Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Reality, What a Concept!

America appears to be paralyzed by discord; but a closer look at the evidence, for example, an hour or two reading comment threads on Internet discussion sites, will set you straight. There is plenty of conflict, obviously, but few actual differences of opinion, that is, if disagreement means I assert P and you assert non-P, there is almost none to be found. We don’t agree enough to meaningfully disagree. What one encounters instead of dialogue are fistfights and simultaneous monologues. Now by my lights, that’s exactly what we should expect granted the true volume of possible ideas—in that immensity actually encountering another is quite improbable, though the illusion of contact is not. If you think that all-that-is is a big room with stuff in it, you won’t agree, assuming, that is, I’ve correctly guessed what’s going on over there in the adjoining monads.

Consider the interminable struggle over abortion. One could construe the issue as revolving around whether or not one wishes there to be fewer abortions, but that is pretty clearly not the case since even those who, like me, don’t consider abortions an evil don’t consider them a good either while those who wave around the pictures of bloody fetuses seldom argue that outlawing abortion will actually reduce the number of abortions. They may assume that criminalization will have that result, but they mostly simply ignore the question of its real world consequences. What matters, apparently, is maintaining an attitude of official abhorrence towards the act. When pro-choice people argue that a policy of legalized abortion and free family planning services would probably make abortions less common, they are missing the point. Pro-lifers make the corresponding error in assuming that their opponents share their overwhelming concern about meanings. What is an argument about attitudes for one side is an argument about facts for the other. Sorting out the debate doesn’t call for moral philosophy but a better understanding of data types.

Something similar takes place in arguments about drug legalization. Drug warriors are not very interested in evidence that the criminalization of drugs may not decrease drug use, and they are especially not interested in weighing the bad consequences of drug use against the bad consequences of the legal efforts to suppress it. After all, it would be pretty hard to argue that the unfavorable health and economic consequences of smoking pot or even using heroin are remotely comparable to the obvious expense, suffering, and death that result from their legal suppression. One would have to be a moral monster to throw people in vile jails, destroy families, promote organize crime, subvert civil rights, and raise taxes in the name of what is obviously a futile effort to avoid the rather notional evils of marijuana use. But anti-drug people aren’t moral monsters; they simply put a tremendously high value on attitudes. Those of us who throw statistics at the crusaders are suffering from our own illusion.

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