What Do They Know and How Do They Know It?

“What is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”

 Last week we were discussing whether those who control America’s elite institutions are aware that the policies they promote are destructive of the ends they claim to cherish. The context was my claim that they can be brought around on marriage by appeals to their values on helping the poor, protecting women and children, preventing a two-class society, etc.

Dan wrote:

 They unquestionably know what their favored policies do.  How could they not?

Let’s quibble over epistemology!

Dan seems to me to have a very excessive faith in human reason. No one examines every one of his beliefs carefully, and very few examine more than a handful of their beliefs carefully. That is not a lamentable state into which our particular society happens to have fallen at this point; it is the permanent condition of humanity in all times and places. Locke wrote great stuff on this.

The great majority of human behavior does not consist of rationally evaluated decisions based on objective information-gathering and deliberation over setting priorities. It consists of only briefly examined, very imperfectly informed responses to “cues” from centers of cultural authority.

This is as much true of our cultural elites as of anyone else. We see millions of people following the cues of the dinosaur media and we sometimes think of those media as shrewd manipulators. In fact, they are not much more awake than those who follow them. They are only following each others’ cues.

And it’s also true of the elites within the conservative subculture. The conservative media world is not much more thoughtful than the “mainstream” one. Ditto the world of Christian leaders, who are to a large extent just following one another’s cues.

Obviously I’m not saying no thought goes on, or that these cycles where everyone is just following everyone else in a big circle can’t be disrupted. In fact, my whole case here is precisely that real thought does go on and the circular marches can be broken.

It’s difficult and it will take a radical shift in strategy.Our first task will be to disrupt the circular marches within our own worlds (both conservative and Christian) to get them to change gears and approach the task of fighting for marriage, life, religious liberty and good stewardship of the economy in a very different way. We have to get our own house in order before we can hope to get the nation’s house in order.

But we can’t do that if we live in a false reality where we imagine that our opponents are knowingly accepting the destruction of America as the price they pay for fidelity to their values. That picture strikes me as ludicrous.

Ayn Rand could believe that everyone who supported collectivism really knew in his heart that collectivism was destructive, because her Pelagian anthropology required this conclusion. Read that interminable Galt speech (if you can) and you’ll see the whole system is laid out very clearly. Starting from the classical Pelagian premises about human behavior, she demonstrates that they imply a Manichean social world. Every person without exception clearly and fully percieves the distinction between the way of living that is morally right and the way of living that pleasurable in the short term, and has deliberately chosen one or the other. This is what Whittaker Chambers correctly percieved about Rand in his notorious review of Atlas Shrugged.

I don’t have space here to explain why Pelagianism is wrong, but I hope that on Hang Together I don’t have to. Both Christian teaching and conservative beliefs about human behavior explain why we shouldn’t expect to find that our opponents are conscious of the destructiveness of their policies. And Christian belief also admonishes us to beware of our own tendencies to make ourselves into angels and our opponents into demons.

6 Thoughts.

  1. Greg – I’m glad you expanded on this topic; it’s a point to which I planned on returning, and this gives me more material with which to work.

      • We will. This is my favorite piece of rope so far: “Both Christian teaching and conservative beliefs about human behavior explain why we shouldn’t expect to find that our opponents are conscious of the destructiveness of their policies.” I’m no Pelagianist, but I can’t go so far as this statement seems to suggest. I’ll explain why later.

  2. Greg, it seems to me that our opponents truly are aware of the destructiveness of their policies. They simply choose to ignore the destructive impact of their policies because they view the destruction as the necessary cost of getting the greater good they seek–an all powerful and ever intrusive government.

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