Conservative Commentary
"the blogger whose youthful effusions have won him bookmarks all over Whitehall ... horribly compelling" - The Guardian
Great Weblogs
The Enemy Within

Most recent posts ...

Friday, January 09, 2004
The extremism of reason

In a post just before Christmas, Matthew Yglesias made a point I have long considered to be important to a proper appreciation of political debate - far from extremism being an antonym to rationality, it is often a consequence of it. I suspect the confusion of the two comes down to sloppy use of terms like 'reasonable', which in general conversation can mean either a logical person, or someone very mainstream, consensual and flexible in his views. As a result, 'unreasonable' seems to describe the inflexible, the passionate and the uncompromising. So a demand that someone "Be reasonable!" is usually a request for compromise, not an insistence that he logically elucidate his position from first principles.

But while it is obviously true that many political extremists are not the best candidates for any Logic prizes, it is also the case that extremism can simply reflect a willingness to follow a particular line of thought to its logical conclusion, even if that leads to advocacy of the monstrous or the bizarre. I remember my bemusement that any serious thinker could advocate infanticide or bestiality when reading of Peter Singer's ideas for the first time. But when I later came across one of his books and read some of his essays, it was soon apparent how well-reasoned his thinking is, and how naturally it all follows from a rational commitment to liberal beliefs that the baby in the womb has no right to life, and that any sexual activity that doesn't directly hurt another person is morally unimpeachable. At the other end of the spectrum, most hard-core libertarians similarly reach their conclusions not because they are ignorant of reason, but because they apply their opposition to state action all too consistently.

That leaves those of us closer to whatever is the political mainstream of the time in a comparatively irrational position. Whether one accepts a more centrist outlook by reaching a personal resolution between competing and contradictory principles or by compromising with those who would be one's foes, it does ultimately mean one is accepting a state of affairs that would be rationally indefensible were it proposed in advance. "How about accepting a hereditary head of state although a hereditary Upper House is obviously unacceptable because it is undemocratic even though Life Peers are undemocratic and they can stay and the European Commission has far greater powers than the Lords anyway and no one elected them? We should accept the value of the United Nations even as we wage war against its wishes to destroy a tyrant's WMDs that may not exist even as we appease tyrannies like Iran and North Korea who are certainly developing them." See what I mean? It ain't the centrists and consensus men who are the rational ones here.

This shouldn't be taken either as a defence of extremism or as an assault on reason. What it does mean is that one must accept their almost inverse proportionality in serious thought. You can be fiercely rational or you can be admirably moderate, but it is almost impossible to be both.

Great Sites
Tory Party
Reading ...