up an ideal way to behave is worthwhile because it gives one something for which to strive, in the same way that a relatively musically illiterate schlub like me can listen to Mozart and then seek that kind of harmony in other music or sounds. Perfection is a concept which can be both specifically and generally applied.

Societal change takes time. Slavery caused much suffering. Most of the world now thinks it’s wrong, and those that don’t at least have to lessen its use because they have to cover it up. The same goes for acceptance of suffering from disease and poverty. Basic biology doesn’t offer much hope for societal change. Indeed, human biology doesn’t offer much aside from hope for small kin-based clans killing each other over scarce resources. But I jive with Dawkins, evolutionary biologist extraordinare, who suggests that just because something runs counter to evolution it’s not necessarily a bad idea.

For example, I like the idea of justice. It’s totally unnatural; biologically, fairness is as relevant as, well, Hermès scarves. But I think it’s a damn good idea nonetheless. Over the millennia, more and more people have been of that opinion. And if it weren’t for people who insisted on pursuing change or betterment on a level unattainable in their lifetimes, that shift in opinion couldn’t have happened.

Machiavelli saw the world as it was. Gandhi saw the world as it could be.

Was Machiavelli right? Yes.

Was Gandhi right? Yes.

One must see the world as it is before seeing it as it can be.

That fact is neither conservative nor liberal. It is what is done once one sees what is possible that makes the difference.

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